By Kaye Holland
Despite all the bad press that surrounds Sri Lanka, Kaye Holland finds that the island formerly known as Ceylon is definitely her cup of tea.
Sri Lanka is synonymous with tragedy. A tiny island that dangles off the south coast of India, it has been plagued by civil war for the past 25 years. Despite a ceasefire being signed between the government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) rebels in 2002, fighting there continues to this day.
Throw into the mix the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004 which wreaked devastation and destruction on the eastern and southern coasts leaving more than 30,000 dead, and it's easy to understand why the country attracts more foreign aid workers than tourists.
The entry point to Sri Lanka is its capital, and the country’s commercial hub, Colombo
But, while the media may focus on the fracas and fighting, there is so much more to Sri Lanka than civil war and the legacy of the tsunami. The country's very name is derived from Sanskrit - the classic language of India - and means ‘resplendent isle' which couldn't be more apt.
So long as you exercise some common sense and avoid the northern and eastern trouble spots where frequent clashes do occur (which Sinhalese Sri Lankans are quick to warn you about), visitors can expect palm fringed pristine beaches, treasured temples, verdant vegetation, brightly coloured saris, school children in crisp white shirts, happy herds of elephants, and a welcome as warm as the weather. The weather is another of Sri Lanka's many attractions.
The heat is balmy not blistering - in short perfect weather to enjoy the sun without being uncomfortably hot or suffering heat stroke. Sri Lanka is blissfully affordable, boasts stunning natural scenery and delectable cuisine. Little wonder, then that Marco Polo referred to Lanka (as it's known to locals) as "the finest island of its size".
The entry point to Sri Lanka is its capital, and the country's commercial hub, Colombo. If you want to escape the hurried pace of urban life then head south where a string of beautiful beaches await. You could take the easy option, hop in a taxi (taxis in this part of the world are almost invariably a bargain) and drive straight to your pocket of paradise. An even cheaper alternative is to take the train. Sri Lanka has a system which London or New York commuters dream of - it's cheap and on time. A train journey is one of the defining experiences of Sri Lanka being rich in local colour and providing points of contact with local people.
Whichever way you choose to reach the beaches, first time visitors will be enthralled by Sri Lanka's shores which feature idyllic turquoise seas and powdery fine white sands under sunny skies. Surfing types should head to Hikkaduwa; Sri Lanka's top surfing spot.
Large signs announcing the contribution of aid groups bear testimony to the destruction caused by the Boxing Day tsunami, but while you will pass some skeletons of houses, most properties have been repaired and now look as good as new. It's a sobering reality to listen to the locals recount their experiences of the tsunami with moving eloquence and poignancy, particularly when you consider many have lost loved ones, limbs, livelihoods and their homes.
It’s a sobering reality to listen to the locals recount their experiences of the tsunami
Further down the coast is the historic city of Galle whose weighty walls protected Galle Fort from the tsunami when many places were left vulnerable. Do as the locals do and stroll around the old ramparts at sunset before pushing on to Sri Lanka's most popular beach, Unawatuna. Here local children frolic in the water while their grandmothers gossip on the stretch of sand. You can spot the tourists instantly - they're the ones quaffing cocktails and generally looking like lobsters not locals.
But if, as a tourist you can't blend in with the locals, you will at least be welcomed. Indeed everywhere you go in Sri Lanka, the sound of ‘Ayubowan' (pronounced ibo-ahn meaning ‘May you live long') permeates the air. If you're feeling active, take to the water for a spot of snorkeling or scuba diving, otherwise just chill out or stroll along the beachfront that's free of aggressive hawkers but is home to a hotch potch of stalls selling fishermen's trousers, bright bikinis and branded Banana Republic and Gap garments at prices so cheap you'll be buying them in bulk. If you're looking to party though, you've come to the wrong place for there's no pumping party scene.
Rather, Unawatuna is a sleepy sort of place in which to rest, reflect, recuperate and in the evenings enjoy a quiet drink at one of the makeshift beachfront bars. For while tourists are beginning to trickle back three years after the tsunami, the town still remains mercifully free of clamouring package tourists as when it comes to accommodation, fab hotels are few and far between. Most are basic but clean, close to the beach and no more than a few thousand rupees.
If you want luxury, you'll have to take a tuk tuk 15 minutes east to Kogalla; home to The Fortress. Perched picturesquely overlooking the Indian Ocean, Sri Lanka's most stylish and elegant hotel is a haven of tranquility. While there are things to do nearby, you'd be forgiven for lying on a lounger by the infinity pool and listening to the lapping shores of the sea. But even if you can't afford to stay here, it's a great place to go for a drink, to sample a spicy Sri Lankan meal in sumptuous surroundings or to have your dosha diagnosed at the Fortress's Lime spa.
When you're bored of the beaches, there's the UNESCO heritage listed Sinharaja rainforest to get to grips with, although admittedly it's not ideal for those averse to physical exertion. In parts, it is undeniably a steep scramble but persevere and you'll have the magnificent forest to yourself.
For encounters of the elephant kind, Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage which houses more than 90 abandoned and wounded elephants, won't disappoint. Time your visit to coincide with feeding time or bathing time when all the elephants are taken to the river
You’d be forgiven for lying on a lounger by the infinity pool and listening to the lapping shores
Tea plantations are a dime a dozen and a visit to one is a must, not only to see how the drink is produced but also to stock up on a few fragrant brews. And it's always good to catch a game of cricket - Sri Lankans are crazy about cricket.
But if you see nothing else of Sri Lanka, you really can't leave without visiting the hill capital of Kandy, steeped as it is in centuries of tradition: this world heritage site was the last stronghold of the Sinhalese Kings during the Portugese, Dutch and British rule. There's plenty to do in this pretty town - set beside a lake and framed by hills - but temple addicts will want to visit the Temple of the Tooth which houses the sacred tooth relic of Lord Buddha.
Essentially Sri Lanka is what a holiday should be; exotic but manageable - much more so than India. Yes it can be chaotic and purgatory for pedestrians but the noise and bustle is quieter than its big subcontinent sibling and as introductions to the subcontinent go, it's a gentler one. They say that size matters but Sri Lanka proves that personality is just as important.
The country is made even more inviting by its charming and hospitable people who are happy to share their world with you, having triumphed in the face of adversity. The best time to go is soon; few are going owing to the ongoing trouble but as I said at the start, providing you stick to certain areas your safety is never in doubt and you're guaranteed great deals and stunning spots that are free of crowds. Plus by spending money in Sri Lanka you're contributing to the economy of a country that badly needs it to get back on its feet. Time then, to make a trip for yourself and fall under Sri Lanka's spell.