Sri Lanka’s tourism industry was badly affected by the senseless terror attacks in April last year, with many locals losing their incomes overnight. Yet this resilient pearl in the Indian Ocean is bouncing back as Sri Lankans of all faiths continue to boost their country’s remarkably diverse offerings.
Many visitors come to embrace its unspoiled nature — its wildlife, rivers, jungles, plains, sandy beaches and mountains.
Taking a round trip of the island and starting off from Colombo’s Bandaranaike International Airport, the best plan is to hire a driver for the entire duration. Better a knowledgeable local to negotiate the roads at times crammed with rickshaws, bicycles, cars, Morris tea lorries and pedestrians than an outsider.
Rafting in Kitulgala
After about an hour’s drive along the main Colombo to Kandy highway, take an eastern turn along a winding road flanked by jungle, tea and spice plantations to the village of Kitulgala. Here adults and children aged 10 and above will love whitewater rafting down the jade Kelani River that cascades over granite boulders for about five kilometres. Kitulgala is also where film-maker David Lean shot The Bridge On The River Kwai in 1957, and was awarded seven Oscars for his efforts.
Spot sloth bears in Wasgamuwa
Aim next for Wasgamuwa National Park to look for rare sloth bears. Even with the help of an experienced guide there are no guarantees of sightings, for only around 500 wild sloth bears exist in Sri Lanka. Wasgamuwa also has herds of wild elephants, leopards and birdlife.
Hike in the hill country
Ella is the main town in a region of spectacular mountain ranges, waterfalls and lush vegetation. Little Adam’s Peak (1,141m high) is a manageable climb — at the top are panoramic views, a Buddhist shrine and an enterprising local man selling coconut water to climbers.
A short train ride along the Demodara Loop to Ella will take you back in time to a bygone colonial era. This is said to be the only railway loop in the world that features a tunnel directly beneath the station. The train also chugs dramatically across Nine Arch Bridge, a 24-metre-high viaduct.
Explore the diverse wildlife
For a safari experience head to Yala National Park, which houses the highest density of leopards in the world, 44 mammal species and about 215 species of birds. See wild elephants in the bush, on the beach, in the road and, more rarely, wandering through your hotel grounds.
Spend lazy days on the beach
Then for total relaxation go to Tangalle to a boutique hotel such as the stylish Buckingham Place with its 33m infinity pool that merges with the sky and Indian Ocean. Like a number of others in this region, it has a tropical modernism feel typical of Sri Lanka’s most famous architect Geoffrey Bawa. Old-fashioned hospitality is owner Nick Buckingham’s forte, and the zany bright décor, impeccable service, gourmet cuisine and cinema under the stars will simply take your breath away.
Galle on the south-western tip features a Dutch Fort dating back to the late 16th century. From here there is a spectacular view of Galle International Cricket Stadium, which was destroyed by the horrific tsunami of 2004. It was rebuilt after funding from supporters poured in, reopening in December 2007.
Adventures await at Hikkaduwa
Today the beaches hugging the south coast are ideal for surfers, particularly at Hikkaduwa and Arugam Bay during the surfing season from November to April.
So the advice on Sri Lanka is, venture beyond the norm — take it slow, ride in an auto rickshaw, eat fish ambul thiyal, breathe in the sights and explore.
— Dubai-based British-Zimbabwean writer Cheryl Robertson has visited Sri Lanka five times, exploring it extensively with her family