Travel review: Sri Lanka - a Paradise island

Tea plantation near Nuwara Eliya in Sri Lanka.

Tea plantation near Nuwara Eliya in Sri Lanka.

  • Conal Gregory embarks on an adventure exploring Sri Lanka, the pearl of the Indian Ocean
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From elephants and leopards to cave-temples and tea plantations, not to mention sandy surf beaches and a cerulean blue coastline, the island of Sri Lanka has much to discover.

Few countries have so many Unesco World Heritage Sites packed into such a small area whilst it is probably the best destination in Asia for viewing wildlife.

Sri Lanka lies just under 11 hours away and its diversity makes it ideal for a multi-centre holiday, ideally on a guided tour. Locals speak Sinhala or Tamil but are keen to practice their English.

The driest periods are November to March and July to August with temperatures reaching 30C throughout the year.

Colombo, the capital, lies south of the international airport. Aim for the port and the iconic Grand Oriental hotel in York Street, which used to be the first destination for ocean-going passengers. Its harbour room restaurant offers good panoramic views.

Suitably fortified, explore the chaotic bazaar district of Pettah. Among its knotted streets are mosques, temples and churches with women dressed in bright saris which vividly contrast with the children’s white school uniforms. For more refined shopping, try the boutiques of Bambalapitiya and Kollupitiya but do not miss the National Museum which displays incredible craftsmanship. The regalia of the kings of Kandy, once housed at Windsor Castle, is worth the visit alone.

Vibrant colours are everywhere and Sri Lankans love celebrating. Try to catch one of the key events. In February 100 elephants parade through the streets of Colombo, the capital, to the Gangaramaya temple for full moon Navam Poya Day. Vesak in May sees vehicles decorated with streamers, platforms erected to display scenes from the life of Buddha and lamps lit in front of homes. In July see Hindu fire-walking across burning coals at Kataragama in the south-east.

The Pinnawela elephant orphanage is a must. For just 250 rupees (about £1.20), you can buy a bottle of milk and feed a baby elephant. For an unusual souvenir, local shops sell stationery made from elephant dung.

The cave temples of Dambulla, lying within an immense granite outcrop, make a total contrast. The series of five dimly lit caves are richly adorned with well preserved frescoes and over 150 Buddhist statues.

Nearby is a massive flat-topped, sheer-sided rock which rises abruptly from the plains. Known as Sigiriya or Lion Rock, its 200m can be climbed to a 5th century fortress. Legend has it that king Kasiyapa killed his parents and took over the throne. His brother vowed to kill him and so he built Sigiriya as a refuge.

Halfway up in a niche are frescoes depicting cloud maidens or possibly royal wives and courtesans who are shown bathing or tending flowers. The stairs are exhilarating and catwalks precipitous but the reward is a marvellous view.

Kandy is home to Buddhism’s most sacred shrine on the island, the Temple of the Tooth, as well as the impressive Peradeniya botanical gardens, with a remarkable collection of plants and trees.

A drive inland to the hillside tea plantations presents verdant valleys and slopes. Many tea estates welcome visitors and are delighted to explain the process. Some have bungalows for rent which were built in the 19th century for estate managers. Surprisingly, tea bags are served almost everywhere. One of the finest to try is orange pekoe.

Take the road from Kandy with its hairpin bends and views of spectacular waterfalls to Nuwara Eliya, the highest town. It reminded me of the Scottish Highlands. Stay at the Grand Hotel, once the summer home of the Governor. It has arguably the best trained staff in Sri Lanka and offers a magnificent buffet.

Galle, pronounced ‘Gaul’, lies on the island’s south coast and houses the country’s best preserved colonial past. The city hosts several festivals from literary to folk music.

Leopard spotting is high on many agendas. Yala National Park is the usual destination. The dry woodlands and scrub also attract prolific birdlife and herds of elephants. Yet on a pre-dawn jeep safari leopards proved elusive – probably because 100-plus vehicles scared the leopards away.

For a far better chance of spotting leopard as well as sloth bear, visit the Wilpattu park in the north-west. It is far less crowded than Yala.

Finally, for idyllic white sandy beaches, try Kalpitiya and Tangalla or Arugam for surfing and Uppuveli for snorkelling. For whale-watching, Mirissa is top choice.

• Only SriLankan Airlines fly non-stop from London with return fares from £525

Guided tours available from Archers Holidays, India Odyssey, Kuoni Travel, Riviera Travel, Transindus, Virgin Holidays

Visa required: information at www.eta.gov.lk

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