While security concerns deter many visitors, traveling in Sri Lanka can be very rewarding because there is so much on offer and few other tourists to crowd the experience. Flights from Japan arrive in the middle of the night, ensuring that one’s first impression is not a traffic jam.
Fancy a mud hut with a view? A pleasant 2 1/2-hour drive from Negombo International Airport brings you to the Culture Club, an eco-resort nestled on the shores of a picturesque reservoir shared by exotic birds, fisherman and communal bathers. Here one can stay in traditional mud huts, recently constructed but authentic down to their mosquito-repelling cow-dung floors, but with better amenities (and no, the floors don’t smell). Great care has been taken to site the huts to ensure both privacy and the feel of being in a village.
The Culture Club is an ideal base for exploring the Cultural Triangle of Anuradhapura, Pollonaruwa and Sigiriya, the island’s major archaeological and religious sites. It is also close to the Buddhist cave temples at Dambulla and the superb 12-meter standing Buddha at Aukana, which dates from the fifth century.
The ruins of the Sigiriya fortress, gardens and still-functioning 1,600-year-old fountains are a memorable highlight, but the 12th-century Buddha statues at Gal Vihara in Pollonaruwa are perhaps the most stunning treasures in the area. They still attract devoted pilgrims, especially for the regular full-moon ceremonies. Carved out of one cliff face, there are two seated Buddhas, a standing Buddha and a reclining, dead Buddha. The latter is 14 meters long with an ornate pillow and is sculpted from beautifully grained granite.
Departing from these sacred places of the north, one heads through the bustling and partly attractive town of Kandy with its famed Tooth Temple, dancers and lingering vestiges of the colonial era. The Queens Hotel alongside the town’s central lake has been beautifully restored, and boasts one of the highest concentrations of Burma teak in its construction in the world. The Japanese-owned Tree of Life hotel provides traditional ayurvedic health-care in an opulent setting, while Le Kandyan hotel offers stunning views over the city and surrounding countryside.
From Kandy the road heads up into the hills and tea estates. Places like Nuwara Eliya evoke the glory of the Raj, and are still home to beautiful and lovingly maintained resorts such as the Hill Club, with its rolling lawns, liveried staff, men’s-only bar, dress codes and stuffed animals peering down from every wall. As a concession to the times there is also a mixed bar, and women are allowed use of the billiard room, although silence is strictly enjoined.
Further up into the hills is the Kelbourne Estate near Haputale, where one can stay in what used to be estate-managers’ bungalows, located on a cliff like an eagle’s aerie with the most fabulous views imaginable across hills and plains to the coast. Here there are three bungalows sleeping from 2-8 with fireplaces, an attentive staff, excellent food and the chance to enjoy pleasant rambles in tea country.