Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon), a tiny island nation south of India in the Indian Ocean, is a rugged land of rainforest, diverse wildlife and endless beaches. Itís famed for its ancient Buddhist ruins, including the 5th-century citadel Sigiriya, with its palace and frescoes, and the sacred city of Anuradhapura. Its flavorful cuisine reflects its history as a maritime hub and cultural melting pot.
Set in the Indian Ocean in South Asia, the tropical island nation of Sri Lanka has a history dating back to the birth of time. It is a place where the original soul of Buddhism still flourishes and where natureís beauty remains abundant and unspoilt.Few places in the world can offer the traveller such a remarkable combination of stunning landscapes, pristine beaches, captivating cultural heritage and unique experiences within such a compact location. Within a mere area of 65,610 kilometres lie 8 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, 1,330 kilometres of coastline - much of it pristine beach - 15 national parks showcasing an abundance of wildlife, nearly 500,000 acres of lush tea estates, 250 acres of botanical gardens, 350 waterfalls, 25,000 water bodies, to a culture that extends back to over 2,500 years.This is an island of magical proportions, once known as Serendib, Taprobane, the Pearl of the Indian Ocean, and Ceylon. Discover refreshingly Sri Lanka!
The Pearl of the Indian Ocean, Sri Lanka, a jewel suspended like a pendant by an invisible thread from the Indian sub-continent, can trace its history back through the mists of time. Legend has it that the island was the original Garden of Eden and that Adam left an impression of his foot on the mountain known as Adamís Peak. Pilgrims climb the steep path to the summit every year during the dry season. From the north, where once the trading town of Jaffna prospered, to the Bay of Trincomalee, through to Galle in the south, history abounds. In the 6th century B.C an Indo-Aryan Prince, Vijaya, the founder of the Singhalese people came down from northern India. Claiming descent from a lion, Singha, these ëlion peopleí settled on the island and proceeded to build impressive cities, canals, lakes and, indeed, a whole culture.
The coastal towns just north of Colombo including Negombo, Kalpitiya, and Mannar have attracted traders from the world over for centuries. In more recent history, the Portuguese and Dutch settled in this region and their cultural, religious and architectural influences still remain. The remote coastal towns to the far north, Kalpitiya and Mannar, remain untouched by mass tourism. As a result of the close proximity to the international airport-Negombo, with its long stretches of sandy beaches, has become a popular beach resort. Stretching along the North West coast and inland up to Kurunagala, Aanamaduwa and Wilpattu, this region has a varied and enchanting landscape - tranquil lagoons that meet the turquoise seas; scattered little islands off the coast; dry arid wilderness to lush green paddy fields; Palmyrah trees and Coconut plantations. The seas off the coast of Kalpitiya are home to dolphins and whales while Mannar is a haven for exotic migrant birds during the season from October to March.
Southern Sri Lanka overwhelms the senses. The landscape is one of utter beauty; the radiant green rice paddies and forest of swinging palm trees contrast with beaches of ivory-coloured sand and an ocean of rich turquoise. No matter what youíre after you will find it here. You can dive across glowing coral reefs or learn to surf on gentle sandbars. The culturally inclined can soap up works of Buddhist-inspired art in lonely caves; for the naturalist there are huge whales splashing through offshore swells, and leopards moving like spirits in the night.A sense of romance and wonder sweeps up all visitors to this coastline; after all, this is the land where people dance across fire on monsoon nights, fisherman float on stilts above the waves and turtles crawl up onto moonlit beaches.In many ways, the south encapsulates Sri Lanka at its most traditional. Stretched out along a great arc of sun-baked coastline from Galle in the west to Tissamaharama in the east, the area remains essentially rural: a land of a thousand sleepy villages sheltered under innumerable palms, where the laid-back pace of life still revolves around coconut farming, rice cultivation and fishing (the last still practised in places by the distinctively Sri Lankan method of stilt-fishing).
Picture Sri Lanka and visions of golden beaches probably dance before your eyes. But thereís another side to this island. Itís a side where mists slowly part to reveal emerald carpets of tea plantations and montane forests clinging to serrated ranges bookended by waterfalls. Itís a side where you can wear a fleece in the daytime and cuddle up beside a log fire in the evening. Itís a side where you can walk to the end of the world, enjoy the most scenic train-ride uphill, stand in the footsteps of the Buddha, paddle a raft down a raging river, and enjoy the drumbeat of traditional dance. With a hit list like this, the Sri Lankan hill country is a must visit.
This dry area of Sri Lanka contains the most famous cultural and archaeological reminders of a rich civilization more than 2500 years old. Escavations during the last 100 years have pushed back years of jungle encroachment and restored many ancient sites and access to them. The Ancient cities have brought Sri Lankaís history alive in the most enthralling manner for millions of travellers. It covers the north central towns of Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, Sigiriya, Dambulla and Kandy where extensive archaeological ruins provide a glimpse into the islandís history, dating back to the 4th century BC. It is here that Sri Lankaís kings developed remarkably advanced civilisations. The extensive archaeological ruins of the Cultural Triangle are now protected by UNESCO as World Heritage sites.
Sri Lankaís equivalent of the Maldives, with never-ending white sandy beaches, coral islands and shimmering blue seas, the North East coast is distinctly different from the coastal areas of the rest of the island. The East Coast covers Trincomalee, Passikudah in Batticaloa, and Arugam Bay. This region has a long season that extends from March to October when the seas are at their best. Bask in the sun on the secluded beaches of Trincomalee and Passikudah Bay, go snorkelling and discover the magnificent marine life around the coral reefs, or take a whale-watching expedition. It is not all about the sun and surf on the East Coast. Explore ancient Hindu temples dating back centuries, and the breathtaking views of the Trincomalee Harbour ñ the worldís deepest and largest natural harbour.
Situated at the northern tip of the island of Sri Lanka, the Jaffna peninsula is steeped in history. It is scattered with ancient Hindu kovils with colourful statues; colourful saris draped effortlessly over women on bicycles, and warm breezes carrying the sweet fragrance of fruit trees, colonial period churches that date back to the 17C; and ruins of ancient Buddhist temples- the North is a different world. Explore Jaffna town and its surrounding areas within the mainland, or hop on board a ferry and cross over to the remote islands. The landscape is dotted with Palmyra Palms and picturesque lagoons where flamingos flock after the rains. Jaffna has undergone much hardship due to terrorism and ultimately, a full- scale war, which ended a 30-year conflict. The effects of this destructive and traumatic period will understandably remain for many years. Since 2009 (end of war), the people of Jaffna are gradually rebuilding their lives with much courage and renewed hope. A majority of Jaffnaís population are Tamil Hindus with some who follow Christianity. Jaffna is an enriching holiday experience for the more adventurous. Highlights: Nallur Kovil, Jaffna Market
Sri Lanka’s highest mountain is deeply ingrained in Sri Lankan folk lore. Also known as Sri Pada (Sacred Footprint) because of an indentation at the summit, Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims and Christians all consider it a holy place and a popular pilgrammage site, with 4,800 steps to the top.
Wonder at the extraordinary civilization that ruled from the ancient capital of Anuradhapura thousands of years ago. Its majestic remains testify to an advanced city carefully planned and filled with beautiful palaces, temples and giant stupas.
Sri Lanka has over 1,600km (1,000 miles) of beautiful palm-shaded beaches, and Negombo - conveniently close to the international airport - boasts one of the best. Other popular resorts include Beruwela, Bentota, Mount Lavinia Negombo and Hikkaduwa. Meanwhile Unawatuna in Galle claims to be among the top 15 beaches in the world. The beaches of the south are less populated and often more beautiful, but be aware that swimming can be dangerous in many areas.
The beaches of Bentota might have seen better days, but this is still one of the top places in the country to enjoy diving and snorkelling. Glimpse the country's thriving coral reefs and their myriad multi-hued inhabitants, explore underwater caves and lose yourself among barnacled shipwrecks. Kite-surfing, water-skiing and a host of other water sports are also available here.
In Colombo, root out bargains in the Pettah market, marvel at the blossoms in the Vihara Maha Devi Park between March and early May, and sample the offerings of some of the country's best restaurants. Vel Festival which takes place during July and August in Colombo is also spectacular.
These impressively conserved temples are a unique insight into Sri Lanka’s Buddhist heritage. Tucked away beneath a massive rocky outcrop, they shelter an extensive collection of religious murals and exquisite Buddhas in a variety of positions. The views are fabulous too.
Ramble around coastal ramparts, colonial villas and atmospheric streets in the striking Dutch fort of Galle, another UNESCO World Heritage Site. Perhaps the most atmospheric of Sri Lankan towns, cobbled streets are lined with colonial villas and hotels. Its literary festival (www.galleliteraryfestival.com) is one of the best in the world. Galle is also a centre for crafts that include lace-making, ebony-carving and gem-polishing.
This delightful colonial village in the heart of Sri Lanka’s Hill Country is a focus for the tea trade. Inhale the fragrant aromas of Victorian-era tea factories, drink their finest and roam the lush tea plantations that extend for miles around. The Nuwara Eliya hill station is also a popular destination.
Visit Kandy, a picturesque town that was the last stronghold of the Kandyan Kings. It is now a cultural sanctuary where age-old customs, arts, crafts, rituals and ways of life are well preserved. Its fabulous UNESCO-listed Temple of the Tooth (also known as Sri Dalada Maligawa) (www.sridaladamaligawa.lk) shelters the sacred tooth relic of the Buddha. Kandy hosts the annual Esala Perahera, an annual festival featuring parades of glittering elephants, dancers and drummers.
Sri Lanka’s adventure capital is tucked away amid the ravines of the hill country. It offers an array of activities for adrenaline junkies, including kayaking, mountain biking and rainforest trekking. For a real rush, book yourself onto a beginner level or advanced white-water rafting experience on the wild Kelani River.
Shaped like a giant fist, this rugged mountain range in the central south of Sri Lanka experiences much cooler temperatures than the rest of the country, making it perfect for hiking. Don your all-terrain boots and head for the hidden village of Meemure, where the villagers will happily lend beds to visitors for a modest fee.
This southern port town would be just another tropical beach resort - were it not for the pod of blue whales recently discovered living just offshore. Now Mirissa is rightly famous as one of the best places in the world to spot the biggest mammal of them all. Whale watchers often see sperm whales, dolphins, flying fish and even orcas too.
Off the northeastern shore of Sri Lanka, this island is surrounded by a limestone reef which harbours 100 species of coral and more than 300 different types of fish. Declared a marine sanctuary in 1963, it’s a prime destination for divers, and pigeons.
This breeding ground for wild Asian elephants is one of the most popular tourism attractions in Sri Lanka. Feed the newborn babies yourself, or simply enjoy the spectacle of a vast elephant herd trumpeting down to the nearby river for their twice-daily bath time. The Elephant Transit Home at Udawalawe is also well worth a visit.
See the huge reclining Buddha at Polonnaruwa, an ancient capital and another UNESCO World Heritage Site renowned for its remains of royal palaces, temples and stupas. It also has the superb Polonnaruwa museum, one of the country's best.
Be amazed by Sri Lanka's best-known attraction, UNESCO-listed Sigiriya Rock Fortress. This stunning fifth-century palace-fortress perches atop a towering rock outcrop above the plains in the country's centre. Steps lead up from water gardens below and past murals of heavenly nymphs.
This glorious hidden beach on Sri Lanka’s choppy south coast is a mecca for surfers. Other top spots with an international reputation include Hikkaduwa, Midigama and Arugam Bay (near Potuvil) on the east coast. Across the best time to go surfing is from April through to October, although on the south west coast the months between November and April can be equally as good.
Spy on Sri Lanka's abundant wildlife (much of which is found nowhere else on earth) in this spectacular national park. Birdwatching is superb, and as well as the famous elephants there are also leopards, deer, bears, wild boar, porcupines and monkeys to see.
Explore Sri Lanka's most popular wildlife-viewing destination, Yala National Park, on the southeastern coast. It is home to the world's highest density of leopards, as well as a wealth of other species - from elephants to birds. Another great place to do a bit of leopard spotting is in the Wilpattu National Park.