There’s more to Sri Lanka than Buddhist temples and palm-fringed golden beaches. Dotted with Unesco World Heritage Sites, the island has verdant jungle, an average of eight hours sunshine a day and superb tea, ideally sipped in a colonial-style guesthouse overlooking a hillside plantation. In the west, five-star hotels have sprung up alongside chic shacks on beaches where stilt fishermen make their daily catch and surfers catch a wave. On the south coast sleepy Galle Fort’s chic boutiques and annual literary festival are a blueprint for the future.
Incense fills the air and colorful prayers flags flap in the breeze at Kandy’s ornate Temple of the Tooth, where Buddhists and tourists mingle. Catch a glimpse of ancient artwork on cave walls as you ascend Sigiriya (picture above), a freestanding rock topped by the ruins of a 5th Century palace. Jet lag slips away when warm oil is poured continuously onto your forehead during Shirodhara, a soothing Ayurvedic spa treatment.
Browse rows of sparkling Sri Lankan blue sapphires in the jewelers of Galle Fort, then shop for hand-woven white lace and cotton salwar kameez in the boutiques. Take a taste of Sri Lanka home with a caddy of Ceylon Tea and jar of fresh cinnamon. Saris the color of a fiery Sri Lankan sunset are haggled for in capital Colombo’s overcrowded Pettah Market.
Colombo’s high-end hotel bars, such as The Hut at Mount Lavinia offer live bands and DJs playing everything from reggae to disco. Night owls flock to the city’s casinos for free drinks, food and live music and to try their luck in the early hours. Dance on the sand beneath the stars at a beach bar in Hikkaduwa, a north coast town attracting a surf and backpacker crowd. Performers wearing masks and opulent robes dance traditional routines accompanied by rhythmic drums at the Kandyan Art Association & Cultural Centre.
Sri Lankan flavours are dominated by spices and coconut. Seafood lovers are well catered for in the restaurants of Negombo, where smells of sizzling tamarind fish, coconut shrimp curry and spicy barbecued catch of the day are hard to resist. Inland around the cultural triangle, sip tom yang soup infused with lemon grass and kaffir leaves and savour the taste of saffron risotto. Wash it down with a cool Lion Beer or, if you dare, Arrack, Sri Lanka’s fiercely strong fermented coconut flower sap.