“I can’t believe how many casinos there are in Colombo man!” exclaims an Indian friend recently returned from Sri Lanka. He seems unable to grasp the fact a nation of Buddhist vegans who regularly practice yoga and meditation could engage in such sinful activities as roulette.
Most Indians are given to believing that the rather insignificant little tear-drop shaped Island off the southern tip of their vast country is merely the guest house that Lord Ravana – having stolen Sita from Lord Rama – settled down at for some TLC and not the world’s most ideal place for a holiday. A classic case in point is the Indian film industry. In between boy meeting girl, boy beating bad guys etc, Bollywood heroes and heroines have been magically and frequently transported to such striking locations as the Seychelles, Mauritius, The Maldives, South Africa or Malaysia, side-stepping the exquisite splendor of Sri Lanka at their very doorstep. It’s a similar story with Britons who very strangely prefer to take a 15-hour flight to Kuala Lumpur or Bangkok even if it is submerged in 15 feet of water, or fly via Sri Lanka and on to The Maldives.
Sure, a bloody civil war raged in Sri Lanka for 30 years until 2009 but like most countries afflicted by such annoyances as ethnic conflicts, the bloodiness was confined to only very specific verdant locales whilst in the rest of the country men and women continued to top up their tans, fornicate, sip cocktails and play beach cricket in the most exquisite settings. In fact, and unbeknownst to the travel trade, tens of thousands of holiday makers made their way to the Island to experience its’ many and varied wonders in relative isolation.
Now however – in the two and half years since the end of hostilities between the government and the LTTE – the world is taking Sri Lanka into account.
Top Destination of the World
The media are agog; the New York Times, Conde Nast Traveller and Forbes have all named Sri Lanka in their top destination lists for 2010, 2011 and 2012. Industry experts are raving about the fact that this tiny Island, no bigger than the Southeast of England – give or take a few square miles – packs such a dense array of attractions for every type of visitor imaginable. Its relatively central location makes it a most appealing destination; the 11-hour flight time from the UK meaning it’s far more bearable than a sojourn to the Far East where on average, 96 out of a possible 336 hours will be eaten up by the flight and consequent recovery periods.
Intriguingly, 2012 may be the most perfect time to travel to the Island. Prior to the end of the war in 2009, tourist arrivals hovered around the 50,000 to 100,000 mark. In 2010 arrivals topped 600,000 and last year it finally crossed the 1 million mark. The government aims to clog the place up with nearly 3m visitors by 2015 so there’s never been a better time to get in and explore.
Due to its’ aforementioned central location Sri Lanka has attracted travelers for centuries; from Marco Polo and Vasco da Gama to Don Bradman and Mark Twain who, upon stepping off the boat ruminated, “All harmonious, All in perfect taste”. In fact, Sri Lanka has long been known as ‘Serendib’ due to its knack of throwing up beautiful little surprises. That serendipitous nature is largely due to the sheer variety that is on offer a mere 3 hours in any direction, wherever you are on the Island.
In spite of its’ small stature, the numbers are staggering: more than 1300 kilometers of coastline, a large portion of it in the North and East of the Island untouched for more than 3 decades due to the War, now open for sun worship. No less than 8 United Nations World Heritage Sites, some dating back thousands of years. Virgin tropical forests with the world’s highest density of leopards; indeed wildlife ranging from leopards and elephants to a mind-numbing array of birds and even whales; whale watching off the southern coast is one of the country’s fastest growing tourist attractions.
And of course there’s no dearth of food and accommodation. Sri Lankan cuisine has long been underrated; in particular because unlike in its largely vegetarian, behemoth of a neighbor, meat and seafood dishes are commonplace. All Sri Lankan dishes use a wide variety of spices – from Cinnamon to Red Chillies – that make for an eye-opening dining experience inspired by everything from Portuguese to Malaysian cuisine. And the range of food on offer is extensive; from fine dining restaurants in the major cities and 5-star hotels to small, all-night eateries, you’re spoilt for choice.
It’s the same with the accommodation. There are currently more than 25,000 rooms; from ultra-luxury suites and boutique hotel rooms with butlers and your own cook to quaint little guest houses with quaintly ancient plumbing there’s a place to bed town for the night whether you own a limitless Amex card or depend on your mom to do a Western Union transfer to you every week.
Incidentally, in an economic climate where everyone is on the lookout for good value, Sri Lankan cannot be bettered as a holiday destination. A recent survey by The Post Office compared how much a typical basket of holiday items – including drinks and suntan lotion – cost in a number of destinations with Sri Lanka coming in as the 3rd cheapest. The cost of the basket was less than GBP28 in Sri Lanka and just under GBP38 in Spain. The same 8 items, which also included a three-course evening meal for two, was as much as GBP108 in Costa Rica, GBP113 in Barbados and just over GBP113 in Singapore.
Once the basics like food and accommodation are sorted, there’s no lack of activities to engage in. For sun worshippers whose idea of heaven is lying on a pristine white beach with the turquoise waters of the Indian Ocean lapping at their feet then the south western coast with the beaches of Tangalle, Bentota, Hikkaduwa and Polhena are perfect. If you’re prepared to venture a little further round the Island, previously inaccessible beach stretches in Arugam Bay and Kalmunai or even the untouched peninsula of Kalpitiya in the Northwest provide plenty of sun, sand and surf.
Once you’re tired of the gamma rays, you could make your way further inland to explore myriad experiences; visit the world’s first elephant orphanage in Kandy; do a spot of leopard hunting in Yala National Forest or discover the staggering beauty of the Sinharaja Rain Forest. If nature gets a bit tired, you can visit one of the numerous World Heritage Sites on the Island; form the ancient ruins of Sigiriya Rock Fortress – one of the true wonders of the world – to the old Arabic trading post of Galle and its’ ancient Dutch Fort or the thousand-year-old cities such as Polonnaruwa and Anuradhapura.
The world’s finest tea
If you’re an outdoorsy type, then there is white water rafting, hiking and cycling aplenty in the cool Central Mountains. Or if you’re after some old world rest and relaxation, head further up the hills, home to the finest tea in the world and experience a world of luxury and relaxation at one of numerous tea-based holidays; check in at an old colonial bungalow and be pampered before taking a trip down to a tea producing factory and getting a taste of everyone’s favorite tipple at its’ very source.
The variety and choice isn’t just evident on the ground in Sri Lanka. Whilst all the major tour operators such as Kuoni and Thomas Cook offer holiday packages, there is an absolute glut of smaller – and significantly, Sri Lankan-owned – travel companies in London and outside who offer unbeatable options: from cheap as chips airline tickets to tailormade holiday packages with the added bonus of local knowledge.
For more information visit www.srilanka.travel
– Vijitha Alles