At first glance, as your train thunders past, the hillside will appear to be dotted with huge flowers. For acres and acres, the countryside has been swathed in green. These are the first specks of colour.
But if you peer more closely, you’ll realise that Nuwara Eliya’s fields are not, in fact, miraculously blossoming. Rather, tea-pickers wearing richly hued fabrics bend over like petals, filling their baskets with the Ceylon tea for which Sri Lanka is internationally renowned.
Lush greenery and the scent of tea is quintessential Sri Lanka. Since the first plantation was started by Briton James Taylor in 1867, Sri Lanka has become the second largest exporter and fourth largest producer of tea worldwide. Tea is one of Sri Lanka’s biggest calling cards. But it seems something else is happening to attract record numbers of tourists to this wonderful country.
Sri Lanka has now recovered from the 2004 tsunami and decades long civil war. Peace has settled. And tourists have noticed. About two million tourists travelled to Sri Lankan in 2016, four times the number who came a decade ago.
What they are finding is a burgeoning destination, easier to travel through than India and less crowded. Sri Lanka has enough natural, cultural and historical appealto have become a tourist favourite in its own right.
Sri Lanka’s Indian Ocean hotspots pander as much to luxe lovers as they do to the backpackers. Negombo, with its proximity to an international airport, makes a good launch pad for exploring Sri Lanka’s coastal towns. The fish markets are a must-see in this famous fishing city, and a taste of lobster or crabs is a delicious treat. The Dutch presence is apparent in the canals, where washerwomen share the banks with fishermen and their nets. Take a three-wheeler around Angurukaramulla Buddhist temple, past all six metres of its reclining Buddha statue.
For more of an encounter with Buddhist tradition, Dambulla is your one-stop shop. The Golden Buddha is enough to overwhelm, but you’ll discover something rare in the nearby mountain caves once used by monks for meditation.
By far the most jaw-dropping sight has to be Sigiriya’s fortress, which sits on top of a rock jutting proudly from a wide jungle plain. Built by King Kashyapa in the 5th century, the citadel is just one of Sri Lanka’s eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The town of Kandy, Anuradhapura ancient capital, Galle port, city of Polonnaruwa, Sinharaja Forest, Central Highlands region and the cave temples of Dambulla also feature on this impressive collation of accolades.
The busy streets of Kandy are well worth a wander, particularly if you circumnavigate the Kandy Lake. The city is most famous for its Temple of the Tooth Relic, believed to house a tooth of Buddha himself. At this golden-roofed sacred site, you can witness puja worship and explore the surrounding shrines.
In the hill country of Ella, you’ll find the stunning vistas of Ella Gap. Meander up to Little Adam’s Peak or to Rawana Falls – or take the train journey for which the region is famous, through fields and fields of Ceylon tea. It isn’t far to Yala National Park, ideal for a wildlife safari to rival those of eastern Africa.
On the south-western coast, Colombo and Galle both deserve your time. The former is the current capital and packed with museums, colonial architecture, parks and beaches. The latter, the country’s ancient capital, is home to ancient mosques, regal mansions and a quirky café culture, punctuated by the Dutch fort at the city centre.
Humble Sri Lanka and its alluring trifecta – the history, the landscape and the people – have finally been granted their well-deserved place on the global stage. World-class though it may be, Sri Lanka has retained its charming idiosyncrasies, grass-roots sense of culture and warm welcome. With a cuppa in hand, Sri Lanka will feel like home.
Feeling inspired to explore Sri Lanka? Check out this 8 Day Sri Lanka tour with flights included.