On this laid-back Indian Ocean island, you can relax on the beach, enjoy an ayurvedic massage or take a tour of an elephant orphanage, a tea plantation, a Buddhist temple or a rock fortress
"Ayubowan Sri Lanka" means "Welcome to the blessed land" – and a warm welcome is what you are assured of on this tear-shaped island in the Indian Ocean, nestling at India’s feet. To be honest, I was a little apprehensive when I booked. The Tamil Tigers kept clawing their way into the headlines but they soon paled into insignificance on my arrival, as the people themselves put me at ease.
Being white with blonde hair and wearing Western attire, I must have stood out like a sore thumb. I was an easy target for their stares. What I didn't realise was that they were staring in admiration. They wanted the life that I would return to. As in so many destinations in the developing world, they were proud to stop me and tell me that their cousin lived in London and that they too wanted to go there. Their humility was endearing.
This is a small island where distance is measured in time. There are no motorways, and driving is slow. The local tuc-tucs, reminiscent of squashed old Reliant Robins, weave in and out tooting their horns, dodging pedestrians clad in brightly coloured saris and avoiding the odd cow that ambles slowly along. Here, there is no road rage. This is their way of life.
In Sri Lanka, you can relax on a beach, enjoy a sensual massage at an Ayurveda centre (one of which was located within the grounds of our hotel – see below) or get out and about on an adventure and see what Sri Lanka really has to offer. Take a walk or a tuc-tuc ride into Negombo and watch the catamaran fleet sail into harbour, the fishermen eager to sell their catch of the day.
Make sure you visit the fish market, where the sun's rays are reflected by a carpet of glittering silver fish laid out to dry in the heat. Fishermen with smaller boats busy themselves at the water's edge, plucking the freshly caught fish from their nets and throwing them into buckets ready to sell on to the numerous market stalls. As you watch them, they will ask you where you are from and whether you like their country. They are proud people with a genuine interest in visitors. Everywhere you go, there are shops and market stalls to browse with really good prices.
Where to stay
I stayed at the Browns Beach Hotel in Negombo. It's only a 20-minute journey from the airport, a bonus after a long flight. Located right on the beach, it offers the perfect formula of sun, sea and cultural sight-seeing. The hotel offers basic rooms and beachfront accommodation that comes at an extra charge, bagging you your own sunbed on your own patio, plus air conditioning and a television. My stay was on an all-inclusive basis, though you can request a package without meals and pay as you go.
The all-inclusive system here is very old-fashioned: all drinks, even coffee and cake, have to be signed for. The food, I have to say, was better than I've tasted in most European countries, ranging from freshly caught crabs to delicious Sri Lankan curries and an array of mouth-watering desserts that are guaranteed to pile on the pounds. Fresh fruit such as rambutans, mangosteens and red bananas were all new to me but very tasty.
If that’s not enough for you, there is an à la carte restaurant where, for a small fee – and I mean small – you can have a steak flambéed at your table. My husband said it was the best food he had ever tasted, and he is hard to please. All in all, Brown's Beach scored highly with us.
Things to do
Tours with overnight stays can be booked through your hotel, or from any of the locals who wander along the road outside the hotels; we found them to be genuine, and we didn't hear of anyone being ripped off. From temples to tea plantations, elephants to spice gardens, it’s all here for the curious. Here are some examples:
The Elephant Orphanage, Pinnawela Here you will find a herd of more than 60 elephants of varying sizes. Some are missing an ear or a foot, and they are watched over by a handful of men who will gladly entice you to have your photo taken with one of them. The orphaned baby elephants are fed milk by hand as the tourists look on – and the entire herd is marched across the road and down to the river to bathe. It's captivating to watch the elephants' first precarious steps into the water. Even one animal whose foot had beeen blown off by a landmine managed to struggle in. Restaurants, perched on the river's edge, are excellent vantage points from which to watch this show.
Dambulla Temple Buddhism is the main religion in Sri Lanka, and the cave temple of Dambulla houses giant statues of Buddha in various positions. The walls and ceilings are alive with his likeness. If you know nothing about Buddhism before you visit, you definitely will when you leave.
The Temple of the Tooth Here you will hear the story of Lord Buddha and how his tooth was removed as he lay on his funeral pyre, then smuggled away, concealed beneath a princess’s hair. Now the tooth lies hidden in the temple until festival day, when it is paraded in its casket through the town, placed on top of an elephant.
Sigiriya Rock Fortress Sigiriya, once a royal citadel, is now a tourist attraction with a man-made staircase so visitors can climb to the top. It isn’t for the faint-hearted, though it will help you shed some of the pounds acquired by consuming so many sumptuous sweets. In searing temperatures, the ascent is gruelling – but people of all ages attempt it. I amazed myself at how high I climbed. The last leg is a little bit daunting, and I left that for the more daring. The views are spectacular and the descent not as bad as the ascent. Don’t forget to take water; you will certainly need it.