Floating southeast off the bottom of India, the tropical island-nation of Sri Lanka, exotic and welcoming, barely known and little visited, is quietly inching its way onto the radar of globe-trotters looking for the next great destination.
Five years after the end of its quarter-century-long civil war, the 25,000-square-mile island, slightly smaller than Ireland, feels poised to gain its rightful place as one of Asia's new darlings. The island's mood feels hopeful and confident, and our group of 10 Virtuoso travel agents quickly fell under its spell. It may take a while to get there, but it is well worth the effort and cost. (Click here or on the images for a slideshow of some of Sri Lanka's varied attractions.)
The first indication of tourism's potential on this Indian Ocean island called Serendip by the early Arab traders — thus giving us the word "serendipity" to describe happy accidents — came to us our first day in the coastal capital of Colombo. Dinner in the open courtyard of the very stylish Gallery Cafe was a revelation of the complex and delicious local cuisine, similar to that of India but generally (with many exceptions) less fiery. A final flourish was ice cream made from coconut, ginger and cinnamon (the country grows arguably the world's finest cinnamon, and we found it in curries, cocktails and soap). The service was excellent, and the place abuzz with a young, smart set; over dinner we learned that the country enjoys a literacy rate of 92%, possibly the highest in the region, and a reputation for uncommonly friendly folks.
Colombo is currently in the midst of a massive waterfront development of 500 acres of reclaimed land. Heavily funded by the Chinese, the eight-year project aspires to make the city the economic hub of Asia and siphon off some of the tourists flocking to Singapore, with planned casinos, five-star hotels and a Formula One racetrack among other attractions.
Our group unpacked at the Kingsbury Hotel, a modernized hotel proud of its colonial origin with an open-air rooftop bar perfect for gorgeous sunsets and a sweeping view of the Galle Face Green, where locals stroll, fly kites, play cricket, jog or simply enjoy the ocean breeze. The broad stretch of lawn gives its name to the waterfront Galle Face Hotel, the country's venerable colonial hotel built by the British in 1864. It is undergoing a top-to-toe renovation while the nearby 500-room Shangri La Hotel nears completion. The accommodations we saw outside of town, from urban boutique to deluxe seaside resorts, were equally impressive. Tourism was up more than 20% over the first nine months of 2014, with the lion's share from India and China, and a small subset from the U.K. and Western Europe — and it looks like there will be room to accommodate them all.
Those who have visited India should not expect to find a similar experience here.
"As neighbors, we do share similarities in history, culture and religion," said Neil D'Souza, co-founder and president of Mumbai-based Ventours International Travel, a luxury boutique tour operator and sponsor of our fam trip to Sri Lanka. "But I see Sri Lanka as a distinct experience that has an overall story of its own."
The Dutch, the Portuguese and British all wanted a piece of this island coveted for its location on the seafaring trade routes connecting east and west and left behind vestiges both visible and not in today's Colombo. With hustle and bustle vaguely reminiscent of India's cities, we struck off (after some fun power shopping for great crafts at very attractive prices) in search of "that sense of calm that prevails" as promised by D'Souza and headed into the lush interior, through farmland dotted with stupas and palm trees, feeling more like Bali or Thailand of many years ago.
Our hosts filled our days with visits to ancient temples and a privately owned elephant sanctuary; delicious traditional meals; canoe rides in quiet backwaters leading to sleepy villages; royal botanical gardens that were once the pleasure gardens of kings; highly skilled song-and-dance performances; an adrenaline-pumping helicopter ride over stunning landscape; and touring some of the island's eight Unesco-listed treasures.
The can't-miss Cultural Triangle showcases up to 2,000 years of history and a number of these World Heritage Sites, with Sigiriya (Lion Rock) its premier attraction. Sri Lanka's most visited ancient site can be traced back to the fifth century, a capital city and fortress still dominated by a looming, 600-foot flat-topped volcanic pillar, with caves richly decorated with exquisite frescos of young women in come-hither poses.
You can see the profile of Sigiriya from Dambulla, another ancient site located at the heart of the Cultural Triangle (distances can be short and roads decent, making touring manageable). Here, a steep climb by foot leads to five fresco-covered and Buddha-filled caves (the 50-foot-long reclining Buddha is just one of more than 150 figures) carved out of the cliff-face in the 1st century, and later embellished by local kings in the 17th to 19th centuries.
The cultural capital of the country, and the last seat of the Sri Lankan kings, the town of Kandy — with a large manmade lake at its center — makes an excellent jumping-off point to visit the Cultural Triangle, while also home to the sacred 18th century Temple of the Tooth. We wore traditional white to join the streams of pilgrims who had come from all parts to visit the country's most revered relic, the Buddha's tooth, where we enjoyed an unusual private viewing of the relic encased in seven caskets. From Kandy it is not far to the cool altitudes of the high country, and we piled onto a train for a wonderfully scenic two-hour ride up the rolling hills of the Central Highlands.
The lush tea plantations were first planted by the English in 1867 when the country was still called Ceylon (Sri Lanka gained independence from Britain in 1948 but did not change its name until 1972) and became — and remains — one of the world's most important exporters of fine tea. We relived the cosseted life of the early planters in the extremely comfortable Ceylon Tea Trails, a unique set of four colonial tea planters' bungalows with four to six rooms in each, some with inspiring views over misty Castlereagh Lake.
Sri Lanka also boasts a wealth of wildlife. The 400-square-mile Yala National Park, one of the best places in the world for leopard spotting, is the most visited of the country's eight national parks. We also spent an idyllic moment in Minneriya, blissfully parked in our Jeep watching large herds of elephants in the wetland's late afternoon light — just a sampling of the 5,000 that live wild on the island.
The atmospheric walled city of Galle Fort, south of Colombo, is the country's best-preserved colonial city and the gateway to the south. Developed by the Dutch in 1663 after seizing it from the Portuguese, its blend of European architectural styles today houses a growing number of stylish hotels like the Amangalla and its neighbor, the smaller Galle Fort Hotel. We wandered the narrow streets lined with small shops both quirky and upscale, open-air cafes and small restaurants. A swath of pristine beaches is an irresistible draw in this area of the country, as is some great dolphin and blue whale-watching that is gaining an international reputation. A visit to the brand-new and beautifully situated five-star Cape Weligama seaside resort (not far from a second Aman property, the beachfront Amanwella) was one of many visits to ambitious hotels whose quality, design aesthetic and affordability left us consistently impressed with the direction tourism was taking and its cosmopolitan outlook.
We remained enamored of this petite Pearl of the Indian Ocean, though D'Souza envisioned it more akin to the fabled blue sapphires for which Sri Lanka has long been known.
"Sri Lanka is something of a hidden gem," he said. "It has everything a gem should have: sparkle, authenticity and irresistibility."
Ventours also offers DMC services within India, Bhutan, Nepal, Tibet and the Maldives. Visit www.ventours.com.