Sri Lanka, the Resplendent Isle, the Pearl of the Orient - it is one of the hottest destinations right now. So what exactly are the highlights of Sri Lanka and what is there to do? Splendid temples, ancient ruins, welcoming people and flavourful food are all to be found within the small country, formerly known as Ceylon. Search for elephants, leopards and water buffaloes, walk among tea plantations oast waterfalls to rainforest-covered peaks or take a spectacular train ride through the highlands. Top it all off with some time on the dazzlingly white and often untrod beaches.
A thousand years of history are on display at Anuradhapura, one of the great cities of history, known as far afield as ancient Greece and Rome. Huge dagobas, tall brick towers and crumbling monasteries and temples dot the landscape. Some of the latter remain in use as holy places where ceremonies give Anuradhapura a certain vibrancy.
The area around Anuradhapura is a great please to discover by bicycle. Saddle up and follow the quiet backroads of Sri Lanka. Chat with the locals and stop to smell the flowers. Cycling enhances your senses, slows the world down and brings it into focus. Perhaps get out your binoculars and spot a bird or two. With 235 resident and 200 migratory species, Sri Lanka is one of the finest birdwatching destinations in the world.
At the Royal Rock Temple of Dambulla, five magical caves are packed with Buddha statues and decorated with some of the finest murals Sri Lanka has to offer. Climb up and enjoy some superb views over the surrounding lands.
Or take an early morning hike past lily-pad-covered moats, water gardens and quiet shrines and up the steep staircases leading to flat-topped summit of Sigiriya. Your reward is a spectacular vista of mists rising from the forests far below.
800 Years ago, Polonnaruwa was a thriving commercial and religious centre, one of the great urban centres of South Asia. Within a century though it had been abandoned to the jungle, where it lay virtually unknown, for seven centuries. The extensive and well-preserved remains give a great insight into the city that once was.
Travelling deeper into the highlands, Kandy is set amidst steep green hills and centered on a beautiful lake. Kandy's unique music, dance and architecture make it the undisputed cultural capital of Sri Lanka. Discover colourful houses, spontaneous street markets and the famous Temple of the Tooth. Thousands of years of history influenced by the four major world religions have left Sri Lanka with many a beautiful temple. From small ornately carved village shrines, to Kandy's famous Temple of the Tooth, a visit to a holy place should be on any itinerary.
Adam's Peak has a curious indentation at its top, revered as either the place where Adam first set foot on earth or a Sacred Footprint left by the Buddha as he headed towards paradise. Whichever it is, the peak as attracted pilgrims for more than 1000 years during the pilgrimage season between December through May. Climb at night aided by the lights of thousands of lights, and see the sun rise over the hills below.
Sri Lanka's Hill Country offers a cool, green contrast to the beaches and sweltering coastal lowlands. Green hills covered in tea plantations and forests, rise up to rugged peaks where waterfalls tumble into the mist below. In this part of the country, which at times feels like England transplanted, you can hike and raft, enjoy stunning views, attend a cultural ceremony and snuggle up by a log fire at night. Due to its many English houses, the hill station of Nurawa Eliya is known as Little England, while the views through Ella Gap and from World's End are stunning.
Travelling by train from the Hill Country to the surrounding lowlands is a spectacular ride. Within 90 minutres your drop 800 metres as the train travels through cloud forest and tea plantations, offerring breathtaking views along the way.
Down below, dry woodland and open patches of grasslands, overlooked by view points on rocky outcrops, and a stunning aray of plants, birds and wildlife, make Yala National Park Sri Lanka's most rewarding wildlife reserve. Board a jeep and ride the tracks where the highest density of leopards in the world makes this park one of the finest places to see them.
Miles and miles of sandy beaches make for a great relaxed end to your tour of Sri Lanka. Crack open a coconut, find a hammock and snuggle up with a good book. Tangalle, Mirissa, Bentota and Kalutara are some of the best beaches. Perhaps watch a game of cricket - it is Sri Lanka's national sport, so learn the rules and spend an agreeable afternoon watching a game of cricket, G & T in hand. Or endulge in an Ayurveda treatment - being locked up in a steaming vessel may not look all that inviting, but follow your Aryuvedic steam bath with a massage, and you will come away renewed and rejuvinated.
December through April are some of the best months to board a boat and head out on the high seas - Sri Lanka sits right next to the annual migration of blue and sperm whales between the Bay of Bengal to the Arabian Sea.
Also on the south coast, Galle's Fort, the old Dutch quarter, is Sri Lanka's best preserved colonial town. Spend an afternoon ambling around the streets lined with Dutch-period homes, poking into little boutique shops and cafes and just see where our feet take you.
If by now you have not tried any of the glorious food, it is time! Cultures as varied as Dutch, Portuguese, South Indian, Malay, Arab and British influenced Sri Lankan cuisine resulting in a long list of tasty choices. Kotthu rotti, curries, vadai (deep fried snacks) and fresh seafood are but some of the highlights.
Some say Sri Lanka has more festivals than any other country in the world and you may witness Buddhist parades, complete with elephants, dancers and drummers, or Hindu festivals, at any time during the year. But whenever you go, a few weeks in Sri Lanka will leave memories to last a lifetime.
Sri Lanka - when to go, highlights and key experiences