the upside-down-teardrop-shaped island paradise off the southeastern tip of India, used to be referred to as the Pearl of the Orient,
and the name still applies. Breathtaking vistas, geology, vegetation
and silhouettes, thrilling climate, uncrowded ancient sites in excellent
preservation, legendary beaches, tea plantations, great wildlife
watching and a congenial population define this underexplored destination.
The country stills feels the pain of a tsunami, which
ravaged the west coast four years ago. The Tamil rebellion in the
north has passed, and people want to put behind them the memory
of last years violent conclusion which cost 30,000-50,000
casualties, most of them civilian. A corrupt, dynastic government now keeps the country safe and pacified by placing armed
military at regular intervals everywhere.
Sri Lanka (population 20 million) today is a country
struggling as it joins the emergent economies, with a mass of foreign
investment and development flowing in, resulting in a concurrent
resurgence in tourism. It will be a different place in five years,
improved roads and access to remote spots, and many new resorts
and luxurious lodgings with all the complications they will bring.
Today, the island retains many of the aspects that in
days of yore would have been condescendingly referred to as Third
Worldbut that is changing fast. A modern airport serves the
capital city of Colombo (population 2 million), digital communications
have penetrated the most isolated spots, and the traveller discovers
a wealth of choice luxury lodgings. All that remains is a public
information campaign (much like Morocco successfully conducted)
to educate the local population on ways to welcome foreign guests.
For the moment, you will still be bothered by touts
and aggressive tuk-tuk drivers and it will get old. But not
for long. Once prosperity trickles down there will be less sense
of desperation from those whose lives intersect tourists. And once
you get out of the big cities you will be constantly struck by the
indescribable beauty of this legendary place.
The teardrop island runs northsouth, rounded at
the top, pointed at the bottom. At the centre of the island youll
find the cultural triangle, where cities, palace ruins, and ingenious
water cachements, some dating back 2,000 years, can be visited.
The sun and humidity can be brutal: take a wide-brimmed hat and sunblock, and
drink plenty of water.
Souvenir-shopping near these monuments is the most reasonable
you will ﬁnd anywhere. Remember to bargain, as it is expected,
aiming for about 40 per cent of the first price quoted. Bear in
mind these are very inexpensive local crafts, so haggling over pennies
should be viewed as more a social interaction than a hard-nosed
business challenge. Small carved elephants, for example, which are
priced at $9 in the Colombo airport gift shop, sell for a dollar
or less next to the Polonnaruwa complex. I should have bought one
for a multitude of reasons, among them supporting the local economy.
The historic triangle has two famous Buddhas carved out of living stone, one standing figure outside Dambullah, one reclining ﬁgure at Polonnaruwa. Below the caves of Dambullah you will find an outstanding complex of old pagodas and monastery ruins. The caves themselves are said to be in bad repair, and of the seventeenth century. You could easily pass these up for other landmarks.
You will want to climb the 1,200 steps to the top of
the limestone citadel named Sigiriya, past fifth-century frescoesastounding,
rendered as masterfully as Italian Renaissance works executed 1,100
years laterto the ruins of a kings palace with a 360-degree
view of plains and mountains.
The feet of a huge masonry lion are only remnants of
a colossal sculpture, but standing next to the elegant curved terracotta
paws you can imagine the mindblowing dimensions of the original
A herald of the extreme luxury about to be discovered
in Sri Lanka is the newly-constructed Ulagalla Resort, a five-star
57-acre private compound with a dozen private ultra-posh villas,
near to all cultural monuments, in the area called Thirapane. It
has its own helipad, in case you prefer to avoid earthbound transport
Once you’re within the manicured grounds, the
resort shuttles you around in quiet electric carts, and advises
you not walk the grounds after darkyou never know what brand
of animal life you might meet. These elevated modern chalets, each
set on its own little hillock, are fully technologized, with Ipod-docking
stations and computer-driven lighting. You can even monitor your
own bill or browse the internet from the big-screen satellite television.
Elegant woods, all modern fittings, top-quality loose
teas (never a tea bag!), private plunge pools and luxurious bathrooms
complete the lodging package.
There’s a classical graciousness at work here.
From the delicious welcome beverage, a tea and fruit juice concoction
delivered in a carved coconut cup, to the discreet attentiveness
of Sumanaratna, the mullah dani, you will appreciate the fusion
of traditional and modern styles.
The resort is set up so that most of your dining is
done in-villa, with meals delivered from a nearby satellite kitchen.
The main house also features fine dining, from a beautifully restored
terrace which overlooks the Olympic pool and domed luxury spa. Fully
occupied, the property only sleeps 40 guests. At approximately US$400
a night with all meals included, this property is a great value.
It would be suitable for an intimate romantic getaway, honeymoon,
wedding, family reunion, small business conference, or as a welcome
retreat to return to after a day’s bird-watching or trekking
The property has a full stable, housed under the largest
solar roof in Sri Lanka. After your daily ride you could do no better
than to sip at a glass of Mendes Blue Label arrack as you recline
on the porch next to the utterly comfortable lounge area and watch
the spectacular sunset illuminate the western sky.
Tel +94 25 76-94-036
The face of a sleeping Buddha, approx 50' long, at Polonnaruwa.
Near the caves of Dambull, an ancient pagoda surrounded by monastery
At Sigiriya, restorations of the kings palace atop the citadel.
The lions foot at Sigiriya, pictured with the author.
Explore the beautifully preserved Sigiriya frescos.
A large standing Buddha, carved from living stone at Aukana.
The Ulagalla Resort gets a portion of its power from the largest
solar array in Sri Lanka, mounted atop the stables. Pictured with
Sumanaratna, on the Resorts staff.
A herald of the extreme luxury about to be discovered in Sri
Lanka is the newly constructed Ulagalla Resort, a ﬁve-star
57-acre private compound with a dozen private ultra-posh villas,
near to all cultural monuments, in the area called Thirapane
Relax by the pool, and experience fine dining at Ulagalla Resort.
Temple ruins in Polonnaruwa.
The Sigiriya citadel.
A small village near Dambulla devoted to the weaving of rattan.