With glorious beaches, mountainous wilds and countless cultural treasures packed neatly into an area half the size of England, Sri Lanka has long been a favourite long-haul destination for British travellers. But visitor numbers there are still well down on pre-pandemic levels – so if you go now, you’ll “see the sights without the crowds”, says Emma Thomson in The Times, while also giving the country’s economy a “much-needed” boost.
First-time visitors might like to start with the classic tour – a loop starting off in the island’s biggest city, Colombo, and taking in the ancient capitals of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa in the north, the holy city of Kandy in the central highlands, and the seaside fort city of Galle in the south.
Between Polonnaruwa and Kandy lies Sri Lanka’s most famous site, Sigiriya, a 180-metre-high column of magma “rising abruptly from the forest” and crowned with the remains of the fifth century palace of King Kashyapa. Frescoes of his “bejewelled harem and their gravity-defying breasts” adorn its sides, and steep iron stairs lead to the top, from which there are wonderful views across the treetops to the rice paddies, “shimmering” lakes and hills beyond.
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A short drive further on is the Dambulla Cave Temple, a site of Buddhist worship dating back two millennia, and consisting of five caves “emblazoned” with thousands of “vibrant” images of Buddha and bodhisattvas.
In the central highlands, the road snakes around steep terraces planted with tea. To the south lies Yala National Park, one of the best places in the world to see leopards, and home to plenty of other animals, too – Sri Lankan black bears, crocodiles, elephants, water buffalo, sambar deer – all of which have lately become more “relaxed”, and consequently easier to spot, owing to the absence of tourist crowds.
Cox & Kings has a 12-night tour from £1,895pp, including flights, transfers and guiding (coxandkings.co.uk).
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