Romantic couple, independent backpacker or family of four, Sri Lanka is one of the hottest travel destinations at the moment, yet still manages to retain an heir of the undiscovered. A turbulent past put the island off the tourist radar for many years but, with FCO warnings lifted and tourism re-established, Sri Lanka has firmly restored its mark on the holiday map.
For the past few years, I've seen family and friends returning from Sri Lanka with dreamy smiles, golden tans and stories of white-sand beaches, welcoming locals and mouth-watering curries. This year, I made a resolution to experience the island for myself and booked return flights departing in April – a month of relatively settled weather which sees fewer tourists than the peak December-March season.
With direct flights from London Heathrow (LHR) to Colombo (CMB) secured, it was time to start planning. Bursting with cultural landmarks, rimmed by white sands and brimming with wildlife, I soon realised that picking where to go was going to be tough, and with two weeks to pack it all in, I'd have to make some sacrifices.
Organised tours and tailored itineraries designed by local experts are a reliable and easy way to guarantee a good time but, just to make things more complicated, I fancied doing a bit of DIY. Before narrowing down my choices, it seemed like a sensible idea to find out more about the country's turbulent past and recent history:
The historical context
Sri Lanka's original settlers, the Sinhalese, migrated from India in 500BC. India began invading from the third century onwards, capturing parts of the north and south. By the thirteenth century, Tamils (from India) had concentrated in the north.
Attracted by the cinnamon trade, the Portuguese took hold in the sixteenth century, with only the city of Kandy remaining independent. The Dutch took control in the late seventeenth century and conquered Kandy. In 1796 Britain gained power, abolished slavery, made English the official language and brought Tamil labourers over from India to work on the plantations.
'Ceylon' became independent in 1948 and was ruled by the Sinhalese United Nations Party. During the '50s and '60s, Sinhalese nationalism was promoted, Sinhalese was made the official language and Tamil labourers were deported to India. Anti-Tamil riots left more than 200 dead and thousands displaced.
Tensions between Tamils and the Sinhalese bubbled in the early 1970s, aggravated by a reduction in university places for Tamil students, amongst other anti-Tamil movements. By 1976, the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) and Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) had formed, demanding the creation of a separate Tamil state in the north. In 1981 Sinhalese police were accused of burning the Jaffna library.
Fierce Fighting 1980s-90s
Civil war erupted in 1983 and hundreds died during riots. The LTTE (Tamil 'Tigers') reacted by initiating a guerrilla war against the government. Tamils were pushed north into Jaffna, and peacekeeping efforts tried and failed. In 1993, the Tigers assassinated the president. The island was considered unsafe for tourists and western airlines terminated their routes.
A new era
Amidst fierce attacks and suicide bombing, peacekeeping attempts continued and failed throughout the late '90s/early 2000s. In 2009, the Tiger leadership was defeated by the Sri Lankan government and work began to rebuild a united nation. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) deemed Sri Lanka a safer place for tourists and international airlines, including British Airways (BA) who resumed flights in 2012.
Sri Lanka today
After a 15 year break, tourists have flooded back to Sri Lanka. While the more stable south saw much of this initial wave, Jaffna and the north are now becoming popular.
Deciding where to go
With a little Sri Lankan history under my belt, I felt better informed to make decisions about where to go. I'd love to see both the Sinhalese south and Tamil north but I doubt that two weeks would be long enough to appreciate both. Instead, I plan to focus on the south, fitting in a balance of beaches, historic cities, wildlife and active adventures.
Thanks to a stack of guide books, a wealth of internet reviews, plus lots of tips from friends, family and industry experts, I've managed to whittle down a list of top places to visit:
The Beaches: seclusion and surf
My priorities: Beautiful, less built-up beach areas which, ideally, have the option of surfing.
Chill-out time on the beach is essential, and I'll have time for a couple of overnight stays, plus a longer stay in one location. Sri Lanka's most established resorts sit on the west coast, not far from the international airport at Colombo. Beachfront towns like Negombo, Kalutara, Beruwala and Bentota are popular options, but I fancy something more intrepid: my plan is to head south and east, visiting the white grains and waves at Mirissa, followed by the apparently pristine sands of Tangalle, plus a longer stay further east in Arugam Bay – known as Sri Lanka's best surf spot, I hope to catch the first few days of the east coast's April to October surf season.
The Cities: three historic heavyweights
My priorities: Local culture and colonial architecture in the most famous and historic cities.
Home to a famous old quarter, botanical gardens and a Buddhist temple known as the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic, Kandy, in the central hill region, is a top priority. On the south coast, a couple of hours drive south of Colombo, the Dutch-colonial port city of Galle comes a close second. Before I head home, I'll spend at least one day in the capital of Colombo, buying last-minute memorabilia in the Pettah markets.
The Wildlife: Leopards, elephants and whales
My priorities: To experience the rich variety of wildlife and seasonal sensations.
Sri Lanka nurtures everything from crocodiles and dolphins to leopards and elephants, and promises some of the best wildlife viewing in Asia. Most visitors make a beeline for Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage or the leopard hot-spot of Yala National Park but there lesser-known reserves to consider too: Uda Walawe National Park is renowned for its huge elephant populations while, north of here, Wasgomuwa has big game and, further south, Sinharaja is Sri Lanka's most famous rainforest reserve. My plan is to visit Yala for the sheer variety of wildlife this reserve is known for, although I'm also tempted to try Uda Walawe, which is said to be less crowded with safari vehicles.
However, there's one wildlife wonder I certainly won't be missing: between November and April each year, blue whales migrate past the southern coastline, along with fin whales, sperm whales and more. Mirissa is the place to join a boat trip and, with April one of the very best months for sightings, I'm already excited.
The Great Outdoors: tea, tranquillity and trekking
My priorities: To climb a peak and find a relaxing base with stunning views.
In the heart of the island, Sri Lanka's hill country is an area I've been warned not to miss. A former hub of the British tea industry, the colonial town of Nuwara Eliya is a popular stopping point but, in search of sheer tranquillity, I plan to focus my time on the smaller town of Ella, travelling here on the famously scenic Kandy-Ella railway. I also hope to trek to the summit of Adam's Peak – an iconic mountain said to bear the imprint of Buddha's foot.
Although Sri Lanka isn't huge, two weeks simply isn't long enough to see everything I'd hoped. With more time in the hill country, I could hike further north in the Knuckle Range, visit the cloud forest of Horton Plains National Park and take in the famous views at World's End.
Friends have told me that I'll be mad to miss the sacred Sigiriya Rock (once the site of an ancient palace), others are urging me to visit the ancient cities of Polonnaruwa and Anuradhapura, while many rave about the west coast beaches, isolated islands in the north, and the important Tamil city of Jaffna.
But rather than trying to force any more into my jam-packed itinerary, I've now got an excuse for a return trip!