It's not unusual for one destination to attract a wide range of visitors but we all have our own opinions on what makes somewhere extra special: Bali is brilliant for beach-goers and volcano trekkers but too 'touristy' for some and not big enough for intrepid adventurers; China makes for fascinating exploration but the language barrier and lack of beaches can be a turn-off; and although the Caribbean may be on many people's wish lists, the high costs can out-price budget travellers.
What makes Sri Lanka different?
Before I visited Sri Lanka, however, I was fascinated by the amount of people who had fallen in love with it; everyone from my boyfriend's parents to my budget-conscious flatmate had visited and, while some had been to family-friendly beach resorts, others had backpacked through the tea hills, joined organised tours or lived it up in luxury hotels, yet everyone had returned with beaming smiles and a longing to return. I was intrigued: what is it about Sri Lanka that resonates with so many visitors, regardless of their budget, interests or age?
Easy yet Intrepid
Several countries claim to 'have it all' but few manage to place everything in such close proximity: Sri Lanka's sun-scorched beaches sit within easy reach of cool mountains and tea estates; wild animals are within roaring and slithering distance of towns; and the island's eight UNESCO sites can be ticked-off in a week. Add to this the affordable entrance fees and reliable choice of transport options and, no matter where you go or how much you spend, experiencing Sri Lanka's top attractions is relatively easy.
Another key ingredient is that it's not too easy. You can never be 100% certain about what to expect and, although distances are do-able, they're not so small that you can cover the entire island in two weeks. Bus rides are uncomfortable and trains can be delayed, the heat can be stifling and animals are unpredictable – factors that turn every excursion into a mini adventure; albeit one with a comfy bed, mouth-watering meal and friendly local face at the end of it.
As western tourists, we tend to accept that you get what you pay for: spend peanuts on a rundown BandB and you won't be waited on; book a five-star hotel and you'll get a butler and 24-hour room service. In Sri Lanka they do things differently and, as far as I experienced, first-class service came as standard. At the cheap-as-chips beach hut I stayed at in Arugam Bay, the staff were on-hand 24-7, whether this meant waking them up for an early morning coffee or lending me a phone to call home in a late-night emergency.
Similarly, in an exclusive eco-lodge I slept at near Kandy, the staff were not only attentive and helpful but they were downright genuine too. The result is that every visitor feels extra special, is well looked after and returns home with glowing reviews.
Island of Adventure
Everyone's idea of 'adventure' is different yet, somehow, Sri Lanka manages to tick a bewildering array of boxes. The waves in Mirissa and Arugam Bay are perfect for beginner surfers yet challenging enough to host international competitions; in west coast Kalipatu the kitesurf conditions are equally good for all levels; and up in the central highlands you can stroll through the foothills, hike up Adam's Peak, or go multi-day camping in the Knuckles mountains.
Animal-lovers are treated too, with the world's highest concentration of leopards found in Yala National Park, plus thousands of bird species, elephants and more are found in island-wide reserves. For budget travellers, an affordable half-day safari is exciting enough, while overnight camping or self-driving tours add extra adventure for wildlife aficionados.
Culture, culture, culture
Experiencing new culture and deciding where to go is one of the most enriching parts of travel, yet it's becoming increasingly difficult to find the 'real thing' in busy resorts where locals dances and 'traditional' meals in tourist restaurants are sometimes all that's on offer. In Sri Lanka, however, local traditions are still strong, and everyday life thrives alongside tourism.
The people I met there were in love with their homeland, proud of their culture and excited to share it – from the waiter who showed me how to assemble my 'string hoppers', and the tuk-tuk driver who revelled in 'secret' detours, to the surf instructor who invited me into their home and the monks who showed me the way up a sacred mountain.
Adding a fascinating twist to Sri Lanka's cultural make up are the relics left behind by the colonial era. From the 16th century onwards, the Portuguese, Dutch and British all made their mark on the island, creating grand tea estates and ornate buildings that are still a firm feature of the landscape.
Established by the British in the 19th century, Sri Lanka's railways feels like stepping back in time, and you can't help but play-act when you sip gin and tonics in the Kandy's restored colonial hotels, while the Dutch streets in Galle Fort are a calm place to retreat to after a hectic morning in the traditional markets.
A Peaceful Place
Civil war blighted Sri Lanka for more than 25 years, with ethnic tensions between the Sinhalese and Tamils leading to economic instability, national despair and bloodshed. Unsurprisingly, mainstream tourism was put on hold but, when fighting ceased in 2009, Sri Lanka found peace and the tourist industry not only bounced back but 'boomed.'
This harrowing yet fascinating history adds an extra dimension of intrigue, which you can tentatively explore. The locals I met were not adverse to discussing the conflict and spoke courteously of their fellow islanders - today, while northern Sri Lanka is still dominated by Tamils and the south by Sinhalese, both groups live side-by-side in some areas. Tamil or Sinhalese, the Sri Lankan citizens I spoke to were relieved that the fighting was over and content to be living on a conflict-free island, regardless of who they shared it with.
The Role of Religion
The final element in Sri Lanka's appeal as a serene, welcoming and culture-rich destination is religion. Around 70% of islanders are Buddhist and, as a centre of Buddhist learning since the 3rd century BC, Sri Lanka is the world's oldest continually Buddhist country.
The ethos of this peaceful faith quietly resonates through the country, with meditation and mutual respect part of daily life for many. And, whether you choose to get involved and learn more or give it a wide berth, a little bit of this human warmth and harmony appears to rub off on all who visit.
Returning to Reality
Like my friends and relatives who'd visited before me, I returned from Sri Lanka with magnificent memories and a burning desire to go back: my photos show scenes of vivid colours, lush landscapes and grinning faces, and I'm longing for another day on the waves at Arugam Bay, as well as hankering after the island's perfectly spiced dahl and fantastically fresh seafood.
But my overwhelming memory is of the people, and the deep warmth and kindness that seemed to emanate from everyone. Home to some of the world's most genuinely friendly folk, perhaps that's the real secret to Sri Lanka's success.