When I told a travelling friend that 2017 would be the year I finally tick Sri Lanka - "the pearl of the Indian Ocean" - off my bucket list, his first piece of advice was:
"Take your walking boots."
As I've ventured further into planning my adventure on the Indian subcontinent, it has become clear why that was his first thought. The nation's travel highlights include a strenuous trek up a mountain to greet the rising sun at the top, scaling a gargantuan rock to discover the remnants of an ancient civilisation and a number of other trekking challenges.
When I first considered a trip to Sri Lanka, I envisaged tranquility, tea plantations, and perhaps even a yoga retreat deep in the leafy jungle. However, with so much to pack into our two-week stay in the country, our itinerary is less than relaxing, with plenty of trains and trekking on the cards. But I wouldn't have it any other way.
Sri Lanka, where to start?
After several weekends spent working my way through a stack of guidebooks, and countless hours clicking through Sri Lanka articles online, I turned to Instagram for some real life advice from travellers currently in the country. In my experience, you just can't beat word-of-mouth advice when it comes to making the most of a trip, and those I contacted were so informative - offering tips on where to go and what to do when you're there, as well as on details like whether to hire guides for certain hikes. This helped to ensure we wouldn't miss out on any serious highlights while visiting the country.
Although the number of travellers landing in Colombo is rising as people increasingly awaken to Sri Lanka's natural treasures, the island nation is definitely not one of the most touristy places you'll ever visit. This makes planning a trip slightly more difficult - particularly when it comes to getting from one place to the next. Indeed, I'll be jetting off with some serious gaps in my itinerary and hoping that locals will be able to advise me on the best way to travel from A to B.
Despite this - and despite my typically laissez-faire approach to journey planning - I ended up putting together a rather adventurous skeleton itinerary that I can't wait to get started on.
Colombo: Sri Lanka's capital
Due to necessity, we'll be spending our first night in Sri Lanka's capital Colombo, where our long-haul journey, involving a four-hour stint in Abu Dhabi airport, will end.
The capital of Sri Lanka, Colombo was once dismissed by travellers as a mere stop on the way to the nirvana of the country's beaches - but is increasingly emerging as a destination in its own right. Unsurprisingly one of the more built-up cities in Sri Lanka, its architecture harks back to the nation's colonial past, and its old town should be a great spot to indulge in some authentic Sri Lankan curries.
That said, this is definitely not a city break, and keen to get on with exploring all Sri Lanka has to offer, we will be departing Colombo via train for the lush Sri Lankan hill country at the earliest opportunity.
Kandy: A tropical city of culture
With lush vegetation, a tropical climate, and mist-adorned hills stretching far into the drizzling sky, Kandy looks like heaven for people who enjoy being immersed in the natural world. But don't let that fool you - this is very much a city in its own right.
In fact, Kandy was the last capital of the last Sinhalese Kingdom, before the British took power in 1815. There are plenty of cultural highlights, including the Buddhist Temple of the Tooth, which is located within the royal palace complex and very firmly on my itinerary. I'll also be hoping to experience some of the city's spontaneous street markets, take a stroll around Kandy Lake, and visit Ceylon Tea Museum - no doubt a highlight for any British travellers!
After two nights in Kandy we'll be travelling north to clamber up one of Sri Lanka's most iconic sites. However, there doesn't seem to be a simple, cheap way to journey from Kandy to Sigiriya, so we are budgeting to hire a car with a driver.
Sigiriya Rock: Sri Lanka's iconic symbol
Travellers flock to the dramatic vista of Sigiriya Rock to discover the remains of an ancient civilisation. The rock's flat summit is thought to have once been right at the heart of the Kingdom of Kassapa, and views across the surrounding landscape - filled with tranquil shrines, water gardens and lily pads - are widely regarded as breathtaking.
A steep climb up vertiginous staircases is required to access this stunning view, and the consensus online seems to be that arriving early in the day is vital if you want to make the most of being at this incredible site before the crowds descend on the rock. For this reason, we're planning to find nearby accomodation the night before.
There are a number of highlights even before you reach the summit, with ancient frescoes carved into the side of the sheer rock face, and graffiti on the mirror wall where visitors hundreds of years ago felt compelled to record their impressions of the artwork.
The famously breathtaking Kandy-Ella Train Journey
After descending from Sigiriya Rock we'll get a car back to Kandy before boarding the Kandy-Ella train. This journey, travelling through Sri Lanka's verdant hill country, is known as one of the world's most scenic train rides, and I suspect it will be one of our highlights. Often blanketed in mist, the waterfalls, rolling mountains and tea plantations of the hill country can all be viewed from the windows of the train.
The journey takes just over six hours, but can be broken up by hopping off and on at various destinations. It is also imperative to book ahead of time: these trains are incredibly popular and very often fully booked.
Ella: Hill country heaven
Another highlight on our itinerary, Ella is one of Sri Lanka's most popular destinations.
After a few days of rigorous travelling, Ella will be the perfect place to slow the pace and kick-back for a few days of relaxation. We're planning to spend roughly four nights here soaking up the tranquility of the beautiful destination, enjoying the incredible view through the Ella Gap, taking strolls through the tea plantations, and visiting waterfalls.
However, surrounded by incredible vantage points from which to view the scenery, we also intend to tackle some slightly more strenuous hikes, with Ella Rock and Little Adam's Peak both in the vicinity. Whether we need guides for these treks is something we'll have to work out once we arrive.
Adam's Peak: The big challenge of our trip
When we first decided to visit Sri Lanka, Adam's Peak was the challenge that immediately sprung to mind. The mountain is known as Adam's Peak due to legend that it was where Adam first set foot on earth after being cast out of heaven, and also as Sri Pada, owing to its reputation as the mountain on which Buddha left a footprint on his way to paradise. Others believe the footprint could be that of Shiva or St Thomas.
With so many belief systems claiming it as their own, the mountain has unsurprisingly been a place of pilgrimage for the past 1,000 years. It would be incredible to join these pilgrims on their sunrise trek up the mountain and experience the area's undeniable spirituality. We're lucky enough to be visiting just before the Buddhist Vesak Festival - this year taking place on May 10th - which marks the end of the pilgrimage season, meaning that there should still be plenty of people making the journey.
Most pilgrims and hikers set off around 2-3am to ascend the countless steps to the top in time to see the sun rise. The route up the mountain is illuminated by twinkling lights and ribbons, and tea houses line the way to the top. This will undoubtedly be a challenging hike, but after successfully completing the Inca Trail and trekking the three peaks of Vietnam's Lang Biang Mountains in one particularly painful day, I feel up to the challenge. Furthermore, the incredible panorama sunrise at the top should more than make up for any aching limbs.
After our climb we will return to Ella in order to catch a bus south to Mirissa for some well-deserved beach time.
The (hopefully) sunny paradise of Mirissa
With beaches famed for their beauty and a reputation for relaxation, Mirissa should be a paradisiacal part of our time in Sri Lanka. That said, we're well aware that we're visiting off-season, and the forecast is stormy.
A small town on the southern coast, Mirissa appeals due to its tropical aesthetic and the fact that it is not yet as built up as many of the other sun, sand and sea destinations in Sri Lanka. There are also opportunities to snorkel alongside turtles, which has always been a dream of mine, and kayaking could be on the cards too.
A line of guest houses are set back from Mirissa beach, which is fringed with palm trees, making for a picture-perfect haven when the climate is warm. If we're unlucky with the weather, I'm sure we'll manage to amuse ourselves by feasting on local food and relaxing after our various treks. However, if beach weather is thin on the ground, we'll likely jump on the train and head onwards to our next stop - Galle - slightly earlier than planned.
Galle is home to one of the most iconic sights of Sri Lanka - the silhouette of stilt fishers set against the setting sun. Stilt fishing is unique to Sri Lanka and therefore is a must-see on any trip to the country. The fishermen sit on poles driven into the sand a few metres off the shore and cast their nets, creating quite the spectacle for curious tourists.
While Galle sits on the south coast of Sri Lanka, there is much more to it than beaches. Galle Fort - an UNESCO world heritage site - was originally constructed in 1855 by the Portuguese, before being extensively fortified by the Dutch in the 17th century.
The cultural capital of the southern coast, there is plenty to explore in Galle, which meshes European architecture with South Asian culture. There are museums, shops and cafes, and a variety of accommodation. I'm looking forward to strolling around the fort walls and learning more about the unique culture of Galle before we take the train back to Colombo to catch our flight home.
Sri Lanka, my expectations
While I don't expect my trip to Sri Lanka to be the most relaxing holiday I've ever had, due to our tight itinerary and trekking plans, I think I'll be blown away by the country's natural beauty, and that hiking in such stunning scenery will be a delight.
All my preparation indicates that Sigiriya Rock, the Kandy-Ella rail journey, Adam's Peak and Ella will be the highlights, but if I've learnt anything from my past travel experiences, it's that travel highlights are really difficult to predict. Maybe Colombo will be fantastic, Kandy will be more enjoyable than Ella, or the sun will make an appearance in Mirissa?
Speaking of weather, thunderstorms are forecast, so while the temperature will be high, I'm expecting to see a lot of rain and will definitely be packing a waterproof. While - as a Brit - a bit of rain doesn't faze me, I'll be disappointed if I don't get any time to sunbathe or snorkel: it would be a shame to miss out when Sri Lanka has such a wonderful coastline.
I do feel like I'm going into this trip relatively blind - I don't know much about Sri Lankan culture or the locals' way of life, so I imagine I'll be surprised quite frequently along the way. But that's what travelling is all about. As long as I return to the UK exhausted from several treks, with plenty of stories to tell and a bit of a tan I'll be happy!