WHY Colombo, the capital, is invariably overlooked on tour itineraries in favour of Kandy (srilanka.travel), Sri Lanka's holiest city. It's home to the revered Temple of the Buddha's Tooth Relic as well as Esala Perahera, the island nation's signature festival. Certainly, there couldn't be two more different cities anywhere with the more urban Colombo resolutely girt by sea and the more rustic Kandy nestled in the hills of the "up-country", as Sri Lankans refer to it.
MUST There's only one thing wrong with the Temple of the Buddha's Tooth Relic (sridaladamaligawa.lk) – you don't get to see the actual vaunted denticulation. But the temple, with its attractive lakeside and garden setting, is worthy of a visit, especially if you pop into the small tucked-away museum which details the audacious 1998 bombing of this sacred place by the Tamil Tigers, which to Sri Lankan Buddhists was akin to an assault on St Peter's Basilica.
VISIT There aren't many places where a small cemetery is a major attraction. But Kandy's British Garrison Cemetery, which dates back to 1822, represents a poignant snapshot of the travails of colonial life. One of the gravestones details the death of a British man in the 19th century who died from sunstroke after being chased by a rogue elephant. The cemetery's caretaker is invariably on the spot to provide a potted tour of the site though, please, don't forget to sling him some rupees.
LOOK Watch out for one of Kandy's most distinctive and appealing aspects, the Kandyan sari. Worn by Sinhalese women in formal or casual occasions, the Kandyan sari, as opposed to the traditional Indian version, is far frillier and comes in not one but two pieces. There are plenty of street stalls and boutiques where western visitors can buy, or just admire, a Kandyan sari and where the owners will demonstrate how it is properly worn.
EAT Unlike the less-fancied Colombo, Kandy doesn't boast a good many restaurants of western standard so the best meals you'll enjoy during your visit will likely be at your accommodation. That said, one sure bet is the charming Empire Cafe inside a 200-year old colonial-stye building with a street-level verandah. In the same street where Temple of the Tooth garland-sellers stalls, you'll find good coffee, curries and cakes.
SLEEP A pair of elegant upscale colonial-style villas – Kandy House (thekandyhouse.com) and the Elephant Stables (elephantstables.com) – tend to fight it out for the honour of being Kandy's best digs. Even though you'd be disinclined to stay in them, check out the city's wonderful collection of time-warped colonial-era hotels, such as the lakeside Hotel Suisse (hotelsuisse.lk) and Queen's Hotel (queenshotel.lk) in the centre of town. Both are ripe for renovation. If you're really game, check-in for a night at the psychedelic Helga's Folly (helgasfolly.com), the fevered product of the eponymous eccentric owner. There's nothing like it anywhere, and probably just as well.
TIP If you can, go by train, rather than road, from Colombo to Kandy. It's a tremendously scenic, 2½-hour journey climbing into the jungle-clad hills to a less climatically-oppressive elevation of 515 metres, and a chance to get up-close-and-personal with the friendly Sri Lankans.
The writer was a guest of the Classic Safari Company (classicsafaricompany.com.au) and Singapore Airlines (singaporeair.com).