Leisa Tyler discovers azure water, tea gardens and a rock fortress during a drive around an island in recovery.
With verdant rainforests and idyllic white-sand beaches, cloistered temples, ancient ruins, blustery mountains teeming with endangered wildlife, mist-wreathed tea gardens, grand colonial architecture, a vibrant culture, lip-smacking cuisine and warm, generous people, at a glance you might think Sri Lanka has it all.
Had it not been for an ongoing civil war between the Sinhalese-dominated government and Tamil Tiger insurgents, some say this ravishing little tear-shaped island off India's southern coast would have been one of Asia's greatest treasures. The 27-year war is now over and Sri Lanka is hoping to reinvent itself as just that.
"When the war ends Sri Lanka's tourism industry will boom," an Indian friend and hotelier has been arguing to me for years. He was right - ever since the war ended last May, tourists have been flocking; last December's arrivals were up 35 per cent on the year before.
"We went from one inquiry a day to 30 a day," says the Australian owner of the Galle Fort Hotel in Galle, Karl Steinberg. It is the same story everywhere. Yala National Park, a leopard sanctuary that was closed in 2007 after attacks by insurgents, has reopened and it's almost impossible to find a room.
The first thing I notice when landing at Colombo's Bandaranaike airport one balmy evening is just how different everything feels. On my last visit, in 2008, Sri Lanka was rife with suicide bombers, kidnappings, assassinations and heavy media censorship. Colombo was eerily quiet and to be avoided.
This time I arrive shortly after the presidential elections in January. Rumours of corruption and vote-rigging are rife but the mood is lighter and brighter than I have ever seen here. People are optimistic about the future, as is the Sri Lankan government, which is starting its postwar recovery with the tourism industry. Alongside a flurry of infrastructure projects, the government aims to welcome 2.5 million visitors a year by 2016 (although the Sri Lanka Tourism board sheepishly admits 1.6 million is a bit more realistic). Conceived literally weeks after the war ended, most of the projects in the works flank the former Tamil Tiger-controlled areas along the east coast, long romanced for their inaccessible beaches and aqua-blue seas, as well as undeveloped stretches on the west coast.
And high on the list of most desirable tourists? Australians. Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade still recommends its citizens revise their need to go to Sri Lanka, despite most countries, including Britain, removing their travel warnings. Alongside plans to relaunch direct flights with national carrier SriLankan Airlines and stage a road show in Sydney and Melbourne later this year, the Sri Lankan government is hoping the peace will convince DFAT to change its advisory. Together with Red Dot Tours' trusty and genteel driver, Herman, and a four-wheel-drive for the notorious roads, I head off to check out the new tourist developments.
Starting at Negombo, a popular beach resort town near the airport, Herman and I head 150 kilometres north to the peninsula of Kalpitiya, where an underwater visitor centre and 14 upmarket island resorts are being mapped out, including an 80-villa, $US175 million ($190 million) resort managed by the Bangkok-based hotel group, Six Senses.
For now the peninsula is largely deserted except for a new Chinese-built coal plant, with a sprinkling of fishers' huts and the Alankuda Beach Resort, an eco-retreat overlooking the ocean. The resort's setting is awe-inspiring - a breezy beach flanked by sand dunes stretches for as far as the eye can see - as are the complimentary dolphin-watching tours, but with tatty linen, no hot water (or even a shower head) and only curry for breakfast, lunch and dinner, its asking rate of $US360 a night in peak season is way overpriced.
After checking into one of Alankuda's open-air cabanas I head to the beach where I am accosted by friendly locals, overjoyed that foreigners are visiting their remote coastline. "Where are you going?", they ask. "Where do you come from? Do you like Sri Lanka? Do you want to have dinner/a drink/coconut/see my house/see my village/ go fishing? Can you take a photo of my child/mother/best friend? How long will you stay here? Will you come back?"
The encounter repeats itself next day. That morning we had driven from the west coast to Nilaveli on the east, a roaring stretch of sand north of the ancient trading port and 17th-century Dutch fort of Trincomalee. Hosting one of the biggest Tamil populations in Sri Lanka, Trinco, as the town is affectionately known, has been at the forefront of Sri Lanka's civil war.
Once a popular holiday getaway, Nilaveli is devastated; burnt-out houses and the blackened shells of former hotels pepper the landscape, their sides pockmarked with bullet holes.
"Sinhalese, Tamil - you know, most people in Sri Lanka don't even care," a man on the beach selling conch shells tells me when I ask him if he is happy the war is over. "I am Sinhalese but my sister married a Tamil; I speak Tamil. We are brothers. The war was purely political."
Politics still reigns heavily on Trinco. The locals I talk to are thrilled that at Kuchchaveli, an equally dramatic stretch of sand further north, 200 hectares of land has been subdivided for 3000-room resort developments but not that the primary leaseholders are the controversial President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his extended family.
In any case, it is unlikely tourism will flourish here soon. The roads in and out of Nilaveli are still lined with soldiers, with fortified checkpoints every few kilometres and rows of UN trucks ferrying in supplies to refugee camps; not a good start to a lazy beach holiday.
From Trinco, Herman and I head inland to the sublime fifth-century ruins of Sigiriya, one of the three World Heritage sites making up the Cultural Triangle. We would have liked to have continued from Trinco straight down the coast to Batticaloa but we are told the roads are so potholed they are almost impassable. Besides, this lump of rock with ancient frescos and ruins protruding from Sri Lanka's lush heart is one of the country's greatest hits.
Built by King Kasyapa and roughly translated as "Lions Rock", nobody is quite sure what Sigiriya was used for - maybe a royal picnic ground or perhaps a place for meditation - before it was abandoned and swallowed up by the jungle. At the lowest level lie a series of shaded gardens lined with water channels for irrigation. Halfway up the zig-zagging stairs are frescos of evocative bare-breasted maidens. Climb further still, past the sculptured paws of a lion and on to the rock's bare head, and you'll be rewarded with views stretching endlessly. And if you come early in the morning - before the tour buses and the touts - you can have the place to yourself.
You can spot Sigiriya from miles away - perfectly, I discover, with a cold beer from one of Vil Uyana's verandahs. A 25-villa hotel set among rice paddies, Vil Uyana is one of Sri Lanka's most enchanting hotels, a designation that lies not just in its rice-paddy setting but its cheeky flock of resident birds - peacocks, kingfishers and spur fowl to name a few.
From Sigiriya, Herman turns our van back to Sri Lanka's brazen eastern coastline and the bay of Passikudah, an inlet of shallow water and crescent-moon bay that prior to the war erupting in 1983 was one of the country's most popular getaways. Things came to a halt rapidly afterwards and many of the resorts lining the coast were destroyed during the fighting; what remained was then washed away by the 2004 tsunami. But today the beach is packed with merrymakers frolicking in the cove's shallow waters. We buy Cargills chocolate-hearted ice-creams from a vendor with a portable freezer on the back of his tuk-tuk and walk along the palm-lined cove to assess Passikudah's proposed future: a series of ecologically responsible resorts with 1000 hotel rooms opening on to the beach.
Back into the van we continue south, past sparse, scruffy villages and inlets where men cast nets from dugout canoes and women walk among waist-high lotus flowers collecting edible weeds. Multicoloured boats named "Rotary Denmark" and "World Mission Evangelism", after the organisations that donated them post-tsunami, line beaches alive with lilac flowers and sand so clean it squeaks underfoot. Skirting the edge of Yala National Park, we stop at Tissa Lake, a reservoir famed for its migratory birds and Sunday picnickers, to snack on delicious crispy-fried fish for Rupees20 (20¢) a piece.
Reaching the south coast is like entering a different country. Affluent, tidy and bustling with sprawling towns and holiday lodges, this sublimely beautiful coastline with sugar-white bays with overhanging elongated palm trees and splays of bougainvillea looks and feels far from the war-ravaged world from which we have just come.
It's in one of these idyllic bays that my favourite Sri Lankan hotel is located. The last residence designed by legendary Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa, The Last House merges harmoniously with its setting. Opening on to a glorious beach with crashing surf, the six-room hotel has open living spaces to make the most of the fresh sea breeze, with polished concrete floors and stylish rooms decorated with plump couches, four-poster beds and outdoor bathrooms. Feast on freshly caught fish cooked by jack-of-all-trades manager Ananda Ranasinghe, or venture next door to the Italian-run Surya Gardens, which serves the best pasta in the country.
Sri Lanka has an enchanting collection of mini hotels. Converted from colonial bungalows or Bawa's architectural legacies, they offer travellers a unique and intimate experience and in some cases are destinations in themselves. The most notable include the Kandy House, a former manor house now nine-room hotel with huge concrete bath tubs and four poster beds on the outskirts of Kandy. The Dutch House, built for an admiral of the Dutch navy, has only four rooms, each richly furnished with antiques, Persian carpets and views overlooking Galle. Dilmah Tea's superbly run Tea Trails has four beautifully appointed colonial bungalows inside a working tea estate. Designer Shanth Fernando, who made headlines when he converted Bawa's former Colombo office into the gallery and cafe, Paradise Road, in 1987, recently opened Villa Bentota. The 15-room property is as stylish as it is enchanting - especially when the train from Colombo to Galle rattles through its grounds.
Last but definitely not least is the Galle Fort Hotel in Galle, our last destination on this road trip. A 17th-century Dutch merchant's house, Australians Karl Steinberg and Christopher Ong stumbled over the property during a momentary ceasefire in 2002 - then promptly threw in their Sydney jobs as TV executive and investment banker to restore it.
Neither was experienced in heritage conservation nor hospitality but their efforts paid off and in 2007 the hotel earned a distinction in heritage conservation from UNESCO. It is a breezy, unruffled kind of place, with a laid-back vibe and 12 rooms overlooking a courtyard with pool and wide verandah where guests graze on candle-lit set dinners of rich beef rendang and tangy teriyaki chicken at night.
Perched on the southern edge of Sri Lanka's sun-drenched coastline, the rambling fort of Galle was one of the most cosmopolitan towns in south Asia in the mid 1800s. Discovered by the Portuguese after being blown off course from the Maldives in the early 1500s, Galle endured successive imperial reigns, including the Dutch, who imported slaves from Mozambique to build a vast fortress to accommodate the regional headquarters of the Dutch East India Company - the world's first multinational company. Seized by the British in 1796, Galle then became a strategic hub for ships sailing between Asia and Europe. Back then the streets of Galle were lined with gold, according to a local saying.
Galle fell into a slumber when the main port of Ceylon (as Sri Lanka was then known) moved to the capital, Colombo. But thanks to the Dutch government, which granted $US3.5 million to restore the town's charming architecture, Galle is in the midst of a cultural and architectural renaissance. One project is converting the warehouse barracks into a maritime museum that will display booty salvaged from shipwrecks off the coast. Alongside hotels, a bunch of boutiques and galleries have recently opened, such as Exotic Roots for lacquerware and Lollapalooza for children's toys.
"There is a lot of opportunity in Sri Lanka", says the British founder and director of Red Dot Tours, Charlie Austin, who has lived in Colombo for 10 years. "While other countries have concreted up their coastlines and 'Disneyfied' their ancient sites, Sri Lanka's are in pristine condition. The question is not whether tourists will come but whether the country can grasp this opportunity and create something unique. Is the future bright? Indeed."
Leisa Tyler travelled courtesy of Red Dot Tours and Sri Lankan Airlines.
Malaysia Airlines has a fare for about $1220 flying to Kuala Lumpur (8hr), where you change aircraft for Colombo (3hr 15min). SriLankan Airlines has a fare for about $1600 utilising Qantas to Singapore (8hr) and then SriLankan Airlines (4hr) to Colombo. Fares are low-season return from Melbourne and Sydney, including tax. Australian passport holders receive a visa upon arrival for a stay of up to 30 days.
Red Dot Tours' Boutique Escape tour takes in Sri Lanka's greatest hits, with two nights at Vil Uyana in the Cultural Triangle, one at Kandy House in Kandy, two nights at Tea Trails in the hill country and three nights at the Galle Fort Hotel in Galle. The eight-day tour is $US1350 ($1462) a person twin share, including a private car and driver, all breakfasts and full board at Tea Trails. Their 14-day Classical Island Tour takes in all of these destinations plus Yala National Park for $US2100 a person twin share, including all accommodation and in-country transfers. See www.reddottours.com.
The Last House, the last residence designed by legendary architect Geoffrey Bawa, is now Sri Lanka's finest hotel. Book one of the six rooms from $US185 a room a night, including breakfast, or the house from $US900. The Last House will be closed for renovations from June to September.
Galle Fort Hotel, a laid-back 12-room mansion in the heart of Galle Fort, has four-poster beds and Persian carpets in the guest rooms with some of the best food in the country. Doubles from $US160, including breakfast. See www.galleforthotel.com.