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If local folkore is to be believed, Sri Lanka was the world’s prototypical tourist destination. Adam and Eve allegedly took refuge on the island after they were expelled from the Garden of Eden – exchanging one Paradise, one might say, for another.
Curling into the Indian Ocean like a tear drop from the tip of south India, the island known to the ancients as ‘Serendip’, and until 1972 as ‘Ceylon’, fits most people’s idea of what a tropical idyll should look like, complete with golden-sand beaches, coconut groves, and forested uplands sporting hats of fluffy cotton-wool clouds. Travellers from Sinbad to Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta sailed in search of its storied shores, driven by the lure of spices and gem stones.
Sand and surf provide the principal focus for today’s visitors, but a wealth of extraordinary sights lie only a morning’s drive inland. At the chilly heights of 2,000m/6,500ft, the misty slopes around Nuwara Eliya are scattered with British-era bungalows whose windows open on to vistas of neatly cropped tea plantations. Kandy is the centre of this verdant hill tract and the site of the Temple of the Tooth, Sri Lanka’s most revered Buddhist pilgrimage place.
Remains of much older capitals lie in the scrub-covered country further north. At Sigiriya, a plug of golden granite surges 183m out the plains, its flat top capped with the vestiges of ancient fortifications and palaces whose walls preserve frescoes of princesses and dancing girls – as gorgeous now as when they were painted 1600 years ago. Great white stupas rise from the paddy fields around Anuradhapura, where the Sinhalese kings erected their capital in the 3rd century BC. When it was destroyed by marauding Chola armies from India 700 years later, the city shifted to Polonnaruwa. All that’s left of this once resplendent garden city now are hulking brick ruins where you can ponder the sublime expressions on the faces of the giant Buddhas, exquisitely carved from slabs of rock.
Wildlife enthusiasts will find plenty of inspiration in the island’s national parks. Foremost among them is Yala, in the southeast, whose savannah and forests shelter populations of wild elephant and – the star attraction – elusive leopards.
TransIndus tours of Sri Lanka knit together all these wonderful experiences, and plenty more besides. Accommodation ranges from grand Dutch-era heritage properties to Balinese-style boutique spas on the beach, and luxury stilted eco huts overlooking expanses of shimmering ponds and paddy.