Combining pristine jungle, palm-fringed beaches and an incredible array of wildlife in one pint-sized package, Sri Lanka offers the perfect introduction to the Indian Subcontinent. The 26-year civil war that tore the island in half finally came to an end in 2009, opening up new areas of the north to curious visitors and driving tourism across the whole country.
The Indians, Portuguese, Dutch and British have all left their marks here, making for a delightful mish-mash of historic architecture. The romantic remains of lost cities lie scattered across the country: some preserved as visitor attractions; others hidden and forgotten in the depths of the jungle. In the Hill Country, the centre of British occupation, colonial-era trains still wind their way through tea plantations and lush paddy fields. Those who make the long trek to the village of Meemure in the Kunckles Range will find that life has barely changed in hundreds of years.
But this highly populated little island is hardly frozen in time. Colombo is a thriving modern capital - fast-paced, forward thinking and bursting with boutiques, bars and nightclubs. The devastation created around the Sri Lankan coastline by the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami has been almost completely cleared. In its place, shiny new beach hotels and restaurants now look out over the Indian Ocean.
One of Sri Lanka’s greatest boasts is its biological diversity. Monkeys, leopards and thousands of colourful bird species haunt the central jungles, while the coastlines of the south are a haven for egg-laying turtles. Blue whales, sperm whales, flying fish and dolphins live in the seas around Dondra Head, and giant flocks of pink flamingos gather in the wetlands of Bundala National Park. But the biggest highlight for most tourists is the elephants. See them wild in Yala and Udawalawe national parks, or visit the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage to feed tiny newborn babies.
While tourism in Sri Lanka has traditionally concentrated on the country’s cultural attractions and its wildlife-crammed national parks, a fledgling adventure industry is beginning to attract serious adrenaline junkies. Surfers have been coming to the island for decades, drawn by the mammoth waves of the east and south coast. Now kayakers, divers, white-water rafter, climbers and mountaineers are catching on to the myriad opportunities offered by Sri Lanka’s inner jungles and mountain ranges.
But a trip to this enticing little island needn’t be all about thrillseeking and sightseeing. As a major centre of Ayurveda, blessed with balmy weather and beautiful beaches, it’s no surprise that Sri Lanka is fast being populated with luxury spas. If you like your holidays to focus around sun, sand and serious relaxation, you certainly won’t be disappointed.
Whether it’s a trail elephant crossing the highway, a literary festival in Galle, leopard sighting in Yala National Park, tasting an exceptional cup of tea at a plantation, stumbling upon vast ancient ruins in the middle of the jungle or discovering a deserted beach, this vibrant island offers a series of unexpected delights. From its lush mountainous regions, to its perfect beaches, from its incomparable wildlife population to its peerless historical monuments, it's clear to see why Marco Polo proclaimed Sri Lanka to be one of the best islands in the world.