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Sunday, November 22, 2009

Why this lush, lovely island will suit you to a tea..

If you're looking for a long-haul trip with a difference then Sri Lanka - a teardrop-shaped island off the coast of India - is the place to find it.

My 10-day trip started in the centre of the island, which at the time of travel was the furthest north tourists were advised to travel.

But now the island's civil war is over there's a lot more to see.

I stayed at Chaya Village, a collection of bungalows nestled in a leafy lakeside retreat which made the perfect base for our trip to one of the island's landmarks - Sigirya Rock.

The rock, designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is similar to Uluru (Ayers Rock) in Australia. Its huge outcrop towers over the flat landscape at over 370m (1,214ft) high.

Steep metal steps have been built into the rockface, allowing tourists to make the 40-minute climb to the fortress at the plateau.

This incredible fortress city- which even has its own swimming pool - was built in the 5th Century. Film buffs will recognise it as the backdrop for the Indiana Jones films.

Entrance to the site costs £12pp, but is well worth it, if only for the incredible 360-degree view from the top of the rock, where I could see thunderstorms slowly closing in.

After all that climbing, I was ready for a rest.

So I opted for an afternoon by the infinity pool. Being a former British colony, everyone speaks English in Sri Lanka, so there was no language barrier as I ordered a cocktail from the bar.

I travelled in July during the rainy season, when the heavens opened twice a day. Between downpours, the island was warm and sunny.

The city of Kandy is a short drive away. Its most famous sight is the Temple of the Tooth - which, as its name suggests, is the home to a relic of Buddha's original tooth.

There are loads of restaurants offering rice and curry - in Sri Lanka it's always rice and curry, never the other way round - for less than £1. But when the busy roads and tuk-tuk drivers touting for business become too much, it's time to head for the hills.

The lush land that circles Kandy offers welcome respite from the vibrancy of the centre, not to mention fantastic views of the city.

Visitors can also take a trip to the calm botanical gardens which boast a wealth of tropical plants.

My second hotel was the Chaaya Citadel, overlooking the jungle that edges the city.

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From there it was less than a 45-minute drive to Sri Lanka's most popular tourist destination - the Pinnawala elephant orphanage. The sanctuary opened in 1972 and offers visitors a chance to watch elephants being fed by their keepers and then led down to the river for their twice-daily bath.

The sight - not to mention the sound - of more than 60 elephants making the half-mile trek is quite something. Witnessing them showering each other with water is a must. After a relaxing night it was time to pack my bag and move on again - this time up into the mountains.

No trip to Sri Lanka would be complete without a visit to the hub of the island's tea industry. These small shrub-like trees cover miles of the mountainous uplands and tea remains central to the economy.

The two-hour drive winding up through to the tea plantations was like crossing time zones. From the close tropical heat of Kandy, I found myself in the cool, misty greenery of the town of Nuwara Eliya. This settlement is dubbed Little England, and as the coach snaked through the plantations to my hotel it was easy to see why.

Nuwara Eliya could be mistaken for a well-to-do British outpost, with its private golf course nestled amid mock-Tudor mansions. The plush hill club even offered traditional British food in its upmarket dining room.

After a four-hour descent towards the south of the island, the prospect of relaxing on a beach came as a relief. Bentota, on the south-west coast, is an area popular with Brits and there are hotels for most budgets.

I opted for the Bentota Beach Hotel. It is circled by gardens and has a large heated outdoor swimming pool and stunning beach views.

The powerful waves of the Indian Ocean crashing on to the shore were a reminder of when this region was hit by the Boxing Day tsunami in 2004.

Evidence of the destruction is still visible. I took the train to Galle - an hour's ride for less than a pound - and passed a railway carriage still lying where it had been knocked off its rails by the tidal wave. The amazing railway line, which snakes the southeast coast, is a great way to see the landscape and escape the midday heat.

The coastal port of Galle marks the southernmost tip of the island and is most famous for its 400-year-old Dutch fort in the old town.

Galle is considered one of the best examples of Sri Lanka's colonial past - a combination of Dutch, Portuguese and English styles.

Rounding off our trip I moved on to Sri Lanka's capital city, Colombo.

This sprawling metropolis couldn't be further from the small-scale bustle of Kandy or the faded grandeur of the Hill Country.

It's definitely worth spending a day here, if only to scratch beneath the surface of the gritty urban landscape. The city's clutch of upmarket hotels are centred around the Cinnamon Garden district and boast swish interiors and exquisite fresh seafood. Shoppers are also well catered for with small, Western-style shopping malls everywhere, making this a great place to pick up some last-minute souvenirs.

What's the deal?

Ten days' half-board staying two nights each at the Chaaya Village in Habarana, Chaaya Citadel in Kandy, The Tea Factory in Nuwara Eliya District and four nights along the coast at Bentota Beach costs from £970pp, including flights with Sri Lankan Airlines from Heathrow and transfers. Go to www.kuoni.co.uk or call 01306 747 002.

By Lara Gould
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