Feeling lightheaded as I watched a family of elephants tiptoe oh so gracefully past my safari truck, I realised I’d forgotten to breathe. So silent were these beasts – a breed unique to Sri Lanka, different in the face to their African and Indian cousins – that I didn’t want to disturb their peace or end this special moment.
The teardrop island of Sri Lanka has risen to the top of Instagram feeds, but don’t be fooled into thinking this long-haul destination du jour is just another tropical beach to tick off the bucket list. What makes Sri Lanka stand out as a must-visit destination is something far less easy to pin down, or capture in a smoothly filtered photograph.
It’s partly the fact that such disparate experiences – beach, jungle, plantations, culture and the chicest of boutique hotels – are available within a country no bigger than Ireland. Classic European-influenced style mixes with ancient Indian culture in a way that’s hard to find in Sri Lanka’s neighbours. Nearly eight years on since the end of the 26-year civil war, sophisticated properties are launching across the kingdom, and new areas are being developed all the time. You’ll see few high-rise blocks, since building above the height of the coconut trees was against the law until recently.
My first stop after arriving in bustling Colombo was the Kandy House, an ornate, 200-year-old ancestral home built for the last chief minister of the Kandyan Kingdom. A tranquil oasis nestled on the outskirts of Sri Lanka’s second city, this nine-bedroom boutique hotel has the comfort of a warm, family home – but with all the privacy and luxury aspects of an adult retreat.
Rooms are individually decorated with suitably delicate antique furniture, and my sleeping quarters boasted an impressive four-poster bed. As night fell, crickets sang as we sipped Ceylon Arrack cocktails mixed to perfection by the hotel’s Butterfly Bar.
guests are served 10 traditional sri lankan curries: a feast for the eyes in 100 different colours
This is where my education in local cuisine began. The kitchen describes itself as a “fresh fusion” of traditional dishes and modern ingredients, but twice a week Kandy House serves its guests 10 traditional Sri Lankan curries – a feast for the eyes in a hundred different colours, and perfect for new arrivals unsure of how to tackle the local fare. A tasting menu, but on a vast scale.
After a dip in the hotel infinity pool the next morning, I was ready to explore. Kandy is a honeypot for art, culture, history and nature. A popular route from here is to cut through the heart of the island, Sri Lanka’s “cultural triangle”, and to the southwest coast for its rewarding white sandy beaches.
But first, a couple of miles from Kandy House sits the Botanical Peradeniya Garden: the area’s answer to London’s Kew Gardens, but with hundreds of enormous fruit bats. The scale of the trees and gardens is impressive, and there is a spectacular collection of orchids – a botanist’s dream.
Just north of Kandy Lake is the city’s most famous attraction – the Temple of the Tooth – a World Heritage Site central to Buddhism and an essential port of call for tens of thousands of visitors every year. The temple is housed within the royal palace complex of the former Kandyan Kingdom and is said to hold the relic of the tooth of the Buddha. Since ancient times, the relic has played an important role in the country’s politics as it is believed that whoever is in possession of it holds the governance of the land.