Most visits to Sri Lanka begin at the Bandaranayake International Airport at Katunayake (35 kms north of Colombo) the primary port of entry to Sri Lanka. Colombo is the islands capital and by far its largest city – a sprawling and chaotic metropolis whose contrasting districts offer and absorbing introduction to Sri Lanka’s myriad cultures. Many visitors head straight for one of the west coast’s beaches, whose innumerable resort hotels still power the country’s tourist industry. Destinations include the beach-holiday resorts of Negombo and Beruwela, the more stylish Bentota, and the old backpacker hangout of Hikkaduwa.
Beyond Hikkaduwa, the south coast presents a more laid-back and budget oriented face. Gateway to the region is the marvellous old Dutch city of Galle, Sri Lanka’s finest colonial townscape, which has been recently given a marvelous facelift. Beyond here a string of outstanding beaches remain largely the preserve of independent travelers. The foremost of these is at the personable village of Unawatuna, currently the island’s most popular backpacker hangout, whilst further along the coast are a string of quieter beaches including Weligama (a surfer’s paradise), Mirissa (most popular whale-watching destination) and Tangalla (providing an array of exciting sightseeing excursions), as well as the lively provincial southern capital of Matara, boasting further Dutch remains. East of here, the newest deserted metropolis in the south – Hambantota and the amenable town of Tissamaharama (once an ancient powerbase of the Sinhalese kings) also serves as a convenient base for the exciting jeep safaris at Yala, Udawalawe and Bundala National Parks, and for the fascinating temple town of Kataragama, one of Sri Lanka’s most important pilgrimage destinations. Inland from Colombo rise the verdant highlands of the hill country, swathed in the tea plantations (first introduced by the British) which still play a vital role in the island’s economy. The symbolic heart region is Kandy, Sri Lanka’s second most important city (after Colombo) and the cultural capital of the Sinhalese, its colourful traditions embodied by the famous Temple of the Tooth and the magnificent Esala Perehera, Sri Lanka’s most colourful festival pageant taking place in August each year. South of here, close to the highest point of the island, lies the old British town of Nuwara Eliya (Little Engalnd), centre of the country’s tea industry and a convenient base for visits to the spectacular Horton Plains National Park and the World’s End. A string of characterful towns and villages – Ella, Haputale and Bandarawela – along the southern edge of the hill country offer an appealing mixture of magnificent views, wonderful mountain treks across the misty tea country and old-world British colonial charm with old plantation bungalows converted into chic boutique resorts. Close to the hill country’s southwestern edge the soaring summit of Adam’s Peak is another of the island’s major pilgrimage sites. While the gem mining center on Ratnapura to the south offers a convenient base for visits to the elephant rich Udawalawe National Park and the rare tropical rainforest of Sinharaja.
North of Kandy, the hill country continues to a totally into the contrasting highlands of the Knuckles Mountain Range, which is rich with flora and fauna, and thereafter the hills tumble down into the arid plains of the Northern dry zone. This area, known as the Cultural Triangle was the location of Sri Lanka’s first great civilizations , and its extra-ordinary scatter of ruined palaces, temples and dagobas still give a compelling sense of this glorious past. Foremost amongst these are the fascinating ruined cities of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa, the marvellous cave temples of Dambulla, the hilltop shrines and dagobas of Mihintale and the extraordinary rock citadel of Sigiriya (once a royal pleasure garden) – close to been tagged as the eighth wonder of the world.
The regions east, west and north of the Cultural Triangle have only reopened recently to visitors after the armed conflict. Gateway to the east is the personable city of Trincomalee, virtually the only place of any size along the entire east coast. The huge swathe of pristine coastline itself remains almost completely undeveloped except for the redeveloping beach resorts of Passikudah, and Nilaweli, and the internationally popular surfing centre of Arugam Bay, at the southern edge of the region.
West of the Cultural Triangle lies the relatively undisturbed Wilpattu National Park, only recently reopened to visitors. West of the park lies the backward coastal town of Puttalam, which boasts of a vast lagoon rich in biodiversity. Beyond the lagoon on the peninsula lies the newly emerging tourist resort known as Kalpitiya, with its pristine beaches and tourism projects underway. The north, meanwhile, bore the brunt of Sri Lanka’s three decades of civil war and remains a destination for the adventurous only, although if you have the time it’s well worth making the long journey to the fascinating city of Jaffna, the war-torn capital of the North.