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Island of Nice: Sri Lanka

Island of Nice: Sri Lanka

By Costas Christ, NatGeo Traveler

(The following article has been extracted from NatGeo ‘Beyond the Guidebook’. Follow link to access full article: The thumbnail photograph depicts Sigiriya, located in central Sri Lanka. (Photograph by whltravel, Flickr)

Fellow travelers frequently ask me if there are any places I have been that I would go back to in a heartbeat. Well, Sri Lanka quickly comes to mind (I’m currently planning my third trip there). Which, of course, begs the question: Why?

Here are seven reasons Sri Lanka is on my revisit list for 2015:

1. Peace through tourism. After close to 26 years of civil war (which ended, finally, in 2009), Sri Lanka is like a delicate spring flower unfolding in the warm sunshine after a long dark winter. Tourism is helping to reunite the country by bringing new economic development to former conflict zones, including Trincomalee and other parts of the lesser known eastern side of the island. Now bursting with creative energy, the area is attracting Sri Lankans and international travelers alike.

2. Sustainability. Sri Lanka was among a handful of countries to establish a national ecotourism organization in the late 1990s. Today, local family-owned companies like Jetwing Hotels are leaders in socially and environmentally responsible travel. On my latest trip, I stayed at Jetwing Vil Uyana, which blends community heritage and nature conservation together seamlessly, offering more than two dozen “dwellings” that reflect different ecological habitats. Jetwing Yala, bordering Yala National Park, counts the largest solar power installation in the country among its innovative sustainability practices.

3. Biodiversity. Sri Lanka punches above its relatively small size when it comes to wildlife viewing. It’s as though Africa, India, and Southeast Asia had melded into a one-stop destination. Herds of wild elephants—as many as 400 together, known locally as “The Gathering”—can be seen from July to September. Close-up encounters with rare animals such as the tiny gray slender loris are common at Jetwing Vil Uyana (which played a key role in the species’ comeback). Leopard, buffalo, and sloth bear are found in Yala, along with abundant birdlife. Sri Lanka is considered the best place to see the largest mammal on Earth; blue whales migrate just offshore.

jetwing-vil-uyana_optJetwing Vil Uyana’s “dwellings” reflect four distinctive ecological habitats. (Photograph by the very honest man, Flickr)

4. Cultural richness. A procession of festivals make Sri Lanka a vibrant cultural wonderland. For instance, the celebration of Esala Perahera in Kandy, Sri Lanka, is a parade of epic proportions lasting ten days and featuring elephants, marching drummers, costumed dancers, and more. The country is home to eight World Heritage sites, including the ancient city of Anuradhapura, which dominated the island for some 1,300 years, and Sigiriya, with its elaborate fortified palace built atop massive “Lion’s Rock” by King Kassapa I in the 5th century.

kandy-perahera_optKandy’s spectacular ten-day Esala Perahera festival dates back to the 18th century. (Photograph by denishc, Flickr)

5. Ease, affordability, and hospitality. With a continent’s worth of things to see and do, Sri Lanka is also surprisingly easy to navigate via public transport, which covers most of the island. What’s more, hiring a vehicle and a private driver is not much more expensive than renting a car back in the States. To say that Sri Lankans are friendly would be an understatement. Warmth and geniality define the local character.

6. Surfability. I’ve been a surfer since I was a kid, and Sri Lanka is a surfer’s nirvana. There are waves year-round, with the west coast generally breaking left and the east coast breaking right. Arugam Bay—which wraps around the country’s southeastern coast, tapering to a point many claim as the best surf spot on the island—offers miles of beach for strolling. Travelers can choose between budget surf shacks or kick it up a notch by booking into Kottukal Beach House.

7. Flavor fusion. If you’re like me, and consider culinary diversity a journey in its own right, you’ll find that Sri Lanka delivers. Influences from Asia, Europe (the island is marked by periods of Portuguese, then Dutch, then British colonization), and the Far East abound. Sri Lankans are masters of spice, starting with cinnamon, which flourishes on the island and infuses many local dishes. Tea aficionados will know that the country known until 1972 as Ceylon grows some of the world’s finest. Not to be missed: “virgin tea” (never touched by a human hand, the fragile leaves are delicately snipped into a basket) from Handunugoda, an organic tea estate. Ask to meet the owner, Herman Gunaratne, a charismatic elder who delights with tales of a tea planter’s life.

Costas Christ is on the sustainable travel beat at National Geographic, which includes his “Trending” column as an editor at large for Traveler magazine. Follow him on Twitter @CostasChrist.