I had been curious about Sri Lanka ever since I overheard two Emirates flight attendants gossiping about their vacation plans. One was considering going to the Maldives with her boyfriend. Her colleague rolled her eyes. “The Maldives is so boring,” she said. “You should go to Sri Lanka.”
She spoke of secluded beaches, seaside towns, cheap guesthouses and cheap beer – just a four-hour flight from Dubai, but still far from the tourist masses.
Last week, I had the chance to visit the so-called “Pearl of the Indian Ocean” for myself. Disclaimer: My trip wasn’t real travel. It was a press junket for work. Even so, the experience gave me a small taste of the flavour-packed island nation – and I’m hungry for more.
I didn’t realise how much I missed the colour green. The lush emerald countryside and fragrant tea plantations were like a tonic for my nature-starved soul. You can take the girl out of New Zealand…
We visited a magical place called Lunuganga, a former cinnamon estate and rubber plantation that renowned Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa spent 40 years transforming into his country home. You can tour the gardens, or even stay on the estate in one of six suites which have been carefully preserved.
Sri Lanka had spice. It was chaotic and laid-back at the same time. I loved the vibrant street markets, where locals lined up to buy loaves of freshly baked bread out of the back of trucks.
Women selling bunches of bananas sat side by side on the ground competing for customers, their produce artfully displayed on tarpaulins in a sea of yellow. The men were hawking tobacco, flashing crooked grins to reveal teeth and gums stained red from chewing betel nut (a “mild stimulant”).
This gorgeous woman was still going strong at the ripe old age of 92, selling mangoes at the base of the Mulkirigala Rock Temple.
One place I’m keen to revisit is Galle, a colonial town on the island’s southwestern tip. It was founded in the 16th century by the Portuguese, who set to work building a huge fortress to protect the important trading port. A century later it was captured by the Dutch, who added their own touches, before the British finally came along to have a crack in the late 18th century.
What remains today is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and a thriving town of beautiful architecture and winding alleys that are perfect for exploring by foot. Galle is one of the places in Sri Lanka that has been most touched by tourism, but it kind of adds to the charm. You’ll find quirky boutiques, hipster cafes and cute little B&Bs (I would definitely stay at the “Loving Nest: Romantic Location”).
Though still slightly more under the radar than its show-off neighbour the Maldives, recently Sri Lanka has been enjoying a bit of a “moment”, making it onto all sorts of travel hotlists. It’s even starting to be recognised as a luxury destination, with five-star resorts opening on its pristine shores.
A general manager for one of these resorts who I spoke to reckons Sri Lanka has a two-year window of opportunity in which it could take off and become the next Thailand… or fade back into obscurity.
I hope it stays the same. I can see why they call it a pearl – Sri Lanka’s timeless, understated beauty is what makes it special. I’m already planning to go back.
FYI: You do need a visa to enter Sri Lanka, but it’s easy enough to apply for one online. You should receive a response within 24 hours of your application.