There are a lot of beautiful images people associate Sri Lanka with: the sound of waves lapping the shores, endless strips of white sandy beaches, swaying palm trees and idyllic, deserted coves. And when I first visited this blessed place 20 years ago, I shared the same sentiments.
But on my return recently, this pearl of the Indian Ocean, I found, has so much more to offer than what I previously knew. My trip took me deep into the countryside and introduced me to the adventurous side of Sri Lanka – an appealing contrast to the tranquil coastal settings – as well as its long history and rich heritage.
For a small island, Sri Lanka has many nicknames: Serendib, Ceylon, Teardrop of India, Resplendent Isle, Island of Dharma, Pearl of the Orient, and this collection reveals its richness and beauty and the intensity of the affection it evokes in its visitors.
The travelogue in the inflight magazine paints the image of a country with picture-perfect scenic beauty and the option of adventurous watersports, jungle visits and leopard sightings. The Sri Lankan lady who I happened to be seated next to on the flight told me it's the ideal getaway.
"If you want to enjoy a beautiful sunset, sip a drink made of tropical fruits while relaxing on a hammock and listen to the cries of seagulls – there is nothing to beat Sri Lanka," she said. "It's not for nothing that it is referred to as the Pearl of the Orient. The beaches are a paradise for honeymooners, where the environment is so romantic one can literally smell love in the air."
Soon after landing in Colombo – the hectic commercial capital of Sri Lanka and home to more than two million people – I was on the road with my guide, Sampath, winding through country roads lined with lush greenery and friendly faces stretching as far as the eye could see.
Although mainly a transit point for tourists, the Fort and the World Trade Centre in Colombo are worth a visit and a stroll along Galle Face Green allows you to enjoy fantastic views of the Indian Ocean and some spectacular sunsets.
But Sampath believes Colombo is the least attractive place in his country and he was eager to show me a Sri Lanka that stretches beyond the beaches.
Our tour started with a long drive the following day from Colombo to Kandy via Pinnawela. Kandy was one place I was really looking forward to seeing, but Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage on the way was a pleasant surprise. Jumbos in the wild are a sight to relish and feeding little elephant calves is something to experience and a must on any travel itinerary. After all, how often can you boast of handling a two-tonne calf and feeding him with your own hands?
It was equally exciting to watch them play and splash in the river nearby – a part of their daily bathing ritual well utilised by tourism authorities for the benefit of foreign visitors. The sight of more than 60 elephants bathing together in a stretch of water no longer than 50 metres can be quite a spectacle.
Another aspect you do not want to miss out on while in Sri Lanka is the cuisine. Friends had raved about the food and many flavours and we had our first taste of an authentic Sri Lankan meal at the Chaaya Citadel Hotel in Kandy. It was simply outstanding, to say the least, with flavours I had never sampled before. But be warned – Sri Lankan food is spicy and not for the faint-hearted. Colombo, in particular, caters to those seeking the varied and spicy cuisine that is typical of the region. Roadside stalls are filled with something to whet the appetite and tasty snacks are available at every street corner.
The country also boasts a fascinating heritage spanning more than 2,500 years that has been enriched by many other cultures, especially those of India.
As an Indian, I appreciated the opportunity to explore the historical and religious links between the two countries.
Traditionally, people pursued dancing, music, painting, sculpting and literature in their spare time and today those traditions are still present in abundance. Buddhism, culture and agriculture are inextricably linked in the Sri Lankan way of life, giving rise to quaint traditional customs that are peculiar to the country.
An exploration of the island's archaeology begins at any roadside and stretches into the thick jungles. Gigantic stupas – palatial structures made of stone and containing Buddhist relics – bear mute testimony to the country's epic history. These monumental structures, together with striking statues of the Buddha are dotted all over the country – be it the Kandy highway or the mountain tops of Nuwara Eliya.
There are many sites of historical and religious importance to explore, especially in the central and northern areas of the island country. Be sure to visit Fort Area of Sigiriya and Colombo's Town Hall and the Vihara Maha Devi Park. And don't miss the many other monuments relating to Buddhism and Hinduism built during the Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, Yapahuwa and Kandy dynasties. At a more mundane level, there is the Pettah Market where you will find all your shopping needs and collect a few curios.
Amid all the antiquities, Sri Lanka has many other attractions to offer today's visitor. You could have a round of golf at Nuwara, or enjoy a captivating nature walk around this resort town.
Sadly however, Sri Lanka has a dark side. Political disturbances in the north of the island have plagued the country for more than 20 years and claimed many lives. You do notice the more than normal security at prominent locations, but for the safety of its residents and visitors, authorities believe it is a small price to pay.
MUST SEE: Sigiriya is an ancient rock fortress best known for frescoes produced by one ruler's army of artisans and eventually defaced by monks. Situated in the Matale district, it was built by King Kasyapa (477 to 495 AD), and the ruins were discovered in 1907 by British explorer John Still.
In modern times, it has inspired many locations in the novels of Arthur C Clarke and is one of the seven World Heritage Sites in Sri Lanka. According to the history books, King Kasyapa murdered his father Dhatusena by walling him alive and then forcefully claimed the throne, which by right belonged to Mogallana, Dhatusena's other son.
Mogallana fled to India where he raised an army and eventually won back the throne. Kasyapa built the palace on Sigiriya as a fortress and retreat to escape Mogallana.
GETTING THERE: There are a total of 14 flights to Colombo from the UAE Prices start from Dh2,360 Visit www.emirates.com and www.srilankan.aero for booking information
Colombo: Hilton Colombo, Taj Samudra, Galle Face and Galadari Hotel
Kandy: Chaaya Citadel Hotel
Nuwara Eliya: St Andrews Hotel and Siddalepa Ayurveda Resorts
Special Summer offer: Sri Lankan Tourism Promotion Bureau and SriLankan Airlines recently announced that prominent hotels and resorts across Sri Lanka will extend a value-added benefit for Middle East travellers.
They are offering a free stay for one child (below the age of 12 years) per paying adult.
The offer starts on June 1 and ends on August 31.
The "Kids Go Free" special offer, which includes an economy class airfare, star-class accommodation for two nights and three days with an international buffet breakfast, hotel transfers and fuel surcharge, starts at Dh3,050 from Dubai and Dh2,360 from Abu Dhabi.
For more information visit www.srilankatourism.com
Did you know?
The preservation of bio-diversity in Sri Lanka has been credited to Buddhist practices observed by the majority of the people. The religious tradition encourages a high regard for the environment, and proof of this is the fact that the world's first wildlife sanctuary was opened on the island.
The people have followed the way of life called Ayurveda for 3,000 years. It is defined as a mild technique of healing the root source of illnesses of the mind and body and the use of natural ingredients such as herbs, plants and oils.