ANCIENT Arabian travellers knew the island of Sri Lanka, shaped like a teardrop falling from the southern tip of India, as Serendip. It is the origin of the word serendipity, the chance finding of something good or beautiful.
It is an apt name because, whether you come here by choice or accident, there is every chance that you will leave finding that you have discovered so much more than you expected.
For many people, Sri Lanka is a tropical haven. A series of gorgeous Bounty-advert beaches and exclusive hotels, where the chance to fly and flop, luxuriate in Ayurvedic treatments and sample amazing local cuisine (the freshest fish and spicy curries feature highly), is enough.
But explore further and you will find an island redolent with ancient legends, where advanced civilisations once ruled from magnificent palaces and where a verdant interior contains plains, hills and wildlife.
For a beach holiday, most base themselves on the idyllic sands of the west coast that stretch from the city of Negombo, just north of the capital, Colombo, to the fortress city of Galle, a four-hour drive south. From anywhere on the west coast, the island’s principle sights can be discovered easily on a round trip — and the journey is comfortable enough, whether by train or car, thanks to decent roads and short distances.
Heading north from the coast, the first stops should be the ancient capitals of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa. The former, from which Sri Lanka was ruled for 1,300 years until the 10th century, plays a significant role as one of the world’s major Buddhist shrines. According to legend, a cutting from Buddha’s fig tree was brought here in the 3rd century and flourished — and palaces, monasteries, lakes and monuments spread out from it.
Anuradhapura’s glory came to an end in 993. Abandoned when the country fell to Chola invaders, it was overtaken by the jungle and lay undisturbed for many years until the glorious ruins were uncovered and opened to the public.
Nearby Polonnaruwa became the country’s first city when King Vijayabahu I defeated the Chola in 1070. It was the country’s capital for only 200 years but is as impressive as Anuradhapura and is home to magnificent Buddhist statues. While the two former capitals have some breathtaking architecture, there is breathtaking natural beauty at Sigirya.
The vast, clay-red rock that rises from the plains of Central Province remains one of Sri Lanka’s most potent symbols. The rock was fashioned into the shape of a lion when an ancient city was placed at its summit in the 5th century and became the country’s capital for a short time.
The ruined city is not as well preserved as other ancient capitals, but the trek up is worth the visit. Surrounded by landscaped gardens, the walk takes 90 minutes and offers the opportunity to marvel at frescoes of lascivious ladies in a cave half-way up.
The views from the top are stupendous and it is possible to pick out a number of other sights. Dambulla is a cave-temple with more amazing frescoes and 150 incredible statues of Buddha; Matale Spice Garden is where you can learn all about the herbs used extensively in Sri Lankan cooking, and the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage is a conservation centre for the mighty beasts.
If the heat and culture overload have started to take their toll, the next stop is the perfect place to catch breath — and have a nice cuppa. Nuwara Eliya is a city high in Sri Lanka’s hill country. Once a cooling bolthole for British colonialists, it is also home to the country’s tea industry.
You can potter from one boutique hotel to another through magnificent hills and deep valleys. Women still pluck tea by hand, and many smallholdings and manufacturers offer tasting sessions — look out for white tea, originally grown for a Chinese emperor. Said to the most expensive in the world, even today it is supposedly still harvested by virgins in order to retain its purity.
A final stop should be Yala National Park, home to more than 200 species of birds as well as elephants, water buffalo and sloth bears. Here you will have the best chance ever to see leopards, thanks to it having one of the world’s highest population densities of the big cat. How’s that for serendipity?
This article first appeared in The Times