Those who have been to Sri Lanka, the island off the south coast of India, will tell you what an otherworldly place it is.
It is a mere 65,000 sq km in size (making it the 120th largest country in the world, sandwiched between Georgia and Lithuania) but the country has one of the most diverse landscapes you’ll find – from mountains to beaches and from rainforest to plains.
People who call Sri Lanka home are friendly, the food cooked and served across the country, and that can be called its native cuisine, is simple and spicy, but extremely good, and the stunning scenery trumps that of almost everywhere else in the world.
Where else could you spot leopards on safari one day, pick tea from a mountaintop the next and surf in the Indian Ocean 24 hours later?
Its location meant that it was a prime spot on the Silk Route and was under either Dutch, Portuguese or British colonial rule until 1948, when it finally gained its independence.
One of the easiest parts of Sri Lanka to navigate, Galle is a walled town with a Dutch fort at the centre. While some parts of the island can feel totally alien, in Galle, you’ll find shops, cafés, bars and restaurants that will feel familiar.
There are more than 5,000 wild elephants roaming around and the island has the largest leopard population in the world. See them, along with water buffalo, loads of birds and more at Yala National Park.
Once upon a time, at the top of this massive rock, sat a palace. Now it’s in ruins, but the hike up is a must-try (though, not for the faint-hearted) and the views from the top can’t be beaten.
Where to stay
This guesthouse is run by two friends who pride themselves on offering a relaxed, fun place to stay. It’s great value and the garden restaurant (Bedspace Kitchen) is fantastic. Close to the beach, it’s a top spot from which to enjoy Unawatuna.
Helga’s Folly, Kandy
A 1930s mansion in one of the most eccentric parts of the country is suitably bonkers. It’s utterly unique, with the owner, Helga De Silva, favouring a Hammer Horror approach to décor (and appearance). Apart from the quirky interiors, it sits high up above the town, giving great views over the valley. You won’t stay anywhere else like it.
This colonial manor house is close to the airport and a little way out of Colombo itself. But don’t let that put you off – it’s a beautiful, peaceful boutique hotel that successfully marries 200-year-old charm with modern features and an excellent spa. There are cheaper places to stay, but this is an experience.
Take your pick from either Qatar Airways (www.qatarairways.com) or SriLankan Airlines (www.srilankan.com), which fly to the island daily from Hamad International Airport. Flights start from around QR1,205 return with SriLankan and QR1,660 with Qatar Airways.
If you want to explore the full breadth of the country, it’s best to hire a car or, for about the same price, you can hire one with a driver. If you go down that route you should be able to have a tailor-made holiday with an expert guide, stopping at all the places you’d like to (try a firm such as www.malkey.lk).
For short distances pick up a three-wheeler (known as tuktuks elsewhere) but be sure to negotiate a price before you get in, and try to avoid being taken on an extensive tour.
By far the most atmospheric way to travel is by train. They may be slow (and old) but the journey from Colombo to Kandy is one of the most scenic in the world.
Make sure you have plenty of rupees on you when out exploring. Most attractions and restaurants accept cash only, ATMs are few and far between and not all of them take international cards.