SPELL-BINDING SRI LANKA; Ancient Temples, Holy Shrines, Elephants, White-Stone Palaces, Dense Jungle, Glorious Beaches, Stylish Stays. What More Could You Want?

Article excerpt

Byline: SARAH TURNER

Sri Lanka? Isn't it just India designed by the Swiss?" asked my most travelled friend. He's the sort who's never happier than when snacking on aged yak butter while perched precariously mid-way up a mountain. Whereas I'm pretty happy lounging by a pool, especially if there's a pleasing vista of palm trees and beach to gaze upon.

Sri Lanka - shaped like a teardrop in the Indian Ocean - has a magical quality. Improbably lush (put a stick in the ground and it'll probably take root), packed with ancient temples, tea plantations, elephants and deep trendiness, it's a delightfully intoxicating mix, with the odd legacy left by British colonialism - not least the devotion shown to cricket and cricketers.

CAPITAL CHARMS

Until now, it's been tricky to reach, but a direct flight from Gatwick with British Airways means it's just a 10-hour flight away (and returns via the Maldives if you want a twocentre holiday).

Colombo, the capital, has its charms, particularly the newlyrestored Dutch Hospital, home to trendy restaurants and shops, but the treats start coming thick and fast as we start the journey to Kandy.

High in the hills, surrounded by banana and tea plantations, plus the famous elephant orphanage of Pinnewala, this city was once home to Sri Lanka's kings. Our hotel for the night, the Mahaweli Reach (mahaweli.com), has full-on tropical charm - an extended villa with verandas, whirring fans and gardens that reach down to the river.

Kandy's lake is still lined by white-stone palaces, and in the evening we head to one of Buddhism's holiest shrines - the Temple of the Tooth. Welcomed by monks, we join hundreds of Sri Lankans - all of us dressed in white - and head into the inner sanctum to glimpse a sight of a golden casket that encases one of Buddha's molars.

It's a simple ceremony, just groups of people filing past in silence, but hugely moving. And when you stop to think that thousands of people visit the temple each day, it's conducted in a breathtakingly efficient way. Almost Swiss in fact...

If Kandy is calm, Sigiriya stuns. Looming out of the landscape, this vast rock - known as the Lion's Rock - is the most visited site in Sri Lanka.

A world heritage site with the remains of a firstcentury fortress on top, it's crowded with Sri Lankans and other visitors, all determined to reach the top.

For the terminally lazy, just as interesting are the network of reservoirs and moats that kept kings and later Buddhist monks fed and watered.

It's a wonderfully tranquil way to wander through the site and admire the earliest form of town planning in Asia.

The real reason Sri Lanka is booming is that it's reaping the peace dividend. After the civil war ended in 2009, all its energies have been geared towards prosperity. …