Perfect Peace; Jennifer Cox Is Thrilled by Temples, Elephants and Great Restaurants as She Charts Sri Lanka's Heroic Recovery from Its Dreadful Civil War

Article excerpt

Byline: Jennifer Cox

NIGHT falls in the Sri Lankan hill kingdom of Kandy, but the intense heat of the day still radiates from the pavement as we shuffle barefoot behind chanting monks and pilgrims into the most holy Temple of the Tooth. Above us, bats flit across the sky and on the horizon a vast statue of Buddha glows in the light of the full moon, in a scene played out across the centuries.

But far from being stuck in a peaceful time-warp, the idyllic South East Asian island of Sri Lanka is undergoing far-reaching changes which make the country easier and more appealing to visit than ever before.

Nowhere is the change more apparent than in the capital, Colombo. This was traditionally the city you sped through on the way from the airport down to Sri Lanka's glorious beaches, or up to the ancient Cultural Triangle cities of Kandy, Polonnaruwa and Anuradhapura, with their magnificent jungle-set palaces and temples dating back 2,000 years.

But these days Colombo is a destination in itself, as stylish restaurants, handsomely restored colonial buildings and lush parks are appearing across the city. The reason behind these changes is simple. Peace.

When Sri Lanka's 26-year civil war ended in 2009, a multi-billionpound modernisation programme was launched: upgrading the national road network; restoring long-neglected colonial buildings and opening a raft of new hotels.

This has seen visitor numbers double, and they are set to rise further still after a new British Airways service from Gatwick to Colombo launched earlier this year.

SET in the Indian Ocean between India and the Maldives, Sri Lanka is small - at 41,000 square miles, smaller than Ireland. But it boasts eight Unesco-listed sites, wildlife including elephants and leopards, picture-postcard beaches, and of course famed tea plantations.

And all are now easier to reach on the island's new network of roads.

We hired a driver to try to see as many sites as we could in a week, starting with a night out in Colombo's new Financial District, which has the beautifully restored Dutch Hospital at its heart.

Dating from 1681, this landmark colonial building was where staff from the Dutch East India Company were treated, but until recently served as a high-security military installation.

Now local designers and restaurateurs flourish around its elegant stone courtyard, including the hip Ministry of Crab seafood restaurant (launched in 2011 by Sri Lankan cricketing legends Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara). Here we feast on freshly caught crabs the size of small helicopters.

Early the next morning we begin the 72-mile journey east to the 16th Century hill kingdom of Kandy, set deep in Sri Lanka's mountainous, thickly jungled interior. As we drive, the city quickly falls away, replaced by glinting stork-inhabited rice paddies which in turn give way to extravagantly lush hillsides of fig, banana (92 different varieties), papaya, coconut, mango and pineapple plantations. The landscape exudes a kind of primordial fecundity: deep, dense, verdant, vibrant, you can almost hear the plants straining against the soil in their impatience to grow.

After an hour we reach the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage, originally opened as a rescue centre for orphaned elephants. Some believe Pinnawala's 80 elephants now serve more as a tourist attraction, and they are indeed an astonishing sight. …