A Glorious Afternoon in High Tea Country; Verity Smith Finds a Heady Brew of History and Culture on Sri Lanka ...'the New Bali'

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THE last decent view of Sri Lanka I had was in the hill country, high up overlooking spectacular mountains, waterfalls and miles of topiary-style tea bushes.

A few moments later, my spectacles had been stolen and, along with the rest of our tour group, I was involved in an exciting high-speed car chase through the mountains.

But the thief who, according to a woman bystander, had picked up my glasses and taken off in his tuk-tuk that-away, got away. And so I was left squinting short-sightedly in a staggeringly beautiful country.

Mention Sri Lanka and most people think of trouble: Tamil Tiger separatists, the attack on Colombo airport in 2001, and a civil war that has claimed more than 60,000 lives.

But, politically, things are looking up. Since the ceasefire between the Tamils and the government in February last year, there has been a sustained period of calm. Peace talks continue and most people are optimistic about the future.

Indeed, I found countless reasons to visit a country rich in Buddhist culture, wildlife, tea and cricket. It's a gloriously lush, tropical island - dubbed 'the new Bali'.

The centre of tourism is gingerly establishing itself in the south-west region, around the historic city of Galle (pronounced Gaul). The beaches along this stretch of coast are becoming increasingly irresistible to the jet set, and tour operators such as Kuoni and Magic Of The Orient are joining companies such as Explore Worldwide in offering extensive packages to the southern shores and the interior.

If you have time to venture beyond the beaches, you're likely to find the island hospitable, cheap and culturally engaging.

AS one would expect from the region, there is much evidence of European colonialism. The Portuguese found the country rich in spices and took up residence from 1505.

Dutch traders replaced them along much of the coastline by 1658, but neither of the colonising countries managed to defeat the kings at Kandy, the inaccessible mountain capital. This was left to the British, who by 1815 had won control.

Kandy is an elegant town graced by the Buddhist Temple of the Sacred Tooth (famously blown up by Tamils in 1998) and a beautiful natural lake.

There we stayed in the same hotel as cricketer Sanath Jayasuriya - the David Beckham of Sri Lankan sport - with his wife and baby.

The nearby elephant orphanage and botanical gardens make Kandy popular with visitors.

I am glad I still had my glasses with me on our trip to the orphanage where the younger elephants staged a walkout at bathing time. They crossed the river while their managers weren't watching and climbed the banks to the leafy treasure on the other side. On being hollered at, they obediently got in line and took it in turns to slide down the bank into the river. They can understand up to 30 commands, but I'm sure that 'use the mud bank as a slide' isn't one of them.

Kandy forms the southernmost tip of a cultural triangle. The other points are Polonnaruwa which is an impressive 10th Century city in ruins, and Anuradhapura, a huge archaeological site in the north. …