CHRISTMAS IS BIG BUSINESS
Despite being 70 per cent Buddhist, Sri Lanka has a healthy Christian minority – in part due to its previous incarnations as both a British and a Dutch colony and also because of its active expatriate community – and Christmas is a joyous affair. Ex-pats and clued-up tourists head to Wijaya Beach restaurant (www.wijayabeach.com) during holiday season and it’s perfect for those wanting a fun yet upmarket Christmas Day – oysters and Dom Pérignon are its speciality. For an entirely different experience, Sri Lanka travel expert Sam Clark (www.experiencetravelgroup.com) recommends The Mudhouse (www.themudhouse.lk, doubles from £80), a rustic, rural retreat in thatched cabanas that offers a fantastic communal New Year’s Eve party. Elsewhere on the island, Christmas is celebrated with vigour and you can expect charming chapel services and fireworks galore wherever you are.
YOU’RE SPOILT FOR HOTELS
Sri Lanka’s tragic civil war meant that the island missed out on the inevitable 20 years of voracious development that scarred areas such as Goa. In place of resort towns, the island hosts a healthy boutique hotel scene and it’s a dreamy blend of tropical and colonial architecture. The scene is widely credited to a British Cambridge graduate, Geoffrey Dobbs, who founded Sri Lanka’s first two boutique properties, The Sun House and The Dutch House. Both are still wonderful but to really immerse yourself in this man’s vision, you’ll want to head to Taprobane Island (www.taprobaneisland.com, villa from £800 per night), his private offshore retreat complete with a sprawling neo-Palladian mansion. It’s not cheap but if there’s ten sharing it’s a wonderfully atmospheric way to make like a lordly plantation owner for a week, plus you have to wade through the sea to get there, which is brilliant. The other big cheese on the scene is George Cooper, the interior designer-turned-eco-warrior behind Sri Lanka’s most picture-perfect abode, Kahanda Kanda (www.kahandakanda.com, doubles from £300). Unashamedly stylish, this divine bolthole even boasts its own homewares shop, so guests can take home their own slice of paradise. If you’re after something seriously quirky, look no further than Helga’s Folly (www.helgasfolly.com, doubles from £124). This rambling colonial mansion is the ancestral home of Helga de Silva Blow Perera, aunt of Detmar Blow (husband of the late, great stylist Isabella). Described as ‘the perfect location should Baz Luhrmann ever decide to film Moulin Rouge, jungle-style’, it has hosted as diverse a group as you could imagine – Sir Laurence Olivier, Mahatma Gandhi and Paula Yates have
THE FOOD AND DRINK SCENE IS HOT
Sri Lanka’s social scene is diverse, covering everything from surfer-style beach bars to classy cocktail joints in Galle Fort. For a truly memorable sundowner, head to Dick’s Bar (www.thesunhouse.com), for a Sun House Sour. Seafood-lovers ought not to miss the Ministry Of Crab (www.ministryofcrab.com, mains from £14), a sleek, hip newbie housed in the Old Dutch Hospital inside Colombo Fort. Crabs come big – like, face-sized big – and this place is packed with Sri Lanka’s bright young things. Why Beach (www.whybeach.com) is arguably the island’s best beach restaurant, with spectacular Italian cuisine in a privileged setting. The street-food scene is also vibrant –Geoffrey Dobbs recommends No 1 Roti House (mains from £1) in Hikkaduwa for the ultimate roti (stuffed flatbread) experience.
LIFE’S A BEACH
Sri Lanka has what India wants – clean, tropical beaches, shaded by palms and free of the hawkers. There are some secretive spots on the east coast and will stay that way until the hotel scene there improves. Most sun-worshippers head to the ‘Sri Lankan Riviera’, which is anchored in Galle and offers the smartest beaches and hotels. While some may enjoy the resort of Mirissa, those wanting a desert island break might wish to avoid the area’s over-development.
THERE’S SO MUCH TO DO
The checklist of things to see and do is long. Beaches offer watersports, plus turtle-hatching and whale-watching from November to January. Inland, Yala Safari Park has one of the world’s largest numbers of leopards. Guided walks and bike tours are a great way
There are hundreds of temples – the Sacred Tooth Relic (www.sridaladamaligawa.lk) attracts thousand of pilgrims a day. Ivan Robinson, recommends The Viceroy Special, a 1927 steam train that winds through the steamy rainforest, visiting a tea plantation, a spice garden and a tear-inducing elephant orphanage en route.