By Gareth Huw Davies for The Mail on Sunday
Sri Lanka, with its shimmering sandy beaches, enthralling wildlife and relics of ancient civilisations, is high on lists of places to visit in 2015.
Gareth Huw Davies enjoys the new stability on the teardrop-shaped island in the Indian Ocean, where the holiday industry is recovering, and expanding with a crop of smart new hotels, after the dual torment of a tsunami and a bitter civil war.
This is the spiritual home of serendipity – lucky discoveries by accident – as Serendib is the island’s ancient name. It happens everywhere.
On one of my early starts for an excursion, serendipity was seeing dozens of candles flickering in the dense dark outside a Buddhist temple.
Then a schoolgirl in brilliant white uniform striding through the dawn mists along a levee between paddy fields, while an equally white egret paced daintily in the water.
Or an old lady, knee-deep in a swamp picking blue water lilies, the national flower.
And everywhere, games of impromptu cricket, with a stick for a bat and a plastic drum for a wicket, on bare mud patches, in gardens, on roads.
The island’s unique subspecies of elephants are a vestige of ancient Sri Lanka.
You can’t miss them. My most memorable jumbo encounter was at the Uda Walawe nature reserve.
We watched in awe as an extended family ambled across our track.
One juvenile pushed over a tree, just for fun, it seemed. Last across was a harassed young mother, sheltering a three-week-old baby.
In the right season you might see 200 elephants at the lake in Minneriya National Park.
The distinguished star in Yala National Park is the ‘prince of the night’ – the leopard.
The nearest thing to cool in Sri Lanka is its green and hilly heart, where tea plantations are a fascinating sight.
Kandy, where the British beat the last king of Ceylon in 1815, still feels like a charming, antique outpost of empire.
It is dotted with guesthouses that recall Tunbridge Wells. The colonial throwbacks include a bus station clock that chimes like Big Ben.
There are red King George V post boxes and immaculate old Morris Minors, Hillman Minxes and Ford Anglias.
I stayed at the Queen’s Hotel, all echoing wooden corridors and wide, polished staircases. In the Botanical Gardens, I found the tree that Queen Elizabeth planted.
In the serenity of the Temple of the Tooth, what is said to be the Buddha’s tooth is kept safe within the innermost of seven caskets.
4…Rock of ages
Sigiriya is a quarter the size of Ayers Rock, topped with the 1,500-year-old fortress of the playboy King Kasyapa.
He killed his father and surrounded himself with a crocodile-filled moat to exclude his vengeful brother.
I decided against the one-hour, 900ft climb to the top for the ancient frescoes and spicy graffiti.
Instead I strolled into the jungle that smothers the massive defensive stones at the rock’s base.
Huge, golden-green butterflies fluttered past.
A strange symphony of birds burbled out of the trees – Sri Lanka has many wonderful avian species.
In a gap in the canopy I caught a flash of orange at the top of the rock. It was a Buddhist monk in his vivid garb. Yet more serendipity.
5…TAKE THE TUK-TUK
Most visitors stay on the west and south coasts where, as well as standard tourist hotels, there is a growing choice of chic, small places such as Tri, a ten-suite boutique hotel near the south coast that opens in June.
Then you can book trips by coach or car (with your own private driver) to most parts of Sri Lanka. For short distances the ubiquitous motorised tuk-tuks are fun.
Don’t even consider hiring a car. Roads are an all-day adrenaline rush.
You need an expert at the wheel to dodge the massive Ashok Leyland Tusker lorries painted with idealised landscapes, jam-packed buses and wobbling bikes with impossible loads.
6…JUST THE (TRAIN) TICKET
The little station on the Colombo to Galle line close by my hotel felt like a slumbering country halt from 1950s Britain.
Behind the ticket office’s narrow arched window, a clerk consulted his tomes and solemnly outlined my choices – I opted for a 90-minute trip in second class for 50p.
On the platform I joined goats and men there just for a chat.
We lurched off down the tragic (it bore the brunt of the 2004 tsunami) and beautiful coast to Galle.
Another epic rail journey is Colombo to Trincomalee, the east coast city closed to the world by civil war until recently and still to be discovered by tourism. It’s just £2 one way.
More information at srilanka.travel.
Read more: srilanka.travel