The capital, Colombo, however, is busy, hot and eminently avoidable. A first-timer’s best plan is to acclimatise in the peace of the island’s peacock-rich pastoral centre, followed by a couple of days in the historic Cultural Triangle en route to the highlands for a tea-estate safari using one of the world’s most spectacular railways. Finish off the fortnight with a bit of well-earned sun and self-indulgence by the sea.
Flights from the UK tend to arrive in the morning, so you’ve plenty of daylight left to hightail it into the hinterland. But you’ll need wheels. Most tailor-made tour operators will organise a car and driver (self-drive is tricky) for the duration, but if you value your independence and your pennies, negotiate your transport locally or ask a local company such as Reddottours.com to help you with the more complex sections (for example, Days 4 and 5, and 7 to 9).
Whatever your transport choices, you are heading first for the rustic and eccentric Mud House. It’s a clay-walled ecolodge in the fertile lowland plains of Puttalam district, 2½ hours to the northeast. (It offers a car transfer from the airport for £70.) Owned by the actor Alun Armstrong’s son Tom, it’s set among lotus- and lily-covered lakes rich with whistling ducks and pheasant-tailed jacanas. Its breeze-rifled “huts” are creative and completely private, apart from the jungle fowl that carry out inspection tours just as you are having your outdoor shower.
You won’t want to budge from here, as all activities, birdwatching walks, cycle rides, cooking lessons and organic meals are included in the price. Lie in your hammock with a whodunnit while the red-wattled lapwing calls “Did he do it? Did he do it?” (or so it sounds) from afar (£120pp; themudhouse.lk).
Days 4 and 5
Now that you’ve conquered jet lag, begin the Sri Lanka story at the beginning, in the country’s Unesco-listed Cultural Triangle. The key site is at Dambulla, a two-hour drive away (£75 via the Mud House), where you should check in at Kumbukgahavilla, a small collection of villas that sit serenely among the paddy fields. Look out for wild elephants and the elusive civet cat (doubles from £55, B&B; kumbukgahavilla.com).
You’ll see Dambulla’s main event from miles away. Sigiriya is a massive plug of volcanic magma in the middle of nowhere, topped by the remains of a 3,000-year-old rock fortress with cave frescoes, terraced gardens and a majestic view over dusty plains. Head here early on Day 5, before it gets too hot and crowded (open from 7am; £22). In the afternoon, continue to Kandy (Kumbukgahavilla can organise a car for £40), an attractive 60-mile drive through rice terracing laced with mango trees, and wild peacocks flaunting themselves at the roadside.
Wedged into a scoop in the hills, with a lake at its centre, this was the last stronghold of the Sri Lankan kings before they capitulated to the British. The colonisers felt at home in the town’s cooler climate, and the governor’s mansion is now the endearingly old-fashioned Queen’s Hotel, which serves a brilliant-value western and Sri Lankan buffet lunch (£4.75), with waiters in whites and a pianist in the foyer (doubles from £53; queenshotel.lk).
The hotel is in a glorious position on the lake, next to the most venerated Buddhist temple on the island: the Temple of the Tooth. The tooth relic — said to have been retrieved from Buddha’s funeral pyre by a disciple in 543BC — emerges only once a year, for the Esala Perahera festival, but even without it the temple is worth the £11 entry fee. There’s a British cemetery on the hill behind, the last resting place of colonial planters with names such as Spottiswoode, who accepted their end “with manly fortitude”.
In the evening, have dinner in Helga’s Folly, a kooky hotel and restaurant created by the eccentric mother of the British fashion designer Selina Blow. Plenty of celebs, from Gregory Peck to Zandra Rhodes, have been here before you; the Stereophonics even wrote a song about the place, with its “pictures and paintings of freaks like me” (doubles from £94, B&B; mains from £11; helgasfolly.com).
Days 7 and 8
You’re climbing further into the misty hills today, though not under your own steam. Catch the 11.10am from Kandy’s flower-bedecked station, bound for Nanu Oya. You’ll be on one of the relatively modern blue Chinese-made trains (as opposed to the dusty burgundy ones that work the lowlands), but all the windows will be flung open to admit the scent of eucalyptus and wood smoke. This line was built by the British to transport tea to the sea, and scythes in stately fashion through standing waves of orange pekoe, often nearly catching its tail (tickets £13; book this, and all your rail journeys, through visitsrilankatours.co.uk before you leave the UK, and pick up your tickets at Kandy station). At Nanu Oya, get a taxi up to Nuwara Eliya, at 6,000ft, the colonial hill station par excellence. The time-warp Hill Club is your refined base, with a billiards room, herringbone floors and a dress code for dinner (don’t worry, they’ll lend you jackets and ties); don’t miss the rib-sticking ginger pudding (doubles from £112, B&B; hillclubsrilanka.lk).
Next day, descend again to Nanu Oya and pick up the 12.45pm to rattle along the ridge through the rhododendrons to Haputale, then commandeer a tuk-tuk outside the station to go to Lipton’s Seat, a viewpoint on the Dambatenne (formerly Lipton) tea estate. The tea hut here looks out over a plunging neckline of cinnamon and pepper plantations, and the staff will keep you refreshed with endless tea and stuffed with samosas while you coo at the view. Retrace your way on foot, returning the greetings of the friendly tea-pickers, to rendezvous with your tuk-tuk at the tea factory. Expect to pay the driver £10 for 2-3 hours, and negotiate with the taxis outside Haputale station for the hour’s drive back to Nuwara Eliya (£15-£20).
Rather not arrange all this yourself? Speak to Reddottours.com.
A travel day. Catch the 9.25am train from Nanu Oya due west all the way to Colombo, then connect with the beach-hugging Galle line, running southwards, to arrive at the old trading port at 5.30pm (whole journey £23). Alternatively, negotiate with the taxi rank in Nuwara Eliya for the seven-hour road trip; £100 is a fair price.
Days 10 to 14
You’re here for some well-deserved chilling on the beach, but where, and in how much style? Unawatuna, a 15-minute taxi ride south of Galle, has one of the longest, most Instagrammable beaches on the island, as well as the lovely, heritage-boutiquey Why House, set in gardens scented with nutmeg and frangipani (doubles from £260, B&B; whyhousesrilanka.com). For more modest budgets, there’s the rambling 18th-century former Dutch governor’s house, the Nooit Gedacht Heritage Hotel, with two pools and newly built rooms at the back (doubles from £40, B&B; nooitgedachtheritage.com).
Galle is one big Unesco-listed slice of colonial history, its huge circumference of 400-year-old walls started by the Portuguese and finished by the Dutch. Crammed inside is a mix of old colonial mansions and merchants’ houses that have been converted into posh hotels, fashion boutiques and even wine bars. Have a cocktail at the Amangalla to see quite how fancy these heritage hotels can get (aman.com/resorts/amangalla).
Still got energy to burn? The calm, gentlemanly Asiri runs excellent yoga sessions at his studio in Unawatuna for just £6 per person (yogawithasiri.net), while Idle Bikes — down the road at Hinatigala — offers daily guided cycle ridesinto a countryside of timeless rice fields graced by kingfishers (£15pp; idletours.com). Both Why House and Nooit Gedacht can arrange transfers back to the airport (three hours via the expressway; about £60).
Save for next time
The wildlife, particularly elephants and leopards, in the national park at Yala; whale-watching and loafing in the likes of Pasikudah, on the east coast; and the Hindu temples of Jaffna, in the flat but fertile Tamil part of the island.
When to go
Peak season in the southwest is from December through to May (the best time for this itinerary), but that does mean the hotels will be fuller and the prices higher. From June until September, the southwest monsoon brings rougher seas and intermittent rain to this end, so the east coast becomes the place to be.
SriLankan is the only airline offering direct services from the UK (from Heathrow to Colombo; returns from £493). Otherwise, Emirates (£499) and Qatar (£494) are popular choices, but with stopovers in the Middle East, that extends flying time by a couple of hours.
The Sunday Times