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Yala National Park, a 130,000 hectare wilderness on the southeastern tip of Sri Lanka, is home to 44 varieties of mammal and 215 bird species. It is regarded as one of the best places in the world to see leopards.

There are hundreds of us. All jostling for space on the white sand. I don’t know which way to look. I’m sitting among hundreds of tiny turtles, all clambering over each other racing to be the first one to make it to the sea. Some are barely three days old. Welcome to the Kosgoda Sea Turtle Conservation Project on Sri Lanka’s south west coast which sees thousands bred and released each year.

This very rustic centre sits right on the beach. There’s different sized pools and hatching pods housing injured and baby turtles as well as eggs about to be hatched. It was an apt beginning of a trip to the country celebrating its 70th anniversary of independence in 2018 and one full of firsts.

Hurtling around tiny streets on a tuk-tuk and dining by a paddy field on freshly foraged produce, whatever it is; from crab dinners and temple-hopping to architecture and wild leopards, Sri Lanka offers such an array of experiences, it would take a lifetime to do it all.

Surfers’ paradise

With the Maldives just a short plane ride away, the Instagram-worthy shores of Sri Lanka are often overlooked, which is a shame. The best, with surf for bodyboarding and pristine sands all year round, are located on the southern and western coasts of the island.
The wide sweep of Bentota to the west is the best for watersports, which is why the hotels that sit just back from the strip provide activities galore. Private catamarans can be hired for whale watching excursions, setting off at dawn from Mirissa.

Dolphins and white whales are common, while a lucky few might see a blue whale. On the north, the name says it all. The Golden Mile, or Beruwala Beach, is a picture-perfect stretch of sand and surfers’ paradise. It is also the best place to catch a sunset.

On safari

Yala National Park, a 130,000 hectare wilderness on the southeastern tip of Sri Lanka, is home to 44 varieties of mammal and 215 bird species. It is regarded as one of the best places in the world to see leopards.

Amid the landscape there are open plains where wild elephants and buffalo graze on grasses, muddy waterholes with wild boar and deer and dense patches of forest, home to monkeys and the place for big cats to cool off.

You travel overland by open-air Jeep, bumping along the rough terrain of the dirt tracks navigating huge boulders. The spotted cat eluded us, we saw a tail and nothing more but we did chance upon a man-sized crocodile basking lazily in the late evening sun and, eventually, an enormous elephant in the undergrowth, using his great tusks to carve a path amid the branches just a few feet away.

Time for tea

Tea is big business here. According to the World Tea Council, the country exports around 340 million kilograms of tea per year. A trip to the fragrant, emerald hills of Bogawantalawa, set 4,000ft up and otherwise known as Sri Lanka’s Golden Valley of Tea, is well worth it.

But if that’s not on your itinerary, you could have the quintessential tea experience at one of the Tea Salon in Colombo. Floor-to-ceiling shelves heave under the weight of hundreds of metal tea caddies. From the mouth-melting chilli chocolate to the naturally sweet lemongrass and liquorice, we were spoilt for choice when choosing flavours. My favourite was the cinnamon chai, which tasted like Christmas in a cup.

 Tour the Temple

The cultural centre of Sri Lanka is Kandy, which is surrounded by densely forested hills and idyllic tea plantations and contains most of the country’s historic sites. Once controlled by the British, Kandy is a warren of palaces, museums and government buildings.

A World Heritage Site, on the way to the golden-roof Temple of the Tooth – the jewel in Kandy’s crown – you pass old colonial shops and bungalows. Set beside a man-made lake, the temple contains Sri Lanka’s most important Buddhist relic, the Buddha’s tooth, encased in a gilded shrine and hidden from view for most of the time. Despite a heady mix of incense and rhythmic drumming on the approach to the Temple, inside the atmosphere is calm and serene.

Join the throng of devotees who make offerings of flower garlands and pray to the tooth, and crane your neck to get a glimpse of the sacred chamber. The tooth itself is only on show every five years or so but daily an embroidered curtain is drawn back to reveal its golden casing.

Taste of Sri Lanka

Whisking the intrepid down into the paddy fields in the outskirts of Galle, the local chefs at a local restaurant give you the chance to cook like a local. Under the eaves of a hut, vegetable fish curries are whipped up before your eyes, with herbs from nearby farmers, all cooked to perfection in clay pots. During our cookery lesson, the air was thick with the scent of spices.

Into the clay pots went chopped green leaves, foraged locally, mixed with black pepper and freshly, hand-grated coconut to make a sambal dish so delicious I wanted to stuff the leftovers in my pocket. Made to a traditional recipe, our teacher explained that our sambal was a Sri Lankan superfood, good for both the skin and the soul.

“Nothing processed in here,” he laughed as we tucked into seconds. Dharshan Munidasa, the chef and owner of a vibrant and lively eatery, served his staple dishes at a pop-up in The Shard in London in summer last year and has a strict “no freezing” policy, meaning each and every crab is fresh and caught locally from Beira Lake. I couldn’t resist the menu and, unable to choose between chilli, pepper, butter or garlic marinated crab, I donned a bib and ordered them all. I was not disappointed. The crab meat was tender and the peppery garlic sauce moreish.

Architectural icon

In Lunuganga on the south west coast you will find the house of Geoffrey Bawa, renowned architect and designer of Sri Lanka’s Houses of Parliament, and other hotels where he lived until his death in 2003.

Bawa spent 40 years transforming this once abandoned rubber estate into what is now something rather extraordinary – colonial pillars among the forest foliage – he even had a hill reduced so he could enjoy unobstructed views of the nearby river. The house is in Bawa’s famous tropical modernism style – a mesh of traditional Sri Lankan and colonial designs. As interesting as it is beautiful, a visit is well worth it.

Express

One of Sri Lanka’s biggest exports is tea and lots of people work producing it
One of Sri Lanka’s biggest exports is tea and lots of people work producing it
The coasts on the Indian Ocean are a surfers' paradise
The coasts on the Indian Ocean are a surfers’ paradise
Sri Lanka is one of the last safe areas for Asian elephants
Sri Lanka is one of the last safe areas for Asian elephants
The country is known for its natural beauty and also its food
The country is known for its natural beauty and also its food