Sri Lanka's beauty reborn

Ask British travellers why they return to Sri Lanka again and again and they will enthuse about the friendliness of the people, the stunning scenery, the incredible variety packed into an island roughly the size of Ireland. Even through long years of civil war, the tourists kept coming, lured by cheap beach holidays and whistlestop tours taking in ancient cities and magnificent game reserves.<br /><br />Now that the war is over, Sri Lanka is falling over itself to welcome visitors, old and new. Parts of the island that were previously off-limits, such as Trincomalee, the famous deep water harbour used by the British Navy during the Second World War, are back on tour itineraries. Nilaveli, just up the coast, has some of the most beautiful beaches in the country.<br /><br />This is a fiercely proud, deeply traditional country, where young people bow down in respect to their elders and cultural etiquette runs deep. Religion is important here: towns and hilltops bristle with pristine Buddhist dagobas, mosques, Hindu shrines and Christian churches. Ordinary Sri Lankans, liberated from the daily terror of the civil war, are overjoyed about the new era of peace in their nation. It is good news for tourists, too.<br /><br />For those seeking a relaxing beach holiday, Negombo, close to the international airport, has a good variety of hotels, from five star to budget class. Sri Lanka&rsquo;s beaches, aside from Nilaveli and the stunning Unawatuna beach near Galle, are not as picturesque as the nearby Maldives and the sea can be rough and murky. But many guests are content to stay by the swimming pool.<br /><br />More intrepid travellers are likely to combine a few days on the beach with a tour of the island. The regular beat takes in the Cultural Triangle on the north-central plains, including the ancient city of Polonnaruwa and majestic Sigiriya Rock, before heading for the mountains, where the scenery is dominated by rubber plantations and tea estates. Twisting roads, many of them newly resurfaced thanks to foreign aid money, bring glimpses of Tamil tea pickers diligently filling the baskets on their backs.<br /><br />The annual Perehera festival in Kandy is a magnificent affair in which dozens of elephants adorned with lights parade through the town. Elephants are part of the fabric of life in Sri Lanka, and you will be very unlucky to visit without seeing a Temple elephant being led down the road for its morning bath, or one of its untamed cousins roaming through the bushland of Yala national park. Not far from the Negombo beach resorts, Pinnewala elephant orphanage is an alluring sanctuary in which the beasts are led twice daily to bathe in the waters of the Maha Oya. If the river, with its coconut palms and sand drifts, looks like a scene from Sir David Lean&rsquo;s 1957 classic Bridge on the River Kwai it is hardly surprising, since the movie was filmed not far from here. The actual location is in Kitulgala, a little further south, which is one of the best places in Sri Lanka for whitewater rafting.<br /><br />The mountain city of Nuwara Eliya is like a slice of the Scottish Highlands transplanted to the tropics. The colonial planters used to retreat up here to escape from the heat. Some hotels put hot water bottles in the beds at night. Many visitors prefer Bandarawela, at a more comfortable altitude, where you wake to the sound of the train from Badulla to Colombo winding its way up the hillside. Bandarawela Hotel, a former planters&rsquo; club, is steeped in the history of old Ceylon and well worth a night-stop.<br /><br />Whether beach or tour, simply being on this fascinating island is an experience, from the smiles of the beautifully dressed school children to roadside kiosks bristling with colourful wares. Everything is more vivid here; the blue of the sky, the green of the coconut groves, the shrieks and whistles of Sri Lanka&rsquo;s myriad birds. Being in the tropics, it rains from time to time and it can be extremely humid, but few will return from a holiday here without feeling rejuvenated. The commute into London Bridge really doesn&rsquo;t compare.<br /><strong><br />VIL UYANA RESORT</strong><br />Less than five years old, Vil Uyana is one of Sri Lanka&rsquo;s newest and most upmarket hotel resorts. Built around paddy fields and small lakes, it is a luxurious yet laid-back base for visiting Cultural Triangle attractions such as the Dambulla cave temples, with their dozens of Buddhas, or beautiful Mihintale, where Buddhism was introduced to Sri Lanka. Accommodation is in enormous chalets built on stilts and reached by wooden boardwalks dissecting the fields and jutting into the water, Maldives-style.<br /><br />The chalets are equipped with satellite TV and Bose sound systems, and wireless internet is available. There is also an excellent health spa at which to luxuriate, which offers a variety of Elemis beauty treatments and Ayurvedic massages. Bicycles are available for touring the nearby countryside and taking a spin around the Vil Uyana perimeter with views over African-style wilderness. The restaurant overlooking the water brings glimpses of egrets, Brahminy kites and even otters and crocodiles.<br /><br />Sigiriya Rock, visible in the distance, has panoramic views over jungle and mountains, although attacks by hornets have put an alarming number of tourists in hospital. The Rock sometimes closes at short notice due to this problem. The summit is reached by rickety metal stairways clinging to the side of the bare rockface.<br /><br />Sri Lanka&rsquo;s ancient rulers were masters at creating irrigation systems and lakes, and Vil Uyana, which means &ldquo;Water Meadows&rdquo;, uses some of the same age-old techniques. The birds certainly appreciate this oasis in the heart of Sri Lanka&rsquo;s Dry Zone.<br /><br />Looking out over the treetops from the African Safari Lodge-style restaurant deck, you can feel the cares of London life slipping away. The restaurant has a good range of meat and sea food dishes from as far afield as New Zealand and Alaska complemented by a good wine list at reasonable prices. <br />There is also the ubiquitous Sri Lankan rice and curry for those who care to sample the local fare.<br /><br />Vil Uyana is among the most expensive places to stay in Sri Lanka but the mix of luxury and nature is worth paying for. It is a great base for day trips or simply for chilling out.<br /><br />For information about Vil Uyana or holidays in Sri Lanka visit