Swirled by wisps of cloud, the world has crumbled around me as I stand on a granite island floating in a sea of jungle and sky. Soaring 200m from the ground, King Kashyapa's fifth-century fortress was the perfect place to carve a kingdom, and although lions last roamed Sri Lanka 40,000 years ago, the mighty Sigiriya (Lion Rock) rightly deserves its name.
A work of engineering genius, a hydraulic system of channels collected rainwater to feed fountains and swimming pools, where the hedonist would throw legendary parties serenaded by musicians and concubines. Those voluptuous, bare-chested women, who were presumably swooned upon as the glamour models of their day, are shown in several frescoes, plucking petals from lotus flowers and carrying platters of rambutans.
Millennia-old graffiti praises the "beauty of this place" in an open-air visitors' book and, with excessive opulence summed up by a stairwell once leading into the gaping mouth of a giant lion, the playboy citadel could have featured in an ancient equivalent of MTV Cribs.
Today, only a handful of guests are reflected in a rippling Mirror Wall wrapping part of the rock, and clusters of hornets clinging to nests in the crevices are the only revellers creating a buzz.
At the beginning of this year, tourism was booming. A Spice Island promising to pique the six senses, Sri Lanka had it all: mountain trails plunging into rainforest; pristine beaches washed by warm surf; colonial architecture bathed in past glories; and delirium-inducing dishes like nothing you have previously tasted.
The Indian Ocean paradise was a top destination, suddenly on everyone's radar. But following the deadly terrorist attacks on April 21, several countries issued a travel ban, and the teardrop-shaped island soon symbolised sorrow rather than joy.
However, the situation appears to have eased — many travel restrictions have been lifted, and New Zealand's Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade now suggests "exercise increased caution" rather than recommending shelving travel plans altogether. Based on the assumption that most popular attractions would be refreshingly crowd-free, I knew there would never be a better time to go.
A security guard patrolling Sigiriya's gardens, where pathways are typically filled with up to 2000 tourists per day, tells me footfall is 10 per cent of that figure today.
"We had the civil war and tsunami, but this situation was avoidable," laments Manoj Devaraj, a marketing manager from the Water Garden hotel, which sits within an uninterrupted view of the Unesco-classified rock. Unlike many other hotels, the sumptuous 30-villa property has retained all its staff, although tonight they only have four guests (including me).
Sri Lanka has suffered its fair share of setbacks, but striking at a time of heady economic optimism, this has been the hardest blow to take. There is a sense of frustration with security forces but, most of all, there is sadness and a longing for people to come back — along with happiness when they do.
The Dambulla cave temples, another of the area's World Heritage sites, is similarly empty when I arrive. Surrounded by abandoned souvenir stalls, a lone hawker energetically swings moonstone necklaces from his wrist, hoping they might catch my eye. Carved into rocks from the first century BC onwards, five temples are illuminated by 150 golden Buddha statues and iconographic frescoes repeated in a pop art-worthy display.
In one cave, water dripping from the ceiling is collected to bless pilgrims. Essentially, it's a leak but Sri Lankans, who are predominantly Buddhist, have a characteristically beautiful interpretation, preferring to see the good in everything.
This ability to keep smiling largely accounts for the country's unique allure — from my chauffeur driver, Lalith, who's guiding me around the country's Cultural Triangle, to the woman at a roadside shack cleaving open king coconuts to savour their sweet liquid gold. They may be further down the tourist chain, but these people have also suffered financial loss.
More broadly, the losses have been mitigated. Although the government has promised emergency support for hoteliers, tour operators have taken responsibility for their suppliers.
But many are still concerned about the survival of their businesses, including the family-run Luck Grove, a spice garden we visit en route to Kandy.
During a tour, organic alchemist Victor eagerly demonstrates how cinnamon is stripped from the bark and explains how his fragrant stash of ingredients is used in Ayurvedic miracle treatments.
"Fibroids, thyroids . . . " his voice flatlines into one breathless stream of consciousness as he lists the ailments cured by wonder wine Amla, made with 52 medicinal herbs, " . . . constipation and diarrhoea."
Surely, that's not physically possible, I think. But the spindly man is so entranced, I daren't break his spell.
According to his diagnosis, rising sea levels are the probable cause of my sinus problems. "And don't drink Fanta!" he orders, as I wave goodbye.
Dodging tuk-tuks and stray dogs, we climb winding roads into the Hill Country; a precious emerald land cascading with waterfalls and embraced by mist, this higher region showcases Sri Lanka at its best. Country clubs, racecourses and mock-Tudor houses make up Nuwara Eliya, while the finest tea plantations lie in Haputale.
A converted cottage on the Dambatenne Estate, once owned by Thomas Lipton, Thotalagala is a stately hideaway begging to be called home. Decanters and trophies upscale a wood-panelled interior, and a sheer-drop infinity pool teeters on the valley edge.
On our drive up to Lipton's Seat, the tea baron's cherished viewpoint, we pass a whirring factory with windows flung open to release the bitter fug of fermented tea leaves. On terraces fringed by pine trees, Tamil women pluck leaves to toss into baskets on their backs, and Hindu villagers trundle home to corrugated-line houses, weighed down by milk urns in each hand.
At the top, a statue of Lipton surveys his former empire, although these days he's empty-handed — some rascal has stolen his enamel teacup, I'm told. (Incidentally, this is the only remotely criminal activity I experience during my stay.)
But the Scotsman wasn't the only person to eulogise about this place. The Rev Walter Stanley Senior, a poet after whom my room at Thotalagala is named, waxed lyrical about "this peerless land of beauty's plenitude". Sri Lanka stole his heart and I'm beginning to understand why.
A reduction in visitor numbers has hurt the industry, but there are fragile nature areas where the pause button has granted some long-overdue relief. Yala National Park on the southeast coast claims to have the world's highest density of leopards — but it's also paralysed by one of the biggest concentrations of vehicles with no enforced restrictions. Since 2008, annual visitor figures have risen from 43,000 to 660,000, and gatherings of 70 Jeeps at a sighting are commonplace.
On a game drive through the park's popular Block 1, my encounter with superstar leopard Harak Hora is an extraordinary moment; more remarkable than the cat in question is the fact that — for four minutes — we are alone. And when a well-endowed sloth bear known as Ballsy is found truffling for sugar-rich berries at the base of an ironwood tree, only three Jeeps are in tow.
Operating a camp from the park's buffer zone, safari outfit Leopard Trails has been using the quiet period to train its guides; at present, there is no recognised national accreditation system for naturalists.
The Federation of Environmental Organisations is leading similar projects, which it hopes to roll out across all Sri Lanka's national parks. Recently, its energies have been focused on Minneriya National Park in the North Central Province, where the world's largest gatherings of Asian elephants take place between July and August. "We've taught drivers about animal behaviour, biodiversity and safety," explains conservationist Darrel Bartholomeusz. From now on, only drivers with IDs will be eligible to work in the park.
Along with Yala, areas around Sri Lanka's coast were devastated by the 2004 tsunami, another tragedy that took everyone by surprise. In former Portuguese and Dutch trading port Galle, the fort's 16th-century granite ramparts survived unscathed. Now couples pose for photos on the promenade, where sea spray casts everything in a sleepy silhouette.
Other parts of the city have been rebuilt, including sophisticated hotel Le Grand, which gazes towards the lighthouse and ocean beyond.
Things are on the up for Sri Lanka. Fuelled by determination, hope and a refusal to be beaten, this lion nation is roaring once again.
Five reasons to book your holiday to Sri Lanka
Making use of their exotic spice store, Sri Lankans cook up a storm both on the street and in fine-dining restaurants. Try hoppers, rice and coconut crepes with soft-boiled eggs, curries or kithul palm syrup; or sample lamprais, a bundle of curries baked in a banana leaf, introduced by Dutch Burghers. Coconut features everywhere — from sweet pol roti flatbreads to a fragrant dish-topping sambal, and a rainbow array of fresh fruits and vegetables will double your five-a-day.
Fanned by palm fronds and lapped with turquoise waves, golden sands ring the island. On the south coast, Hiriketiya and Dikwella offer trendy surf and yoga retreats, but the best untouched stretches are in the east. North of Trincomalee, 4km-long Nilaveli has Robinson Crusoe appeal, with shallow waters ideal for snorkelling. Two monsoon seasons mean the country has year-round options for sun: head northeast from May to September and southwest between December and April.
Marine wildlife marvels
Visited by cetaceans on their migration routes, Sri Lanka is one of the world's best places for watching whales and dolphins. Mirissa, on the south coast, heaves with sperm whales, blue whales, Bryde's and fin whales between November and May. At other times of the year, go north to the less-visited Trincomalee area. Five species of sea turtle also nest on the island's beaches. Learn more about them at Kosgoda Sea Turtle Conservation Project near Galle, where you can visit a hatchery.
Scaling mountain peaks and suddenly dropping into mesmerising views, hiking trails snake through the cloud forests and tea plantations of the central highlands. Hippy town Ella is a good base for several treks; make a day trip to Ella Rock, or keep it light with a morning stroll to Little Adam's Peak. World's End, in Horton Plains National Park, summits a sheer cliff and offers ocean views, while the undulating Knuckles Range is a World Heritage site.
Historic train journeys
In the late 19th century, a train network was introduced by the British colonial government and many lines — including the Ella to Kandy route — still operate. Although time and patience is needed, it's a scenic way to see the area, as vendors parade through carriages selling snacks of wadi (lentil fritters) and cinnamon-dusted mango.