There are more than a few reasons to visit this island nation before everyone else does, writes Jane Jurgens.

Open the Notes app on your phone and checklist your ultimate holiday. It's got to have: endless beaches, cheap prices, fantastic food, exotic animals, adventure – maybe diving? Friendly people, pampering. And culture.

You've just landed in Sri Lanka. The teardrop-shaped island in the Indian Ocean between heavily touristed South East Asia and India is often overflown or overlooked and is probably the place you haven't been to yet. Spectacular, affordable, often uncrowded; maybe you should get there before everyone else does.

The country is a rich tapestry of cultures: you'll notice the legacies of Sinhalese and Tamil, traders from the age-old Silk Road and the British, Dutch and Portuguese empires within minutes of landing in the capital, Colombo, and taking to its wide, tree-shaded streets.


Diving into the city's heaving, timeless markets will leave you bewildered – and excited. You'll see and smell the nation's rich diversity of foods and flavours, a heady – and sometimes fiery – mix of ground and roasted spices, minced, sliced and diced meats and vegetables. A "simple" meal of rice and curry can consist of dozens of intricately prepared dishes.

The island's national parks offer wildlife experiences to rival Africa. Photo / Rajiv Perera, Unsplash
The island's national parks offer wildlife experiences to rival Africa. Photo / Rajiv Perera, Unsplash

Some of the best are found in Galle's enchanting old town; the Dutch built the place and locals added the colour and style. Wander galleries, quirky shops and boutique cafes; rest up in guesthouses or splendid hotels.

Time for a break? The British cleared the Hill Country jungle to plant millions of fragrant bushes and today Sri Lankan tea is world-famous. Like a classic vineyard, sip Dilmah or Lipton in the estate where it is grown.

Sri Lanka's pearls are its beaches, ringing the island with a dazzling white-sand necklace. Stretching for miles, often untrodden, swimmers, divers, surfers and sunseekers are spoiled for choice.

The country's national parks offer wildlife experiences to rival Africa. Udawalawe, near Colombo, is home to herds of buffalo, sambar deer, crocodiles, masses of birds and elephants.

Avoid the crowds at Bundala National Park's islands, lagoons, dunes and internationally significant wetland, where animals are relatively undisturbed by humans. In addition to elephants, langur monkeys and crocodiles, four species of marine turtle lay their eggs on the coast.

The northern parks of Minneriya and Kaudulla form a giant corridor for elephants to move relatively freely across a large area. From August to October vast herds gather as lake water gives way to fresh grass. (Best stick to the national parks though. Some commercial wildlife encounters may be problematical; so-called "elephant orphanages" breed animals in captivity for public display.)

The southern coastal town of Mirissa is famous for its beautiful beach and whale-watching, with reputable operators who respect welfare guidelines.


Of Sri Lanka's eight Unesco World Heritage sites, Kandy is the cultural capital, home to a temple said to contain a tooth of the Buddha, as well as a pleasing old quarter, a lake, museums, gardens and more fascinating ancient temples.

In the centre of Anuradhapura, a sprawling cultural and religious centre, you'll find the Sri Maha Bodhi, at a documented 2000 plus years, one of the world's oldest trees. For an unforgettable experience, rent a bike and ride among crumbling monasteries and enormous dagobas (stupas).

Sri Lanka's pearls are its beaches. Photo / Getty
Sri Lanka's pearls are its beaches. Photo / Getty

Sigiriya's 370m rock pinnacle erupts from the landscape, etched with art and – when you've conquered the muscle-stretching climb - surmounted by ruins.

For more than 1000 years, pilgrims have trudged by candlelight up Adam's Peak (Sri Pada) to watch the sun rise over the mountains, to see the footprint of the Buddha or where Adam first set foot on earth and see where the butterflies go to die.

Indulge in an Ayurvedic spa, where some treatments date back more than 2500 years. Herbs, spices, oils and more are used on and in the body to produce balance. The west coast is home to many.

Because the island is not big (about the same distance as Auckland to Napier) its colourful, creaking, crowded and cheap railways are the way to get around and to meet the locals.

Some may have reservations about visiting Sri Lanka after the Easter terrorist attacks on churches and luxury hotels in Colombo left 250 people dead. The Sri Lankan Government has moved quickly to re-establish security while our Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade advises New Zealanders to exercise increased caution (see

Sam Clark, co-founder of Experience Travel Group, a tour operator specialising in authentic travel experiences in Asia, says there is a revival in interest in Sri Lankan holidays. "We've had a lot of people calling to say they'd like to come out and support Sri Lanka and now seems like a good time to go," he told CNN Travel.