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Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka: Top 21 highlights

Teardrop-shaped Sri Lanka, cast away off the tip of India, hasn’t escaped the cliches. Writers often refer to it as ‘India in miniature’, failing to grasp the so-called Land of Serendipity has a fervent personality all of its own. From tea plantations, to ‘rice and curry’, Ayurveda and spice gardens, Buddhist monks and more, Sri Lanka is emerging as a gem in the rough. Here’s a sample of our guide to the island’s top 21 attractions, on sale with the April 2013 issue.

Sri Lanka: Top 21 highlights

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13. Adam’s Peak (Sri Pada): Climbing up

Ascend to this Buddhist site and mingle with pilgrims as they climb the 7,359ft mountain from December through May to what is believed to be Buddha’s footprint on the summit. Climbers squeeze their boots on for a 2am start, stopping at tea houses along the route, chatting to fellow walkers and collecting their thoughts in the slow-moving queue to reach the top in time for sunrise. Even if you decide not to see the footprint after the 5,000-step crawl, the breathtaking view from the summit will be reward enough. By Helen Warwick

14. Mirissa Beach: Serene views

In retrospect, perhaps climbing hundreds of steps in the searing afternoon sun wasn’t a sensible idea.

Stopping every minute or so to sip tepid lemonade and — though neither of us would admit it — catch our breath, we’re dripping with sweat, and desperate to reach the top. My boyfriend and I had walked here from the considerably less strenuous Parrot Rock — a small outcrop on Mirissa Beach, earmarked to become a coastguard’s lookout, but currently little more than a grassy mound at the end of a sandy causeway.

Spotting a series of rock pools on the far side, we abandoned our flip-flops and clambered down. Shielded from the wind, the shallow water had sucked in the sun’s rays, creating a series of deliciously warm puddles. As we plunged our feet in, a few small crabs grumpily scuttled into their hidden dens, while around us swarmed dozens of tiny, translucent fish.

With the clouds beginning to clear we climb back up to admire the view; the crashing waves, the gentle curve of pristine sand, and the beach bum cafes. Mirissa is unlike the other resorts along Sri Lanka’s southwest coast. Easily accessible from Colombo by rail, many towns along this stretch are dominated by big hotels, but Mirissa has somehow remained low-key, with just a few guesthouses and plenty of charm.

Inland from Parrot Rock, a palm-covered hill rises above the beach. We’d spotted it the previous night; lights leading the way up to what looked like a Buddhist stupa at the top, and decided we had to climb it. After our lemonade-fuelled ascent we arrive at the top and discover we were right about the stupa — the white, domed shrine towers over us, its base decorated with elephants.

The place feels deserted, but bowls of offerings in front of the Buddha and orange robes fluttering on a nearby washing line tell us we’re not alone. No one comes out to greet us — they probably don’t want to encourage visitors to come up here. And as I look out over the perfect curve of the bay, hearing nothing but the sound of the wind, I can understand why. By Nicky Trup

18. Dumbara Hills: Trekking

The porters had started the fire by the time I arrived, dinner was already in the pot and my tent stood waiting for me. Kicking off my trainers, I noticed a sharp pain and I looked down to see a patch of red spreading over the back of my sock: leeches.

This was my first experience of leeches and the bloody result of leech bites, but within a few hours I was primed to spot the small, hungry creatures as they edged their way towards me. Sitting fireside, the acrid scent of Ganesh’s beedi cigarette lingering in the air, I smeared ash from the fire over the latest bite to form a cover which I’d been told would stop the bleeding.

Tomorrow we’d move on from the forest where we were overnighting and make our way downhill following the river, all the while watching for purple-faced langur monkeys, giant squirrels and evil leeches. A final climb through the mist would bring us to the yellow painted ‘Knuckles Conservation Project’ — a stone slab marking the end of our two-day trek, and the home stretch back to the village.

Our group had left Kandy very early that morning, piling sleepily into the back of the jeep after meeting Ravi, our guide. The road we took wound its way through tea plantations and past Hindu temples until it arrived at the lowland village where we left our vehicle and picked up some helpers. Weighed down with water, carrying all we hoped we’d need for the day, we started walking, climbing gradually upwards.

Our lunch of rice and curry wrapped in a banana leaf was a distant memory; it felt like we’d been walking for days. Ravi’s pace quickened and he raced ahead, clambering with such ease over the stones that I began to wonder if I too should try and trek barefoot. We clumped up behind him, branches lashing at our legs and arms, occasionally slipping on the wet ground that threatened to send a straggler hurtling back down the path.

Conversation had long since ceased and the only sounds were those of the birds, the breeze and our laboured breathing as we concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other. We stumbled up and up until the path levelled off and I realised we’d reached the summit and were standing on one of the ‘knuckles’ of the Dumbara Hills — so-called because they are said to look like a clenched fist.

All around, in every direction was a palette of greens — apple, fern, khaki — and here and there hints of habitation from drifting smoke plumes. I sank down and sat back on my heels to admire the other peaks and steady my breathing. I was tired, I was sweaty and, I realised, decidedly unfit, but incredibly happy to see this.  By Sara Chare

 

Read more in Sri Lanka: Top 21 Highlights, distributed with the April 2013 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)