Resorts, temples, jungles and beaches are pulling visitors back to this treasure island
Miles of near-deserted golden beaches, vast sweeps of lush green jungle and coconut trees framing vistas of smouldering horizons. Sri Lanka’s northeast coast is one of the few parts of the tropics still unspoilt, with mass tourism yet to arrive in this stretch of the island. It’s almost a decade since the end of the civil war which blighted much of the nation, so steeped in history and cultural diversity. Its treasures are slowly being opened up and it’s easy to see why a growing global visitor market is being seduced by the place. Temples and mosques, ancient cities and heritage sites, the legacy of centuries of colonial rule, not to mention a bit of swimming with sharks, make it a destination that seems to want for nothing.
I fly into Colombo and stay at the opulent Residence operated by Sri Lankan boutique specialists Uga. It’s a pocket of calm amid the chaos of the sprawling capital. Eleven luxury suites are set out in a courtyard around a swimming pool and bar area of a former townhouse which once welcomed the cream of Ceylon society in the colonial area. Located in the central Park district, it’s an ideal base to explore the cosmopolitan city.
The “floating” Buddhist temple, Seema Malaka on Beira Lake, is a popular first stop with visitors. Our guided tour with local firm Pepper Life includes an illuminating breakdown of the history and religious heritage of the city which comprises Buddhists (40 per cent), Hindus (20 per cent), Muslims (20 per cent) and Christians (10 per cent).
We also take in the granite Sri Ponnambalam Vanesar Kovil Hindu temple, then cross the road to St Anthony’s Shrine, the national Catholic shrine of Sri Lanka.
A real eye-opener is the Pettah neighbourhood, with its open-air markets and bazaars, as well as the towering red and white brick facade of Jami Ul-Alfar Mosque.
Travelling around wider Sri Lanka is certainly a rewarding experience but it can take time – with no motorways yet connecting Colombo on the west coast to Batticaloa on the east coast, driving would take the best part of seven hours. However, we cover the 140 miles with a 50-minute hop on an eight-passenger “air taxi” sea plane operated by Cinnamon Air from Water’s Edge lake in the centre of capital. Breathtaking bird’s eye views across the island abound and it’s a short drive up to the coast to Pasikudah Bay.
The Uga Bay five-star resort is nestled in the heart of this cove, with 44 classically designed studios no more than two stories in height right on the beach. The restaurant serves the freshest seafood caught that day alongside an expansive range of the best Sri Lankan, Asian and continental foods.
It would be easy to lounge around for the duration of my stay in these idyllic surroundings with an infinity pool overlooking the Indian Ocean, but I get itchy feet after a while and decide to try a spot of scuba diving.
As I’m a beginner, a couple of hours’ lessons are provided in a nearby pool the night before. A 20-minute boat trip takes us out to the wreck of the British Sergeant, a tanker sunk by the Japanese during the Second World War. It’s only 10-15 metres down and some parts of the ship are remarkably well preserved. I’m accompanied by a professional throughout my half-hour dive – along with an array of banner, damsel, angel and long-nose butterfly fish, while corals and starfish hug the wreck.
Next stop is the jungle. It’s a couple of hours’ drive up the coast to Uga’s Jungle Beach resort but it feels like a world away.
This is another beachfront getaway, but the 48 villas are fully equipped and fused with the natural surroundings of trees and bush. Monkeys have been known to make an appearance in the trees overhead and some smaller crocodiles patrol the enclosed lake in front of the entrance.
It’s a short stroll from my villa down to the Kuchchaveli beach and I enjoy a pre-breakfast dip in the near-deserted sea each morning. The restaurant and lounge areas are also enclosed in the jungle backdrop which makes eating here a real experience.
Like Pasikudah, this region was ravaged by civil war and Uga, as a Sri Lankan firm, makes it a duty to employ many of those affected by the conflict, on both sides, and so help regenerate the local community.
Next we head to the nearby town of Trincomalee and venture up to the cliff-top Koneswaram Temple. The classical-medieval Hindu temple has a host of statues which were rediscovered after being hidden by monks when the Portuguese embarked on a spree of destruction during their rein. It also affords great ocean views.
If you find yourself struggling with any ailments or health niggles, the Kanniya Hot Wells are the place to go. The seven hot springs, arranged in square bathing wells, attract hordes of locals for their healing properties. Doing it properly means having your head doused in the waters from each of the springs, so prepare to get wet. At least buckets are provided – and I did feel a bit perkier afterwards.
Next morning we enjoy dolphin-watching at the foot of Trincomalee cliffs, as a number of pods of spinners come out to put on a show. Then it’s over to Pigeon Island, a few miles back up the coast and a designated natural park, for a spot of snorkelling. It’s spectacular stuff, as four-foot-long black tipped reef sharks (they look bigger to me) stalk the sea bed below us, while a raft of sea life, including the colourful but temperamental Titan trigger fish (they’ve been known to bite divers), Moorish idols and trumpet fish accompany us. We also dodge a number of Lion’s mane jellyfish which are truly startling creatures and carry a mean sting.
It can’t be long until this magical place is opened up to a wider visitor surge. But as our boat meanders back to Kuchchaveli, with the Indian Ocean on one side and mangrove-backed sands on the other, part of me yearns for it to stay this way forever.
Book an East Coast tour of Sri Lanka with Uga Escapes (ugaescapes.com / +94 11 2331 322), staying at Uga Bay from £202 (B&B), Jungle Beach from £224 (B&B) and Residence from £201 (B&B).
Return flights from Edinburgh to Colombo, with Qatar, start from £714.
A range of authentic Sri Lankan experiences, such as Colombo’s Culture and Kattankudy City Walk, can be booked through Pepper Life (email@example.com / +94 77 008 8877)