‘THINGS have been hard in Sri Lanka in recent years, but we are a resilient and proud country so we always bounce back,” my guide Chaminda explains as we head from Colombo’s airport deep into the jungles of one of my favourite countries in Asia.

Sri Lanka is an island nation, whose fortitude and resilience reminds me of Scotland. When I tell Chaminda, he smiles. “Maybe that is why Scottish people love our country so much.”

Sri Lanka has not had its troubles to seek. From 1976 until 2009, this former British colony of Ceylon was embroiled in a brutal conflict with the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka’s northeast. Religious violence blighted this normally religiously tolerant country in 2018, and then terrorist attacks in 2019 brought dreadful tragedy for Scotland’s richest man, Anders Povlsen, who lost three of his children in a bombing attack. Civil unrest following economic strife erupted again last year, but all the signs on my week here are positive and I encounter no issues.

Usually I travel independently, but given last year’s unrest, I go tailormade with Hayes & Jarvis, who set up trips for exclusively UK travellers. They’ve got an informative website, but what really struck me is that you can pick up the phone and talk through exactly what type of hotels you want, where you want to dine, what you want to see etc.

I was in good hands, as Hayes & Jarvis’ Scott Crouch explains: “We have more than half a century of experience and Sri Lanka is one of our specialities. It’s a great country for everyone, even if it’s your first time in Asia. It is fantastically friendly, easy to get to and easy to get around.”

My trip is off to a great start on SriLankan Airlines. Although I’m flying back in economy, I enjoy a rare upgrade on the way out. That translates not just into a properly flat bed, but the type of warm welcome, smooth service and delicious food I enjoyed during my last visit to Sri Lanka in 2018.

The National: Island paradise in the Indian Ocean

My first base proves an ideal one at Aliya Resort & Spa – it’s all space and light woven around solid stone and hardwoods. The open-plan reception and restaurant peer out over the lush countryside towards the unmistakable hulk of the historic hill of Sigiriya, a remarkable Unesco World Heritage site. And then there is their sweeping infinity pool, which shares those views.

The next morning I eke out to Sigiriya itself. I learned last time it’s a case of the earlier the better to avoid the heat and the crowds for the steep ascent up hundreds of stairs to reach the old citadel atop this hulking 200m-high stone monolith, which dates more than 1700 years to the reign of King Kashyapa. The effort is worth it with epic views and the rich historical legacy – Sri Lanka is an island alive with temples, ancient ruins and other sights that tangle through its complex history.

The National: Island paradise in the Indian Ocean

I love packing in as much as I can every day in Sri Lanka as there is so much to throw yourself into.

The afternoon reveals Minneriya and the highest density of elephant herds I’ve ever witnessed anywhere, including Africa. Bumping around one corner in the safari jeep, we encounter a dozen elephants. They are soon eclipsed by the two dozen elephants ambling down towards a life-giving pool they share with storks, fish eagles and a wee bird that looks like a thinner version of a Scottish oystercatcher. Sloth bears and leopards live within this deeply dramatic park too.

Pushing further south, I’m immersed in Sri Lanka’s cultural hub of Kandy. If you’re after temples, museums and a direct strike into the cultural heart of the country, this is the place. The top attraction is the Temple of the Sacred Tooth, deeply venerated in Sri Lanka as it houses their most important relic – one of Buddha’s teeth. The relic was spirited off to India and it’s just as well it’s back as legend has it that whoever has the tooth has control over Sri Lanka.

My hotel is the Kandy House, a grand colonial-era bolthole. I dine with one of the team, Nimesh De Silva, who sees lots of Scottish guests across their trio of hotels. “Scottish guests really like it here – they are always interested in the colonial history and how Sri Lanka managed to gain its independence. Some prefer it to India as here there is less of a difference between rich and poor too.”

Modestly, he didn’t mention the fantastic food I savoured here, with an array of delicious curries. The highlight surprises me – a spicy, sugary and sticky pineapple curry. Utterly delicious.

I am leaving you now at Kandy’s gloriously old world railway station, where I’m waiting to board the jungle train up to the famed Hill Country, where Scottish heritage lingers, not least in the renowned Lipton Tea, founded by a Glaswegian.

Join me next week as we explore this epic landscape and then drop down in search of Sri Lanka’s soaring Indian Ocean beaches.

Hayes & Jarvis (www.hayesandjarvis.co.uk) offer tailor-made trips to Sri Lanka. For official advice on the current situation in Sri Lanka head to www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice/sri-lanka.


MANDARIN Oriental, London – This stately retreat right on Hyde Park has just rocketed to the top of my favourite London hotels. The smooth service of the Bangkok original eases through marble-clad public spaces and continues in beautifully curated bedrooms – the best peer out over Hyde Park. You have to dine in with Dinner By Heston Blumenthal, a two-Michelin-star extravaganza. Hay-smoked salmon and lobster kedgeree start, with a superb Hereford beef fillet the main star. The only way to finish is with the signature pineapple-infused 
“Tipsy Cake”.  www.mandarinoriental.com