Going wild on holiday
Ravaged by the tsunami, Sri Lanka is fighting back
AS the jeep ground to a halt in the middle of a Sri Lankan jungle, the undergrowth parted to reveal a sight which took the breath away.
A family of wild elephants casually feeding together seemed oblivious to the sound of whirring cameras as we filmed the moment.
Taking in the sights and sounds of this inland haven it is hard to believe the area is still reeling from the after-effects of the tsunami disaster which hit Sri Lanka on Boxing Day.
The giant tidal waves have long since receded but the Indian Ocean island's tourist industry still suffers. Less than 15 per cent of the land mass was affected - but tourist numbers plummeted 75 per cent in January alone.
The island's compact size makes it possible to have a hugely varied holiday taking in golden beaches, city life, ancient ruins, and safaris.
From Sri Lanka's main airport just outside the capital Colombo, a popular option is to head straight to the beach resort of Negombo.
The sea here, although bath-tub warm, can be too rough for a decent swim so it is worth booking a hotel with an outdoor pool.
The market offers a plethora of seafood - fresh shark, tuna, mackerel or lobster. Anyone who enjoys a good curry will find Sri Lankan food simply delicious, and an abundance of fresh fruit and healthy whole-grain rice makes this an incredibly healthy place to dine.
However Sri Lanka is far more than a sun, sea and sand destination. Don't miss out on unique landmarks and landscape inland.
Following the eco-tourism trail north, we discovered the Kandalama Hotel in Dambulla --an extraordinary hotel built right into the jungle by a beautiful lake, so the rocky outcrops of the hillside are part of the building and the branches and tendrils hang over the roof and down onto guests' balconies.
Jungle trekking by foot, horseback or even on a tamed Ceylon elephant will take you through a fantastic tropical forest with its myriads of birds, butterflies and other mammals.
A car ride away is the Elephant Orphanage in Pinnewala, a hugely popular tourist stop at feeding time. Dozens of cameras click as baby elephants receive their bottles of milk, and when the older elephants go down to the river.
In the heart of the Cultural Triangle, two great UNESCO World Heritage Sites must be explored: The Rock Fortress of Sigiriya, with magnificent frescoes, temple murals, ceiling paintings and huge collection of Buddhas built in the fifth century AD, and the even older Rock Temple of Dambulla.
Standing around 200m high, it was turned into a palace fortress around 1,500 years ago. Only the stiff climb up the steps carved into the rock face can hammer home what a spectacular feat that was. Around half way up to the top, two giant lion's paws sit either side of the steps.
Sigiriya - said to have originally meant "lion's throat" - refers to a giant carving of a lion's head which at one time surrounded this staircase. The head has long disappeared, leaving only the paws as a reminder of the site's former glory.
Once on top of the rock itself it is hard to believe that an entire palace community once survived here, supplied with food and water dragged up from the plains below. The summit offers spectacular views of surrounding jungle.
From Sigiriya it takes around 45 minutes by road to reach the beautiful Dambulla cave temples. A steep walk up from the road leads to this series of five separate caves containing around 150 images of Buddha, the oldest of which dates back to the first century BC.
Another jewel in the crown are the ruins of Polonnaruwa, an ancient lakeside city.
The road south, back to Colombo, goes through Kandy and Nuwara Eliya - "Above the Clouds" - which was built by British teaplanters in the image of a typical country town with church, post office, houses, gardens and country club.
* About 40 UK tour operators offer a 20 per cent discount promotional offer on Sri Lanka packages until November 2005.
* Kuoni offers tailormade trips to Sri Lanka, and a special offer of 14 nights' B&B in Negombo from £672.
* Kuoni offers five nights' half-board at The Tea Factory Nuwara Eliya from £778, and five nights' half-board at Kandalama Hotel plus one night B&B at Mount Lavinia, outside Colombo, from £785.
* Kuoni reservations: 01306 747008 and visit www.kuoni.co.uk
* Direct scheduled return flights by Sri Lankan Airlines from the UK/Ireland to Colombo by SriLankan Airlines (020 8538 2000/ www.srilankan.aero
) start at £477 (economy) and £1,750 (business), plus taxes. Flying time is about 11 hours.
© owned by or licensed to Trinity Mirror Plc 2005