Watching the latest series of The Good Karma Hospital, you can almost feel the warmth of the sun and smell the tropical flowers.
ITV’s medical drama stars Amanda Redman and Amrita Acharia as doctors in a cottage hospital in the south Indian state of Kerala, but, as is often the case on screen, all is not as it seems: it’s actually filmed nearly 400 miles away across the Indian Ocean in Sri Lanka.
Since the civil war ended in 2009, Sri Lanka’s tourist industry has boomed and it now attracts around 200,000 British visitors every year. Most flock to the picturesque beaches, but this small island has much more to offer: ancient temples and fortresses, scenic railways, elephants and whales, fragrant coconut curries and fantastic seafood.
The island is around the same size as the Republic of Ireland, so you can explore its varied treasures in one trip. Most people speak English and the pace of life is sedate. Here are some of the highlights, which can easily be covered on a two- or three-week holiday.
Sri Lanka is the world’s fourth-biggest tea producer and its tea capital is Kandy, a charming lakeside city full of Buddhist shrines such as the Temple of the Sacred Tooth, believed to harbour one of the Buddha’s teeth. In 1867, Scotsman James Taylor built the first tea plantation on the island (then known as Ceylon) at Loolecondera estate. Today you can visit and learn how Ceylon Silver Tips (the country’s most prized brew) is produced.
The best way to see the island’s verdant interior is from an antique railcar on the vertiginous railway built by the Victorians to transport tea and coffee. After departing from Kandy’s quaint station, the train chugs into the hills around the city, skirting waterfalls, dark forests and tea plantations. In the second- and third-class carriages, vendors brandish buckets of mango slices, corn on the cob and spicy fritters.
The Kandy to Ella train winds through tea plantations
For many centuries, the northern city of Anuradhapura was the centre of Theravada Buddhism. Today, acrobatic monkeys watch over the tranquil, sprawling ruins: mighty stupas, empty bathing pools, crumbling temples and the sacred bodhi tree – grown from a branch of the fig tree under which the Buddha purportedly obtained enlightenment.
In the caves at Dambulla, 80km south of Anuradhapura, dozens of intricately carved Buddhas sit side by side and paintings adorn the sloping roofs, some so vibrant they might have been painted yesterday. But most impressive of all is Sigiriya, an abandoned fortress atop an 180m boulder near Dambulla.
The Sigiriya Lion’s Rock fortress
The story goes that a fifth-century king chose Sigiriya as his capital and built a palace with water gardens, promenades and pavilions. It’s not for the vertigo-prone as the ascent is via steep stairs. Giant lion’s paws guard the staircase and you can see traces of frescoes of the king’s concubines on the cliff face.
A historic fort
Sri Lanka’s south coast boasts a string of golden beaches, but the jewel in its crown is Galle Fort, a 16th-century trading port with Dutch-colonial buildings on the island’s southwestern tip. Nowadays its atmospheric alleys are home to museums, heritage hotels, boutiques and first-rate restaurants. You can catch an international cricket match in grounds that overlook the ocean.
The Good Karma Hospital’s cast and crew were based a couple of miles away in Unawatuna, a resort famous for its palm-fringed beach and turquoise waters (the hospital is really a teacher training college). Follow the coast road east for more tranquil beaches at Weligama, Mirissa and Tangalle, past fishing villages, coconut farms and rice paddies. Look out for stilt fishermen perched on wooden poles a few metres offshore – a traditional method of fishing.
Stilt fishing is unique to Sri Lanka
Elephants, leopards & whales
Between December and June, it’s possible to see blue whales, sperm whales and spinner dolphins as they migrate between the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea. Hop on a boat from Kalpitiya, a surf haven on the west coast, or Mirissa in the south. Sri Lanka has the world’s highest concentration of leopards, which can be spied in Yala National Park on a game drive, along with water buffalo and sloth bears.
Nearly 6,000 wild elephants roam the island, but the best way to see one is at a responsible sanctuary such as Elephant Transit Home in Udawalawe National Park where orphaned elephants can be observed from a platform at feeding time.
When is the best time to go?
The island country’s proximity to the equator means the average temperature remains in the high 20s all year round. It has two monsoon seasons; the south coast and hill country are at their driest from December to March, while April and September offer the best odds for dry weather across the country.
Radio Times reader offers
Our tour takes you to all the major sites of historical and cultural interest, visiting two outstanding UNESCO World Heritage sites and finishing with two days’ relaxation in one of the country’s finest beach resorts. Two nights are spent in Sri Lanka’s fascinating ‘Cultural Triangle’, where we visit one of the best-preserved ancient sites on the Indian subcontinent. Sigiriya Rock, an impregnable 5th century palace and fortress clinging to the top of an immense granite monolith soaring up 600 feet is Sri Lanka’s most remarkable sight, with amazing views of the jungle-covered plain below. The cave temples of Dambulla, another World Heritage site, highlight Sri Lanka’s extraordinary artistic heritage. Click here for more details and to book
Our tour takes you to all the major sites of historical and cultural interest, visiting three outstanding UNESCO World Heritage sites and finishing with two days’ relaxation in one of the country’s finest beach resorts. Three nights are spent in Sri Lanka’s fascinating ‘Cultural Triangle’, where we visit one of the best-preserved ancient sites on the Indian subcontinent. Click here for more details and to book