I am a business writer for The Times; my wife, Fiona Harris, works for Tatler magazine. We toured Sri Lanka with Jetwing Eco Holidays (www.jetwingeco.com, firstname.lastname@example.org) from February 28th to March 12th.
This was our first visit to Sri Lanka. What stands out? The beauty of the countryside: lush green paddy fields dotted with white egrets; serene Buddhist shrines; steamy mountains; colourful roadside stalls. We have travelled in Burma, Vietnam and Thailand, yet have rarely come across comparable scenic beauty.
The timing of the visit, post-tsunami, gave an edge to the holiday. We met several people - chauffeur guides, hotel staff, safari jeep drivers - who had suffered close-encounters on Boxing Day morning. It was fascinating to hear their stories. It would be in bad taste for the Sri Lanka Tourist Board to use this as a reason for visiting Sri Lanka, but it undeniably added to the experience.
The other surprising element - given Western media coverage of the tsunami - is the total absence of damage away from the coast. Outside the coastal strip, Sri Lanka is operating completely normally. We saw no aid lorries. There were no outbreaks of disease. The hotels never lacked for food or supplies. There were no power cuts. Hotel staff were friendly and professional. The only abnormal thing was the almost complete absence of tourists in areas like Sigiriya and Polonnaruwa.
We were impressed by the diversity of birdlife and wildlife in Sri Lanka. We particularly liked Minneriya, with its lakeside setting, and Hakgala Botanical Gardens. Although we are not birders, we derived great enjoyment from our bird encounters. Highlights included seeing two nightjars sleeping in the shade in Yala National Park.
We are both interested in the travel industry, and enjoy comparing hotel atmosphere and style. Based on our experience, Sri Lanka's hotels are typically three- or four-star: clean and efficient, but slightly dated or in need of modernisation. Food was acceptable, but below the standard found in the Maldives or Mauritius. The best hotel overall was The Beach in Negombo, which has been tastefully refurbished, but even here, the food was good, not great.
One exception was Villa Talangama, a private house on the outskirts of Colombo. The food was very good, and the room - with a private balcony overlooking wetlands - was an excellent place for our first day in Sri Lanka.
We would not have felt comfortable staying in close proximity to the damage in Galle and Hikkaduwa, and suspect that the 'beach resort' segment of the market will be slow to recover. But anyone looking for a country tour - with a couple of nights at Negombo, where the beach appears undamaged - will not be disappointed.