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Quite the best news to come out of Asia for some time was the end of the long-running civil war in Sri Lanka in 2009. One of the loveliest islands in the region, it was known to Arab traders as 'Serendip', then fell under Portuguese and later Dutch and British rule, before attaining independence in 1948. In the current peace-driven renaissance the tourism sector, including the villa market, is evolving from parochial to professional; though the journey has some way to go, levels of service are improving at an agreeable pace.

In the past, visitors to Sri Lanka have tended to keep to the south, mainly due to the aforementioned problems but also because many of the island's finest attractions are concentrated there. The chief delight of Sri Lanka is its variety, from the beaches along the coast to the rolling Hill Country around Kandy, whose main temple is home to a sacred tooth venerated by Buddhists (who make up 70% of the country's inhabitants) and the focus of a spectacular procession of drummers, dancers and elephants every July. Galle, built around a beautifully preserved 17th century Dutch fort, resonates with history; and it's along the coast from Bentota through Hikkaduwa on the west and Unawatuna, Koggala (with its serene lagoon) and Tangalle in the south that most of Sri Lanka's private villas are situated. Some almost rival the fort in antiquity, others are of more recent - but no less intriguing - construction, ranging from beachside cottages to highly superior residences.

Up country there are fewer but a growing number of private villas; many are beautifully restored tea planters’ bungalows, remnants of the colonial era: Nuwara Eliya is a popular hill station; for the great outdoors there is and Bandarawela and environs; Ratnapura forms the heart of the country’s gem industry; Arugam Bay on the east coast enjoys a top ranking among the world’s surfing community and Kataragama hosts an annual fire-walking ceremony. Wild elephant roam around Uda Walawe and the rainforest is practically untouched in the Sinharaja Reserve. Further north, culture vultures can hop between the millennia-old ruins of Polonnaruwa and Anuradhapura and climb the famed rock fortress at Sigiriya. The ceasefire should see other parts of Sri Lanka reawakening again, in particular the untouched beaches of Nilaveli beyond Trincomalee on the northeast coast.

The special joy of Sri Lanka is that its relatively small size allows visitors to take in the best of its attractions within a couple of weeks, perhaps starting in the capital, Colombo, venturing into the interior to explore the tea country and the historical sights, and then ending with a couple of days kicking back at a beach resort.

Sri Lanka is at its most climatically hospitable between December and March, which is when it sees the majority of visitors, especially Europeans on packages, escaping the northern winter. Incidentally, every full moon in Sri Lanka is marked by a public holiday (poya), when alcohol is not supposed to be sold in hotels, restaurants or shops, though some establishments have been known to oblige with special pots of tea.

Both the island’s geography and its multi-ethnic community are reflected in the national cuisine. Spices, in particular cinnamon, initially drew traders from overseas, and they feature strongly in curries, which tend to be rather hotter than their Indian equivalents. ‘Hoppers’, a delicious sort of pancake, make a welcome appearance at breakfast buffets and a cornucopia of locally grown fruit – papaya, coconut, mango among them – make refreshing juices or can be eaten at any time of day. Culinary diversity is best in Colombo: there tends to be less experience and confidence with western dishes as you get further from the capital. Again though, this is beginning to change, and whatever the food, it is always served with charming friendly Sri Lankan hospitality.

Marco Polo waxed lyrical about Ceylon, as Sri Lanka was then known, describing the island as the finest in the world. Its even more ancient name – Serendip – has come to imply making fortunate discoveries by accident, and now that Sri Lanka is once more fully open for business – and even more importantly, for pleasure – its fortunate discovery as an ideal villa holiday destination needs no longer be an accident.
 
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