Dreamy Sri Lanka: Diving into the world's No.1 destination for 2019
Lonely Planet has named Sri Lanka as the world's number one country to visit next year. Nicola Brady dives in...
I've always loved the sea.
Whether it's the dark and choppy waves of Sligo, or a shimmering tropical ocean, I see the water and I want to get in. Therefore, I always assumed that I would love to dive. So it's a great surprise that my first foray into scuba diving begins with hysterical tears in a Sri Lankan swimming pool, as a nosy tourist (and newest addition to my List of Enemies) films my resulting panic attack with a GoPro.
"You're not panicking," kindly instructor Sujith tells me after I assert otherwise. "I've seen panicked. Your hands aren't even shaking."
I've never wanted to quit anything more in my life.
Luckily, Sujith's firm reassurance (and blind promise that he won't let go of my hand) does the trick. Because I really don't want to quit. Passikudah, a resort town on the eastern coast of Sri Lanka, is so gorgeous that all I really want to do is head into the bay, throw myself into its silky blue waters and see a shipwreck. Without crying.
The next morning, I do just that. When our boat stops, I look over the edge and see the wreck of the British Sergeant, a WWII tanker that was bombed in 1942. There are several reasons for my refusal to quit, chief among them the fact that this is one of the few shipwrecks in the world shallow enough to dive to without a PADI certification.
So I make my way down, inch by tentative inch, gripping Sujith's hand so tightly that I'm sure I leave fingerprints. But I find that in the ocean, with the cast of Finding Nemo to distract me, I can do it. Sujith points out various fish, I invent the underwater sign for "You don't need to show me eels" and, despite my fears, I succumb to life under the sea.
When I resurface, I'm triumphant. And in violent need of a glass of wine. Luckily, that's only a few steps away. Uga Bay, where I'm staying, is one of five resorts from Sri Lankan company Uga Escapes, all of which have a small, boutiquey vibe with a strong local flavour. Its setting on this serene millpond of a bay is a winner. It's trite to describe the sea as the temperature of a bath, but I can't help it. Actually, my crappy immersion means that this sea is probably warmer than some of the baths I've had.
It's hard to resist a dip at any time of day. Each morning, I get up around 7am, walk the few steps from my carved wooden bed to the quiet shore, and flap around in the still, smooth sea. It's a blissful way to start the day.
This corner of Sri Lanka, in the east of the country, is an area that has only recently crept onto the radar of tourists. The Civil War (1983-2009) ravaged the region, and its impact, combined with a lack of accessibility, meant that, for a long time, people stayed away. As you drive past cows rambling around on the dusty country roads, bright yellow signs warn of the other source of destruction. The impact of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami was catastrophic in Sri Lanka - more than 35,000 people were killed, and millions were displaced from their homes. The east coast was one of the worst affected areas.
But it's places like the properties from Uga Escapes, that are bringing prosperity back to the region. In addition to their gorgeousness, Uga resorts have an impressive ethical philosophy. As well as strong environmental and community programmes, they have a policy of hiring soldiers who fought in the civil war, war widows and people whose lives were destroyed by the tsunami.
Also, 2019 marks 10 years since the end of the Civil War, and visitor numbers have been steadily increasing since then. Which means policies like this aren't just important - they're vital if growth is to continue sustainably. And this year, bolstered by Lonely Planet's assertion that it's the number one country in the world to visit for 2019, interest in Sri Lanka is set to skyrocket.
It's not hard to see why - Sri Lanka has that irresistible combination of dreamy beaches, punchy cuisine and brightly coloured temples.
In the capital of Colombo, the diversity of religion can be seen in the broad array of temples around the city. I went on a walking tour with Pepper ($47/€40, pepper.life), which led us from the floating Gangarama Buddhist temple of Seema Malaka to the atmospheric Hindu temple of Shri Ponnambalawaneswaram.
Temples like this can be found all over Sri Lanka, but one of the most striking in the country is Koneswaram Kovil, where a soaring golden Shiva sits high atop a twisting hill at the tail end of Trincomalee, back on the northeast coast. I leave my shoes among the pile at the entrance and tiptoe along the piping hot path until I'm at its peak.
Broad pillars of pink, turquoise and yellow line the way, high among the bright blue sea - on a clear day, you can spot blue whales. The following morning, I see the same temple from a boat below, as spinner dolphins leap and somersault out of the water... the little show-offs.
Another Uga property, Jungle Beach, is just a short hop away. Luxurious cabins weave throughout the jungle, their thatched roofs acting as trampolines for the resident monkeys. My own cabin, one of three set around a deep green swimming pool, is shrouded in jungle - the sign on my door, along with a warning from staff, insists that I keep my doors closed, lest creepy crawlies make their way in. My paralysing fear of snakes means I don't need to be told twice, but somehow a tiny frog, whom I name Greg, pops into my indoor/outdoor bathroom at night (along with a rather hefty centipede).
But this is their house, not mine. And luckily for them, Jungle Beach has an in-house naturalist, Kelum. The next morning we set off early for Pigeon Island, a national park I'm only excited about once Kelum tells me the name isn't literal. Instead of pigeons, this is prime snorkelling territory. Without the accoutrements of scuba equipment, I take to the water with ease, despite the scores of jellyfish zapping me with every stroke.
It's here that, with Kelum's help, I fulfil a life-long desire and swim with sharks (black-tipped reef sharks to be precise), whose lithe figures slice through the water with enviable grace.
But it's not just the sharks I tick off the ol' bucket list - after lolloping through the swarms of jellies, I see a gigantic Hawksbill sea turtle who, in a gloriously vengeful twist, is eating a jellyfish with merciless aplomb.
"Take that, jellies!" I gurgle.
They continue to sting my limbs with wild abandon. But looking at the sea turtle, I can't bring myself to care. As she swims up to take a breath, we're practically touching. Kelum takes a picture, but this time there are no tears. That panic in the swimming pool feels like a lifetime ago.
There are no direct flights from Ireland to Sri Lanka - Emirates (emirates.ie) flies to Colombo via Dubai from €786 return. The easiest way to get to the east coast is by sea plane with Cinnamon Air (from $200/€175, cinnamonair.com).
Where to stay
Nicola travelled as a guest of Uga Escapes. In Colombo, Residence is a sleek and boutiquey haven from the city; rates from €232 B&B. Uga Bay starts at €233 B&B, and Jungle Beach from €259 B&B. Advance discounts on the website means these rates are often cheaper; see ugaescapes.com.
What to pack
The malaria risk in Sri Lanka is low, but the mosquitoes are quite aggressive. Wear a good insect repellent at all times, not just dusk. You'll need to apply for an ETA visa online at least a week before you travel, and bring the print-out with you; $35/€30, eta.gov.lk/slvisa.
Take three: Out and about
How to dive
A Resort Course dive includes a pool session and an open dive, with LSR Travel in Passikudah. It's not a PADI qualification, but a great intro to diving. $150/€130, lsrtravel.com.
Try Koththu Rotti, shredded flatbreads fried with curry. Or hoppers, a pancake bowl with a fried egg and sambol. Ulundu, spiced gram flour donuts dipped in a zingy chutney, are a delight.
Seeing the temples
It's a good idea to bring a sarong with you, and always cover your shoulders and knees. Some temples don't allow women. Ask if photos are permitted before taking them.