Due to a quarter-century-long civil war, Sri Lanka has not been a very popular tourist destination. Most travelers bypassed the tiny, teardrop-shaped country in favor of less troubled spots. But once peace was made in 2009, Sri Lanka's advantages suddenly became crystal clear: glorious beaches, fabulous wildlife, verdant plantations in the highlands, and a jaw-dropping number of beautiful colonial buildings left over from the English occupation. The romantic nature of the country comes through in its rickety trains, elaborate temples, and fabulously flavorful food. Travelers are also attracted to the island nation's laid-back, friendly population and slowed-down pace of living.
Luxury options booming
The increase in tourism has spawned a host of new opportunities for traveling in style. To accommodate the growing number of visitors, developers are building hotel properties that front swathes of sand lapped by turquoise Indian Ocean waves. There's been a particular surge in hotels along the southern coast, which boasts idyllic, near-deserted beaches — an increasingly rare commodity in more developed countries.
Ani Villas, for example, opened a new property in Sri Lanka in 2016. This two-villa, 15-room estate can only be booked in its entirety and comes complete with chefs, butlers, and concierge service. With a private stretch of beach, decadent spa, state-of-the-art fitness center, and multiple pools, Ani Villas is at the forefront of the new luxury property boom in Sri Lanka and a welcome sign of things to come. Plus, like all Ani properties, it has a philanthropic angle: its own school, which teaches fine arts to local students.
An hour east along the coast, in Hambantota, is Shangri-La, which also opened in 2016. The 300-room property sits on the site of a former coconut plantation on a hill overlooking the ocean. Each spacious room has a balcony or terrace with gorgeous views of the property or the ocean. The activity-packed resort offers lawn bowling, a trapeze, an 18-hole golf course, and an adults-only wing that has its own pool. Plus, the palm-fringed beach is just yards away.
Attractions beyond the beach
While Sri Lanka's beaches are enormously appealing, a visit to this one-of-a-kind destination isn't complete without exploring some of the top inland attractions. Sri Lanka's Yala National Park, less than an hour from the Shangri-La, has one of the highest densities of leopards in the world (in some parts of the park there's a ratio of one leopard per square kilometer), along with elephants, buffalo, and hundreds of bird species. Kulu Safaris runs wildlife-spotting day tours through the park with native guides, ending with tented camping or a night in a colonial-era bungalow.
From Yala, it's a few hours' drive north to get into the highlands, which offer an escape from the coastal heat. This is where the English colonists established their tea plantations, and the industry still thrives (it's even possible to visit the spot where Sir Thomas Lipton used to sit and sip his daily cup). The highlands are also where you'll find the country's best hiking, thanks to the forested hills, misty valleys, and incredible views. Try Horton Plains National Park for a mix of grasslands and forests, plus a very Instagrammable 880-yard drop at what's known as World's End.
Sri Lanka's never been more accessible to travelers, and those looking for something new to explore may find it in a land overlooked for far too long. But you may want to go soon: The influx of luxury properties and tourist services is a sign that this destination won't be off the radar for long.