Silviu Mihai Catoiu, photographer, recommends Sri Lanka
Welcome to an overlooked paradise full of beautiful beaches, ancient sites, famous tea plantations and flavoursome food. Few places boast as many UNESCO World Heritage Sites as Sri Lanka. Its 2000-year history can be discovered everywhere – from legendary temples and monasteries to mysterious plains and modern museums.
Thanks to years of war and frightening reports of tsunamis, this tropical island has evaded the usual tourist overload. And like most people, this unique country had escaped my notice. So, when a couple of friends recently invited me to join them there for Eid, I found myself saying ‘why not?’ And thank heavens I did because it was a chance to snap legendary shrines, colourful markets, verdant hills, exotic animals and stunning coastal scenes.
If you decide to visit, don’t miss the sacred home of the world’s oldest living tree in Anuradhapura or the sight of elephants gathering in Minneriya. Stroll past colonial gems in Colombo, eat spicy curry and hit some epic surf.
Sri Lanka is stunning, affordable and authentic. And did I mention it’s only a four-or so-hour flight from Muscat? The only downside to my trip was leaving.
My Favourite Place: Where do I begin? Yala National Park was pretty special because it was just like jumping straight into one of Rudyard Kipling’s famous tales in The Jungle Book. Imagine a real-life place surrounded by trumpeting elephants, stealthy leopards and around 100 species of birds. There were other nature reserves to explore, including Udawalawe and World’s End – the only national park in Sri Lanka where visitors are permitted to walk on their own. If only there had been time to visit them all as well as go eyeball to eyeball with the residents of an elephant sanctuary. Next time, maybe.
Highlights: The beaches here are almost unrivalled for their beauty. Unawatuna is the default destination for people like me who are on a short hop. It can be walked from end to end in under 15 minutes, and the small bay there keeps the waves relatively tame. It’s not ideal for surfing but it does offer calm waters and soft sand for sunset strolls.
For a good selection of shops, restaurants and boutique hotels, visit the walled fort town of Galle – a historic stop colonised by the Arabs, Portuguese, Dutch and English, all of whom managed to leave their indelible stamp on the site. Situated within the 400-year-old fort, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, you’ll find an amazing hotel called Amangalla. It’s the ultimate colonial hideaway with rattan chairs, large fans and an exquisite spa, offering everything from Ayurvedic massages to hydrotherapy baths. Alternatively, take a tour of the Handunugoda Tea Estate, where you can watch glove-clad women clip white tea leaf by leaf with small scissors and learn how it is harvested, dried and aged.
Lowlights: There aren’t many apart from the fact that the only places that really accept credit cards are hotels, so make sure you change your money beforehand. Also, save time and cash by getting your visa online. If you don’t have a Tethlon stomach, I suggest you stick to recommended restaurants and hotels for your meals, otherwise you may spend most of your holiday on the toilet.
Souvenirs: Handunugoda brews make great gifts, as do bottles of arak, but for something longer lasting, pick up hand-woven napkins and coconut shell spoons at Barefoot or 100 per cent handmade cottons at Vyanni.
Where to stay: The Kingfisher Hotel & Restaurant (kingfisherunawatuna.com), located on a beautiful bay, offers great sea vistas and the freshest seafood. They’re a family-run business that started from scratch after the tsunami disaster. My other recommendation is The Three By TPV (thethreebytpv.com). This boutique hotel offers tranquility, lush Asian décor and a spectacular view over the deep blue Indian Ocean – amazing!