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COLOMBO, Sri Lanka - Last year when I made plans to visit Sri Lanka during the Spring Break, I had no idea that the New York Times would put the little Island first on its list of 31 places to visit in 2010.

But there it was in the Sunday Travel section, pointing out that it is "rich in natural beauty and cultural splendors."

I knew that, and I also knew that a quarter century civil war and the 2004 tsunami had taken a terrible toll.

Sri Lanka now struggles to become a tourist destination again. It has plenty of offer and at reasonable prices but there is a catch - getting there.

There are no direct flights from the U.S. But there are several connecting flights from Chicago with travel times starting at 22 hours and fares as low as $1,250 and Business Class around $6,600.

I had found an Expedia hotel deal for $65 per night at the Colombo Hilton Residence, for a two-bedroom suite with two baths, a giant flat screen TV, a full kitchen and a balcony overlooking the city and cashed in frequent flier miles for the ticket.

Colombo

Colombo is a busy place and a cacophony of sounds as drivers use horns frequently. Shopping is a major past time at stores offering bargains on clothing.

Dining in Colombo is enjoyable and the buffet is a popular way to experience the food. A first-class buffet at one of the five-star hotels is about $15 without drinks. If you are on a diet, this is not the place for you. The Lagoon restaurant in the Cinnamon Grand offers a menu of seafood from lobster to local fish that is unequaled; the average tab is $25, without drinks.

Sri Lankans gather on the Galle Face Green every sunset, this esplanade is filled with venders who sell drinks and food from carts as children fly kites and stroll on the sidewalk along the Indian Ocean. It's well worth a visit; bring a camera.

Colombo is just a place to rest after a long flight, the highlands, and the south coast are not to be missed.

Kandy

Consider Kandy, the last capital of the Sinhalese monarchy; it is an 80-mile drive.

In Kandy is the Temple of the Tooth; construction on the palace where a tooth of Buddha is kept began in 1687 and is fascinating.

Head to the rock citadel of Sigiriya at the end of the day. There are lovely hotels nearby; then take in Sigiriya and the Cave Temples of Dambulla 12 miles away the next day.

Both are World Heritage sites, two of seven in Sri Lanka. Sigiriya is a 600-foot high rock where in the fifth century Kasyapa, who had deposed his father to become King, sought refugee and built a capital with extensive gardens.

At Dambulla be ready for the poor man's Stairmaster as you climb 500 feet to reach the remarkable caves, be prepared to remove shoes as you enter.

Do not miss the Peradeniya Botanical Gardens home to some 4,000 tropical species near Kandy. The flowering time is January to April; allow a couple of hours to stroll.

If you are ready for some beach time, head back to Colombo for a good night and great dinner and head to the beaches "down south" in the morning.

A plethora of hotels and guest houses line the south beaches. Hikkaduwa, 60 miles south, is a popular spot for young surfers from the UK and Australia. It has miles of sandy beach, and a coral reef that is good for diving. There are a variety of accommodations from $36 to $360 per night. Check tripadvisor.com, it's a good source if you want to book on your own.

Ten miles further is Galle; it has a huge Dutch Fort built in 1663, so give yourself some time to stroll the old city and the nearby market.

Taprobane Island

A few miles south is Taprobane Island, a privately owned Island with an impressive mansion built in the 1920s by an eccentric English Count, over the year its owners included the late Sir Arthur C. Clarke, a prolific science fiction writer.

Hiring a car is a great idea; I used Kangaroocabs.com where a sedan, with a skilled driver for five days, four nights and 750 km cost $280.

Not a beach person? Head for tea country directly from Kandy, Nuwara Eliya is a beautiful drive passing numerous waterfalls and tea plantations, several of which are open for tours, and of for a cup of tea.

The weather is cool in the tea country, a relief from the Colombo heat, there are golf courses, and a variety of hotels for under $100. The former estate of Sir Thomas Lipton, yup the Lipton tea guy, is now a hotel, rooms at the Thotalagala Tea Plantation Bungalow, are in the $300-plus category.

WILLIAM RECKTENWALD is the journalist-in-residence at Southern Illinois University Carbondale's School of Journalism.

 

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