As suits a man of such enormous good humor, de Alwis is gazing too hard at Sri Lanka's sunnier side. Although the level of violence dropped dramatically in the first four months of the year, briefly raising hopes of peace talks, that prospect evaporated at the end of April. The Tigers ended a unilateral truce held since Christmas and, in the bloodiest fighting for a year, 563 rebels and soldiers died in a single weekend. But the combat is confined to the north and east, and terrorist attacks pose only a slightly greater threat in Colombo (six last year) than, say, London (four since July). Despite this, former colonial ruler Britain warns tourists to spend a minimum time in the capital and to head for the beaches or the hills, while Japan and South Korea advise avoiding the country altogether. The island drew just 400,414 foreign tourists last year, down from 436,000 in 1999. In a sense, Sri Lanka has remained true to its Muslim trader name of Serendib, describing a hidden place of unexpected, happy discovery (hence the word serendipity)—as long as you get yourself out of the way of danger.
A tropical teardrop 353 km long and 183 km wide, Sri Lanka boasts some leading pilgrimage points of the Buddhist world, breathtaking beaches, ruins of ancient cities, rare wildlife and rolling, cooling hills. Marco Polo once called Sri Lanka "undoubtedly the finest island of its size in all the world" and, in terms of variety, that's true today. To many, the hundreds of miles of untouched sandy coast in the south, where fishermen still cast from stilts fixed into the coral, are the chief draw. But as well as the surf center of Hikkaduwa and more peaceful stretches at Unawatuna and Tangalle (see Hot Spot), southern Sri Lanka is also home to the historic Dutch fort town of Galle, where 350-year-old seawalls wrap the headland and colonial hotels in a protective embrace. Nearby at Wewurukannala Vihara is the island's largest and most riotously colored Buddha statue (eight stories in all—climb up into the great teacher's head).
Inland are a host of ancient cities and living temples. In the hills west of Colombo is the old capital Kandy, a bustling city set around a calming green lake and the wooden Temple of the Tooth. The shrine houses seven gold Russian-doll caskets, of which the smallest is said to contain a holy incisor. Three hours' drive to the north is the ancient cave temple of Dambulla, housing a massive reclining Buddha. Nearby is the astounding 5th century rock palace of Sigiriya (see Detour) and the ruined former royal capitals of Polonnaruwa (11-12th century) and Anuradhapura (dating back to 380 B.C.) To the south of Kandy is the hill country proper, where steep mountainsides are corduroyed as far as the eye can see with luminous-green tea plantations. Not surprisingly it was here, source of the tonic on which they built an empire, that the British fashioned a replica English village, complete with post office, mock-Tudor country homes and golf course. A stay at the Hill Club at Nuwara Eliya is a must ($30-$45): it's still jacket and tie for dinner ($10), served by white-gloved waiters. Call (94-52) 226-53 for reservations.
To see both Sri Lanka's multiple appeal, and how war has devastated its tourist industry, is to marvel at the undaunted glee with which de Alwis addresses his task. With his eye for the silver lining, he argues that after years of depression, Sri Lanka now offers some of the best value in Asia. His new hope: an integrated promotional campaign involving tour operators, resort owners, and Sri Lankan Airlines, reinvigorated under part-owner Emirates. Boutique hotel investors, such as Adrian Zecha of Amanresorts, are starting to scout the country. An increase in visitors would also help banish a further misery: the hordes of Western pedophiles and sex tourists whose dollars have made them tolerable to desperate hoteliers. It all depends on one thing: peace.