Raj, Royals and Ruins in Sri Lanka

From the top of the rock I’ve just climbed, I can see forever. Lush green treetops spread out before me some 600 feet below, blanketing the region for miles in every direction. A few feet away, a young boy balances along the foundation of an ancient palace that stretches across the top of the monolith. The view before me explains why a royal would have gone to such pains to build his residence in such an inaccessible area. Even 1500 years ago, the old saw held true: It’s all about location, location, location.

Sigiriya is just one of the many notable sites that draw visitors from around the world to Sri Lanka, and it is this combination of history and panoramas that make it the most visited site in the country. My three-day journey through the Cultural Triangle ­– the region of central Sri Lanka famed for its abundance of ruins, temples, and palaces – has introduced me to a slice of history I’d never known existed, and the grandeur and scope of some of these marvels leaves me wondering how it could be possible that these sites aren’t more well-known to the Western world.

Although the small island nation isn’t on the radar for most American travelers, it should be; both for the variety of its offerings and the ability to vacation like royalty. In the British-colonial town of Nuwara Eliya, I stayed at the St. Andrew’s Hotel, a former private residence during the British Raj, where I took tea on the veranda and played snooker with some blokes from Edinburgh. At Yala National Park, while other visitors were crammed into jeeps and had to vie for prime photo-taking space, I went on safari in my own vehicle, which allowed me to get closer to the elephant herds that were congregating for their annual visit. And in my journey around the Cultural Triangle, hiring a driver afforded me the luxury of taking in the countryside while being chauffeured from one breathtaking attraction to the next. For many visitors to Sri Lanka, it’s not unusual to rent a house, which often comes with its very own staff of chefs and housekeepers.

Because the tourism scene is still burgeoning in Sri Lanka, trendy attractions such as ziplines are still unheard of. Classic activities, such as scuba diving and hiking, however, are plentiful, with many locations still relatively unvisited, giving you the feeling you’ve discovered it yourself. In the resort town of Trincomalee, the bay has only recently reopened to visitors, meaning dive sites are far more intact and you often have the beach to yourself when sunset comes, as if you were on your own secluded isle. Outdoorsy types will find the hiking in Sri Lanka exceptional, particularly at Horton Plains National Park with its diverse wildlife, and at Adam’s Peak, where travelers start their trek at dawn in order to watch one of the most splendid sunrises on the planet.

Even after four weeks in the country, I found I still hadn’t checked off every item on my must-do list. Now, several months after my visit, I still have dreams of petting elephants, exploring ancient Buddhist temples, and basking on sun-drenched beaches. The country keeps beckoning me back. One of these days, I plan to heed its call.