Sri Lanka is synonymous with tragedy. This tiny island that dangles off the south coast of India has been plagued by civil war for the past 25 years.

The 2002 ceasefire signed between the government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) rebels collapsed recently, and fighting continues unabated.

Throw into the mix the massive Boxing Day tsunami of 2004, which wreaked devastation and destruction on the
eastern and southern coasts and left more than 30,000 dead, and it’s easy to understand why the country is overrun with foreign aid workers rather than tourists.

However, while the media may focus on the wars and woes, there is more, so much more, to Sri Lanka (whose very name means ‘resplendent isle’) than civil war and the legacy of the tsunami.

So long as you exercise some common sense and avoid the northern and eastern trouble spots where frequent clashes do occur (and which locals are quick to advise you of), visitors can expect pristine, palm-fringed beaches, treasured temples, verdant vegetation, brightly coloured saris, school children in crisp white shirts, happy herds of elephants, and a welcome as warm as the weather.

Yes, the weather is another of Sri Lanka’s embarrassment of riches. While January in Britain may be dark, damp and dismal, Sri Lanka couldn’t be more different. The heat is balmy not blistering – in short, perfect weather to acquire a tan without suffering sunstroke.

Other attractions? Travel might be a bit of a long and expensive schlep, but once you’re there it’s blissfully affordable and you’ll spend less in a week than you would on a night out in London.

What more could you ask for? Stunning natural scenery, good food? Well since you ask, there’s all that too … Little wonder, then, that Marco Polo referred to Lanka (as it’s known to locals) as ‘the finest island of its size’.

The entry point to Sri Lanka is its capital, Colombo, but why get stuck in this commercial hub? Escape the harried pace of urban life and head south where a string of beautiful beaches awaits.

You could take the easy option, hop in a taxi (they’re a bargain here) and drive straight to your pocket of paradise. An even better alternative is to take the train: cheap and on time, a train journey is one of the defining experiences of Sri Lanka.

Whichever way you choose to reach the beaches, first-time visitors will be enthralled by Sri Lanka’s shores which fit the holidaymakers’ idyllic image of turquoise seas and powdery fine white sands under sunny skies.Surfing types should head to Hikkaduwa, Sri Lanka’s top surfing spot.

Large signs announcing the contribution of aid groups bear testimony to the destruction caused by the Boxing Day tsunami. You will pass some skeletons of houses, but most properties have been repaired and now look as good as new. It’s sobering, though, to listen to locals recount their experiences of the tsunami (many lost loved ones, limbs and their homes) with moving eloquence.

Further down the coast is the city of Galle with its historic Dutch fort whose weighty walls protected it from the tsunami – but the rest of the town was not as fortunate. Do as the locals do and stroll around the old ramparts at sunset before pushing on to Sri Lanka’s most popular beach, Unawatuna. Here nut-brown children frolic in the water while their grandmothers gossip on the stretch of sand. You can spot the tourists a mile off – they’re the ones quaffing cocktails and generally looking like lobsters not locals. But if, as a tourist, you can’t blend in with the locals, you will at least be welcomed.

Indeed, everywhere you go in Sri Lanka the greeting ‘Ayubowan’ (pronounced ‘ibo-ahn’ meaning ‘May you live long’) permeates the air.

If you’re feeling active, take to the water for a spot of snorkelling or scuba-diving, otherwise chill out or stroll along the beachfront that’s free of aggressive hawkers but home to a hotchpotch of stalls selling fishermen’s trousers and brightly coloured bikinis.

Those looking to party, though, have come to the wrong place: there’s no pumping party scene. Rather Unawatuna is a sleepy sort of place in which to rest, reflect, recuperate, and in the evenings enjoy a quiet drink at one of the makeshift beachfront bars.

While tourists are beginning to trickle back three years after the tsunami, the town still remains free of clamouring package deals as swanky accommodation is hard to find. Most hotels are basic but clean, close to the beach and no more than a few thousand rupees. If you want luxury, take a tuk tuk (auto rickshaw) 15 minutes east to Koggala, home to The Fortress, Sri Lanka’s most stylish and elegant hotel. Even if you can’t afford to stay here, it’s a great place to go for a drink, to sample a spicy Sri Lankan meal in sumptuous surroundings or soothe your worries at the Lime Spa.

Essentially, Sri Lanka is what a holiday should be: exotic but manageable – much more so than India. Yes, it can be chaotic for pedestrians, but the noise and bustle is quieter than its big sibling and, as introductions to the subcontinent go, it’s a gentler one.They say size matters, but Sri Lanka proves that personality is just as important. The country is made even more inviting by its charming and hospitable people who are happy to share their world with you, having triumphed over adversity.

The best time to go is soon, while the lack of interest means there are great deals up for grabs. Plus by spending money in Sri Lanka you’re helping the economy of a country that badly needs it to get back on its feet.

Eating Sri Lankan Style
Sri Lanka has a thriving local gastronomic scene – indeed eating Sri Lankan style is one of life’s pleasures. And if you find the food hotter than the weather, just reach for some yoghurt.

A delectable breakfast of pittu (rice mixed with grated coconut and then steamed in a bamboo mould) and hoppers (bowl-shaped pancakes sometimes served with an egg in the middle and always accompanied by the condiment sambol), is followed by a hearty lunch of rice and curry, the national dish. Curries are made with okra, banana, eggplant, pumpkin, plantain … the list is endless. Literally every ingredient that grows in Sri Lanka will appear
in one curry dish or another.

Want a sugar hit? Wattalapam (a rich pudding made of coconut milk, jaggery sugar, cashew nuts, eggs and spices) is where it’s at.

Afternoons are all about a long leisurely cup of Ceylon tea.

If you’re a fan of fruit, you’re in the right place. Tropical fruits such as succulent pineapples, sweet bananas, guava, mangoes, passionfruit and papaya, to name but few, are abundant.

Western fare is available, but the local delights are too tasty to pass up.

However, a word of warning: preparation takes some time (up to three hours) so order early and for breakfast it’s best to get your request in the night before.

Don’t leave without
1. When you’re bored of the beaches, there’s the Unesco heritage listed Sinharaja rainforest to get to grips with, although admittedly it’s not ideal for those averse to physical exertion. In parts it is undeniably a steep scramble, but persevere and you’ll have the magnificent forest to yourself.
2. For encounters of the elephant kind, Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage, which houses more than 90 abandoned and wounded elephants, won’t disappoint. Time your visit to coincide with feeding or bathing time when all the elephants are taken to the river close by.
3. It’s always good to catch a game of cricket – Sri Lankans are crazy about it.
4. Tea plantations are a dime a dozen and a visit to one is a must, not only to see how Britain’s favourite drink is produced, but also to stock up on a few unusual and fragrant brews.
5. You really can’t leave without visiting the hill capital of Kandy, steeped as it is in centuries of tradition: this world heritage site was the last stronghold of the Sinhalese Kings during the Portuguese, Dutch and British rule. There’s plenty to do in this pretty town – set beside a lake and framed by hills – but temple addicts will want to visit the Temple of the Tooth which houses the sacred tooth relic of Lord Buddha.