For all of Sri Lanka's cultural treasures and natural riches, the resilience and kindness of its everyday people are its greatest assets.
Despite a history of civil war and the setbacks of 2004's tsunami and more recent brutal flooding, Sri Lankans are determined and optimistic. They're proud of their heritage, eager to see you smile, and quick to return it when you do.
Sri Lanka is still largely untouched and unchanged by mass Western tourism, but the word is getting out. New York Times named this country the number-one place to visit in 2010 and the country's exquisite beauty means it won't be overlooked much longer.
Two weeks is obviously not enough time to see everything the country has to offer, but it's plenty to get a real flavor of Sri Lanka's diversity and character. The following itinerary may be ambitious, but it is certainly doable and guaranteed to be rewarding.
Big city and big rocks
Start at Colombo
Start with a two-night stay in the capital city of Colombo, the closest experience you'll find in Sri Lanka to big-city hustle and bustle. Take a full day to wander through the sprawling collection of ancient artifacts and colonial-era relics at the must-see National Museum, take a quiet walk through nearby Viharamahadevi Park (be careful not to disturb the hordes of giant fruit bats hiding in the tree tops), and make your way through the mazes of Pettah Market. At sunset, topple a cold bottle of Three Coins lager at the Galle Face Hotel's vintage seaside patio.
Next it's three nights and two days in Kandy. (Take the Intercity Express train from Colombo via the central highlands - this spectacular journey will be one of the highlights of your trip.) Spend the first day exploring Kandy proper: make a requisite stop at the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic (which purportedly contains a tooth from the Buddha), take a stroll around languid Kandy Lake, and tour the British Garrison Cemetery (perhaps meeting its stately caretaker, Mr. Charles Carmichael).
On the second day, ask your guesthouse to arrange for a driver to take you to the ancient Royal Rock Temple at Dambulla, and then on to imposing Sigiriya, a Unesco World Heritage Site. Kandy Cottage, located in the hills just outside town, is a highly recommended and affordable place to rest.
From Tea Country to Tissamaharama
On to Nuwara Eliya
Hire a driver in Kandy to take you to Nuwara Eliya, the heart of Sri Lanka's tea country. The town itself is unremarkable, but the landscape of the surrounding region, lined with rows upon rows of verdant tea bushes, is stunning (as is the ride up to the city). Though somewhat touristy, the secluded Heritance Tea Factory offers well-appointed rooms and a quiet place to relax high amidst the tea plantations.
Currently the drive down from Nuwara Eliya to Tissamaharama is a slow, winding one marked by bad roads and construction, but the reward is a safari at Yala National Park, where, if you're lucky, you'll spot elephants, tropical birds, lizards - and, maybe, spotted leopards. Spend two nights here in Tissa; most guesthouses can arrange the safari for you. Book it for the following morning upon arrival.
Relaxation on the Southern Coast
After bumpy roads and a dusty safari, it's time to kick back and relax for four days on the southern coast, which is lined with postcard-perfect, empty beaches that rival the best in South Asia. Head for serene Goyambokka Beach in Tangalla; or you could head further west is tiny Mirissa, the young backpacker's choice, or Unawatuna, which is the most developed beach resort in Sri Lanka.
It'll be tempting to never leave the beach, but give yourself enough time for two nights in atmospheric Galle. Reserve your days for wandering through the Old Fort, where locals teeter around on vintage bicycles, goats and cows roam freely past modern art galleries, and the morning call to prayer from the Muslim mosque reverberates around the fort's southern walls. Mama's Guest House serves the best food in town, and also offers spacious, clean, and affordable lodging.
Finally, finish your time in Sri Lanka with an exhilarating ride along the coast of the Indian Ocean on the express train from Galle to Colombo (the same route Paul Theroux detailed in his Great Railway Bazaar). After two weeks of adventure you'll be exhausted - but already plotting your return.
Get all the info you need in the latest Sri Lanka guide