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A combination of palm-fringed beaches, rich cultural heritage, and a network of intimate, sophisticated hotels is helping Sri Lanka market itself as Asia's next crowd-free vacation paradise. The government has rebuilt coastal areas left in ruins by the 2004 tsunami, including Galle, a southern port town once vital to the ancient seafaring Greeks and Persians, and famous for its 17th-century Dutch fortress. Visit Anuradhapura, the capital of ancient Ceylon, to marvel at its centuries-old engineering: Here, a complex of palaces, Buddhist monasteries, and even the world's first animal hospital relied on a colossal network of rainwater reservoirs. The country is also an unexpectedly superb wildlife destination, with the world's highest concentration of leopards in Yala National Park, an annual migration of hundreds of endangered Asian elephants in Minneriya National Park, and the opportunity to see blue whales gather off the coast of Mirissa in January and April.
Know the backstory:
More than 30,000 Sri Lankans died in the December 2004 tsunami, in the midst of an on-and-off civil war between the Sinhalese government and Tamil separatists that killed 100,000 people and displaced many more between 1983 and 2009. A four-month assault on territory held by the rebel forces, known as the Tamil Tigers, resulted in the death of the Tamil commander and the end of the conflict.
There are no direct flights from the U.S. or Europe to Sri Lanka; Dubai and New Delhi, however, are easy transit points with daily flights to the island nation. The burgeoning hotel industry is focused on small boutique projects. The Galle Fort Hotel, within the walls of a UNESCO World Heritage site, has 11 antique-filled suites with views over the port town. On a golden-sand beach a 40-minute drive south of Colombo, Reef Villa and Spa has seven freestanding suites furnished with 19th-century four-poster beds and East Indian furniture.