Along with the summer heat and sultry weather, March also brings with it two long weekends — March 5 to 7 and 24 to 27. And for Indian tourists, Sri Lanka has never been more sought after as a travel destination than now. In the years since the island nation’s long-standing civil war ended in 2009 — and particularly in the last couple of years — Indians are flocking to its shores in growing numbers. According to statistics released by the Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority earlier this month, Indians bagged the top spot in tourist arrivals to Sri Lanka in 2015, with more than 3,00,000 visitors to the country. Its proximity to most major Indian cities, relative affordability and sheer breadth of landscapes and cultural experiences have cemented the country’s reputation as a holiday hotspot.
Yet, most Indian tourists stick to the tried-and-tested, well-publicised sights and sounds of Sri Lanka, rarely venturing beyond the country’s southern beaches, tea gardens or the quaint, colonial hill town of Nuwara Eliya. If you’re willing to veer away from the beaten path, you’ll find that Sri Lanka is full of surprises. With the northern reaches of the country now freely accessible to tourists, there is no better time to explore the region.
Once the focal point of the brutal civil war, Jaffna has picked up the pieces of its splintered history in the last couple of years. It’s apparent even to first-time visitors that Jaffna has a distinctly different vibe from the rest of the country. While Colombo, the nation’s capital, wears an air of colonial coolth, Jaffna has an almost rustic charm, with narrow streets, bustling local markets, old-school ice cream parlours and a few Morris Minor cars from the ’70s still plying on the streets.
Being the bastion of Tamil Hindu culture in Sri Lanka, Jaffna and its surrounding areas are sprinkled with a number of Hindu temples. The most significant of these is the imposing Nallur Kandasamy Kovil, which attracts pilgrims from around the world. In August, the temple hosts a month-long religious festival, the Nallur Festival, which culminates with spectacular temple chariot processions and extreme feats performed by devotees. With roadside stalls selling everything from clothes to sweetmeats, and the streets festooned with decorations, Jaffna comes alive during this time of the year.
Once you’ve completed the temple circuit, there are a number of local attractions to visit. These include the Jaffna Fort, a 16th century stone structure built by the Dutch that is being restored to its former grandeur; Casuarina Beach, a quiet, tree-lined beach situated roughly 30 minutes from Jaffna town, and Point Pedro, the northernmost point of Sri Lanka, also a short drive away.
Until recently, it was a challenge to find high-quality accommodation in Jaffna, with only a handful of hotels of variable quality. However, with the prestigious Jetwing hotel chain’s first Jaffna outpost having opened up recently, the city’s hospitality sector is looking up.
Food of the region
Although Sri Lankan food bears similarities to South Indian coastal cuisine, featuring ingredients such as coconut in all its forms, seafood and spices such as pepper, cinnamon and cardamom, the cuisine of the Tamil-dominated northern part of Sri Lanka is still distinct. The waters of the Bay of Bengal surrounding Jaffna are a rich source of seafood, which is widely used in fiery curries flavoured with Jaffna curry powder, a complex blend of cinnamon, fennel and black pepper. These are offset by milder preparations, enriched with coconut milk gravy. While in Jaffna, don’t leave without a taste of Odiyal Kool, a viscous (and often eye-wateringly spicy) seafood soup, thickened with locally abundant palmyra root flour, and perfumed with black pepper. A Sunday staple, this rustic dish was created to make use of leftovers. But its simple appearance belies several layers of flavour.
Most visitors to Sri Lanka flock to the beaches on the country’s southern coast, which promise clean sands, warm, azure waters and easy access from Colombo. However, in my opinion, some of the best beaches in Sri Lanka are all the way across, on the north-eastern coast of the island. Cut off for long stretches of time during the war years, Trincomalee and Passikudah — the best-known of the eastern coastal towns — have boomed in the recent years, with a crop of stylish resorts opening up. With calm and shallow waters almost round the year (except during the monsoon), both Trincomalee and Passikudah are perfect for snorkelling. A 10-minute boat ride away from Trincomalee’s Nilaveli Beach, Pigeon Island is one of the country’s two marine sanctuaries. The coral-rich waters surrounding the island play host to a fascinating wealth of marine species.
A tongue of land that juts out into the Palk Strait, Mannar Island on the north-western coast, has also steadily grown in popularity, particularly for its diversity of migratory bird species. The Vankalai Bird Sanctuary in the Mannar district is said to host 150 resident and 1,000 migratory bird species. While Mannar is a must-visit for bird enthusiasts, it is also an offbeat destination for those who don’t mind spending a few days exploring a part of the country where tourists are still few and far between.
* Jaffna is approximately 6 hours by road or slightly longer by train from Colombo. The easiest way to get there from the capital is to hire a taxi or book a ticket on the Yal Devi or the Intercity Express. Tickets can be purchased from Colombo’s Fort station. Jetwing Jaffna is the best bet for accommodation. Visit www.jetwinghotels.com for details.
* Trincomalee is approximately 6 to 7 hours by road and 8 hours by train from Colombo. Passikudah is also approximately 6 hours from Colombo by road. While the former is well connected by the rail network, the latter is better connected by road. Both destinations offer a variety of accommodation; some of the better-known resorts include Trinco Blu by Cinnamon (cinnamonhotels.com/trincoblubycinnamon/) and Uga Jungle Beach (ugaescapes.com/junglebeach/) in Trincomalee and Maalu Maalu (theme-resorts.com/maalumaalu/), Amaya Beach Resort(amayabeach.com) and Uga Bay (ugaescapes.com/ugabay/) in Passikudah.
* Mannar is an approximately 5-hour drive from Colombo, while the train ride to Talaimannar, the closest train station, takes nearly 9 hours. There are only a few hotel options. The well-maintained Palmyrah House (palmyrahhouse.com) is your best bet.