Sri Lanka is a magical holiday destination with everything from luxury accommodation to leopards

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Stunning: The early morning mist on Amaya Lake

Our safari vehicle has been bumping along for a good few hours with no sign of the star attraction. Sure, we’ve spotted all kinds of creature s from elephants to crocodiles, monkeys to mongooses and myriads of birds.

But the one thing we’re all longing to see – large, feline and ferocious – has so far eluded us.

Given there are more leopards living wild in Sri Lanka’s Yala National Park than anywhere else on earth, that’s something of a disappointment.

Then, just as we’re heading out of the reserve, there’s an excited squawk from the front: “What’s that on the track ahead?”

Strolling along with all the nonchalance only a big cat can display is a magnificent leopard. He or she (I wasn’t that close to know) stares at us disdainfully then disappears into the bush with a flick of its tail.

It was a magic moment on our Mercury Holidays Jewels Of Sri Lanka tour. And the rest of the trip was equally splendid. I hadn’t used the company before. But I discovered that they know how to do things well and not charge the earth for it.

In fact, I thought it was great value given the excellent standard of the hotels and that all meals, excursions, entrance fees etc were included.

The destination helped, of course. Sri Lanka is a glorious country. Lying a few degrees north of the Equator, it’s about the size of Ireland and, from the days when we called it Ceylon, still has echoes of Empire.

Wildlife: A lLeopard at the Yala National Park

For such a comparatively small place, it has an extraordinary variety of scenery and attractions. Most of it was so lush I got the feeling that if I stood still too long I’d find a tendril curing round my ankles.

And there was loads to do on this well-organised tour. In the past few days our little group of 11 Brits had been to ancient rock fortresses and temples and watched men walk on hot coals in bare feet (I still don’t know how they don’t get burned).

We’d driven high into the hills to tea plantation country, seen eagles soaring, elephants bathing, monkeys playing and a profusion of flowers. And we’d been to a spice farm (free coconut milk) a silk shop (free soft drinks) and a high-class gem workshop (no free samples, darn it).

The trip had started with two nights at the four-star Amaya Lake Hotel near Dambulla, near the centre of the country, which is around a four-hour drive from the airport near the capital, Columbo.

The roads were winding – and the driving frantic. “You need three things on the roads here,” our guide Nuwan tells us. “Good horn, good brakes – and good luck.”

Overtaking is considered OK if there’s room to get a postcard through. But not by the driver of our comfortable, small coach. All credit to him.

Deep down: Reclining Buddha Statue At Dambulla Cave Temple

Any tiredness from our long-haul flight fell away at the 120-room Amaya Lake, which has rightly won a slew of awards. It’s high-class, set by a shimmering lake and has individual cabins set in acres of grounds. Walking back after dinner I thought the stars were twinkling more than usual until I realised I was seeing dozens of fireflies above my head.

There was a feeling of serenity about the place – which was a good job given our excursion the next day. We climbed more than 1,000 steps to the top of the Sigiriya Fortress – or “Lion Mountain” – Sri Lanka’s equivalent of Ayres Rock. It rises dramatically out of the paddy fields and natural vegetation on the plateau below.

It was at least 30C with humidity to match and I was still jet-lagged. Well, that’s my excuse for accepting help. It took TWO local guides to half carry me up after my legs turned to jelly. The reward was to see the 1,600-year-old fortress ruins before making our way down, stopping at ancient caves with fascinating frescoes on the way.

Next day we visited the Buddhist Dambulla Rock Temple (just 200 steps, a cinch) which has more than 2,000sqm of painted walls and ceilings and Buddha statues. I lingered for ages in one cave – I’ve seldom been anywhere with such a ­spiritual feel.

Shrine day: The Dambulla Temple

Next day it was off to Kandy in the heart of the hills where we spent two nights in the four-star Amaya Hills, the highest hotel in the area (so it has great views). There’s lots to do in the area including visiting the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage. You can get to feed the youngsters if you so wish but, to me, the set-up felt too “touristy”. I far preferred watching the mums and youngsters playing freely in the nearby river during their daily bath. Perfect.

Kandy was the capital of the last Sinhalese kingdom, which fell to the British in 1815 after defying the Portuguese and Dutch for three centuries. Which helps explain why we Brits feel at home here. Nearly everyone speaks English and the famous Ceylon tea is offered all over the place.

We got to try a cup at the Glenloch Tea Factory which had a vaguely “Wallace and Gromit” feel with its old-fashioned machinery.

From the hills it was off to the south, to Yala Park, where we stayed at the equally good Hotel Chandrika in Tissamaharama in deluxe rooms around a lovely garden with pool and lily ponds.

Luxury: The Four-star Amaya Lake Hotel near Dambulla

As in all four hotels on our nine-day tour, the food was buffet-style, with a good mix of International and local. You could have curry to your heart’s content, but with lots of “Western” choices and masses of fresh fruit too.

Our tour finished with a night at the Mount Lavinia Hotel, former residence of the Governor General, which has oodles of old-world charm – and the only private beach on the island.

I then spent three days chilling out at the four-star Aitken Spence Sands Hotel, Kalutara, where I ate too much and sun-bathed myself stupid – a great way to relax after the tour.

Sri Lanka has had a tough time of late. Parts were devastated by the 2004 tsunami and a civil war with its minority Tamil people only ended in 2009.

But there have been big changes. I never had a moment of anxiety about my safety. The islanders seem delighted visitors are back but don’t give you the “tourist hassle” you get in some countries.

All in all, it was a great tour. In fact, after that leopard sighting, I’d say it was spot on.

The Four-star Amaya Lake Hotel near Dambulla


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