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Sri Lanka (formerly known as Ceylon), an island nation that lies off the south east coast of India in the Indian Ocean, was one of the hardest hit countries by the December 2004 tsunami, with tens of thousands of people losing their lives and over a million rendered homeless. The impact on its tourism industry was also catastrophic, but the people of Sri Lanka have worked tirelessly to rebuild their lives and their economy.

Tourism activities here are only limited to your imagination -- with adventures like whale watching, scuba diving, hot air ballooning, white water rafting, wildlife safaris and kayaking just to name a few. Wildlife enthusiasts can encounter elephants, deer, monkeys, exotic birds and leopards, you can visit waterfalls, see magnificent Colonial era (Dutch) architecture, experience the cultural legacy of British rule (high tea and scones and cricket anyone?), visit ancient temples and of course Sri Lanka's beaches are idyllic. With more than 600 miles of white sand coastline to choose from, and year-round summer conditions thanks to two different weather systems, visitors can always find a beach with sunshine and calm seas. From November to March, the weather is perfect on the west and southern coasts and from April to October, during the southwest monsoon, the east coast offers the best climate.

Ancient and medieval civilizations have provided Sri Lanka with an abundance of palaces, monasteries, shrines, water gardens and temples, with no less than five UNESCO designated World Heritage Sites by UNESCO located in an area commonly referred to as the Cultural Triangle. Local pilgrimage season is in May and June so January to April is considered the best season for visiting cultural sites without large local crowds.

Locally based Acme Travels (tel. +94/11-452-7575; www.acmetravels.com) offers a wide selection of enticing and affordable cultural, wildlife, historical and combination land-only tours.

Their eight-day Discover Sri Lanka tour featuring airport transfers, English speaking guides, private chauffeured transportation throughout, seven nights' accommodations, touring and breakfast daily. Highlights include visiting the Negombo fishing village, the 5th century rock formations and frescoes of Sigiriya, Polonnaruwa -- the stronghold of the 11th and 12th century Singhala kings, ruins of the 5th century capital of Anuradhapura, the 2200 year old Sri Mahabodhi tree, the 2nd century BC with Elephant wall, the 2000 year old rock cave temple and frescoes of Dambulla, spice garden and batik factory in Matale, the cultural center of Kandy, the temple of the sacred tooth relic of Buddha, the elephant orphanage of Pinnawela, the Udawatte-kele nature reserve, the Kandy market, the royal botanical gardens of Peradeniya with Asia's largest collection of orchids, a tea plantation, the sacred city of Kataragama, a jeep safari at Yala National park (elephants, deer, buffalo, monkeys and a huge variety of birdlife), the UNESCO listed old Portuguese fort of Galle and Colombo. Staying in economy class hotels, this tour is priced from $396 per person based on double occupancy with two people on a vehicle or $325 per person for four to six people. These prices are valid for travel until October 31, 2007. Single supplement is $106.

For indulgence and pampering Sri Lankan style, try their 12-day Ayurveda tour which allows you to experience healthy living combining traditional therapeutic measures that relate to physical, mental, social and spiritual harmony. What that translates to is an ancient system of health care and lots of massage, relaxation and bathing. Staying at two well-known spa resorts -- the Tree of Life Hotel and the Eden Resort and Spa, your body will be detoxified and reinvigorated with seven days of full-day treatments (plus evening treatments on days when you are sightseeing) including body massages with herbal oils, herbal baths, aromatherapy, facials, steam baths, Shordhara treatments and medical consultations. Along with sightseeing excursions to Negombo, Kandy, the Pinnawala elephant orphanage, Galle, visit the royal botanical gardens of Peradeniya and Sigiriya, this is an ideal opportunity to combine health, well-being, culture and adventure in one trip. Eleven nights' accommodations, daily breakfast and dinner plus transportation and English speaking guides are also included. This tour is priced from $890 per person for two people or $800 for four or more people, with a $325 single supplement.

Accommodation and meals in Sri Lanka are extremely affordable whether you choose standard, superior of deluxe properties. Even fiveƂ?star resorts like the Eden Resort & Spa in Beruwela is priced from $84 per room per night for two people including half board for stays until October 31, 2007. Other sample prices include:

  • The deluxe Hotel Blue Water in Wadduwa is priced from $138 per room per night for two on a half board basis
  • The four-star Royal Palms Hotel (www.tangerinehotels.com) in Kalutara on the South West Coast is priced from $108 per room per night for two on a half board basis
  • The deluxe five-star Taj Exotica (www.tajexoticasrilanka.com) in Bentota on Sri Lanka's South West Coast is priced from $175 per room per night for two on a half board basis
  • The five-star Heritance Hotel (www.heritancehotels.com) in Ahungalla on the Southern Coastal belt is priced from $170 per room per night for two on a half board basis

All rates are per room per night inclusive of 15% tax and 10% service charges.

For a chance to visit this unique destination and make a positive economic impact, consider taking part in a vacation program arranged through the Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement (www.sarvodayausa.org), an organization that benefits communities in a variety of ways including Tsunami support, education, community building and cultural initiatives. The cost of your tour will vary according to the length of stay, group size, preferred activities and distances covered but in general one week should cost between $600 and US$900 per person including all land transportation, scheduled activities, an English-speaking escort, meals and accommodation in home stays or hostel. Meals served are vegetarian (including fish) and the management requests that participants refrain from consumption of alcohol and smoking during the tour in respect of local customs. Tour options include a combination of the following: Organic farm visits and volunteer working opportunities, handicraft centers, cultural and community arts centers, cooking demonstrations followed by eating with local communities and meditation and yoga retreats in a stunning lakeside setting. When contacting Sarvodaya, indicate your area of interest and they will design a program to suit your requirements from biodiversity and environmental conservation to spirituality, Buddhism and meditation.

Esala (July/August) is the season of festivals throughout Sri Lanka and the full moon day of Esala is considered the climax. The most exciting of these festivals is the Kandy Esala Perahera (August 12 to 27, 2007) which is spectacular medieval pageant held for ten-nights in the city of Kandy, featuring Kandyan dancers and drummers in colorful traditional costumes, Kandyan chieftains in medieval court dress, decorated parading elephants, torch bearers and city-wide celebration. Another Esala festival takes place at Kataragama in the remote southeast near Yala National Park -- an ancient pilgrimage site revered by Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims and Christians. During the two-week festival, thousands of Hindu devotees ride chariots, pierce their flesh with hooks, walk on beds of red-hot coals and participate in other acts of repentance. Also celebrated during the month of August is the Hindu festival of Vel in the Sri Lankan capital of Colombo. The event lasts for four days and features a procession of a spectacular gilded chariot pulled by white bulls between the capital's most impressive Hindu temples, plus multi-colored umbrellas, ornately decorated elephants, dancers, musicians, snake charmers, drums and bells.

Sri Lanka's capital, Colombo is best reached from either Singapore or Southern India (Chennai) with regular flights. Singapore Airlines (www.singaporeair.com) flies once daily from Singapore as does Emirates (www.emirates.com) plus there are two flights on Sri Lankan Airlines (www.srilankan.aero). Sri Lankan Airlines and Indian Airlines (www.indian-airlines.nic.in) fly several times per day from Chennai for around $200 round-trip.

If you choose to fly via Singapore, Singapore Airlines (www.asianaffairholidays.com) currently has a great value deal which includes round trip airfare from New York or Los Angeles to Singapore plus three nights' accommodations in Singapore at the four-star Copthorne King's Hotel or Orchard Hotel, breakfast daily and a city tour priced from $987 plus taxes (valid for travel from January 1 to March 31, 2008 or $1,048 from August 21 to December 5, 2007). Just add to that a round-trip fare to Colombo (which can range from approximately $400 to $600 depending on season and available discounts) and you have an affordable trip.

For more information about traveling to Sri Lanka, visit the Sri Lanka official tourism website at www.srilankatourism.org.

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