“English?’ asks the wizened old man selling bananas on a street corner in Galle.
Well, it’s a safe bet. My lobster-pink face has Home Counties written all over it. Ditto my baggy shorts.
Sri Lanka is one of England’s regular opponents on the cricket field and, every few years, the Barmy Army descends on this beautiful colonial port at the southern tip of the island.
Other foreign visitors have been more wary, put off Sri Lanka by the long civil war, which concluded in 2009. And the 2004 tsunami, which devastated Galle, was shocking.
But better times are around the corner.
British Airways has resumed flights to Sri Lanka after fifteen years, which is a golden opportunity to discover one of the most beautiful islands in the world, a lush landscape topped by densely wooded mountains and ringed by white sandy beaches.
Hive of activity
Probably the first thing that strikes you is the sheer richness of the vegetation. In rural areas, it is thrillingly green. There is hardly a bare patch of ground as fruit and flowers of every description, from mangoes to orchids, pineapples to tea roses, papayas to camellias, burst out of the rich soil.
There are meant to be more than 90 varieties of banana in Sri Lanka, and my stall-holder friend in Galle seems to stock most of them, judging by the rich palette of colours on display, from lurid yellow to dainty pink. I buy one of the smaller ones and, as I sink my teeth into the sweet flesh, let out a little purr of pleasure.
‘Good?’ he asks with a gap-toothed grin.
Galle was colonised by the Dutch, and the old Dutch Fort, which dominates the town, is now a lovingly maintained conservation area. The ghosts of the past are all around as you stroll through the narrow streets, past 18th century churches, past dusty libraries, past gnarled old banyan trees that look as if they have been there since the dawn of time.
A cat sleeps under a white Morris Minor parked outside a tea shop. A faded sign promises "ELOCUTION LESSONS FOR AGE 4 TO 15". A boy scurries past with a cricket bat, his face aglow with excitement. A sea breeze gusts the table cloths of a restaurant promising ‘finest curries’ and ‘99 per cent approval rating’.
If Galle is a hive of activity, with its plethora of shops and cafes, the Fortress hotel, 10 miles up the coast, is a haven of luxurious calm. The only sound is the waves pounding the beach and the wind rustling the tops of the palm trees which soar high above the swimming-pool, bent at crazy angles.
Honeymooners loll in hammocks, scented by hibiscus or sip cocktails in the purpling twilight.
It is a magical spot.
Compared with some other tropical paradises, Sri Lanka is such a big island that, in a short stay, you are only going to scratch the surface.
The capital, Colombo, is a vibrant modern city of two million people. We pound the streets, soak up the atmosphere and pig out at the Ministry of Crab, a hip new seafood restaurant co-owned by two Sri Lankan Test cricketers.
But the mountainous interior is the real glory of Sri Lanka.
The ancient city of Kandy, fabled for its tea plantations, is exquisite, like something in a fairy tale, one minute wreathed in mist, the next lit by bright sun. The city centre hums with life as women in brightly coloured saris converge on the market place. Tuk-tuks career through the narrow streets. Donkeys and bullocks pull carts laden with fruit and vegetables.
The suburbs, in contrast, exude the grace of a bygone age, when women in white dresses strolled in the botanical gardens or took tea on the lawn. Our hotel, Mahawelli Reach, overlooks a muddy river which glides off without a murmur into the dark foliage. White birds swoop through the trees. There is a smell of turmeric from the kitchen, promising a slap-up curry lunch beside the pool.
For Sri Lanka’s 14 million Buddhists, Kandy is a place of pilgrimage, and the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic, said to contain a tooth of the Buddha himself, is one of the most impressive buildings on the sub-continent, with its dramatic lakeside setting, dainty roofs and richly gilt interior.
Not too far from Kandy, rising dramatically above the rice fields, is Sigiriya, Sri Lanka’s answer to Ayers Rock. This craggy pillar of rock, more than 1,000 feet high, has been a sacred site for more than fifteen centuries.
As we slog our way to the top, we pass shady water gardens, deep-set caves, some rather racy frescoes of half-dressed women and, best of all, two enormous lion’s paws, carved out of the rock. I gape in awe.
Our last port of call is the Pinnawala Elephant Breeding Centre, on the road to Colombo.
Originally an orphanage for baby elephants that had lost their mothers, the centre is now home to over 80 animals, ranging in age from 70 to just a few weeks. The younger babies have to be bottle-fed 35 litres of milk a day, but the diet works wonders, judging by their playful demeanour as they frolic in the sun before taking a cooling dip in the river.
One particularly cute elephant, after posing for photographs, slips off a rock and flounders about in the water, ears flapping wildly, before being rescued by its mother, who gives it an admonishing slap with her huge trunk.
The roars of laughter from the watching locals seem to sum up the relaxed good humour that is such a feature of Sri Lankan life.
Everywhere we go, we encounter a friendliness that is both inspiring and humbling.