The teardop island has been beset by challenges. But once the world starts to travel again, James Callery recommends it as the first port of call

The drive from Colombo to Wilpattu National Park offers a sumptuous taste of Sri Lanka at its finest. Roadside fruit vendors go about their business on the sandy earth, backed by tropical fields of coconut trees and palmyra palms. Beeping tuk-tuks and motorcycles glide by as we pass stretches of marshland and the occasional Buddhist shrine.

In these coronavirus-stricken times, snapshots of Sri Lanka present welcome escapism, making it a strong contender for a dream holiday to book once this nightmare has come to an end.

Our journey from the sun-scorched dagobas (shrines) of Anuradhapura to the hazy turquoise ocean of the south is filled with hilly tea plantations, weathered Buddhist murals and national parks brimming with wildlife.

Our first day starts with an early-morning safari at Sri Lanka's largest national park, Wilpattu, which in Sinhalese means Land of Lakes.

In a lake dense with lotus flowers, we spot a mugger crocodile and herd of water buffalo sharing bathing space. Elsewhere a sambar deer as tall as an adult human holds our gaze and a golden jackal trots beside us before scampering out of sight. Our jeep pulls to a halt as our local tour leader points us in the direction of a leopard slumped on the bough of an arched tree.

We stay the night at the nearby Mahoora, which claims to be the world's first carbon neutral mobile tented safari camp company and has sites across Sri Lanka. It measures the carbon footprint of guests by considering the distance they've travelled and the length of their stay, then offsets the site's overall footprint by purchasing carbon credits from a global specialised carbon offset management company.

The camp is almost 90 per cent solar powered and uses a zero plastic and polythene approach in its servicing. While each of the ten tents comes equipped with a hot-water shower, living room and toilet, they can be completely stripped and removed in an hour, so nature can easily be restored once they are gone.

Three of the five Unesco World Heritage Sites that make up Sri Lanka's Cultural Triangle are within two and a half hour's drive of Mahoora and not to be missed. Viewing the surrounding forest plains from the top of 200metre-tall Sigiriya rock fortress, then marvelling at the time-worn Buddha statues of Dambulla's cave temples makes for an unbeatable morning.

The southern hill country's tea plantations are some of the most obvious vestiges of colonial times in Sri Lanka. The region can be reached by taking the spectacular rickety train journey from the Cultural Triangle's Kandy.

Tea-making was introduced to the country by the British in the 19th century, when the island was called Ceylon, and is still going strong in the region today. Sri Lanka's highest town, Nuwara Eliya, is very much at the centre of this. Also known as 'Little England', it serves as a good base to explore the dramatic surrounding scenery, including Horton Plains National Park.

A golf course, country clubs and a Tudor-style post office decorate an area where visitors can ride ponies and go boating on the lake.

Many of Nuwara Eliya's residents are descended from Tamil migrant workers from South India, who were brought in for tea-making in its early stages. While Brits are very welcome here, the tea workers see the colonial era as a time that has passed, and from which they are now removed.

From Nuwara Eliya's closest station, Nanu Oya, the same train line from Kandy takes you through to Ella, on perhaps the most scenic leg of the journey. The town is surrounded by eye-catching hills and tea plantations, with air that freshens the lungs.

Having finally made our way down south, we find ourselves eating juicy butterfish and red snapper on Mirissa beach, overlooking the lapping waves. It is a beautiful palm-lined crescent that still attracts plenty of discerning travellers, despite its growing fame. At night, the beach is aglow with a fairy-lit stretch of bars and restaurants, where hermit crabs scuttle across the sand as you tuck into freshly-caught fish.

Our final evening is spent in the port city of Galle, another south coast favourite on the 'Highlights' trail. Architecture recounts different periods of colonial rule: Dutch forces captured the city from the Portuguese in 1640 and the British arrived in 1796.

As the light of the day fades, the ramparts of Galle Fort (another Unesco site) provide the perfect sunset viewing platform. Behind us, Sri Lankans play cricket on the rocky earth as visitors dangle their legs over the wall. We encounter a Buddhist Sunday school-, with children dressed in white following an orange-robed monk. As a young boy from the group lightly taps on a hand drum, we stop to chat with the children. The sea of kind, smiling eyes that greets us tells me that Sri Lanka's future is bright, and that the country will always pull through hard times.

How to plan your trip

Explore (; 01252 883 512) offers a Highlights of Sri Lanka trip from £1,696 per person, including flights, accommodation, some meals and an Explore leader.