1 Ulagalla is around 4½ hours by car from Colombo’s Bandaranaike International Airport. It has luxury stilted cabins (pictured) spread out among forest and rice paddies in a rural setting; meals are served on the colonnaded veranda of the historic main house (from £155; ugaescapes.com/ ulagalla). It’s a 45-minute drive to the ancient city of Anuradhapura (entry £20) and 30 minutes to the hilltop temple of Mihintale (£3.50).
2 Mannar Island is worth a few hours’ exploration at least. It’s possible to see it as a detour between Anuradhapura (three hours away) and Jaffna (another three hours), but if you want to break the trip, stay at the smart Palmyrah House (from £115; palmyrahhouse.com) – also great for a lunch stop – or if you’re keen to try kitesurfing, at the end-of-the-Earth haven of Vayu Resort (from £55; kitesurfingmannar.com).
3 The Jetwing Jaffna opened in 2016 in the centre of Jaffna. It’s a modern tower with South Asian-inspired décor, buffet dinners in its restaurant (pictured) and a wonderful rooftop bar looking out over this surprisingly green city (from £70; jetwinghotels.com/ jetwingjaffna). Another hotel, The Thinnai, runs Thinnai Organic Farm in the countryside north of the city – cooking courses cost £27 (thethinnai.com).
4 Most of Jaffna’s archipelago is easily explored by road (thanks to causeways) or short ferry crossings. A day trip to Delft Island requires a bit more planning as ferry departures are fewer. These change regularly so it’s best to ask locally, but be ready to leave Jaffna at dawn to arrive at Kurikadduwan pier in time. There are very few places to stay on the island; Delft Samudra is a new opening (from £30; delftsamudra.com).
5 There’s a wider choice of places to stay in and around Trincomalee, 4½ hours’ drive from Jaffna. North of Trinco town, past Uppuveli and Nilaveli beaches, you’ll find Uga Jungle Beach Resort, which has its own secluded stretch of sand, cabins dotted around the namesake thickets of trees, and a timber-built, open-plan main building, with a restaurant serving Western and Sri Lankan cuisine (from £165; ugaescapes.com/junglebeach).
6 The quickest boat trips to Pigeon Island National Park depart from Nilaveli beach (park fee, boat trip and snorkel equipment hire around £30). Try to arrive on the island for snorkelling by 8.30am, as the water clarity reduces during the day and visitor numbers can be high around noon. For scuba diving in the area, try the Poseidon Diving Station on Nilaveli beach (two-tank boat dives from £65; divingsrilanka.com).
7 Make time at the start or end of your journey to see Colombo. Visitors often rush past Sri Lanka’s capital, but it has an intriguing mix of surviving colonial architecture and varied local styles, plus burgeoning modernity. Get there before the vibe changes. You’ll find a more timeless appeal at Maniumpathy – a lovely 19th-century mansion in Tamil style, with antique-filled rooms surrounding a pool in the central courtyard (from £150; maniumpathy.com).