The first lesson to remember when visiting Sri Lanka is to estimate the time it will take to travel between your chosen destinations. Then double it. Then double it again. This tear-shaped island is a mere 400km from top to bottom, but its roads offer a test of endurance in which every driver is auditioning for Formula 1 and blind-corner overtaking is all part of the experience. It is said that in the United States cars drive on the right, in Britain on the left and in Sri Lanka in the shade. Cars share the road with tuk-tuks, lorries, monkeys, ox carts, elephants and the occasional porcupine and lizard. All this makes my children's pleas of 'Are we there yet?' difficult to deflect. The answer is almost always 'No'. Transport challenges can be avoided by staying in one location. There is a lot to be said for this because the beaches stretching down the west coast to Bentota and beyond are beautiful and accessible from the airport at Negombo. Further south, around Galle, the beaches are slowly recovering from the tsunami and debris and an abundance of United Nations tents are a reminder of that terrible event. Here, more than anywhere else in Sri Lanka, your tourist dollar is well spent. Galle has maintained a shabby gentility through its difficulties and the Unesco-listed, 16th-century Dutch fort rewards your visit. You can join courting locals for a walk around walls with endless views out to the ocean, where the next landfall is Antarctica. Sticking to the coast, however, would mean missing out on a true taste of Sri Lanka in the island's hill country. Sri Lanka's hills are reached by a drive of four hours to the wonderful, compact town of Kandy, perched next to a lake and surrounded by peaks. Most famous for the Esala Perahera, or procession of 150 elephants and thousands of dancers every full moon in August, the town has much to recommend it. The procession begins at the Temple of the Tooth, where a tooth of the Buddha is stored in a casket and can be viewed once every five years. The next viewing is in two years; four million pilgrims turned up for a glimpse last time, so be prepared to queue. At the nearby Pinnawela elephant orphanage, visitors can marvel at the strength of even the youngest baby pachyderm. Even better is the chance to sit at a riverside restaurant, eating coconut and prawn curry and drinking mango lassi as all 80 elephants are led past for a swim and wash in the river. North of Kandy sits the ancient capital of Polannaruwa. The remains of the city are impressive, especially the enormous rock Buddhas. Even more striking is the towering rock fortress of Sigiriya. This was the site chosen by kings to defend their territory and display their power, and the rock still looks impregnable. The route to the top passes delicate, 1,000-year-old portraits painted on the rock, although the iron ladder and catwalk are not for the faint-hearted. The scattered remains of buildings on the summit, reached after passing through the colossal carved lion's paws, give only a hint of the fortress that once capped this lofty perch. Children are struck more by the views towards hill and coast and the sense of achievement in climbing all those steps. Further into the hill country sits Nuwara Eliya, 1,800 metres above sea level and reached by a switchback road on which children try to sell flowers. If rebuffed at one corner, they run wildly down muddy slopes to try again at the next. And the next. And the one after that. Nuwara Eliya was the home of English tea planters and is a microcosm of Old Blighty, complete with Tudor-beamed country club, golf course, croquet lawn and racecourse. At this altitude, a visit is often accompanied by British-style drizzle and a cold wind sweeping off Mount Pedro, although this fails to detract from a visit to a tea factory or the white-gloved service during dinner at the terribly colonial Hill Club. Here, diners sit in jacket and tie beneath hunting trophies and eat five delicious courses, with wine, for 2,000 rupees ($152). Tea factories are places of wonder where the hand-picked crop is processed within 24 hours and where one learns that tea used in bags is usually of the most inferior kind. Kandy tea is strong and dark, but the Nuwara Eliya vintage is much paler and more delicate. Our tour finishes with samples of the finer leaves served in delicate china cups. The enthusiastic guide has 43 years' experience of showing tourists around his factory but still winces as we add sugar to the brew. The undoubted highlight of the hill country is the chance to take a train across the plantation slopes and through the valleys, with the coast thousands of metres below. As with all transport in Sri Lanka, journeys by train are unpredictable - delays are usually measured in quarter-days - but unlike trips by car, they are supremely relaxed. Try to book first class in the observation carriage, with its large windows and big views. Third class is seatless, airless, crowded and noisy, but the sari-clad women and peanut sellers are happy to make room for one more passenger. Lean from a window to buy cashew nuts or custard apples. Wave to tea pickers beneath their huge baskets, or as they take a break around an iron cauldron of boiling tea. Even if the diesel locomotive is travelling at only 30km/h, you'll get there eventually. And anyway, who would want a journey like this to end? Getting there: Cathay Pacific ( www.cathaypacific.com ) flies from Hong Kong to Colombo.