Sri Lanka, with its rich flora and fauna, unexplored hill country, world heritage sites, beaches and boutique hotels, had never been top of my list of must-sees. I had no idea there would be an absence of potholed roads, speakers blasting out distorted music, pollution, rubbish and beggars (unlike my favourite destination, India, to which I'd always idly compared it). But grassroots guesthouses and boutique hotels are the first steps in Sri Lanka's post-war tourism reincarnation. Visitors are beginning to return to this teardrop-shaped island and some, like me, are choosing to eschew sand and sea, and are falling instead for the little-visited northern central plains, known as the Cultural Triangle, and the hill country to its south. Northwest from Colombo is the Mudhous (themudhouse.lk), in the Puttalam district. The 8.9- hectare property is adjacent to a lake teeming with birdlife. The digs are rustic: guests stay in a handful of traditional wattle-and-daub houses. Kerosene lamps and candles provide the lighting and the 'jungle' shower is cold water piped from a reservoir - but there's a four-poster bed, a flushing toilet, a reading room and a dining pavilion. Cuisine is focused on local curries with jackfruit, drumstick and snake gourd, supplemented by herbal tonics, grown in owner Ranjith 'Kumar' Kumaatunga's organic garden. The kurakkan pittu looks like a Christmas pudding but turns out to be a rice-like grain, while eggs come in pancake cups called 'hoppers'. Life unfurls at a deliciously slow pace here and a birdwatching expedition, a dip in the lake, a consultation with a local astrologer and a visit to a village where a family usher me into their home and ply me with coconut juice, all have me itching for a return visit. Next stop is Sigiriya, home to the 200-metre-high Sigiriya Rock, Sri Lanka's answer to Australia's Uluru and once the citadel of a fugitive king. Vil Uyana, a boutique hotel that opened in 2006, is fast becoming an attraction to rival the rock. My two-storey villa, one of 25 set among marsh, forest, water and rice field habitats, comes with a plunge pool and palatial bathroom. There is a chill-out lounge filled with wildlife books, a resident naturalist and a daily menu of nature-based activities, including an elephant safari to nearby Minneriya National Park. I opt for some back-to-basics trekking in the Knuckles, a range of mountains in the heart of the country. Guide Sidantha Kumara has set up a community tourism project at The Abode (theabodetrust.com) guesthouse to preserve the remote Knuckles village of Walpolamulla, and its population of six. He calls it a 'jungle cathedral'. Visitors get an insight into the lives of the remaining mountain dwellers who, in turn, receive an income. It's a win-win situation but to see it you need to be prepared to rough it. Carrying the lightest of backpacks, we hike through rice fields and up into the mountains, the view obscured by a sudden downpour and mist. Walking in the pouring rain for three hours while leeches feast on your ankles is not for the faint of heart. Fortunately, liberal swigs of hot toddy keep my spirits up. The jungle cathedral turns out to be two stone-walled village houses set apart. My hosts, an elderly couple, welcome me warmly into their home. My room is spartan but cosy: it contains a bed and, in a nice touch, a trunk full of books. The toilet is the bush behind the house and the bath a stream. That night we eat roti, coconut rice, dried fish, sambal and potato curry by firelight and I learn about the couple's Buddhist-cum-animist leanings and traditional healing practices. Four hours after descending the mountain in blazing sunshine, I've swapped rural bliss for urban folly - Helga's Folly (helgasfolly.com), that is, high in the hills above Kandy, the last royal capital of Sri Lanka. Owner Helga de Silva Blow Perera patrols the premises of her 'anti-hotel', as she calls it, in trademark Jackie O sunglasses and kimono with a pet Dalmatian by her side. The sight could give rise to Cruella de Vil jibes but for the fact that Perera is a generous hostess. 'Folly' is an apt name for this gothic wonder; the guestrooms and common areas are doused in colour. The Buddhist and Hindu murals, the monumental dripping candles, baubles, fluorescent cushions, gramophones, casually strewn heirlooms and 'hall of fame' walls lined with photos of former guests - Laurence Olivier, Gandhi, Nehru et al - either absorb you in their magic or send you fleeing to a beige five-star. For me it's love at first sight and I'm rooted to the spot. Through Perera, I meet Waruna Jayasinghe, an artist and the city's top antiques dealer, who specialises in bronzes, jewellery and textiles. A sapphire pendant and paintings by the late local artist George Keyt are the sort of the treasures that have far-flung collectors flocking to his shop on Kandy's Peradeniya Road. Jayasinghe also runs Samadhi, a retreat and organic farm an hour's drive from Kandy, where ayurvedic treatments, hikes and yoga can be arranged. There's a brass foundry, carpentry and antique restoration workshop on the premises and guests are welcome to have a go. Another of Perera's prot?g?s, Rahju, a hip half-Norwegian, half-Sri Lankan artist, takes me to his studio in Gunnepana, a pretty village a few kilometres from Kandy. He specialises in Hindu and Buddhist imagery and Sri Lankan nature scenes, and his striking canvases are popular with Colombo's smart set. Rather conveniently, he lives a hop, skip and a jump from the Kandy House, a boutique hotel with nine airy rooms, all sweetly named after butterflies, and which wrap around a garden courtyard, and pool. You can forget about Wi-fi but a week or two of Sri Lankan-style living and even incurably wired types may find themselves succumbing to the most delicious fix of them all: an old-fashioned time out. Getting there: Sri Lankan Airlines (srilankan.aero) has direct flights between Hong Kong and Colombo. From there, take a train from Colombo's Fort Station to Kandy. There are regular public bus services to the Cultural Triangle.