16/10/2013 05:15 BST | Updated 09/01/2015 09:59 GMT

Style and Substance in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka is a staggering country. You would expect its people to be still smarting from Portuguese, Dutch and then British colonialism, followed by civil war and religious friction. But they are among the friendliest and most humble I have ever encountered, regularly stopping to chat with you about who's going to win the English Premier League, or wanting to pose with you in a photo.

Perhaps it's down to its year-round tropical sunshine, pink sandy palm beaches, or thriving trades in tea, herbs and spices, fishing, gemstones, and textiles. Or maybe it's just because everything's just 'cricket'.

Whatever the magic formula, a holiday to Sri Lanka won't leave you wanting. For a bargainous all-inclusive package deal, my partner and I were rewarded with four-course fine dining, massages, champagne and limitless cocktails. Oh, and a free mini bar. I genuinely have no idea how our hotel made any profit.

As well as being relentlessly cheerful, the people are flawlessly dressed, especially in Colombo, the capital. The prospect of a 'third-class' train ticket from coastal Negombo to Colombo left me slightly concerned about being wedged in next to the neighbourhood goat; rather, I was met with commuters on their smartphones dressed in sharp work shirts, long gypsy skirts and tailored trousers, while hawkers pushed everything from popcorn to handkerchiefs.

Back in Negombo, and beachwear is just as impressive as the city style, with popular European batik and tribal prints seen on most local woman, along with floral ankle-length skirts and sarongs teamed with plain silk and cotton t-shirts. Short skirts and bikinis were generally only donned by tourists, as the predominantly Catholic (and some Muslim) locals opted for more modest attire. I got a few cat calls for wearing a skirt above the knee - only very few - and was left alone when I started wearing local clothing, which was readily available from some chatty beach sellers for about £5 per garment.

As well as easy access to precious gemstones (be prepared for some hardcore bartering), there's also the Odel: a world-class department store where I went mad buying costume jewellery for an average of £3 per piece. For a somewhat more authentic shopping experience, the local market sells everything from red bananas to camera batteries to miniature wooden 'tuk-tuks', the three-wheeled taxi torture devices that relentlessly burned through the streets.

When the sun sinks into almost total darkness, the people light up. Traditional tribal dances, fresh seafood barbecues and a surprisingly vibrant bar culture make exploring Sri Lanka at night a must. Just beware the pot-holed pavements.

No trip to Sri Lanka would be complete without a visit to the country's pride and joy: the government-funded Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage, where you can get up close with the herd and watch them feeding and river bathing. I'd also recommend the hypnotic botanical gardens in Kandy.

For one of the most idyllic and astonishingly good value for money out-of-season luxury holiday escapes, Sri Lanka is about as dreamy as you can get.