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Hottest Travel Destinations of 2012

Courtesy of Maya Villa

Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka’s lush hill towns and pristine beaches have long appealed to a certain breed of worldly traveler, but the flare-ups of the country’s brutal on-again, off-again 26-year civil war kept all but the most devoted of them away. The conflict ended three years ago, and as a prolonged peace finally takes hold, this Indian Ocean island is on the cusp of a tourism boom.

Sri Lanka’s beach-lined southern coast, centered around the popular town of Bentota, is the country’s strongest draw—and big developers are moving in. The Minor Hotel Group chose the area to debut its sister brand to Anantara with last month’s launch of the 75-room Avani Bentota Resort & Spa (94-34/227-5353; doubles from $180) in a restored Geoffrey Bawa–designed building. A second Avani, a Six Senses resort, and a Shangri-La property are also in the works.

In the meantime, a handful of designers have opened boutique hotels, including the 15-room Villa Bentota (doubles from $224), the latest project from Sri Lankan tastemaker Shanth Fernando. Farther south, in Beliatta, Hong Kong decorator Niki Fairchild has turned a century-old house into the glamorous five-suite Maya (94-47/567-9025; doubles from $170).

In the northwest, an ambitious government scheme aims to transform the Kalpitiya peninsula into the country’s next big resort destination. Until those plans are realized, the laid-back Bar Reef Resort (94-777/352-200; doubles from $125) has airy cabanas and a quiet one-mile beach.

Perhaps the biggest peace dividend has been the reopening of the leopard- and elephant-filled Wilpattu National Park, in the northwest. Stay at the two-year-old Ulagalla Resort (doubles from $374), which has 20 thatched-roof bungalows on 58 acres an hour from the park. —Jennifer Chen

The Breakdown

Who It’s For: Beach lovers with a yen for culture and wildlife.

How to Do It: Many international airlines fly to Colombo, though none directly from the States.

When to Go: Nov.–April

Exotic Factor: Foreign/Far-Flung

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