Sri Lanka’s beautiful beach resorts are splashed all over the pages of glossy travel magazines these days, but 9,000 miles is a long way to go for daybeds and daiquiris. Instead, hop one of the municipal trains (railway.gov.lk) leaving Colombo and begin the slow, steep incline into Hill Country—a region of mist-enshrouded mountains and lush, green tea plantations stretching for miles on end. You can take in the scenery in one seven-hour leaf-peeping trip aboard the first-class observation cars ($7). Or, for a more authentic experience, ditch the tourists and spend a week commuting alongside Sri Lankans on the third-class trains, striking up conversations with local passengers, flagging down the chai salesmen who wander the cars at each stop, and joining the kids who hoot and holler as the trains pass through dark tunnels—all for less than the cost of a MetroCard swipe. Disembark each day to explore sites like the holy city of Kandy, home to an ornate lakeside Buddhist temple, not to mention Ayurvedic spa treatments with rooftop views at the new Amaara Sky Hotel (from $150; amaarasky.com). For a breather, stroll through the tea plantations in the mountain town of Nuwara Eliya, a onetime British colonial retreat complete with red telephone booths and town pubs serving pints of Bass. Sri Lanka doesn’t have much of a restaurant culture, so stock up on samosas wrapped in newspaper from the onboard vendors. Off-train, even if you stay at a high-end hotel, take your meals at one of the local guesthouses found at each stop, where a steaming bowl of rice and curry with oven-fresh chapati costs about $1. Should a one-way train trip fulfill your sense of adventure, book the return ride via the new Sri Lankan Air Taxi seaplane service (from $62; srilankan.com), which whisks you from Kandy back to Colombo in 25 minutes.
The thrill-o-meter: Nobly electrifying.