A serendipitous escape

A serendipitous escape

When Lonely Planet anointed Sri Lanka as the world's top travel destination in 2013, the news hardly caused a stir among travel veterans who had long been inducted into the island's mythic charm.

The presence of two Aman resorts along its southern coastline was already a dead giveaway that Sri Lanka had stunning vistas and historical charm in equal measure. Which also explains the 1.5 million tourists that arrived in 2014.

It's been a relatively short recovery for a nation that until 2009 had been engaged in a brutal 26-year civil war that killed around 100,000 people.

The psychological scars of the 2004 tsunami notwithstanding, all over the island tourism is booming, a phenomenon helped in large part by the relatively low cost of living, and the general strength of foreign currencies against the local rupee.

But while all eyes are peeled on the new three new tourist developments at Kuchchaveli, Passikudah and Kalpitiya in the north and east of the island, the southern coastline stretching from the old fort of Galle to the wild beauty of Tangalle and Bentota remains a much-loved destination.

Fringed with slender strips of coconut groves and white-foamed waves that crash onto wide shoulders of deserted beaches, the emerald-hued sea casts an eternal Lorelei spell. And far from the chaotic and dusty towns, the intensity of the colours of the interiors deepens. Peacocks in full feathery bloom strut along the spanking new but deserted superhighways.

Everywhere, shrines to the Buddha - some sitting in splendid isolation in large glass cubes, some rising dozens of feet high on pedestals - bestow gentle, knowing smiles on the landscape.

In turn, these give way to low hills encrusted with cinnamon and rubber trees, and tea plantations. Rice fields shimmering in the heat lead to unexpected private gardens.

One evening at Amanwella, at the cocktail hour, a little while after the sun had dipped beneath the crashing sea, fireflies emerged, twinkling in and out of the gathering night.

The friendliness of the handsome, sharply featured locals feels like an embrace. There is genuine pleasure when one compliments the kitchen.

Quick smiles are accompanied by the traditional greeting of ayubowan ("may you enjoy long life"). Even the haggling in shops is conducted with such civility and grace, it's clear that no one's heart is really in it.

In Fort Galle, a bucolic fortress town that dates back seven centuries, it feels as if time has barely ticked over, this despite the shop windows being stocked with sapphires and semi-precious gemstones, and tiny boutiques in converted period terrace houses hawking canisters of tea, sarongs and expensive household tchotchkes.

The tour buses that disgorge local and European tourists frantic for selfies along the perfectly preserved ramparts depart soon enough. By the time night falls, and the high-ceilinged lounge room at Amangalla begins filling up with jazz strains and the clink of cutlery, the town has settled into a sleepy dreaminess that's been warmed by the heat of the day.

The next day, as luggage is stored away into the trunk of the waiting car, the bill is paid and the extravagant ritual of farewells from the sarong-clad Aman staff gets into full swing, the morning procession of chattering school children passes by. Many lift a hand for a high-five. One cries out: "Hello!" Another: "Come back!"

Without exception, each child bestows an incandescent smile that lights the day. Come back? It's already almost impossible to leave.

Where to stay

Framed by tidal pools and thick stands of coconut palms, Amanwella bears all the hallmarks of its Singaporean architects Kerry Hill: wide corridors, airy pavilions, and al fresco platforms that offer commanding views of the foam-flecked sea. Simply stunning. Bodhi Mawatha, Wella Wathura, Godellawella, Tangalle, Tel: +94 (0) 47 224 1333, www.amanresorts.com

In a town increasingly crowded with boutique hostels and hotels, Amangalla is Fort Galle's grande dame. Formerly the New Oriental Hotel, this gracious colonial Dutch pile has long been the epicentre of the area's social life. Here, the famed Aman service sets the tone for languid mornings by the green-tiled pool, and afternoons poking around the neighbourhood's dusty museums and colourful shops.

The best rooms look out over the ramparts and the town's ancient roofscape. 10 Church Street, Fort Galle, Galle, Tel: +94 (0) 91 223 3388, www.amanresorts.com

How to get around

Tuk-tuks are excellent for short distances. That said, private car services are extremely affordable and make more sense than the chaotic bus and train systems.

Drivers can be hired for the entire trip - they will be housed and fed by the hotels on a complimentary basis. Before arriving in Colombo, call Raja Tel: +94 (0) 11 257 7577 to arrange for an aiport pick-up. In Galle, get in touch with YH Lasantha Nuwan Tel: +94 (0) 77 760 0768, email: lasanthatours@sltnet.lk

Where to eat

Set high on the lyrically named Cinnamon Mount with commanding views of the sea and green-topped slopes, Mirissa Hills is the private home of the CEO of a major New York ad agency.

When he's not in town, the house is rented out, but a little-known secret is that private, perfectly cooked lunches can be arranged. An ideal pit-stop on the way from Galle to Bentota. Henwalle Road, Henwalle, Mirissa, Matara, Tel: +94 (0) 77 795 2054, www.mirissahills.com

In a tiny little courtyard, Lakmali Kariyawassm serves up a stunning curry and rice spread. Lucky Fort Restaurant, 7 Parawa Street, Fort Galle, Galle, Tel: +94 (0) 77 714 7662

Off the dusty main road, the Cactus Lounge is really just a beach shack with a bunch of plastic tables and chairs. A great, breezy setting for owner and chef LG Sumanasena's grilled chilli squid and barbequed fish. 435 Matara Road, Tangalle, Tel: +94 (0) 77 622 1139

Must see

The shadow of the late architect Geoffrey Bawa still looms large in Sri Lanka, his austere, beautifully proportioned lines influencing successive generations of architects at home and abroad. His private estate at Lunuganga is a paean to his great love for gardens and generously proportioned spaces.

The sprawling gardens are open to the public while the main house is a bijou guest-house. Dedduwa, Bentota, Tel: +94 (0) 34 428 7056, www.lunuganga.com

A few minutes away, hidden at the end of a narrow dusty lane that twists through rice fields and jungle, his brother Bevis Bawa's considerably more intimate house Brief is a quiet spot of cool shade and beautifully landscaped gardens.

Kalawila Village, Beruwala, Tel: +94 (0) 34 567 6298, email: brief.kalawila@gmail.com

This article was first published on April 11, 2015.
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