Sri Lanka: Paradise island

29 Sep 2018 by Marisa Cannon
Amanwella Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka’s dazzling southern coastline offers natural beauty, thrilling safaris, pristine beaches and a host of alluring luxury resorts

It’s just gone 6am and I’m jolted awake by the aggressive revving of our Jeep’s engine. Rumours of a leopard sighting have been hastily phoned through the network of guides, and every vehicle in the vicinity jumps into action. Our driver slams his foot down and we hurtle forward over the scrubland towards a grove of trees where a cluster of 4WDs have gathered, packed with day-trippers peering out of their open-tops. After a few minutes, Pisandu, our guide, breaks the news: “We just missed them. Drinking at the watering hole… a mother and two cubs.”

Yala National Park on Sri Lanka’s southern coast has the densest leopard population in the world, but that doesn’t make the elusive cats any easier to spot. The nature reserve sprawls over 130,000 hectares of terrain from forest to lagoons, though only two of the five zones are open to visitors. This makes leopard sightings hard enough to come by, and the presence of 700 vehicles a day in the park’s most popular Block 1 is not likely to improve the odds.

Nonetheless, Yala is a trove of natural beauty and wildlife. Over two days we spot a pair of bathing elephants, dozing crocodiles, thirsty water buffalo, herds of spotted deer, painted storks, wild boar and a sluggish monitor lizard that had us nearly rear-end another jeep to avoid running it over.

Set on Yala’s fringes, the Wild Coast Tented Lodge offers an ideal base from which to appreciate the reserve’s natural beauty. The boutique resort from Relais and Chateaux opened in November 2017 and gives guests a rare opportunity to blend into the wilderness with its boulder-shaped tented suites. Inside, these domed, canvas abodes are decked out in colonial-themed finery with a four-poster king-size bed, large bathroom with freestanding copper bathtub, rich leather accents and teak floors. The suite’s front and back are encased in floor-to-ceiling glass windows through which you can watch all sorts of creatures, from monkeys to Sri Lankan junglefowl, roaming in the bush.

You wonder how a resort like this can exist without profoundly impacting the environment around it, but its eco-credentials stand up: food waste is converted into cooking gas and organic manure; water is taken from the ocean and recycled into ponds around the lodge; exhaust from the tents’ air conditioning is used to heat water; and solar panels provide 50 per cent of the resort’s energy.

A five-minute walk from the main hub of suites is the open-air bamboo bar and restaurant where mealtimes are spent gorging on grilled barracuda, snapper and a bevy of Sri Lankan curries. A cobalt pool flows under an arched bridge, bisecting the bar and restaurant, before continuing out into the sun-drenched garden. Outside, loungers are scattered across the lawn overlooking the sea below, and at night, a firepit is lit for guests to gather around and enjoy cocktails as the sun sets on the horizon. (Rooms start from US$804; resplendentceylon.com/wildcoastlodge-yala)

Wild Coast Tented Lodge, Sri Lanka

Coastal beauty

It’s hard to imagine today, but Sri Lanka’s spectacular southern coastline was ravaged by the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, with ten-metre waves devastating the towns that now thrive here. One of the area’s most popular coastal towns is Mirissa, which was destroyed by three enormous waves that left two-thirds of its families bereft and homeless. Now, it has rebuilt itself into an active traveller’s paradise; a hit with surfers, great for diving and snorkelling, and also known for its blue whale migration and dolphin-watching tours between December and April. The beaches here are a great option for families with children as the shoreline slides gently into the sea without the risk of craggy shelving, and you can walk out a good 20 metres before the water hits your waist.   

It’s also worth travelling the hour’s drive from Mirissa to the fishing town of Tangalle. This coastal beauty spot is known for its pristine beaches, as well as Tangalle Fishing Harbour, a buzzing port packed with colourful boats that gives a real sense of the region’s culture and industry. Rise early to catch local fishermen unloading their swollen nets of bounty, before tucking into a breakfast of piping hot daal and egg roti from one of the many street vendors.

Tangalle is also home to all-out luxury in the form of the Amanwella, a 30-room resort designed by celebrated Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa. Set on 800 metres of private beach, it’s a paragon of clean lines, whitewashed open spaces and minimally designed lodgings overlooking manicured lawns and sentinel palm trees. Suites are fashioned using indigenous materials, with stone walls, terrazzo floors and woven lattice doors that offer privacy at night, but slide open to reveal a private courtyard, terrace and a six-metre plunge pool in the day.

Beach yoga is a great way to start the day, set beneath a collection of palm trees overlooking frothy, jade waves mere metres away. Our instructor Chaminda guides us through a gruelling hour and a half of poses and contortions, which stretch and push our limits, leaving me feeling energised and realigned.

Meals are served in a gleaming glass restaurant perched on a hill above the beach – we tuck into a breakfast of hoppers (bowl-shaped pancakes made with fermented rice flour and coconut milk) and fresh fruit, before heading down to admire the pool views. There is a pervading sense of space, especially from the sun deck where guests paddle in bone-warming sunshine. Little else could be as relaxing, though a foot massage on the beach might top it. There are plenty of high-octane activities on offer too, including beach volleyball and badminton, martial arts and fitness classes, cycling trips and a helicopter tour of the hill country farther north. (Rooms start from US$975; aman.com/resorts/amanwella)

Colonial splendour

From the nearby city of Matara, we head west on a train to Galle, a UNESCO World Heritage site filled with handsome colonial buildings, flamboyant fashion boutiques and meandering alleyways packed with local charm. Galle Fort, first built by the Portuguese in the 16th century and later updated by the Dutch, is the city’s beating heart. Tourists come here to enjoy the old-world atmosphere and to dine in the Fort’s cosy cafés and restaurants, now attuned to the tastes of international travellers with tropical fruit smoothies, superfood salads and flavourful seafood curries on the menu.

Poonie’s Kitchen is a firm favourite, touting a range of Asian plates from Vietnamese pho to masala chickpea salad with feta-stuffed red peppers, alongside Western eggs and brunch dishes. For authentic local flavours, family-run restaurant Lucky Fort offers a compact dinner menu of ten taster-style curries served with rice – all delicious – that will only set you back the price of a coffee at home.

However, Galle’s culinary crowning glory is not in the Fort, but perched on a hill not far from the city’s train station. The Sun House resides in the former home of a Scottish spice merchant, and is known to serve some of the most delectable Sri Lankan cuisine on the southern coast – Michelin-star chef Skye Gyngell of London’s Petersham Nurseries named it one of her favourite restaurants in the world. Highlights of the tantalising menu include grilled prawn salad with wasabi aioli, marinated mahi mahi with lemongrass sauce, and a wonderful hot rum banana and ice cream.

Next door is The Dutch House, one of the city’s oldest colonial mansions. Originally built in 1712, the residence is furnished with rustic, old-world accents, weathered book shelves and colourful local artwork, with four characterful suites whose décor transports guests back to a time when Sri Lanka was known as Ceylon. Staff are friendly and attentive, and an affable German Shepherd roams the communal spaces, keeping guests company. Outside on the verandah, inviting sun loungers overlook a tropical garden and croquet lawn, below which sits an azure infinity pool under a swathe of low-hanging trees. (Rooms start from US$445; thedutchhouse.com)

For a better sense of Galle’s colonial history, the Historical Mansion Museum offers a collection of artefacts that illustrate the European influences that have shaped the region – first colonised by the Portuguese, then the Dutch and finally the British. Key pieces include intricately woven beeralu lace from Portugal, antique typewriters, spectacles, European jewellery and VOC porcelain. Sri Lanka is well known for its precious stone trade, and the museum’s compact gem shop boasts a selection of glittering jewels for sale. Even if you’re not in the market, it’s worth stopping by to watch the local gem cutters carve and polish rough sapphires and rubies into flawless pieces.

Cricket fans will also know Galle for its picturesque stadium. First built as a race course in 1876, the century-old sports ground became another victim of the 2004 tsunami, but has since been rebuilt with a new 500-seat pavilion that offers scenic views of the Indian Ocean. The stadium is a source of immense pride for a nation of passionate cricketers and is considered one of the luckiest stadiums for The Lions, the national cricket team – Sri Lanka has won 18 of the 25 test matches held here, including the 230-run victory over South Africa in July. Coming up on November 6-10, Sri Lanka will face down England in the first test innings at Galle Stadium. So if you plan your trip for then, at least you’ll be guaranteed the chance to admire some of Sri Lanka’s national cats in action – even if you don’t manage to spot the evasive leopards.

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