For Cathy and Lisa Wagstaff, Sri Lanka’s south coast is a beacon of beaches, culture and wildlife ideal for a mother-daughter getaway in one of the world’s top trending destinations.
Although we’ve been told how travellers flock to Sri Lanka’s palm-fringed southern coast in search of surfing, whale-watching and snorkelling, we come to realise that seeing the beaches, wildlife-rich national parks and temples is only part of the appeal. It’s the warm welcome that visitors receive that has really put Sri Lanka on the wishlists of worldly travellers.
This 65,610-square-kilometre island is the Pearl of the Indian Ocean, with a population of 21 million, including Sinhalese, Tamils, Moors, Burghers, Malays and the indigenous Vedda people. Since the end of the civil war in 2009, this ‘Splendid Island’ (as its name may be translated in Sanskrit) has only grown in popularity, offering a tantalising blend of adventure, wildlife, culture, cuisine and history. There is far too much to explore in one two-week visit, so we decide not to try to see it all in one trip and focus on the south.
We journey from Colombo, the capital, to the fishing town of Tangalle, stopping often. We sample local fruit from roadside stalls, try buffalo curd topped with honey (it’s delicious) and chat to locals, all with huge smiles. We exchange greetings of ‘Ayubowan’, wishing one another a long life in Sinhala, our hands pressed together as if in prayer.
Life amid the coconut palms
Twelve kilometres outside Tangalle, our driver surprises us and swerves into a rural dirt road that ends at our destination. Aman (its name meaning ‘peace’ in Sanskrit) has a duo of Sri Lankan resorts, both opened in 2004. While Amangalla (80 kilometres west in Galle) is all historic grace, here, Amanwella is a contemporary beach resort, secluded away in 14 hectares of coconut grove.
Architect Kerry Hill, a long-time Aman collaborator, has clearly been inspired by Sri Lanka’s late, pre-eminent architect, Geoffrey Bawa, and his ‘tropical modernism’ style. The 27 suites all feature six-metre plunge pools, stone walls, floor-to-ceiling glass and folding doors and accents crafted from the kithul palm. Under the terracotta roof, clean lines and a palette of soothing cream, beige and honey offers a welcome respite from the balmy heat outside, and – would you believe – a loo with the most extraordinary view.
We’re immediately drawn to the main pool, a 47-metre expanse overlooking Amanwella’s stretch of private beach. Towering palms separate us from the white-sand beach below, and a coterie of poolside attendants keep us cool with a never-ending supply of mint gelato. We eat lunch beside the sand at the Beach Club, where ocean-fresh seafood is grilled over coconut charcoal, and stroll through coconut palms to the beach, where my daughter, Lisa, finds a rope swing at the water’s edge. She arcs through the air and drops into the sea.
Breakfast is served in the breezy Restaurant, overlooking the pool and the beach beyond, where we savour traditional coconut rice and delicate curries cooked with ingredients grown on site. Some days we begin with yoga on a beachside platform, others with a wander through the nearby village of Wella Wathura, following jungle pathways in search of monkeys and wild deer. Two hours northeast of Tangalle, we make our way through Udawalawe National Park, one of the world’s best places to see elephants in the wild. An hour to the west of the resort, we climb the hill above beautiful Mirissa Bay, a hotspot during the whale-watching season and a popular site for Instagrammers, looking out over the ocean.
Where history comes alive
Without a doubt, Galle Fort is the historic highlight of the south coast. The fort, separate from the town of Galle, perfectly preserves Sri Lanka’s colonial history, from the Portuguese who built the first earth-and-palisade defence in the 16th century to the Dutch East India Company, which built the coral and granite walls. The British are here in a tower dedicated to Queen Victoria and the cricket ground just beyond the ‘new’ gate, as are the Moors who came to peddle their wares. The settlement within the fort is spread over 52 hectares of colourful cafes, gelato bars, art galleries and boutiques selling stunning homewares, with a gabled Dutch church, a mosque and a Buddhist temple tucked in between. We walk along the old ramparts, waves lashing the rocks below, and take a tuk-tuk to the Japanese peace pagoda.
Amangalla is the only five-star hotel within the walled town, located in two 17th-century buildings built as Dutch officers’ barracks. In 1865, it became the New Oriental Hotel before being transformed into the 28-room Aman sanctuary that it is today. The style is pared-back colonial grandeur: polished teak floorboards, window shutters, fourposter beds, antique Pettagama chests displaying fine liquors and overhead fans forever turning in the sultry heat.
Atop the hotel is the elegant Amangalla Suite – complete with sunrise views of the ramparts – while our bedroom is in a newer section, nestled in the garden. Even in the entry-level rooms, the bathroom is as big as the bedroom, a freestanding tub at the centre.
It is the service that really makes the hotel stand out during our Sri Lankan journey. We’re greeted in the grand Zaal (Great Hall) by a woman in a crisp, blue-trimmed sari with a soft voice. Pathum, our butler, organises spa treatments (where a doctor presides over an Ayurvedic experience) and urges us to get in early at the Sunset Balcony on the second floor, where we sip arrack sours as the sun dips below the fort walls.
Afternoon tea on the verandah, sumptuous curry dinners in the Dining Room and drinks in the Zaal – where a baby grand piano sings under the fingers of a particularly talented guest – have us feeling as if we are staying in a private home in the days of British Ceylon.
Calm in the capital
That feeling returns when we arrive in Colombo. The capital is a lively, vibrant metropolis, so it’s amazing to find a pocket of peace at its heart in the Residence by Uga Escapes. The former home of Sheikh Salehboy Moosajee was designed for entertaining and has elements of colonial style and reverent Victoriana spread across its 11 suites, chandelier-adorned public spaces and restaurant and bar. The hotel is bathed in the serenity of the surrounding gardens and the nearby lakeside Buddhist temple of Gangarama. By day, we venture out into historic quarters and newly developed centres of food and art. By night, we retreat to our private enclave, relishing the final moments of tranquillity before flying home.
Sri Lanka has captured our imaginations like no other destination, from the warmth of its people to the headiness of its spices. Fortunately, our south coast journey covered but a fraction of the island; there is plenty left to explore.
Sri Lanka In Style is a Colombo-based partner of Virtuoso.
Cathy captured her Sri Lanka journey with the Canon EF 70-200 L f/2.8 IS II and Canon EF 24-70 L f/2.8 lenses. cameraelectronic.com.au
SriLankan Airlines flies from Singapore to Colombo with direct flights from Melbourne to Colombo introduced last year.