ALONG THE SOUTHERN SHORE OF SRI LANKA IS A HIDDEN COLLECTION OF GEMS, SPOTS WORTH THE TREK, ALL MIXED INTO THE DAILY LIFE OF THIS PART OF THE SUBCONTINENT. ONCE YOU GET YOUR NAVIGATIONAL BEARINGS, YOU’LL FIND A BREEZY VIBE ECHOING THROUGH THE PALM TREES O
Along the southern shore of Sri Lanka is a hidden collection of gems, all mixed into daily life, and places you never imagined existed. Story and photographs by Christopher Kucway
Gentle waves curl ashore, so the surfers kick back. Some lounge under the palm trees, moving as little as a somnolent gecko. A kid splashes around in the shallows, mom an arm’s length away in the slight, silent breeze. Mid-afternoon and the only sounds along the half-kilometer arc of sand at Hiriketiya Bay are lapping turquoise waves and birdsong from blue skies. Idyllic.
Yet I’m just as awestruck by what is missing in this corner of paradise: coughing tuk tuks, the stagnant sight of yet another reggae bar, any inkling of mass tourism; in short, there’s no trace of overdeveloped shoreline in this jungle-shrouded pocket of Sri Lanka. Instead, palm trees tilt out over the bay, breaking up solid stretches of sand that embrace visitors at will. It’s all natural nooks and crannies, not manicured development.
There are maybe a few dozen people dozing, lolling about in the surf and chatting in the shade of the palms along this inlet on Sri Lanka’s south coast; a chill is in the air if not on the thermometer. A guy could get used to this. Surfers tell me they come here for the peeling lefthander with swells up to two meters and I, safely behind Ray-Bans, stare off to the horizon and nod knowingly, pretending to understand what they’re talking about.
When most think of the south coast of Sri Lanka, they rarely venture much further than Galle. Poetic place names like Cape Welligama or Tangalle might roll off the tongue of more adventurous visitors, but that’s where the familiarity ends. Until now. Follow the flip-flopped footsteps of the global surf set today, and you’ll find a wealth of hidden inlets, laid-back eateries dishing up hoppers and ice-cold beer, and small resorts the likes of which you will not see anywhere else in Asia. This is no longer the Sri Lanka of fishermen on stilts—they’re nothing more than a postcard image these days, spending their hours not actually catching fish but trolling for rupees from any tourist with a camera. One iconic tradition down, but don’t fret, there are enough new gems along this coast to ease you into Sri Lankan ways in unimagineable settings.
In aging, overdeveloped and crumbling towns, dilapidated three- and four-story buildings seemingly lean against each other like rows of old men watching the world go past. This string of small towns common to the island links the coast together. Do pick one out at random, take an hour or two to scour it for an everyday local flavor of this region, particularly the morning street stalls stacked high with bitter melons, assorted roots and butterfish. From the shadows, stall-holders will either glare at you knowing full well you’re not going to buy anything or else aim to sell you several kilos of slippery fish from the piles spilling onto the roadway.
Explore beyond these small towns to hidden places that will tap your greatest navigational sense. Some of the routes to these newer spots start as two lanes of tarmac, narrow to one with the jungle claiming back what it can, dissipate into a crumbling half-pavement, half-dirt lane before ending, say, in a makeshift log bridge that warns both in Sinhalese and English do not
drive your rental car across here. Turn left at the coconut palm and hope for the best. Signage is not a concern. There is none.
Etched in the cracking, centuries-old tombstones of Galle Fort is, as you would expect, a vividly painted picture of the past. Surrounding the Dutch Reformed Church are permanent markers of a 21-year-old sailor succumbing to disease back in 1721, another European felled by the tropical heat days after disembarking centuries ago, and countless others. Back in the present I feel for the sun-darkened, tropical-wizened Sinhalese woman tasked with sweeping the garden of its leaves. Her muted smile announces this is every day of my life in this town.
Venturing beyond Galle Fort shouldn’t mean skipping the historic port altogether. I’m mesmerized by history and this equatorial maze simply oozes it. A quick lesson: the Portuguese first built a fort here in 1589, the Dutch
seized it in 1640, by 1796 it was handed over to the
British. Today, tourists outnumber locals by an untold margin, those Sri Lankans who still live here catering to the nostalgia-seeking visitors. Walkable streets and narrow lanes are lined with the occasional perfectly put-together residence, small restaurants and curio shops, a handful of which are must stops. Barefoot bursts with bolts of colorful cotton, while Spa Ceylon teases your nose with sandalwood and grapefruit before you ever lay eyes on it, and KK Collection is home to an eclectic mix of home furnishings given a Sri Lankan twist. Duck through fashion shop Mimimango to reach Poonie’s Kitchen, a small, shaded courtyard tucked in behind the tables laden with costume jewelry, which dishes up fresh salads and tropical juices.
Still, view Galle as a springboard to the rest of the south coast. Heading east are a number of restaurants and resorts worth the journey if you know where to look.
Near to Galle, but well away from the beach, and in actual fact not needing a beach at all thanks to its oversized, T-shaped swimming pool, Why House appears a throwback to another era. It’s more of a private home off in the green fringes of Galle than a resort, with its colonial touches and lush gardens several kilometers down a narrow road overgrown in parts on both sides. The charm of this place hangs ripening from mango trees, echoes in the birdlife and emanates from its intimate size. In all, there are nine rooms, but opt either for a Garden Villa or a Garden Bungalow—they look and feel more comfortable than space in the main house.
“If I don’t get your story in the first 15 minutes, then I’m not doing my job,” says Henrietta Cottam, the manager who explains she learned her lesson when an American retiree was checking out a few years ago. Caught up in her daily chores, she hadn’t spoken with the man or his wife at all during their stay, only to discover when they were leaving that he had walked on the moon as an Apollo astronaut. What a conversation over a gin and tonic that would have been. Cottam is also known for her culinary skills, an asset evident on lunch and dinner menus that include Sri Lankan, Western, Nepalese and even Lebanese entries. That’s an added bonus at this resort that makes you want to do nothing but relax.
If found addresses like those along Sri Lanka’s south coast are meant to jar us out of complacency, then Kaju Green is the poster boy. The mere mention of a sustainable retreat might have you rolling your eyes— don’t we all care about the environment at this point?— but Kaju Green, outside of Unawatuna, is a revelation. Denis Kungurov, a grey-eyed Siberian far from home but completely at ease in his eco-lodge, has planned this place out, right down to the handmade wooden trays holding the local brew from Soul Coffee. Amid jackfruit and coconut trees is a scattering of seven cabanas, an open-air yoga studio that is elevated into the trees with a garden lounge underneath. Should the urge arise, Kaju Green has a shuttle for guests who want to venture 10 minutes to the beach.
When Kungurov found this left-to-nature coconut plantation, he knew he was onto something, as long as he didn’t spoil the scene. “All we had to do was find the right architectural language and techniques to emphasize the natural setting,” he says. He spent a year planning, traveling across the country to study what local building techniques would work best. One, a traditional mudsoaking treatment for wood, took 15 months to complete, the timber adopting a deeper, richer color but more importantly protecting against insects and the climate in what is essentially a jungle. No air-con here, but a forest breeze through bamboo walls and a lot of natural shade.
Kaju Green is surrounded by a salt-water canal and mangroves, each of the cottages perched near the water, with the land rising to a dining area, that yoga studio and an in-ground pool. All of this is below 300 mature coconut palms, the source of much on the menu.
Bananas, papayas and mangoes are also grown here, while the getaway works with two local farmers who provide other produce, as well as rice. Sitting there with an organic coffee, Kungurov tells me, “In Sri Lanka, it’s really easy to eat properly.” That’s easy to believe.
Not far away and right on Kabalana Beach is a spot for those seeking modern creature comforts. The Sandhya, with nine rooms, is an über-modern, chic resort perched on a great stretch of shoreline. Polished concrete and finely turned wood furnishings feel like they’ve sprung from the pages of a trendy design magazine but, unlike much modern design, the property oozes comfort. Guests are meant to mingle in the common areas, whether in the pantry where meals are served, next to the half-sunken
truck container that serves as a pool or perched in any of the local-made furniture scattered throughout.
Further east along the Colombo-Matara Road is ample proof that one man’s “down-at-heel” is another’s “repurposed.” Populated with surfers—tattoos, dreadlocks, overripe tan lines, funky sunglasses, the whole bit—The Doctor’s House is a peeling paint, workin-progress, a social magnet come nightfall. You have to love it. The pizza oven is designed as an octopus that looks like it will crawl across the road and back into the sea at any moment. Both the food and drinks in the oversized garden are brilliant—imagine a vegetarian lasagna prepped by a serious Swedish chef—but what stands out is the refurbished nature of everything. That and the name: the main building served as the address for the area’s Ayurvedic doctor for five generations. “I try not to know everyone,” admits Barra, one of the Aussie co-owners who dwells on informality (or maybe anonymity) as only a surfer can. Instead of playing up the size of the waves or their break, he tells me over lunch about the sense of remoteness he encounters on the water. Out on his board one day, he stuck his hand in a wave and unwittingly balanced on the back of a giant sea turtle headed in the same direction. No Australians or sea turtles were harmed in the telling of this anecdote.
If your leanings are more yoga than rasta, back at Hiriketiya Bay, 66 kilometers distant from Galle, Salt House sprouts from dense bamboo groves with eight smartly designed rooms—white-washed walls and darkwood trim—air-conditioned on the ground floor, comfortably open to the breeze on the two higher floors. Cristal Napper is one half of an Aussie couple that saw Salt House as a not-too intrusive intro to the bay. Along with surfing 10 months of the year, the best swells coming between August and December, yoga retreats are big in this region. At this one, a central common area serves all the food you miss from home, Napper tells me, but made healthily: brownies, smoothies, salads, gelati, burgers. Baking is done on-site, the menu depends upon what ingredients are freshest at any given time, the simultaneous goals being good for you and refreshing. Superfoods and super food is how Napper puts it.
Waiting on my kottu roti with prawns isn’t really a burden. I’m high above picturesque Weligama Bay, sitting in a strong breeze that twists the palms providing shade at Cape Weligama’s appropriately named Ocean Terrace, which serves Asian and Western fare. I’ve opted for their take on Sri Lankan street food and I’m in no hurry to move on. I’ve got the restaurant more or less to myself, which underlines what Cape Weligama—along with the few other brandedluxury properties up the coast such as Anantara Tangalle and the Shangri-La—is like: its lush, tiered landscape drops off to the sea, allotting each of the 39 private retreats across these four hectares a secluded feel. Forty meters below, local fishing skiffs are aligned cheek-byjowl with surfboards and kids’ sand pails.
The remote nature along this stretch only amplifies as I speed far east towards Yala where the coastal road peters out. Veering off onto smaller tarmac, then on to a gutted and dusty track not meant for a shiny Prius, I end up at Wild Coast Tented Lodge, like Cape Weligama, part of the Resplendent Ceylon portfolio.
Bordering Yala National Park, the tented camp is enveloped by the natural margins of the park itself, so for their own safety arrivals are educated first in moving around the resort. The 28 tents that mirror the look of the rocky, wind-swept terrain here are, like the park they abut, open to wildlife, so it’s common to see lemurs stare you down or wild pigs grunt across your path on the way to dinner—both theirs and yours. The cocoons, as the air-conditioned tents are called, house four-poster kingsized beds, massive bathrooms with stand-alone copper bathtubs, dark-leather furnishings and teak floors. Outdoors is rugged terrain, indoors is anything but. Wild Coast made it to our It List this year and rightly so. I’m left wanting for nothing except for maybe another night.
But a walk along the beach will have to do. At this far end of Sri Lanka’s south coast, waves pound so hard into the house-sized boulders that seemingly hold Sri Lanka in place that I feel the vibration in my bones. Water shoots up 10 meters from the violent collision of the Indian Ocean where it meets Yala National Park. Too dangerous to surf or swim, this is an off-the-charts section of the coast at the bottom of this island that has it all. Here, at the literal end of the road along Sri Lanka’s south coast, nothing is missing.
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Surveying calm seas at the tranquil Hiriketiya Bay; one corner of The Doctor's House; kottu roti, a Sri Lankan staple, at Cape Weligama; poolside at Why House; rambunctious school kids.
CLOCKWISE FROM ABOVE: A local surf dude at The Doctor's House; daily life plays out along the south coast roads; an eye-popping selection of handmade kimonos at Salt House.