Trop­i­cal Chill



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.

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