PAR­ADISE IS­LAND

Sri Lanka’s south­ern coast of­fers nat­u­ral beauty, lux­ury re­treats and ex­otic wildlife

Business Traveller (Asia-Pacific) - - CONTENTS - WORDS MARISA CAN­NON

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 floorto-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)

Yala is a trove of nat­u­ral beauty. Over two days we spot ele­phants, buf­falo, spot­ted deer, wild boar...

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)

Beach yoga is a great way to start the day, set be­neath palm trees over­look­ing frothy, jade waves

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 inf lu­ences 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.

The Dutch House’s rus­tic, old-world dé­cor trans­ports guests back to a time when Sri Lanka was known as Cey­lon

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.

Aman­wella Sri Lanka

OP­PO­SITE PAGE FROM TOP: Aman­wella Sri Lanka’s swim­ming pool and chef THIS PAGE FROM

TOP: Wild Coast Tented Lodge; and a leop­ard poses con­ve­niently for sa­fari-go­ers

ABOVE: The Dutch House’s char­ac­ter­ful rooms and court­yard

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