Nostalgic for the splendour of Sri Lanka’s shores and abundance of art, author and T+L India’s A-List member, Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi returns to the many riches of Cape Weligama. By Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi
I first met Malik Fernando in Yala around three years ago, where I told him about my leopard sighting from my morning in the park: within moments of entering the reserve, a thrilling silhouette of the big cat perched on a rock pressed against a milky violet dawn sky. Stretching its form, without a whisper of fat, it gave a lazy yawn before darting off into the shrub. On my way back to camp, an elephant crossed our path with her calf, pausing briefly to size up my jeep with her dark, liquid eye as she juddered her head and marched on.
Fernando listened to me intently, filling me in on the lush, peculiar geography of Yala that made it supportive leopard turf. In beige shorts and a linen shirt, he could pass for another hip, sharp, eco-aware wildlife enthusiast at Resplendent Ceylon’s magnificent Wild Coast Tented Lodge. Fernando, for the record, is the founder of Resplendent Ceylon and heads the Sri Lanka Travel Alliance, which works assiduously to promote Sri Lanka as a safe and spectacular travel destination. As the Tented Lodges in Yala had delighted me, I decided to return to Fernando’s perch on the cliff, Cape Weligama—my third visit to this splendid resort in five years.
Set dramatically, like a crown on an emperor’s head, Cape Weligama overlooks a tremendous flank of Indian Ocean, the water blue as a sapphire, a dramatic fray of rocks at its base. Cape Weligama is a collection of gorgeous rooms and private villas, served by incredible restaurants, a fabulous gym, an oceanfront bar, a surf school and more. I stayed in a villa named after Samuel Butler; all private villas are named after writers, including one after sci-fi super star, and island resident, Arthur C Clarke. My villa was flawlessly appointed, wood tones and calming white, with a sprawling bathroom and a sandstone bathtub overlooking the ocean. Birds called out from the frangipani outside the villa.
The first morning, I went swimming in a small inlet near Cape Weligama. The water was choppy and daunting; in foamed edges, waves radiated fatal glamour. I saw only a few fisher-boys venture out with lines. As a water-bound out-of-towner, I was an odd one in this churn. But in previous years, during calmer seasons, I’ve seen pools of coral obscured in marine waters, while pennies of light danced over schools of angelfish. Cape Weligama has a spectacular bay that lets one swim in clear shallow waters, while its surf and dive school is world-class and helps one realise deep-sea adventures. It was not the right season to swim, and as the water continued to rage, I made to shore for a walk—the sand here has a pristine quality but it is crusty with shell fragments.
An hour later, back at the resort, I went to lunch at Ocean Terrace. The Thai broth that appeared on my table was masterful in its delicacy of flavours, and in the resort’s magnificent tropical location, it was perfect in its lightness. The kitchen at Cape Weligama has always been marvellous, but on this visit, it had evolved by several nautical miles, as all my meals were shot through with an even sophistication. With few exceptions, I’m not a fan of Sri Lankan cuisine. But the chef made me a simple Weligama Bay fish, turned on grill, served with charred asparagus in a buttered reduction: it was glorious evidence of the chef’s ample talent. My evening was spent at Cape Weligama’s wonderfully cosy spa, where I recommend a men’s facial with THÉMAÉ products as well as its signature massage. Later, in the comfort of my room, Andrea Barra, the assistant spa manager, led me through a light yoga session followed by a guided meditation (Barra has trained extensively across India).
Cape Weligama’s strategic location serves superbly as a base for marine wildlife expeditions. Weligama and neighbouring Mirissa are among the world’s best sites to study sperm whales. I’ve used Sail Lanka boats to travel hundreds of miles into the ocean to watch whales. When a whale either breaches or its particularly shaped tail lobe comes slapping down the water’s skin, the sight is transformative for its majesty. I’ve gone out only on the Sail Lanka vessels as they not only adhere to European standards of distinction but are also manufactured locally—this enterprise generates employment for whole villages that are still recovering from the tsunami.
After a ride out into the ocean, when one is returning into Mirissa Harbor, it’s easy to spot a dazzling private residence—the home of a Belgian family, the Pringiers; it has been designed by Tadao Ando. A great concrete box, it radiates stern allure, a butch sexiness—like an English headmistress with a dominatrix side job. Pierre Pringiers commissioned Ando to make this house for his wife Saskia Pintelon, one of my favourite painters who emits the whiff of modern master. Pintelon, who recently had an impressive group show in Belgium, is an artist of sly confidence and meditative calm. Near the Ando house is another architectural marvel made by the Pritzker Prize- decorated Shigeru Ban—it is listed as a rental on Airbnb and makes for a perfect, romantic weekend when privacy is key.
The entire stretch from Mirissa to Weligama is surfer’s utopia in winter, with clean, commanding waves that allow even landings. Here is the stunning but worn out Taprobane Island, now a small dusty boutique hotel reached on foot, crossed through shallow water (it is also the former home of the great writer Paul Bowles). I always imagined such extraordinary natural landscape would be textbook venue for a sparkling arts festival, on the lines of Jaipur Literature Festival. In the season, this stretch is popular with visitors: surfer boys with washboard abs serving hotness and trustafarian yoga teachers in wavy garms, flashing vape pens and tranquillity beads—a kind of thinking person’s Ibiza.
Around an hour from Cape Weligama, on the same side of this sublime shore, Kathrin Messner runs two extraordinary institutions: the best Ayurveda retreat in Sri Lanka, and an artist residency with cosmopolitan intentions. The retreat is spread over several acres of land adjoining a stretch of virgin beach; a monitor lizard might be glimpsed sneaking under the modern, minimal rooms vaulted on stilts, designed by European architects. I’ve spent happy days at Messner’s retreat, Bogenvillya, on a detox, with an extraordinarily efficient tight team of local women, who manage things like clockwork. A therapist appears with a towel, then you are led to a room, expert hands coax out old knots, and then an old-world white bathtub with flower petals end the experience. I’ve never been to a finer Ayurveda retreat than Bogenvillya, not even in India.
While I recommend the retreat for its spa and therapy experiences, I go back to Bogenvillya for the long luncheon table of guests with glittering conversations. Messner’s tony guests at the artist residency of the One World Foundation frequently join visitors to the retreat: chat veers from art and sex, gender and technology, to the politics
of personal loss. Seduced by the healthy, dosha-appropriate meals created by head chefs Wasantha and Chamil—authors of a sumptuously produced cookbook—guests let down reserve. And unlike other spas, where one is sealed off in a comically luxuriant isolation, here the foxy mix of writers and thinkers with architects and heiresses whips up a salon-like environment (a salon elegantly presided over by Messner, who is both self-effacing and deeply self-assured). Messner quickly became a hero to me for her tasteful management of the retreat and the residency and equally for her true, heartfelt, passionate, and considered interest in the artistic process—its inspirations and challenges—and her generous support of artists (from India, her residency has hosted Sudarshan Shetty, while in her native Vienna, she has commissioned the likes of the legendary Cy Twombly).
Not everything in Sri Lanka is flawless. In Colombo, the evening I was flying back, I head to Paradise Road Café, which is set in a strikingly restored Bawa property. Although the restaurant was nearly empty, the server, Ram, assured me it was sold out and assigned me a bleak seat, without access to a fan, although I’d explained I was suffering from the heat. When I offered to leave Paradise Road Café, he summarily found me a seat under a fan. My meal was exquisite, served in gracefully understated environs. An hour and a half later, close to 8.30 pm, only two further tables were taken. When I pointed this out to Ram, he shrugged as if to suggest his little lie was perhaps a tad charming (when, in fact, he made the restaurant appear foolish, betraying an insular arrogance with no takers in the larger world). At the airport, I booked a massage at Spa Ceylon. The therapist worked slowly, disinterestedly, as if she were waking up from a tedious dream about washing her old laundry. As Spa Ceylon had already invoiced me, there was no redress for a massage that registered like a punishment. Service in Sri Lanka will need a bit of spit and polish; I anchor this observation not on these two instances but from my decade of travel here. As Sri Lanka dusts off the recent terrorist attacks, there is no doubt it will emerge stronger, gracious, and as a virile land of blood quickening intensity and splendour that hails visitors now, as it has before.
SriLankan Airlines operates daily flights to Colombo from Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru, and Chennai, among other major Indian cities. Apart from in-flight luxuries, Business Class flyers get priority check-in on ground and complimentary access to the Serendib Lounge
at Bandaranaike International Airport in Colombo. Cape Weligama is a three-hour drive from the airport.
Located 30 minutes east of Galle, Cape Weligama occupies 12 manicured acres atop a promontory rising 40 metres above the majestic Indian Ocean. There are 39 private retreats designed by celebrated architect Lek Bunnag—all of them offering stunning panoramic views. From INR 36,249 per room per night on bed and breakfast basis, Ocean Villa (September-October) from INR 45,598 per night for double occupancy.