Galle, on the southern coast of the island nation of Sri Lanka, is the epitome of an ocean paradise. I discovered the gem on a ‘secret itinerary’. By Aindrila Mitra
While the world is still coming to terms with the Easter blasts that killed over 250 people in Colombo, there’s nothing that can beat a true-blue traveller’s spirit to explore. This piece on Sri Lanka shows why the destination needs to be on every travel aficionado’s bucket list, now more than ever. I undertook this trip to the island nation two weeks before the tragedy and I’m on my way to planning the next one.
I’m a traveller who likes her routines. I spend a substantial amount of time figuring out an itinerary, then operate as per plan. So, when I’m thrown into a situation where I do not know what I’m supposed to do, where to go or dine, I’m in a fix. But as a firm believer of the adage that change is the only constant, I finally give in to my friend’s request to embark on my maiden trip to Sri Lanka sans a plan. He calls it #CeylonSecrets, a curated experiential trip that I agree to take on blindfolded.
I arrive in Colombo on a rather balmy morning. I’m sleep-deprived, thanks to a red-eye flight, but I can’t control my curiosity. The Sinhalese driver who greets me at the arrivals gate is affable. He reveals that we’re headed to the southern coast of Lanka, specifically Galle. It’s a smooth two-hour drive (116 kilometres) from Colombo, unless you get entangled in city traffic. We drive on coastal roads, crossing small beach towns and arrive at what looks like a secret hideout in the port town. #CeylonSecrets is finally unveiled.
I check into Cantaloupe House Ahangama—a beautifully restored walauwa (a colonial-style Sri Lankan manor traditionally occupied by the head of the village)—situated right off the Galle-Matara Road. It’s a slice of peace and privacy wrapped in a six-room villa that launched last November. Nadeem Rajabdeen, the co-founder and director of Cantaloupe Hotels, is a first-generation hospitality veteran who is an authority on experience-led luxe journeys in Galle. “Ahangama is minutes away from Weligama and Mirissa, which are top surfing spots,” Rajabdeen states. He knows how to woo guests with service, taste (the local breakfast spread with string hoppers can put you in a food-induced coma), and an impeccable aesthetic sense that reflects in the decor.
Our afternoon is planned at the Galle Fort, a half-hour drive from Ahangama. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is one of the rare living forts in the world and a must-visit if you want to discover South Asia’s new design capital. I could well be in a quaint Dutch town sans the tropical sun and sand. After a Moorish home meal, comprising jackfruit curry, brinjal and ash plantain, wild chicken, sambal—thanks to Fawaz Fouz, the owner of Galley 52—and a dessert binge at the artisanal gelataria called Isle of Gelato—owned by ex-financiers Suranjan and Shalini from Colombo, it boasts of 100 per cent natural ingredients and promotes local flavours—a walk around Galle Fort is inevitable. And the shedding of calories much needed.
Shanjei Malraj Perumal is more a storyteller than a guide. And his six-month-old Labrador dog, Panthro, steals my heart. “The fort is the only area that was unaffected by the tsunami [of 2004],” Perumal says. It houses some of the most eclectic design studios, cafes, eateries and luxury villas. “It’s boho chic,” Perumal adds. “In 1988, the Galle Fort became a World Heritage Site; today, it’s the fanciest part of Galle.” Notwithstanding its 171 years, the Galle Lighthouse stands tall and is popular among Instagrammers.
Galle Fort reveals itself as a design haven. From quaint little fashion studios like KK by George, the Raux Brothers, Exotic Roots, the unmissable postcards shop called Stick No Bills and Embark, which works with an NGO for the protection of strays, to homegrown brands like Barefoot, Odel and the popular Spa Ceylon, it is a Mecca for shoppers. And a Medina for gourmet travellers looking to experience local plates. I try the black pork curry at A Minute by Tuk Tuk at the Dutch Hospital precinct and it’s done to perfection. Head to the Galle Fort Hotel for some upmarket Ceylonese tea and if you’re looking to chill at a cute bar or bistro, there are many options, including Sugar Bistro & Wine Bar, The Fort Printers, Pedlar’s Inn Cafe and Hoppa.
Sri Lanka’s south coast is a dream destination if you’re looking for unique experiences. Whether it’s whale watching at Mirissa, surfing at Weligama or an elephant safari at Yala, there’s something here for every kind of traveller. My next stop at Cantaloupe Levels in Rumassala gives me a chance to feel one with nature. The rooms overlook the jungles of the famous Jungle Beach and as you while away your morning on the breakfast deck, time comes to a standstill.
I head to the Sugar Beach cafe in Talpe for a sundowner and to catch up with the suave Gehan Fernando, who also happens to be the founder of Colombo Jazz Festival. Fernando introduces me to the novel concept of a pool in the sea. Taking a dip in the tiny stretch of the ocean called the Natural Rock Pool on a starlit night is surreal. Known for its seafood platter (the crab kottu and the crab curry are highly recommended!), Sugar Beach also hosts sundown parties once a month. It’s the perfect spot if you’re looking for some sea, sand and seafood, with signature cocktails to round off a heady evening.
The coastline of Galle stretches from the Galle Fort to Weligama. I check in at Sielen Diva, a seven-room luxe villa on the Galle-Matara Road, in the last leg of my trip. Owned by an Indian-origin Malaysia-based family, the Kumars, who turned their beach house into a luxury resort that opened in August last year, Sielen Diva is the perfect island getaway. My deluxe room, Yanai, overlooks the Indian Ocean. Vivekananda Kumar, a fan of India (even the plunge pool granite has been brought in from Jaipur), considers this property his passion project. “The architecture maximises sea view from each room,” villa manager Amila Senarath points out. Twelve Sri Lankan staff members provide immaculate service to its year-round guests, which comprise—for the most part—British and French tourists, and a few Russians. I’m stumped by the uninterrupted sea view from the comfort of my bed and by the seafood platter (try the fresh lobsters) put together by Head Chef Lalith. The property practises sustainable living, using no plastic and employing environment-friendly waste management. Managed by the Cantaloupe Group, it’s the ideal getaway for honeymooners visiting the region.
If you’re looking for the island way of life on your vacation, Galle is hard to beat. Good food, great ocean views and gorgeous design sensibilities—there’s a slice of paradise waiting for you in southern Sri Lanka.
Sri Lanka is well connected with major Indian cities. SriLankan Airlines operates flights to Colombo from Mumbai and Delhi. Galle is a two- hour drive from Colombo.
Sielen Diva: This is a seven-bedroom modern villa situated in Talpe, a 15-minute drive from Galle Fort. You can request for an airport pick-up and drop. From INR 14,000.
Cantaloupe House Ahangama: This restored six-bedroom walauwa offers wellness- focussed experiences like yoga, meditation, and Ayurvedic treatments. The F&B menu here allows guests to try local and seasonal specialities. The location is perfect for surfers. From INR 10,500.
Cantaloupe Levels: It is situated in Rumassala and offers panoramic views of the palm-fringed coastline. This three-storeyed property has Deluxe and Suite rooms, and a rooftop for yoga and meditation classes. From INR 8,500.
Cantaloupe Aqua: This affordable 13-room boutique hotel stretches along the beach and comes recommended for young couples and families who want to enjoy the sea with great food and a sea-facing pool. From INR 5,500.
Spa Ceylon: This is the ultimate destination if you’re looking for a luxury Ayurveda range—from treatment oils to massage balms, cleansing bars, scrubs, and body lotions. spaceylon.com Lovi: For any fashion enthusiast, a Lovi sarong is a must-buy when in Sri Lanka. Sport it with a tee for a style statement
Ceylon Coconut Company: From organic coconut honey to coconut virgin oil and coconut milk, the richness of Ceylon’s produce is all here.
Pigeon Island Tropical Wear: Inspired by one of the most exciting diving destinations in the country, this hip swimwear range is something to try.
Barefoot: Under Barbara Soni’s guidance, Barefoot has become an institution when it comes to textiles and weaves. Their store in Galle Fort is a must-visit if you’re looking for souvenirs and fabrics.