A vacation along Sri Lanka’s southern coast has much to recommend it—assuming you survive the roadways. Never have I known a people so keen to pass on blind hills, across lanes clogged with buzzing scooters, oblivious livestock, and speeding construction trucks. And that’s when they’re not swerving to avoid the indigenous peacocks.
Even where the roads end, the baffling behavior continues. Why was my safari jeep now traveling in reverse, when previously we’d been moving forward? I turned to my 20-something animal spotter, Lahiru, for answers.
A blank look appeared from beneath his boy-band haircut. “It’s one-way,” he explained.
A little rough around the edges is old Sri Lanka, especially here in the south where the new (and only) highway runs out and stray dogs chase ambulances through crowded villages. But this tropical pendant dangling from the Indian subcontinent is in the process of finding its feet after the devastation wrought by the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004 and the 2009 conclusion of its 26-year civil war.
You wouldn’t know it from the faces of the people here, though. The men selling washer-dryers in duty free at Bandaranaike International Airport wear smiles beneath their thick moustaches, and the enthusiastic young guides, like Lahiru, grin as they jostle for day passes to the national parks. Tourism figures broke records in 2016, and Sri Lankans’ upbeat demeanor suggests awareness that change is in the air.
If so, the number of visitors is bound to keep increasing, as this island nation—whose enticing contradictions Paul Theroux distilled in his travel classic, The Great Railway Bazaar—is an extraordinary destination. Slightly larger than West Virginia, Sri Lanka packs in ancient temples rising from a green carpet of jungle; superb safari opportunities; honeymoon-perfect, white-sand beaches; and some of the finest (and hottest) curries in the world.
While the entire island is worth exploring, most high-end tourists stay in the vibrant western capital, Colombo, or flock to the sparkling surf of the eastern beaches. The sleepy south, though, is beginning to open up to the luxury market. It offers the island’s most clement weather, which combines with cool ocean breezes to dispel mosquitoes and mugginess.
Number one on the agendas of many visitors to the south coast is the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Galle—an evocative reminder of Sri Lanka’s role in the colonial Indian Ocean spice trade. This fortified city, built by the Dutch on a stout promontory and bordered by the ocean on three sides, is a piece of living history. It’s easy to lose yourself in its winding streets, ducking into artisan shops to witness laksha (lacquer work) artists applying their craft or stepping out of the way of passing tuk tuks (three-wheeled taxis).
If you’re in time for breakfast, seek out an egg hopper (a bowl-shaped pancake made of coconut milk batter). For lunch, try sticky jackfruit curry and smoky brinjal moju (eggplant pickle). Douse the aftereffects of the effervescent chili with a scoop of jaggery (coconut blossom sugar) ice cream for dessert.
Take time to ascend to the fortified walls and their park-like green spaces for sunset. Kites (a national obsession) trail color across the peach sky, and the sea wind tugs at saris and niqabs, while the city’s skinny youth dangle their legs off the towering walls and waves crash into the red stone foundations below. Galle projects an irrepressible spirit, and a lack of self-consciousness despite a fairly high-functioning tourist economy, most colorfully demonstrated by the snake charmer who moodily rubbed his fingers together as I aimed my camera at him.
To head east from Galle is to travel into a quieter, more laid-back stretch of coast. Rice paddies and palm groves are fringed by wonderful beaches. (The village of Mirissa is home to perhaps the most picturesque of these.) Travel farther east, and you’ll find the low-key vibe suddenly arrested at the port of Hambantota, the site of one of the country’s most ambitious urban construction projects, involving a new international airport, a new port, and the incomplete motorway. When the former president (who happens to hail from this neck of the woods) lost his position in 2013, the new president brought the development to a halt.
It’s not an ideal set of circumstances for the Shangri-La Hambantota Resort and Spa, an outpost of five-star luxury in the southeast that opened last June, but with the Hong Kong-based Shangri-La Group expected to be the country’s largest foreign investor over the next few years, the project isn’t likely to remain on hold for long. Constructed within the 1,460 acres of a former palm plantation, the sprawling property nudges up to seafront where—as my hotel guide informed me on our bike excursion to a Buddhist temple—they used to transport elephants to Egypt. The family-friendly resort is the country’s premium golfing destination, thanks to an 18-hole, Rodney Wright-designed course whose narrow fairways and devilish crosswinds offer quite a challenge.
You won’t get to swim in the sea at Shangri-La, as the resort has pitched its luxury tent on a tumultuous stretch of water. But the beach is beautiful. I descended from the property’s manicured lawn, past the roiling wall of cacti sprouting mango-yellow blooms, to find myself standing on shifting bronze and amethyst sands. The churning surf sent a salty mist up the steep beach and into the palm groves; through it a Buddhist stupa on a hill was framed against the sky.
Walking down the beach, I watched fishermen, intent on lobster, launching long boats into the choppy water. The scene conjured up a small-scale-version of The Great Wave off Kanagawa, the famous Japanese woodblock print, with the new harbor wall serving as a stand-in for Mount Fuji.
Drive east from Hambantota for 20 minutes and you arrive at Bundala National Park, a wetland famed for its bird life, and a winter home for thousand-strong flocks of greater flamingo. You’ll also find elephants and crocodiles here.
Another 40 or so minutes past Bundala, you pull up to the gates leading into Yala National Park. Probably the country’s best-known safari destination, it is renowned for having the highest density of (unusually large) leopards in the world. Despite our rising at an hour when the velvety predawn sky was the indigo of a peacock’s neck, we arrived at the park entrance to discover about 10 jeeps lined up there before us. These had probably traveled from Tissa, a lakeside town about half an hour from Yala. Not only well positioned for access to the parks, Tissa is for many a jumping-off point to explore the magnificent holy Buddhist town of Kataragama, which dates back to at least the first century B.C.
Once inside the park, I found out that its safari reputation is well deserved, and that Yala is worth the trip despite the congestion. After only two minutes, we encountered a leopard. It nonchalantly traversed the dusty track about 20 feet in front of our jeep and melted away into the brush. What a thrill. Crocodiles next, slumbering in water holes; watchful hawk eagles posing in trees; and the impressively plumed jungle fowl, Sri Lanka’s national bird, among many other beasts. And then we began the inexplicable reversing for five minutes the wrong way down a one-way road with only Lahiru’s innocent, if vacant response, for reasoning.
But when the reversing finally came to a halt, I found myself almost close enough to a full-grown male elephant to reach out and wipe away the tears streaking its rumpled cheeks. The rough and the smooth marry up charmingly in southern Sri Lanka, which makes now—before the residents add some polish—such a special time to visit.
Traveler Fast Facts
WHAT IT IS:
An island country of some 20 million people off the southeast tip of India, Sri Lanka has an ancient history as a trading crossroads in the Indian Ocean.
Sri Lanka is a tropical country that receives two monsoons annually. The south coast is the driest region and the most clement weather is during the dry season between December and March, when daytime temperatures average 79 to 86 degrees F. Humidity averages around 80 percent throughout the year.
Colombo Bandaranaike is the country’s main international airport. You can charter a private flight through Cinnamon Air to reach Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport on the south coast.
WHAT TO KNOW BEFORE YOU GO:
Visas, known as Electronic Travel Authorizations, are required. You can purchase an ETA online for $30 at srilankaetavisa.com. U.S. dollars are usually accepted in large hotels, but you should carry some Sri Lankan rupees for use elsewhere. Credit cards are widely accepted in areas frequented by tourists.
Traveler Report Card
Perfect for families, the sprawling Shangri-La Hambantota is comfortable and spacious, if somewhat uninspired in its decor. The 300 comfortable rooms are fitted out with Ceylon teak and imported Emperador marble. The hotel’s Chinese architecture is accented with Sri Lankan elements such as 400-year-old tiles imported from nearby Galle, while massive Balinese copper cauldrons add a tertiary layer to the aesthetic that dominates in the resort’s Ayurvedic spa, Chi. The Sunset Pool is adults-only. If you’re staying within the fortified walls of Galle, head for the Amangalla Hotel for a dose of colonial luxury. Like the Shangri-La, the Amangalla offers Ayurvedic treatments in its well-appointed spa.
Shangri-La Hambantota offers four excellent restaurants (not including the private Chef’s Table). Bojunhala is the all-day culinary epicenter, delivering superb Southeast Asian, European, and Sri Lankan buffets. Ignore the anemic pizzas as you enter and make for the outstanding native cuisine. The Amangalla’s in-house restaurant is also excellent, with a broad offering, as well as cooking classes. Just eight kilometers east of Galle is Wijaya Beach Restaurant, which offers superb curries and splendid Indian Ocean views.
In-resort activities for both adults and kids are many and varied. Options include the Rodney Wright-designed golf course, walks on the beach, and just immersing yourself in the infinity pool, listening to the chatter of the parrots and miner birds over the cannon shot of the waves. The Amangalla, which offers a signature afternoon tea on its shady veranda, helps to arrange tours of the city. Kataragama is another not-to-be-missed cultural excursion on the south coast, and safaris are easy to organize through your hotel or local tour operators.