The sun-drenched south coast of Sri Lanka wraps itself around the south and south west of the country, all dazzling curves of sand against emerald hills. There is much to see, from Unesco World Heritage sites to the wealth of wildlife, historic temples and the hidden treasures of beautiful gardens amid inland villages. But it’s the generosity and warmth of the people that leaves a lasting impression.
Long after the colonial masters of Sri Lanka relinquished their rule, the long-running civil war between the Sinhalese majority and Tamil separatists finally ended in 2009. The nation established itself as a major tourist drawcard despite the devastation wrought by the Boxing Day tsunami in 2004. Then, just as it was becoming the ‘must-visit destination’, came the terrible terrorist attack of Easter 2019. And yet, at the time of our trip, in December 2019, the resilience and warmth of the Sri Lankan people is what strikes us. Yes, there is talk of the scars from these catastrophes in their recent history, but their attention is on the present and hope for the future, driven strongly by their Buddhist beliefs.
The southern coastline of Sri Lanka boasts beaches of honey-coloured sand backed by palm trees, plantations, rice paddies and national park. It is also home to some of the region’s best resorts, whether it’s the tranquil, exclusive Amanwella at Tangalle or the elegant colonial Amangalla set inside the historic ramparts of the Galle Fort, the unique Wild Coast Tented Lodge next to Yala National Park or the stunning clifftop-set Cape Weligama.
Our drive from the capital, Colombo, to Amanwella takes us via a smooth, newly commissioned highway towards the fishing village of Tangalle, where we end up on a winding, unpaved track through the jungle. Finally, the dense greenery parts to reveal the breathtaking sight of Amanwella in its oceanside setting—an epic sweep of land merging seamlessly with the sea.
A long, welcoming pavilion, red earth, black timber and warm beige concrete — the effect is at once luxurious and modern yet firmly rooted in the region with the use of local materials.
A traditional offering of betel leaves and a glass of refreshingly cool passion fruit and mint juice and we feel enveloped by the blissful, Zenlike serenity of Amanwella.
The resort was inspired by the ‘father of tropical modernism’, Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa, and pays homage to his trademark inf luences: pared-back elegance, earthy tones, local timber and spaces open to the elements, punctuated by calming glimpses of water.
The resort’s 30 villa suites are spread over a hillside dotted with coconut palms of varying maturity. You can walk or ride to your door in the tuk-tuk at your disposal. Suites have their own plunge pool, considered interiors and expansive terraces with views of the ocean framed by swaying palms. Dining can be an elevated experience at the restaurant overlooking the 47-metre infinity pool or a more casual, albeit gourmet, affair at the Beach Club, located on the sand.
Varied temptations lie just beyond. Take your pick from national parks offering safari trips, tea plantations and temples. We head to the local potters’ village for a very special hands-on session turning clay into traditional pots and come away with so much more: a deep respect for the artisans who are struggling to keep their craft alive against the odds.
We follow up with an unforgettable trip around Mawella Lagoon aboard Amanwella’s f loating lounge, glass of champagne and canapés on hand, gliding along spotting local birdlife and taking in the beauty of the sunset reflected on the still surface of the water.
The setting for our highlight experience is picture-perfect — a rustic hut overlooking the azure ocean. Inside we try our hand at preparing traditional local dishes under the guidance of executive chef Shantha Peiris. It’s a comprehensive lesson on the essence of Sri Lankan cuisine and an education in the ayurvedic benefits of its various ingredients.
As we drive closer to Wild Coast Tented Lodge, the landscape of jungle and vast boulders offers peeks at the Indian Ocean that forms its boundary. We are in a buffer zone within Yala National Park and apparently it is not uncommon for several species including elephants, leopards, monkeys and smaller critters to roam through the lodge.
Wild Coast Tented Lodge is a luxury Safari Resort offering, part of the Resplendant Group and conceived by the Fernando family, founders of Dilmah Ceylon Tea Company. No expense has been spared and accommodation here is like nowhere else: free-standing cocoon-like tented structures with a personal pool and deck. Heavy doors seal you inside the space, which is all cream canvas walls, teak floors, dark leather, porthole windows and a spectacular handmade copper bathtub—we are instantly transported onto the set of a Wes Anderson film. The unique design and position enhance the feeling of being embedded in the jungle while being right at the ocean’s edge.
The soaring open-air dining pavilion and the safari-themed Ten Tuskers bar are linked by a bridge over the free-form swimming pool. Enjoy a signature cocktail at the bar, stroll across the sand dunes to watch the sun go down and dine at the pavilion on beautifully prepared local cuisine.
We head out on safari into Yala National Park with ranger Keith not knowing what to expect. What we get is an exhilarating, bone-shaking introduction to safari, Sri Lanka–style. An informal understanding between the various safari jeeps means that at a second’s notice we are hurtling to get to the last reported location of a leopard.
At other times, we park quietly near a fresh kill hoping to catch a glimpse of the leopard hiding in the undergrowth. We spot crocodiles sunning themselves by the river, elephants going about their business, peacocks strutting alongside our jeep disdainfully, pelicans balancing patiently and even a sloth bear.
A guided bushwalk is a fitting way to end our trip. Ranger Keith takes us on a wander through the wilderness. He is a master at the art of bushcraft—the ability to read signs in footprints, droppings, broken branches and bird calls, all the while weaving a fascinating narrative.
Known as New Oriental Hotel for 140 years of its history, Amangalla is ensconced within the historic ramparts of the world-heritage-listed Galle Fort, an example of colonial architecture thoughtfully restored to include the modern luxuries one expects from an exclusive Aman property. Faithful to the building’s past, the interior architecture is all high ceilings and whitewashed walls offset by simple dark timber and rattan furniture, antiques and vases of fresh flowers everywhere.
Start your day with a moreish breakfast on the shuttered Veranda, which runs the length of the hotel facing the tree-lined street. It’s an equally popular spot for light lunch or the decadent afternoon tea that draws locals and even guests from neighbouring hotels. The magnificent dining area that is the Great Hall, with its soaring ceilings, fine furniture, crisp white linen and antique silverware, serves exquisite Sri Lankan and international cuisine in a more formal setting.
Step out of the hotel to explore historic Galle, which dates back to 1588, with a well-informed guide who will take you through the small lanes and streets lined with examples of Portuguese, Dutch and British colonial architecture. Visit the Judge’s House surrounded by frangipani trees, the cricket fields, the temple and the mosque, ending up at the iconic lighthouse on the ramparts where locals flock at sunset, fly kites on clear days and crowd the street food hawkers.
Once your day is done, book into the exclusive Spa & Baths for a signature ayurvedic massage, starting at one of two private hydrotherapy suites complete with hot and cold plunge pools, steam rooms and saunas. Lofty ceilings and candlelit recesses magnify the period charm of the space, which is divided by dramatic archways and sparingly furnished with rattan recliners and simple black tables, creating a serene, restful atmosphere.
Another iconic Resplendent Ceylon property in a spectacular location, Cape Weligama sits atop the headland above Weligama Bay, offering panoramic views of the Indian Ocean. Set amid five hectares of landscaped tropical gardens, the 39 villas and suites have been designed to resemble a traditional Sri Lankan village—but the similarity ends there. Under the terracotta tiles lie airy interiors offering uncompromising luxury. Large terraces, in-room spa and steam facilities and outsized bedrooms are standard.
While some villas feature their own 15-metre pools, the resort’s award-winning, crescent- shaped 60-metre infinity pool is the place to be, sea breezes cooling you as you swim towards the edge, which seems to f low into the shimmering ocean below. When you’re fully refreshed and rejuvenated, it’s time to head to one of the many terraces for a sundowner and a nourishing meal.
A must-do activity at Cape Weligama is the guided bike ride. The trail has a dreamlike quality, weaving through the back roads of neighbouring villages past rice paddies, small holdings planted with coconut and plantains, and the village corner store, with friendly locals happy to stop and chat. You hear the birdlike melody before you see the tuk-tuk rounding the corner—what a special way to get your daily bread!