Far removed from city life, the pace is slow and traditions strong in the sleepy south of Sri Lanka. But the region is slowly building a reputation as a new frontier for luxury travel and some of the world’s best hotels are now opening in the area. On the cusp of a boom, tourism in this region is still fairly understated and it retains an off-the-grid kind of vibe.
Cecilia Jensen, owner-operator of the boutique travel agency, Sri Journeys, originally from Sydney and her partner Sashika Dilhan, a Galle local, have experienced massive growth in visitors over the past five years. Cecilia explained: “Fortunately, the increased tourist numbers haven't flooded the island like other tropical beach destinations in Asia. Sri Lanka still retains its authentic charm, it’s one of the reasons we love it so much here.” Sashika who knows the area inside out, added: "Despite the surge in bookings, even during peak season, you can still discover almost totally deserted beaches along the South Coast."
Bursting with vibrant hues, from the orange thambili (King coconuts) piled up in shacks by the roadside, flashes of pink lotus flowers scattered across marshy lakes, to emerald-green rice paddies and bunches of chartreuse bananas, the tropical palette is dazzling.
The palm-clad coastline is pierced by pointed white dagobas of local Buddhist temples and outlined with pristine pale-gold beaches. These far-flung beaches are wild and natural, with wind-whipped dunes and challenging waves, famous with surfers.
Start off in the laid back town of Tangalle. There, you’ll find a 10km stretch of sun-bleached beaches, dotted with colourful catamaran fishing boats. The castaway feel attracts independent travelers and surfers. From April to September you might see Olive Ridley, Green and Hawksbill turtles heaving themselves ashore at night to lay their eggs in the sand.
Discover hidden luxury
Amanwella resort, just outside Tangalle, is a luxury bolthole accessed down a thin red-earth track. The striking linear architecture, inspired by famed Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa, is an arresting contrast to the tangle of surrounding coconut jungle.
The 47-meter elevated infinity pool is a perfect mirror for the tall palms and a perfect spot to unwind. There’s also a high-end spa with a range of amazing Ayurvedic treatments to send you into a blissful state of relaxation.
From Tangalle visit the curious phenomenon called the Ho-o-maniya Blowhole where the sea is forced through a hole in the cliff, to form a 20m high continual spray of water. Mulkirigala, the 2,000-year-old cave temples are a 30-minute drive away. Marvel at the elaborately painted ceilings and colourfully kitschy Buddha statues inside the cave sanctuaries. The top offers spectacular panoramic views and is especially atmospheric at sunset. Descending the rock steps in the dark is tricky, so remember to take a flashlight/torch.
The majority of Sri Lanka’s Southern Province has remained unashamedly rural and lifestyles often still revolve around fishing, coconut farming, and rice-growing. Traditional Sinhalese culture is enchanting; old men creak by on vintage pushbikes past stacks of terracotta pots of natural curd, delicious with palm treacle (kittul). You might also spot a few stalls with elderly ladies selling delicious fresh cashew nuts wrapped in newspaper. Driving south from Tangalle towards Dikwella is the Buddhist temple of Wewrukannala Raja Maha Viharaya, worth a pit-stop to see the giant orange-robed Buddha statue and if you’re brave, the bizarre and creepy depictions of Buddhist hell!
The road that closely hugs the rugged coastline offers stunning views of the Indian Ocean glittering like a perfectly cut sapphire through swaying palms.
Just outside Dikwella is Ani Villas, set on a 4.5-hectare hillside estate.
Ani Villas is an ultra-luxurious resort offering a whole new level of service and hospitality on the island. Architects on the project, the renowned Parisian-based firm AW² designed the buildings in tropical modernist style, with clean lines and overhanging roofs.
There are two main villas—one with eight suites, the other seven —designed with large groups, families, and events in mind. Guests can spend time swimming, in-water lounging or dining on canopied daybeds around the over-sized pool. Inside, suites are spacious and light reflective, with white polished concrete floors, offset with stunning dark wood furnishings and natural hues of brown, grey and beige, to create a soothing feel.
Architect, Sebastien Tison said: “The contemporary furniture was mostly designed especially for the project, such as the iconic ‘Lanka Chair.'” To add a sense of place and heritage, AW² 's designs were juxtaposed with exquisite Sri Lankan antiques and oriental rugs.” Textured materials, which echo the natural landscape, such as rough stone, granite, and soft terrazzo were used. The architecture opens to the exterior and sliding doors create seamless indoor-outdoor spaces. With unsurpassed facilities and services from tennis to yoga lessons to scuba diving, not to mention the incredible gourmet cuisine, Ani really is your own slice of heaven on earth!
If you can bear to tear yourself away from planet paradise, stop off at picturesque Dondra Head Lighthouse, marking the southernmost point of Sri Lanka. Completed in 1890, the white brick lighthouse stands at 49 meters and offers amazing bird’s eye views. Only 6km round the sweeping Dondra Bay on the A2 road is the town of Matara. It boasts a pretty Dutch fort, a throwback to Sri Lanka’s long-ago Dutch colonial heritage, and next to no tourists. It’s a good place to stop if you’re hungry for some local Sri Lankan food. Traditional eateries offer 100 rupee (50p) take-away rice and curry lunch packets. Also look out for egg hoppers – a delicious crispy rice pancake made with coconut milk with an egg at the bottom and served with a little bag of sambol – a chilli chutney; without doubt one of the best street foods in Asia. But no trip to Sri Lanka is complete without sampling the most classic snack of all, the much-loved vegetable roti – a triangle wrap filled spicy veg, available 24 hours, it’s the perfect road-trip snack!
Onwards towards Mirissa, Lantern is a new and alluring beach-front boutique hotel offering upscale R&R and a mouth-wateringly creative local and international menu.
Next door, Lantern also has Riso and Amour; two contemporary four-bedroom beach villas, designed with east-Asian-inspired wood paneling and a neutral palette. Set in minimalist grounds, the deep blue pool opens freely to the beach, giving the place a wonderful rustic feel.
Driving past gorgeous Welligama Bay and quintessential tropical island, Taprobane, you’re bound to spot some of the stilt fishermen Sri Lanka is famous for. Beware, as these days they’re well aware of their modeling potential and will charge you for photos! Just past the Welligama, Villa Indisch boasts long verandas and spacious rooms filled with oriental antiques and is one of the most elegant and stylish larger villas in the south. A little further on still and you’ll find the small village of Mirissa Beach which has grown into somewhat of a Mecca for travelers, the main draw being whale-watching. Just outside the main hub, ultra-hip and quirky Casa Colombo has six eclectically styled suites and is right on a quiet strip of beach. Time permitting, you can either continue on up the coastal road to the popular beach resort of Unawatuna and the world-famous UNESCO Galle Fort. A good base for both places is the newly built contemporary Skinny Beach House – the perfect space for honeymooners or small groups. If, however, you’re short on time, you can hit the new highway at Mirissa and head directly to Sri Lanka’s capital city, Colombo.
Side trip to Yalla and Katagarama
The pilgrimage town Katagarama has been a fascinating melting pot of intertwined faiths and festivals for centuries. The celebrated Hindu temple is dedicated to the Hindu God of War Skanda or Murukan, brother of the elephant-headed Ganesh. A sacred place for Buddhists and for Muslims too, the place comes alive in the evening for puja (offerings). Main Hindu festivals are in the summer months, but also check for Buddhist poya (full moon) days, religious holidays for the local Singahalese.
Yala National Park
One of the reasons many people head to the far south is to safari in Yala National Park – Sri Lanka’s premier national park and one of the best wildlife destinations in Asia. Yala is a huge area of dry scrubby grassland divided into sections called ‘Blocks’ - two are open to the public. Famous for its Sri Lankan leopards and elephants, you might also see crocodiles, mongoose, civet, deer, buffalo and during July sloth bears. There’s also a wide diversity of bird life including many peacocks. A great base is Jetwing Yala an upscale resort on the borders of Yala, which boasts with two restaurants and expansive pool area and beach access. Or try newly-opened Chena Huts by Uga Escapes – ‘huts’ being luxurious detached pavilions embedded in the surrounding wilderness.
Helpful travel tip: It’s possible to fly to the Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport near Hambantota (one of the world’s most deserted new airports!) with Sri Lankan airlines and budget carrier flyDubai, but check schedules as flights are few and far between.