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TO STAY: Kumu Beach
If you want to go from plane seat to sun lounger with minimal fuss or travel, head straight to Kumu Beach in the fishing village of Balapitiya, 50 miles south of Colombo. This stylish 10-bedroom villa wouldn’t feel out of place in Ibiza. It’s an imposing, angular structure with whitewashed walls and tall windows flung open to bring the outdoors inside. Oversized sculptures sit easily on the decking and lawn; a slender infinity pool looks out upon the boulder-strewn beach footsteps below. The west coast setting guarantees some of Sri Lanka’s most glorious sunsets – evening walks along the sand here are something to treasure.
Interiors are airy and suitably chic, decked in grey and white – and brightened up with batik cushions and work from some of Sri Lanka’s best artists. Books by local authors are left lying around for you to leaf through at leisure, and everywhere seems to have views out to sea. Dinners on the deck are a delight – look out for fresh fish tacos and spicy black-pork curry, served with sambal and homemade hoppers.
Need a break from the beach? Don’t worry – there’s plenty to do not far from the hotel. Head to nearby Madu Ganga for a sunrise boat trip; it’s teeming with marine wildlife as well as islet monasteries and plenty of places to stop for cinnamon tea and fish pedicures. Ambalangoda, just a 10-minute drive from Kumu, is home of the devil mask: there’s a museum where you can learn all about this intriguing tradition, and have a go at carving your own.
Drive north to Bawa’s Estate Lunuganga for a tour of the gardens and typical Sri Lankan lunch, or south to spend a lazy day hanging out in the surf-town of Hikkaduwa. Pop into Salty Swamis, a buzzing little café and surf shop set right on the beach (it’s closed May through October, when they follow the waves to the East Coast) while the Bookworm Library Restaurant serves some of the best vegetarian curries around.
TO STAY: Fort Bazaar
This elegantly restored merchant’s mansion benefits from an unbeatable location, right at the heart of the Fort. Stretching around a leafy central courtyard, there’s a lovely old-world character about the place: the shuttered windows painted sage, the outdoor stone sofas covered with patterned cushions, the ornate antique tiles. Rooms have a fresh and airy feel, with big canopy beds and slanting, wood-beamed ceilings.
Church Street Social – the restaurant and bar at the front of the hotel – has an arched colonnade terrace from where you can watch Galle go by. Western and local dishes are both excellent – think burgers and prawn curry – and though they don’t serve booze, you can bring your own bottle and have staff whip you up a cocktail. There’s a little library upstairs, and while they’re still working on a pool, they run free tuk-tuks to Jetwing Lighthouse, a beachside resort less than 10 minutes away.
Galle, a centuries-old trading port in Sri Lanka’s southwest-corner, is Sri Lanka’s most characterful town. At its heart lies the Fort, a tiny peninsula covered with cobblestone streets and buildings from a bygone era. UNESCO’s protection means you won’t find any hulking high-rises inside its walls: instead it’s all colonial Holland and Portugal. Almost every building warrants a stop and stare, but the All Saints Church, Meera Mosque and Maritime Museum really stand out. Come evening, follow the coast from the Clock Tower to Lighthouse and find a spot on the ramparts to take in the crimson skies. The occasional stray cow grazing only adds to the charm.
Galle also happens to be a bustling craft centre; shops catch the eye all over the Fort, best the are Exotic Roots, Koccoriko and the Shoba Display Gallery. Stick No Bills sells great reproductions of vintage posters and postcards, and on Saturdays the Good Market brings a load of ethical and sustainable stuff to Court Square. There are quirky little cafés on seemingly every corner, and if you want to eat out Hoppa and Galle Things Roti put their own stamp on delicious Sri Lankan classics.
TO STAY: Kahanda Kanda
Kahanda Kanda, half an hour east of Galle, brings a little bit of the hill country to the south coast. Set within a 12-acre tea plantations, it offers the perfect chance to get a taste of rural Sri Lanka without straying too far from the beach. A grand stone staircase leads up to the property; once you reach the top, you’ll find a chic open-walled bar pavilion filled with board games and books, a restaurant that feels right in the arms of nature and a sparkling infinity pool – all with Instagram-worthy views out across the jungle and nearby Koggala Lake.
The 10 villas, sprinkled sparsely across the property, feel wonderfully private. Some have their own pools, all have shelves filled with books and straw hats to ward off the hot afternoon sun. We loved the antique doors at the entrance of our garden and the open-air bathroom with its twin rainforest showers. You could spend all day hanging out at Kahanda Kanda, but if you’re missing the sea they’ll arrange a tuk-tuk to sister property KK Beach – just five miles away.
If you fancy a trip out, the Handunugoda Tea Estate is practically on your doorstep. Further north, Kanneliya Forest – a UNESCO biosphere reserve where you can see waterfalls, rare birds and the giant Nevada tree – is a great place for hiking. Foodies should seek out Wasantha’s Cuisine & Cookery, a family home-cum-restaurant where you can eat to your heart’s content and learn to cook Sri Lankan style. Closer to home, Café Ceylon – set in the gardens of a colonial wallawwa – is a lovely place for a beer or cocktail any time of the day.
TO STAY: Cape Weligama
This 12-acre resort, perched high on craggy cliffs overlooking the Indian ocean has the feel of a bountiful seaside village. There are private beaches east and west, an outstanding gym and spa, and sweeping views out to sea wherever you head. The crescent-shaped moon pool is surely one of Sri Lanka’s best, and watching the waves roll in as you take breakfast on the ocean terrace is a special way to start the day.
This is a place of unabashed luxury. The 39 suites and villas scattered across the resort are some of the most spacious we’ve come across. All have large verandahs, oversized stone baths and steam rooms, while some have infinity pools that you can step straight into from your window. Interiors are elegant and beach-inspired – think ocean blues and untreated woods – while beds are big enough to sleep a family.
The hotel has a great watersports centre where you can scuba, big-game fish and (during the season) take whale- and dolphin-watching trips. But really, the beaches around Weligama are famous for their waves, so borrow a board and head out into the surf. Weligama is perfect for beginners – the hotel can also arrange lessons to help get you up on your feet – while nearby Mirissa and Gurubebila offer bigger breaks for more serious surfers.
Stop for sundowners at Tiki Cliff, a compact bar with laid-back vibes and views up the coast. They’ve got party nights on Wednesday and Friday if you feel like a boogie. The Roti Shop Mirissa and Rotti Shop Weligama are two of our favourite street-food spots the island over, serving fresh seafood to go with your kottu or curry. Nomad Cafe & Boutique is a trendy brunch spot that’s got your avocado toast needs covered, while Aloha Home and Kitchen does great snacks, smoothies and juices – if you want something stronger, be sure to bring your own.
TO STAY: The Last House
Sitting on a 2km stretch of sand outside Tangalle, this serene little hideaway is a must for architecture aficionados. So called because it was the final property designed by the revered Geoffrey Bawa, there’s a wonderful homeliness about the place, and a sense of character that belies the property’s age. With its ochre and aquamarine exterior, terracotta-tiled roof and white wooden beams, it feels at one with nature.
Part of Bawa’s genius was to blend indoor and outdoor spaces seamlessly. Sleep with the doors and windows wide open and drift off to the soothing sound of wind rustling the trees and waves crashing onto the shore. A soak in the freestanding tub overlooking the gardens will beat any bath you’ve ever had. Antique mahogany furniture and dashes of vibrant colour add to the allure; downstairs there’s a huge verandah with deep sofas to sink into. This is a place where you can truly switch off.
Pass through the front garden’s gate and you’re on a spectacular beach where you can walk a mile or more without seeing another soul (bar the hotel’s dogs who may make themselves your self-appointed tour guides). If the sea gets rough, there’s a courtyard with an equally enticing pool. The Last House has just five rooms, so it’s small enough for bigger groups to rent the whole place. Manager Ananda runs the property with a lovely personal touch; cooking is in his blood and he makes sure to only source the best from Tangalle’s local markets.
The Beach House Hiriketiya is a beautiful cove for a swim or a surf; they serve cold beer and wood-fired pizzas – or rice and curry if you want to keep things Sri Lankan. For a more authentic bite try Tangalle Rice & Curry or Sha Sha Seafood, a little shack on the beach that serves up whatever’s just been caught. If you need your culture fix, head inland to the Mulkirigala Rock Temples. You’ll come across monumental buddha statues and intricate wall paintings, plus the 500-step climb offers great views out over the countryside.
THE EAST COAST
While the south coast is undeniably home to Sri Lanka’s most famous stretch of beaches, the seas can be rough and the monsoons mean the weather can be a little unpredictable. As a result, tourists are increasingly starting to flock to the further-flung and less developed east coast. Arugam Bay is fast emerging as a surf and backpacker hotspot from April to September, but if you want to experience the east in style head a little further up the coast.
TO STAY: Jungle Beach
There aren’t many places that can rival the rugged romance of this property. As the name suggests, the beach here is fringed by jungle rather than palm trees – the dense, verdant thicket suddenly gives way to a two-and-a-half mile stretch of sand that is yours to enjoy in peace. The pool too is enshrouded by tall trees and thick jungle scrub, the canopy offering shady spots for those seeking respite from the hot Sri Lankan sun. Eagles and kingfishers swoop low over the lagoon looking for their daily catch, while come afternoon the occasional croc suns himself on the shore.
The hotel’s thatched-roofed huts – hidden away in the bush – seem to spring up as if from nowhere. There are 48 cabins spread across the 10-acre site; some have views of the lagoon, while from others you can step straight onto the powdery sand. At both the beach bar and main jungle restaurant the food is superb; feast on lobster and prawns plucked from the ocean, washed down with a zingy arrack cocktail.
One of the real benefits of the east coast is that you can swim safely all year round; the shallows stretch for miles so you can wade right out. Boat trips head off in the morning to spot blue whales, while scuba divers can catch a glimpse of reef sharks and sea turtles at Pigeon Island, a marine national park just off the coast Nilaveli.
If you’d prefer to stay on dry land, you can cycle around the countryside or head into Trincomalee and wander from Fort Frederick up to the Koneswaram Temple. There are great views from Lover’s Leap, and the Sri Pathrakali Amman Temple is also a must for those interested in art or Hindu culture. Stop for seafood kottu at the unassuming Ubay Restaurant or a lassi at the Be Cool Juice Bar.
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