Sri Lanka’s South Coast Is the Next Great Lifestyle Destination: CN Traveler

On a grassy bluff at the southern tip of Sri Lanka, I clasp a negroni, my feet pointing downhill toward the Indian Ocean. Snatches of jazz float into my ears from Cape Weligama’s Surf Bar. On the horizon a cluster of roseate clouds match the hue of my drink.

There is traffic on the ocean. Half a dozen surfers use the last light of day to glide balletically into a break created by a headland. These stick figures remind me of fishermen in an old Japanese woodblock print, their histories and identities dissolved by the low light and the immensity of their stage.

But in truth, they only began showing up in any real numbers on the south coast about a decade ago. Between December and April, when the first of Sri Lanka’s two monsoon seasons has spent itself and the weather is balmy, this long band of coast—an arc of about 55 miles from Hikkaduwa in the west to Hiriketiya in the east—becomes a cosmopolitan revel centered around surf culture, with a side of yoga. Sri Lanka had always attracted a small coterie of surfers to Arugam Bay, a highly rated spot on the island’s eastern coast. These hardy souls, largely indifferent to political and economic turbulence, were the mainstay of the tourist economy during the civil war that besmirched the lives of an entire generation from the 1980s on. Then, as tourism began to take off again after the end of the war in 2009, the south started to acquire a reputation as a place where beginner and intermediate surfers could make progress. The waves are forgiving here, and the surf season in the Sri Lankan south—unlike in Arugam Bay, where it starts in May—coincides with winter for many potential visitors.

Everywhere on the rim of the island, which I peregrinate with my companionable driver, G Douglas Wijerathna, I see scooters and tuk-tuks ferrying surfers to beaches and breaks, schools and camps. At sunrise and sunset, the sea is speckled with surfers, some queuing to catch a wave, others clustering in groups around coaches. Those who are taking a break recline on beachfront loungers quaffing orange thambili—the water of the delicious “king coconut” native to the island. An alien making landfall in the new surf towns of Ahangama or Hiriketiya might erroneously conclude that earthlings are an amphibious, chilled-out species.

On Sri Lanka’s south coast, the surf revolution has also sparked great expressions of homegrown creativity. It has drawn to this part of the island an artistic, culinary, and entrepreneurial force not directly linked to the surf scene, opening up a new frontier crackling with an energy not found in Colombo or along the Buddhist and tea trails. These include tea mogul Malik Fernando’s Resplendent Ceylon and Reverie, two lines of boutique resorts where I delight in emblematic versions of the best Sri Lanka has to offer—from a deep-tissue massage soundtracked by the muffled boom of the sea at the sublime Kayaam House to a dreamlike stay in a retro-futuristic canvas cocoon on the edge of a nature reserve at the Wild Coast Tented Lodge. In the beach town of Ahangama, formerly best known for its 19th-century Buddhist temple and stilt fishing, I find my way to Palm Hotel Sri Lanka, a modernist A-frame jungle fantasy where, in the words of its owner, Miriam Haniffa, “Shoreditch meets Sri Lanka.”

The best cocktail bar and smokehouse in the region is not in Galle, the majestic Dutch colonial city that was historically the south’s biggest draw. At Smoke & Bitters, in the tiny village of Hiriketiya, Lahiru Perera and Don Ranasinghe direct boozy alfresco evenings featuring Ceylon arrack, silvertip-tea vermouth, and house-made bitters alongside playful locavore food: “calamari” ingeniously concocted from coconut flesh, dragon fruit ceviche, and smoked jackfruit sandwiches.

The region has drawn a large, diverse cast of people who believe that this is where they can live their best life. Consider Raffael Kably. I meet him one warm morning at Soul & Surf, an eight-room B&B he is managing at the time of my visit. (He has since left.) On the edge of a blue cove in Ahangama, it is ringed by coconut trees and has its own little strip of beach. I imagined Raff would be Sri Lankan, but right away I place his Mumbai accent almost down to the exact postcode. It turns out we grew up only a few miles apart in the western suburbs of the megapolis. There the similarities end. Suave in blue shorts and a crisp white short-sleeve shirt showing off his tattooed forearms, the former DJ and film producer is the consummate insider. Together, he and Soul & Surf founder Ed Templeton (himself a former DJ) have watched the local scene flourish while giving it their own distinct imprimatur.

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