Why Sri Lanka’s south coast is the creative hotspot to know about for 2024

A new wave of creativity has followed the surfers and yogis to the reef breaks, coconut plantations and Buddhist monasteries of Sri Lanka’s south coast

We are on different planes, me and them, perhaps even different planets: Land and Sea, Stillness and Speed. On a grassy bluff at the southern tip of Sri Lanka, I clasp a Negroni, my feet pointing downhill towards the Indian Ocean. Snatches of jazz float into my ears from Cape Weligama’s Surf Bar. On the horizon, a cluster of roseate clouds echoes the amber of my drink.

Down in the ocean, there is traffic. Half a dozen surfers using the last light of day to glide balletically into a reef break created by a headland. They are rapt in their quest. Their histories and identities dissolved by the low light and the immensity of their stage, these stick figures remind me of fishermen in an old Japanese woodblock print.

WATCHHow to make the best Negroni

But in truth, their appearance here on the south coast is of fairly recent vintage. In the past decade, between December and April, when the first of Sri Lanka’s two monsoons has spent itself and the weather is balmy, a long band of this coast – an arc of about 55 miles from Hikkaduwa in the west to Hiriketiya in the east – has become a cosmo­ politan revel centred around surf culture, with a side of yoga. Everywhere on the rim of the island – which I peregrinate with my companionable driver G Douglas Wijerathna, on an itinerary thoughtfully laid out by Ampersand Travel – I see scooters and tuk­tuks ferrying surfers to beaches and breaks, surf schools and camps.

At sunrise and sunset, the sea is speckled with every kind of surfer: paddling out to sea, queueing to catch a wave, clustering in groups around coaches or lying on 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 easily conclude that earthlings are an amphibious, chilled­out species attached to two totems. Twice a day, they park their phones and head to sea with their boards.

This beeline to an undiscovered shore is a familiar arc in the surfing world. On Sri Lanka’s south coast, though, the surf revolution has also sparked great stores 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 out a new frontier crackling with a million­flowers­bloom 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 highly worked­up visions of Sri Lankan beauty – from a deep­tissue massage soundtracked by the muffled boom of the sea at the sublime Kayaam House to a dreamlike stay in a retro­futuristic canvas cocoon on the edge of a nature reserve at the Wild Coast Tented Lodge. And the beach town of Ahangama, formerly best known for its 19th­century Buddhist temple and stilt fishing, is now also home to Palm, a modernist A­frame jungle fantasy where, in the words of its owner Miriam Haniffa, “Shoreditch meets Sri Lanka”.

Meanwhile, 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 jungly open air in the tiny village of Hiriketiya, Lahiru Perera and Don Ranasinghe direct boozy evenings of Ceylon arrack, silvertip­tea vermouth and house­made bitters alongside playful locavore food: “calamari” ingen­iously concocted from coconut flesh, dragon­fruit ceviche and smoked jackfruit sandwiches. The region has, in one long breath, drawn a large, diverse cast of people who believe their best life is here.

Consider Raffael Kably. I meet Raff one warm morning in his own kingdom: Soul & Surf, an eight­room 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 imag­ ined Raff would be Sri Lankan, but right away I place his Mumbai accent almost down to the exact postcode. We grew up, it turns out, only a few miles apart in the western suburbs of the megapolis. There the similar­ ities end. Sea­suave in blue shorts and a crisp white half­sleeve shirt showing off his tattooed forearms, this former DJ and film producer is the consummate insider. In concert with Soul & Surf’s founder Ed Templeton (also a former DJ), he’s watched the local scene burgeon and given it a distinctive accent.

Sri Lanka had always attracted a small pool of surfers focused on the waves of Arugam Bay, the highly rated spot in the east of the island. Indeed, 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 onwards. Then, as tourism began to take off again after the end of the war in 2009, the south started to acquire a growing reputation, especially as a place where surfing beginners and inter­ mediates could make progress. (“The waves are more forgiving here,” explains Raff, “because the reef is only about two metres deep.”) It also helped that surf season in the Sri Lankan south – unlike in Arugam Bay, where it starts in May – coincides with winter for so many potential visitors.

Around 2017, the scene really took off, sparked by reports on social media broadcasting the variety of breaks on offer: a lush sun­kissed landscape of swaying coconut trees, wild almond and pandanus; the charms of fresh seafood and thambilis on tap; and the growing number of establishments able to serve as one­stop portals to all the pleasures of this world. Soul & Surf, which started off as a pop­up surf camp, had already set down roots on its current site. And in 2018, Raff moved to Ahangama for good, both to ride and guide the wave. “After I surf in the morning, I find I just cruise through my day,” he says. “I love setting up the same pleasure for others. Although here we’re not just into surf surf surf. We’re after a more discriminating kind of surfer and traveller.”

Readmore: https://www.cntraveller.com/article/sri-lankas-south-coast-creative-scene?fbclid=IwAR2OeauokfYZIWSvUzBBRslxptyfNAV2LjnGYbKeMirZd-XbRK5PVFBVvzE_aem_AfS2pEOFPt0Oyso5UKlqYMKs2PlYEK18WsR_TXGgAA38wSDtdbs9GB-_CF4FBZQP9nI