Category: Galle.

Simple, sane coastal life

JOHN BORTHWICK, The West Australian
September 29, 2011, 12:30 pm

Perhaps they should call this stretch of Sri Lanka the Siesta Coast.

It’s an Indian Ocean shore of hammering seas and strolling folks, of vivid sunsets and jungle moonrises, parasols and tuk-tuks. Not to mention old Morris Minors and unholy cows. All of which contend with maniacal buses and meandering bicycles on Galle Road, the two-lane coastal highway I am following south from Colombo down to historic Galle.

“Dear me, it is beautiful,” exclaimed Mark Twain in the 1890s when he reached Sri Lanka, known then as Ceylon. He might have been referring to Bentota, 66km south of Colombo where empty shores shaded by palm groves are home to quality resorts like Saman Villas.

Perched on a headland between beaches that sweep north and south, Saman’s “infinity pool” seems like a turquoise lozenge floating above the ocean’s greater blue.

One morning I look out to see a wooden fishing boat landing on the beach. I duck out to take a photograph and end up spending an hour with 20 fishermen pulling ashore their wide, horseshoe-shaped net. It’s a long, heavy haul for a catch – mere kilos – that seems dishearteningly small, but it’s the sort of interaction that happens easily for visitors here.

“Sri Lanka is the Tidy Town version of India, without the masses,” says my driver, clearly proud of the difference between his nation and its chaotic northern neighbour.

One minute you’re talking cricket with fishermen or sari-clad shoppers in a spice market, the next you’re among saffron-robed monks or stylish city types from Colombo.

Beyond the temples, elephants and tea plantations, these meetings with Sri Lanka’s good-natured and unobtrusive people are its real attraction.

Continuing south I find the brave little Kosgoda Turtle Sanctuary that has bred and released millions of hatchlings during the past 30 years.

“But no one goes to Sri Lanka,” friends retorted before I left – which seemed a fine reason to go there. Australians often overlooked or overshot Sri Lanka because of the Tamil separatist war in the far north. Overlooked perhaps but never overrun, Sri Lanka hosts only half a million tourists a year.

Hikkaduwa, the most popular budget tourist destination on the south-west coast, is a long stretch of guesthouses, hotels, shops and pizzerias. Its beaches and waves are good.

GALLE

World Heritage-listed Galle, 116km south of Colombo, is the gem of this coast with legendary roots that go back to King Solomon and Sinbad’s fabled island of Serendib.

In 1505 the Portuguese established an outpost here, later being displaced by the Dutch and in 1796 by the British. The result of their collective efforts is a rambling, walled, seafront fortress town covering 36ha. It’s a great place to get lost and to find alleys, cannon, fortune-tellers, mosques, churches, restaurants and, nearby, Galle’s famous cricket ground.

Within the Fort’s massive walls are stylish hotels such as Amangalla and Galle Fort Hotel, little cafes like Pedlars and numerous historic homes now being restored, often by foreign owners. In gem shops that glitter like an Aladdin’s Cave with trays of rubies, garnets and sapphires I am revealed as a total tyre-kicker in the consumption race, coming away empty-handed.

Unawatuna, just south of Galle is the most hyped beach on the coast. However, in the wake of the damage caused by the 2004 tsunami it was hastily rebuilt, indeed overbuilt, in a jigsaw jam of accommodation and eateries that have cancelled Unawatuna’s earlier claim to be one of Asia’s loveliest shores.

In front of the svelte Fortress Hotel at Koggala I find 20 “stilt” fishermen perched above the running surf. Looking like sea-going pole-vaulters who’ve stopped for a break mid-leap, they balance on fixed poles and cast their lines at schools of sardines. Beside the hotel their lazier neighbours try to hook tourists rather than fish, pestering visitors to pay $10 for a photograph of themselves out on their poles. Let’s say I was one that got away.

Sri Lankan sardine fishers at Kogalla. Picture: John Borthwick

Galle Road officially ends at Galle but actually stretches further to Matara near the island’s southern tip. My destination is between the two, the market village of Ahangama.

AHANGAMA

Here I find a seafront room at the aptly named Easy Beach Guesthouse that was built a decade ago by a Norwegian surfer, Oystein, and his wife, Ninne. Having switched from longboats to a long board, so to speak, this gentle, blond-maned Viking was a passionate surfer and generous host until his untimely departure to surfing’s Valhalla two years ago.

My room overlooks, through a cluster of coconut trees, the restless sea. At midnight in Serendib the setting Moon hangs above its own reflection and I can feel the waves detonating on the reef.

Each morning I strap my surfboard to the roof of a most unlikely surf wagon, a red tuk-tuk, and check the breaks from Midigama down to Weligama. On most days I get reasonable, uncrowded beach breaks or reef surf.

From here, the coast road runs east, but Ahangama’s Easy Beach is where I prop, book in hand, watching the waves unload on the shore. This is how travel used to be, before five stars and opulent spas became almost obligatory. Simple, sane, the Siesta Coast.

FACT FILE

Singapore Airlines flights ex-Perth, Colombo transfers and seven nights accommodation and breakfast at Easy Beach Guest House, Ahangama, from $1398 (plus taxes) per person, double room. Or from $433 land content only. Atoll Travel, atolltravel.com; tel: 1800 622 310.

Getting There: Thai Airways (thaiairways.com.au) and Singapore Airlines fly to Colombo (singaporeair.com).
Staying: Easy Beach Guesthouse, Ahangama and other Sri Lanka surfing resorts, contact Atoll Travel.

Visa: Australian passport holders do not require a visa for a 30-day visit.

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Category: Galle