Southern comforts in the Tangalle area of Sri Lanka

We visit south-west Sri Lanka, where Anantara has opened a new resort near Tangalle.

The beach at the Anantara Peace Haven Tangalle Resort in Sri Lanka. The 152-room resort is a new property built on a rugged location that was formerly a coconut plantation. Photo by Rosemary Behan
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It's a minimum three-and-a-half-hour drive or a 40-­minute ride on a C-20 Amphibian Air Taxi from Colombo to the Tangalle area of south-­western Sri Lanka. I opt for the exotic-­sounding Cinnamon Air. What I don't know until the moment of take-off is that there's a trainee pilot in the hot seat, battling high winds and the controls as his instructor barks instructions and flips through a ring binder. After several nerve-jarring bumps in clouds, the flight settles, and we zip our way over green hills, fields, rivers and forests to our destination, Mawella Lagoon Airport.

Landing smoothly on water, it’s one of the most scenic and relaxing “airports” I’ve ever seen. We alight at a small jetty for the short drive to our destination, the new ­Anantara Peace Haven Tangalle Resort, a big (in Sri Lanka, 152 rooms is big) new property built on a former coconut plantation round the corner from the ­Amanwella, a more exclusive hotel that opened in 2004, around the time of the devastating ­Boxing Day tsunami that hit this coast, killing 35,000 people and displacing half a million others.

Having previously stayed at the Amanwella, I’m pleasantly surprised by the Anantara’s atmosphere and rugged location. Unlike the former, where villas are mostly on a hillside, here there are five blocks of rooms (and some separate villas) an easy stroll from the beach and restaurant areas. Sadly, the beautiful beach isn’t recommended for swimming – the sea is deep and wild. The next beach along, which features a few small lodges and bars, is less dangerous, but still rough. Yet that’s also partly the appeal. I love the rocky shores backed by coconut palms, and the Anantara’s high-end Italian restaurant, Il Mare, on top of a small cliff, is probably its best asset (you can also do yoga on the open-air platform beneath), along with the large spa, where a Thai massage restores energy to my body after an overnight trip (one hour is 15,000 Sri Lankan ­rupees [Dh379]).

The next morning, after a breakfast of fresh coconut water, passion fruit and local buffalo curd, I go on a guided “Spice Spoons” tour of the local fishing town of Tangalle, about five minutes away by car. First stop is the fish market, where for a small fee, tourists are allowed to enter and take pictures. Yellowfin tuna, selling for 450 rupees (Dh11) per kilo, seems to be the main attraction, with some huge specimens requiring two men to carry them. Yet the fishermen here report the same issue seen all over the world – having to travel much further than before in their boats to find fish.

We drive through some pretty paddy fields on our way to ­Tangalle fruit-and-vegetable market, where small traders sell tempting bananas, avocados, pineapples, peppers and dozens of other items of every shade, from neatly arranged piles. With our chef-guide, Ishan, we choose a few items before I bag some spices to take home (the fresh curry leaves, dried vanilla pods and saffron strands are too intoxicating to leave behind).

Back at the resort, we choose our fish from a fisherman who arrives on the beach on a small boat – glistening, still-breathing mullet and red snapper – before we retreat into the attractive kitchen-­dining room for cooking classes. As a lover of Sri Lankan food and believer that the best food is usually found outside resorts, I’m sceptical, but with two staff, we cook probably the best Sri Lankan meal of my life. Curries mostly start with chopped red onion, chillies, pandan leaves, curry leaves, mustard seeds, and a variety of powdered spices and coconut milk. We cook crab curry, tofu curry with lemon grass, capsicum curry, rice, coconut sambal and grilled fish. The experience, which includes the tour and all food, costs 11,777 rupees (Dh298) per person, which considering the time we are given and the fact that we don’t need to eat for the rest of the day, is good value.

The next morning, we rise early for a trip to the old town of Galle, a Unesco World Heritage Site, about an hour away by car. There, we’re met by Juliet Coombe, a British journalist who has lived here for 12 years, is married to a local, and has written three books on the city. While her father was a judge at London’s Old Bailey, her father-in-law, she explains, was of Yemeni origin, just one of many groups of non-native traders who have settled in the historic city over hundreds of years.

We start Coombe’s 90-­minute walking tour at the “largest warehouse in Asia” – the Dutch East India Company’s headquarters, a long, distinctive building dating from 1684. Its insignia is a cock flanked by two lions; theories for how Galle got its name include the fact that “gallus” means chicken in Dutch, and the Portuguese for cock is gallo, the suggestion being that this is what the colonial founders heard when they arrived here by boat from the 16th century onwards.

Fortified initially by the Portuguese in 1588, then bolstered with thick walls running right around the city by the Dutch, who took over in 1649, the city reached the peak of its development just before the British took power in 1796. On the other side of the warehouse, accessed through a tunnel that was once the entrance to the city, the British seal “Dieu Et Mon Droit” has been stamped into the wall. Then, having been Sri Lanka’s main port for 200 years – “at one point cinnamon was more valuable than gold”, Coombe says – the city’s trading importance declined when attention moved to Colombo.

A multi-ethnic, multi-religious community, Galle’s population is tightly-knit and has never suffered from the sectarian violence seen in other parts of the country, Coombe says. Despite jutting out to sea, the town’s fortifications and Dutch drainage system, as well as surrounding coral reefs, protected it from the 2004 tsunami, and little damage was caused.

Now mostly pedestrianised and blissfully traffic-free, many of ­Galle’s 400 historic buildings have been turned into stylish boutique hotels, restaurants and cafes, and real-estate prices are prohibitive. Yet it’s still a living city, with fruit, vegetable and fish sellers trading door-to-door from carts.

As Coombe points out, it’s still customary for locals to hang a combination of chilli and lime above their doors for good luck; she then regales us with the therapeutic benefits of various spices, from curry leaves aiding digestion to cinnamon’s anti-cancer properties. There are quotes from ­Shakespeare, diversions into the gemstone industry and background on the Sri Lankan Civil War.

We’re taken into the ­Historical Mansion Museum, and a ­Moroccan family house, before being shown the Arabic college, a lighthouse, enticing beaches, the impressive, whitewashed ­Meeran Jumma Mosque, the Dutch ­Hospital (which has been converted into the closest thing Galle Fort has to a shopping mall) and the Serendipity Arts Cafe, from where Coombe runs her tours.

It’s a mostly scenic drive east back to Tangalle via Mirissa, from where we’re booked onto a whale-watching trip at noon. However, the best time to see the blue whales, which aren’t close to the coast but a couple of hours out to sea, is in the early morning, and we spend four hours in rough seas without spying a thing. In a way, I’m not too unhappy – I have heard stories of groups of tourist boats getting too close to the animals and disturbing them. With only a few thousand left on Earth, I’m pleased to think they’re safely below the waves and out of sight.

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