One week in, my body clock had adjusted to naturally wake just before the sun rose up over the Indian Ocean’s horizon. On autopilot, I sleepily put on some loosefitting clothing and walked out of the bungalow’s front door to the wall-less yoga pavilion overlooking the pool, surrounded by morning smog and towering, skinny palm trees. A distinctive smell of lemongrass, which is a natural mosquito repellent, and the chirping of Sri Lanka’s great hornbill had now become familiar with my mornings.
“Thank you for waking up today. Let’s have a good stretch.” Martine’s soft French accent was the ideal voice to talk the group through each pose. The position and feel of the neck, each leg muscle and most importantly, the breath. Ninety minutes later, I helped myself to generous portions of papaya, pineapple, thick, local buffalo curd and eggs. It was 9am and I began to feel the humidity on the back of my neck. I dived into the perfectly maintained cool pool, surrounded by grass and eight simple, detached eco huts. An hour later, it was time to hit the surf. A group of six climbed into the back of a pickup truck and Seb, the local surf instructor, drove us about 20 minutes east, along the coast and through the local town of Dickwella, to Kandawalla beach to catch some waves.
Sunrise yoga, a morning dip, an afternoon of surfing, sunset yoga and a leisurely buffet dinner, featuring local seafood, to wrap up the day. This was a typical day at Talalla Retreat. Marketed as a boutique hotel, Talalla Retreat’s beauty is in its simplicity. A 90-minute drive west of Sri Lanka’s new international airport, Mattala Rajapaksa, it’s tucked away alongside a two-kilometre stretch of beach.
Each bungalow features a simple, four-poster, mosquito-netted bed, a front terrace overlooking the in-ground pool and a connected open-air, slate-stone bathroom and shower, which doesn’t look out of place among its natural surroundings. Look up for long enough while in the shower and you might spot some local wildlife in the tall, overhanging trees. The evenings at Talalla are also noteworthy for pleasant walks through the grounds, lit up with hundreds of bright fireflies. The atmosphere naturally created at Talalla encourages disconnecting from screen time and guests seem happy to do so.
Yoga at Talalla typically runs all year round, with the January-to-March season run by the mother-daughter team of Martine and Saffron, who are based between Australia, Bali and France when not at Talalla. A separate yoga retreat (about US$1,300 [Dh4,775] per person, per week, including lodging and breakfast) can be booked at Talalla, but daily 7.30am and 4.30pm sessions can be attended for $12 (Dh44) during your stay. Martine has been an instructor for more than 14 years and it shows. Her instructions are non-intrusive, encouraging and clear, even to a yoga newbie. Her Bali-trained daughter Saffron has an equally likeable quality, ensuring that every individual in the class benefits from the poses. Martine and Saffron use a combination of vinyasa and hatha styles which perfectly complement a warm-up or wind-down from hitting the surf on Talalla’s waves.
Talalla Surf Retreat is a much more established institution at Talalla than its yoga counterpart. It’s run by Jack Phillips, 24, from Cornwall, England (Jack has a clear passion for surf, having trained around the world). Over the course of a week, Seb Richards, a 23-year-old instructor from Devon, England, showed me the basics. By day two, I could catch a white wave and just about stand up before crashing down into the water during my three-second celebration. Falling is all part of the fun. The more experienced surfers were all very helpful and the Talalla surf team have a community spirit for anyone willing to learn.
Unlike Sri Lanka’s heavily developed coastal towns such as Hikkaduwa, Talalla is relatively unspoilt and still a word-of-mouth spot, with only two hotels in its vicinity. All the fresh produce is cooked in-house by local cooks using organic ingredients grown on Talalla’s grounds. The daily buffets are a great opportunity to try a variety of local dishes that you wouldn’t necessarily order à la carte. Sri Lankan cuisine is distinctive from mainstream South Asian food with heavier use of beetroot, eggplant, cardamom, lime, fish and coconut in curries. Chattura, Talalla’s general manager, has noticed an increase in visitors from the UAE in recent months, especially for long weekends.
After a week-long retreat within Talalla’s grounds, it was time to explore more of the country via trains, taxis and tuk-tuks. I made my way north and ascended to Sri Lanka’s hill country, beginning in Ella, gradually making my way west via tea plantations. I arrived in the sleepy town of Dalhousie close to 4pm. Jutting out at 2,243 metres from the rest of the Hill Country’s peak range is Adam’s Peak or Sri Pada (sacred footprint), a significant site in Buddhism’s history, as well as other religions. Pilgrims climb this as a sacred ritual and visitors climb it for spectacular views or cultural observation of a regional ritual.
Slightly Chilled is a modest, four-storey, 15-room hostel inset into one of the hillsides of Dalhousie. Upon arrival, I spoke to Nirasha, the female half of the husband-wife team that runs the establishment. “Usually guests stay only one night and we are busy all year. If you want to see the sunrise on Adam’s Peak, leave by 2am. Just go outside, turn left, you will see shops, keep following the lights.” I asked Nirasha whether she had climbed herself and whether it was a tough trek. She smiled. “No I have not, it’s a little bit tough.” I helped myself to some local daal and rice on offer for an early dinner and spoke to a few visitors also climbing that night, from the United Kingdom, Switzerland and Pakistan.
My alarm went off at 1.45am. By 2am, I had put on enough layers and bought some bananas and water from a nearby shop. Dalhousie is a nocturnal town, operating around the hours of the pilgrims and climbers. Forty minutes in, I was still walking past shops and mini tea stops with a fairy-light path lighting up all the way to the summit. It looked far away. Two hours in, the heavy breathing began, as did the people traffic. I had been climbing steps for about 90-minutes non-stop. Occasionally, a local teenager would rush past me, spurring me on. The layers had come off and the surplus of cafe lighting rendered any torches unnecessary. By 5.30am, I had reached what seemed like an airport terminal before a long weekend. I spent a few minutes catching my breath after a 7km, 5,000-step hike. Pilgrims and visitors were scrambling for the perfect spot to watch the dawn break. I turned around to see that we were all above the clouds. My spot was good enough and I waited until the purple haze over the clouds began to turn orange.
Before long I was stuck in the crowd and couldn’t move. A small orange flicker in the distance gradually warmed up and over the next four to six minutes everyone took in nature’s grandeur. Ascending Adam’s Peak was not a peaceful or serene climb and the summit is a scramble for a spot, along with sermons for the pilgrims continuously being announced over the tannoy. However, the view is a spectacular one and my inner anthropologist enjoyed observing the religious ritual. The most popular and driest season for climbing in this area is April. Wet seasons are much quieter, but be prepared to stave off leeches.
After 10 days in coastal towns and the hill country, I was ready for some city buzz. My first stop, descending by train down to 465 metres above sea level, was Kandy. Sri Lanka’s second largest city is famous for key religious sites and Kandy’s most interesting highlights can be explored within a day or two. Kandy’s botanical gardens were the most impressive highlight. Originally reserved for royalty, they host thousands of varieties of plants from orchids to palm trees. The unique colours and unusual shapes of foliage would make the most unenthusiastic visitor curious about botany.
I made my way back to the south coast via one night in Sri Lanka’s heaving capital, Colombo. From the moment that I stepped off the train, touts were evident, which was my first experience of them in the country. A commercial hub, Colombo is usually recommended to tourists as a pass-through destination. I visited one of the most popular boutique hotels in the country. Casa Colombo is a quirky, vintage-esque, restored 200-year-old colonial building made up of 12 uniquely themed suites, each with its own on-site, 24-hour “domo” (butler). The Casa is pricey but worth it for a unique experience and, if you stay within its walls, to make full use of the facilities. While in Colombo, I also attempted to scope out the local live-music scene by visiting an open-mic night at Inn on the Green, a centrally located, laid-back night spot, and enjoyed some unexpected reggae-rock from a local artist.
My anticlockwise route around the west of Sri Lanka had a final stop in the fort city of Galle via a three-hour coastal train journey south. A refreshing city from the smog-filled centres of Kandy and Colombo, the main part of the city is surrounded by fort walls and most traveller accommodation is within its 16-square-kilometre area. Galle’s centre can be walked around in a day. Heavily pedestrianised, the best way to get around is on foot, which results in accidentally stumbling across unique boutiques, art galleries, musicians, cafes and appreciation for the colourful Portuguese and Danish colonial architecture.
The ease and relative low-cost to get around makes it possible to pack in a yoga, surf, city and trek holiday over two weeks. When the west is under a monsoon, the east coast is visitor-friendly and vice versa. Until last year, all international travellers flew into Colombo and took a train or car straight to the coasts, but FlyDubai’s new route into the south opens up more possibilities for long weekends on Sri Lanka’s coast for visitors from the UAE.
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