As the troubled island of Sri Lanka reaches out to visitors, John O’Ceallaigh finds the pace of life unchanged
It’s good to be reminded that people can see the same thing differently. Travelling by bus through Sri Lanka, I questioned my neighbour, a fiftysomething named Vincent, about the ubiquity of Food City, a Tesco Metro-style retailer whose resistance-is-futile slogan “On your way home” is sprouting up on roadsides across the country. I thought we might discuss how big brands have come to dominate the high street, but for Vincent the growth of Sri Lankan convenience stores has had a deeper social impact. “Nowadays,” he sighed, “our women get food from the supermarket instead of tilling the land.” I hadn’t quite expected the shops’ proliferation to prompt that grievance, but some change, we agreed, was good.
Change is everywhere in Sri Lanka. Wildly beautiful, the country emerged from civil war in 2009 and is now re-establishing itself as a tourist destination. Alongside the supermarkets, new leisure facilities, improved roads and upmarket hotels and resorts are being developed around the country. Some 114,000 Britons visited in 2012 and, with British Airways having restarted flights in April 2013, after a 15-year cessation, that number looks likely to increase.
We were travelling to Galle on the southern tip of Sri Lanka which, owing to the construction of a new motorway, is now about 90 minutes’ drive from the capital, Colombo, rather than more than three hours. The city was founded by the Portuguese in the 16th century and fell into Dutch hands in 1640. To defend their prize, they promptly erected a bastioned stone wall around the peninsula of Galle and it is that 128-acre fortified settlement and Unesco World Heritage Site, Galle Fort, that most visitors are drawn to today.
My base there was to be the Galle Fort Hotel, a former gem merchant’s mansion. With its small number of rooms overlooking a central, colonnaded courtyard with a pool and a garden flush with blossom, the boutique property is one of Sri Lanka’s loveliest hotels, and one of sleepy Galle’s liveliest. Its terrace bar is a popular spot for sundowners and it was there that I chatted to the hotel’s manager, Oliver, previously of the London borough of Hackney.
He was one of a number of expats I met who have settled in the town, almost all of whom were burnt-out professionals slowly being ameliorated by the languid pace of local life. They all affirmed that knots of stress and strain are swiftly untangled here, and I’m inclined to agree.
Galle, now only a 90-minute drive from Colombo thanks to a new motorway
During the day I joined other travellers in unhurried walks along the ramparts, past temples, churches and mosques; jewellery shops and galleries; impromptu cricket matches; and family gatherings held on the narrow crescent of sand that skirts the walls. Each muggy evening, the fort enters a state of slumber and I wandered happily and alone past sun-blotched colonial buildings and family homes with the doors left open. Dinner was invariably fresh seafood eaten in one of the rooftop restaurants, perched just high enough to see the Indian Ocean shimmering beyond the old stone fortifications. Lazy days spent ambling aimlessly reminded me of stress-free months I’d spent backpacking around Asia without an itinerary, but here there was more comfort and sophistication, together with the distinct feeling that locals haven’t become jaded by an incessant stream of travellers.
But there are distractions and attractions to be experienced outside of the fort’s walls. Whale- and dolphin-watching tours depart from Mirissa Harbour, some 40 minutes from Galle, with blue whales commonly seen between December and April. The journey there and back provides a rush as well. Driving around Galle is truly terrifying, with motorists recklessly overtaking and undertaking at speed and buses using their bulk to edge tuk-tuks and cycles off the road. If you’re going any distance by car, hire the services of a driver rather than take the wheel yourself.
A relatively stress-free 15-minute tuk-tuk ride from Galle, the beach resort of Unawatuna is another popular stop for long-term travellers and surfers who lay down roots in a collection of relaxed and occasionally ramshackle guesthouses and dine under moonlight at tables planted in the sand. It’s a world away from The Fortress, an imposing resort that is also a few miles away and is, like Galle Fort, barricaded by towering stone walls.
Opened in 2007, the beachside property has been built to dazzle. Directly by the beach, its standard rooms are sprawling and sophisticated, its split-level suites feature indoor plunge pools and its residence rooms go one better with cantilevered infinity-edge pools and 24-hour butler service. The beautifully finished accommodation, excellent cuisine and efficient service should be enough to tempt holidaymakers ready to move on from the top-end destinations in Thailand and Dubai. I’m not convinced that some of its attributes enhance its appeal, however. The hotel was criticised for selling a $14,500 (£9,000) dessert, which it claimed to be the world’s most expensive. The chocolate and champagne concoction was served with a gemstone on the side.
The beach at Unawatuna
And controversy of another kind remains an issue for Sri Lanka’s tourism industry. As world leaders convene in the country for the Commonwealth summit this weekend, Human Rights Watch has drawn attention to the 5,676 “outstanding cases” of disappearances in Sri Lanka and its Prevention of Terrorism Act, which allows anyone to be jailed without charge or trial for up to 18 months. The organisation’s Asia director, Brad Adams, advises visitors to keep those issues in mind: “Ask people lots of questions… This is a real country with real problems, so talk to people to give something back.”
Neville de Silvia, Sri Lanka’s deputy high commissioner in Britain, says: “Despite the continued criticism of Sri Lanka by a section of the media and some organisations, the British public at large… are discerning people who are quite capable of assessing these allegations and dismissing the unfounded and uncorroborated.”
Whatever the issues surrounding travelling to Sri Lanka may be, the people I met were unfailingly happy to see tourists return and expect many more in future. The hotels and resorts being built throughout the country are testament to that. Travellers keen to discover the island’s unsullied beauty and languorous charm before the crowds arrive should hurry.
British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) flies three times a week from Gatwick to Sri Lanka, via the Maldives. Prices start from £575 return, including taxes and charges.
Double rooms at Galle Fort Hotel (0094 91 223 2870; galleforthotel.com) start at $200 (£125); double rooms at The Fortress (91 438 9400; thefortress.lk) start at $350 (£220).
Galle may be a go-to destination for a laid-back break, but Sri Lanka’s remarkable geographical diversity means all manner of adventures are on offer elsewhere in the country. The mountainside town of Nuwara Eliya in central Sri Lanka is surrounded by verdant tea plantations; the sheer rock fortress of Sigiriya soars, Uluru-like, above the vast plains of the Matale district, and a vertiginous climb reveals ancient ruins and staircases at its 590ft peak; the old capital Kandy bristles with palaces and temples (one of which allegedly contains the Buddha’s tooth); while the present capital Colombo is slowly drawing tourists by opening luxury hotels and converting colonial relics into chic restaurants and boutiques.
Is it safe?
The Foreign & Commonwealth Office advises against joining any political gathering or rally in Sri Lanka but hasn’t issued any other travel restrictions. Locals I met were friendly and appreciated tourists’ contribution to the local and national economy. I felt safe and welcome at all points. For updates on travelling to Sri Lanka, see gov.uk/government/world/sri-lanka.
No-go regions during the civil war, the north and east of Sri Lanka are opening up to tourists. Controversy has surrounded the development of army-run holiday homes in the lagoon of Nanthi Kadal in the north, where the UN estimates tens of thousands of civilians were killed. Brad Adams of Human Rights Watch advises tourists against staying in properties owned either directly or indirectly by senior figures in the military and government.