A California girl turned resident Sri Lankan seeks wellness through adventure on the country’s south coast.
TANGALLE, Sri Lanka – I didn’t mean to catch his eye. I’m sure he thought I was new to Sri Lanka. “Want coconut, madam?” he called. Before I could refuse, he leaped up the twenty-foot palm in seconds, three feet at a time, like a human inchworm, and waved down at me from the top, grinning. The old charmer was showing off, sure, but these were no circus theatrics. Climbing trees for coconuts is an actual trade. Where modern machinery supplants this vocation in many countries, here it’s still somebody’s job. The resident climber was just one of many friendly characters who would add to the culture I crave on any trip, even when I’m opting for comfort first. Without these people, my stay in the newly opened Anantara Peace Haven in Tangalle, Sri Lanka, would have felt like a luxury escape in Anywhere Tropicsville, where the piña coladas and ocean views are all the same.
With waxy palms, ferns, crawler vines, and banyan trees dropping their roots at every corner, nature sprouts effortlessly in a climate in constant flux between equatorial sunshine and passing monsoon rains. It’s a botanist and bird-lover’s paradise from high-canopy jungles to arid plains, mountains to sea.
After living in Sri Lanka for two years, it still feels to me like civilization is trying to impose itself on the jungle despite not really standing a chance. It’s too lush here. And life feels messy like that — we’re all crows squawking in an overgrown garden, competing with the car horns blaring in the distance. I’ve given up the idea of planning my weeks or even days, forced to relax into the island flow. Fluidity is the norm; there’s no sense in fighting it. And that is reason enough to vacation here.
Because Sri Lanka tops the list for seekers of the world's "undiscovered" places, the island is on the fast track to becoming a major tourist hub, with five-star hotels and luxury villas popping up everywhere. After 400 years of colonialism and a 30-year ethnic war, peacetime has settled in and the country is finally finding its feet. The capital, Colombo, is blossoming into a modern metropolis. It’s an interesting place to be at an interesting time in the island’s history.
But Sri Lanka is still developing. Veer off the traditional tourist route, and much of the country is better suited to hostel seekers and backpackers. Stray dogs abound. Traffic lanes are merely suggestions and sidewalks are a rare treat. Go to the wrong beach and you’ll see evidence of the world’s polluted oceans, the waterline littered with plastics. Google Maps doesn’t always lead you to the right address, and many people outside the capital don’t speak English. Less common: a bad bout of traveler’s belly or, worse, Dengue fever.
Over a few days in my new homeland, I’d recognize that the best way to combine a relaxing vacation and cultural experience is to find a cushy beach resort where you unpack once and then take day trips led by top-notch guides. We'd find what we were looking for on the southern shores of the island.
Seeking Inner Harmony at the Ayurvedic Spa
Ayur, means life, and veda means knowledge, explained Peace Haven’s new spa director, Dr. Jayachandran Thampi, hired to develop a wellness focus for the resort. I knew nothing of Ayurveda before I arrived, only whispers of cooling and heating foods. Funny wives' tales, I thought. But with the insight of onsite doctors, I learned how Western medicine seeks to treat the illness, whereas Ayurveda strives to maintain balance to prevent the illness.
Resident Ayurvedic specialist Dr. Sampath determined my tridosha, the balance of three energies — vata, pitta, and kappa — which govern the function of our bodies and emotions. He didn’t count the beats when he took my pulse; he measured the wavelengths between them — finding that I had an excess of vata, or air and space, which would explain my dry skin even in this tropical climate. With that information, the massage therapist knew how to adapt the kind of treatment and oils used for my massage. An unexpected, gentle foot bath readied me fully for an excellent massage. Afterward, I was served warm tea on a covered veranda, with an open-air fountain and pond in view, lotuses floating on the surface to finish the fairytale.
Becoming One With Nature on Safari
At the resort, a wild hare took up residence somewhere among the sun-basking land monitors, the macaque monkeys, and countless caterpillars. Resident naturalist Anuradha Ediriweera (Eddy for short), the property’s endemic wildlife nurturer, was keeping close tabs on a turtle nest at the beach whose eggs would be hatching any day.
Eddy was also our knowledgeable escort to Udawalewe National Park, an easy half-day trip from the resort. Having an expert in our midst turned a jeep ride through a park into an insightful adventure. With Eddy, we discovered that the mud-bathing buffalo are actually protecting themselves from biting insects by soaking in grime. We witnessed the courtship dance of peacocks, literally shaking their tail feathers to gain the attention of the females. We learned that caterpillars feed on milkweed sap: safe for them, but poisonous to predatory birds. He enlightened us on the status of Sri Lanka’s environment as the whole, his discourse refreshingly frank. Eddy kept our eyes open to animals we’d normally miss on our own: a rare woolly-necked stork, hoards of elephants, even a tusker, which are less than six percent of the population in Sri Lanka.
Read about Anantara’s endangered sea turtles conservation project, funded by the resort's own dollar for dollar matching project.
Finding Balance, Literally
The following afternoon, we hit the beach for my friend’s first-ever surfing lesson. Our instructor-guide, Australian-born Stephen Taylor of Tropic Surf, the resort’s onsite surf company, was drawn to the island to explore his mother’s Sri Lankan roots and for the southern coast’s year-round surf. The man’s knowledge of the sport and infectious enthusiasm for teaching something he loves made him a superb guide. Stephen supplied us with everything we could need, from rash guard to sunscreen and surfboard. He trained us on the basic elements of waves, safety, timing, the proper posture for catching a ride, and finding balance on the board. He also taught us how to gauge when currents were too dangerous by watching the movement of the water’s surface. This is valuable knowledge in a country where most locals don’t know how to swim and, when in doubt, simply caution you not to.
We hopped from cove to cove and learned the secret and not-so-secret surf spots, like at Hiriketiya, a wide, deep bay where waves break from a point so far out that you can catch a long, languid ride to shore. A couple of rustic hippie-style restaurants are popping up for sunset bites on the beach. In one afternoon, my friend learned to catch a wave (standing!), a testament to her own coordination and the prowess of our guide.
After three days, I had a new definition of wellness for myself. It’s true that Anantara Peace Haven is developing into a prime spot for Ayurveda therapy, complete with sunrise yoga classes and an inner harmony program. But for me, it was more than the spa treatment. It was also about taking time to learn something new from knowledgeable friendly locals in a very comfortable environment. The day I left, I felt like I’d actually made friends and had felt truly welcomed, from the coconut water drink on arrival to the Buddhist water blessing on leaving. This was the real deal.
Pros: Anantara in Tangalle is the place for a Sri Lankan beach escape, with authentic cultural touches and nearby wildlife viewing for those who want to keep comfy in the developing country that's just opening to tourism. Of note were the resident palm tree climber (still a real trade here!), the cuisine (some of the best Sri Lankan food I've had), and the authentic Buddhist and indigenous blessing ceremonies. The resort is ideal for someone who wants a taste of the island, but wants to steer clear of uncomfortable realities like stray dogs, bad traffic, and beaches cluttered with garbage. The villa is superb, and a worthwhile splurge with its private deck and plunge pool. But the equally gorgeous standard guest rooms, at half the rate, are a budget-friendly option with beautiful furnishings, comfortable beds, and exquisite ocean views, lacking nothing other than the private plunge pool and a bit more space.
Cons: Service is a bit doting at the restaurants: They take your plate too soon and ask if you're okay all the time. It’s better than the Sri Lankan service alternative — which is slow or completely lacking. Additionally, if you don't like animals, this place is not for you. You live in rhythm with nature here, so you'll see tons of birds (peacocks galore), giant land monitors, a resident porcupine (the newest pet), and sea turtles when the time is right. Fall is nearly butterfly season, so expect black tiger caterpillars everywhere you turn.