SRI LANKAN HOSPITALITY
in a Hidden Paradise
by Mary Jane Agra
Where would you go - if you had one week to hideaway and unwind in unpretentious comfort and luxury, soak up the golden sun in an oceanfront private pool villa, feast on the spicy flavors of the catch of the day and mouthwatering savory cuisine, bask in the magic of nature and diverse wildlife amidst the resort’s luscious greens, embrace your adventurous side and ride the roaring waves for a challenging surf, escape the demands of the fast-paced lifestyle and retreat to a sanctuary with the view of the coconut palms overlooking the tranquil shores of the Indian Ocean - all while knowing in your heart that you’ll be welcomed with open arms and blanketed with warmth and utmost care. The choice was simple. This taste of heaven was Anantara’s Peace Haven Resort near the old fort town in Tangalle, southeastern coast of Sri Lanka - the once-utopian traveller’s romantic paradise.
Almost three hours into our private car ride after landing from Bandaraike International Airport (also known as Colombo airport) - bewildered and slightly jet lagged - our driver pulls over into this cliff in a vast coconut plantation with mesmerizing secluded pristine white sand beachfront and panoramic views. More than a decade of rebuilding after the wake of the 2004 tsunami, this waterfront resort in this tropical island came to life in 2015 as a tribute to Geoffrey Bawa, the so-called god of the Sri Lankan architects. The weather was muggy and cloudy, or maybe it was my tiredness from the long trip down the narrow windy roads across fishing villages and rice fields, interspersed with Buddhist temples and elephant-head fences. This mood of gloom suddenly dissipates upon being greeted by a friendly yet familiar face dressed in a bright-orange and beige patterned traditional Kandyan saree, followed by the welcome ceremony hymns of beautiful Sinhalese women circled around a banku rabana communal drum. As we settle into this open courtyard-style lobby, echoes of their soothing serenade force me to remind myself that I’m in Sri Lanka! While sipping on fresh chilled king coconut water during our check-in, I thought about how the Sri Lankan warmth and deeply felt spirit of hospitality never cease to amaze me, and just like that - I already knew that this retreat set in this picturesque serene landscape is just where I needed to be.
THE PRIVATE VILLA
Our golf buggy ride to our luxury ocean-view pool villa with our round-the-clock Villa Host (more like our personal butler for the rest of our stay) was nothing short of fascinating. The drive boasted the resort’s understated luxury offerings: the isolated and serene-like garden with the beach beyond pool villas, ocean-sized double-decker infinity pool featuring food and cocktail service delivered right to your sun lounge while you work on that golden glow, a spa sanctuary featuring a practitioner of Ayurvedic medicine, and a mangrove stream teeming with lush greenery, blooming lotuses and diverse wildlife like flamboyant peacocks, loud roosters, langur monkeys, parakeets, malabar giant squirrels, hermit crabs, geckos, and goana-sized lizards! I remember taking a mental note to avoid them at all costs during my resort excursions, and yet they manage to make me fly off my bike few too many times! Then, you hear the rushing thuds of footsteps approach and see help coming! Everyone stops what they're doing to come to my rescue in nanoseconds - from the gardeners, cleaners, and the coconut man! In case you’re wondering, the coconut man is that one guy too cool he'll definitely catch your eye when you're wandering around the resort. Often spotted with a smile from ear to ear, he flaunts a sarong around his tiny little waist whose job is to simply climb up trees (not that its easy) and happily fetch fresh coconuts for resort guests.
Settling into our oceanfront private villa felt like a dose of relief. There’s just something about finally parking your luggage and taking in the comforts of your new home, at least for that little while. I let the I’m on vacation feeling sink in as my eyes dart over and notice the cream walls on our 100 square meter villa hut, the sandy and coral colored upholstery that blanket our king-sized bed, a Nespresso machine which I’m definitely going to make use of as many times possible, the selection of loose and bagged Dilmah tea neatly placed in a wooden box by the dimly lit bar, the soothing sounds of the circling fan atop the soaring ceiling, the laid-out postcards across the study, the free-standing tub in the island-sized airy spaced bathroom along with a display of signature Anantara amenities including all-natural soaps, moisturizers, and fragrant incense, the cotton and towel dressing gowns neatly hung up by the indulgent rainfall shower...then I giggle as I spot the selection of reading material in the loo while you do the deed. I lay my feet up as I melt into this bed of clouds but the view of the our private villa’s plunge pool through the glass sliding doors and swaying palm-fringed lawns urges me to jerk myself off the bed to enjoy the day.
Hungry…for new adventures in this scenic paradise, a blissful meditative experience with sunset yoga against the backdrop of the golden-hued beach, the warm tides touching my feet as they wash ashore and the scent of sweet salty ocean breeze, the chance to hide away and heal in this tranquil paradise away from the noise and wake up to the melodic sounds of the ocean - or for spicy, savory and mouth-watering Sri Lankan cuisine?
Breakfast was a feast. Their buffet at Journeys restaurant was the chance to savor the charms and flavors of island life with their impressive offerings of both exotic Sri Lankan and refined International cuisine. Memories from Galle devouring their local rice flour pancake called egg hoppers, green jackfruit, dhal and coconut curry with a side of gotu kola and coconut sambol made me excited for this very moment - to eat as much local food as I can! Several plates and a busting belly later, the nonjudgmental and uber friendly staff were ready to whizz up a dose of my daily vitamins at their fresh juicing counter. They were also quick to point out that my much-awaited caffeine kick served in a double shot of espresso was already waiting for me at the table.
It’s no surprise Sri Lanka is called the land of the local smiles, with a friendly smile and helping hand in every corner. 24 million strong, Sri Lanka is often overlooked from its intimidating neighbor India due to their world influence and larger population. Little do we know that there’s more than just 30 kilometers of ocean separating the two countries. Whereas India is fast-paced and hectic, Sri Lanka moves at a much slower pace and exhibits a kind of gentleness. Visitors across the country feel the deep spirit of sincerity and gratitude from the locals throughout as they take pride in their pearl island home, especially after surviving decades of civil war and restoring their natural resources. One other difference to note is that food is spicier in Sri Lanka. The mix of sweet and spicy in their fiery curries, sweet caramelized onion relish, and sour lime pickle are unapologetically adrenaline-pumping flavors and not for the timid eater and faint of heart.
Dinner was always romantic. The first night, we dined at the breezy beachside Verala as if we can’t get enough of the azure Indian Ocean. Serving Japanese Teppanyaki with Sri Lankan fusion-inspired dishes on a traditional treehouse overlooking the rice paddy fields, we settled for the catch of the day, kottu lobster, and tiger prawn curry along with a side of local spices to get a real taste of Sri Lankan cuisine.
Another night, we dined in candlelight at their award-winning signature cliffside Italian restaurant Il Mare with sweeping views of the swaying palms and soundtrack of the crashing waves. With the chef and maître’d being both Italian, we were excited to get a taste of the hallmarks of their fine-dining menu. We delightfully feasted on their Australian black Angus beef carpaccio and prosciutto pizza for our antipasti followed by the Indian Ocean snapper fillet and 150-day aged Angus tenderloin steak - of course, paired with their finest bottle of red.
This vacation wouldn't be complete without a challenge. Sri Lanka being famed for its year-round balmy shores and hailed as a surfer’s paradise, its only fitting to book a few sessions with their onsite boutique operator and pioneer in luxury surfing, Tropicsurf. Thankfully, the resort is in close proximity to the some of the best surfing destinations in the island and undiscovered swells. Depending on the tides and waves, everyday poses a different challenge to conquer for the beginners to the Kelly Slaters in the surfing world. Meeting Anantara’s very own seasoned surf guru, Steve, with his gleaming pearly whites, bronzed visage, athletic physique yet calm demeanor, brought on a mixed feeling of excitement, adrenaline and nerves as my surfing history only extended as far as a couple beginner sessions in Bali. Steve is an Australian native who decided to settle in Tangalle with his wife, who non-hesitantly approached us earlier in the day to introduce herself and talk about her spiritual practice and story of finding peace upon settling here. Quite inspiring.
All briefed and warmed up, we practice our chicken wings and lizard legs position before the big pop on the board atop the powdery sand before threading the waters on our surf location for the day. Did I mention the clouds were getting darker by the second and the rain quickly shifted from a slight drizzle to a heavy pour? Yikes. Starting to shiver from the cold, I meekly followed Steve into the quiet waters as I watch out for hint of thunderstorms. My old self would have quickly backed out of this situation but that voice of adventure and wanderlust overcame that fearsome voice inside. Although slightly trickier when on rainy waters and being force-fed salt water after being pounded by waves headfirst, the next few waves were an easy surf as I gained more confidence on the surfboard. Looking back at Steve with pride, I retired gracefully for the day under the shade of a palm tree with some fresh coconut water and a magical sunset.
The next morning on a different beach, the skies were clear and the waves wilder and ferocious. We practiced our pop up beachside with another student from Spain, a natural athlete and a seemingly competitive one. With waterlogged ears, Steve’s repetitive screams “Chicken! Leg! Pop!” grew fainter as I repetitively choke on the gallon of saltwater ingested during my failed attempts to tide these messy waves. My mindset was focused on overcoming this first hurdle and ride at least one wave, but the triumphant attempts of my Spanish co-surfer made the task even more daunting and my falls even more embarrassing. I feel my body starting to tire out, and my mental strength slowly wavering. On my 100th attempt, I manage to ride a wave with awkwardly while feeling victorious to have done so despite the odds. They said, “don’t count the number of times you get knocked down in life but how many times you get back up.” No wonder they say surfing is a good exercise for both physical and mental strength. Tides are unpredictable and changes day by day - how you adapt to challenges patiently and survive the struggle ultimately build character. I admit, at one point - I was done and may have thrown some tantrums. Guilty as charged. But hey, it’s life!
I WILL NEVER FORGET
Jeeva. The exemplary model of kindness and Sri Lankan hospitality. Our first night after dinner, we found ourselves having a pick-me-up at their charming lobby lounge when a smiley small-framed man in his late 50’s dressed in their uniform white shirt and patterned brown sarong slowly but surely approaches and welcomes us into the lounge as if it were his own home. It was really late in the evening and the silence deafening as everyone else has retired for the day. Intrigued by their Shisha menu, which was limited compared to what we were used to in Dubai - being a hub of hookah cafes, we decided to try their Apple flavored shisha. Jeeva happily and quickly prepared our Shisha, as if excited to host his only guests at the lounge. Instinctively feeling that the Shisha was not up to our standards being the Shisha lovers that we are, this little yet mighty man would run back and forth to adjust the tobacco and charcoal for us. He entertained us throughout and shared stories of his family and home. Watching his eyes gleam and light up with joy and hope as he spoke about what he loved felt heart-warming and real. Every night, we would end our day at the lobby bar with Jeeva, fascinated and inspired by his stories of finding happiness in the simplest of things. In love. In faith. In family. In the company of others. And in nature.
We learned from other staff that Jeeva’s career in the resort actually started with him humbly walking into the doorsteps of the resort to sell some lumber for a living. The manager was instantly drawn to his goodness that he hired him for a job on the spot - and it was history since then. Saying goodbye to Jeeva was hard, I couldn’t have imagined to have connected with someone like him, with his goodness, during our stay and afterwards feel inspired to embark on a spiritual quest. We wrote him a nice letter of appreciation, which he accepts all teary-eyed that my heart breaks a little. This is one true and rare human connection I am most thankful for on this trip. You never know when you’ll cross paths with someone or something that will open up your mind and appreciate life from a new set of eyes. Thank you Jeeva and see you again Anantara Peace Haven Tangalle.
DREAMING OF SUNSETS by MJ Agra is an inspirational blog on Lifestyle, Food & Drink, and Destinations.