Sri Lanka

Here I am at Rana Seafood Restaurant, just a few steps outside our hotel grounds. We were up on the second floor, after crossing the railroad tracks you see in the background. The food was pretty good, the price was pretty good, and the setting was delightful.

Our (nearly) last stop in Sri Lanka was the tiny little town of Bentota, midway between Galle & Colombo, where finally we had a pretty good beach experience. Our hotel – Vivanta by Taj – was at the end of a small road and then up on a bit of a hill. The result was that the pool and all that had nice views over the beach but, if you wanted to, you could go down to a big, wide, beautiful beach. Unlike further south where we’d been the water here was swimmable without too much danger. So Mark & I both spent a bit of time, finally, in the Indian Ocean.

Here I am down on the beach. As you can see it’s a huge beach and I was pretty much on my own. I love sitting like that with a good book! Unfortunately there were tiny, tiny little bugs that must have been three-quarters teeth. They didn’t bother me too much at the time; they were so small you could just ignore them. Five days later, though, I’m still scratching them like crazy.

Otherwise, besides pool and beach, this was a quiet stop. We discovered two nice restaurants just outside the hotel grounds which is always a plus; the food is better than what you’ll get at the hotel and significantly cheaper. Sadly, though, we were there during the full moon. Here’s whats weird about that: in Sri Lanka, full moon days are public holidays known as “Poya.” Shops are closed, which is fine. Horrifically, though, the sale of alcohol is prohibited, even in restaurants. Fortunately we knew about this in advance and had gone into town the day before to buy some wine and then ordered room service in a room that was big enough it had a sitting/eating area. With advance planning like that it sure seems as though Mark & I could survive in the wilderness if we needed to.

Mark with our room service Indian meal and the prized bottle of wine on Poya. Note that Boston Bear joined us that evening.

After three days in Bentota, then, we hired a car to drive us up to an airport hotel near Colombo for a very early flight the next day to the Maldives. Two things about that stand out. First, we asked at the hotel about hiring a car; they quoted us a price of $110 USD. That was insane, well more than twice what we’d paid for any other transfer in Sri Lanka and this was a pretty short drive. I went out of the hotel, then, to hire our own car and the first guy quoted a price of about $50 as his first (high) offer. It pissed us off to have the hotel try to rip us off like that.

And then when we made it up to the airport hotel they’d upgraded us to a suite which was as big and nice as nearly any room we’ve had in a few years. Strange to have that experience at an airport hotel. Finally, let me add how much we loved Sri Lanka, just a real paradise. Beaches, highlands, culture – we saw it all in our three weeks here. We have this sense that in a couple of years Sri Lanka will be a major tourist destination, so get here fast before it changes too much!

View of the ocean from the pool area. Not a bad place to hang out.

And indeed, that’s where Mark spent much of his time

How’s that for a beautiful beach?

Meanwhile, back at Rana Seafood Restaurant, the train makes its way leisurely up toward Colombo

Dinner at Malli’s Seafood was also up on the second floor, also right next to the train tracks where local trains entertained us coming and going

And a final shot from Malli’s. When you sat down they brought this coconut bread, some fresh tomatoes marinated in something-or-other, and the incredible melted butter and garlic. We usually avoid bread but this was absolutely worth an exception in our diet. Wow!

The remaining walls around Galle’s Fort

From the bliss of Tangalle it was a couple hours northwest along the coast to Galle (pronounced gawl, or something like that), the capital of Sri Lanka’s Southern Province. Back in the day it was Portugal’s major port on the island and is still an important port for Sri Lankan trade. Perhaps just as important for today Galle has become something of an art center for the country; the day we arrived, in fact, was the closing day of some poetry festival.

Like so much of Sri Lanka, Galle bears signs of its long colonial experience, from the Portuguese to the Dutch to the English. The major stamp of that colonialism in Galle is the Fort, a World Heritage Site and the largest remaining fortress built by Europeans in all of Asia. The Fort was built on a promontory surrounded on three sides by the Indian Ocean. Today it is full of boutique hotels and restaurants and art galleries and all those things that tourists love. For me the best part was that in 45 minutes or an hour you could walk along the ramparts and watch Sri Lanka – and plenty of Western tourists – pass by.

Colonial architecture in the Fort

I somehow had the sense that this was a beach destination but I quickly learned that wasn’t at all true; this is a town for art and hanging out. Unfortunately there wasn’t really a lot to do here. The architecture in the Fort was interesting and the whole area had a nice vibe to it, but that takes a couple hours to experience.

The good news was that the hotel where we were staying had a relationship with a resort a bit north of the main town where we could go for the day. A big pool and right on the coast. As with Tangalle it wasn’t a place to swim; the currents are too strong and dangerous. But for the hours between breakfast and late afternoon a perfectly pleasant place to lounge. And to our surprise and delight the poolside restaurant was exceptional, exceptionally rare for a place like that but a welcome exception.

Mark lazing out on the coast. Not the best beach in the world (or particularly close…) but pleasant enough.

One more stop in Sri Lanka – this time a place that should actually have a beach for swimming – and then we’re off to the Maldives. Now that’s exciting.

Notwithstanding all the tourism and emphasis on the arts, Galle is definitely still a working port. The good news for us is that the fish you get in restaurants is wonderfully fresh and pretty inexpensive.

And of course very much a Buddhist country

More of the walkable ramparts around the Fort

The grounds and a corner of what was a huge pool at the resort we retired to for the day. We thought it strange that they didn’t landscape the pool area at all, but with the loungers and umbrellas all oriented toward the sea that worked just fine for us, too.

Our first night we went to the bar first and then the restaurant at an Aman Hotel just up the street from ours. Aman is one of the most expensive, exclusive hotel brands and we’d read good things about the bar. Sadly, the bar you see here was lovely but certainly didn’t live up to my expectations. The martini was small, weak, and not very cold. Sad indeed.

The entrance to Buckingham Place. Just the right combination of elegance, art, and whimsy.

Tangalle is a fishing port and tourist destination near the very southern tip of Sri Lanka. We wouldn’t know much about it, though, save for driving through on our way out of town. Instead we stayed at one of the most blissful beachside resorts we’ve ever been to, Buckingham Place, maybe 10 miles or so outside of town.

It’s a pretty small resort run by Nick, a British ex-pat who came to Sri Lanka and fell in love with it. What’s amazing is that Buckingham Place is the first resort he ever built. I talked with him about it and he said when he started he knew pretty much nothing about building a resort except his own likes and dislikes.

Yeah, that’s relaxed

At any rate, he sure got it right, just a very quiet, comfortable, relaxing place, small enough to feel intimate but big enough so he can make a living. A highlight was the restaurant. Often in a place like this, where you’re miles from anything resembling a tourist restaurant, they get by with mediocre food at high prices. Here it was great food at mediocre prices. I particularly liked the fact that they didn’t serve wine by the glass. Normally that’s annoying, meaning they’re trying to sell you more than you want by the bottle. Well, his explanation is that too often they would open a bottle to sell it by the glass and then have to either 1) throw a bunch away when no one else bought it; or 2) serve sub-par wine to the next person. His solution? Buy a bottle and if you don’t want it all we’ll store it until your next meal. Perfect!

The beach is endless but sadly the currents make it too dangerous for swimming

There’s not a lot to do at Buckingham Place except relax. A beautiful pool with a great view over the Indian Ocean and explicit directions to keep noise (including their own piped music) to a minimum. Admire the local art that decorates the restaurant. You can walk on the stunning beach but no swimming; the tides and currents are too dangerous. I’ve recovered enough from my twisted ankle of a month ago that I could start running again on the quietest paved country roads I’ve seen in a long time. And then maybe an afternoon walk out on the same roads where the locals were pretty intrigued by this stranger walking. Who walks except really, really poor people?

A quiet little pond just a bit outside the resort

Otherwise it was breakfast-pool-lunch-pool-cocktails-dinner. When your surroundings are beautiful and the food great, that’s not a bad combination. In other words, Sri Lanka just keeps getting better. This is pretty close to paradise.

The local humans weren’t the only ones intrigued as I’d go out walking in the afternoon

More wildlife: the resort’s grounds-keeper

Out for a walk one afternoon and I came across a political event. The election is in February…

And finally a rice field a couple miles from the resort. Sri Lanka feels like this incredibly lush, beautiful, agriculturally rich place where you could really learn to enjoy yourself!