Sri Lanka

Why you should add southern Sri Lanka to your bucket list


Standing atop the weather-beaten walls of Galle Fort on the southern coast of Sri Lanka, the harsh sea breeze blew my hair into a mess. of.

Dating back to the 16th century, it is one of the best-preserved European-built fortified cities in the region. Its architectural style draws influences from Portugal, the Netherlands and England, providing a visual reminder of the country’s complex history.

The country has also been experiencing some troubles of late. COVID-19 travel lockdowns triggered by the economic crisis and supply shortages and last year’s presidential uprising have posed challenges for the tourism industry over the past few years. But now that the situation has stabilized, the country is more than happy to welcome tourists back.

It was just another beautiful day in this tropical destination in Galle Fort. Amidst the rhythmic sound of the waves crashing against the stone walls of the fort, I could almost hear the distant cheers of schoolchildren playing cricket. Around me, vendors sell sun hats and refreshing cold drinks to sunburned travelers.

Charming streets of Galle. (Photography: Vincent Zhuang)

Tucked away among the winding alleys and cobbled streets are many art galleries, boutiques, cafés and restaurants offering local goods and produce. A highlight is Barefoot, which offers a range of clothing, textiles, art and books from local brands. The blend of modern creativity and historic charm gives Galle Fort a unique sense of place.

I came to Sri Lanka at the invitation of ANI Private Resorts, a series of all-inclusive private luxury resorts for charity. The resorts are specifically designed for single group bookings of up to 20 to 30 guests at a time and there are currently four resorts in Phuket, Thailand, Anguilla, the Dominican Republic and Sri Lanka.

Proceeds from the resort will be used to operate six non-profit ANI art schools around the world, including one in Sri Lanka. The academy provides an intensive, multi-year, full-time fine arts scholarship education for apprentices aged 18 and over.

The concept of this luxury resort combined with philanthropy is the brainchild of Ani founder and arts patron Tim Reynolds, who wanted to provide artistically inclined individuals with the opportunity to pursue their passions while making a living through their work.

Sri Lanka
Students learn crafts at ANI Art Institute. (Photo: ANI Sri Lanka)

Galle was our first stop and the team had already demonstrated the brand’s unparalleled attentive and warm hospitality. As our small group of reporters wandered in and out of small shops and cafes, I noticed that Nilantha Kumarage, the events manager, was almost always within sight to point us in the right direction, lest we get lost and dehydrated in the hot sun.

The resort is about an hour’s drive from Galle, nestled between the market towns of Dickwella and Talala. Up to 30 staff are on hand to tailor every detail of your trip inside and outside the resort.

close to nature

Having these travel experts on hand can be invaluable in helping with day trip plans, especially given the area’s embarrassing wealth of exploration experiences, from jungle safaris to offshore ocean adventures like whale watching.

For example, wildlife lovers can head to Bundala National Park for bird watching, Udawalawe National Park to visit the elephant orphanage and sponsor a baby elephant, or Yala National Park, home to the elusive leopard, for a safari Adventure.

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Lunch is served in the resort’s Ayurvedic colonial house. (Photo: ANI Sri Lanka)

The ANI team will work with locals to make the experience as memorable as possible. In Yala National Park, for example, guests can enjoy a private picnic during a game drive.

Further afield, home to Sri Lanka’s famous tea plantations, most visitors drive “inland” along winding mountain roads or take slow trains, a trip that can take up to half a day. But for ANI travelers on a budget, a quick seaplane charter can reach the mist-shrouded summit in just 90 minutes. This gives you plenty of time to admire the lush jungle and waterfalls before catching a seaplane back to the resort, just in time for tea.

“Our team will arrive at the destination early to ensure guests have a smooth journey, and where possible, we will arrange private and exclusive experiences,” said general manager Dinesh Hewavitharana. No detail is too small, he added, including finding sites with restrooms suitable for road trip rest stops.

Integrate into local culture

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Typical Tuk Tuk in Galle. (Photography: Vincent Zhuang)

I really felt TLC’s presence as we explored the fishing town of Dickwella and its surrounding areas. On a sunny Saturday afternoon, we joined Chef Cyril Human for a 10-minute tuk-tuk ride to the bustling weekend market to stock up on fresh tomatoes, leeks and a variety of spices for a cooking class – and our Sri Lankan dinner.

As shopaholics break away from the crowds to pick up handmade products such as woven baskets and Sri Lankan batik textiles, the resort’s Wellness Director Manjulah Wijekoon accompanies us as a translator.

Another afternoon we were taken to a 200-year-old colonial house. The building once housed an Ayurveda clinic, where patients could pay the doctor for anything they had, such as fresh produce from the garden. Today, although the doctor’s descendants still live here, the family no longer practices Ayurvedic medicine.

Nonetheless, the family welcomed us into their home, proudly displaying family photos and the old kit the doctor used to work, while the youngest child looked at us curiously from behind her father’s sarong.

Sri Lanka
Ayurvedic lunch including bitter melon sambal, baby jackfruit curry and local fish with brown rice. (Photography: Vincent Zhuang)

To commemorate this traditional practice, the ANI team prepared a special lunch inspired by Ayurvedic principles and ingredients such as bitter melon sambal, which helps with diabetes management and detoxification, and baby jackfruit curry, which has antibacterial properties. The meal had a lighter, greener, herbal flavor than the typical rich curries of South Asia, and to our delight it didn’t induce a post-lunch food coma – all the better to enjoy more in the afternoon activity.

While some of the country’s most culturally significant temples are located further north in the Kandy region, there are also some interesting and less crowded temples nearby. The Wewurukannala temple in Dickwella is famous for its intricate statues depicting scenes from Sri Lankan legends and various incarnations of Buddha, and is popular with locals who visit Lotus flowers were offered and sutras were recited under the shade of the bodhi tree in the courtyard.

On our final morning, we took a 10-minute stroll along the resort’s beachfront to a nearby temple to receive blessings from a local priest. Curious children attending classes at the temple giggled and waved to us.

Home court food

While there is so much to explore, it’s worth allocating enough time to enjoy yourself in the resort’s idyllic grounds. There are 15 suites surrounding two tropical modernist-style two-story living halls, where most of the action takes place.

For example, there is no fixed place to eat. Instead, the team created an elaborate setup with different pavilions on the lawn and the shallow end of the infinity pool.

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The interior of the Wewurukannala Buduraja Maha Viharaya temple was built in the 18th century. (Photography: Vincent Zhuang)

The wellness team offers up to 15 spa treatments daily, including traditional Ayurvedic massages and Shirodhara treatments (where warm medicated oils are placed on the forehead to relax and refresh the mind). There’s also a game room, shuffleboard, tennis courts, and group or individual fitness classes like water aerobics, yoga, or tennis classes to burn off those extra calories.

We even had great local entertainment at the resort. One evening’s pre-dinner entertainment came from a traditional dance performance by the Colombo Dance Company. On a lazy tropical afternoon, a palmist came to the resort to provide personalized readings for many in the group, with astonishing accuracy.

Best of all, travelers can even leave with the ultimate souvenir – a piece of art created by an ANI Art Institute artist. They are trained to create surreal images using charcoal, pastels or oils, often blending portraiture with their own imagination, and many of their works can be viewed in the resort’s art gallery.

Custom portraits can also be commissioned, although it can take several months for the finished piece to be delivered to your home. Still, with all proceeds going entirely to the artist, it’s clear that patience is a virtue and traveling with a conscience is its reward.

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