Sri Lanka’s south is on the cusp of change.
“It’s like we hit a gold mine and are running into it,” said Skandha Ponniah, marketing manager for travel company Sri Lanka in Style (srilankainstyle.com).
“The southern coast has undergone some significant developments in the last few years.” Just look at the number of properties that have recently popped up, ranging from Anantara Peace Haven Tangalle to Weligama Bay Marriott to Shangri-La Hambantota, he adds.
For Ponniah, all this growth isn’t surprising. “The south is quite unique in that it offers a diverse variety of things to do, including tea plantations, yoga and wellness retreats, surfing and secluded beaches.”
As visitors begin to discover the charms of Sri Lanka’s southern tip, just what do travellers and tour agents need to know?
Sri Lanka’s south is still a secret
“Sri Lanka is a bit like Thailand,” says Diana Oser, marketing and PR manager for Talalla Retreat. As she speaks, monkeys swing between palm trees. “But in Thailand, the paths are already made. Here they aren’t.”
It’s a sentiment often repeated by travel experts. While Sri Lanka’s south shares quite a few traits with neighbouring Thailand — like pristine beaches, a growing love of yoga and wellness retreats, and a touch of the exotic — the island is overall less developed.
“Until a few years ago, the southern province of Sri Lanka was barely listed on the tourist map,” says Filipe Lencastre, general manager of five-star Amanwella resort. “You’ll find kilometres of beaches, jungle, nature reserves and bays with whales and dolphins.”
Only things are changing fast. Major hotels, like the aforementioned Shangri-La Hambantota, are popping up in the area.
“Ours is the first resort in Sri Lanka of this scale,” says Iain McCormack, Shangri-La Hambantota general manager. “We have 300 rooms, three swimming pools… The south-east in particular is still new, still developing.”
Start in Colombo then rush to Galle
With flights, it’s pretty much a given that every traveller will have some bit of time in Colombo. This bustling city has a certain charm — great food, a heaving street market, a fast-paced buzz — but it’s also incredibly chaotic.
That’s where places like Maniumpathy come in. This soothing boutique hotel is done up in a steam-punk-meets-elegant-colonial way, with copper touches and claw-foot bathtubs filling high-windowed rooms. Stepping through the white archways from the bustling street feels like a retreat from chaos.
For travellers who have their heart set on Colombo, it’s worth booking around one of the city’s big festivals. There are art festivals, street food festivals, jazz festivals and a fair few more.
Even better, travel south along the coast to Galle. This charming city has strong colonial Portuguese and Dutch influences housed within the UNESCO World Heritage site of Galle Fort. Art galleries, cafes and boutique jewellery shops line the fort’s tiny roads.
Teardrop Hotels has only just opened Fort Bazaar, a boutique hotel with an intimate courtyard and refined clientelle, spotted often during the complimentary afternoon tea. “Galle Fort is an architectural heritage monument, which even after more than 423 years maintains a polished appearance due to extensive reconstruction work,” says Lencastre. “The Sri Lankan government and many Dutch people (who still own some of the fort’s properties) are looking at making this one of the modern wonders of the world.”
There’s more to the south than great beaches
“The south-east has a dual advantage: it has Yala National Park and a beach that’s safe and swimmable (not always the case with Sri Lanka’s beaches). Visitors have a safari and beach holiday in one spot,” says Nicky Brandon, director of sales and marketing for luxury travel agent Ker & Downey (kerdowney.com).
Yala National Park certainly is one of the main attractions of the south. This massive protected area is filled with sloth bears, elephants, deer, crocodiles and an endless number of birds. But it’s main attraction is the leopard.
“Look at block one,” says Avijja Fonseka. “You have around 15 thousand hectares, and in that space there are 80 to 100 leopards. If you do the math, Yala has more leopards per square km than any place in the world, so it’s the best spot to see them.”
Yala has always been busy, notes Fonseka. “But it’s picked up in the last three, four years. During the holiday period, like Christmas, April and August (when Sri Lankans are on holiday as well), things get really busy.”
Luxury travellers stay at Leopard Trails, a bespoke high-end tented camp on the edge of Yala National Park. There three-course dinners are hosted under the stars and highly trained guides, like Fonseka, take guests out on safari from 5am. Nearby Jetwing Yala offers a more mainstream luxury product, with hotel rooms framed by kilometres of untouched beach. This summer, Resplendent Ceylon will be opening yet another option: Wild Coast.
“In the recent past, a ‘large’ hotel of 150 rooms was unimaginable,” says Brandon.”But a steady increase in tourism indicates a positive outlook, something forecasted to only grow.”
Boat trips to spot blue whales and dolphins are also big. For this, travellers need to head down toward Mirissa and hop on a boat. Sail Lanka does the whale-spotting tours well, offering luxury catamarans and limited guest numbers (sail-lanka-charter.com). Other, cheaper boat options can be full to the brim.
“Sri lanka’s one of the few spots in the world where you can see the world’s largest marine mammal (the blue whale) and the largest land mammal (the elephant) within a very short period of time,” adds Ponniah.
There’s a real health scene
Swaying palm trees, sun and fresh air practically scream health and wellness — and in Sri Lanka’s south, travellers have noticed.
Just a few hours down from Colombo, Barberyn Reef Ayurveda Resort offers meditation, yoga, and daily treatments based on the 5,000-year-old Ayurvedic healing system. All this comes served with a daily buffet of Ayurvedic-based food.
At the other end of the scale, places like Talalla appeal to the upmarket surfing yogis who want twice-a-day yoga sessions served with a side of high-end accommodation. Meanwhile Sion Surf, whose beach barbecues, twice-a-day surfing and shared hostel-like rooms target more of the traditional budget surfer demographic.
Anantara Peace Haven Tangalle has tapped into this high-end health scene incredibly well. The airy property offers one-on-one surfing lessons with luxury provider TropicSurf in a nearby, entirely empty beach. “In the 2.5 years I’ve been here, the surf scene has changed incredibly,” says one of the TropicSurf coaches. “It’s gone from just the occasional beach house to entire beaches being full of surfers. Tourists are attracted by how different it is. You have a small island where you can go from surfing and relaxing to seeing Galle and the cities, all in the same day.” Surf lessons end with coconuts sipped under the shade of palm trees, or optional curry cooking lessons stretching across lazy afternoons.
Yet Sri Lanka’s southern wellness scene isn’t only about surf and yoga. Places like Maya sing a different, much more subtle tune. Nestled far enough from the coast that it’s surrounded by rice paddies, this five-suite boutique property draws yogis and peace-seekers. While it may lack the bells and whistles of some of Sri Lanka’s newer hotels, there is the option to borrow a bike and cycle through some of the nearby tiny villages. With TV-free rooms and discrete staff, this simple venue offers the ultimate asset: a chance to truly relax and unwind.
“Visitors heading to the southeast an enjoy the peace and pristine beauty of the area,” adds Brandon. Yet it’s all about getting there now. “More change is coming, and soon.”
Need to know
Getting there: If you’re headed straight to Sri Lanka’s southeast, the best thing to do would be to fly into Dubai, spend a couple days in the glitzy city, then book a cheap FlyDubai seat to Matalla airport.
Getting around: Driving in Sri Lanka is expensive and time consuming, given the country’s winding roads. This is particularly true along the southern coast, where for much of the way a beach road is the only option. Luxury travellers tend to hire a driver for the entire duration of their stay (and high-end hotels will be prepared to handle the logistics around this). Taxis and private transport is also available, as are the much cheaper three-wheeled tuk-tuks.
Properties to know
Barberyn Reef Ayurveda Resort
This wellness-focused, beachfront venue attracts an older crowd looking for an all-inclusive Aryuvedic resort with oil massages, health drinks and ‘quiet please signs’ throughout. barberynresorts.com
Populated by tanned beautiful yogis, this upmarket retreat draws the surf and yoga crowd who have a bit more cash to spare. Walk down the one kilometre beach to grab coffee and strong wifi at the nearby beach boat shack. talallaretreat.com
Large and decadent but with the refined air of a Shangri-La, this newly opened property offers endless entertainment. A golf course, trapeze and multiple pools mean boredom’s not possible. Book the intimate river safari for an amazing sunset experience. shangri-la.com
Upmarket but with an outdoorsy feel, this hotel draws a slightly older crowd looking for safari. A breakfast and dinner buffet feature curry and healthy dishes. jetwinghotels.com
Leopard Trails – Yala
The way to go if safari is the aim, this property offers upmarket tents around lantern-lit paths at the edge of Yala National Park. Guides know their stuff and all-day safaris, with picnics served from the back of jeeps, are an option. leopardtrails.com
Artsy and boho, this sleepy colonial property sits nestled among palm trees in an undeveloped area of Sri Lanka’s south. Expect to spot locals playing cricket on the beach as the sunsets. turtlebay.lk
Anantara Peace Haven Tangalle
Slick and great for surfers, this Anantara venue offers unbelievable villas along winding mangroves. Grab a bike to get around, as the property’s multiple restaurants, spa, beach and pool will take a while to see otherwise. tangalle.anantara.com
Nestled among rice paddies, this five-bedroom boutique hotel is intimate and refined. Highly trained staff whisper in and out throughout the day, all while guests swing on hammocks looking across rice paddies. mayatangallesrilanka.com
Sion Surf Camp
Cheap and cheerful, this surf spot offers hostel-style beds or double rooms (for a lucky few), as well as good wifi and communal meals. There’s no immediate access to a beach but plenty of time will be spent in the sea. sionsurfcamp.com
This 18-bedroom Galle Fort townhouse features a private courtyard and a charming cafe with Instagram-worthy eggs Benedict. Hip and chic, a cinema is expected to open soon. teardrop-hotels.com/fort-bazaar/
The Heritance brand has several luxury hotels throughout Sri Lanka, and this beachfront one doesn’t disappoint. A massive infinity pool, easy access to the sea and extensive breakfast buffet all make it family friendly. heritancehotels.com
Located in the heart of Colombo, this boutique hotel embraces the charm of its colonial, stately home rooms. Pictures of the previous owners line the living room’s walls. Book into the nearby ‘Honey and Hibiscus’ tea experience through Pepper and Sri Lanka In Style to sample some of Sri Lanka’s finest. maniumpathy.com; pepper.life