When Sri Lanka started to crop up in travel blogs and the Facebook pages of oversharing friends, we dismissed it outright. There was no way, we imagined, that the mere 29 kilometres that separated the island from India could ever really separate them in spirit. We’d already spent our youth getting lost in the mad rituals, music and crowds of India. With two kids tagging along, we’d also outgrown the $5-a-day travel ethos, too.
But the narrow Gulf of Mannar, dividing Sri Lanka’s Mannar peninsula and India’s Tamil Nadu province, forms a cultural chasm between the two countries. The upshot for tourists is that Sri Lanka has delicious white-sand beaches, natural wonders and the colonial towns and temples we roamed as students in India. Yet, here we don’t have to share them with a billion others.
As our new Sri Lankan friend Sup told us, the country has more in common with Caribbean islands s uch as Trinidad and Antigua than India.
For the full Caribbean effect, visitors in the family way stay close to the crescent of land in the southwest. Using the historic port town of Galle as a hub, you can access most of Sri Lanka’s finer assets (in kiddie portions, mind you) with the chance to opt out and work on the impression your body makes in the sand. The villas around Galle do a fine job of sequestering you, with their tropical gardens and lap pools and antique cabinets stocked with gin.
You’ll thank them for that gin. It’s a long flight over. And then, once you’ve landed in Colombo , there’s an additional three hours in a taxi to, well, pretty much anywhere. Remain stoical. By the time you wake your first morning, in a bed the size of some apartments, and open the shutters onto the bedazzling sunlight, you’ll hardly remember the pain. It’s a bit like childbirth: If you could never let go of the agony, you’d never go through it again. The sultry Sri Lankan air is like a hormonal rush.
For three days we slept late, swam and lingered over breakfasts of “hoppers”: eggs fried in a rice-flour crepe, its toasty edges curling upward into a bowl. The beach outside our villa, in the neither-here-nor-there village of Thalpe, had all those things that satisfy the primal urges of children: washed-up sticks, dustings of mussel shells, palms bent low enough to climb on, fishermen bringing in their morning catch on colourful wooden boats. What it didn’t have were tourists. Nor did the next beach over. Or the one after that. When one day we finally encountered a family from Sweden, after a 20-minute walk along the shore, it was at a beach bar called Wijaya that cantilevered over the sand with upholstered loungers from which we could watch our children on the beach challenging the incoming waves. We stayed eight hours.
One of us – likely not myself – must have expressed a desire to put on a pair of shoes and see the world outside this fantasy postcard existence. So one morning we loitered just outside the villa gates until a tuk-tuk driver buzzed up to zip us into Galle Fort, the old Dutch stronghold.
I’m a sucker for a fortified colonial town, and Galle Fort, without ever seeming to try, emerged as an all-time favourite. Like other Dutch bastions, in the Caribbean for instance, it is cradled with bleached-white churches, monumental lighthouses and palatial imperial residences redesigned as high-end hotels. Though in Galle, where the Portuguese preceded the Dutch and the British followed before the Buddhist-Hindu-Christian contingent took over, the churches have been converted into temples and mosques and the planting fields have become cricket grounds.
Being there was alternately invigorating and calming. We charged up and down 16th-century streets to these hodgepodge places of worship and took shelter in their cool brick rooms. We piggy-backed children over ramparts to get views around the rugged peninsula. We picked through linens, folk art and pretty crafts in boutiques that cater to Europeans in caftans.