And then it ended just as it started, on another morning made radiant by the sunlight. Driving toward the airport we passed Hikkaduwa, Sri Lanka’s first hippie retreat, now buzzing with whip-thin bodies en route to surf lessons. As the mess of shops and cafés tapered off and the beachfront cleared we caught sight of a dark monolith rising out of the sand. How surreal it was to find a monument to the 50,000 who lost their lives in the tsunami that hit the island in 2005, a nightmare in carved relief, like a bronze of Picasso’s Guernica. Here, in the Hikkaduwa of today. Those poor souls in bronze would not have known a Sri Lanka free from the war that raged from here to the north until just five years ago. Their survivors couldn’t have imagined a coastline so pristine, sanguine and handsome as it is has become.
It definitely feels like a country on the cusp, though. Markets everywhere are beginning to gentrify. Museums are in the works. The restaurants in town have discovered pizza for Western toddlers averse to the vernacular curries. Every inn has a new wing in development. What comes next will either bolster Sri Lanka’s appeal as a Barbados of the East or send it the way of Cancun.
Limbo, in the meantime, is awfully nice.
IF YOU GO
Where to stay: The Frangipani Tree (near Galle) is on a deserted beach with vast grounds and a shallow lap pool. Rooms have cool concrete window seats that double as children’s beds. Doubles from $248. 94-9-228-3711, thefrangipanitree.com
Apa Villa Illuketia (near Galle) is in a jungle setting, ideal for spotting monkeys, birds and monitor lizards. You can take several rooms in the main house or sleep in a separate cottage by the pond. Large doubles from $175. 94-91-228-3320, villa-srilanka.com/apailluketia
Taprobane Island is just off the coast of Weligama beach. Here guests stay in a five-bedroom mansion with an infinity pool overlooking the ocean and round-the-clock butlers. Doubles from $1,000. 94-91-438-0275, taprobaneisland.com
Where to eat: Apa Villa Thalpe This beachfront villa gets a lot of buzz for its fresh seafood feasts, homemade desserts and fruity cocktails, which you can sip while the kids run riot on the lawn. 94-91-228-3320, villa-srilanka.com
The Fort Printers, a B&B in Galle Fort, has a cloistered courtyard restaurant serving fish tacos, lobster curries and bite-sized corn fritters. The perimeter of the expansive lounge is lined with daybeds, where sleepy children can flake out. 94-91-224-7977, thefortprinters.com
The Lighthouse Hotel has two restaurants, the Cinnamon Room for fine dining and outré barbecue buffets and the 24-hour Cardamom Café, which opens on to the hotel’s sprawling oceanfront terraces and the slope down to the mini lighthouse. 94-91-222-3744; jetwinghotels.com
Editor's note: Several paragraphs missing from an earlier version of this story have been restored.