Sri Lanka delivers what the Caribbean can't

ELLEN HIMELFARB - From Saturday's Globe and Mail

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 such 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.

Then we sat listless and spent on rooftop terraces, slurping banana lassi and bottles of Sinhala beer while waiting for the kids' cheeks to lose their humid flush.

The thing about travelling with children – at least our four- and five-year-old offspring – is they assume the worst about a destination until ultimately being proven wrong. At home they despise getting in the car, but when, on Day 4, our driver arrived to take us eastward, they began to realize driving meant wildlife spotting. We'd see cows and horses, goats and sheep, but also seabirds, water buffalo, iguanas, turtles and langur monkeys hanging from canopies of trees. Our Punch Buggy games took on a new twist. "Elephant in the bush – gotcha!"

We saw our first elephant by the side of the road near Udawalawe National Park, unsure whether it was a baby or mama; subcontinental elephants are disarmingly small. At the wild elephant reserve, which includes a pachyderm orphanage and a 30,000-hectare safari park, we stayed overnight in a guesthouse owned by one of Sri Lanka's cricket stars, Romesh Kaluwitharana, or "Kalu."

It was like a Sri Lankan version of Kellerman's Hotel from Dirty Dancing , with an enormous log-cabin mess hall serving buffet meals, a pool, tiki spa and billiards room.The kids weren't thrilled about the early-morning safari either, but they learned that a 5 a.m. wake-up meant watching the sun rise over a field of mint as a herd of elephants padded past. They became obsessed with identifying the animals by gender – not terrifically challenging with elephants – and named them accordingly until we'd seen too many to bother.

During the three-hour drive between Galle and Udawalawe, southern Sri Lanka spreads out in a tangle of jungle and rocky coast. We spent a day doubling back, stopping at the fashionable resort town Tangalle. In Matara, capital of the south, a watchman gave us a private tour of the Dutch-built Star Fort; we were the only tourists he'd seen that day. We bought already melted ice creams from Elephant House, the local Good Humor, on a stone boardwalk where young lovers kissed under umbrellas and walked the bridge to an island temple offshore.

The next stretch detoured into the hills where old Sri Lankan families run still thriving tea plantations and women in saris harvest rice in the paddies. But around here all roads lead to the beach. Mirissa beach, whose blissful landscape we'd heard about in hushed tones, had a handful of thatch-roof cafés on a bay edged by palm-forested cliffs. We'd come for lunch without our beach gear but by the end had stripped naked (the children, at least) and coated ourselves with hours worth of salt and sand. The kids would still be there today had we not dragged them home via Weligama, a still more isolated beach with a single snack shack looking onto an atoll that's been converted into a luxury resort.

We passed our last week at a villa north of Galle, from where we cut into the west of the country. On afternoons we'd hike into the rain forest and try to avoid the notorious leech population. Or we'd visit friends staying on an old plantation inland and scout for monitor lizards and benign snakes. In the evenings we developed a habit of jumping in the pool after dessert and nodded off still wrapped in towels.

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.



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