That island in the sun: The Sri Lanka experience

The clouds hang low in Sri Lanka. It feels like if you stand on your toes and stretch high enough, you probably can grab a fistful. The skies often look like walls instead of ceilings and while the pretty island hosted us, these walls were various shades of red.

Literally a hop away from the mainland, with flight tickets from down South being cheaper, Sri Lanka is an obvious name on the Indian travellers’ list. But it is also one that often comes far below the lot, because, you’s RIGHT there.

It’s the ‘right there’ places that we neglect and push away for times when we are short of money but have a few days to travel. And that has also been true for me, till I got to change that. Sri Lanka has been on my go-to list for over a year, and high up enough.

And then I flew through a glorious sunset and landed in rain-splashed Colombo.

Colombo’s weather reminds you of Kolkata or Mumbai, with a shade less of humidity but infinitely more pleasant and fresh. The wide roads took us to the Airbnb that was hosting us for the next two nights - Aathma Colombo House.

Nestled right next to the Diyawanna Lake, this property is cloaked in green. There isn’t a single spot in the house where you don’t feel transported to another space and another time. Cocooned in that space with the colourful tiles, enough trees to cleanse your soul, a lake stretched out ahead and a pool with night jasmine flowers floating across the ripples - a break from the city hustle seemed to have begun.

One of the most vital things in Sri Lanka is the food. Of course.

Their breakfast spread has very often been called the best in the world and no, they were not exaggerating it in the least. Besides your delectable Sri Lankan tea, juice and a side of fresh fruits a normal breakfast includes a variation of hoppers, string hoppers, pol roti, kiribath, pittu and pongal served with fish, chicken or potato curry, dhal and a sambol.

Sri Lankan breakfasts are probably one of the best meals we have ever eaten. This was one of the spreads at the Airbnb property that hosted us in Colombo

Besides your delectable Sri Lankan tea, juice and a side of fresh fruits a normal breakfast includes a variation of hoppers, string hoppers, pol roti, kiribath, pittu and pongal served with fish, chicken or potato curry, dhal and a sambol

The majority of the carbs are rice flour-based and have coconut shavings or coconut milk in it, as does the protein curry preparations. The flavours are very similar to a lot of Thai curries and South Indian curries you may have tried but it feels so much more wholesome and comforting. Or perhaps it was just the weather.

And worry not, even after that breakfast, you will be more than ready for lunch. But nothing, no other spread could beat what Sri Lanka unleashes for breakfast.

Our Day 1 in Colombo was about press conferences, a long lazy lunch and then a drive around the city. The capital city of this island country is historically steeped in stories. While a glance at the beaches being constructed around the lighthouse for new construction might greatly disappoint you, the city has maintained a lot of its old heritage buildings (many of them are being restored) and a walk around them is highly recommended. You need time, and lots of it, to soak in the feel.

Nestled right next to the Diyawanna Lake, Aathma Colombo House is cloaked in green

Each section of this property is specially curated to suit the mood

The common dining area on the property

If all this is not chill enough, head over to the pool!

Colombo is a whole chapter of stories waiting to unfold

Colombo is a city with picture-perfect properties, great places to dine, party, shop and the best place to explore the rest of the country from. And not just because the airport is here. Colombo prepares you, most gently, for the experience called Sri Lanka.

That’s what it did for us as it nudged us on our long drive to Galle on a fresh sunny morning.

Roughly 125 kms away from the capital city, Galle is a world away from the bustle. It’s balmy, slow, languid and almost dreamy in its slow-mo pace. This city used to be Sri Lanka’s main port till Colombo took over the title, so as you might have guessed, the sea is everywhere, mostly a stone’s throw away. And that feeling is magical, also borderline terrifying all at the same time.

Honestly, that fear (which only I seem to have it seems, at least amongst the other people I know) is not irrational. Galle was one of the cities that was hit hardest by the 2004 tsunami. Most of the people here lost everything they had and had to start their lives again from scratch.

Galle is on the mend and has been for a while, but what remains are the stories and nothing, absolutely nothing can take away that tenacity and the will to fight on from this charming coastal haven.

The old city of Galle lies ensconced within the walls of the majestic Galle fort. The fort is called a ‘living’ one because there are residential properties, offices, hotels, churches, shops etc that are up and running for years. Parts of the fort have also been transformed to museums, the road pavings are intact, the doors, windows and arches are still the same and some of the oldest offices have been left as they were, still functioning.

Galle is a time-warp. You drive through the fort gates and you are suddenly thrown back a good few decades. And each part of the city has a special feeling to it.

Right outside the dark-wood Dutch doors of our hosts in Galle, the Yara Galle Fort, the serene blue sky, the swaying palm trees, the sea in the distance, boys playing football in the evenings - it reminds of you of a slow town where neighbours greet each other in the morning as you have your perfect cup of tea. It feels strangely like home.

Galle is laid-back time warp

You are always just a breath away from the sea at Galle

Walk around the bend into the Dutch Hospital precinct and the yellow walls of the fort on your left and the old courthouse on your right transports you to a chapter in history. There were proceedings going on inside the courthouse while lawyers, in their tiny old offices tapped away at typewriters - there wasn’t a computer in sight. There was something overwhelmingly nice to see piles and piles of documents stacked on shelves. The whole universe seemed to have turned 360 degrees, but Galle was right where it was.

Parts of the Galle fort are still used for thoroughfare

Other parts of the fort have been turned into museums

Built by the Dutch, the fort was eventually taken over by the British who ruled over it till the country got its independence in 1948

The views from the fort are spectacular

While most people head to Galle for the beaches, you cannot afford to miss a walk around the fort with a local who knows the city like the back of his hand. That’s what Ateeq did for us. This is also the perfect time to point out that the Galle Fort walk is a part of the Airbnb experiences.

Experiences are area/location-specific activities that you can book just the way you book a room on the site. For example, Sri Lanka offers experiences like surf lessons, yoga lessons, forest trails etc (you can book a walk with Ateeq here) . You don’t even need to be staying in an Airbnb to be able to book an experience.

Our walk through the Galle Fort

The walk conducted by Ateeq includes a long stroll all around the fort as he points out the important sites and anecdotes that only a local can offer - like pointing out the spot where every kid in Galle learns to swim. The walk ends with some incredible gelato in the heart of the fort where all the restaurants and cafes are.

One of the oldest jetties in Galle. This is also where the local kids learn to swim

After our long, long stroll, we headed to Dewata Beach, a little drive away from Galle, for our first surf lessons. Hosted by Oshan Diluk, these lessons are your baby steps into an adrenaline overdose. It’s harder than it looks and you will have enough salt water in your system to never need any seasoning in your food again - but you must try this.

The lagoon where the lessons are have been chosen because of its shallow waters and small waves. And the instructors are incredibly, incredibly patient - which is a huge plus.

You start with the basics

Then drag yourselves to the sea

Finally, you try to ride the waves

Our first day ended with a laid-back dinner at Unawatuna beach, which is also a short drive away from Galle. And even before we could forget how good the local beer and the fresh-grilled seafood tasted like, we were on the way to the airport.

The buzzing Unawatuna beach

Yara Galle fort was our host in the city

How could we leave without this?

And You cannot miss the Sri Lankan teas when you are there

Now, the important deets

The Sri Lankan currency conversions are easy - one Indian rupee converts to 2.27 Sri Lankan rupee. Withdraw your money at the airport right from one of the ATMs or change it from Dollar/Euro/whatever you please. For an Indian, the Sri Lankan visa will set you back by $20 (₹1,500 roughly). While you can easily get a place on Airbnb starting from ₹2,000 a night, the experiences come from anything between ₹1,500 to ₹5,000 or more. All of this of course depends on the city you are visiting and what you want to try for yourselves.

Sri Lanka was a rush. But it was an exhilarating rush that soothed you and pushed you ahead all at the same time. I am certain all of us were making mental plans to plan a longer trip soon, but then, there we were, flying back to our desks and our laptop screens.

I am writing this roughly three weeks after returning from the magnificent island. And I can’t wait to go back.

The reporter was invited by Airbnb for this trip.
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