The beach! Once you’ve had your fill of the big cities and the ancient cities, head to Thalpe for a still-semi-secluded stretch of beaches. Start around Wijaya Beach where the reef keeps the water calm–more so in the morning than the afternoon. The Wijaya cafe has decent pizza, cold beers, a relaxing vibe and great views from which to stare out onto the vast stretches of the ocean–you’re on the very tip of Sri Lanka…next stop, Antarctica! The water is warm, the sun is strong, the sand is clean, palm trees arch toward the ocean. You’ll only be able to leave the beach to head back to the Why House.
I’m the kind of person who doesn’t like to go back to the same place twice when on vacation since there’s just too much to experience. I would never think of staying anywhere other than Why House the next time I’m back in the south of Sri Lanka. It is exactly the place I would dream if I could dream in that much beautiful detail. Let’s start with the grounds: gated villa, serene, gorgeously landscaped and maintained daily, only 8 sprawling rooms, stone floors throughout and stone washrooms including the basins and vast shower stalls (some with huge skylights that could trick you into thinking you’re outside. Each room has a canopy bed, some rooms have nursery or sitting areas, all have verandahs and heavy, colonial-style armoires, dressers and chaises covered in rich prints. The common areas between the rooms are filled with impressive local sculptures and artwork. Large arty books and magazines for your perusal lie on low, oversized tables next to low, oversized sofas. Then you walk out onto the verandas that overlook the pool and dining area, both designed with the same eye. A subtle incline to the pool and tan and pale blue in the water to match the stone and the sky. Palm trees, sunsets and monkey sounds surround you as you sit on lounge chairs or do a back float alone on the surface (we were one of two couples staying at the house while we were there).
One of the things I ate almost daily in Sri Lanka was water buffalo curd (with treacle) which is prepared from scratch in many households and in the villas too. Yogurt with treacle and fresh papaya are two things I pass over without a second thought here in North America but which I could not get enough of there. The richness and flavour of the curd was so strong and sweet you could eat it alone and the papaya, well, was probably just what papaya should always taste like, I just never knew. I ate it daily at the Why House for breakfast and they even overshadowed the perfectly made eggs and salted butter (…water buffalo again? It was phenomenal in any case) on airy, fresh bread. For every meal, the chefs prepare a feast of your choosing, offering suggestions if you want seafood like “we just bought a seer fish today, we will make a lobster, do you wish for rice and sambols, what time will you be back for lunch?”, the wine is good, the managers, when around, will belt a young Sri Lankan opera diva’s record from what sounds like an actual record player, somewhere. It’s the definition of civilized and pampered.
A short but smoggy, loud, three-wheeler ride from Thalpe into neighbouring Galle takes you past fishermen pulling nets in from the sea and locals gathering round to get the best and freshest of the haul. Markets open out onto the street selling more types of bananas than you know existed. Galle Fort (where my father grew up) was build by the Dutch during their reign over Sri Lanka. Today it’s a mix of museums, church that are hundreds of years old, homes that survived the tsunami (apparently most did as the Dutch built them with canals and systems through which inevitable floods could pass), Buddhist temples and many, many shops, food stalls, cafes and hotels to service this highly visited area. It is hot in the south. Plan to take frequent rests. Stop into the Galle Fort Hotel for Sri Lankan tea and short-eats, a grand and refined example Dutch architecture.
Then head back to the beach.
Galle is where my father grew up, his family home is right inside the Fort. His grandmother had the house built, and it and most others in Galle Fort survived the tsunami because, I’m told, the Dutch built them with waterways and systems beside and behind the structures that anticipated and awaited flooding to clean them out. Despite not having plans to be in Galle at the same time, we ended up meeting my father at my uncle’s home which is across the street from where my Dad lived, just hours before I was supposed to catch a train out of Galle and back to Colombo. Within those minutes of saying hello to my uncle and family and trying to squeeze in a photo with my father outside his house at least, my aunt insisted we knock on the door to try to take a peek into his childhood home. The contractors work on a renovation of the main floor told us that sadly the owners were not in–and they pulled up just at that moment. A young family from Minnesota no less (diplomats and expatriates who were putting roots down in the south of Sri Lanka)! They very kindly, generously and patiently asked us to come in and were as happy to meet my father as we were to get a full tour of his home. I walked through his home with him as he dusted the cobwebs off his memories of where walls were and what was exactly the same. It was a moment that life handed to me gift-wrapped, it couldn’t have come together better and I will never forget what it felt to be in that moment with him.