‘Shipwrecked coins,’ says the toothless man in the faded blue baseball cap, pulling a small plastic box from his pocket as he walks towards me on a wide bastion of Galle Fort. ‘Dutch, British, Portuguese.’ For an island barely the size of Ireland, Sri Lanka has been fought over more than most. And what a prize! Gems as big as fists. Lush valleys rich in tea leaves and spices rising up to Adam’s Peak and its strange flat top, which – depending on your religion – is said to be the footprint of Buddha, Adam from the Book of Genesis, or the Hindu god Shiva. And all on an island ringed by coconut palms that dance and dip above the glinting, aquamarine Indian Ocean. Most recently it wasn’t marauding Europeans tearing the country apart but a bitter 26-year civil war between the Sinhalese majority government and the separatist Tamil Tigers.
Much has been written, since the war ended in 2009, of the newly opened-up parts in the north and east, of their beguiling beauty still edged with a hint of darkness, However, the south, with its astonishingly pretty beaches of honey-coloured sand and the crumbling grandeur of UNESCO World Heritage Site Galle Fort, has been drawing visitors for decades longer. And now a new band of passionate expats and fresh-thinking locals are creating a renewed buzz along this stretch of coast. I first visited Galle five years ago. Quiet, dusty streets criss-crossed between the lighthouse – once white, now smudged pink after years of being wind-whipped by rose-tinted soil – and the Sun and Moon Bastions of the fort, which overlooks the cricket stadium. Today there’s a growing hum of activity along these recently paved roads.
Peeling mansions have been scrubbed down and done up as smart villas to rent. There are curious shops – Stick No Bills for kitschy retro travel prints; KK Collection for hand-hammered cutlery and local ceramics – and a new expressway from the capital Colombo has cut travel time from four hours to 90 minutes, ‘It’s still sleepy though,’ says Henry Fitch, who first came to Sri Lanka to watch England play cricket in 2001 and moved here a few years later. He now heads up Teardrop Hotels, which opened Fort Bazaar hotel in Galle earlier this year. ‘Everything winds down at about 9.30pm, but we’re trying to change that with the hotel’s restaurant, Church Street Social.
Before the end of the war, people here would only really eat and drink at home. But there’s been a real boom in bars and restaurants all along the coast.’ Within the tiny fort itself there’s sensational sushi at The Tuna and The Crab from star chef Dharshan Munidasa, whose Colombo restaurants are recognised in Asia’s 50 Best list, and clean-eating with a Sri Lankan twist at Poonie’s Kitchen: juices spiked with local super-herb gotu kola, veggie-packed thali plates. Traditional Sri Lankan cooking is having a moment, too. For dinner I meet Emily Dobbs, whose Weligama stall at the hip Druid Street Market in London helped make hoppers – pancake-like bowls filled with curry – the latest foodie trend in the UK. She’s here researching new recipes and a cookbook. ‘Sri Lankan food is so fresh. I’ve always loved it and never understood why no one back in London was doing it,’ she says.
Here the ubiquitous ‘rice and curry’ is rarely as simple as it sounds; little dishes of curries, dhals and sambals colour our table and fill it from edge to edge. ‘There are all these exciting vegetables to play with: snake gourd, wing beans, mooli,’ says Dobbs. ‘I love finding out what to do with them – I tend to go to the market and end up back at someone’s house having a cooking lesson.’ The next morning, I wander around mounds of produce at Galle’s Green Market with chef Anthony D’Costa from the Owl and the Pussycat hotel, another exciting arrival just east of Galle at Talpe. ‘The ingredients here are totally different from those in India where I’m from,’ he says.
We find crisp, watery rose apples as delicate as their flushed appearance suggests; sweet cubes of kithul jaggery, like a darker, coarser version of Scottish tablet; and great big clumps of bananas in a rainbow of red, green and yellow, as short and stout as fists of chubby thumbs. There are terracotta pots of buffalo curd, sealed with white paper and string, stacked waist-high on the kerb (it’s a favourite for breakfast drizzled with kithul treacle). D’Costa holds out a bunch of spindly green stalks dusted with miniscule white blooms. ‘Onion flowers,’ he nods, as he haggles for half the bundle. They turn up at lunch as a sharp but pretty flourish on my salad, their ends finely chopped to add tangy bite to a coconut sambal.
For all of Galle’s smartening up, these markets haven’t changed at all. At the fish market – no more than a gathering of boats pulled up on the sand outside the fort walls – planks of wood are laid across the hulls to display the morning’s catch, which is kept cool with sea water ladled in the cut-off end of a plastic bottle A man chops at tree-trunk-wide slices of tuna with a machete, wearing a pink plastic bag as a makeshift apron that’s now splattered with fish guts. As we drive further east along the coast road, crinkled old men dressed in white short-sleeved shirts and sarongs weave rusty-brown Dutch bikes between the traffic, with thick stalks of yellow king coconuts balanced over the back like panniers. A tinny, ear-worm version of Beethoven’s ‘Fur Elise’ heralds the bread truck – a glass-sided converted tuk tuk stacked with loaves and spicy buns.
Women in saris take shade under colourful umbrellas as they stir pots of curry at roadside stalls, behind them row upon row of Maldivian fish are spread out on blue tarpaulin to dry in the sun. For much of the journey the road hugs the wave-splattered rocks, passing low-key guesthouses such as Hot Tuna Surfer’s Rest and Lazy Left. Suntanned travellers with sea-matted hair zip by on motorbikes, makeshift board racks fashioned from plastic tubes hanging off one side. They chase the tides – from the perfect A-frame reef break known as The Rock to the deep smile of Weligama Beach, where the surfers resemble an army of toy soldiers on the foaming water, their arms outstretched victoriously as they glide slowly into the shore Across the road from The Rock girls with salted-caramel tans in rash vests pull up their boards at Cafe Ceylon and eat juicy Lake Koggala oysters and tender sesame-crusted tuna under a canopy of passionfruit vines.
Over at Weligama, the soft thrum of chill-out beats plays at W15 hotel, where surf dads tuck into arrack cocktails and ceviche and watch their children build sandcastles. ‘I love the natural beauty, but also the quirkiness of everyday life,’ says Rob Drummond, another British transplant to the island, who along with his yoga-teacher wife Lara Baumann created the much-vaunted Tri, a sharply contemporary hotel on the shores of Lake Koggala. ‘The tourist board once had this cheesy advert tag line “A Land Like No Other”, but there is truth to that.’ His hotel shows off the best of Sri Lanka in a modern way – from the delicate twist on hoppers on the menu (a trio in miniature topped with quail’s eggs and edible flowers) to the airy white suites and their exteriors clad in cinnamon wood.
‘The spice was once the real wealth of the island, worth more than its weight in gold,’ he says. If Tri represents Sri Lanka at its most cutting edge, nearby Cape Weligama carries plenty of nostalgia for the country’s colonial history. Huge rooms are named after explorers, including Marco Polo who, in the 13th century, famously described it as the finest island of its size in the world. Afternoon tea is served in the Cape Colony Club during games of backgammon played beneath slowly whirring ceiling fans. On my last day on the island, it is Independence Day – 68 years since the British left. I go for a cycle ride inland, over and past the train tracks we had built.
As I weave between villages and paddy fields, green-and-orange national flags wave in the breeze from every brightly painted house. A peacock calls its strange mewing squawk across the still heat of the late morning from its perch on an electricity pylon. I stop at a roadside stall for a king coconut. When it’s empty the stallholder gestures for it back In two strokes of his knife, he cuts it in half, nimbly whipping off a slice of its yellow husk as a spoon. ‘What’s left is the best bit,’ he says, nodding at the translucent white flesh. And in that moment, savouring a spoonful of watery sweetness, I think he might be right.