On the three-hour drive from Colombo to Sri Lanka’s far southern coast, my driver says very little. Occasionally he points out a tea plantation, a crew of fishermen working together in one long line to pull a heavy net from the sea or a gleaming, golden Buddha anchoring the exterior of a temple. When he speaks again after a companionable period of silence, I am struck by his words.
“Here in Sri Lanka, we have a saying,” he says. “‘Wisdom can be found in traveling.’ I wish you much wisdom.”
Feeling as if I have been blessed, I’m stunned to a meditative quietude. I gaze out the window, trying to drink in the vistas of the Spice Island, formerly Ceylon, which until recently had been ravaged by the horrors of a 30-year civil war. Only since 2009 have travelers ventured back, and just recently luxury resorts have begun sprouting up, many along the island nation’s coasts, where pristine beaches separate the tumultuous Indian Ocean from leafy jungles and coconut plantations. Sri Lanka’s interior national parks hold elephants and leopards, and an astonishing eight UNESCO sites await. Buddhist temples atop mountains, forts edging cliffs, colorful, chaotic hamlets buzzing with tuk-tuks and bustling outdoor markets and extant colonial structures compose the ancient island nation’s fabric. With eyes glued to the car’s window, I can’t look away.
We arrive at Anantara Peace Haven Tangalle Resort suddenly — it lies down a dusty road amid a former coconut grove, stretching across a rocky outcrop. The sea stirs below. From the main lobby, beating drums beckon. A cold, scented cloth and refreshing drink arrive from nowhere as someone whisks away my bags. I walk inside to be entranced by the harmony of dulcet voices in song. Part of the resort’s culturally entrenched welcoming ritual, this crooning by three traditionally clad female singers greets all guests. They sit at an ornate table, their soprano voices matching their choreographed movements. The scene and sounds touch me to the core. Tears come to my eyes unbidden. I feel the soul of Sri Lanka in their sweet, ardent melody. I don’t want the song to end. When it does, I let it settle into my memory. It presages the joy and gravitas of what’s to come.
With 152 guest rooms, a spa, infinity pool, various restaurants, a yoga pavilion and beach cabanas, Peace Haven Tangalle provides abundant nooks to occupy. But I’m not inclined to leave the confines of my beachside villa, a spacious hideaway with a private pool and a soaking tub that peers out a panoramic window at the view. Helmed by a villa attendant who greets all new guests with a ritualistic foot bath and undertakes tasks from unpacking to providing rides by golf cart across the 21-acre resort, my lavish room tends to coax me to want to stay on property and enjoy being coddled. But there’s much to learn about Sri Lanka — and Anantara (as a brand) excels at offering guests secure byways to immerse in each specific destination. Here in Sri Lanka, at uniquely sited Peace Haven Tangalle, just steps from a time-honored fishing village, I discover we’re close to many of the Spice Island’s significant sights.
Near the hotel at the Anantara Surf Center, where the resort partners with famed Tropicsurf, we hang 10, honing our skills on the Indian Ocean’s perfect waves. Another day, we venture out to Udawalawe National Park, an elephant sanctuary, to glimpse the majestic creatures in their protected environment. We also spend time at an elephant orphanage watching baby pachyderms being bottle-fed. During our week, a visit to the Portuguese fort (and rather artsy town) of Galle showcases a less rustic Sri Lanka, while a tour of a rain-soaked tea plantation makes it clear why Ceylon (as the country was formerly called) has been heralded globally for its tea.
But I gain the traveler’s wisdom my driver wished for me on one particular outing, accompanied by one of Peace Haven Tangalle’s cultural concierges. Together we drive into the island’s interiors, through villages and next to citronella farms to climb myriad stairs up a mountain to Mulkirigala, an ancient Buddhist temple. Monkeys and barefoot monks at my side, I reach the peak breathless and enter a cave dominated by colossal, bejeweled Buddha carvings — a holy place. Time stands still as I linger to ruminate, the only person occupying that sacred space. When darkness falls, I slip out to take in panoramic views of jagged mountains and chalky splotches that must be tiny villages, though they look more like grounded stars. With that view, the monks bless me. Just as the sky breaks into fissures of citrus shades, they tie a prayer bracelet on my left wrist.
I’m staring at it now, a worn bit of ragged string on my skin. It’s Sri Lanka’s humble gift. The wisdom I’ve found.