The train ride from Colombo to Matara is compelling with quaint sea-side towns, historical sites and exotic dining options
The roar of waves sounds like thunder as they crash against the black rocks along the historic Sri Lankan coastline. Even as the fresh ocean spray hits us, lifting almost fountain-like off the breakwater – we are awed that this is all that lies between us and a turbulent Indian Ocean. Surprisingly, we are not sitting at a fancy restaurant at the water’s edge sipping on beers, and staring out as heavy monsoon skies menace towards us. Rather, we were chugging along southwards at a sedate pace on the ‘railroad-upon-sea’ as we called it, having left Colombo Fort Station just before 7 am, and on pace to reach Galle at half-past nine that morning. This Coast Line of the Sri Lankan Railways is serviced by a number of trains that run between Colombo on Sri Lanka’s West coast and Galle or Matara in the extreme South of the island. It is now populated almost entirely across its length by those selling sea-side charm and leisure to all comers on this Emerald Isle.
We get sneak peeks of several little sea-side towns along the way where the train makes stops. Bentota, perhaps the most well-known amongst these has a number of luxury resorts along the scenic water’s-edge vistas. A quick stop-over breakfast with Madras-boy Ranjit Shankar, who is now at the helm of Vivanta by Taj – Bentota, makes for a pleasant memory, even as we continue on our journey towards the southern tip of Sri Lanka. Vendors edge past us every now and then calling out their wares, little notebook-leaf cones of delicious snacks such as chilli-crusted cashews and pineapple slices or even better – hot, crispy masala vadas with shrimps embedded within, served with deep-fried red chillies.
Of history & heritage
We arrive at Galle very nearly on schedule and follow the stream of passengers out through the exit and onto the street, where we find ourselves right across from the stunning Galle International Cricket Stadium that lies at the mouth of the Galle Fort’s main gate. A tricky trishaw (as auto-rickshaws are called here) ride around the cricket ground and through the Fort entrance, while balancing our bags on our knees, and we are on Pedlar Street. Here, a quaint wooden floored two-storey heritage house that looks very much the part in this rustic old area within the Fort is to be our home for the next few days (Rs 2,500 onward for double occupancy on airbnb.com). The family of four welcomes us graciously into their home and like the house itself seem genuinely grounded in the surrounds. Their ancestors were traders of Moorish stock like so many others here inside Fort Galle. Thirty-six hectares of Colonial-Era architecture have survived mostly intact here, with the Dutch and British styles featuring most prominently – as churches and provincial administrative buildings imposed their stern facades upon us. There is, of course, the suggestion that the Fort has been re-imagined more recently as a treasure trove for more splashy tourists, where re-worked architecture undermines the Fort’s rich heritage and some trinket shops sell artefacts of dubious vintages. But there are true gems within these walls – and you just have to slip between some of the grander frontages and into the by-lanes and alleyways to find a maze of homes and shop-houses where some families have lived and worked for over a century.
There is an upper scale in grandeur and luxury here too, as in Colombo. The Dutch Hospital and its courtyard reserves the most top-notch establishments for itself. But besides these, among the notable restored colonial buildings, is the elegant Amangalla on 10 Church Street, a building that dates back to 1715. The high-vaulted arches, a verandah overlooking the street and a tiled roof render it magnificent, while the lace and silverware atop period furniture inside give it real class. Joining the hostess of the hotel, Audrey Schallhauser, for traditional afternoon tea is an experience in itself. The Fortaleza on the cross street just before the Dutch Reformed Church too has a wonderful atmosphere and serves a fabulous breakfast, that has us doubling back for more the next morning. (Breakfast for two at Rs 750. Details: fortaleza.lk)
Off the beaten track
Outside the Fort, the bus stand was where the action seemed to be, and the tea shops – with their many little baked goodies – are a source for more local flavours. We walk further to the market along the promenade (which provides a superb view of the East wall of the Fort) and manage to parcel some juicy rambutans for our journey further south to Unawatuna, the closest beach town to Galle. Many little shacks dot the beaches between Unawatuna and Matara, with Mirissa being the most popular stopover for sperm and blue whale-watching boat trips in the season from November to April. Details: srilanka.travel/whale-watching
The next day, we hired a taxi (Rs 3500) for the day, to take us across the south of Sri Lanka past Matara, to Tangalle – a 1.5 hour drive from Galle. The drive is quite sublime as little fishing hamlets blink quickly in and out of sight, while the salty whiff of the day’s catch lingers a little longer even on their nets. Coconut palms sway in synchrony as they seductively hide the seaside town of Tangalle, where diverse flora and fauna await. The General Manager, Filipe de Lencastre is eager to help you discover all this and more at the Geoffrey Bawa-inspired luxury resort, Amanwella. We enjoyed one of the most-authentic Sri Lankan cuisine thalis in his company on the restaurant deck with the infinite view of the pool and ocean. This dining experience nearly lured us into a personalised cook-out with the resort’s master chef in a special kitchen set up by the beach. He also invited us to the village of Palapotta, near Tangalle, where we could try our hand at pottery, an art form that has been handed down generations. Alas, we put it off for our next visit. Details: aman.com/resorts/amanwella
Galle Fort’s hotspots include A Minute by Tuk Tuk, Crepe-o-logy and Pedlar’s Inn Cafe. While Colombo bustles with some of the best international fare, we highly recommend dining at The Bavarian on 11, Galle Face Court, Galle Road, which has for over three decades, served up the most delectable German food. You’d be glad to make an advance reservation, even if it is a Monday. (Meal for two with beverages at Rs 1,500 approximately.) An unassuming food ‘joint’ on 100 Lotus Road, Ruhunu Food Centre offers the most amazing, eat-all-you-can, help-yourself Sri Lankan Thali for all of Rs 80 per person. No
visit is complete without a stopover at the Dutch Burghur Union, VOC Cafe, on 114, Reid Ave Bambalapitiya for a potlam of their mouth-watering lampreis (Rs 250). By far the best and the only one worth eating, this rice and curry meal steamed in a banana leaf washes down well with their homemade ginger beer. Just remember to get there by 12.30pm as they make only a limited quantity every day and it runs out within half-an-hour of preparation.
— Niren Saldanha & Karuna Amarnath