There is an extensive menu of excursions from Amangalla and these are the few we enjoyed during our 3 day stay
Blue Whales and Dolphins
A 4.30am wake-up call on your second day may sound harsh but the rewards went way, way beyond the minor inconvenience of sleep deprivation. With cool towels, water and a packed breakfast - pre-arranged with my butler - I set off in the 4x4 to Mirissa Harbour about 45 minutes away. I went on the public Mirissa Water Sports vessel, with my water bottles, flask of fresh orange juice, sun cream and cameras. For a higher price you can also charter your own private vessel. Either way, don't forget your hat!
The sea was choppy, but with good sea legs and a desperate desire to see the world's largest creature, the blue whale, I clung to the canopy pole on the top deck with eyes fixed on the ocean's horizon. In less than an hour, before we reached the edge of the continental shelf, the first spout, soaring at least eight metres in height was spotted. This was shortly followed by several more, and thus the fun began.
Most blue whales, including those found off Canada, migrate between higher latitudes in summer and lower latitudes in winter. But these waters off Sri Lanka are regarded as extraordinarily special as they house a resident sub-species of blue whale, Balaenoptera musculus, (brevicauda) - meaning shorter tale. It is also known as the pygmy blue whale, but 'pygmy' they are not, being only five metres shorter than the mightier ones in the more southerly Antarctic waters. Apparently even experts can't tell these species apart from a distance. So, with these great creatures now listed an 'endangered species', the waters off the south coast of Sri Lanka feel like a marine sanctuary.
Within 2 hours we were sighting at least two every 20 minutes (they usually travel in pairs) and, not only were we close enough to see their mighty long spines and fairly small dorsal fins but, on several occasions we witnessed their powerful tails fluking down before they went deep once more. It was exhilarating and deeply emotional; though I only wish I had worked out a technique for filming on a shaky boat.
The boats were never too close and the whales appeared unperturbed. I think, in the end, we saw around twelve of these magnificent giants, and, on our return with the sun turning pale skin scarlet at the rate of knots, we were accompanied by hundreds and hundreds of common dolphins, dancing and twisting around us as though on command. All on board enjoyed this lengthy and extravagant display, though they appeared incongruously small compared to their mighty cousins.
Temples, Beaches and Turtles
In just three days we packed a lot in. I think we could have done with at least five, so bear this in mind. Amangalla is a fabulous base from which to explore, either inland or seaward. We went to a groovy shabby all-timber beach bar and restaurant, which is frequented by locals, especially for sundowners, called Wijaya Beach. The seafront location is pitch perfect, however, we did not have a good meal here, so would only recommend it for cocktails. Saying that, Bibi had a decent pizza from their clay oven. It's got a chilled local vibe, with playful monkeys in the trees, and a totally unfussy approach to life while you won't improve on the sugar-soft beach with lazy palms hanging over the surf.
We followed this with a trip to the turtle sanctuary/farm, about ten minutes further along the coastal road. This is not a 'wild' experience, but it is a good one. The turtles here are protected and nursed if injured, plus they encourage the hatching of several different species in a bed of sand that is kept well away from prying eyes. For $50 dollars we released 20 baby turtles, along with a prayer that at least one would make it into adult life.
Before retuning to the hotel, we visited an ancient 1200 yr old rock temple, Yatagala Temple (Raja Maha Viharaya) , built with nature-defying determination, within boulders and rock-faces, which sits above a monk's school and monastery. With only 120 steps to the top it seemed a cheat of feat to reach such a special sanctuary with a meditation cave. Watching guard on the one side is a massive Bo tree that has witnessed the centuries of the past millennium, while an imposing statue of Buddha stands beside the entrance, with a large white stupa dominating the other side. Sacred and extraordinary, this temple, which looks across paddy fields and hamlets, was certainly the most spiritually edifying of those we visited during our trip.
Gems of Sri Lanka have been famous since Biblical times. King Solomon sent emissaries to procure the very gem that won him the heart of Queen Sheba. In 1001 Arabian Nights, Sinbad alerted his master to the fact that the best stones were to be found in Serendib (the then Arabic name for Sri Lanka). It continues, with Marco Polo being dazzled, to, more recently, the British Royals. Thus from the famous Ceylon Sapphire to a whole host of sparkling semi-precious stones, Sri Lanka is synonymous with glinting 'gems'. I saw many wandering the streets looking 'stone-struck'.
I don't think anyone comes to Galle Fort without being tempted. Amangalla has a list of shops that they have carefully scrutinised and checked out in order to cut down your in-and-out time. However, I did go off-piste, purely on impulse, and landed up sitting opposite a man who let me drive a very hard bargain inside Chrysolite, on Church Street. A few doors past the English Church and post-office, is a jewellery store that, on impact, lacks style with an off-putting bureaucratic feel. However, I was drawn to a tray of beckoning near opaque sea-blue aquamarines, from which wild horses could not pull me away. I sat opposite Azhar while we played out a bargaining ritual that continued for half an hour. With the heat getting the better of me I walked away, but not for long.
We agreed on an excellent price for a beautiful 15-carat stone, which he would set in rose gold and deliver to Amanwella (our next stay) within 48hrs. He did just that and we hugged and agreed on a life-long friendship. It would cost three times more in the UK. Then to moonstones - apparently every girl should own one - so I went off to the most fabulous jewellery store in Galle Fort, Sandaken. At this high-end emporium-styled boutique, the pieces are more Bulgari than high street in design and, if you visit this place last, you may well regret it! They have inspired designs with quality stones and will make up almost anything and deliver it within 24-48 hours in Galle or your next destination; price permitting. I bought two moonstone pendants for around $100, including silver chains.
Aside from sparklers, the shop 'Barefoot' is now an institution in Sri Lanka, as it is one of the only shops that has such a colourful and contemporary take on traditional crafts. Candy-coloured striped fabric as well as fabulous shot silk is sold from bolts at exceptionally good prices. They also have the best selection of books; coffee table, classics and research, along with sarongs, linen clothing, bags, and incredible, hand-stitched, brightly coloured and immaculately dressed linen mice and dolls. I bought beautifully illustrated books on Galle Fort and the bedside table imperative for those visiting Sri Lanka; Michael Ondaatje's 'Running in The Family'.
'Mimimango' is a dream for those of us who love embroidered kaftans. The high-end beach-to-cocktail clothing range is from Rajasthan and Bali and, though they seem pricey for Sri Lanka, these pieces would be three times the price in St Tropez or Harvey Nichols!
There are many, many more stores besides these, and one that stood out for me was the Church Street Gallery, with its vintage Ceylon and Bollywood movie posters, framed and un-framed, as well as some classics, such as The Bridge On The River Kwai, which was filmed in Sri Lanka. These make excellent gifts for the men back home, as gems, kaftans and crafts appear to rule the rest of the shopping show.
Why stay at Amangalla?
Well, I can genuinely not think of a single reason why you wouldn't, price allowing. It's a base: a home, a tropical colonial and cosmopolitan residence that will give you that much needed respite. So, too, will it enrich your senses, enlighten your soul and start your journey into this bewitching land with a veritable sense of adventure and wonderlust. The tall, serene and beguiling GM, Olivia Richli, is loved and respected alike by all who know her. She is always on hand to greet every guest, ensure every request is fulfilled, and keeps the place in a style that pays homage to its ancestors, while maintaining a sharp eye on the high-end menu of today's savvy luxe-trotter. I only wish we had spent more time here, or that we had bookended our trip. As I write, the cricket is playing its first test match of the series in Galle this week. Can you imagine the buzz on the Verandah right now?
Heartfelt thanks from Sophie Nona, Clio Nona and Bibi Nona.