After blazing down all day, the sun slips behind a bank of clouds in the west. As we make for a bay just beyond Dondra Head, the lighthouse on this most southerly point of the country grows slowly larger against a golden sky. It’s a laid-back moment on the sundeck of the Crystal, literally: most of us are pretty much horizontal in the relative cool of the evening.
But then this is the most laid-back of holidays: a week’s gentle pootle around the south coast of Sri Lanka, taking in palm-fringed beaches and the odd nature reserve or UNESCO site but mostly reading, daydreaming and just ... being.
When it comes to sailing holidays, most people think of Greece, Croatia or Turkey, perhaps the Caribbean in winter. But Sri Lanka, with some of the world’s most stunning beaches, lapped by warm Indian Ocean, is not a well-known sailing destination. So when I saw G Adventures had a new seven-day small-group tour sailing the south coast (between November and April; it switches to the east coast for June-October), I recruited my sun- and sea-loving daughter Laura to help me give it a go.
The growth of sailing holidays in Sri Lanka dates from the terrible tsunami of 2004. In its aftermath, to provide work and prospects for local youth, Belgian diplomat Pierre Pringiers helped set up the Building a Future Foundation with a college teaching everything about sailing, from boatbuilding and sailmaking to navigation and mechanics. “Boys with no home were housed and trained for free,” skipper Anura tells me. “It’s a good opportunity.” Our cheery young first mate, Dilusha, came through this route. “Two more years and he can be a captain, too.” Now G Adventures is working with Sail Lanka, a startup aided by the foundation.
G Adventures itself began as a gap-year company, and the emphasis is still on adventure travel priced for a youngish clientele. But when we pile out of a tuk-tuk at Mirissa harbour, a three-hour train ride from Colombo, to see Crystal bobbing by the jetty, it’s clear we aren’t going to be roughing it. The four cabins, two in each of the catamaran’s hulls, are small – lobbies double as wetroom and loo – but have a big comfy bed, pop-up skylights and (occasional) aircon. Electricity comes thanks partly to a solar panel on deck.
The advantages of having Crystal as our base are obvious on our first morning’s whale-watching trip: instead of getting up early to crowd on to a tour boat, we’re sailing to the feeding grounds by 7.30 am, breakfasting along the way. We’re soon joined by a pod of dolphins that play in our bow wave, plunging under the boat and reappearing for, it seems, the fun of it.
“Nothing between here and Antarctica,” says our guide “Nana” (full name Upul Nanayakkara), pointing out our position on the navigation screen. We’re out of sight of land and I am suddenly aware of our smallness. The British may be an island race but, what with the Channel tunnel and budget flights, few of us ever voyage across or think much about the wateriness of our “Blue” planet.
Almost on cue the cry goes up: “Whale!” On our port bow a broad back breaches the water in a powerful arc, then again and again, before diving with an impressive flick of its tail flukes. It looks dark grey but this is a blue whale, the largest animal ever, dwarfing our boat with its 25-metre length. The whale surfaces several more times before we turn back – as packed two-storey excursion boats start arriving.
We’re soon as fond of Crystal as the crew. Who needs a hotel pool? Arriving back sweaty after a tour of Galle Fort, we leap off her deck for a pre-dinner swim. For action there’s a kayak and stand-up paddleboards on deck, fins and snorkels in the aft lockers. Most of us take a turn at the helm and can help hauling sails – though I suspect we mostly get in the way.
And there’s no wondering where to eat. Chef Indonil, who has worked on ships the world over, produces three varied meals a day, for which we gather eagerly as soon as – often before – the gong sounds. We have Sri Lankan curries one night, south Indian dosas another, but Indonil enjoys a challenge and takes requests. “Mexican!” cries Steph from Brisbane. Excellent fish tacos appear the next day. “Spaghetti bolognese,” says Nana. He’s shouted down.
On our second morning I’m gazing at dozens of elegantly striped cuttlefish hanging in the clear water when the gong goes. It’s Sri Lankan new year and a celebration breakfast of new-harvest rice cooked in milk, date and onion chutney, cake and fruits is followed by a raucous game of pin the eye on the elephant.
Over the week we snorkel on Kalpitiya reef, spot green bee-eaters, sea eagles and peacocks at Kalametiya bird sanctuary, and kick back on spectacular beaches such as Kudawella, which has two crescents of perfect sand either side of a rocky presqu’île. But the most memorable moments are on or around Crystal herself: taking out an SUP in a deserted bay at sunset; watching bats feed on the insects circling the boat’s lights; and a last-night barbecue on a remote beach.
From its cultural triangle to its national parks, Sri Lanka has sights and marvels aplenty, and most of us also plan to “do” some of these as part of our trip, but before or after such exertions, a stay on Crystal offers what many holidaymakers crave – a chance to just “be”.
Source - theguardian.com