Six months on from the devastating attacks in Sri Lanka, Nicola Moyne finds hope on the horizon in the country's sunny Southern Province - where surfing comes with a big dollop of soul
‘Dive, dive, DIVE!’ are the last words I hear before a wall of white water takes me and my board in its warm, salty grip and pummels us into submission. As the powerful swell planes over the foam surfboard above me and I cling on – monkeylike and completely submerged beneath its raging crest – I realise I’ve just completed my first ever ‘turtle roll’. A sudden suspension of time washes over me.
Surfing, it turns out, is a bit like placing yourself inside a washing machine mid-cycle: you’re consistently being churned up and spat out. But in the folds and creases of Sri Lanka’s sun-soaked southern coastline, I’m learning that you also experience a slice of paradise every time you manage to get to your feet; to stand for that split-second longer feeling simultaneously part-fish, part-bird as you glide through the big blue.
I’m here for a week-long retreat with Soul & Surf – a tropical surf and yoga hideaway nestled in the lush jungle village of Ahangama, which serves up a winning combination of guided saltwater adventures, restorative yin and vinyassa-flow classes, and hearty, healthy communal meals in a stylish, boutique setting.
The brainchild of Ed and Sofie Templeton, the Soul & Surf experience began back in 2010, when the couple opened up their first outfit in Kerala, India; new for 2019 is its first European base in the Algarve, which opened its doors in April. But each property boasts a different vibe and Sri Lanka’s barefoot-chic feel – complete with bespoke mid-century modern furniture, indoor/outdoor bathtubs, polished marble floors, a sunken poolside lounge and laid back Spotify playlist – attracts a vibrant coterie of European guests with creative backgrounds.
Costume designers and advertising execs mingle with fashions PRs and event organisers over post-surf coconut protein balls. Star of The Danish Girl, actress Alicia Vikander, who happens to be staying in a villa nearby with Michael Fassbender, even pops in for a morning stretch in the hotel’s stunning jungle-view shala – her ability to seemingly levitate without breaking a sweat providing a renewed sense of motivation, alongside complete and utter despair.
But if you’re going to get in shape anywhere, it’s here. The al fresco trestle tables positively heave with healthy options, dishing up coconut oats and eggs for breakfast, fish tacos for lunch and vegetarian Sri Lankan curries for dinner.
And you’ll be thankful for the nutrients: a typical day packs in a sunrise 90-minute yoga practice (hello, 6.30am start) and two-hour morning surf, followed by a sunset surf session and evening yin class. Throw in the theory chats, video analysis, optional meditation exercises, spa treatments, authentic Sri-Lankan cookery demos and guided paddleboarding tours of the surrounding river, and your muscles will quickly begin to question whether this is really the restorative break you promised. That said, you’re encouraged to do as much – or as little – of the schedule as your fitness level will allow.
Surf-school dropouts can explore the nearby coastal towns of Mirissa, Galle and Weligama to shop for stylish kaftans and traditionally crafted leather and wicker wares, or take a tuk tuk to the white tea plantations located just a 20-minute drive away. Come Wednesday, everyone is designated a day off from the surf and yoga classes, so mid-week is your perfect chance to discover more of Sri Lanka’s south coast – where the real wave chasers head in search of secluded bays and untouched blue-green reefs.
Whether you’re a complete beginner (like me), who counts watching Point Break as experience, or a bit of a pro looking for quieter, more challenging breaks, Sri Lanka’s Southern Province is considered one of the best places in the world to catch waves. And Soul & Surf HQ boasts a prime location. Nestled along the fringes of dense, monkey-jumping jungle, it’s a 10 to 15-minute tuk tuk ride from a 40km stretch of crest-rich coastline, which includes Galle Surf Beach, located just outside the city’s historic fort, and Mirissa Point – a right-hand reef popular with intermediates.
But it’s here, back in the familiar turquoise waters off Kabalana beach that I’ve slowly progressed from dancing in the whitewash to catching green, unbroken waves in the tranquil kinks of ocean outback. And although my aching arms feel like lead after a week of power paddling, my soul feels lighter, happier, contented.
‘Surfing is like meditation – it has the power to heal,’ explains Naomi, my eternally-patient, kickass surfing instructor from Cornwall, while we sink one final shack-bought beer on the beach together. And I completely get it. I might not be a bone a fide surfer yet, but I’m definitely a saltwater soul.
Soul & Surf Sri Lanka: how to book
A 7-night stay at Soul & Surf Sri Lanka costs from £820 per person, which includes accommodation, all meals, plus a guided surf and yoga schedule with board hire for five days. To see the full package details, visit soulandsurf.com. Direct, return flights from London Heathrow start from about £500 with Sri Lankan Airlines.