The Light of Ceylon
Text and pictures by Erwann Lameignère
Top French longboarder and singer/songwriter Justine Mauvin joins the Hotdogger team to experience the magic of Sri Lanka.
Sri Lanka has a special light that is a delight for the eye and the mind. And in that light, the people, welcoming and infinitely smiling, abundant nature and wildlife, a vast and beautiful coast where easy-breaking waves have rendered this an essential stop for all those for whom tranquillity is a balm, and for whom hanging out with the locals is at the base of a complete surf trip.
Amid this sweetness and beauty, French longboarder Justine Mauvin came to plunge back into the Indian Ocean of her childhood.
Touching down in France after competing in the Malibu Relik – a prestigious California longboard event – Justine, 26-years-old, barely blinks before boarding another flight to Sri Lanka. Her destination: Tangalle, in the south of this island off the Indian subcontinent. That's almost 40 hours of non-stop travel with her nine-two longboard and five-eight shortie shaped by Alain Minvielle in her trusty board bag.
But at the end of a tunnel three plane-rides and four airports long is the invitation that Tropicsurf has given her to take a break from the hectic pace of her twin lives as a professional longboarder and singer-songwriter, an invitation that was too beautiful to resist. The Anantara Resort is the perfect setting to rediscover oneself, while being captivated by the legendary charm of the Sri Lankan people, its infinite landscapes, its multiple cultures. Ten years after the end of a bloody civil war, it is a country where paradoxically one does not perceive any tension or fear. On the contrary, it is indeed the languor of Sri Lanka that immediately grabs you with a waft of flowers and light spices on the air.
On board the van from Colombo to Tangalle, Justine is immediately lulled by the fluid traffic of the highway, but when you reach the secondary roads, trucks, tuk-tuks, bicycles, pedestrians, cows and even peacocks must share the road. You have to be ready to take to the gravel at the side of the road to avoid a collision. But everything is played out like a ballet, quite placid. And after five hours drive, the welcoming gates of the Anantara Peace Haven open.
Established in the Matara region, 60 kilometres east of the historic Dutch port city of Galle, the resort is ideally located for discovering the cultural and natural heritage of the Sri Lanka, while offering no less than half a dozen quality surf spots within easy access, the best known breaks being Mirissa and Weligama. From here you can take a train ride through the jungle (as Justine did) or treat yourself to a safari in the great Yala Reserve, two hours east, where you'll find the largest population of leopards in the country plus countless elephants, buffalo, crocodiles and bird species. If we add the Buddhist temples, including the one in Mulkirigala, perched on a 205-metre-high rock, there is simply too much to do and too little time. So Justine organized herself to enjoy a range of discoveries and sensations that would be the perfect counterpoint to the winter she had spent composing, rehearsing and recording new songs, and a summer of longboard competitions in the United States. No stress, just the joy of diving into a country she did not know. And to appreciate the absolute tranquility of the places she visited, empty of tourists in this, the low season.
The Anantara Resort is newly built (2015), luxurious and overlooks a beautiful cove with proud granite rocks. Its main buildings are gathered around a spectacular double waterfall pool, and a lobby with traditional architecture. The ensemble is completed by two monumental domes, similar to Chinese lanterns or jellyfish, which house one of the three restaurants in the establishment. The villas are scattered in a beautiful park winding by a small river, where monkeys, greedy squirrels and peacocks are numerous, along with huge lizards almost a metre long, a multitude of birds, chickens, ducks, turkeys... a real Noah's Ark like Justine had never seen before.
The resort also has its own sewage treatment plant, electric caddies to help you around, and an impressive vegetable garden and real rice paddies that supply the restaurant kitchens not just with rice but with basil, spinach, black pepper, cinnamon, coriander, citronella, wood-apple (the specialty of the island), to name a few. Justine was able to pick the plants and vegetables of her choice and see them cooked around a fish caught the same day, and then enjoy them in a cabin nestled by a tree overlooking the rice field. She also took the opportunity to sign up for cooking lessons, a chance to learn about a cuisine based on the most varied spices, from turmeric to red and green peppers, always supported by coconut milk, with delicious dhals such as parippu hoddi, or curries like passekudah isso, with fish, the specialty of the east of the country.
Sri Lanka seems on track to soon join the world's best practice in preserving the environment. This is particularly noticeable in the Tangalle region, which is developing reasonably despite some abandoned constructions on the coast. As in the rest of the country, glass bottles have taken the place of plastic, and Anantara strictly uses only glass and offers only paper straws in drinks. The beaches of the Tangalle region are particularly clean. Admittedly, the country's capital, Colombo, is still experiencing serious pollution problems, but the ecological conscience is palpable in the small communities, from the simple fisherman to the owner of restaurants. This profound respect for nature and the environment immediately charmed Justine, who grew up on the island of Reunion and found in Sri Lanka similar plants, flavours and scents.
In terms of waves, two neighbouring spots were proposed by our Tropicsurf guides and the charming Chamath, a former cricketer who manages the reception and provides transfers in van and tuk-tuk. No need to pack your boards: there’s a Firewire quiver available ranging from six-two to nine foot. We’ll keep the names of the waves we surfed to ourselves, but they offered good right and left points that work across the seasons, although better November to April. The trade winds usually rise onshore by mid-to-late morning, so dawn is the time to go, but in the evening the wind can fall away, offering good conditions for a late one.
Preferring to clear her days to devote herself to discovering Sri Lankan culture and nature, Justine experienced a constant and magnifying swell that allowed her to surf every morning and a few nights in short sessions, but full of returns since there was nobody to compete for the waves. Surfing was not the crucial issue for her because the country has so much to offer in so many ways, starting with the train journeys that cannot be too highly recommended - a unique experience discovering landscapes too often hidden by the houses that line the roads. A trip inside the trip.
Filled with a new serenity, and maybe a touch of the famous local ingredient, serendipity, Justine returned to France to face, with her energetic manager, negotiations with record labels to sign her first album. And who knows which paths this will take her life in the years to come?
Well, we can be reasonably sure that sooner or later they will take her back to the light of Ceylon.