March 08 2010
I’ve always loved India, for its seething Day-Glo energy, food and flashy Bollywood stars. But I’d never been curious about Sri Lanka: simultaneously too low-key and war-torn, a diet India tucked in the crook of its arm. But work found me nearby recently, and it seemed a waste of long-haul not to divert briefly and explore a while.
I holed up on the southern coast, in the throwbackish Aman resort in Galle, called Amangalla, tucked into an old Dutch fort that protected the town from the devastating tsunami. The rooms were Raj-era grand, albeit with reassuringly upgraded baths and beds. Thanks to Sri Lanka’s war – the remnants of which are still hundreds of miles away in the north of the island – the rates here are almost half those of most other Amans.
But it wasn’t the half-price, louche luxury that sold me on Sri Lanka – it was a drink known as the toddy. The Aman’s GM genially offered to let me try it after I overheard staffers discussing its virtues. They warned me that it was an acquired taste, albeit one that any guest was welcome to try, as a special request. The challenge set, I was determined to love it – and I did.
The toddy is simply if athletically made: a member of the hotel staff shins up a coconut tree and lops the end off a flower like a horticultural circumcision. Then wound is cinched, and the fluid that dribbles out slowly is collected in a container tied to the stem. Had the flower matured, the fluid would have become coconut meat; in this case, it becomes a milky, fizzy liquid, like woody, diluted yogurt. Drunk soon after collecting, it’s mildly alcoholic, but if left to steep for a few hours in the sun, it ferments into a schnapps-like eau de vie.
It wouldn’t keep in my luggage, so instead I stashed a bottle of arrack in my bag – Sri Lanka’s signature moonshine, made, like the toddy, from fermented milky sap. Then again, it’s just another good excuse to plan a trip back to Galle.
Doubles from $373 per night.