Bentota Beach – and Villa Bentota – on Sri Lanka’s west coast is a sight for sore eyes after not just a 10 hour flight and two hour drive but a long, cold UK winter. Except for a few other sparsely placed visitors, the beach is blissfully quiet, leaving you free to think of nothing much but when and how you will negotiate the cool water and crashing waves. Or how not to get bitten by a crab. Or what to do when a young man approaches you with a baby monkey named Michael.
The Geoffrey Bawa designed Villa Bentota is a former private property converted into a not just stylish but spacious 15 room boutique hotel, filled with so many uniquely decorated sitting rooms that you need never rub shoulders with another guest, and simply pass them like ships in the night. When you head to the beach from the hotel, you need to look out for trains crossing and cows grazing, complete with their obligatory bird friends.
Come dinner time, you needn’t go further than the hotel either. You can get stuck into their delicious Sri Lankan crab curry, but only if you’re willing to get truly stuck in, and your hands dirty. The breakfast Sri Lankan fish curry is also a must try and one of the only times in your life where it would be acceptable and encouraged to eat curry for breakfast.
Dinner, like everything else at Bentota, is a hushed affair, so if you prefer something more lively and do indeed want to mix with other people, you can stroll down the beach to the Amal Grill and feast on whole barbecued fish and jumbo prawns amidst more of a traveller vibe. Or for lunch, take a tuk-tuk into Aluthgama town, with local music blaring from communal loudspeakers, giving the town a strange but welcoming party feel. Cram into the simply titled ‘Family Restaurant’ for a spot of freshly cooked chicken, fried rice, and sweet ginger beer.
We also visit the Kosgoda Turtle Hatchery (after carefully considering Lonely Planet’s advice for and against). Ultimately, we decide that to release newly hatched baby sea turtles into the ocean is a once in a lifetime opportunity worth taking up. When we arrive, we are shown the previous hatchlings, that are whirring mischievously around a large concrete tank like it’s a playschool, while bigger specimen are lazily floating around other larger enclosures. Their multi-patterned, each unique, shells are mesmerising to look at and compare with the others.
As the sun goes down, that day’s hatchlings are ready to begin the arduous journey from shell to sea. The project worker scoops them out from under the sand where they’ve been incubating for the past 40 days, a little unceremoniously perhaps, piling them into one grey, sandy heap, but with just minutes to spare between birth and the need for them to imprint on this specific beach for future breeding, time is of the essence. The workers then transfers them into a bucket of salty water before distributing them to the small crowd of visitors, hands eagerly outstretched as if expecting a mound of sweets. Panicked thoughts fill my mind – what if I kill it? Exactly how much time do I have? Such a sense of responsibility!
We each place our precious cargo on the sand, in a jagged line as if we are about to start some kind of race. The bewildered babies have their work cut out for them. The waves show no sign of calming down and suspicious birds are already starting to swoop sinisterly above, black silhouettes under the sunset, waiting to snap up an easy dinner. Imagine just being born and having to muster the strength to undertake such a challenge. Newborn humans have it so easy in comparison.
Some pause while some gingerly take their first steps before gathering momentum, their tiny flippers flicking sand behind them as they crawl doggedly on, the crowd cheering with every laboured step, until one by one they are welcomed into the sea with a rolling wave, like an arm embracing them. But that doesn’t mean it’s over yet. While some successfully ride the wave into the rest of their lives, others are violently pushed back to even further than when they started. We gasp in disappointment each time this happens as now we all feel personally connected to and invested in their journey.
We don’t give up on them and we stay until one by one, waves and all, they make it in.