When you decide to take a few days for yourself, to slip away from the wild world and disappear into the quiet folds of a retreat, the last thing you want to see as you arrive at said retreat is a young child. Alas, within minutes of entering Talalla Retreat in southern Sri Lanka - the place on which I had pinned all my hopes of rest, rejuvenation and self-return – there, amongst the coconut palms and giant figs at the end of the pebbled entrance path, is a toddler.
It's not that I'm against children. I actually quite like them. It's just that I hadn't imagined them being part of my experience at Talalla Retreat, set in the small seaside town of Talalla and focusing on yoga, Ayurvedic spa treatments, healthy organic meals and surfing. How, I wondered as I pulled my suitcase towards reception, did tantrums and nappies fit in with all of that? Having just arrived in a spiritual kind of place, though, I decide not to focus on how I want things to be, but instead on how they really are. I take a deep breath, check in, am shown to my minimal room set back from the lap pool, and I head off to my first 90-minute yoga class.
I'm not new to the whole retreat thing. Having practised yoga and meditation for the better part of the past decade, I have escaped the world for stints in $20 a night yoga ashrams in the Indian Himalayas and Buddhist retreats in Nepal as well as $600 a night meditation retreats in Bali and $1000 a night mindfulness retreats in Vietnam. As my first 24 hours at Talalla unfolds, I realise that it is quite unlike any of these other retreats, and that the differences that initially alarmed me (mostly, the presence of children) were indicative of what I most come to appreciate about the place. Talalla welcomes everyone. Not just ritzy urbanites paying through the nose to escape their busy lives; not just renunciants or yogis or skint travellers trying to find an affordable place to stay, either. As I sit at dinner that night eating the excellent Sri Lankan buffet food (mostly curries and salads, with many of the ingredients pulled from the on-site vegetable gardens) I am surrounded by families and singles, foreigners and locals, couples and groups – and, yes, kids, who are in fact very well behaved. The diversity is refreshing. It puts me at ease and leaves me feeling as though I'm staying in a family home. A satisfyingly simple home, I realise when I head back to my room that has no air-conditioning, no TV and even no glass in the windows. This is something I am thankful for the next morning, when I am woken by a soft breeze and the sound of monkeys chittering in the trees.
The pared-back design of my room, with its mosquito-netted queen-sized bed, ceiling fan, wooden louvered shutters and semi-open bathroom, pushes me to spend more time outside. The next morning after another yoga session with a skilled teacher from Perth (Talalla's owner is Australian, so quite a few staff members are Antipodean) I wander through the landscaped gardens to the magnificent stretch of beach on which Talalla is set. I walke the length of the near-empty 1600-metre swipe of sand, bothered by no one, swim in the clear blue-green water, then lay on a sunlounger watching local fishermen haul their colourful wooden boats onto the sand. I stay here for hours even though there are plenty of other things I could be doing – having an Ayurvedic massage at Talalla's spa, for a third of the price it costs at home; having a surf lesson, or borrowing one of Talalla's stand-up paddleboards for a couple of hours. Or I could head out on a day trip to a nearby temple or surf spot. But all I want is to marinate in the sun, listen to the crashing ocean and the birds. To savour a sense of dolce far niente, or however you say that in Sinhalese.
It takes me two full days to step outside Talalla's walls. And even then my leave taking is simple. I walk the long dirt road that leads to the local village. Along the way I pass a white Buddhist temple festooned with colourful prayer flags and small ceramic orange Buddha statues. I watch a little boy fly a kite while two langur monkeys tightrope-walk along the electrical wire overhead. I pick frangipanis from the dusty ground and stick them behind my ears. Simple things, that help me savour the potent charms of Sri Lanka.
The word retreat often suggests the promise of some sort of transformation once one re-emerges into the real world. By the time I leave Talalla after four days, though, nothing has seismically shifted inside me. No great spiritual awakening had occurred. I do, however, feel sort of raked through by nature, soaked with sun and sea minerals, cleaned out by all that fresh food and limb stretching, and just a little more comfortable in my own skin. Which, actually, feels just as good as any sort of enlightenment I can imagine.
FIVE MORE SOULFUL THINGS TO DO IN SOUTH SRI LANKA
Visited by thousands of pilgrims a year, this Buddhist temple, a 50-minute drive from Talalla and set beneath a 205-metre rock, is one of Sri Lanka's oldest holy sites. Explore caves filled with reclining and sitting Buddhas, and ancient Buddhist paintings and sculptures.
Sri Lanka's south coast is one of the world's hotspots for seeing blue and sperm whales. Leave at sunrise, drive one hour to Mirissa, then jump on a boat to track whales all morning. Boats rarely go out during monsoon season, May to September.
Visit the Hummanaya Blowhole in Mawella near Talalla at the right time (June is best, during monsoon) and you'll see it shoot powerful spray fountains of up to 15 metres into the air.
Offshore winds, clean and mostly empty waves – you can't really visit Sri Lanka without at least trying to jump on a surfboard. As well as surf camps, Talalla Retreat offers private lessons for about $75, for beginners and experienced surfers.
A 20-minute tuk-tuk ride from Talalla sits this 39-metre Buddha statue. Brightly painted to attract positive energy, it marks an underground cave temple below, decorated with 200-odd scenes from the Buddha's life.
Sri Lankan Airlines flies daily from major Australian airports to Colombo, via Singapore. See srilankan.com
Talalla Retreat offers various room types, including bungalow rooms, dorm rooms, sea view villas and luxury bamboo huts, from about $68 a night. Yoga, pilates and boxilates classes, surf lessons, meals and other activities come at an additional cost, with yoga and surf retreat packages available. See www.talallaretreat.com
To stay up-to-date with the recent incidents in Sri Lanka and present safety warnings and cautions, visit www.smarttraveller.gov.au
Nina Karnikowski was a guest of Talalla Retreat.