woke up bleary-eyed at 6.15am to my alarm. It would be 12.45am in London. Having squeezed into my special surf leggings, I pounced on the hot coffee, dates and bananas being offered on the verandah.
The view from Tekanda Lodge’s indoor/outdoor living room with the sun rising is something to behold. A low mist was clinging to the neatly divided paddy fields below, the pale pink sky was pierced with an amber fire and the jungle orchestra was in full swing: peacocks miaowing, birds chattering and monkeys making their guttural howl. The scene was breathtaking, the early wake-up was forgiven.
I had arrived in Sri Lanka the afternoon before for a week with Soul & Surf. Drawn to the island’s beguiling southern coast along with a group of perfect strangers for its surf and yoga retreat near the laidback hotspot of Ahangama. Everyone had their own reason to be there, but there seemed to be a shared desire to find some slowness; a healing between jungle and sea.
We threw on Soul & Surf’s smart navy rash vests, just in from India, where its founders Ed and Sofie Templeton originally launched their mindful brand of retreats in Kerala in 2011. Armed with our boards (a sherbet lemony foam number for me), we headed towards our Tuk Tuks and their smiling drivers. This daily commute, snaking down Tekanda’s bumpy drive with our boards strapped to the roof, then zooming through Kabalana and towards Weligama, fast became one of my favourite rituals. The anticipation of the waves ahead and the chats with my fellow beginner, who quickly took on the role of surf wife, therapist and chief entertainer.
Just beyond romantic Taprobane Island, the surf team would kick off our lessons, while gaggles of boys played beach cricket in the background. The Soul & Surf instructors are fantastic and can cater for different levels of surfers. Sanjeet, Asanka, Renee and Ashan showed superhero levels of patience as they warmed us up, demonstrated how to get up (pop up), launched us onto waves, and shouted advice at our departing boards. Slowly, slowly, it comes together. You have to find your rhythm, layer by layer, remembering one command at a time. Relax! Start paddling! Chest up! Get up! Now! Stay low! Lower! You have to keep it all in your mind, but forget it all, too. Stop thinking. Feel the waves.
You will fall off your board a lot. You will swear at the sea. You might nose dive. But when you nail the pop-up or feel the wave take your board for the first time, you will be bitten by a bug – one that whispers in your ear to steal just one more wave before the session ends. You will also get to see it all replayed – in slow-mo – by Ben on the big screen back at Tekanda. Soul & Surf sends a videographer to each morning lesson so you can see where you are going right and wrong. Mildly embarrassing at first, but seriously useful: a series of pointers and corrections to take with you into the free surf in the afternoon.
The Soul part of the retreat came in many shapes and forms. There were daily yoga sessions with Roise, whose sequences and witty poetic patter soothed our limbs and tickled our ribs. Yoga transforms surfing. Once the connection is made in your mind, they become the most obvious of bedfellows: cobras and warriors gently paving the way for paddling and popping up. Bellies were nourished by chef Rana and his sidekick Calum: a thrice daily feeding of Soul & Surf’s signature “sunshine food”. Think beetroot egg hoppers for breakfast, fish tacos for lunch and mai mai fish curry for dinner. Always colourful, delicious and the perfect fuel.
The week-long Soul & Surf retreat programme is jam-packed, including sunset parties at The Cove, their beachside B&B and restaurant. You can do as much or as little of it as you want (no judgement, really) but you might as well go the whole hog. I found it a complete joy to switch off from being a forensic planner and simply turn up where and when I was told, sleeping like a baby most nights despite the expected jet lag. Time became elastic like dough, stretching out until I had no idea what day it was. Richie and Charlie, Tekanda’s owners and your fantastic hosts for the week, are on hand to shepherd you through the day and generally make sure you have a very nice time.
There was also plenty of time to practise the sweet art of doing nothing – especially on the rest day in the middle: lying by Tekanda’s emerald bean-shaped pool, sitting on your terrace and soaking up the tropical soundtrack or watching the sunset over Lake Koggala are just a few of the options. Perching like an eagle’s nest on top of lush tea and coconut plantations, its 10 acres are also ripe for a walk and a wander.
But what really made the Soul & Surf retreat so special were the bonds that quickly formed. Stories were shared and devoured around the dining table morning, noon and night, powered by G&Ts and a lot of laughter. For one sweet week, you live like a family as if at home – albeit one with the trappings of a really good hotel.
Never have I found such a pleasing antidote to London’s harsh winters and the concrete crush of the city. If you have the opportunity, learn to surf. You have to put down your phone and commit to the wave. The ocean is a humbling place. After your retreat week, there is a high chance you will want to delay your flight home, so save yourself the trouble of returning and move the few kilometres to Palm Hotel instead. It is a super cool boutique nearby with breezy A-frame cabanas and treehouses where you can continue to hone your new surf skills – and live the Sri Lankan dream.
A week-long retreat with Soul & Surf at Tekanda Lodge costs from £1,045. You can fly direct from London to Colombo with SriLanka Airways
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