Looking for the best places to visit on the beautiful island of Sri Lanka? Having travelled to the country on numerous occasions before living there last year, I am totally in love with this magical paradise nestled in the Indian Ocean. It is hard to get off the beaten track in such a small country but here are some tips on where and how to travel in the south of the island in order to experience the best of what’s on offer.
I was in the midst of a downward dog at a yoga class in Unawatuna (near where we were living) one morning, when an English lady asked if anyone fancied joining her for a week long trip around the south of the island. Having nothing to lose and never having spoken to her before I jumped at the adventure. Before I knew it Julie and I were heading off on a loop of part of the island. Here are some of the amazing parts of the country we came across, combined with others that I have visited throughout my time in Sri Lanka:
Many people rush straight out of the capital to the beaches or cultural sights. If on a short time-scale I would probably advise to do the same, however, Colombo has some treats for those that have a day or two to spare. It is much more modern than the rest of the island and there is a great night scene of restaurants, bars and night clubs for those wanting a good night out. My favourite restaurant, which has never disappointed me in 7 years, is ‘The Lagoon’ restaurant in the Cinnamon Grand hotel. If you are into seafood then you will struggle to find better than here. They have a fish counter which you can choose form and have cooked as you wish. Filled mainly with business folk and ex-pats living in the city, it is not exactly the hive of atmosphere but most definitely guarantees a fantastic feast. For sports enthusiasts, depending on the time of year you can enjoy a spot of cricket at the International Stadium or a good game of rugby at the race course, near to which is the Manchester bar; hosted by a lively Brit and playing live music on weekends.
Not far to the south is Mount Lavinia, an old colonial hotel complete with beach front. Here you can sip on a cocktail or two and watch the sunset and possibly sneak into one of the wedding beach parties that I have had the privilege of attending and dancing away the daylight hours barefoot on the sand.
Catching the train south
It is possible to stop on your route south at beautiful Bentota (a bit too touristy and hotel filled for me) or Hikaduwa, which is supposed to be good for surf but during my time there there was none. In my opinion these places have their appeal and I have visited both for a few days, but knowing what other beauties lay down south I just wouldn’t bother.
Catching the train from Colombo to Galle is by far one of the most amazing experiences of my travels. I recommend buying a 2nd class ticket, which costs next to nothing for the 3 1/2 hour down from Colombo Fort Station. You can pre-book tickets for some journies prior to travel but this one you can just turn up and go. I can’t promise you will get a seat and in fact suggest you try not to. The best place to perch yourself is by the door on the right hand side if facing the direction of the train’s movement. These doors are never closed and provided you don’t mind being clambered over and sitting on the hard floor I guarantee a stunning view of the coastline which was battered and devastated by the Boxing Day Tsunami. A local will surely tell you when you pass the Standing Buddha statue erected in memory of those that lost their lives when a train from Colombo was swept away by the wave. Looking around at how packed the train is, you will quickly realise how easy it was for so many to lose their lives. Various people walk through the carriages offering dried fish, sweets, baked goods and fizzy drinks that look like they have been stored in an old shed for a couple of decades; all contributing to the lovely aromas on board, for which you will be grateful for the open doors.
Having lived here, Galle has a special place in my heart. It is by no means the most beautiful of cities but the home to the port and historical Galle Fort. The fort is the remains of when the Portuguese ruled and is a stunning collection of colonial buildings protruding out over the coast. There are tons of restaurants, all of which hike up their prices for tourists, but most guarantee a good meal. A special favourite of mine is Punto cafe; run by a Muslim woman and her husband this tiny cafe with seats overlooking the street serves some of the best value and delicious curry in the fort. No alcohol is served but fresh teas and juices are the perfect accompaniment to a Sri Lankan curry for 2. The various side dishes for this curry change regularly depending on the fresh vegetables on offer. My favourite is the Jack Fruit curry dish. A good pad thai can be picked up from the Wok restaurant down the road, which serves the most amazing cold fresh coconuts (stomach rumbling!).
Over the past couple of years this beach has seen massive changes, not only in the number of tourists visiting, but in the beach itself. A couple of years ago when I first visited, Unawatuna was a backpacker haven, hosting yoga classes and beach bars serving Lion beers for those wanting to enjoy the relaxed way of life. The only upmarket place on offer was UBR (Unawatuna Beach Resort). Whilst stunning, the beach was not an idyllic lapping wave style one, more crashing waves onto the shore which were often so far on shore you had to dash between waves to avoid getting dumped on. Recently the decision was made to place a breakwater out to sea, which has now destroyed most of the beach and it’s structures; opening up more of the beach on the further side. Sun loungers have now been thrown up all over this part of the beach, which have been happily lapped up by Russian and British tourists, totally changing the vibe of the place. As a result prices have risen and there are hardly any places that serve a Sri Lankan curry. Seafood is good and previously was sold and barbecued on the beach by some of the older bars and restaurants, but as these restaurants have lost business due to inaccessibility from the beach due to the change in coast line, so the quality has deteriorated.
Unawatuna does, however, boast a fantastic vegetarian restaurant on the back street toward the main road, as well as super day spa which has various different massages available in the tranquil setting of the Sanctaury Spa. Also not to be missed is the morning yoga sessions held by Asiri, which are some of the best I have attended.
Wajiya and Thalpe
Not far down the coast (a ten minute tuk-tuk ride or bus journey if you are feeling brave – and you really should do as it is pretty fun!) is the resort of Wajiya. Not so much a resort as a bar on the beach, this chilled out place is run by a group of local surfers with some of the best views along the coast. The food can be a but touch and go and drinks are slightly more expensive, but the setting really is stunning. Here there is a reef, which means it is more accessible for families who want to paddle in the turquoise-green waters which are home to an abundance of turtles. It is also home to a pretty decent reef break for surfing (experience highly recommended).
Another few kilometers down the road is a stunning colonial bungalow perched right on the beach in it’s own small cove. It is with slight hesitation that I recommend this place as it is so special to me, I almost want to keep it a secret! Visited mainly by ex-pats living in the area, it boasts a natural water pool and comfy seats looking out over the ocean. While the food is not the best, they have a great selection of wines on offer (rather rare in this part of the country); reasonably priced.
Welligama and Mirissa
Another half hour down the road are the surf beaches between Welligama and Mirissa. These really are the top spots to surf in the area and host a variety of point and beach breaks. On route down here is Kabalana Beach, a hotel that has it’s own beach, which often has some fantastic surf. The vibe down in this part of the country is pretty laid back. Accommodation is far more basic in Welligama and aside from surfing and whale watching trips, there is little more to do.
The next city along the coast is Matara, not much to see but there are again some decent surf spots along the coast (mainly reef breaks) nearby, as well as some great opportunities to spot turtles. There is also the Weherahena Temple, which is well worth a visit to see the huge Buddha statue. This is the furthest south that you can go on the train so most people opt for a driver for the rest of the journey. Most accommodations in Sri Lanka provide free accommodation for drivers if you let them know in advance.
Heading further south towards Tangalle there is a change in the atmosphere. Julie and I both felt it, and when I visited here with Andy previously we sensed it too; the traffic thins and calm overwhelms you. Balinese style rice paddies replace jungle and the beaches are just as stunning, but less palm fringed and smaller with little/no surf. Unfortunately tourism seems to have hit here in the past couple of years and resort hotels are popping up left, right and centre. However, a hidden gem in the midst of the paddy fields awaits: Tangalle Maya hotel. What a retreat this stunning colonial building surrounded by greenery is. Although pretty pricey it has the most delicious food, gorgeous rooms and unbeatable location.