The roar of the Indian Ocean, the heady scent of a coconut curry, elephants ambling along a white-sand beach, brightly-coloured tuk-tuks topped with surfboards, pole-fisherman perched like cormorants, school girls walking hand-in-hand sporting long dark plaits and starched white uniforms. This is morning in southern Sri Lanka in 2014, but it could easily be 1974. This exotic corner of the world has so far escaped major development, which is why there is no better time to visit.
Easy! Mihin Lanka flies direct from Jakarta to Colombo five days a week. If you want beaches, the south of the island is where you should head. With the recent opening of the southern highway, the area is now reachable from Colombo in half the time it previously took.
Choose your beach accommodation within easy reach of the walled colonial city of Galle because you will definitely want to visit more than once. Dating from the 1500s, the fort is an historical gem and perhaps the cultural centre of the south. It has been occupied by the Portuguese, the Dutch, and the British and is now a Unesco World Heritage site. The fort is easily manageable on foot though you can pick up a tuk-tuk if you need to head somewhere fast.
Roam the ramparts at sunset, watch the snake charmers and gasp as daredevil divers plunge from the ramparts into the shallow sea below. There are a handful of museums for those who want to delve deeper and there are some petite shop fronts offering local products such as lace, semi-precious stones, and paintings. Also don’t forget to pull up for a cocktail at the Amangalla or Galle Fort Hotel, both stunning 17th-century Dutch restorations.
The white sand and crystal-clear water is virtually continuous around the southern coast and many beaches are backed with gorgeous, lolling coconut palms. Southern Sri Lanka is a surfer’s paradise. If you are looking for decent waves, try Ahangama and Midigama. For gentle, lapping waves head to Unawatuna, where the sheltering reef offers some good snorkelling opportunities. For the divers there is an underwater cave and the Lord Nelson wreck, both at Unawatuna, to explore. Mirissa is a less-developed idyllic beach offering great opportunities for snorkelling or just swinging in a hammock. If you want to be alone, it won’t be difficult to find a deserted stretch of sand in between any of the above-mentioned beaches.
It was only eight years ago when it was discovered that southern Sri Lanka was one of the best places in the world to view the largest animal on the planet, the blue whale. We recommend responsible tour operator Jetwing Eco Holidays if you are keen on seeing these giants up close. If you head into Mirissa, you’ll find numerous operators willing to transport you off the coast to view these amazing sea creatures. There is a good chance you’ll also see sperm whales and dolphins, too!
You will have no trouble spotting elephants in Sri Lanka (Sometimes they even cause traffic jams!) If however, you’d like to see them in a more natural environment, embark on a safari at Uda Walawe National Park with its nearby elephant orphanage or at Yala National Park. Be on the look out for buffalo, deer and leopards, as well.
There are numerous turtle hatcheries along the southern coast. Your best bet for witnessing turtles nesting on the beach is between January and July.
If you are interested in seeing the workings of a tea plantation but don’t want to venture too far from your southern base, try Hundungoda Tea Estate at Ahangama, famous for their “Virgin White Tea”.
Hands down the best villa in the south of Sri Lanka is the Indisch, a grand Dutch colonial-style beach house, where you can slip out of the pool and step directly onto a beautiful beach. Think antique canopy beds, G&Ts on the veranda, cricket in the garden and a playground for the kids. With the assistance of the wonderful staff, you will want for nothing. The price is top-end for Sri Lanka, but you’ll be hard pressed to find a deal of this kind in Bali.
Galle Fort Hotel
Galle Fort Hotel is a small, stylish boutique hotel with only 13 suites. Great atmosphere, fabulous food, and the hustle and bustle of Galle is just outside your door.
Perhaps the most romantic spot on the southern coast, Taprobane is a five-bedroom colonial residence occupying a tiny island just 180 metres off the beach at Welligama. It’s best reached by walking through the crystal waters, but don’t worry about your suitcases, the staff will transport them on their heads. If you’re lucky you might catch a game of elephant polo on the beach. Leave the kids at home for this one, wouldn’t want them tumbling out of the house and falling into the sea.
Fresh, fragrant and often full of fire, Sri Lankan cuisine is not to be missed. Don’t leave the country without eating a baked egg hopper for breakfast (preferably topped with prawn curry), vadai (deep fried lentil rolls) at lunch, a kottu roti (a classic dish of flatbread with egg and spices) and a deliciously refreshing coconut fish curry for dinner. You will find a smattering of restaurants in Galle and around the coast, but most accommodations run a good traditional kitchen. Don’t be afraid to try the street vendors; food in Sri Lanka is typically prepared from scratch several times per day.
Last note, is it safe to travel in south Sri Lanka?
The short answer is yes. The lack of major development is the silver lining from a civil war that arrested the country from 1983 to 2009. The Sinhalese and the Tamils now live in peace.