I’ve been lucky enough to spend the last two Christmas holidays in Sri Lanka, the teardrop shaped island located off the coast of India. Living in Mumbai, I barely see the beach or even spend very much time in the sun, so Sri Lanka seemed a perfect choice for a much-needed beach break.
Sri Lanka’s coastline became famous in 2004 when the tsunami ripped a train right from its tracks. The death toll in Sri Lanka was astronomical, a fact that can only truly be appreciated when you see just how close the local communities live to the ocean. The coastal train line is an artery that runs right down the southern coast of the country, and for almost 160 kilometres, the train runs precariously close to the sea.
Upon arriving in Sri Lanka most people head to the well-known beach resorts: Negombo, Unawatuna, Hikkaduwa or Mirissa, but what many don’t know is that Colombo city has its own beach scene at Dehiwala-Mount Lavinia in the south of the city.
Colombo – City Beach at Mount Lavinia
Mount Lavinia is small and barely advertised, yet it is my favourite place to stay when in Colombo. On the beachfront there are a few restaurants where you can sit outside and enjoy good food and cocktails. My favourite is La Voile Blanche, a beachfront restaurant offering both Sri Lankan and International cuisine, as well as a great cocktail menu. It has a laid-back vibe and plays good music. Every now and then a train hurtles past and shakes the entire wooden shack. Watch out for the back door, which opens straight onto the train track and could be dangerous if you’ve had a few beers too many!
The Shore by O! is another great beach front establishment that has a funky ‘tree-top’ style restaurant well worth checking out.
If you visit Mount Lavinia at sundown on a Sunday, you will find the place full of local families enjoying their day off frisking fully clothed in the sea and flying kites. The rest of the week you will share it with a small handful of other travellers.
Many travellers are open in their dislike of Colombo, but I love the city beaches that you find along Marine Drive.
Further south from Colombo, you will find the more popular beaches.
Unawatuna – Quiet with a Family Vibe
The first time I visited Sri Lanka I stayed at Unawatuna. It is a lovely beach and, unlike many of Sri Lanka’s other beaches, it is not located directly by the highway. I stayed in a guesthouse with a great sea view, and spent loads of time shopping in the small boutiques and shops.
Sadly, we had 4 days of rain, which restricted my beach time, although I was able to hang out in the cool restaurants and enjoy some great food. I enjoyed my time in Unawatuna, despite finding that nights were quiet. Some bars stayed open late, but it didn’t seem to be a party beach.
Hikkaduwa – Diving, Surfing and Turtles
After finding Unawatuna a little too quiet the year before, we opted to try Hikkaduwa for our return visit and we were pleased with our choice. Hikkaduwa has only one major problem: the busy road that cuts between the hotels and the beach. This road is fast moving and if you are not extremely careful a Sri Lankan bus could be the last thing you ever see.
I’m not a surfer or diver, so my days in Hikkaduwa were pretty lazy; mainly consisting of breakfast by the beach, wandering along the beach, lunch by the beach, dinner and drinks by the beach. Notice the theme here?
We were extremely lucky not once, but twice, to see a turtle come ashore to lay her eggs as we were eating dinner. Naturally, she drew quite a crowd each time (I was told that it was most likely the same turtle) but they were respectful by keeping a good distance, staying quiet, and not using flash photography. If you don’t happen to see a nesting turtle, you can go to the Hikka Tranz hotel and see wild turtles swim ashore for feeding. Although, this clearly contravenes their natural behaviour pattern, they are not mistreated or forced and seem to enjoy the human interaction.
Mirissa – Whale Watching
I didn’t stay at Mirissa beach, although I have heard good things, but this is where we started our trip to see Blue Whales. Despite a severe bout of sea-sickness – be warned: those whales move fast and so the boats move fast to follow them – I did manage to spot a hump or two in the water.
I didn’t particularly agree with the etiquette of the boats – think high-speed chase – and would choose a different tour company next time, but it was truly humbling to be in the presence of a mammal that I was told would be extinct within my lifetime. Apparently, the Blue Whale population in Sri Lanka is increasing.
All in all, the Sri Lankan coastline is unique and fascinating. From the train-tracks that hug the coastline…
…to the iconic stick-fishermen…
…to reminders of a devastating tsunami…
…and the emphasis on protecting local wildlife…
…Sri Lanka’s coastline will continue to inspire, amaze, and delight travellers to the island.
Have you been to Sri Lanka’s beaches. What do you recommend?