Some of the finest, least populated beaches anywhere can be found on the newly peaceful island of Sri Lanka in the Indian Ocean.
Foreigners, burquas, and children bob along to the rhythm of boats along the curvaceous bay of Unawatuna. The scents of coconut oil, incense, diesel, sunscreen, salt, and curry flirt with abandon in the gentle breeze. The idyllic scene is complete with swaying palm trees and sauntering bikini-clad bodies glistening in the humidity. Yet, the very sea that surrounds the tear-drop island of Sri Lanka is both friend and foe.
Etched in our memories is the tsunami of 2004. However, Sri Lanka’s catastrophic relationship with water dates back to the biblical times of the Ramayana and the belief that the ruins of an Atlantis-like city sleeps just off the south coast. Long time resident of the island and science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke wrote about a tidal wave hitting Galle harbour in one of his earliest works, referenced in 1957 in The Reefs of Traprobane. A run through his impressive list of titles (which includes 2001: A Space Odyssey) it’s clear he was so inspired by the island, named Ceylon at the time of his arrival in 1954, that he remained until his death in 2008. There is a theory that due to gravitational anomalies of the south coast of the island, there is an intense gravitational pull to the area. Fact or fiction? As a second time visitor to this magical region, I have to admit that during the 12 months between visits, I often found myself longing to return.
Unawatuna translates as “it fell from the sky” and this heaven-sent beach hosts makeshift cafes, bars, guesthouses, and water sports like diving, snorkelling, fishing, boating and swimming. Snorkelling equipment can be hired along the beach and the reefs near the west end can be explored year round. There are several shipwrecks and marine life to see, and diving trips can be organised with Sea Horse Divers, who also offer diving courses, night dives, reef dives, and wreck dives. The Unawatuna Diving Centre also runs diving services and offers beach-side cabanas for an affordable beach shack experience. The best time to dive is mid October to the end of April and the double reef makes it very safe for swimming and a favourite with families.
However, the tsunami continues its devastation as Unawatuna slowly erodes away, but a revitalisation program is scheduled to commence in 2011 which will preserve this paradise for many years to come. Unawatuna isn’t only famous for its beautiful beach and since it’s surrounded by hillside jungle, treks are popular, especially on the west end of the beach near the temple across the Rumassala peninsula to Jungle Beach, which can only be reached by foot or boat. Just a few kilometres to the west of Unawatuna is the town of Galle and its charming UNESCO listed fort. Its walls protected it from the tsunami and not only preserved its beautiful Dutch architecture, but also the working community of administrative offices, local families, street peddlers, businesses, and expatriates. See the break-out box for more on the Galle Fort.
Heading east along the coast are the laid-back towns Ahangama and Midigama, which are best known for their consistent waves thanks to the many rocks and coral however, at times the conditions can be hazardous. There’s an area at Midigama commonly known as Lazy Left, which bends around the rocks and onto the bay, but it’s at Ram’s Right, a few hundred metres down that draws the experienced surfers to the region.
Continuing east is the town of Weligama (meaning Sandy Village) best known for its clay handicrafts, colourful outriggers in the sapphire bay, and the tiny Traprobane Island. Indulge in some barefoot luxury and rent out the only house, a five bedroom mansion, on the island and live like the auspicious bevy of adventurers, authors, artists, and royalty before you. The only way on or off the island is to wade through the crashing waves at low tide but soggy underwear is a small price to pay for a visit to this magical island.
Imagine a coconut paradise where you long to escape to with your loved ones? Your wish may be granted a few kilometres east of Weligama at Marissa Beach. Bordering on the surreal in the beauty stakes, the golden sands are lined with palm trees and are the epitome of the kind island where you’d love to be deserted. Between November and March, Marissa attracts plenty of surfers and the clear water, reefs and rocks make the snorkelling excellent. The currents are strong though and it’s wise to find out which places are the safest to surf and swim. Girigala Rock, at the eastern end of the bay, has small reefs ideal for snorkelling, fishing and to witness that infamous Indian sunset. The sleepy town is relatively undeveloped and most facilities can be found a few kilometres away at the busy commercial town of Matara.
Still heading east along the coast is the quiet beach town Dickwella, which many pass by as it’s often overshadowed by the better known beaches. Several hotels and resorts have popped up here and just a few kilometres east at Kudawela is Sri Lanka’s only known blow-hole, Hoo-maniya. High seas force water to shoot up into the air over 20 metres through a chimney.
The competition for who has the most beautiful beach continues at Tangalle, particularly at the coves of Goyambokka, Medaketiya or Marakolliya Beach. Your footprints might blissfully be the only ones in the sand. It would be easy to collapse onto one of these idyllic beaches and not move until the monsoon season (April to September) rains on your parade. However, it’s worth the effort to visit Hambantota to see what a fishing town in Sri Lanka was like before tourism hit. Hambantota won’t remain in this untouched state for long though since it is the hometown of President Mahinda Rajapaksa and an international port and airport, railway line and highway from Colombo will provide easy access to the south coast.
Get wordy in the Galle Fort
For an insight into the Galle Fort read Around the fort in 80 lives, by Juliet Coombe and Daisy Perry. Available in selected bookshops and with other Sri Lankan titles http://www.sriserendipity.com/purchase_books.html
For budding writers, time your visit to Galle with the Galle Literary Festival, known as the festival of choice for the international literati www.galleliteraryfestival.com What’s so refreshing about the intimate festival is how accessible the authors are and you could find yourself mingling with the literary greats as if they are old friends.
Until the new highway and railway line are operational, the most common way to the south is to drive from Colombo along the south-west coast. On your way down, about halfway between Colombo and Galle, is the Kosgoda Sea Turtle Conservation Project. Since 1988, the project has been dedicated to conserving and protecting the five species of turtles that lay eggs along the coast. Holding a cute baby turtle will delight all ages and studying the older turtles can become mesmerising so don’t plan to rush away from this rustic beach-side affair. Further south near Tangalla, on Rekawa Beach you can see green, hawksbill, and on occasion leatherback turtles. All proceeds go to the Turtle Conservation Project and for a unique experience, there are volunteering programmes available.
From November to May, Blue whales and dolphins can be seen frolicking off the coast of Mirissa and nearby Dondra. Sightings are plentiful as these magnificent creatures feast on the abundant food source found off the coast. Given their frequency to the area and the numbers regularly registered there is some debate about whether the whales are residents or migrants, or possibly both? There are several operators in the area and the Sri Lankan Navy also offers tours with Jetline Nautical Enterprises. Jetwing Eco Holidays are the longest standing operator of eco tourism, and come highly recommended for whale watching.
Yala National Park is cradled in the far eastern corner of the south and covers approximately 1297 square kilometres. It has a range of ecosystems including wetlands and sandy beaches, and is known for its extensive bird life (over 100 species), elephants, water buffalo, wild boar, jackals, sloth bears, deer, monkeys, water monitors, crocodiles, and the highest density of leopards in the world. The park closes between September and October and the best time to visit is during the dry season between May and August; especially as elephants don’t like to get their feet wet and will head to higher ground or use bushes as makeshift umbrellas when it’s wet. There are several tour operators including Eco Team Pvt Ltd who can also arrange unforgettable overnight adventures.
On first glance, an island is defined by water, whether it’s streaming from above or crashing into its extremes. Sri Lanka is no exception and is teeming with stunning beaches and coves, and no-one would mind or blame you if flopping on the beach is all you did. But interacting with the land and its people will be only the beginning of a life-long affair with an island so rich in beauty, culture, wildlife, and history, most of which seem to somehow connect with water. The monsoon season dictates the best time to visit certain regions, but the rain also brings enchanting surprises like butterflies feasting on the nutrients found in mud puddles left from jeep tracks or elephants playing in a mud bath. The south, west and east coasts were decimated by the tsunami, and the north has been ravaged by war. The aftermath of these tragedies are still evident both in the land and etched into the faces of the locals, most of whom are willing to share their own personal experiences or at least reward you with a kilo-watt smile. Sri Lanka is like those grains of sand that seem to seep into the most unlikely of crevices after a visit to the beach. Virtually impossible to instantly remove, but by the time they are washed away, you’ll be left with an everlasting salty taste on your lips beckoning you to return.
Sea Horse Divers, Ganahena, Unawatuna, www.seahorsedivinglanka.com +94 77 6277 622, +94 91 2283 733
Unawatuna Diving Centre, Matara Road, Peellagoda, Unawatuna, Galle, +94 (0) 91 22 44 693 (English), +94 (0) 777 90 34 30 (German and English) www.unawatunadiving.com
For a daily surfing report go to http://magicseaweed.com/Unawatuna-Bay-Surf-Report/654/
Traprobane Island, Weligama, +94 91 43 80 275, www.traprobaneisland.com
Kosgoda Sea Turtle Conservation Project, Galle Road, Mahapelena, Kosgoda, +94 91 22 64 567, +94 77 60 07 302 www.kosgodaseaturtle.org
Turtle Conservation Project www.tcpsrilanka.org
Dickwella Resort, Dickwella, +94 41 22 55 271 www.dickwella.net
Jetwing Eco Holidays, Jetwing House, 46/26 Navam Mawatha, Colombo 2, +94 11 238 1201 or +94 11 234 5700, www.jetwingeco.com
Eco Team Pvt Ltd, No. 20/43 Fairfield Gardens, Colombo 8, +94 (0) 11 58 30 833, +94 (0) 11 58 35 893, www.srilankaecotourism.com
Published in part in Asian Geographic Passport No. 13 Issue 2/2011 Get Wet in Asia!