On the New South Wales coast, a couple of hours south of Sydney, there is a deep blue bay by the name of Jervis. On the southern arm, nestled in a crooked wrist, between the retiree-infected Vincentia, the most chilled out army base in the world, and the breathtaking Jervis Bay National Park, lies Hyams Beach. We call it Hymens beach, because it is so perfectly pure and clean, and just resting on it’s fluorescent white sand (officially the whitest in the world) feels like one has broken through into an alternate reality. In our family, Hyams beach has been on a non-toppling pedestal, and though some have come within the vicinity, no beach has really come close enough to make us question this pinnacle.
It’s a secret. The coast either side is fairly straight, with the occasional large bay, invariably full of rusty hulks and fuel-seeping fishing vessels. It is without doubt a lovely coastline, but just a nice stretch of beach, that is all. Our driver, who has lived in the area all his life, can’t find our destination, has to call and check on the address of “the Villa”. When he takes a narrow dirt road between two high and mould-blackened walls, we’re convinced he is entering private property. He bumps us past chickens and roaming calves and naked toddlers on a half-lane track, until a few minutes later, we start to see signs of tourism – a stall selling sarongs, a tiny bar, then a flash of blue to the left. Then a guest house, a surfboard rental shack, another flash of blue. Then the coconut palms thin, the track widens a few inches, and we are in the arms of Unawatuna beach.
The water is almost identical to Hyams Beach. Azure and sparkling like a cut gemstone, crystal clear. It’s warm. Cooler than the air, but not so cool that your toes recoil at that first touch. The wave breaks directly onto the shore, and although the surf is 1-2 foot, even a three-year-old can wade through the crash to the mellow flow behind. We float and bob as if on a waterbed, which I suppose is exactly what we are on. The current is gentle, one meter this way, one meter that. We could stay here all day floating like dried starfish, and we’d end up exactly where we started.
The sand is creamy beige, coarse, but soft. The perfect texture for construction. Leprechauns can lose themselves in fairytales and space wars of sand while adults float in idle meditation just meters away in the shoulder-deep water. The waves bring bounty from the deep and dump them behind curtains of retracting foam. Shells, coral, polished stones become jewelry for the sandy masterpieces. And the adults still float.
Between my semi-submersed toes I can see the shore, and beyond it, candy-colored guest houses that remind me of photographs I have seen of the Caribbean. The sea air has bleached them, but has not tempered their beauty. Dudes with boards wax in anticipation, and occasionally a “tinny” with an ancient off-board motor appears to take them to the reef break. Boats approach us too, glass-bottomed and manned by Sri Lankas luckiest workers. They peddle visions of the deep and snorkeling equipment. $10 for an hour of underwater glory? Sounds like a good deal to me.
The boys leave me to hunt treasure beneath the waves, and I continue to float. The land hugs the bay in a loose arc, and I feel protected. The sun finally pushes me back to land, and I find refuge between the coconut palms and a kaftan hut. Here, in my wonderous solitude, I find hunger. I am positioned at a midpoint between grilled prawns and frying curry leaves. They are tearing me in two directions, and yet I have to wait for my family. I watch the beach break as I would count sheep, and eventually my brain gains control of my stomach. I wait.
It is from a half-sleep that I glimpse Lion racing towards me. Smiles all round, the boat was a great success. They too are caught quickly by the aroma of lunch, and we vamoose in the direction of the curry leaves.
Lunch is typical SW Sri Lankan fare. Mainly vegetables, hundreds of bowls, coconut, curry leaves, garlic, lemon, mustard, cumin, dried fish, all intoxicating in their own right, but so thickly laid with chilli, cold lager is also required. Theblasphemous kids eat pizza and slurp chocolate milk. It is the best food so far at a Sri Lankan restaurant. Even Mary and the driver are impressed.
We sit as long as we can, dodging requests for beach or home with extra orders of ice-cream or turns with the iPad. The staff tickle goldilocks and chase him around the garden while we order more beer and stare through the ornate iron railings and over the blue. Occasionally we sigh happily. Then we realise that the last time we felt like this was at Hyams beach. The sand is not as white, but the water is warmer. The trees are not as tall, but they are just as thickly planted. The architecture is not as modern, as sympathetic to the landscape, but the contrast it provides is welcome. The food is better. The people are more chilled. The vibe is definitely supreme. And finally, we could actually afford to buy here. Now there’s a thought….
Unawatuna is about a 2 1/2 hour drive from Colombo airport, and the first village after Galle. There are two parts to Unawatuna – the village and “Unawatuna Beach”, which rests on a small peninsular, and has a particularly secret access! If we were staying again, we would definitely stay here rather than Hikkaduwa, but it is quieter – so it really depends on the kind of holiday you are aiming for. We ate at the Villa, and saw the rooms there too – they are charming, clean and spacious, with lovely bathrooms. The Villa is next-door to Thaproban, which gets a pretty good rap too. All accommodation is in small guest houses, and pools are rare. There are basic shops and facilities in Unawatuna, plenty of (small) restaurants, cafes and bars. It would be easy to plonk here and not move for weeks.