I’ve been to Sri Lanka a few times now. It’s one of the only countries I find I can never get enough of (along with France and New Zealand). There’s always something I didn’t get to see, or didn’t have time to do, a dish I couldn’t find in a restaurant, a festival I just missed, a hidden spot I didn’t find out about until I was back home. Or maybe I just didn’t get enough time in the one place. To absorb it just deep enough to bring welcome flashbacks throughout the year. Or maybe I did get enough time, but just want to do it all over again.
A part our family returns to again and again is the South West coast. Partially, because it’s beautiful and peaceful. There’s also great surf for Husband who’s missing his dose here in Dubai. And then, it’s easy. It’s one of the fastest places to get to once you get out of Colombo, and we can be from our door in Dubai to the front door of some insanely exotic villa in less than 8 hours. The South West coast of Sri Lanka officially starts at Colombo, but the first place the beaches start getting the more isolated and pristine feel is at Wadduwa. The strip I’m talking about runs all the way down past Bentota to Galle, and because we are talking South as well as west, around to Tangalle just past the tip. And though the climate and the geology is similar along this strip (although a little dryer in the deep south), it provides a series of very different holidays, and caters to a range of very different tourists.
So what’s your slice?
Bentota (and south to Ahungala)
This is the closest of the main tourist beaches south of Colombo. It’s got it’s fair share of mammoth five-star hotels and some lovely smaller ones that require much forward planning as they book out very quickly.What you’ll go for:
- Proximity to Colombo – 2.5 hours to the airport on a good day.
- Wide sand beach with easy public access (not restricted to hotel guests)
- Tourists come for it’s nature-filled lagoon (which also spawns cacophonous water-skiers and jet-skiers at its mouth) and it’s beautiful backwater scenery of rainforest and rice paddies.
- Just to the south of Bentota is a sea turtle hatchery, where five species of turtle nest, and hatchlings do their nightly danger run at 6:15.
- Bentota also is where design enthusiasts will find their most solid proliferation of Bawa sites. These range from the dated Bentota Beach hotel (a renovation in the 90s has destroyed parts of it), through the more perfectly cared for Lunuganga, Club Villa, and Geoffrey Bawa’s brother’s (Bevis) property, the Brief Gardens (map info here, and my photos here).
What might drive you mad:
- Busy. The guides say German tourists, but I found more down south in Hikkaduwa. There was a massive influx from the Indian Subcontinent when we visited, which I thoroughly enjoyed because I got to eat a dosa for breakfast instead of a boring old fry-up.
- Tour guides and drivers a little more assertive than down south (but not to the point of pain)
- Most available accommodation in large hotels that have seen better days. (and can have less soul than the guesthouses)
- Beach is not as perfectly clear as others further south, stays shallow a long way out, and has very gentle surf (some may think this is a good thing)
- Club Villa if you can afford it (and you don’t mind trains – last one is at about 9pm though),
- Amal if you can’t (Amal is on the “wrong” side of the Galle Hwy and therefore much cheaper. They do however have a restaurant across the road that serves food to banana lounges on the beach. But I’d find it hard to leave the view of the rice paddies over the infinity pool. The hotel is much prettier than it looks on the website).
- If large-scale hotels are more your thing, I’d suggest the Heritance Ahungalla (another Bawa design) rather than many of the Bentota beach hotels, as they tend to be a little time-worn.
- Again, Amal and Club Villa – Amal for lunch, a long seafood lunch looking over the tops of pandanus trees to the sea, washing it down with frosty lion lager.
- Club Villa for dinner, where they alternate between Sri Lankan curry (no menu) or A La Carte which still has an asian influence, but a much broader style. A super place to lie in a hammock with a pre-dinner glass of Chablis, watching the hikkaduwa train thunder through the front yard every 30 minutes.
- Other travellers and tuk tuk drivers swear by the Golden Grill, but I could not bring myself to dine at a place with a name like an American smorgasbord restaurant.
- The one place I missed out on that I truly regret is Pavilion at Nisala Arana, which is in the greener part of Bentota, off the beaten track. Fine dining style with a fusion theme it seems.
This is where everybody comes the first time they visit the Sri Lanka beaches. It’s wall-to-wall cheap hotels and hostels, and overflowing with German and Australian backpackers. Imagine Kuta in Bali, with less sewerage pouring out into the ocean and psychotic salesmen pounding the pavement. Also the Aussies are there for the surf rather than the beer and the babes. Travel time is an hour past Bentota.
What you’ll love:
- Surf – good for most levels, and holds together well even when small. Usually between 3-5ft.
- Hikkaduwa is a reasonably cheap place to stay, provided you are happy to drop your standards. But who needs room service and international TV when you have a great onsite chef, cheep beer and a perfect beach?
- Snorkeling is also excellent, and very easy, straight off shore for kids (Coral Sands Hotel is a perfect spot), and diving further out for those with more experience.
- Like Bentota, there is an excellent backwater area with water monitors, birds and hidden buddhist temples.
- Good nightlife. There are heaps of “nightclubs” (really just bars), and restaurants serve all day and night.
- Everything is in town – tourist junk, booze shops, supermarkets, doctors, ayurveda treatments, internet cafes – they all line the street, and you’ll never have to leave.
- Locals totally laid back, especially the nouveau ones (Aussie and European expats who have kicked off the shackles for good)
Hmm… not so good:
- Crowds – Both tourist and tout driven. They’re on the streets, surfing your wave, waiting for your table.
- It’s a noisy place. The beachside accommodation is on a narrow strip between the Galle Hwy and the sand, and the traffic goes 24/7. You can stay on the other side of the hwy, but in general the further you go back, the dodgier it is.
- Because there is so much on the strip, many don’t venture far afield. This is a mistake.
- Coral Sands Hotel – a 3-star crumbling beauty with a teak-lined beach bar more befitting a hotel of higher standard. Super position on a strip of white sand beach with glass bottomed boats and snorkling equipment salesmen galore. Fishies of a veritable rainbow just 2 metres offshore.
- Hansa Surf – if you are totally broke. It has rooms from $5 a night, a position right on a great beach, and you will see that you can live like a king despite your bum’s budget.
- Suite Lanka is a quieter alternative, just out of Hikkaduwa but still on the beach, and well suited to families with the large and adjoining rooms. Great food during our stay last year.
- Asian Jewel is a small hotel that seems to get all the gongs from Trip Advisor and other sites. Either this is a particularly effective scam, or it truly is wonderful. Probably a good option if you want to get away from the busy beach area.
- JLH is a fairly good option, with all the basics and a tremendous view directly over the water. Stick with the curries, stir-fries and devilled dishes, and don’t bother with the winelist.
- Nordic House has opened fairly recently and already has a soaring following. Western food – burgers etc, and coffee.
- The Coffee House, somewhere on Galle Rd is famous for being just about the only place to get a real cup of espresso coffee in Sri Lanka.
- Drifters Hotel is another local favourite – a real pub atmosphere with a wide variety of sri lankan and western food.
- Asian Jewel also gets Trip Advisor’s #1. I really should go there – tell me what it’s like if you do!
- Aditya is probably the only option for fine dining, and little south of Hikkaduwa (easy tuk tuk ride). Gorgeous place, lovely winelist and tasty food. I wouldn’t recommend the sushi though…
This is the little Europe of Sri Lanka. Here we have a Portuguese Garret turned Dutch Fort, turned elite tourist corner. Picture decaying colonial architecture, gin slings and gentlemen sitting at the bar in seersucker jackets. Every second building is being renovated, but they’re doing a sterling job at keeping just enough of the shambolic antique feel.
Why you need to stay:
- It’s really just gorgeous walking the streets, especially on a cloudy day when the rest of the coast goes into hibernation. Alleys, cups of tea, cobbled roads, old cars. Very cool place.
- The restaurants are varied in style and in the main, very good
- About the closest you’ll get in Sri Lanka to classy shopping, with stores like Mimimango, Barefoot and a string of jewelery and antique dealers.
- The fort itself is worth a trip, as are exploring the fortifications. Kids will love the macabre stories
- Cricket – international and more local games at the neck of the fort at Galle International Stadium
- Sriserendipity do a Galle Fort culinary tour that I only just found out about.
- Apparently the shave at Amangella is a traditional experience that can’t be missed (luckily I don’t need one of those yet)
- Beer just seems to taste better at a second floor Galle Fort cafe looking out over the ocean…
- Not much beach. There is a little white sand leading out to a shallow reef, but that’s about it.
- Once you’ve strolled the streets and had something to eat in five different venues, there’s not a lot to do. If you’re not into drinking cocktails by the pool, you’re going to have to venture past the walls and into other parts of Sri Lanka.
- Expensive. It makes sense really, very little land, old buildings with high costs of upkeep. And of course, all the spas and expensive hotels tend to draw in tourists with more money, creating a vicious circle. Of course, some might be happy with the lack of riff-raff. (But people like me can always come for day trips)
- Galle Fort Hotel is the famous one, just about as old as the fort, UNESCO rated, and not as expensive as Amangella (which is the fancy one)
- Deco on 44 is a Gatsbyesque beauty, small and known for super service and great food.
- The Pedlar 62 Guest house is probably the best of the budget options, with large clean rooms, amiable hosts and little else. It’s just a house, but a good one.
- Restaurants at the two top hotels mentioned above are worthwhile – GFH do well with the basics like club sandwiches, Deco for fusion cuisine.
- Pilgrims Lounge is a quirky bar/cafe opposite the ramparts. Fairly decent food, but known for being the only place to find a drink when everything else is closed.
- The Fort Printers in the centre of the island is probably the best for gourmets. Asian inspired of course, but look further than just Sri Lanka. Great but expensive.
- Peddlers inn nearby is fairly famous – you should at least drop in for a coffee. You can’t miss it, there’s a black Morris Minor right outside.
- For a rooftop view, try Mama’s Guest house, or a place next to the rampart Guest house just down from pilgrims (I forget the name) – but just go for a drink…
Anything to add? I’d love to hear it – please comment!