After two months travelling away from the coast through Georgia, Armenia and Iran, I knew I had to start my Sri Lankan adventure with some beach time.
I actually began Sri Lanka with a couple of days in Colombo but I don’t need to bore you with those details – it has an interesting museum in a beautiful colonial building, as well as being my introduction to Sri Lankan food, but as a city it was all a little, how do I phrase this politely, uninspiring. Many people hate Colombo; I didn’t, it just didn’t stimulate me. Unfortunately I had to visit twice more, for my Sri Lankan visa extension and my Indian visa.
I found myself at Colombo’s Fort train station, outlaying the princely sum of 105 rupees (NZD1) for the trip to Unawatuna. The two-hour journey began by crawling through Colombo’s urban sprawl but before long the buildings morphed into rice fields, the track rarely out of sight of the golden Sri Lankan beaches and swaying palm trees I’d been dreaming of. As my luck would have it, the ticket seller hadn’t told me it wasn’t possible to travel to Unawatuna by train (all southbound trains pass through the station without stopping) so my first Sri Lankan train experience was a little longer than planned as I had to get off at Koggala and grab a local bus back to my destination.
Once I finally reached Unawatuna, I had the chance to drop my bag and chill with a cold beer. I’d picked a good place for it – while my hostel (The Rockstel) was a good 15-minute walk to the beach, it was in a grand old multilevel Sri Lankan home surrounded by jungle, with monkeys being regular visitors. Little did I know that a month later, I’d run into the manager (Miguel) in a Mirissa bar and I’d end up working at The Rockstel for seven weeks!
One of the obvious attractions of Unawatuna was the beaches, however I soon found that it had four local beaches, each offering something different:
the main Unawatuna Beach – plenty of restaurants, guesthouses and dive shops. While this is the most popular of the local beaches, I don’t think I ever saw more than a hundred people at any one time.
Dellawalla – spectacular sunset views, stunning palm trees, a photogenic rope swing and the occasional turtle in the late afternoon. My personal favourite of the Unawatuna beaches. Swimming is not the best due to rocks and weeds, but you’ll find a clear spot to give you some respite from the sun. It’s 2km from the main beach but regular local buses will get you there for 10 rupees.
Dewata – the local surf spot, with a forgiving beach break perfect for beginners. Much less crowded than Weligama further down the coast. Once or twice a week I’d take a group from the hostel, definitely one of the highlights of my job 😊 And since the beach is west-facing, it’s the perfect spot to relax post-surf with a beer while you watch another stunning sunset.
Jungle Beach – a sweaty 40-minute walk from the hostel up a steep hill, but all worth the effort with a swim at a scenic 200-metre-wide beach surrounded by jungle. I’d recommend you take your own snacks, there’s only one place at the beach and it is overpriced for what they do (e.g. 800 rupees for an average vege fried rice)
Galle Fort is one of the true highlights of the south coast. Begun by the Portuguese in the early 1500s, built into the structure we see today by the Dutch through the 1600s then taken over by the British in the 1800s, the fort is an amazing structure. You only need to see the thickness of the walls to see that while the rest of the coast was devastated by the 2004 tsunami, the fort emerged unscathed (although the buildings within sustained major flood damage). The shopping and sleeping inside the fort is decidedly upmarket (the historic Dutch Hospital is now a small boutique mall) but the fort is worth a good few hours of your time, wandering the alleys admiring the colonial-era buildings. The heat in summer can be stifling so try to time you visit for morning or late afternoon (even better, the sunsets from the fort walls are truly unforgettable). One of my personal highlights of working at The Rockstel in Unwatuna was the chance to research, write and then run weekly walking tours of the Galle Fort for our hostel guests (hence the short history lesson above 😊); I love to share my travel experiences with others and this was the perfect opportunity.
Galle Fort is amazing but the rest of Galle is a little blah. My suggestion – rather than staying in Galle, use Unawatuna as a base and jump on a local bus, the 5km journey will take around 20 minutes and cost no more than 20 rupees. Even better – tie it in with a surf at Dewata or a swim at Jungle Beach, both are on the way. And if you stay at The Rockstel, hopefully they’re still running the tour I wrote 😊
Mirissa has a reputation for being a bit touristy and overdeveloped. Completely unfounded in my opinion. Sure, there is a beach party every night but they run it along the lines of Unawatuna and Hikkaduwa – each bar has a turn once a week so it’s really easy to avoid the party if that’s not your thing as there are only 7 bars on a 1.5km stretch of beach. And while there are plenty of guesthouses, hostels and restaurants, Mirissa’s stretched layout along both sides of the coastal road means that everything is quite spread-out, while at the same time never being more than a 5-minute walk from the beach. While it can get a little busy in peak season, we’re not talking Greek-Islands-in-mid-July type of touristy. Frequent buses ply their way along the coast, perfect for day-trips or for surfers wanting a base to explore the many breaks in this part of Sri Lanka.
My initial stay was only booked for 3 nights, but that soon became 5 then 7. Partly this was due to diving, whale-watching and learning to surf in nearby Weligama (click here for more about that), but was also due to some of the best hospitality I encountered in my 3 months travelling Sri Lanka. If you go to Mirissa, you’ve really got to stay at Colours Hostel. Run by the amazing Ru, who made the big leap from the corporate life into what has became her passion, you’ll feel completely at home with good facilities, an awesome rooftop terrace, a fantastic breakfast and always an eclectic mix of travellers.
On my fourth trip to Mirissa, I finally made it to Secret Beach. A 20-minute walk from the main Mirissa road, via a steep hill, it was one of the most stunning beaches I found in Sri Lanka – golden sand, glistening water, jungle-clad hills meeting the beach. Crowds were small, seems most people don’t see exercise as part of their beach experience. Swimming was not the best due to rocks and uneven waves but a small pool sheltered by rocks was perfect for cooling off after the walk from Mirissa. You’ll also find a small restaurant, perfect for lunch or an afternoon beer.
Working in Unawatuna gave me the perfect base for exploring the coast. Less than 2 hours via bus (some direct, some needing a change in Galle), Hikkaduwa was the ideal spot for a weekend off. Similar to Mirissa, Hikkaduwa is stretched out on a coastal road, although in this case the beach is over 6km long so you have plenty of opportunity to avoid the crowds and find a spot to lay your towel.
While hitting the south coast of Sri Lanka for some hedonism or relaxation is usually top of most people’s reasons for visiting Hikkaduwa, many also take the time to learn more about one of the worst natural disasters of recent years. A short 4km bus ride north of Hikkaduwa, you’ll find two museums commemorating the tragic events of the 2004 tsunami, where up to 50000 lost their lives on the south coast of Sri Lanka. The Tsunami Community Museum is informative and well-presented, but the nearby Tsunami Photo Museum is more memorable for its hard-hitting but personal approach. You’ll see hundreds of photos, often graphic, alongside poignant survivor testimonies and artwork of children recording their memories. The museum is run by xxx, the woman who lived in the building now housing the museum, lost most of her family. She will gladly give further explanations of many of the exhibits but it is clear that it is still an emotional experience for her.
Hikkaduwa also offers a good array of eating options. Salty Swami’s is justifiably popular for its mainly western food (perfect for a leisurely brunch), while the Sri Lankan thali I had at Aroma was one of the best meals in my 3 months (and the slow-cooked eggplant curry in that meal was possibly the best thing I tasted in Sri Lanka)
There’s plenty more on offer on the south coast. It’s the perfect place to hire a scooter and head off on a day trip or an overnight break from your main spot. Some personal suggestions:
Tangalle – a quieter option than Unawatuna or Mirissa. Supposedly still peak season, I headed down to the beach for a quiet beer. I definitely accomplished that goal, my choice of bar had a solitary customer so I had plenty of thinking time over my Lion Lager. The swimming is not great, huge late-breaking waves and strong currents mean it can be dangerous, especially for children. There is a spot in the middle of the beach somewhat sheltered by rocks
Hiriketiya – a pretty little bay west of Tangalle, Hiriketiya is growing in popularity, aided by a small beach with good swimming and a surf break prized by more advanced surfers.
Midigama - one of the best surf breaks on the south coast but more for the advanced surfers, definitely a little big for my skills. Even if you don’t surf, there’s a stunning beach next to the main coast road, plus a few small restaurants and juice bars
o that's it for Sri Lanka. Next week I'll start with my Indian adventures. A 6-month visa and no fixed plans - stay tuned to find out more about one of the world's most intoxicating countries.