A Guide to Sri Lanka’s Best Beaches
Photos by Greg Rodgers
A decade ago, many travelers weren’t even sure where to find Sri Lanka on a map. The independent island-nation was busy surviving a 30-year-long civil war, with tourism stalled. When the conflict finally ended in 2009, Sri Lanka experienced a tourism renaissance.
And the timing is great. With tourists longing for personal space in Bali, Thailand and other well-worn trails through Southeast Asia, Sri Lanka offers something new. The destination is an easy pick in South Asia when India seems too daunting and the Maldives too inclusive. A quick, online visa process and cheap flights from Bangkok make the island even more accessible.
Now is a Great Time to See Sri Lanka
Of course, Sri Lanka is still a work in progress. Reconstruction continues. Half of the 20 million people who call it home seem to be crammed into buses or tuk-tuks at any given time. The country may be a little less hectic than India, but they enjoy the same penchant for honking horns as their big neighbor to the north.
As tourism grows, the old conundrum of cultural mutation rears its head — that is, authenticity may soon be replaced by cultural caricatures to be quickly absorbed by the tour group masses. Now is a great time to get to Sri Lanka before it gets swept into the mainstream circuit.
A surprising amount of biodiversity, trekking, temples and colonial history are densely packed into the island. Even the tooth of Gautama Buddha, an incredibly important Buddhist relic, is kept in a temple in Kandy. Kings of old once waged wars over the tooth.
But straying too far from the idyllic coast takes serious motivation when a thick, wet blanket of suffocating humidity is wrapped around your head at all times. Regardless of whether or not you take advantage of Sri Lanka’s interior — and you should — there is no better way to escape the three-shower-a-day heat than by heading south to the beaches.
When Anthony Bourdain had enough of Colombo’s urban chaos, he fled to Hikkaduwa — one of the top surfing destinations in Sri Lanka. The wide beaches graciously accommodate sunbathers by day, and nightlife options abound — at least compared to other parts of the island. Surfing beginners are attracted to Hikkaduwa’s medium-sized waves and numerous surf schools that are strung along the beach.
Hikkaduwa is among Sri Lanka’s most practical beaches; you’ll find numerous choices for eating and socializing. Unfortunately, options are stretched along both sides of the main highway, Sri Lanka’s primary artery. Running across the street to your hotel sometimes feels as though you’re playing a real-life round of the classic arcade game, “Frogger.”
Unawatuna is arguably Sri Lanka’s crown jewel of beaches in the south. The gently curving stretch of sand is certainly photogenic, as long as you don’t mind a number of Speedo-clad strangers in your photos. A soft-sand bottom makes for excellent swimming, decreasing the chances you’ll become a hit with the local sea urchin community. Giant turtles frequent the beach, and more than 60 species of colorful birds are endemic in the area. You can see birds on accident that enthusiasts spend lifetimes hoping to cross off their lists. Jungle Beach, a “secret” spot for great snorkeling is nearby — ask for it.
Wisely walk past the many beach restaurants that toss the same tired seafood at tourists who don’t know better. Instead, proceed to the end of the beach and spend a little extra on fresh stuff at the Kingfisher restaurant, elected one of the top 101 restaurants in Asia by The Daily Meal.
Other than a playful name, Unawatuna’s greatest charm is that it is situated along an access road. No need to brave the main highway when leaving the beach to visit shops and restaurants.
Just south of Unawatuna is Mirissa, a calmer alternative popular with backpackers and surfers. The shallow water isn’t as nice as Unawatuna’s, but the surfing and bodyboarding are certainly better, and a lifeguard is usually on duty. Seafood meals are relatively inexpensive, and nightlife often involves a fire and guitar.
The right side of Mirissa’s beach — designated as “surfer’s corner” — is an obstacle course of sizable waves, rocks and sea urchins. Unless you’re an experienced surfer, don’t attempt it. Instead, go coo over the baby turtles in the beachfront turtle hatchery.
Whale-watching season begins in Mirissa around November; the best time for sightings is between December and March. Visitors have a chance to see humpback whales, sperm whales, orcas and potentially even a blue whale — the largest animal on earth.
Sri Lanka’s Famous King Coconuts
Those sizable, yellow-and-orange coconuts for sale practically everywhere are king coconuts, native to Sri Lanka. King coconuts are sweeter and have more water inside than their green counterparts. They’re also an excellent source of electrolytes — perfect for replacing sweat lost on equatorial afternoons.
The king coconuts for sale in shops and roadside stalls are cheaper and fresher than those peddled on the beach. Bottles of dark rum for sale in the same shops are a great way to add a little bang to your electrolytes — a cheaper, natural alternative to the sugary sunset cocktails sold by beach bars.
The Best Months to Visit Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka experiences a unique, split climate. At any time of year, half the island is experiencing monsoon season while the other half is dry. Peak season in the south runs from December to March when dry weather and migrating whales attract the most visitors. April is hot and humid until the rainy season arrives shortly to cool things down.
If you don’t mind a few rainy days intermingled with sunshine, November is an ideal time to visit before beaches get too crowded.
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