With its long line of bright, white sandy, lofty palm fringed beaches the WEST COAST is the holidaymaker’s dream. Here you can dispel the stresses of your everyday world while lazing on the warm sand, flying over the water on a jetski, exploring the world under the turquoise water, surfing or kayaking. Add whale watching, day trips to the turtle sanctuaries, exploring the Portuguese built fort at Galle, Buddhist shrines and sleepy villages and you have the perfect holiday.
The beaches and towns south of the International airport near Negombo are the most westernised in the country and offer a wide range of accommodation and restaurants. Excursions from these beaches to places such as Yala and Uda Walawe in the deep south or Kandy and the Cultural Triangle in the Hill Country and Central areas require overnight stays.

If you are looking for a truly peaceful “ beach all to myself ” holiday, then the beaches north of Negombo on the Kalpitiya Peninsula will be attractive. This previously war ravaged area is fast becoming another popular beach destination.

The best time for a beach holiday on this coast is from November to March however there are many awesome places here to explore all year round. For distances between locations on this South West Coast are here.

I’ll take you on your taste of WEST COAST beaches by starting in the north at KALPITIYA – one of my top beaches in this island of beautiful beaches.

It’s a get-away-from-it-all place, a less well known place – wish I could keep it that way ! It’s a place where a few in-the-know holidaymakers enjoy a sunrise walk along the shore, a paddle in the gentle waves, while watching the arriving night time fishing boats return with their catch. What could be better than ending the day on the sunset beach enjoying fresh, juicy seafood!

This serene area offers snorkelling, kite surfing, diving and more. Enjoy an early morning boat trip to see sperm whales, spinner, bottlenose and humpback dolphins leap playfully around you, creating splashes of white water hitting the deep blue. There’s the chance of coming across an elusive dugong, too.

As an excursion, the entrance to Wilpattu National Park is just 114km away but, due to the need to enter the park early morning, an overnight stay nearby would be needed.

Kalpitiya was once an important hub for Arab Merchants trading with the Anuradhapura kings. The peninsula was invaded in the 17th century by the Portuguese who built a fort, some of which, although altered by the Dutch when they chased the Portuguese out, can be seen today. It was an important post for the Dutch East India Company. Today fishing is still an important income earner for the local people although, with the resettlement of displaced Tamils from the North, crop farming has added a lush tinge to the area and is a big money earner. When the government’s tourism plan is finished, tourism will add to the economy in a big way. Go now, I say!

Just 145km from the International airport at Katunayake, Kalpitiya is an easy to get to beach destination. In addition, it makes a great end of tour beach stay as it is also a quiet 120km drive from Anuradhapura.

MARAWILA, WAIKKAL and NEGOMBO are the next beach destinations. Here, the beaches are not the best, especially for swimming, due to a sudden drop off to a deep shelf and often less than sparkling water conditions. Nevertheless many tourists do make this part of the South Coast their holiday destination, attracted by the competitive prices at the many hotels and resorts and also the watersports on offer. It should be noted that the term ‘resort’ is loosely used in Sri Lanka and may simply mean ‘hotel’ or even ‘ guesthouse ‘.

With its range of budget accommodation and proximity to the airport at Katunayake, 9 km away,  Negombo is often chosen as a first or last night stay. It’s also a surprising town, thanks to the Portuguese and Dutch invaders who were very successful in converting the population of the area to Roman Catholicism. Churches and shrines to Mary and the Saints seem to occupy every street corner! St Mary’s church is interesting to visit, especially for its painted ceiling. Other reminders of foreign occupation are the fort constructed by the Portuguese who landed in the 1500s and shut down the then dominant Arab traders. The canal was built by the Dutch – of course! They sent off the Portuguese about a hundred years later.

It was the cinnamon and spice trade that attracted the Arab traders in the 8th century and cinnamon growing still plays a small part in the local economy altough many of the population are fishing families eking out a very modest living on the sea. The fish market in Negombo is quite big, noisy and full of colourful characters – worth a visit if fishy smells don’t bother you.

If you are planning on using buses to get around, you’ll be pleased to learn that Negombo also has decent bus terminal where you can get buses to most parts of the country. Marawila is 27 km north of Negombo while Waikkal is 10km. Colombo is 37km to the south.

By the way, the ancient name for Negombo was ‘Mee Gomuwa’ meaning ‘Place of Bees.’ There’s a story in that for later!

COLOMBO is Sri Lanka’s only metropolis. If anywhere in Sri Lanka is a hustle and a bustle, then this seemingly chaotic city is it! With its deep port on the mouth of the Kelani river, it was an important trading port on the East-West spice trade some 2000 years ago. Settled by Arab traders in the 8th Century AD, the Portuguese arrived at the turn of the 16th Century, doing a deal with the local King and gaining control over the attractive cinnamon growing coastal area. They chased off the Muslim traders and built the Fort in 1517. This is an interesting area to explore, especially with one of the local people who will take you on an early morning or late afternoon walking tour.

The Dutch ousted the Portuguese and, in 1638, did a deal leading to their control of the lucrative cinnamon trade, with King Rajasinha II of Kandy. Then came the British who captured Colombo in 1796 but didn’t have full control of the island until they wrested it off the Kandyan king in 1815. They renamed the country Ceylon and made Colombo the administrative capital. Post Independence  this was moved to the nearby city of Kotte.

Today you can easily see the influences of these three invasions – the charming colonial architecture, especially in the Fort area, the bustling Pettah market where you can buy almost anything, the narrow streets with the many gem shops as well as the mosques and variety of churches around the city and, of course the Fort.

Currently the city seems to be undergoing a fast rejuvenation, with shopping malls, new restaurants and the renovation of the famous colonial hotels.  The city walking tours, or those by double decker bus if you don’t want to walk, showcase the rich history of the place.  For those of you who like a challenge, www.gpsmycity.com has several self guided tours to choose from. If you are here late January then the exciting week-long festival of Duruthu takes place at the Kelaniya Temple. Boat trips on the famous Beira Lake in the centre of the city are also popular, especially for bird watchers. Tuk tuk is the only way to get around this crammed city. They can squeeze through anywhere!

I recommend my old haunt Galle Face Green for a sunset stroll, dodging the kid’s kites and licking an icecream with the local population. Alternatively take in the awesome sunset while sipping cocktails at the famous Galle Face Green Hotel.

MOUNT LAVINIA, fifteen kilometres south of Colombo Fort and known locally as Galkissa, together with nearby Dehiwala, offers better priced guesthouses than those in Colombo. The suburb is named after the home of an early 19th Century British Governor, Sir Thomas Maitland. He named his home after his illicit and doomed lover, Lovinia. Today The Mount Lavinia Hotel is the centre of local nightlife and some beach activities.

WADDUWA, 33km south of Colombo Fort, has a one kilometre sandy golden beach fringed by lush coconut palms. Fishing is an important industry here so there’s plenty to see when you walk along the beach early morning or evening.  For the tourist it’s a laid back place offering windsurfing, ayurvedic medicines and spas. As the current is often strong, the beach here is not the best for swimming. Bikes are available to rent to ride through the village to see toddy tapping, the harvesting of the sap from the coconut trees to make the local liquor, toddy. The refined version of this is the local whiskey, arrack. Why not try some of this, probably diluted with a mixer as it can be very potent, while you sit out on the beach and enjoy the sundown. If you get the taste and want to take some home, buy from a local liquor store instead of duty free at the airport.

KALUTURA, a few kilometres south is a much larger than Wadduwa and is situated on the mouth of Kalu Ganga, the Black River. It’s an important religious place for local Buddhists because the Bodhi tree here is said to be one of the thirty two saplings brought to Sri Lanka in the second century BCE. If  you are adventurous you might like to visit the Fa Hien ancient caves, the Pahiyangala Temple, about thirty five kilometres inland. Here excavated human remains were dated back 37,000 years. What a secret this has been!

Ahh! BENTOTA ! That expanse of white gold sand on a palm fringed beach! An easy one hundred and ten kilometre drive from Bandaranaike International airport at Katunayake, Bentota is the start of a long line of popular beaches, all with their own character, charm and offering a wide range of beach and water activities. A popular destination for those seeking sun, sea and sand, this is the  place where you can swim, snorkle, dive and fish in the sea and then windsurf, water ski or take a water safari or another fishing trip on the Bentota River.

After that hire a scooter or a bike and explore the wider area. First take the narrow road north for a couple of kilometres to Beruwala. This is one of the areas demolished by the December 2004 tsunami and there is a memorial Community Centre which you might like to visit along the way. The road ends at the gleaming white landmark Masjid- ul- Abrar mosque which was built in 920AD by Arab traders. It is the oldest mosque in Sri Lanka and stands atop a small hill overlooking the picturesque fishing port.

Another landmark towering over nearby the streets is the Kande Viharaya Buddha which, at 48 metres, is the tallest sitting Buddha statue in the world. This is a recent addition to the temple which was built on the top of the hill in 1734 and is an important place of worship.

Bentota is well situated for day excursions as far south as Galle however to visit Yala further south, Kandy in the Hill Country and the Cultural Triangle even further, overnight trips are needed. While some trains do stop at Bentota, Aluthgama is the main station.

Moving further south now to INDURUWA, KOSGODA and AHUNAGALA are places which are often visited from Bentota as a day trip but have enough delights to make them worthy of a lengthy stay.  An evening walk along INDURUWA ‘s uncrowded wide golden sands may be shared with a turtle plodding intently up to the shore to lay her eggs. KOSGODA is well known for its turtle hatcheries where you can not only hold a baby turtle but release it into the sea. The luxury Heritance AHUNGALLA hotel was designed by Geoffrey Bawa, Sri Lanka’s famous architect who has designed several notable residences in the country. This small town is also close to the best mangrove wetlands in Sri Lanka, the Madu Ganga Wetlands. A short tour here, leaving from nearby BALAPITIYA, will  reveal not only the many birds, plants and fish in these rich waters but also something of the lives of the people who eke out an income from fishing and growing cinnamon. A Buddhist temple, Kothduwa Temple, is the sole building on one of the islands.

AMBALANGODA, a little further south, is where you’ll find the famous devil masks. With a cobra head, bulging eyes, fang-like teeth and grotesque tongue, the Nagar mask is employed to ward off evil. Watch out for the bird form Mayura mask – it is the Demon of Death. While demon banishing dances and rituals are held privately in homes or rural villages, you may come across these provocative masks worn in street parades at Wesak – Buddha’s birthday celebrated on the May Full Moon Poya Day.

HIKKADUWA has been a tourist hot spot since the late 1960s and this is where you’ll find a mix of accommodation types, restaurants, shops and hotel based nightlife. The beach here is protected by a reef so is suitable for swimming for a longer period than elswewhere in this area. While snorkelling and scuba diving offer the best chances of seeing the coral reef and variety of tropical fish, experienced divers will enjoy exploring some of the shipwrecks a little further out at sea.

GALLE is a popular port of call for seagoing yachts and it’s existence can be traced back to 125 AD when it was an important trading port doing business with the Greek, Arab and Chinese spice traders. When the Portuguese arrived in the turn of the 16th century and took over this natural port they built the Fort, constructing three sides using bricks and coral. When the Dutch ousted them in the 17th Century they added the fourth fortification on the sea side. While this coast suffered immense damage and loss of life in the 2004 tsunami with some buildings inside being damaged, the walls held strong. Inside the Fort you will find narrow streets, charming colonial houses, churches and mosques, restaurants and quirky shops selling nick nacks and souvenirs. A moonlit evening walk along the fort wall watching the town below prepare for sleep is a great way to finish a day exploring the historical buildings or a bike ride around the outlying villages.

UNAWATUNA, 6km south of Galle, is regarded  as being the start of the deep South Coast beaches and is the beach that Galle itself doesn’t have. Regarded now as a challenge for Hikkaduwa’s title of Sri Lanka’s Party Beach, this is where you can surf, dive, do cookery courses and even a yoga retreat.