A quick history lesson, before I get to talking about the best beaches of Sri Lanka. Lanka means “island” in Sinhalese (what most Sri Lankans speak) and that has been one of the things this surprisingly large country off the southern coast of India has been called for millennia. Sri means “resplendent”, giving us “resplendent island”. Yeah, sure, sounds fine. Not exactly modest or anything but I’m all for national pride and that sort of thing. Colonists, however, well, I think it’s fair to say national pride is not something they tended to encourage. So, when the European powerhouses began taking turns subjugating it, they all called it some variation of “saheelan” (the Arab name for it, not entirely sure why) – Celiao in Portuguese, Selan in Spanish and Ceylon in English. As the British were the most recent oppressors this is the most well-known form today. The country was then “granted” independence in 1948 along with India but remained a British subject until 1972. It was at this time the name was officially changed to Sri Lanka. Got all that? Also, at one point the Arabs also called it Serendib, which is where the word “serendipity” comes from.
Two things that really surprised us:
1) Sri Lanka is seriously popular with Russians
2) Those crabs that hang out on the wet rocks on pretty much every ocean coast in the world, well, here they jump from rock to rock.
We found both of these things equally disconcerting.
Regardless of what it happened to be called at any given point in history, though, Sri Lanka has always featured an epic coastline lined with beautiful palm tree-lined beaches and impressive surf. And it was these very beaches that were the driving force behind our decision to finally visit. Sure, the country’s wild history, exotic culture and fascinating religious diversity all piqued our interest as well but, following our month of cold weather and high altitudes in Nepal, it would be the perfect time to venture down to the subcontinent for some sun, sand and cheap beer on some of the best beaches in Sri Lanka. Scenic highlands, classic train trips, ancient capitals and big-ass sacred rocks would eventually follow, but first we would kick things off with 2 weeks spent on 3 different beaches (visiting 2 more). These… are those beaches.
How to Choose the Best Beaches in Sri Lanka
The great thing about the endless Sri Lankan coast is that there is so much beach variety that everyone should be able to find one that fits them perfectly. Here is a rough breakdowns of the best beaches in Sri Lanka that we made it to.
Hikkaduwa – Nice long curving beach.
Unawatuna – Similar to Hikkaduwa.
Dalawella – Rocks, swings, palm trees, the most photogenic.
Talalla – Beautiful windswept beach with hills at either end.
Dickwella – Long, flat and empty.
Hriketiya – Small, scenic bay surrounded by hills and trees.
Hikkaduwa – Gets narrow and angled near town, much better in Narigama section.
Unawatuna – Pretty flat but not quite as long as some of the others.
Dalawella – Not good, you can find a way in each direction but depends on tide.
Talalla – Very nice, a bit angled, maybe 2 km from end to end.
Dickwella – Outstanding, very long and very flat, especially perfect at low tide.
Hriketiya – None really, very small and curved.
Hikkaduwa – Very popular with both experts and beginners (in different sections).
Unawatuna – Another popular surfing beach with areas for all skill levels.
Dalawella – A few expert spots, better at nearby Unawatuna.
Talalla – The waves looked good but very few people out.
Dickwella – A few beginners at the south end.
Hriketiya – Excellent beginner waves.
Hikkaduwa – Excellent selection of beach bars and good restaurants.
Unawatuna – Many good choices.
Dalawella – Very limited, although lots of choices a couple kilometres away in Unawatuna.
Talalla – Only a handful but a couple are very well reviewed.
Dickwella – Pretty bleak, although walking distance to Mahi Mahi and Hiriketiya.
Hriketiya – Many options.
Hikkaduwa – Touristy and busy but has everything you could want.
Unawatuna – Small collection of tourist shops set back from the highway, making it safer because you don’t have to walk along the main road.
Dalawella – No real town, but nearby Unawatuna has everything.
Talalla – Small and a bit isolated.
Dickwella – A bit rough around the edges but definitely not touristy.
Hriketiya – Just a collection of hotels near Dickwella.
Popular, picturesque, surfer-y and full of beach bar/restaurants, Hikkaduwa seemed like the perfect place to start our decompression agenda. In preparation, we had already gone to work on our somewhat suggestible friend, Chris Looney, and convinced him to abandon his already pretty attractive home of Hawaii to fly halfway across the world and join us in Sri Lanka for a bevy of beach beers, and also so we could teach him a new card game we thought he might like. We met him aboard a ship in Antarctica and have now convened on 5 different continents in 5 different countries (none of which are Canada or the United States). Anyway, awkward hugs were shared, beers were drank, beaches wandered and, thankfully, even more flip flops were bought than lost. Even though higher beach prices meant we were never able to replicate the many large (600ml) 390-rupee ($US2) beer Looney claims to have enjoyed while in the highlands prior to our arrival, we found the many 400-450 rupee variations to still be fully acceptable, and more than adequate for afternoon beach pub crawls. Incidentally, they only seem to have one beer here, Lion, which is a decent lager at a low price and what it lacks in dynamic flavour it more than makes up for with its ultra-cool, class Lion design. Of course, archaeologists insist the last lion to grace these parts was somewhere around 100,000 years ago. But the point is, at one point they did, and I can appreciate using that odd fact to make one kick-ass beer can.
Great beach sunsets, cheap and tasty grilled seafood and the opportunity to watch both highly-skilled surfers and bumbling beginners work the waves all added to the enjoyment factor of our 5 nights. We got in all the relaxing we were hoping for, mostly eating, drinking and lying around sweating profusely even in full shade. Most days the temperature hovers around 30-32 Celsius, but with oppressive humidity that makes it feel nearly 10 degrees hotter, and absolutely has resulted in my clothes being at least 50% more drenched in sweat. At least we got the last of the air-conditioned rooms at wonderful Jasmine Garden Beach Guest House ($US33) which made a huge difference. At least we assume it did, based on the amount of time Looney spent griping about how hot his non-A/C room was.
We had a bit of shopping to take care of, also, as neither of us had been carrying flip flops on this trip. I found an excellent deal on some very cheap ones ($US3) but, as Laynni predicted, I soon ditched those in favour of a more expensive pair after she bought some nicer ones that I decided I liked better. I also bought a sarong (as I do once every 10 years or so) and Laynni became inexplicably enamoured with a pair of shorts with elephants on them. She remains enamoured to this day.
Food highlights included a fresh grilled fish spread on the beach, a surprisingly good burrito, an equally surprising burger at a place called Nordic House for some reason, all of which paled in comparison, though, to how much we enjoyed Pizza Hut at the end of our very long and food-free bus trip from Colombo our first day. Stumbling out of the packed bus, starving and disoriented, and spotting the iconic Pizza Hut sign like it was a verdant oasis conjured by a dying man in the desert still leads the way in shocking Sri Lankan occurrences. Maybe even more shocking than learning how a Sri Lankan bum gun works (like a portable bidet but more powerful and, I have to admit, kind of scary).
After 5 nights in Hikkaduwa, we moved on to Dalawella in style, via direct air-conditioned taxi at Looney’s urging. It was, you see, his last night in Sri Lanka and despite our humorous tales of obscenely crowded buses that smelled of coconut and carbon monoxide, he seemed uninterested in taking a Sri Lankan local bus for a spin. Ultimately, we were grateful, even though he and I were both a bit owly after our drinking exploits of the night previous, and him being maybe a touch quick to sing along to Bob Marley to our young driver’s alarm. Of course, Irish coffee with a couple beer chasers with your “full English” breakfast can do that to even the most reserved of fellows…
In other news, just before we arrived at our Dalawella hotel – the basic and cozy Amal Guesthouse ($US36) – they had been visited, rather surprisingly, by a sea lion. Surprising, because Sri Lanka doesn’t have sea lions and, as far as anyone there could tell, the closest ones should have been somewhere near Antarctica. So, not so close. He was apparently quite large, fairly disoriented and seemingly confused by all the scantily clad humans clogging up beach he was planning to use to come ashore, as opposed to the ever-tasty penguins he’d been hoping for. Apparently, people from animal services, or whatever they are called in Sri Lanka (monkey tamers? elephant bathers?) came and took him away and later we heard it was actually an Arctic variety of sea lion, meaning the only reasonable theory is that he somehow made it down here as a stowaway on some less than vigilant ship.
We capped off Chris’ last night with more big Lions (lager, not sea) while watching the latest Rick and Morty on his bed. At the time I was pretty sure the very strict “No Visitors” policy applied mainly to prostitutes, not someone like me, although now that I have described that scene it makes me wonder.
Dalawella Beach is an odd place. On the one hand, it has some serious drawbacks – it is quite short and the very narrow strip of sand all but disappears at high tide. Compared to Hikkaduwa or nearby Unawatuna it has a serious dearth of restaurants and even the places to stay are pretty specific – upscale and expensive like Looney’s last night splurge at Sri Gemenu ($US85) or very basic and basically hot, like our place. On the other hand, it is a wonderfully picturesque beach with big palm trees leaning out over the water, large rock formations perfect for photos of people climbing and posing in very little clothing, and impressive low tide sunsets. One of these, in particular, was stunning, a dark thunderstorm on one side contrasting starkly with the sun peaking brightly through the clouds on the other. As you can see, our panoramic of this bizarre sky doesn’t even look real. I assure you, however, that my photo editing skills are nowhere near the level it would take to create something like this. It’s generally all I can do to crop my ever-present finger out of otherwise good shots.
Two specific spots have contributed greatly to Dalawella’s popularity. The first is a rope swing attached to a leaning palm tree that sends you out over the water for great photos, making for extremely popular Instagram photos. Unfortunately, they now charge a fee for the privilege and it’s often lined up, meaning we were a hard pass. The second is a tall, narrow leaning rock beneath an angled palm right in front of Sri Gemenu that costs nothing (for now) and is only sporadically occupied. Probably because it seems absurdly dangerous, even though I normally enjoy scrambling up and down rocks. Maybe not dangerous in comparison to free climbing El Capitán or crocodile wrestling, but in the arena of things you might try barefoot in a thong bikini after a two-beer lunch on the beach, this little photo adventure had disaster written all over it. Mind you, several of the women in question made it look pretty easy, and there is a pretty good chance I only feel this way because when I climbed it (easy enough to get up) then stood up on the slanted, uneven surface of the top and looked down at the nasty collection of jagged rocks waiting below and felt the wet, sandy surface slipping under my feet, well, my balls suddenly migrated to my throat with a sickening speed I hadn’t experienced in years, probably since the last time Laynni suggested we stay home and get real jobs. Much like that unfortunate incident, the whole thing seemed like a really bad idea, as did Laynni’s suggestions, from safe on the ground, that I try a few different poses, when all I wanted at that point was to get the hell down. Judge as you will.
While not technically a beach, and even though we didn’t stay overnight in this fascinating old area, we did visit it twice, once in the quiet of the evening to enjoy some excellent ravioli at the Pasta Factory, and once in the heat of the day to enjoy walking the ancient stone walls and sweating obscenely. On both occasions, however, we found time for a stop at classic Galle mainstay, Dairy King (sort of like Dairy Queen, except with longer, more boring stories). Another thing we noticed was all the people doing “photo shoots” at all the most interesting attractions. This seems to be a growing trend everywhere, from Europe to Sri Lanka, but was particularly out of control in Galle, where we spotted at least a dozen amateur photo setups in our short wander around town. They ranged from professional-looking scenes with multiple cameras and serious lighting equipment to just some girl in a floofy dress being followed around by some young guy with an iPhone and an umbrella. Instagram strikes again (I probably wouldn’t find it as annoying if I looked better in a white sundress).
Besides all the cool fortifications, Galle is also a religious melting pot, having been occupied by seemingly every naval power that passed by over the years, like the municipal version of every sailor’s favourite friend in port. Within its tiny confines, Galle features St. Joseph’s Chapel Catholic church, the Dutch Reformed Protestant church, Sri Sudharmalaya Buddhist temple, Meeran Jumma Masjid Muslim mosque, and the All Saints Anglican church. Eventually they must have just run out of space, leaving the poor Hindus to build their temple just outside the walls, and now they have to knock every time they want the other religions to come out and play.
With a name straight out of a Thai expat slangbook, we were very curious to see what this little-known beach would have in store for us. Far less popular than our previous two stops, there were certainly fewer food/beach beer alternatives. And its big but chaotic waves and gradual slope aren’t particularly cherished by the surfing crowd, scratching off another valuable demographic. A good 3 km or so of wide, flat sand from end to palm-lined end, however, makes Dickwella perfect for long bouts of mellow beach strolling. Other than at one point having to cross a small river coming from town (best guess – 60% dishwater / 30% urine / 10% spit) we could have kept wandering back and forth all day. Well, except that Dickwella is only a couple hours down the coast from our last beach so the weather was basically the same – by which I mean idiotically hot – so by 8:30 am we were no longer going anywhere. But up until then, and anytime after 5 pm, we could just walk forever…
The lack of development made for a very different experience. Having hardly any other tourists around was a nice change but finding a good place to eat was a challenge. On the one hand, the local stray dogs seemed to have come to a group agreement to rub themselves against Laynni’s legs every chance they got, but at least the bargain copycat palm tree swings had a clear identity (free and crappy) and Laynni even found a better one at Mahi Mahi restaurant just over the point from Dickwella Beach. Let’s see, what else? We spent an hour one morning visiting an unpronounceable Buddhist temple with a tired-looking elephant tied up out back, and after running out of Vaseline (dry nose syndrome, pervs) I was thrilled to track down a huge jar of off-brand “Bio Vaslee” for less than a dollar, featuring a picture of a woman spreading it all over her shoulder (isn’t that what people use it for?). I also found a dead snake.
We didn’t actually stay here but it’s located right beside Dickwella and we walked over a couple times; the first, to check out the scenery (it’s very nice) and surfing/surfers (it is a hugely popular beginner beach). The second, because during our first visit we spotted a sign boasting “wood-fire pizza oven” which, considering the wasteland of attractive food options on Dickwella beach, was as effective at luring us as a giant flashing neon “Girls! Girls! Girls!” sign is for drawing in men who really like girls, girls and more girls. Hiriketiya’s popularity seems to have exploded quite recently (there are new hotels and restaurants being built everywhere) and at the moment it seems to be bizarrely riding the fence between “Thai backpacker beach vibe” and “trendy flashpacker ‘It’ beach”. I think it’s safe to say which one will soon be relegated to the nostalgic annals of history.
We are even less qualified to make sweeping generalizations about Talalla than Hiriketiya, having only visited for a couple hours to have lunch, take a few photos and wander from end to picturesque end a single time before bolting from the heat of the day to lie on our bed pumping our egos about what a great decision the air-conditioned hotel had been. Make no mistake, though, it only takes a moment to appreciate Talalla’s glorious, wind-swept setting and small selection of excellent beach restaurants. And I snapped a couple of those artsy “fishing boat on beach” photos I am inexplicably taken with.
Sri Lankan Beach Accommodation
With our flight getting in late from Kuala Lumpur, we spent our first night in a small guesthouse in Negombo, close to the airport. As well as picking us up well after midnight – still smiling, no less – Dinesh and his family at Sunrise City Palace provided an excellent, massive breakfast (at one point he kept refilling our pineapple plate as we ate from it), and also insisted we join them for a series of photos, you know, just us and the family, like they do at the Days Inn. To top it off, they happily agreed to store a bag for us while we tour the country (we correctly assumed we would not be needing our any of our merino underclothes or down overclothes, although Laynni still couldn’t part with her last couple Hot Shots hand-warmers, just in case).
In Hikkaduwa, it turned out that getting unceremoniously bumped from our “1-Bdr Chalet with Balcony” by Why Not Guesthouse (somehow they managed to “overbook” the room we had reserved at a deep discount 6 months in advance) was the best thing that could have happened, as we ended up in the wonderful Jasmine Garden Beach Guest House, located farther down Narigama Beach in a quiet ocean-front spot, well away from the crowds and oonce-oonce music of the main part of Hikkaduwa Beach. Our nice big room with a balcony crucially featured A/C, something we hadn’t expected to be quite so important to both our mood and the effective rationing of my underwear. There was a good selection of shaded beach loungers, good wifi and nice, cold Lions to drink every afternoon. It was so in demand, apparently, that on our last morning a burly Russian man walked into our room unannounced, then recovered from his surprise quickly enough to ask me about 10 times if we were checking out, responding to our replies of “yes, later”, “yes, at 11:30” by suggesting we, maybe, you know, consider checking out now instead. We still declined, although somewhat less adamantly and with just a touch of the uncertainty that occurs when you aren’t entirely sure if you just foolishly made an enemy of the Russian mob simply because you were too lazy to finish packing. Just to be safe, we are now travelling incognito as Lenny and Edith Nussbaum from Hoboken, gem appraisers, botanical garden enthusiasts and two-time club Canasta champions. I already had the black socks and flip flops so it seemed like a natural fit.
After getting used to the dry, cool comfort of air-conditioning at Jasmine Garden, there was a bit of an adjustment period in our more basic lodgings at Amal Guesthouse on Dalawella Beach. An intense fan and top-notch mosquito net helped the transition, though, and the location was impossible to beat. About 15 metres from the lapping waves, with a comfortable balcony overlooking all the comings and goings along this most popular stretch of sand. We literally spent hours up there, just reading, relaxing and keeping an eye on what everyone was up to (although we did lack the single-minded diligence of our Czech neighbour, who could spend hours staring intently into space as though he knew about an impending comet no one else was privy to).
Instead of Dickwella, we had originally been planning to stay in a “rustic” fan-cooled room back off the beach on Talalla but, during one of our many extended stints spent lying on our Dalawella bed sweating and groaning, we found ourselves online searching out rooms with A/C instead. And, having no particular preference for – or knowledge regarding – all the different Sri Lankan beaches, we just maxed out our Booking.com filters and got to looking for a deal. Enter: 360 Sands, on Dickwella Beach. No, we had never heard of Dickwella before that, and I’m obviously not proud to admit the name still makes me giggle a bit (remember what the chai walla’s job was in Slumdog Millionaire? hee hee), but a beach-front third-floor room with strong A/C, good wifi, a huge balcony and stunning views looking directly out over the beach and ocean for roughly $US35/night was simply too good to pass up. The three young guys running the place were super-friendly, if not always on top of things (every day Laynni had to explain why she wanted more hot water for her empty tea cup, and breakfast was bizarrely changeable and always a bit off), but the room was spectacular, the hammock made Laynni’s knees melt, their small book collection featured an awesomely classic Sri Lanka Lonely Planet from 1993 (the Euro was still just a twinkle in the eye of avid literalist Germain Pirlot, prices were approximately 1,000% lower, and shitty, congested cities were already being referred to as “bustling”), and there were a couple Israeli guys staying there who spent the bulk of their time practicing handstands on the beach, to no clear purpose. Highly recommended.
Transportation in Sri Lanka
We started with a tuk-tuk from the airport, courtesy of our
Negombo hotel. At 12:30 at night, having someone waiting was definitely a nice
touch. He even knew the way. Impressed with his diligence the night before and
his hospitality in the morning, we then engaged him to take us the 50 or so kilometres
to the Colombo train station. Possibly we were letting his friendliness cloud
our judgement because, a) 50 kilometres is a really long way in a tuk-tuk and,
b) he seemed surprisingly unaware of just how long it would take, readily
agreeing to our wild estimate rather than suggesting we leave earlier. The end
result, we missed our train by a full 20 minutes, although that margin could
easily have been smaller had he not opted to slow down to impart sightseeing
information several times along the way, let alone taken a full 5 minutes to
procure us each a fresh coconut to drink (p.s. a whole coconut is a lot of
liquid to drink before embarking on a 3-hour
train bus trip). His
generosity and helpfulness were clearly beyond reproach, he just needed a little
bit of work on prioritizing. He may also want to work on his tour guide
delivery, as he put strangely equivalent emphasis on the tragic sites from the Easter Sunday terrorist
bombings and every pelican we saw.
Fast forward to the bus from Colombo to Hikkaduwa. The first really packed bus ride we’d experienced in quite some time. The bright side was that because we got on right where the bus originated we were able to get seats (Laynni – window, me – aisle, our standard travel configuration). However, within a few kilometres the entire aisle had become packed solid with bodies big and small and it wasn’t long before I once again had some guy’s ass rubbing rhythmically against my shoulder. I have to say, I didn’t miss it as much as you’d expect. Sure, it’s a rare chance to make an immediate and memorable connection with a perfect stranger, yet hygiene concerns are always in the back of the mind and about 45 minutes in I started to suspect he was actually just using me to scratch a very hard to reach itch. Of course, one has to weigh these concerns against the fact it cost less than a dollar each for the 3-hour trip. Verdict: inconclusive.
As I mentioned previously, from Hikkaduwa to Dalawella we shared a private taxi with Looney.
Pros: Air-conditioning, direct service.
Cons: 99% techno music, 1% Bob Marley (which Looney then sang to). Re-opening of old wounds regarding the tragic loss of Andy Irons.
Tuk-tuks are cheap and plentiful to-, from- and around the beaches, usually around $2 per ride for up to 3 people. And, unlike third-world taxi drivers, most Sri Lankan tuk-tuk drivers are surprisingly fair and always friendly. Of course, even though they always assure you they know exactly the place you’ve mentioned, they basically never have even the faintest clue, but at least this makes them very open to taking direction.
One of the iconic Sri Lankan journeys is the train between Kandy and Ella, in the Highlands. Even though we would not be taking that trip for almost 2 weeks, apparently the reserved seats book up very quickly so we decided to take a shot at getting our tickets ahead of time at the Galle train station. We arrived to find a line of roughly 8 people patiently waiting their turn at the “Reserve Tickets” window. Not ideal, but obviously not the worst line we’ve seen, so we casually took our spot at the back and settled in for some good old-fashioned staring into space. However, after just a couple minutes I was suddenly jerked out of my mindless reverie by waving hands and eager faces, other potential reservees moving aside as the teller vigorously beckoned me forward. After a couple of standard “Who me?” gestures and accompanying cautious glances backward to make sure he wasn’t actually talking to someone else, someone who really was in urgent need of immediate attention (perhaps nursing a relatively minor gunshot wound that he would prefer to have looked at by his personal family physician back in his hometown) but, no, it appeared he meant me. Get on up here, you! Clearly whatever inane question you want to ask, or clueless plan you are hoping to set in motion, is far more important than any of the essential travel plans in these other people’s regular lives! With several masterful facial expressions and some universal shrugging I’m pretty sure I did a terrific job of conveying “I’m baffled! I didn’t say anything! This is all his idea! So sorry!” Of course, I also said “I’m sorry” because, you know, almost everyone here speaks some English. Anyway, I got to the front, he treated my far-from-urgent issues with excessive gravity and seriousness and in moments we were walking away with a pair of 2nd class reserved seats from Haputale to Kandy, in 2 weeks time. While surprised and impressed by the unselfishness of our fellow train travellers, I’d say this was a rather blatant example of white privilege in action. While we definitely appreciate this kind of generosity, it always makes us a bit uncomfortable, even if we made no attempt to garner special treatment. And we paid the normal price, which is practically nothing (roughly $US3.50 for a 5-hour 2nd class train ride), so it can’t be chalked up to the tiered pricing many other places use. A thorough understanding of the importance of tourism to the Sri Lankan economy? Innate hospitality? A difficult-to-shake inferiority complex left over from a relatively recent colonial past? I really don’t know, but I can tell you that nobody we bypassed in line seemed particularly put out by it and, although it still made us feel uneasy, the whole situation seemed strangely genial. Laynni has suggested I write an in-depth “think piece” about our thoughts and experiences regarding white privilege in different areas of the world but, coming to exactly the same conclusion as when I considered refusing to take part in class division and stubbornly holding my ground at the back of the line, it just seems easier not to say anything.
If you are planning a trip to Sri Lanka, hopefully this helps you narrow down your beach schedule. One piece of advice we have found to be pretty universal in most beach areas is that we prefer staying on a quieter beach very close to a more popular beach, like we did staying on Narigama within walking distance to Hikkaduwa. This lets us enjoy the peace and quiet while still having easy access to a wide range of restaurants, bars and flip flop shops. And the hotels are almost always cheaper.
At any given time, on any given day, there was a 90% chance one of my arms was covered in sand.
Ella, Haputale, Kandy, Sigiriya, some trees that aren’t palm trees
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