One of the benefits of being in Colombo is the ease of travelling on the weekends. There are endless temples, tea plantations and cultural sights to see, but for a bit of RnR, the best destinations during the South-West dry season are undoubtedly the beaches on the South Coast. Here are a few of my favourites.
Galle Beach –
Not really a beach so much as a strip of sand along which to enjoy the views and where locals frolic among the lightly breaking surf. Children play, teenagers dance and sing and the adults look on fondly. Galle Fort itself is well worth an explore for a few hours: walking along the rampart, either in the blistering heat or the bracing Southerly wind, watching the street hustlers attempt to tempt you with a snake dance or a monkey photo opportunity, losing yourself amongst the endless narrow streets, some modernised some crumbling, and exploring the cafes, antique shops, art galleries and hidden courtyards.
Galle Lighthouse and the colourful local buses
Unawatuna Beach –
A 20-minute hair-raising ride in a local bus or a 15-minute trishaw ride from Galle will take you past the fisherman selling their wares by the roadside and drying their fish in the sunshine, and drop you off at Unawatuna beach. A glorious stretch of golden white sand, this beach is sadly suffering from the inevitable overdevelopment that comes with tourist fame, although still retains little pockets of its original charm. Secret Beach is secluded and quieter and the coastal walk takes you past the beautiful Japanese Peace Pagoda, although the scramble down the final cliff is not for the feint hearted. Back on the main beach, easy access to wifi, pancakes and happy hour drinks makes this is a fun escape for a weekend party.
Secret beach, a half an hour walk from Unawatuna.
Hop back on the bus, easier said than done as they are unlikely to come to a full standstill and head on an hour further until you reach Welligama. Well known for its surfing this is a nice beach and a busy little town, however, the real gem lies a little further on the other edge of the bay. Mirissa is also well known on the tourist trail but thankfully still enjoying its heydey. The main beach is a wide, curving bay of white sand, dotted with palm trees and beach bars for watching the surfers and the sand. There is a party every night of the week and as they don’t start until 11pm+ there is plenty of time beforehand to sit and watch the sunset over the palms and have a leisurely seafood dinner on the beach. Morning yoga sessions up on the hill are a perfect way to refresh before another day in the sunshine.
For those looking for a little more peace and quiet the ideal place to be is down at the east end of the beach. Keep walking past the natural island and the man-made break until you reach turtle bay. This gem of a bay has golden sand and is fringed with palm and mangrove trees. At low tide the water is crystal clear for snorkelling, not only is there a shoal of fish in the tens of thousands that will surround you like you’re in a National Geographic show, but the stars of the show are the turtles the bay is named after. Watch from the shallows for the brown dots to appear near the surface as they come up for air then, it’s a Baywatch style sprint to get to the area and dive down to swim alongside these majestic creatures.
Turtle Bay in Mirissa. The dark patch is a shoal of fish.
Onwards and eastwards. After another half an hour you will reach the bustling town of Matara. Here, the bus station is located only a metre from the beach and the pounding waves, if you get the express bus down south this is an incredible introduction to the coastal way of life. A couple of minutes walk from the station is the Matara Paravi Duwa (Golden Island) Temple, reached by a rickety bridge over the water. Pick up a lotus flower on the way over and pay your respects to the Buddha statue at the entrance. The view from the top of the temple is stunning, but it is the peaceful atmosphere and the scent of salt spray mixing with incense that deserve to live on in visitor’s memories.
Matara Paravi Duwa Temple, seen from the bus stop back to Colombo.
The town of Tangalle lies another hour East. Most tourists are heading on to reach Yala or Udawalawe but it is well worth a pause here for a few hours to relieve aching legs and to calm racing pulses from the local bus ride. On Friendship Beach is a wonderful converted VW camper van that offers simple drinks and the most beautiful seafood, caught that day and cooked by the same fisherman. If there is one thing I’ve learnt since being in Sri Lanka, it’s to trust that a fisherman knows exactly how to cook his catch. At the start of the end of the South season, you may be the only people on this beach for hours on end. Bliss.
Sri Lankan south coast sunset.
Travel Trips –
Getting to the south coast from Colombo is as easy or complicated as you want it to be. There are express trains from Colombo Fort to Galle or Matara and from a window seat the views are incredible, but be warned, you may have to stand for hours if busy. Alternatively, for a reliable ride, take an express bus from Maharagama to the same destinations, the cost is a reasonable R490 one way. Once down south, trishaws are in plentiful supply, prices are negotiable but more expensive than in Colombo. Or jump on a local bus, the conductors are friendly and will tell you when to get off for your stop.
For the return journey, the now relaxed and suntanned teacher has two options. Either plan your timing and take the afternoon train back from Matara via Galle, or hop back on an express bus. These depart approximately every 30 minutes from Matara and they run until late in the evening. The journey time is approximately 2 hours, so it’s entirely possible to be on Tangalle beach for sunset and be back at home before midnight.
The train ride down south travels past lush forests and offers panoramic sea views.
A yoga busker at Maharagama bus station.
The South Coast is full of beautiful spots and surprises. Those listed here are just a taste of the gems it has to offer. With 6 months in Sri Lanka at SVS, you will have plenty of time to explore these and far more.