The southwest coast of Sri Lanka has long been a favorite for beach bum travelers. Our January arrival was serendipitous, coinciding with the southwest’s December through April surf season. The entire coastline is scattered with white, sandy beaches and romantic coconut palms rounding out the scenery. We scored some great waves and explored nearby beach towns in between our surf sessions.
The southwest coast has no shortage of places to stay and the brunt of the tourism development is centered in Hikkaduwa and Galle town. Heading farther south, the development and crowds thin out, resort-like hotels are replaced by mom and pop guesthouses and surf/yoga retreats.
We couldn’t have been more pleased with choosing Midigama as a home base on the south coast. With five surf breaks in walking distance, we didn’t feel the need to rent motorbikes thereby keeping our costs down. Midigama’s beaches are among the most scenic we experienced anywhere (we know it’s a bold statement, but true) and the sunsets, well as with everywhere on the south coast, they are the stuff of legend.
In between the double day surf sessions we mostly hid from the intense sun. When the surf was flat we hopped aboard the local buses exploring nearby towns for a change of scenery and to add some diversity to our curry, rice, and roti diet.
Welligama is Midigama’s nearest neighbor and has the urban conveniences such as ATMs, a grocery store, wine shops, and a variety of restaurants. Welligama’s long curvy bay and gentle lapping surf make it popular for the beginner surf crowd. Surprising to us is the number of hostels and guesthouses catering to this demographic seeing that both Midigama and Mirissa are far more pleasing to the eye.
Welligama is a fishing town and the best thing going on here are the shacks on the beach that cook fresh seafood to order. Fish mongers line a part of the beach with freshly caught red snapper, lobster, shrimp, crab and calamari. Just pick what you want to eat and go relax with a Lion Beer at one of the beach tables while your meal is prepared. Hands down the best meals we ate in Sri Lanka!
Other than the fresh, tasty seafood we didn’t find Welligama very appealing for beach activities. The beach is trash strewn and the heavy aroma of fish ooze lingers in the air, after all this is a fishing town. Seriously though, come here for the seafood, it’s cheap, fresh, and delicious!
Mirissa is a low-key resort beach a couple of kilometers east from Welligama. The beach vibe here is tranquil and the scenery is still pristine even with its lineup of restaurants and laid back hotels. There are surfing breaks at both ends of the beach depending on the swell, though it was mostly flat during our visits.
We dropped in on Mirissa twice, the first time was for lunch during a violent thunderstorm that turned out to be very exciting and wet. We climbed out to the little island point off the beach and watched some serious lightning that got a little too close for comfort.
The second visit was for the acclaimed massage services atop the Paradise Beach Club. The massages were just OK, (we are massage snobs), but the sunset view from the hotel’s rooftop was pretty sweet.
Behind the beach is the village, full of resorts/guesthouses, shops, and restaurants. Mirissa is the place for couples and families wanting to get away for some beach time but still have variety and nightlife options lacking in much of the deep south coast.
Matara was merely a layover on our bus journey to Tangalle. Matara doesn’t seem like a tourist destination, more of a local town. We walked over the footbridge to Pigeon Island to check out the Paravi Dupatha Buddhist temple. The sweeping ocean views over wind-blown coconut palms were pretty but nothing spectacular. East of Matara, there are surfing beaches and the southernmost point of Sri Lanka, Devinuwara.
The journey between Matara and Tangalle passes some stunning coastline. If we weren’t on the public bus and we would have stopped to explore all the nooks and crannies.
Tangalle was a bit of a surprise, the town itself was a hive of activity but as we walked down to Medaketiya Beac,h it was as if we had entered a ghost town as we found the long sandy beach virtually empty. Finally, we passed by a restaurant with people actually eating so we sat down to enjoy a windy day in paradise.
Perhaps it was the blustery wind or the late afternoon heat, but we expected to find some semblance of activity in Tangalle, instead we found ourselves in just another fishing town. Don’t get us wrong, we love crusty fishing villages. We watched the local fisherman pull in a net full of tiny fish, the extent of the day’s excitement.
Tangalle didn’t ‘wow’ us, but we would definitely come back to check out the surrounding area. In fact all over Sri Lanka’s southern coast are tiny villages, hidden getaways waiting to be ‘discovered’. We kept wondering aloud where all the tourists were because Sri Lanka’s southwest coast is a beachlover’s dream.
Nearby the resorty Unawatuna Beach the highway rambles along the coconut strewn highway where the stellar ocean views are hidden by palm fronds and guesthouses. Unawatuna lies 5km east of Galle town and leans towards the speedo wearing foreigners sipping cocktails on the beach crowd. We weren’t all that keen to check out another resort beach full of sprawling concrete eyesores, but we did hop off the bus at nearby Mihiripenna Beach for the coolest rope swing in Sri Lanka (or perhaps, dare we say, coolest rope swing anywhere)!
Yes it’s a bold statement, but the pictures don’t lie. This dangling forty-foot rope is Sri Lanka’s Mountain Dew commercial and the place to boost your Instagram presence. The beach is all but empty and the soft sand and pink sunset views are hard to beat.
If you come to Sri Lanka you should probably get to Galle and see what all the hype is about. Galle Fort is an old walled town built by the Portuguese in the late 1500’s and later added to by the Dutch and English. The colonial architectural remnants make Galle Fort a popular stopover for travelers delving deep into the southwest coast.
Yes it is a beautiful and quaint old town. Yes the lighthouse is extremely scenic, shored up by coconut palms, white sand, and an aquamarine tropical ocean as a backdrop. From a budget travelers’ standpoint, old town Galle is a hatchet job, full of swanky hotels, decadent spas and expensive eateries that really didn’t appeal to us as Sri Lanka.
Yet to every yin there is a yang (or vice versa), and step outside the massive walls to the real city of Galle, the sidewalks are packed with fish markets, produce vendors and Sri Lankan eateries for a fraction of the price you’d pay inside Galle Fort.
Inside the old fort is clean, orderly, and postcard perfect. Western food and fare can be found at western prices. Outside of the fort, Galle city is chaos. A cacophony of blaring horns, sidewalks spilling over with merchandise, choked with people, lines of motorbikes, piles of garbage, this is the genuine Sri Lankan city.
Let’s just say we didn’t fall for the romance of the colonial old town touted as the ‘must see’ in southern Sri Lanka. Indeed Galle Fort is charming, but the kind of charm that comes with a price. On the other hand, Galle city (outside the fort) was a little more our speed (and price range), gritty, grungy, reflective of the Sri Lankan style we were searching for.
Hikkaduwa is marketed as a premier Sri Lankan beach getaway and it came highly recommended by fellow travelers as a ‘must see’ and a ‘must miss’. With such conflicting information we had to check out what all the fuss was about.
Even now, writing this it is hard to come up with a reason to justify a stopover in Hikkaduwa.
On the plus side, it is closer to the airport. The strip is full of restaurants, bars, and a wide range of accommodations including the ritzy Hikka Tranz Cinnamon Resort. Snorkel and dive trips are popular and there are a couple of surfing spots to ride some waves.
Whatever luster Hikkaduwa once held, we just weren’t feeling it. The beach was encroached by development and after experiencing the isolated beaches further south, the over-commercialized Hikkaduwa didn’t do it for us.
We tried, we really did, sorry Hikkaduwa.
The best way to get around the island is on Sri Lankan Railways. We only purchased 2nd and 3rd class fares and often had to stand in the aisles, but hey, fares were less than $2 USD for an eight hour journey. The trains are dated, so don’t expect the typical European standard. For what they lack in comfort and style, they make up for it in the price. You can board with large backpacks without any problems (unlike most local buses).
For shorter distances, we took the ridiculously dirt-cheap local buses. Drivers are maniacs, but usually stop for western passengers to board or hop off, versus keeping the wheels rolling for locals. There’s no room for large luggage (or surfboards) on the buses and they will always cram more people in, regardless of how packed it is. Expect to stand and be prepared to pounce on a seat when one becomes available.
Tuk tuks are the taxis and you should always negotiate the fare, better yet ask a local what the fare should be then start haggling with the driver. From Midigama to Welligama the price was 200-250 rupees (the same distance by bus was 20 rupees per person).
Mopeds/motorbikes were available to rent for 800-1000 rupees ($5-6.50 USD). If you are comfortable with the huge buses zooming by, this is probably the best option for getting around. Make sure you rent a bike with surf racks.