Sri Lanka. A Land Like No Other. 12) The Beaches

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Flag of Sri Lanka  ,
Monday, February 13, 2006

Sri Lanka is intimately tied to the sea.  As a tropical island, only a few degrees north latitude of the equator, there are dozens of lovely warm beaches by which you can relax.  Some like to swim, some like to scuba dive or snorkel, some enjoy sitting in a palm grove or lying on a towel and listening to the sound of the surf hitting a coral reef or washing up on white sand.   I love the sea but am not a "beach bum".  I'd rather explore as much of a destination as possible than be sedentary.   But for those who want a leisurely vacation on a tropical beach, Sri Lanka is an excellent destination.  It's home to a large number of beach hotels and many fancy resorts which are mostly visited by Europeans -- the French, Italians, Germans and English especially, but with increasing numbers of Russians, American and Asian (eg. Japanese) tourists recently. 

As I'd noted in an earlier posting, the north and east of the island were pretty much off limits during my travels because these were areas of conflict between the government forces and the Tamil rebellion.  As such, my beach travel experiences were centered on the western and southern coasts of Sri Lanka. 

I spent the greatest amount of my beach time in Hikkaduwa as Arthur C. Clarke had a vacation villa on the beach there (named Scuba Villa) from which he ran his diving business in collaboration with his business partner and longtime friend, Hector Ekanayake.  Arthur's beach home was an attractive though not extravagant 100 year old residence about a 2 hour drive from his home in Colombo, which I had the privilege of visiting three times.  It was always amazing to see the relaxation and slower pace of rural live wash over Arthur the further we got from the city.  He loved the greenery of the island and he deeply loved the sea; it was in large part this love that lead to his moving to Sri Lanka in the 1950s.  Some of my best memories of my time in Sri Lanka are of our drives to Hikkaduwa, when Arthur would entertain me with endless stories about what had happened in this town, the time he went diving on that beach, the place where he and Gore Vidal were almost killed by a large run-away lorry tire rolling down hill towards their car ("It would have been a great loss to literature").  Spending time with Arthur at his beach villa was a unique treat.  Besides hours of conversation (and endless opportunity to pick his brain about his writing and plot points) -- mostly while sitting on his shaded back porch, enjoying the cool breeze -- we would watch the sunset from the back of his property, watch tourists enjoy a swim or beach walk, and in the morning felt sympathy for fisherman pulling in their heavy nets.  It was a great honor to be a guest in Arthur's beach home.  During one visit to Hikkaduwa I stayed at the Coral Gardens Hotel -- a beautiful property.  Hikkaduwa has many nice small hotels and restaurants and would be a good place for someone to spend some beach vacation time.

Historic Galle is located at the SW corner of the island and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  For centuries it was the main port on the island and an important stop in the trade routes by Greeks, Arabs and Chinese traders.  Cinnamon was one of the first exports from the island.  The historic fort, built of stone and coral by the Dutch occupiers is worth wandering around on, enjoying the lighthouse and historic harbor.  Galle was badly damaged by the tsunami in 2004 when several devastating tidal waves sweeping over the city, including its busy bus terminal. 

My friend, Wayne Houser, introduced me to the beautiful beach at Unawatuna.  Discovery Channel has rated it as one of the best beaches in the world.  It's a broad crescent shaped beach with lovely sand.  The beach is protected by a double reef making it a great place to swim.  Also, the bay is rich in fish and sea life, ideal for snorkeling and diving.  There are many small hotels in this sleepy town and some great mom and pop food joints that serve seafood just caught off the reef (it doesn't get any fresher!).  Like Hikkaduwa, it would be a wonderful place to spend a beach vacation.  This beach, too, was devastated by the tsunami, but I understand it has been mostly rebuilt.

Another interesting stop is Tangalla Bay, which has a beautiful resort designed by famous Sri Lankan architect Geoffery Bawa.  I've never seen anything quite like it.  The resort is built to look like a ship heading out into the bay.  It was a great place to stop for a drink or meal and though I never stayed there think it would have been an interesting destination.

As an aside, the Dutch introduced lace making to the southwestern region of Sri Lanka centuries ago, and in a few small beach towns that tradition has been maintained unchanged with everything still made by hand (and even here it is a dying art).  I twice stopped at a lace shop in Weligama and bought some lace.  The first time was before the 2004 tsunami, and the second time after the tidal waves swept through the area, saddened to find that half the women who knit the lace had disappeared (presumably the tidal waves swept them woman into an early watery grave).  Nothing made the devastation of the wave more personal to me than this visit. 

It would be possible to write a blog post on each of a dozen beach stops but I don't see the need for that.  Suffice it to say that if you want a great beach vacation, this would be a good place to come, with dozens of fine choices.  While Sri Lanka's beaches are lovely, they are much like many beautiful beaches on tropical countries anywhere else in the world and do not offer the unique archeology and mountain experiences of the interior of the island that I've discussed previously.

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