The tumultuous blue waves crashed onto shore with a ferocious energy, the foamy water spreading across the sand, reaching my toes all the way up the beach. The sun was hot and beating down hard on the dozens of tanned Lankan bodies sprawled across Narigama Beach in Hikkaduwa. The sand was warm, silky, and littered with pristine white shells. The salty scent was familiar and ever-present. The sea spray filled with the sultry ocean breeze and clung to my skin. I was fast asleep in my cozy bed that lazy Sunday morning when I got a call from my cousin saying, “Wake up! We’re going to Hikka. Picking you up in ten minutes!” Half an hour later, we were on our way to the sleepy, hippie beach town of Hikkaduwa, 120 kilometers down south from Colombo. It was December, which meant the beaches on the west coast of the island were at their prime. The colossal surfer waves that mount Narigama Beach gave us a thrill. We swam further into the ocean, our toes no longer touching the sand, steadying ourselves in the strong current, treading water as another breaker came our way. We all went under but came out grinning and laughing with excitement. We miss this feeling, of exhilaration and serenity, when we are away from the island.
Two thousand five hundred years ago, my island, poised just above the Equator in the shape of a teardrop in the Indian Ocean, was given the name Lanka, Sanskrit for the ‘resplendent land.’ The early Arab traders called it Serendib, giving rise to the English word “serendipity.” I was born and nurtured on this resplendent isle; I adore the laidback culture, the colloquial Sri Lankan slang, the sometimes maddening concept of seeing familiar faces at every turn, and the positive vibes that my island home emanates. Sri Lanka is an undiscovered jewel and here are some reasons why this tropical island truly is serendipitous and resplendent.
Soon-to-be Cosmopolitan Colombo
I grew up in the commercial capital, Colombo, which is on the west coast of Sri Lanka. This colorful city, with its laid-back island ambience, palm trees, decaying colonial buildings, and smattering of modern office blocks, gave me a cherished and treasured home. Colombo has progressed immensely since the 25-year civil war ended in 2009; Checkpoints have slowly disappeared from the roads, trendy lounge bars have opened up attracting the urbane youth, and the Colombo vibe is now one of cautious optimism combined with an increasingly cosmopolitan look. The Dutch Hospital, with its wide open spaces, bars, restaurants and tea lounges, is riddled with Colombo’s youth at any time of day. Thursday nights are reserved for QBaa, home to the city’s best live music, and familiar faces that sing with the band on occasion. Rooftop bars, such as Sugar 41, OZO, and Sky Lounge, serve tasty, yet expensive, cocktails and are perfect for a night out with close friends. A more relaxed vibe can be found at The Shore by O, a bar on the Mount Lavinia Beach, a few kilometers outside Colombo.
Dive into the rough waters on the southwestern coast
The southwestern coast of the island encapsulates Sri Lanka at its prime. Stretched out along an arc of sun-baked coastline running through towns, such as Galle, Unawatuna, Hikkaduwa (the aforementioned beach town), and Mirissa, the area remains essentially rural. When exiting the highway, you can immediately see the white sand and the turquoise blue water, the colorful fishing boats and the numerous palm trees with orange coconuts balanced on the branches. Galle’s most precious feature is the collection of quaint gem shops, cafes, and guesthouses, which sits within the weather-beaten walls of the Dutch-built fort. Small, cobble-stoned roads run through the Fort, where you can appreciate the beauty of the Dutch architecture that remains intact even after many years. While there are countless charming cafés and inns, the best place to relax after spending the day at the beach is the Crêpe-ology Restaurant in the Fort. There, you can enjoy delicious sweet and savory crêpes and stretch out on the couch with a cappuccino, and share a shisha with friends. Unawatuna and Hikkaduwa, or Una and Hikka as us Lankans fondly call them, are other pristine beach towns to visit as well. Beach huts by the comical names of Happy Banana, Lucky Tuna, and Drunken Monkey to name a few, can be found in these towns, where you can devour the traditional Sri Lankan rice and curry meal.
Walk around little England and sip some tea in the hill country
The cool altitudes of the hill country embellish the southern heartlands. The mountain slopes are covered in carefully manicured tea plantations while the mist and clouds blanket the hills, adding a layer of mystery. This is the coldest it gets in Sri Lanka, with temperatures fluctuating around 16 degrees Celsius (about 60 degrees Fahrenheit) and you will undoubtedly see people with thick jackets, mittens, and monkey caps. The strong influence of British colonialism remains intact in these regions of the island. The tea industry originates in Nuwara Eliya and continues to shape the economy and scenery. The old-style British houses with vast verandahs overlooking the mountain terrain are perfect for drinking premier Ceylon tea and enjoying the cool breeze. The 18-hole golf course built by the colonialists more than a hundred years ago is still well maintained and frequented by avid golf players. The highlands of Horton Plains is exquisite for nature lovers and the precipice that falls vertically for over 1050 meters in the park, called World’s End, is not to be missed when visiting this charming, old England town.
Discover the Sri Lankan leopard camouflaged in the trees in Yala
The monsoons and the island’s wide range of altitudes have given Sri Lanka a distinction in climate and biodiversity that complements its natural heritage. The wildlife found on the stretch of coastline on the southeast at Yala National Park is incredible. The Sri Lankan leopard, a sub-species endemic to the country, is the top attraction. The combination of freshwater, marine, scrub, and woodland area allows the avid nature explorer to witness a wide variety of animals.
Relish the water by snorkeling and surfing on the east coast
The northeast coast is a mirror image of the west. Monsoon season in the west means the sun is shining brightly in the east. The east’s tragic wartime pasts have left its stunning coastal scenery untouched by commercialism. Trincomalee, or Trinco, is an ethnic melting pot. Its population is split almost equally between Sinhalese, Tamils, and Muslims: a mixture that proved turbulent during the Civil War. Nilaveli Beach is unspoilt and low-key, filled with Lankans since the rest of the world is unaware of this beautiful spot. Pigeon Island is found 1 kilometer off the coast of Nilaveli. This island is fringed by some of the best remaining coral reefs in Sri Lanka. While snorkeling in these waters, in addition to colorful fish and exquisite coral, you might also find a few baby sharks swimming around.
The island is also home to a must-see religious site: the modern Koneswaram temple atop the commanding cliff top of Swami Rock is one of the holiest Shiva shrines on the island. The temple is beautifully constructed and from this serene vantage point, you can see the fishing boats and the larger vessels that come to dock in the waters of the Inner Harbor. Passekudah Bay and Arugam Bay dots the eastern coastline as well. A-bay was first put on the map by visiting European surfers who came to ride some of the best waves in Asia. Ironically, you will not see any locals tackling the breakers since not a single Lankan knows how to surf! The bay has a very laid-back, slightly off-the-wall charm and almost no major resort developments, as the tightly knit local community has fought hard to resist this.
Learn the culture and history in the central heartlands
Inland, the tangled green hills of the central highlands is home to the “The King’s Land”, more popularly known as the Cultural Triangle. At the spiritual heart of the Triangle lies the magnificent ruined city of Anuradhapura which served the crucible of early Sinhalese civilization. Vast monasteries, grand palaces, and a trio of monumental dagobas can be found here. The rock citadel of Sigiriya is one of Sri Lanka’s most spectacular natural landmarks. Climbing the towering Lion Rock which rises 200 meters above the surrounding plains, is exhausting but exhilarating when you take in the incredible views at the top.
Race with dolphins while kite-surfing in the Kalpitiya Peninsula
The remote Kalpitiya Peninsula, which is hidden away on the northeast coast, is an undiscovered gem. The biggest draw is the extensive pods of spinner dolphins seen offshore. As your boat wades through the waves while the sun is rising, you are bound to witness hundreds of dolphins racing, capering, and frolicking alongside –and periodically, jumping straight out of the water in unbelievable leaps and twirls. One side of the peninsula is the Indian Ocean and on the other side is the Kalpitiya Lagoon, both perfect for world-class kite surfing. Furthermore, a throng of idyllic eco-lodges and cabins with thatched roofs reside on the coastal fronts.