By Greg Rodgers
After years of civil war and recovery from the devastating 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, Sri Lanka is catching on quickly as a top tourist destination. Whether you prefer to surf the waves or watch others do it while you hold a cold drink, Sri Lanka beaches have never been more inviting.
While the beaches in the southwest part of the island aren't the only on offer, they are the most popular -- especially during the drier winter months when monsoon rains affect the northeast side of Sri Lanka.
Most popular of the beaches in Sri Lanka, Unawatuna is the default beach destination for people on shorter vacations. Unawatuna can be walked from end to end in under 15 minutes, and the small bay keeps waves relatively small. While not the place for surfing, calm swimming and soft sand make Unawatuna a great family choice in Sri Lanka.
The real appeal of Unawatuna is the accessibility; a small access road parallels the beach and keeps people off of the busy main highway. The narrow road is lined with small shops, guesthouses, and eateries.
With calm water and the isolated 'Jungle Beach' just a short walk away for snorkeling, Unawatuna is an excellent choice for snorkeling and turtle-spotting trips.
Unawatuna is approximately 90 miles south of Colombo. Plan on spending more than three hours of hectic driving along the busy main highway if you take public transportation.
Far quieter than Unawatuna, Mirissa is the next major beach destination south of Unawatuna. Popular with surfers and budget travelers, Mirissa is a tiny village along a long strip of sand dotted with guesthouses and beach restaurants; the place to experience bigger waves but still enjoy the protection of shallow water and an on-duty lifeguard. The 'surfer's corner' on the right side of the beach is rocky, dangerous, and for advanced surfers only.
You'll generally find better deals on seafood in Mirissa, however, prices for accommodation on the beach are comparable to Unawatuna. Mirissa is a popular place to go whale watching when they are in season and visitors are treated to a free and educational turtle hatchery directly on the beach.
A rock island reachable by wading provides a unique photo opp in Mirissa.
Mirissa can be reached by jumping on one of the public buses bound for Matara along the main road.
Located north of Galle and Unawatuna, Hikkaduwa is a wide, sandy beach with enough chairs to accommodate a horde of visitors. Fortunately, most of those chairs stay vacant as a majority of tourists fly past on the main highway to Unawatuna or other destinations.
Hikkaduwa is strung out along the main highway, meaning that you'll need to walk the busy road whenever you leave the beach. The wide beach town has an overabundance of accommodation and seafood eateries, but competition doesn't do much to drive down prices.
With medium-sized waves and few rocks to avoid, Hikkaduwa is a popular place for beginners to take surfing lessons from one of the many schools on the beach.
Reach Hikkaduwa by grabbing any bus heading southbound to Galle or Matara. Alternatively, you can take the train from Colombo to the small station just north of Hikkaduwa.
Quiet, serene, and a favorite for surfing beginners, Weligama is a small alternative to the busier beaches located more north. Most visitors simply drive through, come to take surfing lessons, or stop to photograph some of Sri Lanka's famous stick fishermen or the famous Taprobane House perched on a tiny island.
You'll find several boutique hotels dotted throughout Weligama and many more surf camps along the main road. Fishing boats outnumber visitors during the low season; catch-of-the-day seafood is cheap and readily available.
Most interesting of the things to see in Weligama is Taprobane Island -- a tiny rock island with one immaculate villa built by Count de Maunay after he was exiled from France. Several famous authors, composers, and performers have owned the dream house since.
Get to Weligama in the south by grabbing any bus passing between Colombo or Galle to Matara.