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Southern Sri Lanka is relatively untouched by tourism. A single road stretches along the coastline from Galle in the west to Tissamaharama in the east. The villages dotted sporadically in between bustle with life; stilt fisherman spread out their sardines on tarpaulin for locals to buy, coconut farmers shuffle their way up palm trees using just their hands and children dance and play in fields interspersed with rice paddies.
In comparison to the complex weather system of Sri Lanka as a whole, the southern region sees the most year-round sun. It’s both the weather and the proximity to many of Sri Lanka’s landmarks that have contributed to the increase in luxury hotels to be found along the south coast. For some, this rise in hospitality might be off-putting – but for now, the hotels have an inimitable charm, immersing guests in the Sri Lankan lifestyle.
Find your base
Picking a base, or numerous bases, is important. There are hundreds of different adventures to be had on the south coast, but the five most prominent are: Galle, Sinharaja Forest Reserve, Mirissa, Udawalawe National Park and Yala Nature Reserve. To see the best of the south, a two-stop trip is your best bet.
The Fortress Resort & Spa in Koggola is a boutique oasis just 30 minutes away both Galle and Mirissa. At certain times, the stilt fisherman will fish sardines in the ocean right in front of the hotel. There are many fake stilt fisherman, who have realised they can make more money from posing for photographs than working, but the ones in front of the hotel are there, rods in hand, from 7AM to 7PM and sell their fish on the road adjacent to the hotel. Locals and tourists travel from far and wide to The Fortress’s seafood night, which is recommended whether you’re staying at the hotel or not.
A second stop around Tangalle will allow you to enjoy the Indian Ocean on low-key days, but also puts you in close proximity to Sinharaja Forest Reserve, Udawalawe National Park and Yala Nature Reserve. The multi-award winning Anantara Peace Haven Tangalle Resort in Tangalle offers luxury without scrimping on the genuinely Sri Lankan experiences.
The Spice Spoons culinary experience, ran by the Anantara Peace Haven Tangalle Resort is another must. The knowledgeable local chefs take you to Tangalle harbour to pick the fish before heading to the nearby rice paddies and vegetable market in a tuk-tuk. The experience is punctuated with local culinary information from the chef. After the food has been cooked and eaten, you’re given all of the recipes to continue your Sri Lankan foray at home.
Exploring the south
The starting point for many adventures in southern Sri Lanka is Galle. Situated on the southwest tip, the home to Galle fort is also known as the capital of the southern province. Most people visit this area to see the combination of Portuguese and Dutch architecture; the Galle Fort is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Visit first thing in the morning to avoid the crowds. Of all the touristy areas of southern Sri Lanka, this does get the busiest. Just along from Galle you’ll find Cinnamon Island on the Maduganga River. It’s worth a trip to see how the spice is made and relax as your boat winds through the mangroves.
Mirissa is known for dolphin and whale watching. In the warmth of the Indian Ocean it’s possible to see a variety of different whales, including the impressive killer whale. Travel to Mirissa from November to April to be in with the best chance of spotting them; the ocean is a lot calmer and warmer, creating an impeccable habitat for sea life. Most reputable companies don’t operate trips between May and October.
The ocean is unpredictable from May to October. There’s a strong undercurrent which renders most of the coast off-limits during this season. The big waves, however, attract surfers from around the world. If surfing is part of your Sri Lanka bucket list, use a reputable surf instructor to guide you to the safest surf areas. The Anantara Peace Haven Resort is home to Tropicsurf, which provides all of the information you’ll need for safe surfing.
Sri Lanka has a vast array of wildlife, many of which you can find in the Yala Nature Reserve, Udawalawe National Park or Sinharaja Forest Reserve. Yala Nature Reserve is Sri Lanka’s most famous wildlife park, but its worth noting that it closes for around six weeks in September and October to allow the leopards time to breed. The most popular area to visit in Yala Nature Reserve is Sithulpauwwa, known as “the hill of the quiet mind”. Trekkers can expect to see elephants, sloth bears, spotted deer, jackals, crocodiles and, if you’re lucky, the illusive leopard.
Udawalawe National Park is known for its large concentration of elephants. It lies on the boundary for Sri Lanka’s wet and dry zones, making it the ideal habitat for a vast array of mammals and birds. Safaris among the open grassland are best enjoyed at sunrise to avoid the crowds.
Sinharaja Forest Reserve is situated in the heart of Sri Lanka’s wet zone. Explorers can only get about this UNESCO World Heritage Site by foot and with a guide in tow. Don’t be put off by spending your time with a guide, though; the eagle-eyed rainforest aficionados will spot creatures from a mile off. Look out for green-pit vipers and tarantulas.
It’s possible to visit central Sri Lanka from your base in the southern province, but it’s worth spending a night or two around Ella or Kandy to experience this part of the country to the fullest. The tea plantations also shouldn’t be missed; the largest can be found in the central regions, but Handunugoda Tea Estate near Koggola is a good option for those travelling exclusively in the south.
The infrastructure of Sri Lanka is not ready for mass tourism. Journeys which should take under an hour can take up to four, but when you find yourself meandering up the hills around Deniyaya at sunrise, you’ll soon forget minor inconveniences.
Taxis, buses and tuk-tuks are easy to come by along the southern coast. The driving style in Sri Lanka is erratic at best, so leaving it to the locals – as opposed to hiring a car – is recommended.
Away from the main expressways, the winding roads of southern Sri Lanka offer some of the most authentic experiences. Around 7AM, the school children, head-to-toe in white uniforms completed by overflowing backpacks wander towards bus stops. Locals play carrom on the tables at the front of their houses and farmers and fisherman sweat in the midday heat. Seeing little snippets of the lives of the locals outweighs travelling at 70mph on a highway any day.
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