A Guide to Sri Lanka's South Coast
After 6 months in Sri Lanka, I said my goodbyes and reluctantly got into the car. Although the temperatures in Sri Lanka were getting up into the 90s and feeling unbearably hot, I rolled down the window to take in the warm jungle breeze one last time before heading to the airport. The driver immediately asked me to put the window back up so he could turn on the A/C to escape the midday heat.
We drove along in silence through verdant rice fields and dense tropical forest. While I wanted to stay awake and take in every last bit of scenery, I soon felt my eyelids getting heavy and figured it would be okay to take a quick snooze. Just as I began to doze off, the car came to a sudden stop. I awakened abruptly to an elephant standing in the middle of the road.
We were driving in the area between Yala National Park and Udawalawe National Park, known to be a major migration corridor for wild elephants. Of all the things I have seen and done in Sri Lanka, seeing wild elephants has been the highlight. Whether it was going on safari or just stumbling upon these gentle giants along the road, I find the enchantment of Ceylon to be captured in the unique natural landscapes and flourishing biodiversity of this tiny island.
We waited for a few minutes, watching the elephant and allowing him to cross the road at a safe distance from our vehicle. But when it became evident that the elephant wasn’t planning on going anywhere, the driver got impatient and slowly tried to drive around him. As we got nearer, the elephant started to walk toward our car, coming directly toward my window. Then, all of the sudden, he took his big ol’ trunk and slobbered all over my passenger side window…it was as if he had given me a special Sri Lankan send off in the form of big, juicy elephant kiss!! I was speechless as the driver continued to drive and I turned around to watch as the elephant walked back into the jungle. It was a magical last moment in a country for which I have grown very fond.
You’ll feel like an intrepid traveler whether you journey by train, tuk tuk, bus or taxi – and the small size of the island allows for relatively easy travel and the ability to see a lot in a short period of time. Sri Lanka has rugged coastlines, strewn with beautiful crescent sand beaches. A growing surf tourism and yoga scene can be found on the southwest coast that is lined with surf breaks. Tea plantations blanket the verdant hills and colorful local villages bring flavor to the countryside. Dense tropical rain forests and a variety of national parks with diverse wildlife abound. There is a fascinating mix of Hindu, Muslim and Buddhist religions – temples, mosques and stupas dot the landscape and wherever you go, there will be a variety of cultural or religious sites that the locals adamantly suggest you visit. Sri Lankans are proud of their country and are not bashful telling you about the wide diversity of sites the island has to offer. But as with most places, it is the kind, welcoming people that give this place life, and getting to know the locals and get a glimpse of life in Sri Lanka will surely heighten your experience here. However, sitting in the infinity pool at a beautiful resort, drinking a fresh coconut will also be part of your trip and it definitely wouldn’t be a bad way to enjoy your vacation in Sri Lanka.
The west coast and southern tip of Sri Lanka are the most developed areas, both in terms of the number of people living in the region, as well as a fairly well established tourism industry. Here are some suggestions for the best of the best when visiting Sri Lanka’s southwest coast.
Where to Stay
Galle Fort Hotel | No 28, Church Street, Galle Fort, Galle, Sri Lanka | Rooms start at $315/night
For a more urban feel, head to Galle, the capitol of the southern province. Experience Portuguese and Dutch influence in Galle Fort, a UNESCO World Heritage site, where the cobblestone streets are lined with boutique shops, unique cafes and restaurants. Galle Fort is a wonderful place to explore for the day and venture outside of the fort to experience the hustle and bustle of a local style Sri Lankan market. Galle is a great place to stay because it is centrally located and just a short distance from all the other places you will want to explore on the south coast.
TRI | Koggla Lake | Rooms start at $325/night
Although most people immediately think of staying right on the beach, this sustainable luxury hotel is not to be missed. Located on the shore of Lake Koggla, the hotel is designed to mimic the natural environment and exemplifies “eco-friendly” practices in all aspects of its design and operations, from the locally recycled building materials, to the locally grown produce. Splurge and arrive by sea plane. Or if you are on a budget, just go for the day and order lunch or a fresh poolside cocktail.
The Elephant Palace | Kabalana Beach | Fully staffed villa starts at $500/night
If you are set on hearing the sound of the ocean to lull you to sleep, there is a wide selection of beach side hotels and private villas lining the southwest coast. The Elephant Palace is just one of the many private villas that is an absolute perfect retreat. The villa is ideal for couples traveling together or a small family. Two rooms with king size beds, each with a private balcony and beautiful shower and tub, as well as an adjoining kids room, if needed. Take a dip in the pool or walk out of the back yard directly onto the beach. The “house boy” (as they call it in Sri Lanka) will take care of your every need and a private chef can also be arranged.
Need other ideas on where to stay? Check out the Tonic Lanka Collection for a well-crafted collection of some of Sri Lanka’s most beautiful boutique hotels.
What to Do
CANOE OR SUP TALDUWA | Henawathatha, Thalduwa 80650, Ahangama, 2 hours (includes guide & rental) $40
Duwa Villas (in addition to being a lovely place to stay) also rents Stand Up Paddle (SUP) boards and canoes to guests and non-guests. Contact them in advance to set up a 2-hour guided tour in jungle lined waterways around the island of Talduwa. It’s a tranquil way to experience the natural inland environment and see lots of wildlife along the way.
SURF AND RELAX AT KABALANA BEACH | Kabalana Beach is one of the most beautiful beaches on the south coast and also a great place to surf, for beginners and advanced surfers alike. There are places on the beach where you can rent boards and beginners can hone their skills on the beach break, while more skilled surfers can paddle out to “the rock.” If you are more up for relaxing, shaded loungers line the beach and a few stands sell fresh coconuts.
YOGA AT SRI | For the most beautiful shala and widest offering of yoga classes, venture inland to the lush jungle retreat of SRI. Check the website or social media for updated class offerings and weekend workshops. After class, take a dip in the saltwater pool and refresh yourself with a smoothie from their newly opened café.
SAFARI IN YALA NATIONAL PARK | Just a three hour drive from Galle, Yala National Park is a national treasure and doing a safari here is sure to be a highlight of your trip. There are many safari companies to choose from, but with the growing demands of tourism, it is important to choose the right guide that will not only be respectful to the animals and the fragile ecosystem, but also take you to the areas of the park that are not highly trafficked with other tourists competitively seeking a glimpse of the elusive leopard. I suggest splurging for a two day, one night high-end luxury camping safari with an established operator. We like Leopard Safaris.
WHALE WATCHING | Sri Lanka is one of the only places where you can see the world’s largest animal, the blue whale. Do a full day boat trip and you may also get lucky enough to see dolphins, orca whales, or even a whale shark! Due to the increase in tourism, it is important to choose a responsible tour operator that will keep a respectful distance from all marine life and will also educate visitors about Sri Lanka’s variety of marine life. Splash outand rent a catamaran for the day with Sail Lanka Charter. Prices start at $800/day for up to 10 people. Don’t have 10 people to rally together or are on a budget? We recommend Raja & the Whales.
Where to Eat
Closenburg Hotel | For the most delicious curry with the most beautiful view, go to the Closenberg Hotel, just ten minutes south of Galle. After a delicious meal, relax in the infinity pool with an expansive view of the surfers and fishermen in Magalle Bay. Veg curry lunch ~ $6.
Poonies | Try the salad thali for a colorful combination of fresh, local and healthy ingredients or the butternut squash fritters. Then, top it off with a piece of the pomegranate cheesecake or yummy carrot cake.
Wijaya | A great place for a sunset drink. Order a delicious pizza from their wood fire oven followed by more cocktails and a lively expat scene. Or spend the day here, with your swimsuit, snorkel, and a good book. The lagoon at Wijaya is a wonderful place to take a dip and laze the day away under swaying palm trees and being kissed by warm ocean breezes.
What to Read While You're There
“It may well be that each of Ceylon’s attractions is surpassed somewhere on Earth; Cambodia may have more impressive ruins, Tahiti livelier beaches, Bali more beautiful landscapes (though I doubt it), Thailand more charming people…But I find it hard to believe that there is any country which scores so highly in all departments.”
- Arthur C. Clarke 1970