Known for its mellow lifestyle, rich history and wildlife, Sri Lanka is one of Asia’s most exciting destinations. From backpackers to luxury voyage enthusiasts – this South Asian island demands time to truly appreciate its many faucets.
Today, we will be sharing our trip along the southern coast of Sri Lanka, from Colombo to Yala National Park. The latter is the island’s second biggest wildlife reserve with one of the highest leopards densities in the world.
The most common way to arrive to the country is through its Bandaranaike International Airport in the capital – Colombo. With its busy streets, Colombo is surely full of life. Considering its recent civil war history, the city shows that peace is possible and life is beautiful.
Our route will take us by train to Delawella beach to avoid the tourist crowds. This beach is an alternative to the neighbouring, busier, Unawatuna. We will be staying there for a few days to explore the local neighbourhoods and the old Dutch fort city – Galle. Next, we will take a tuktuk to Mirissa – the famous beach for surfers with a more upbeat vibe. And finally, we will move further east by car to Tissamaharama to visit the Yala National Park. We will then head back to Colombo with a stop over in Mirissa.
Transport in Sri Lanka is relatively easy and straight forward; you can either get on a bus, catch a tuktuk, rent a cab or take a train. And the latter runs along some of Sri Lanka’s most scenic tracks. While one track runs along the shoreline in the south; the other stretches through phenomenal tea plantations and mountains in the central part of the island. The southern rail track is what we chose to take; it was devastated by the 2004 tsunami, but was repaired and now continues to serve as the main transportation link between Colombo, Galle, and further east to Matara.
“Transport in Sri Lanka is relatively easy and straight forward; you can either get on a bus, catch a tuktuk, rent a cab or take a train”
Our departure point is from the Fort Central Railway station – a Victorian-era structure that was modelled on Victoria station in Manchester. It opened for service in 1908, at the time of the British rule of the island. We bought the tickets at the counter without any confusion or issues. Some other travellers recommend taking the train from Maradana to have a higher chance of getting a seat. However, we did not mind standing and chose to spend a little less time on the road instead.
The train is Indian-built, so it is very similar to what you’d get there; however, unlike in India, there are less passengers on it. The ride takes about three hours, with several stops on the way; at some stations local salesmen and saleswomen hop on to offer some snacks and drinks to the travellers. Try to stay on the right side of the cabin as this will let you see the amazing views of the shoreline and the ocean.
To avoid the overcrowded feeling of Unawatuna, we decided to stay nearby at the Delawella beach that is much calmer. It hosts a few boutique hotels and family-run guest houses. Here, the giant sea turtles swim around the lagoons close to the shore. It is a truly wonderful sight to start a day with. Delawella is only a short tuktuk ride from Galle- an old Dutch-influenced city with an old fort.
Our boutique hotel was a family-run beach villa, Janaka Beach House, that stands a few meters away from the ocean. There is a wonderful garden with a patio that overlooks the beach and is just a joy to have a nice cup of coffee at. The rooms face the ocean and we highly recommend a room on one of the upper floors to get the best views. As a result, due to its proximity to the ocean the sound of waves is just breathtaking and is truly relaxing. Next door to the villa is a gorgeous restaurant with a beach terrace that offers tasty international and local dishes and a lovely atmosphere. It was the only busy place on the beach with other tourists coming from the neighbouring hotels.
The Dutch Fort in Galle feels like a little bit of Europe in Sri Lanka; it was first built by the Portuguese in 1588, and then fortified by the Dutch a century later. The fort is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is Galle’s most popular tourist attraction that somehow manages not to have large crowds. It is best to explore the Fort by foot through the narrow roads and alleys to the sea walls. Following the Galle Lighthouse visit, we highly recommend to have a refreshing drink at one of the restaurants in the area. Especially those at the Old Dutch Hospital – a XVII-century building that has been recently restored and re-purposed for leisure. The upper floor terraces offer fantastic views on the bay and Galle Harbour.
Should you fancy a more private and luxurious experience for an afternoon drink, there is a hidden gem that we discovered at the Closenberg Hotel – Luna Terrace. The terrace offers a fabulous infinity pool experience in the area with unbeatable views of the ocean. Luna Terrace often hosts upbeat parties and can get loud; however, if you come in the early afternoon, the terrace is rather empty. We thought it was the best way to experience it.
Now let’s talk about Mirissa – a bit further east from Galle lies easily the most active and, what we thought, the friendliest beach on the southern coast of Sri Lanka. There is always something to do on that beach; be it surfing, catching a boat to go out and watch whales, party into the night or simply lounge and relax all day. In addition, the restaurants are plenty and the prices are lower than those in Galle and its surrounding areas.
There are two properties in particular that caught our eye: Paradise Beach Club and Palace Mirissa; the latter is where we chose to stay. Palace Mirissa is located on the hillside of the beach and offers unobstructed views of the Indian Ocean; the property offers individual private cabana rooms with little terraces that look out onto the ocean or the lush gardens. The gardens deserve a special mention thanks to the many peacocks strolling around all day long.
Palace Mirissa and Paradise Beach Club are sister properties, meaning the guests are welcome to use the facilities of both hotels. For us this set up was ideal; Palace Mirissa was perfect for relaxing in a peaceful environment, away from all the parties at night. While the Paradise Beach Club has a fabulous, much larger pool with unbeatable ocean views. Consequently, we mostly ate at the Paradise Beach Club as their food was very diverse.
“Palace Mirissa was perfect for relaxing in a peaceful environment, away from all the parties at night”
Following a few days of lazy lounging by the pool and walks on the beautiful beach, we headed out to Tissamaharama. It is an ancient town in the Southern Province that dates back to III century B.C. Interestingly, it is also a starting point for visits to Kataragama – a pilgrimage town sacred to Buddists, Hindus and Muslims. However, we came to Tissamaharama to visit Yala National Park. There are currently 44 species of mammals living in the reserve, including the Sri Lankan elephant and the elusive leopard. Leopards are extremely rare and difficult to spot. To see one, you must go on a safari as early as possible. In other words, book your safari in advance, get to Tissamaharama the day before and wake up as early as you are told. We booked with Yala Green Safari and couldn’t be happier with their service.
That morning we departed our hotel at 4:30 in the morning to get there as quickly as possible. Upon arrival you become part of a queuing caravan of jeeps- all trying to get in. Although it sounds chaotic, it is very organised and in order. As a result, our jeep was among the first five cars and we entered the park early with almost nobody around. The main reason for getting there early is to spot a leopard. Since these big cats are the most active in the early hours just before the sunrise.
Within an hour we spotted a beautiful male leopard. We then spent the rest of the day driving around the limitless wild country. There, being human felt out of place and foreign. It’s as if we had stopped being at the top of the food chain. Such a humbling and an eye-opening experience. This place is where one cannot help but realise the significance of the animal kingdom. The power and beauty of nature is overwhelming; be it through seeing an elephant who could flip our jeep with one move or the crocodiles who patiently wait for their prey to land on their jaws.
“Sri Lanka is on the path to becoming one of the world’s most popular holiday destinations”
On our way back to Colombo, we decided to spend a couple of days at our favourite beach in Mirissa. It is crucial to wrap up a trip with the best experiences. And Sri Lanka has given us plenty of that. From the moment you land here, the country envelops you into its natural beauty. Its people are welcoming and eager to help a stranger. It is safe to say that Sri Lanka is on the path to becoming one of the world’s most popular holiday destinations. And we cannot wait to go back for more.