Best Time to Visit: December – April (Whale Watching) ; ill-advised: October and November
The south west coast is one of Sri Lanka’s most rewarding places to visit. This is the island in a microcosm with gorgeous beaches, colonial townscapes, stilt fishermen, superb wildlife parks and Buddhist shrines and temples aplenty; not to mention the island’s most alluring selection of places to stay, from luxurious beach hotels to atmospheric colonial-era villas. Active types will find a never-ending range of things to see and do here although, despite piecemeal development around the coast, much of the region's charm lies in its somnolent and quintessentially rural atmosphere. Innumerable comatose villages nestle in the shade of toppling palm trees, and the pace of life is unashamedly indolent.
The region’s varied attractions make it one of Sri Lanka’s most rewarding areas to visit. Gateway to the south – and one of its highlights – is the atmospheric old port of Galle, Sri Lanka’s best preserved colonial town, while beyond Galle stretch a string of picture-perfect beaches including Unawatuna, Weligama, Mirissa and Tangalla. Nearby, the little-visited town of Matara, with its quaint Dutch fort, offers a further taste of Sri Lanka’s colonial past, while ancient Tissamaharama makes a good base from which to visit two of the country’s finest national parks: the placid lagoons and birdlife-rich wetlands of Bundala, and Yala, famous for its elephants and leopards. Beyond Tissamaharama lies the fascinating religious centre of Kataragama, whose various shrines are held sacred by Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims alike.
In addition to the abundance of culture, there is plentiful opportunity for seeing Blue and Sperm Whales and Turtles from the town of Matara and in the surrounding areas; but make sure you visit during the period of December through until April to have the best chance of spotting one.
Jumping on the Southern Expressway from Colombo, you can be down in Bentota in a matter of two hours with long stretches of clean and relaxing beach and a huge choice of Hotels and Guesthouses to pick from accommodating all tastes and price ranges. This area is far more developed and touristy than anywhere else on the Island and swimming is mostly not advised as the currents are very strong.
Another 45 minutes towards Galle and you arrive at the more laidback and vibrant beach town of Hikkaduwa. Backed with restaurants and bars on the whole stretch of beach, in high season this small town attracts a large array of travellers looking for a bit of night life as well as great surfing and snorkelling opportunities. The sea here is much safer to swim in than further North along the coast.
Before the Dutch took Colombo from the Portuguese, Galle was their headquarters. Contrary to the Colombo Fort, the one in Galle was not only not demolished, but is one of the best preserved examples of 17th century colonial fortifications in the world, and is on the UNESCO list of World Monuments. The reason for its remarkable state of preservation is that this once busy trading town, visited by the East-India fleets and many regional traders, fell upon slack times after the Dutch had left. The development that did take place focused on the new town of Galle, outside the Fort.
The Fort is really a walled city, with a rectangular pattern of streets full of the low houses with gables and verandas in the Dutch colonial style. An irony of history is that most of the inhabitants of old Galle, occupying the houses of the Dutch, are the descendants of the Muslim traders that the Dutch despised so much for their petty trade that violated their monopoly. The Muslims have adapted many of the houses to their own likings, closing up the verandas with woodwork to prevent their women from being seen from outside. Recently it is no longer allowed to alter any of these houses, some renovation is taking place, and private museums with handicraft shops have even been established.
There are also several interesting buildings from early British times, and an early 20th century light tower. The fort was started by the Portuguese in 1588, but there is nothing recognizably Portuguese left. Probably parts of the thick walls, that you can walk on almost all around the town, in the sunshine and the cool breeze, with the red-tiled roofs of the houses on the one hand, and the blue ocean on the other.
Whales In the turquoise waters of Sri Lanka, the awe-inspiring presence of the Blue Whale and the Sperm Whale and Spinner Dolphins is not to be missed. The south of Sri Lanka beyond Dondra Head is considered one of the best locations in the world for spotting these magnificent creatures. They can be spotted in the deep seas off the southern coastal towns of Galle, Mirissa and Kirinda.
The Whale watching season, when the seas are relatively calm is between December and early April. However, please be aware that the boats often go some 20 kilometres offshore and the seas can be rough.