Many who fly over for a beach holiday in Sri Lanka tend to pick this island for the friendliness of locals, value for money, warm tropical waters all year round, delicious local cuisine and a unique travel experience (i.e. you can combine your beach holiday with cultural experiences, visit the Central Highlands and more).
It is important to know when to visit the different coastlines around Sri Lanka. The western coastline of beaches through to the southern coast are at their best from November to April while the eastern coastline of beaches peak during the months of May through to October.
Traditionally, holidaymakers have ventured to Sri Lanka's western and southern coasts where seaside villages like Hikkaduwa, Bentota, Unawatuna have been the destination du jour. As you travel further down the southern coast you find more beach towns and resorts that cater to tourists. However, there is plenty more on offer than these popular spots as you can see from the map. I would always recommend, if you have the time, exploring a coastline rather than just staying in one spot. Wonderful experiences, sights and tastes abound when you travel more freely.
With the end of the civil war a few years back, coastal areas to the eastern, northern and north-western coasts have opened up to locals and tourists. And there are many more developments in the pipeline. I had heard there was an early plan (pre-civil war) for Sri Lanka to be developed as the next big thing in tourism to surpass the likes of the Maldives, but with it's own unique cultural charms. No doubt these ideas are still very much on the table.
When you read articles in travel magazines and newspapers they highlight popular places but they are usually sponsored features for hotels or resorts. It's nice to provide an independent perspective that isn't trying to sell you something or steer you in a particular direction... So, to help you figure out what suits you when it comes to beaches around Sri Lanka, here's my run down
Best Beach Hideaways in the North East
Nilaveli Beach, just north of Trincomalee (aka Trinco), is considered one of the most beautiful beaches in Sri Lanka and as such, quite popular. I recall stories from friends about its soft white sands, clear blue waters, legendary bays and beaches that go on for miles, with many sighs over the lack of access during the civil war. You can take a short boat ride to Pigeon Island which is known as a breeding site for the Blue Rock Pigeon and other marine life including shark sightings.
Trincomalee is approximately 264km from Colombo. You can reach Trinco by car, bus, rail or chartered flight. There are accommodation options ranging from moderate to luxury depending on your budget. If you're interested in water sports there is plenty on offer. During the peak season on the east coast the waters are lovely and calm. Diving and snorkeling off Pidgeon Island is considered a must-do activity between April and October.
While you're in the area you might wish to check out Uppuveli Beach, 6km north of Trinco, which is a clean golden sandy beach in a small coastal village offering a slightly more intimate experience. Marble Beach, 14km south of Trinco is also worth a visit. The beach is maintained by the military and there is a one-off fee charged (~Rs.120) for access unless you're staying at the Marble Beach and Resort. There are also showers, change facilities and snack vendors.
Other attractions around Trinco include its natural harbour, the ramparts of Fort Frederick and Lovers Leap, and Thirukoneswaram Kovil.
And don't forget whale watching during the May to October season (though it's best around July to September) . There are whale-watching excursions or tours offered by the Sri Lankan Navy. Blue whales are regularly seen around 10km east of Trincomalee. Spinner dolphins are also regularly seen.
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Pasikuddah Beach is located 306km from Colombo on the east coast. It was previously a local secret, maintained by the military. It was also affected by the 2004 Tsunami. These days it has attracted foreign and local investment for it to be developed into a top tourist destination. The beauty of Passikudah Beach is definitely that it has one of the longest stretches of shallow coastline in the world allowing visitors to walk knee-deep for kilometers into the sea. The sea bed is rich with colorful corals and marine life.
Check out my blog post "Travel Mondays: Road trip from Yala to Trincomalee for some stories and photos from my adventures in the region. My favorite things to do at Pasikuddah have been swimming, snorkeling and going out on a boat with local fishermen.
Kalkudah Beach is only a few kilometres away. This beach is covered with palm trees leading to the 2km-wide Kalkudah Bay. It is also ideal for swimming, water skiing and wind surfing with protection from off-shore coral reefs.
Best Beaches for Whale Watching and Dolphin Watching
Alankuda Beach is one of the recently developed beach destinations on the Kalpitiya Penninsular on the remote north-western coast of Sri Lanka. Its the starting point for off-shore whale watching and dolphin watching. Along its coast, Spinner, Bottlenose and Indo-Pacific Humpback Dolphins; Whales and Sea Turtles can be seen. The best time for whale watching and dolphin watching in Kalpitiya is between November and April.
Kalpitiya is a fishing town located on the north-western coast of Sri Lanka in the Puttalam district. It is located approximately 170km from Colombo. It was earmarked for development by the previous government as a tourist destination after the war ended. It consists of fourteen islands with a total area of 16.73 km2. The main attraction is the diversity of habitats and marine life.
A number of hotels and resorts have been newly built to cater for tourists and visitors. Aside from whale and dolphin watching, a range of watersports such as sailing, wind surfing, kayaking, canoeing, kite surfing and snorkeling are available, and also kite flying.
Other attractions in the area include the Puttalam salt pans, Munnesweram Kovil (a Hindu temple dedicated to Shiva and associated with Kali), the much revered 17th century St. Anne’s Church in Talawila, and Wilpattu National Park (Sri Lanka’s largest wildlife sanctuary).
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Mirissa Beach is still one of the hot destinations in Sri Lanka. I've stood in line at the airport listening to outgoing Chinese tourists extolling its virtues and comparing it more favorably to other beach destinations along Sri Lanka's southern coastline. It is a beautiful crescent beach located at almost the southern most tip of the island, part of a fishing village and one of the island's main whale and dolphin watching locations. Mirissa is located about 148km from Colombo.
From Mirissa you can explore much of the lovely southern coastline or just relax and unwind. There is much to enjoy including surfing, swimming, snorkeling, sailing and more. There are two main surf points at Mirissa that cater for both beginners and advanced surfers.
Whale and dolphin watching in Mirissa is very popular especially around Dondra Point where the season goes from November to April. The peak months are apparently December, January and March when you have a 95% chance of spotting Sperm Whales and a greater chance of spotting Blue Whales due to their migration path being just off from Dondra Point. If you're lucky you may also see Bryde´s whales, Fin whales, sometimes Killer whales, and Common dolphins, Bottlenose dolphins, Spinner dolphins, Risso's dolphins and Striped dolphins, Sea turtles and a wide variety of fish species.
You can find basic to moderate guest accommodation in the area. Alternatively, you can stay a few kilometres along in Weligama with more variety of accommodation options and make the trek to Mirissa.
Note - Trincomalee is also a hotspot for whale watching during the May to October season. I mentioned it earlier in this blog post.
Surfer's Paradise - Best Beaches for Surfing
Arugam Bay is regarded as the best surfing beach on the island, largely due to its well-known surf break at Main Point. It is possible to surf all year around, but the waves are best between April to October. The average height of the waves is between 1.5 and 2.5 metres. There are also several surf breaks to the north and south of Arugam Bay that include Whiskey Point, Baby Point, Lighthouse, Crocodile Rock, Elephant Rock, Peanut Farm and Okanda.
Arugam Bay is located 116km from Colombo on the south-eastern coast of the island. It takes about ten hours to get to Arugam Bay from Colombo. You can reach Arugam Bay by a variety of buses or hiring a driver/vehicle to make the journey.
I've visited a few times, though not to surf, mainly to explore the region. Arugam Bay is actually a remote fishing village, which is rather laid back and casual. There are mainly cheap to moderate guest accommodation options catering mainly to its surfing clientele. There are plenty of places to eat, relax and during peak season there is plenty of nightlife.
Check out my blog post "Travel Mondays: Road trip from Yala to Trincomalee for some sights around this area such as Kudimbigala and Panama. There are other places of interest including Kumana National Park and Lahugala National Park and the remote beaches around Panama.
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Ahangama and Midigama are considered great surfing beaches along the south-western coast of the island. They probably have the most consistent and possibly the best waves in Sri Lanka. They are both low-key surfer-friendly fishing villages with access to some quiet beaches. The surfing season begins in November and goes on till April and with its various sea breaks along its 5km stretch cater to beginners as well as experienced surfers. It's common to surf from dawn till dusk. There are several popular surf breaks that include Ram's Right, Lazy's Left, Plantation Point and The RockAhangama beach is located about 140km from Colombo, lying between Galle and Matara on the south-western coast of the island. Ahangama and Midgama can be reached by bus or rail from Colombo. You will find cheap accommodation given these are two small fishing villages that cater to only locals and surfer clientele though facilities are considered average.
Apart from surfing, Ahangama is also famous amongst tourists for stilt fishing, where the fishermen rest on stilts fixed on the shallow area of the seashore as they fish with rods. They can be seen fishing in early mornings and afternoon. Scuba diving and snorkeling are also possible as there is coral reef to explore. Koggala is about 10kms from Ahangama and there you can visit the Sea Turtle Farm and Hatchery.
Note - Mirissa is also becoming a hotspot for surfing. I mentioned it earlier in this blog post.
Best Beaches in Sri Lanka's Far North
Casuarina Beach is located at Karainagar about 20km from Jaffna. It's said to be the best beach in Jaffna with its clear shallow waters and gentle waves. Most likely it was named after the casuarina trees that grow in the area.
Munai Beach near Point Pedro (30km from Jaffna) is probably the northern most beach in Sri Lanka. This area was hit hard by the 2004 tsunami. Point Pedro naval base is located nearby. Its shallow waters are clean and clear with white sandy beach and you can see the coral reef offshore. You probably won't find many tourists in this area, however, it has been described as stunning.
Chaddy Beach on Velanai Island , south of Kayts is 11km from Jaffna. It is a pretty curved beach with white sands and shallow waters. Surprisingly, it has gazebos, change rooms and snack vendors.
There are similarly good beaches Santhakulam and Thondamannar if you have the time.
If you're looking for things to do around Jaffna and the islands off its coast... Check out my blog post Travel Mondays: Colombo - Jaffna by bus, train, boat and coach for some sights around this area such as Nilavarai Bottomless Well, Kathurogoda Ancient Vihara, Thambakola Patuna, Nallur Kandaswamy Kovil, Jaffna Archaeological Museum and Jaffna Fort.
Best Colombo beaches
This category is mainly for travelers who are only staying 2-3 days in Colombo. Although I'm featuring two beaches in this category I would definitely recommend doing a day trip down south (either by train or with a driver/vehicle) to take in the lovely coastline. Unfortunately, with beaches closer to urban life there is more pollution and less tranquility. And the beaches beyond Colombo's urban center are far more pristine and picturesque.
Mt Lavinia Beach is about 11km south of Colombo city center. It was home to the British Governor of Ceylon, Thomas Maitland's former residence (1805-1811), which was later converted to the colonial-style Mount Lavinia Hotel. Mount Lavinia Beach is a popular spot for swimming, scuba diving, eateries, bars, and nightlife.
There is 4.5km stretch of beach that's great for walking and exercise and is regularly used by locals. It goes from Moutn Lavinia Beach past Dehiwala Beach and up to Wellawatte Beach. Along this long stretch of beach you can watch as well as purchase fresh catch from local fishermen as they return in speedboats from early morning expeditions.
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Negombo Beach is located close to the international airport along the west coast and approximately 35km from Colombo city center. It is a major tourist spot with its hotels, water-sports, restaurants and friendly locals. Negombo is also famous for it's large fish market where there are daily fish auctions. Fishing into the lagoon and the ocean can be organized.
Around the Negombo lagoon you'll be able to catch a glimpse of Sri Lanka's wildlife as it is home to over 190 species. There are ruins of an old Dutch fort dating back to 1678 that are close to the seafront near the lagoon. Note however, the fort grounds are now occupied by the Negombo’s prison, so inside viewing isn't possible.
Other Notable Mentions
Weligama is an attractive spot within yet another quiet fishing town approximately 143km from Colombo. It is set around a beautiful bay with rocky outcrops and has recently experienced the development of new resorts around its cape. There is easy access to the southern coastline for exploring other beaches, surfing spots, whale watching and more.
Tangalle is the gateway to the south-eastern coastline of Sri Lanka located 195km from Colombo. It isn't very developed but that's its charm. As such, it offers up wide beautiful scenic beaches with off-white sands, azure waters and plenty of solitude. From Tangalle you can visit places like the Kalametiya Bird Sanctuary, Rekawa Turtle Conservation project and ancient Mulkirigala rock temple.
A few safety tips
I can't blog about Sri Lanka's beaches without some words of advice about local culture and safety. It's probably worth checking out my blog post "An expat in Sri Lanka: the Good, Bad and the Ugly - Part 9", where I discuss personal safety and security around the island. I make special mention of behavior and etiquette around beaches, attitudes towards foreign women, as well as a bit on local culture and perceptions. My other blog post on "Navigating the sensitive topic of sex and intimacy on the teardrop island" may also be a useful read.
Sri Lanka has some of the most beautiful beaches in the world, but with beauty also comes danger in form of powerful rip currents and dangerous surf. These currents are stronger when there are big waves and the surf is rough. Sadly, I have seen a few people killed by these powerful currents while living here in Sri Lanka. My advice is to heed any signs or warnings on beaches, and to take extra care when swimming at remote beaches that are not patrolled and do have lifeguards.
There are jellyfish that come to shore along the coastline of Sri Lanka. As far as I know, it's of the blue-bottle jellyfish variety and can cause allergic reactions such as itching and reddening of the skin, if stung, or with bodily contact. On the south-western coastline they appear around June to August, but I'm sure about the northern or eastern coastline.