Little more than an hour south of central Colombo, as you cross the Kalu Ganga Bridge, Sri Lanka’s West Coast really begins. From this point on all the way to Galle, the tiny main coastal road, known as the Galle Road, hugs the picturesque coast line and runs parallel to the rickety old railway which limps all the way to Matara. The west coast motorway also offers fast access from the airport or Colombo.
The west coast’s traditional beach hotels first began to spring up in the 1960s, and have become a significant factor in the island’s economy. But about 1,000 years earlier another influence first arrived on Sri Lanka’s shores – the ubiquitous coconut tree which has countless uses as well as adorning thousands of holiday pictures. Kalutara, named after the Kalu Ganga (Black River) that winds through this town, was an important spice trading centre during colonial times. First the Portuguese in the 17C century, followed by the Dutch, were enticed by the cinnamon estates in the area and built a network of canals to transport these spices. During the 19C, the British converted these spice estates into rubber plantations which remain.
Cottage industries such as basket weaving, mask carving, and small shops selling Dutch antiques - furniture, lamps and ornaments, makes for interesting wayside shopping along the west coast especially in Hikkaduwa and Bentota. The Sri Lankan Handicraft Centre in Bentota also sells traditional crafts. Hikkaduwa is best for bargains in beach, surfing and diving gear.
With the west coast’s weather governed by the south-western monsoon, the best weather is expected between late November and April. Average temperatures rarely drop much below 30C. Sri Lanka is affected by two separate monsoons. Essentially the main south-west (“yala”) monsoon brings rain to the west coast, as well as south-west coasts and hill country, between May and late July. August is often a good month. The west coast is not affected by the less severe north-east (“maha”) monsoon which hits the east from November to January. There is also an unsettled inter-monsoonal period in October.
Ambalangoda is where the mask carvers and puppet makers predominate. The Ariyapala Mask Museum exhibits traditional Kolam and Thovil masks some of which are rare and date back centuries.
Bentota is blessed by the lazy waters of the Bentota River, ideal for watersports and boat trips. Its broad sandy beach with gently-shelving sands offer safe swimming, making it one of the most appealing Sri Lankan destinations for a traditional family holiday.
The characterful town of Hikkaduwa attracts budget and independent travellers, and generally a younger crowd. Its simple but decent restaurants, beach bars, and beachside nightclubs gives it something of the mood of a resort in Goa or Bali. The best surfing spots in Hikkaduwa are in Wewala. Narigama is good for body surfing. Surf boards, gear, and even clothing can be sourced from Hikkaduwa.
Kosgoda Turtle Hatchery plays a vital protective role for the turtles that lay their eggs on the beach annually, and is well worth a visit. The conservation project is an ideal way to learn and observe this endangered species.
The Kalu Ganga begins its journey to the sea on the western slopes of Adams Peak, Sri Lanka's holy mountain. The divine waters flow slowly west, its banks lined with jungle, rubber plantations and communities using the river in their daily lives. Exploring the backwaters by canoe or boat - a haven for birdlife - is magical.
Lunuganga: Set on the edge of Lake Dedduwa, Lunuganga is a Renaissance-inspired tropical garden and plantation house, which was the former country residence of Geoffrey Bawa. Step inside the private life of the man dubbed “the father of Asian architecture.” The Lunuganga gardens have numerous plants, pavilions, and statues. Its exquisite bedrooms and suites are offered to guest for just four months of the year from December to April. For the rest of the year it is handed back to the Bawa Trust and is used as an artist’s retreat. For a similar outing, consider Brief Gardens - a 25-acre estate which was the lifelong work of the celebrated landscape artist Bevis Bawa.
Explore Kalutara’s colonial past with a visit to the Richmond Castle, an old spice-plantation mansion which can be reached by canoe down the old Dutch canals.