Roads tangled with tuk tuks and buses blaring Bollywood music. Cyclists weaving effortlessly among them, their toddlers expertly balanced on the handlebars. One of the best ways to see the real Sri Lanka is by road. What’s more, with a professional driver and a number of stops at some of Sri Lanka’s best hotels along the way, it needn’t be nerve-wracking. Especially when there are endless beaches, heart-stopping views and delicious local cuisine to experience at every turn. If you’re set on seeing this jewel of an island but not sure where to start, let our west coast itinerary inspire you.
Stop 1 – There are beaches, then there’s Bentota
Just half an hour from Colombo airport, Serene Pavilions is perfectly placed for slipping into holiday mode after a long journey. From there, it’s also just a short hop to the first of our top picks for a coastal adventure: Bentota beach. With golden sand hugging the coastline and palm trees heavy with coconuts standing over clear, deep waters, it’s a beach lover’s dream. And in low season (March-August), you could be basking here in solitude – except for a few local merchants selling sarongs and aloe vera plants for soothing slightly-too-sun-kissed skin.
Top Tip: For a road trip without the rage, hire a knowledgeable driver from an agency. From the airport, you’ll be driven round the island in the comfort of an air-conditioned car, for the length of your trip.
Stop 2 – A formidable fortress beside the sea
Galle fort is one of the west coast’s unmissable sights. Built by the Portuguese in the 16th century and refortified by the Dutch in the 17th, it’s a marriage of European influence and South East Asian history. It’s also a UNESCO World Heritage site, with high, wide walls housing a beautiful old town.
It’s worth spending at least a full day in Galle. Start by strolling the fort walls before plunging into the narrow streets to hunt for boutique shops and restaurants. You can even meander through temples, including Fort Shri Sudarmalaya that’s adorned with giant Buddha statues and Indian artwork.
Stop 3 – Dive in at Unawatuna beach
After all that walking, you’ll be pleased to know there’s another hotel just a 15-minute car ride away. The Owl and The Pussycat Hotel opens out onto palm tree-laden Mihiripenna Beach, where the azure ocean laps the sand. This beautiful (if slightly rocky) bay is made for relaxing.
If you’re in need of some adventure, Unawatuna beach is a five-minute drive away. Here you’ll find a range of water sports on offer, including scuba diving. Look out for Pearl Divers, which is a great option for those wanting to get PADI certified. When you’ve worked up an appetite, you won’t have to walk far to find eateries serving local delights, from coconut curries to kottu roti.
Top Tip: Unawatuna beach is a nesting site for sea turtles. Take a (careful) walk along the beach when the sun begins to set and you might spot just-hatched turtles flailing towards the sea.
Stop 4 – Island hopping, small scale
Edging a little further down the coast (a five-minute drive, to be precise) you’ll find Koggala. Though its beach is brimming with places to stay, we’d recommend The Fortress Resort & Spa – a luxury hotel inspired by the neighbouring Galle Fort. Once you’ve settled in and had your daily dose of decadence, why not get to know your surroundings? Just a day trip away is the tranquil Koggala Lake. Kick back on a leisurely boat tour and hop off at each of the lake’s islands. Cloud your senses in the spice gardens, watch cinnamon being cultivated by the pros then sip sweet spiced tea from china teacups.
Finally, it’s time to bid farewell to the west coast. Perhaps you’re venturing inland to explore more of this spellbinding country . But if you’re flying home, it’ll take just two hours for your driver to get you back to the airport via the new E01 expressway. Though we’re sure you won’t want to leave Sri Lanka in a hurry.