Danae Mercer, CNN • Updated 21st June 2017
From untouched beaches to a UNESCO World Heritage site, leopard-spotting safaris to monkey-filled jungles, Sri Lanka’s southern coastline is home to tropical surrounds, colonial digs and a wealth of wildlife.
Bear in mind weather varies dramatically throughout the country, with most travel professionals recommending January-March as the best period to visit Sri Lanka’s south.
Here, local guides and experts share their favorite destinations and travel tips.
Why head to Sri Lanka’s south?
Until a few years ago, Sri Lanka’s south made it onto few travelers’ itineraries. But the addition of a new highway from Colombo to Galle in 2011 opened things up, offering a wealth of new attractions to experience.
“It has this wonderful seclusion, this warmth of the people and untouched nature, which makes the region so incredibly charming,” Filipe de Lencastre, general manager of Amanwella resort in Tangalle, tells CNN.
It’s not unusual to see monkeys swinging between palm trees — or sneaking into the many open-air boutique hotel rooms to snatch snacks. It’s also a hotspot for wellness, yoga and surfing resorts.
Change is happening
“In the recent past, a ‘large’ hotel of 150 rooms was unimaginable,” Nicky Brandon, director of marketing for travel company Ker & Downey, tells CNN.
But the south has developed quickly.
“Major hotel brands [have opened] their first properties in the country, including the Shangri-La in Hambantotaand Anantara in Tangalle,” says Brandon.
There has also been an uptick in smaller properties, luxury tented camps and B&Bs.
“We’ve realized there’s such a great opportunity here for tourism,” says Skandha Ponniah, marketing manager of Sri Lanka in Style. “However, given that this (area) has only recently become well known and abundant, everyone seems to be rushing towards it in a manner akin to the discovery of a new goldmine.”
This means that travelers looking for the undiscovered should go now, adds Brandon.
Where to start
International flights land at Bandaranaike International Airport near Colombo, but after spending a bit of time in this chaotic rush of a city, you’ll want to consider heading to Galle for a more relaxing experience.
Inside the UNESCO World Heritage site of Galle Fort, travelers will find winding cobblestone streets, art galleries, jewelery boutiques, laid-back cafes and colonial architecture that echoes the area’s Portuguese and Dutch past.
“For great views of the town, spend time walking along the small, historic center, past the ancient Dutch ramparts that circle the Fort,” suggests Brandon.
As for where to stay, Fort Bazaar, an 18-bedroom renovated townhouse hotel, has a hip cafe and airy courtyard.
Nearby, stately Amangalla — built in 1684 — taps into the luxury market. There are also dozens of smaller budget Airbnb home-stays.
Set out to sea
From Galle, an hour’s drive east will take travelers to one of the south coast’s most scenic beach destinations: Mirissa.
“Mirissa is a peaceful golden sand beach more geared towards luxury clientele,” says Brandon.
“It’s not as busy as Unawatuna Beach (about an hour west), which attracts more budget travelers and gets very busy thanks to tourist restaurants, bars and shops.”
Brandon points hungry travelers to Wijaya Beach Restaurant, nestled around an hour’s drive from Mirissa on a quiet beach. This family-owned venue is known for its stone-baked pizzas and scenic ocean views.
For an even quieter stop, Brandon suggests driving 20 minutes west from Mirissa to Weligama. This fishing town’s sandy beaches and gentle surf breaks are perfect for beginner surfers.
Numerous whale-watching boat trips depart from Mirissa, best experienced from November to April. Sail Lankadoes these well, offering overnight journeys at reasonable prices, with cooked meals, snorkeling and stand-up paddle boarding thrown in.
“Sri Lanka is one of the few places in the world where you can see the world’s largest marine mammal [the blue whale, in Mirissa] and the world’s largest land mammal [the elephant, in either Udawalawe National Park or Yala National Park] within a very short period of time and distance,” says Ponniah.
Going between Mirissa and either park takes around 3.5 hours by car or an hour by helicopter.
“It’s possible to do both in one day, with whale-watching in early morning and an afternoon safari at either park to look for elephants, but it may be a bit tiring due to the traveling involved,” Ponniah tells CNN.
He recommends spreading the sightseeing across a more relaxed two days.
Safari in style
Whales aren’t the only animals thriving in the wilds of Sri Lanka.
In the country’s southeastern corner, Yala National Park is home to 44 different types of mammals, including leopards, sloth bears, crocodiles, deer, peacocks and elephants — not to mention 215 species of birds.
“If you do the math, you have more leopards per square mile in Yala National Park than you do any place in the world,” Avijja Fonseka, a ranger with Leopard Trails, a tented camp and safari outfit, tells CNN.
When planning a visit to the wildlife reserve, visitors need to be a little bit strategic. Yala National Park is closed September to October in the peak of the dry season. It can also get incredibly busy during holidays, when the number of visitors skyrockets.
Multiple companies offer half- and full-day safaris through the park.
Leopard Trails provides well-rounded experiences with English-speaking guides, luxury tents and charming lantern-lit meals under the stars.
Meawhile, Jetwing Yala offers tents as well as hotel rooms, each surrounded by miles of untouched — and often empty — beaches.
Super-luxe travelers heading to Yala can book Chena Huts for private plunge pools and spacious rooms.
In late summer, Sri Lanka-based Resplendent Ceylon will be opening 28 air-conditioned “tent suites” at the new Wild Coast Tented Lodge on the edge of the park.
Catch a wave
From humble beach shacks to decadent suites, Sri Lanka’s south has something for every type of surfer.
Arugam Bay, about a 3.5 hours’ drive from Yala National Park, is known around the world as a fabulous surf spot, says Ponniah.
It’s particularly buzzing from May to October. Advanced breaks suit seasoned surfers, while Baby Point is good for those looking to learn.
“The entire area lends itself to being family-friendly. It has a very relaxed atmosphere with a lot of lovely people running small family friendly hotels and restaurants,” he adds.
The family-owned, 14-bedroom Hideaway Resort has a nice pool for kids to enjoy (free for in-house guests, $5 for outside guests).
Or there’s always the ocean, notes Ponniah.
“The sea at Arugam Bay is usually safe for kids to swim in during the monsoon season (between late May and late September), with July and August being the absolute best time.”
Near Tangalle, Talalla Retreat offers low-key surf and yoga. The open-air restaurant looks across rows of palm trees and the beach is just a two-minute walk beyond.
Bamboo huts offer privacy and a touch of “glamping,” while breezy open-air villas feature private balconies and writing desks.
Around 40 minutes’ drive from Talalla Retreat is five-star Anantara Peace Haven Tangalle. The property has numerous restaurants, villas with private plunge pools, a spa and a sandy beach.
Surfing is a big draw here. The hotel partners with luxury surf company TropicSurf to provide one-on-one lessons; sessions vary widely depending on customer requests.
The beginner’s Dream Excursion lasts around three hours and includes transport to a nearby beach. There’s an option to purchase photos and a GoPro video at the end, either for additional surfing analysis or as mementos of catching waves in paradise.
Sion Surf Camp offers a laid back surf-shack vibe with hostel-style rooms and communal evening barbecues.
“Some parts of the south are more lively than others,” says Ponniah. But it is possible to find secluded beaches.
He recommends the quiet bay of Hiriketiya, just south of Dikwella (a coastal market town halfway between Talalla and Tangalle).
“Hiriketiya is tiny and secluded. It has a real beach bay vibe with only a few chilled surfer houses and restaurants nearby.”
An hour east along the coast is Turtle Bay, a colonial boutique hotel in sleepy Kalametiya. The oceanfront property disappears behind palm trees, while the undeveloped beach stretches out in both directions.
Come sunset, local residents can be spotted playing cricket in the sand.
The Kalametiya Bird Sanctuary, a popular bird sanctuary spread across lagoons and swamps, is within walking distance.
For a real dose of rest and relaxation, Ponniah recommends Maya hotel in Aranwella, which is just a few miles north of the coastline. The five-suite manor house faces a rice paddy, with an open-air yoga studio and hammocks dotting the grassy grounds.
Don’t forget the temples
With its mix of Buddhism and Hinduism religions, Sri Lanka has no shortage of temples. And the south is no different.
Sithulpawwa Temple, on a 1,300-foot-tall rock in Sri Lanka’s southeastern Hambantota district, offers stunning views of Yala National Park.
“It’s generally very quiet (if you) visit on a weekday to avoid the local crowds,” Dilanke Panagoda, head of business development with private tour company Pepper Life, tells CNN.
“There isn’t much wildlife on this route but you might get lucky. When I was working in Yala, I spotted two leopards on this road in the same evening.”
Mulkirigala Rock Temple, 16km north of Tangalle, is covered in cave paintings and has a great view of the surrounding coconut trees and greenery.
Interested travelers should be prepared for a vigorous climb up around 500 steps, each carved at varying heights into the rock. Getting to the top takes around 30 minutes. Thanks to terraced levels with painted caves, reclining Buddhas and scenic views, most travelers take longer. The climb is active but not impossible.
Near Maya hotel, Aranwella Temple is very peaceful, visited primarily by only village residents.
“If you want to do something very interesting, ask one of the hotels to organize a ‘Pirith chanting’ at a quiet local village,” suggests Panagoda.
Usually conducted by several Buddhist monks, the ceremony involves chanting of the word of the Buddha in an effort to ward off various dangers.
“It can take anywhere from a few minutes to overnight depending on the circumstances and what blessing is being given,” Ponniah tells CNN.
Getting there and around
While most international flights fly through Colombo, travelers can opt to connect with Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport to fast-track their journey to Sri Lanka’s southeast.
It is a bit like the airport time forgot, but it cuts out the four-hour drive.
Driving around Sri Lanka can be trying. It usually involves two-lane winding roads filled with buses, tuk-tuks, taxis, bicycles — a bit of everything.
Transport tends to take longer than expected, and Google Maps is not the most reliable here. It’s recommended to budget extra time, as traffic can pile up, or weather can change, at any time.
There are public buses but most travelers opt to rent their own car — with or without a driver.