North and East Coast
Long cut off from the rest of the island and the world for over 30 years, Sri Lanka’s North and East are two fascinating lands that vary dramatically to that of the rest of the country; its people, landscape, culture and day to day life remain a world apart. While much of the island is well known for its cultural heritage sites shaped by Buddhism, emerald green hill country and national parks teeming with leopard, the North and East are shaped by dry flat lands that clash against turquoise beaches home to sunken Hindu relics and forgotten shipwrecks from as far back as the spice route days. Typical scenes in these lands include people of all ages cycling home carrying stocks of bananas and firewood on the back of their bicycles and colourful, Hindu Kovils that come alive with drumming at pooja time. The cuisine is also a real highlight of the region; supersized crab and prawn curries, and other local treats include fragrant karthacolomban mangoes and the palmyra sweets that come wrapped in woven palm leaf parcels.
Arugam Bay is probably Sri Lanka’s best known surfing spot – and with good reason. It’s the go-to venue for local and international surfing competitions held in Sri Lanka, and riding the waves at Arugam Bay is an exhilarating experience that’s hard to match. According to various international surfing publications, Arugam Bay offers one of the best ‘point breaks’ in the world. In peak season, it’s a highly sought after surfing destination for professional surfers, though it attracts a large number of amateur and beginner-level surfers, too.
Arugam Bay is located on the southeast coast of Sri Lanka. Among the local population living here is a sizeable expatriate community of globetrotters – largely from Europe and Australia – who have made it their second home.
Surfing season is usually from April to October. The bay is crowded with surfers who attend the various international surfing championships held here at that time of year. One to watch out for is the Sri Lanka Surf Championship organised by the UK Pro-Surfers Association.
The capital city of the Northern Province and a firm bastion of Hindu tradition, art and creative culture, Jaffna is made up of beautiful lagoons, beaches and causeways from which travelers can sample a glimpse of a traditional way of life. Visit the ancient Dutch Fort and soak in the heritage of the cities colonial past prized by both the Portuguese and Dutch. The Jaffna Library is closely associated with the island’s recent history, having once been among Asia’s largest libraries containing over 97,000 books and manuscripts and having tragically lost a vast majority of its literature in a fire in the early 80s during the early stages of Sri Lanka’s civil war. For a spiritual connection, visitors should not miss the evening Pooja at the Nallur Hindu temple and the Nagadeepa Buddhist Temple. The wild donkeys of Delft Island and the northern most point of the Sri Lanka at Point Pedro, transport you to a more remote island feel. Strolls through the Jaffna market place is always a colourful affair, a bike ride at sunset along the Kayts Causeway or a stop at the Kadurugoda Buddhist Temple with its numerous mini stone dagobas are among the must-dos. Jaffna is infamous for its fresh and supersized seafood, notably its infamous crab curries and local Palmyra toddy tapped direct from the tree. With the war now over, Jaffna has taken shape to reclaim its status as among the most significant and beautiful locations in the North East of the island.
Located on the island’s beautiful Eastern coast, just 20 minutes from Trincomalee, Kuchchaveli is a gorgeous mash up of secluded jungles and pristine, powdery sand beaches. The area feels like a secret, and is home to only a handful of hotels, which gives it a cut-off feel from the rest of the world. Kuchchaveli is where forest, sea, salt-marsh and lagoon come together to create an explosion of biodiversity on land and in the air and water. Dozens of species of birds inhabit the area, the lagoons and ocean teem with fish, shellfish, turtles and cetaceans. Apart from fishermen who still work using traditional methods, the beach is broad and mostly empty, stretching up and down the coast as far as the eye can see. Home to amazing spots for snorkeling among reefs, nature hikes along pristine jungle trails, scuba diving, whale and dolphin watching, bird watching, forested turquoise coves, mangroves and lagoons, Kuchchaveli deserve more than a couple nights’ for a truly immersive stay.
Located 35km northwest of Batticaloa and some 230km east of Colombo is one of the more picturesque beaches on the beautiful east coast. Once a popular tourist destination, this area was devastated in the 2004 tsunami but is now making a comeback, particularly since the end of the civil war in 2009.
One of the striking features of this beach is that the water is unusually shallow – no more than waist deep – for what feels like miles, thanks to a long reef. Pasikudah is also one of the widest and longest beaches on the island, at 4km in length (just south of the equally beautiful Kalkudah beach).
Pasikudah is a great spot for snorkelling, offering myriad species of coral and tropical fish, and is blessed with clear blue water. The reef-protected is also an ideal spot for sun bathing, wind surfing and water skiing.
The reef here is one of the best preserved in the country and has been proposed as a marine sanctuary by National Aquatic Resources Research and Development Agency (NARA).
A number of modern, high end luxury resorts are available in the vicinity of Pasikudah. May to September is the best time to visit because it avoids the southwest monsoon at this time of the year.
The area’s history dates back to the arrival of Indian Prince Vijaya, some 2,500 years ago, when his vessel washed ashore north side of the Puttalam lagoon. The area has a tropical savanna climate, from which it experiences a short dry season from June to September and a second dry season from January to March. The wet season occurs mainly between October and December. Long off the tourist map, Puttalam is popularly known to be a quieter and more secluded part of the island, with a kind and hospitality people and is conveniently close to Wilpattu National Park and the stunning beaches and sand dunes of Kalipitiya. Its largest city is Anamaduwa. Rocky outcrops, ancient temples, large lakes for kayaking and endless paddy fields make up the landscape here.
Trincomalee, or Trinco as it’s popularly known, is something of a Mecca for tourists, though thankfully minus the overcrowding. Home to one of Asia’s best natural, deep-water ports, Trincomalee has historically figured prominently in seafaring narratives and travelogues and is easily one of the most pristine beach destinations in the island.
Located 257km northeast of Colombo, Trincomalee is home to such well known beaches as Nilaveli, Uppuveli and others. The largely unspoiled Nilaveli beach in particular, stretches on for miles and is so secluded in some areas that it feels like one’s own private beach.
Pigeon Island, located off the coast of Trinco is arguably the best location for snorkeling in the entirety of Sri Lanka. Its breathtaking coral reefs and the hundreds of species of fish – watch out for that elusive reef shark – make for a truly one-of-a-kind experience.
Trinco is also ideal for diving. Particularly off Pigeon Island, Uppuveli and other parts of the coast. The immensely deep waters also attract blue whales and dolphins and Trinco, along with Mirissa in the south, is considered one of the top whale watching destinations in this part of the world.
Trincomalee is also renowned for its cultural heritage. Konesvaram Temple is a must-visit.
Wilpattu National Park
Wilpattu National Park, the largest wildlife sanctuary in Sri Lanka, offers up a heady combination of elusive wildlife, fascinating glimpses into history and some magical forest scenery and experiences. Best visited during the drought between May and September, Wilpattu, is a feast for the senses and comprises monsoon forests, sandy valleys, mangrove swamps and grasslands; a haven for the animal kingdom. The National Park is home to some 347 inland vertebrate species, which includes 23 species of fresh water fish, 17 species of amphibians, 57 species of reptiles, 204 species of birds, and 41 species of mammals. They share the famous ‘villus’ that are natural water basins in the form of a depression, that dot the Park.
A game drive either early morning or late evening offers the best chance to view majestic elephants, or eye-catching leopards as they enjoy a less commercial domain in comparison to the islands more popular National Parks.