Since I have already uploaded my photos, with comments, on Picasa in public view, I am not uploading them again here. Please see the photos here - https://plus.google.com/photos/103211832132617502537/albums/5788243424243875361?banner=pwa
Planning the holiday
- We had been planning a seaside vacation for quite sometime now. We had evaluated Andaman, Lakshadweep, Mauritius, Maldives and Thailand besides Sri Lanka. We looked at reviews on travel sites and also looked at travel times, costs (from Delhi), availability of good hotels and the activities and attractions at our destination. One thing we wanted to avoid was the crowds and rush and wanted to go to a less commercialized destination. Combined with our work and family commitments, we zeroed in on Hikkaduwa, Sri Lanka, in the second week of September. Did not go for holiday packages, though I did evaluate the rates for packages given by a couple of travel sites. Booked the hotels/tickets about a couple of months in advance and did the visa 2 weeks in advance. Fixed up the transport a week in advance. Had the basic structure of the holiday planned out and left some flexibility do some changes based on local conditions.
- Landed in Colombo at about 10:00PM, half an hour before scheduled time. I had booked a hotel very near to the airport. The idea was to stay the night nearby before proceeding to Hikkaduwa, as that is at least a 3-4 hours of hours’ drive and it would get very late if we tried to go there directly. Passing through immigration, baggage pickup and customs was smooth. Our hotel had given us an airport transfer, so we had someone waiting for us when we came out of the airport. Coming out of the airport at 10:40 PM we were struck by the extreme humidity, quite reminiscent of Chennai. Colombo airport is outside the main city, about 35KM to the north in a suburb called Katunayake. The hotel I had booked was in Katunayake, about 10 mins drive from the airport. The hotel was very small family run guest house cum transit hotel. Though not star class, it was neat and clean and the service had a personal touch. It was just what we needed.
- The morning breakfast was good and we leisurely got ready and started around 11AM. Our driver cum guide, Wasantha Silva, was very courteous and knowledgeable. He had provided us a Nissan Wingroad, a comfortable and spacious hatchback. Though it was a Sunday, Colombo and its outskirts had heavy traffic and progress was slow. We took about an hour to hit the expressway, a distance of 20Km.
The Southern Expressway is a brand new road connecting Colombo to the southern port city of Galle. The road is of the highest quality and one can easily do 120kmph, though there are cops with speed guns stationed every few km to enforce the speed limit of 100! The toll gates are innovatively positioned at the entries and exits of the highway, so, you do not have to stop anywhere. You just pay the toll once you exit, according to the distance you have travelled. And if you have violated the speed limit, the cops will be waiting for you at the exit gate with the ticket! Fortunately Wasantha maintained the speed limit and did not have to pay the fine. The expressway passes through lush green Lankan country side, rubber plantations, tea gardens and meanders through small hilly areas. It was so picturesque, that we kept on clicking pictures throughout the way. It reminded me of the Mumbai-Pune expressway which passes through the Western Ghats.
Ishani found the ride so comfortable that she slept throughout the journey, and woke up the moment we exited! Looking at pleasant the weather, we decided to directly go to Galle to do some sightseeing, rather than exit the highway for Hikkaduwa. Galle is situated at the southern tip of Sri Lanka and is an important city and a tourist destination.
First stop at was at a turtle hatchery near Galle. There are a few of these in Sri Lanka and these have been created to save the Olive Riddley and some other species of sea turtles, which are endangered. These turtles lay their eggs in the sand and fishermen dig up these eggs and sell them to the hatchery. Once in the hatchery they are again buried in the sand, around 20 cm deep and a labeling is made mentioning the probable hatch date. In the hatchery we visited, there were about 50 eggs buried. Immediately after the eggs hatch, the babies are put into a tank where they stay for 4 weeks, then are transferred to another tank for next stage of their growth. There are 4 tanks with the last one having a couple of fully grown ones. Most are released into the sea when fully grown, only a few are kept back.
After lunch, we visited the old part of Galle city. Galle was a former Dutch colony and also has a fort overlooking the sea. The old city with its Dutch architecture is still intact. Wasantha told us that this was UNESCO world heritage site and it is prohibited to change the architecture or construct anything new in the old city. Hence it still retains the old charm and driving around in the old city one feels transported back centuries. I found it remarkably similar to some parts of Pondicherry, which I had visited last year. The part of the fort overlooking the ocean have fortified walls and watch areas at intervals. Though in ruins now, one can climb up and get some amazing views of the ocean and the coastline from these watch areas. We did a lot of photography to capture these stunning views.
Right next to the fort is the Galle cricket stadium. It looked like a neighborhood cricket field with two buildings adjacent to it (the stands). Most of the area for the spectators is a slightly raised ground around the boundary, covered with grass. The stadium does not have a boundary wall, there is only a tall iron net fence. The entire playing area is clearly visible from the road and some parts of the fort also offer a good viewing position. No wonder, as Wasantha told me, these areas are jam packed when there is a match. I think the road would also get jammed with people stopping their vehicles to see the match!
After completing our visit to Galle, we headed for Hikkaduwa, where we had our hotel booked. This time we took the coastal road. Running right beside the ocean, it offers some great views at places, where there is no construction next to the beach to obstruct the views. It was almost 6PM when we reached the hotel. Coral Sands hotel in Hikkaduwa, where I had booked in, is one of the many beach hotels in this region. The beach in Hikkaduwa is itself very small in width; from the beach side gate of the hotel to the ocean would be less than 30 meters. The beach itself is relatively clean, has golden sands and is less crowded. As soon as you are on the beach you will be pestered by local tourist operators for boat rides and other tourist activities and sometimes by hawkers, selling mainly clothes. The overall ambience and beauty of the place is exceptional though, if you are able to ignore these minor irritants.
Just after checking in, we were watching the sunset from our hotel room balcony, sipping tea. Dinner was at the hotel, part of the package. It was buffet dinner, with continental and Sri Lankan dishes. The overall hotel was neat and clean and the staff very courteous and helpful, room service very prompt.
- Hikkaduwa is famous for its corals which are very close to the shore. After a sumptuous breakfast at the hotel, we headed to see the corals in a glass bottomed boat. Unfortunately, the ocean was a bit rough and the water not clear, so we could not have a great view of the corals. We did see the corals and the reef fish too. I also managed to see a full grown turtle swimming. I heard that during the peak season (November-March), the waters are clean and also there are no waves and that makes great viewing the corals in the glass bottomed boats. Also got to know that most of the corals were destroyed in the tsunami of 2004 though some of them have since grown back. Had lunch in a local restaurant and spent the rest of the day relaxing and enjoying the beach. Got some good photos of the sea and the beach during the day.
- After our breakfast, Taira tried out some snorkeling. Mask was available on rent and we also hired a life guard to help and guide her. She could see a few corals and a lot of fish while snorkeling.
Later in the day, as advised by the locals, we tried to feed the feed the reef fish, which live in the corals and also come in very shallow water. There are a lot of boats parked on the sea right next to the hotel, but there is a designated and demarcated swimming area nearby, where there are no boats and the sea is also relatively calm. It is there, if you stand in knee deep water and throw some food crumbs, the reef fish will swarm around you and gobble up whatever you throw in the water. The water is clear enough to see the fish playing around you and it was an enjoyable experience for all of us.
Next, we hired a tuk-tuk (the same Bajaj autorickshaws you see all over India) to do some local sightseeing. Our tuk-tuk driver, Vimal, doubled up as a guide. It was a bright sunny day and we went up the coastal road which runs right next to the ocean. After you cross the city, the constructions are sparse and you get some fantastic views of the ocean as you move along the road. This area of Sri Lanka was devastated by the tsunami of 2004 and signs of that destruction are still evident, 8 years later. We could see some destroyed houses and buildings on the way. A Buddha statue has been built right beside the road in memory of the tsunami victims and we stopped to pay our respects. A little further down, we saw another memorial. A railway track runs right next to the road and an entire train full of people had been washed away by the tsunami. This memorial was a stone carving depicting that accident and the tragedy. Vimal told us some stories of the tsunami including how he and his family escaped being killed on that day. Soon, we reached our destination, a mask museum in the town of Ambalangoda. This town is famous for its masks and the variety and color of the masks on display amazed us. There was a mask shop alongside the museum and we picked up our masks as souvenirs and gifts. Seeing that we were Indians, they were receptive to the bargaining we did!
On the way back from Ambalangoda, Vimal offered to take a detour inland to take us on a 'green' tour. I was initially a bit reluctant to, wanting to get back to the hotel and relax, but, what I saw next was a lifetime experience and glad that we actually went... The bio-diversity of Sri Lanka is amazing. We strutted along the lush green Lankan countryside; Vimal would stop every now and then and show us some new variety of trees and plants. In a area of less than 5 square kilometers, we saw plantations of cinnamon, rubber, teak, orange, banana, coconut, rice, coffee, pepper, cocoa, tea and many others. Vimal told us that most of the Lankan countryside is like this!
It was past 3PM when we reached back the hotel, hungry and tired. Ishani was relatively fresh as she slept most of the way of the green tour! Ate lunch at the hotel and retired to our room to relax. In the late afternoon, it got cloudy and I could get some pictures of the ethereal glow of the sunshine behind the clouds being reflected on the ocean.
- Our last full day at Hikkaduwa was spent relaxing on the hotel lawns soaking up the sunshine, strolling on the beach and feeding the fishes. And of course, clicking lots of pictures. I collected lots of shells (you get very brightly colored shells here) and coral pieces washed up on the beach. By the time I ended the collection it was quite big and Ishani got very excited about it and wanted me to make her a necklace out of the shells!
- As we got ready to checkout, we took one last opportunity to feed the fishes and enjoy the beach. The skies opened up just as we left the beach for the last time, as if to bid us goodbye. As we moved out of the hotel just after noon, Wasantha was waiting for us at the hotel reception, to take us back. Rather than the expressway, this time we decided to take the coastal road, which runs along the ocean, right up to Colombo. Wasantha warned us that there would be traffic on the way, so it could take us 4-5 hours. But we did not mind that as our flight was on the next day. The coastal road offers very scenic views of the ocean and coastal villages, but the traffic was bad especially when we passed the towns on the way. On suggestion by Wasantha, we stopped at Bentota, which is famous for its water sports. There is a river delta in Bentota, which offers calm waters, ideal for the water sports. We decided to do jet skiing. Though it was quite expensive, it was a great experience and I found it worth it.
We continued on the coastal road after Bentota and reached the suburbs of Colombo around 3:30PM. Stopped for lunch at a seafood restaurant recommended by Wasantha. It was again a beach restaurant having very good sea food. Being a sea food lover Taira ate to her heart's fill. The restaurant owner, learning that we were Indian, brought out his guest book and showed us the comments made by Virat Kohli and a few other Indian cricketers when they had visited this restaurant couple of months earlier.
Next stop was at a gift shop in Colombo from where we picked up a few souvenirs. By the time we ended our shopping and started for the hotel, we hit the peak rush our traffic in Colombo and progress was even slower. As we trudged along, we clicked pictures of important landmarks in Colombo as we passed them.
We were booked in for the last night in Katunayake in the same hotel that we stayed on the first day. We finally reached the hotel, tired and weary, around 7:30PM and thanked and bid goodbye to Wasantha.
- Checked out of the hotel around 11AM and moved to the airport to catch our flight back to Delhi at 2PM.
As we bid goodbye to Sri Lanka, we carried back happy memories and a desire to visit again soon.
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