South – Galle
Galle (pronounced ‘gawl’ in English, and ‘gaar-le’ in Sinhala) is the big unmissable destination in the south. It’s at once endlessly exotic, bursting with the scent of spices and salty winds, and yet also, with its wonderful collection of Dutch-colonial buildings, a town of great beauty. Classic architecture melds with a dramatic tropical setting to create a reality that is endlessly interesting.
Above all else, Galle is a city of trade and, increasingly, art. Today the historic Fort area is crammed full of little boutique shops, cafes and hotels owned by local and foreign artists, writers, photographers, designers and poets – a third of the houses are owned by foreigners.
Built by the Dutch, beginning in 1663, the 36-hectare Fort occupies most of a promontory that’s surrounded on three sides by the ocean. Just wandering the old walls and streets at random yields one architectural surprise after another as you explore the amazing collection of structures dating back through the centuries. Its glories have earned the Fort status as a Unesco World Heritage Site.
A key part of the Fort’s allure, however, is that it isn’t just a pretty place. Rather, it remains a working community: there are administrative offices, courts, export companies, lots of regular folks populating the streets and a definite buzz of energy in the air.
Galle is easily reached as a day trip from Colombo and is a quick drive from the nearby beach towns of Hikkaduwa and Unawatuna, but to really savour the place, stay within the atmospheric walls of the Fort.
nawatuna is a cautionary tale for the rest of Sri Lanka’s south coast. Where there was once a flawless crescent of golden sand that swept along a palm-lined shore with turquoise waters that had just enough surf to make for ideal swimming conditions, there is now one of Sri Lanka’s less appealing beach towns.
The beautiful water is still there and you can still find decent patches of sand, but in several places greed has replaced good taste and common sense. Bulldozers have pushed huge boulders right up to and beyond the high tide line, allowing for the construction of some especially ugly hotels and cafes. Ironically, authorities have actually enforced setbacks on the west half of Unawatuna’s beach and the result is much more salubrious.
Unawatuna makes for a good, quick beach escape from Galle’s Fort: it’s only 6km southeast. Otherwise it offers a cheap and cheerful sandy idyll, at least on the bulldozer- and boulder-free west end.