Sri Lanka’s west coast is the island’s front door and – via the international airport at Katunayake just outside Colombo – the point of arrival for all visitors to the country (at least pending the opening of the new international terminal at Hambantota). This is Sri Lanka at its most developed and populous: the busiest, brashest and most Westernized region in the country, home to the capital city and the principal coastal resorts, which have now all but fused into an unbroken ribbon of concrete which meanders along the seaboard for over a hundred kilometres.
Situated about two-thirds of the way down the west coast, Sri Lanka’s sprawling capital, Colombo, is usually low on visitors’ list of priorities, although beneath the unprepossessing surface lies an intriguing and characterful city which offers a fascinating microcosm of contemporary Sri Lanka. North of Colombo is the busy resort of Negombo, whose proximity to the airport makes it a popular first or last stop on many itineraries, while further up the coast is the idyllic Kalpitiya peninsula, with deserted beaches and superb dolphin-watching, and – a short drive inland – the vast Wilpattu National Park, now slowly regaining its former glory after decades of upheaval during the civil war.
South of the capital lie the island’s main beach resorts. The principal areas – Kalutara, Beruwala and Bentota – are home to endless oversize hotels catering to vacationing Europeans on two-week packages. Pockets of serenity remain, even so, along with some characterful hotels and guesthouses, while further south lies Hikkaduwa, Sri Lanka’s original hippy hangout, now rather past its best, though it does retain a certain down-at-heel charm and (by sleepy Sri Lankan standards at any rate) a refreshingly upbeat atmosphere thanks to the backpackers who still flock here for cheap sun, sand and surf.