Close to the southernmost point of the island, the bustling town of MATARA (pronounced “maat-rah” the middle syllable is virtually elided) provides a taste of everyday Sri Lanka that may (or may not) be welcome if you’ve spent time in the coastal resorts. Standing at the terminus of the country’s southern rail line, the town is an important transport hub and a major centre of commerce – a lively place given a youthful touch by the presence of students from the nearby Ruhunu University. Matara preserves a few Dutch colonial buildings, an atmospheric old fort area and an attractive seafront (though you wouldn’t want to swim here). A couple of kilometres either side of town, the low-key beachside suburbs of Polhena and Medawatta offer good snorkelling and surfing respectively, while the area around Matara boasts a couple of mildly interesting and little-visited sights, including the giant Buddha at Weherehena and the town of Dondra, whose slender lighthouse marks the island’s southernmost point.
Matara itself (from Mahatara, or “Great Harbour”) is an ancient settlement, though no traces of anything older than the colonial era survive. The Portuguese used the town intermittently, but it was the Dutch, attracted by the deep and sheltered estuary of the Nilwala Ganga, who established a lasting presence here, fortifying the town and making it an important centre for cinnamon and elephant trading.
As at Galle, Matara divides into two areas: the modern town and the old Dutch colonial district, known as the Fort. The two are separated by the Nilwala Ganga, a fine and remarkably unspoilt stretch of water, edged by thick stands of palm trees and spanned by the town’s most impressive modern construction: the six-lane Mahanama Bridge, constructed with Korean help and unveiled in December 2007 on the third anniversary of the tsunami.Read More
Matara’s main Fort lies on the narrow spit of land south of the river, its eastern side bounded by a long line of stumpy ramparts, built by the Dutch in the eighteenth century and topped by the inevitable ugly white British clocktower of 1883. At the north end of the ramparts, a dilapidated gateway (dated 1780) marks the original entrance to the Fort, while a short walk brings you to the restored Dutch Reformed Church, one of the earliest Dutch churches in Sri Lanka – a large and rather austere gabled structure sheltered beneath a huge pitched roof. The interior is largely bare, save for a few battered old wooden pews, a clapped-out harmonium and various florid British and Dutch gravestones inserted into the floor, the oldest dating back to the very beginning of the eighteenth century.
The rest of the Fort comprises an interesting district of lush, tree-filled streets dotted with fine old colonial-era houses in various stages of picturesque disrepair: some are surprisingly palatial, with grand colonnaded facades and sweeping verandas, although heavy-handed development is beginning seriously to erode the area’s character. At the far west end of the Fort, the peninsula tapers off to a narrow spit of land at the confluence of the Nilwala Ganga and the sea, where there’s a pretty new harbour.
Snorkelling and surfing around Matara
Snorkelling and surfing around Matara
A couple of kilometres west of the centre of Matara, the rather down-at-heel beachside suburb of Polhena has some good snorkelling straight off the beach, with lots of colourful fish and a small section of live coral; swimming conditions and visibility are best outside the monsoon period.
At the picturesque eastern end of Matara Bay, about 1.5km east of the town, another low-key suburb, Medawatta, is popular with long-term surfers who come here to ride waves of up to 4m at Secret Point, best between November and March.