Sri Lanka is emerging as one of the world's coolest destinations, with growing numbers flocking to hotspots like the southern port town of Galle, and the tea plantation-covered hills of Kandy. Our advice? Avoid the crowds and head for Sri Lanka's east coast - before the rest of the world does the same.
1. The first reason to visit Sri Lanka's east coast: the beaches
Resorts are springing up in certain areas (Passekudah beach, north of Batticaloa, being one example) but the eastern coast is still dotted with endless stretches of powdery white sand. You'll likely your chosen beach entirely to yourself (barring the occasional crab). One of our favourites is Kalkudah beach, although we’re equally smitten with the stretch of coastline near Kuchaveli, with its deserted sands and palm-fringed bays.
Although resorts have made it to Passekudah beach it's not too busy © Thomas Dekiere/Shutterstock
2. The lack of crowds
While certain parts of the eastern coast are earmarked for future development (often with the creation of SEZs, or Special Economic Zones), other areas remain totally crowd-free. This includes the beaches north of Trincomalee, which avoided development during the civil war due to their close proximity to the frontline. The beaches near Uppuveli and Nilaveli are two other hidden gems worth checking out, as is Pigeon Island National Park, a protected area with a handful of strictly controlled designated dive spots.
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3. The wildlife
Don’t be surprised to spot dolphins and whales just offshore – huge pods of up to 1,000 dolphins are regularly spotted off the east coast. You don’t have to be a scuba diver to appreciate the fantastic marine life – slip on a snorkel to spot reef sharks, sea turtles and enormous rays. The wildlife isn't only beneath the water here – beautiful Arugam Bay, near the southern end of the eastern coast, is a great base for explorations of Yala East National Park and Kudumbigala Forest Hermitage, a reserve famous for its birdlife.
A pod of dolphins along Sri Lanka's east coast © Marcel Bettonville/Shutterstock
4. The diving
Sri Lanka is quickly emerging as one of the world's top diving destinations, and there are fantastic dive spots all along the eastern coast. The best time to dive here is between May and October. The shallow waters off Nilaveli Beach make it a popular snorkelling spot, and scuba divers come here to explore the nearby shipwreck. This is also where you'll find Pigeon Island National Park, famous for its colourful corals, reef sharks and turtles. Trincomalee, with its enormous harbour (the largest natural harbour in the world) is popular with scuba divers. There are dozens of shipwrecks here, including the remains of British fighter planes. There are more shipwrecks at Passekudah, another great spot for snorkellers.
5. The food
Perhaps unsurprisingly, seafood reigns supreme in this part of Sri Lanka. You can expect fragrant seafood curries, livened up with local ingredients such as mackerel, green chillies, mustard, turmeric and coconut. Eastern Sri Lanka's culinary offerings are deliciously varied, partly because of the presence of three major ethnic groups: Sinhala, Muslim and Tamil. Make sure you try thosai - delicious lentil pancakes especially popular in both the north and east of the country. Equally delicious are the various breads, whether freshly-baked roti, made with grated coconut, flour, water and salt, or delicious paratha flatbreads.
A street vendor selling fresh bread © Tamara Hinson
6. The history
Sri Lanka has a complicated history. During the civil war, the eastern coast was divided into territories controlled by government and LTTE forces. The latter were driven out in 2007, leaving a trail of destroyed towns, villages and once-thriving coastal resorts in their wake. This is one of the enduring reasons why the eastern coast remains largely untouched by tourism. The Dutch and Portuguese also left their mark, albeit in a less devastating way. Beautiful Dutch and Portuguese buildings dot the coastline - must-sees include Trincomalee's Fort Frederick, built by the Portuguese in the seventeenth century. Another, in Dutch Bay, is the fascinating Maritime and Naval History Museum, housed inside a colonial-style building. This mansion was once the official residence of the Dutch Naval Commissioner.
7. The holy sites
You’ll find some beautiful mosques and temples on the east coast. One such is including Dutch Bay's Koneswaram Hindu temple, teetering on a rocky outcropping overlooking the sea. It's one of the most famous temples in Sri Lanka, where local fishermen ask for protection from mother nature. The ruins of the Buddhist Velgam Vehera temple can be found on the outskirts of Trincomalee. Built in the second century AD, it was destroyed in 992 AD. It was then rebuilt using donations made by the people responsible for its destruction.
Sri Lanka’s capital, Colombo, may be on the western coast but we’re using the fact that it’s the main entry point into Sri Lanka as an excuse to give a shout out to one of the country’s most beautiful buildings – Jami-Ul-Alfar Mosque, otherwise known as the Red Mosque.
Koneswaram Hindu temple in Trincomalee ©saiko3p/Shutterstock
8. The surfing
Yes, really. Sri Lanka is quickly shaping up to be Asia’s hottest new surf spot (read more in our recent article here). The east coast’s weather is the opposite of the west – when it’s monsoon in the west, it’s sunny in the east. The best time to hang 10 is in between April and October. Laidback Arugam Bay is Sri Lanka's most popular surf spot, attracting everyone from locals to pros from around the world. Stand-up paddle boarding has taken off here, too.
A surfer braves the waves in Sri Lanka © Maciej Bledows
9. The improved access
The upside of the eastern coast’s growing popularity is that it’s becoming more accessible. That means more tour operators are offering organised explorations of the eastern coast. With tour operators offering everything from sailing tours to surf camps to completely bespoke itineraries, it's never been easier to explore Sri Lanka's east coast.
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Top image: Koneswaram temple of Trincomalee © Cezary Wojtkowski/Shutterstock