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.