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The Second Wave

Published: The Scotsman (Section: TSMAG)  27 Dec 2008

Travel guides have not been kind to Hikkaduwa on Sri Lanka’s south-west coast – but for surfers it comes close to heaven.

POOR Hikkaduwa – first it was flattened by the Boxing Day tsunami in 2004, and now, after a period of intensive rebuilding and regeneration, the guidebook writers seem determined to make it sound like hell on earth. In their most recent editions, both the Lonely Planet and Rough Guide lay into the town’s outdated accommodation, its noisy, polluted main drag and its general lack of style.

If you’re a surfer, though, or the sort of traveller who would rather hang out at a laid-back beach party than join the buffet queue at some plush but dull superhotel, this much-maligned corner of south-western Sri Lanka is still pretty close to heaven.

During the main tourist season, which lasts from December to May, the power-shower rains of the west coast monsoon die down, the wind drops to a balmy whisper and swells born in the vast expanse of the Great Southern Ocean light up Hikkaduwa’s reefs and beaches, producing some truly spectacular waves.


The sea here is bathwater warm, the air temperature hovers around 30C all year and the soft, white sand beach is lined with swaying palm trees, vivid tropical flowers and jaw-droppingly cheap cafes, bars and guesthouses, many of which are the epitome of ramshackle charm.

Wasantha Wickramasekera, 39, was working at one of these surfside watering holes, the Funky Bar, when the tsunami hit Sri Lanka four years ago.

“The first wave that came was very rough and very fast,” he says. “It came here into the bar, picked up all the chairs and tables and then carried them back out to sea.

“Then the sea went out – right out – and the reef was completely exposed. There were fish jumping out on the reef and bubbles coming up through the sand. A few minutes later I saw the sea coming very high so I started running. Some guys went out on to the reef to get the fish when the sea went out. Now they are all gone.”

The tsunami claimed the lives of some 40,000 people in Sri Lanka, including 3,000 in Hikkaduwa. Wickramasekera lost his father and his house, but he has since rebuilt his life and is now one of ten surf guides working at the Funky Bar. For RS600 (GBP 4) he or one of his colleagues will rent you a board and leash for an hour and show you the best place to paddle out depending on your ability: Main Point for the more experienced; Inside Point for intermediates and the uninitiated. Both are close to the Funky Bar, so you won’t have to go far to refuel.

Tourism is the fourth largest foreign currency earner in Sri Lanka after clothing and textiles, foreign remittances and tea, so in the aftermath of the tsunami, rebuilding the country’s shattered tourist infrastructure was a high priority. Some of the larger hotels in Hikkaduwa are as ugly as they’ve always been, but one or two have really benefited from an enforced refit. The last time I was here, in the late 1990s, the Reefcomber (which occupies a prime beachside location just south of the snorkelling and diving mecca of the coral sanctuary) was pleasant, functional but a little rough around the edges. Post-tsunami, however, it’s been rebranded as the Amaya Reef and is looking extremely stylish, with a tastefully renovated water’s- edge dining room and an elegantly minimalist reception area that opens directly on to a swimming pool and landscaped gardens.

For the last couple of years, according to locals, business in Hikkaduwa has been down on pre-tsunami levels but not disastrous. The 2008/09 season, however, is shaping up to be very lean indeed thanks to a combination of the global recession and renewed fighting between government forces and Tamil separatists. Sri Lanka’s newish president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, is currently overseeing a military campaign intended to defeat the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) once and for all. The local TV news is full of reports of fierce fighting in the Vanni – the Tigers’ northern heartland – and Colombo is plastered with banners showing politicians congratulating victorious soldiers.

If (big if) Rajapaksa is able to defeat the LTTE and if (even bigger if) he is then able to win peace by somehow making the Tamils feel like equal partners in a multi-ethnic Sri Lanka, then normality should return and tourist trade should pick up. For the time being, though, travellers need to be on their guard.

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office currently advises against any travel to the north and east of Sri Lanka, and to Yala National Park in the south-east. It also warns: “There is a high threat from terrorism in Sri Lanka. In 2008, fatal attacks have become more frequent. They have occurred in Colombo and throughout Sri Lanka, including in places frequented by expatriate and foreign travellers. Further attacks may occur at any time.”

Nowhere are the calamitous economic side-effects of the war more marked than in the sleepy fishing town of Welligama on Sri Lanka’s idyllic south coast. In the late 1990s, when hostilities were at a relatively low ebb, the town’s Bay Beach Hotel was packed out with tourists, particularly divers and snorkellers, there to explore the colourful reef just offshore. This year, however, the place was completely deserted early in the season, with precious few bookings on the horizon. Most of the hotel is still in good condition and the staff couldn’t be friendlier, but there are already signs that the Bay Beach’s days might be numbered. One part of the building appears to have been abandoned due to water damage and the clay tennis court, so proudly maintained in years gone by, looks as if it is about to be swallowed up by the surrounding jungle.

Wherever you go in Sri Lanka, people are full of gloomy news about the state of the tourist industry, whether it’s rumours of cancelled charter flights or reports of cruise ships quietly dropping Colombo from their itineraries. If you’re prepared to take a chance on the security situation, however, it’s still an incredible place to visit, even if you confine yourself to its relatively safe south-western corner.

Colombo, the capital, is a bewildering, hundred-mile-an-hour blast of a place – and a shopper’s paradise. Check out the Pettah market in the city centre, where you can pick up anything under the sun for a few rupees if you’re prepared to haggle, or Barefoot on Galle Road for contemporary Sri Lankan textiles, arts and crafts. And to escape the madness of it all, the time-warped Galle Face Hotel is a must. Past guests include Richard Nixon, Indira Gandhi, Emperor Hirohito and Yuri Gagarin. If you’re booking a room, ask for the classic (old) wing and soak up the faded colonial atmosphere, but even if you’re just passing, you can still stop off for a traditional English high tea on the seaside veranda.

If the capital is exhausting, the ancient port city of Galle has such a soporific vibe you’ll have a hard time keeping your eyes open as you wander its winding, sleepy streets. Colonised first by the Portuguese, then by the Dutch and finally by the British, the town’s Fort area is stuffed full of architectural delights, including several hugely expensive boutique hotels.

For an intriguing snapshot of the town’s chequered colonial past, it’s worth paying a visit to the Historical Mansion Museum. Based in an old Dutch-era house on Leynbaan Street, it contains an eclectic antiques collection featuring everything from cigarette lighters, pens, spectacles and snuff bottles to Dutch plates and British teapots – not to mention an assortment of old swords and pistols. You’ll almost certainly be steered into the jewellery shop at the end of your tour, but unless you’re in the market for a fat sapphire, ask to see the antiques on sale – a treasure trove of unique, quirky gift ideas.

From a security perspective, Sri Lanka’s famous hill country is also very much “in bounds”, and after the heat and bustle of the coast, the cooler temperatures and manicured order of the tea plantations act as a balm for the easily frazzled northern European soul. The area around Hatton is dominated by the towering pinnacle of Adam’s Peak – a pilgrimage site for Buddhists, Christians, Muslims and Hindus – and offers endless hill walking opportunities. It’s relatively easy to access from Colombo and stunningly beautiful.

Meanwhile, a little further to the south, the Sinharaja rainforest reserve is home to carnivorous pitcher plants, purple-faced leaf monkeys, giant millipedes and an array of ludicrously exotic-looking birds. Twitchers visiting the area have been known to spontaneously combust with joy.

Of course, the prudent thing would be to avoid visiting Sri Lanka until the fighting stops – many observers seem to think the end could be just around the corner. Then again, if you had decided to defer a visit in 1983, when hostilities began, you’d probably still be waiting to book a flight. smFactfile sri lanka

HOW TO GET THERE

n Sri Lankan Airlines (0208 538 2001, www.srilankan.lk) operates regular flights from Heathrow to Colombo. Prices start from GBP 476.

n Return flights from Scotland to Heathrow start from GBP 85 with British Airways (www.ba.com).

WHERE TO STAY

n In Colombo, the Galle Face Hotel (00 94 11 254 1010, www.gallefacehotel.com). Doubles from GBP 36 per night.

n In Hikkaduwa, the Amaya Reef (00 94 91 438 3244, www.amayaresorts. com). Doubles from GBP 52.50 per night.

AND THERE’S MORE

n Driving in Sri Lanka is not for the faint-hearted and public transport can be iffy. The solution is to hire a car and driver. Kumara Tours and Travels, based in Colombo, offers excellent service at very reasonable rates. Tel: 00 94 11 257 2687.

n Scotsman Reader Holidays has trips to Sri Lanka in 2009 with Oceanic Travel, tel: 0131-538 2434 (ref Scotsman).

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