Far from the madding crowd

Richard Browne
When in Hambantota, drop in to Mirissa, a sleepy beach-side town on Sri Lanka's southern coast

The south coast of Sri Lanka is a sleepy corner of the world, full of beauty but lacking in infrastructure. It is far less developed than the west coast in terms of tourism, and visitors with a taste for lazy days on dreamy tropical beaches, on the way to Hambantota or wanting a change of scene once there, should look no further than Mirissa - just west of Matara and an hour and a half's drive from Hambantota.

About a mile long, with thick palms blocking any noise from the road, the beach curves gently and offers plenty of shade from the ubiquitous palm trees. The sand and sea are spotlessly clean, and even if the beach has seen something of a tourist boom in the last two years, it remains essentially the same languid little piece of perfection it has always has been.

There are no high-rise hotels or aggressive peddlers of unwanted mementoes. The little beachside tavernas and guest houses are still privately owned, and very quickly the visitor will be made to feel totally at ease with the surroundings and the pace of life. Mirissa Hills is the nearest boutique hotel, Paradise Beach the most comfortable, and Central Beach Guest House the most charming of the beach-side abodes.

Mirissa's mellowness appeals to all age groups: while some teenagers have an impromptu party on the beach, the restaurant next door happily hosts a retired Danish couple having a huge fish supper, and further down the beach a small crowd of moonlight strollers gathers to watch a sea turtle come ashore to lay her eggs.

Mirissa is also coming to be known as the principal whale- and dolphin-watching spot in Sri Lanka. Research is still being undertaken to decipher whether or not the bay has the only non-migrating blue whales in the world, but come World Twenty20 time and the start of the official whale-watching season, there is a 90% chance of seeing them out in the ocean. Sperm whales, found in large groups, unlike their bigger cousins, blue whales, which travel as couples, and playful dolphins are there to be admired.

The day starts with a 6.30am pickup from wherever is convenient, then a traditional Sri Lankan breakfast of fish curry, hoppers and sambol on the boat, which docks in Mirissa fishing harbour, just round the bay from the main beach.There are two choices of vessel: a large catamaran that can hold 30 people, or a more intimate, faster experience on a speedboat. The expedition should cost around Rs 6500 to Rs 9200 respectively, and for those who enjoy rod-fishing, equipment can be provided if you let your hosts know in advance.

There is a strong emphasis on environmental sustainability, and the only real threat to the whales comes from the slipstreams of the big cruise ships that can be seen out in the distance, in the long queue to get into Colombo harbour, 150km away to the north. There is no history of eating or catching dolphins in Sri Lanka, so the watcher can be assured in the knowledge that Flipper and friends will still be there next week.

While it has made tentative first steps towards modernisation, Mirissa still does not have an ATM, although several guest houses now have wifi, and there are two internet cafés in the little village that runs along to the beach. For cash, Weligama is the port of call, three miles to the west.

Weligama is also perfect for beginner surfers. Mirissa has waves, but to the unacquainted they are generally vicious things that slowly get bigger before smashing the enthusiastic novice into the sea bed. Weligama is an altogether gentler introduction to the sport, and equipment and lessons can easily be obtained on the beach.

Mirissa has a large and colourful fishing fleet and polite enquiries to the fishermen about a day on their boat normally meets with a positive response after a few rupees have changed hands. Scattered along the south coast are the remnants of the once-thriving stilt-fishing industry - where fishermen sit on a stilt out to sea, with a rod, bait and an unbroken view of the Indian Ocean. Be warned, though, that the fishermen have become savvy about their photographic appeal to tourists and will expect remuneration for gracing your Sri Lanka photo album.

A trip to a Sri Lankan beach would not be complete without a healthy dollop of cricket and food, and Mirissa does not disappoint. Fish lovers are in for a treat. At night all the little wooden beach restaurants put their catch out to be inspected and prodded. Tuna, cuttle and butter fish, snappers of various vibrant colours, and for the more adventurous, barracuda are on offer.

Getting good Sri Lankan rice and curry outside of homes is trickier than you would think in Sri Lanka. Generally it is offered in buffet form and loses a lot of its subtlety for it. As a rule of thumb, in Mirissa if the restaurant requires you to order a meal beforehand (at lunch for dinner, say), then it should be fresh out of the pot. If a restaurant offers curries all day, it's safe to presume that they have been sitting around all day and are best avoided. Don't miss the delicious lady's fingers, jackfruit, beetroot and, of course, fish, or the national favourite, chicken curries. The spiciness of Sri Lankan food is a bit of a myth. It's generally the accompanying sambols that have the kick, but if you are a chilli hater, tell the restaurant and they will make sure that your mouth is not scorched.

Cricket is as popular in southern Sri Lanka as anywhere else on the island, but other than Sanath Jayasuriya, now MP for the Matara district, which includes Mirissa as a constituency, the region has not produced international cricketers of note. A lot of this is down to a lack of funding and the high cost of hard-ball equipment in a region that is not awash with cash, as well as the reluctance of talented cricketing-playing youngsters to up sticks to Colombo, where greater opportunities for international exposure await - along with a very different way of life.

There is always a game of cricket going on somewhere, played with distinctive long, curved bats, rubber balls rather than tennis ones, and a mix of cool (in every sense) locals and slightly perspiring holiday-makers. Those in the know look on with tittering amusement at the Europeans gingerly joining the local boys, who all seem to bowl boomerang-swinging deliveries like Lasith Malinga.

Inland, there are rivers to be explored, fluorescent-winged birds to be spotted, and Buddhist temples to be admired. Diving can be arranged from the beach, and morning joggers are sometimes spotted.

For the majority, though, Mirissa will simply be a place of blissful relaxation and a life-affirming memory, a vibrant contrast to the aridness of Hambantota.

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