Quiet villages on Sri Lanka’s southern coast are drawing a new crowd, finds Priyanka Pradhan
I glimpse storm clouds swirling on the horizon from my spot in the crystalline green waves. Training my eyes towards the rocky shore, I go over the instructions in my head: “Don’t look down at the board, look straight ahead. Ready? Stand up, NOW!” my trainer had roared earlier this morning, over the din of breaking waves.
I paddle frantically before squatting low on the longboard and ride the wave as far as I can, even as salty winds whip manic circles around me.
The rush is incomparable. Little wonder, then, that I find myself amidst hordes of international surfers, braving unpredictable rains and bellowing trainers in Hiriketiya, on Sri Lanka’s southern coast. While both beginners and experts enjoy the surf break and reef, the horseshoe-shaped bay’s gentle waves are forgiving for first-timers, too.
Hiriketiya is one of the most popular spots on the country’s surf map, brimming with swanky bars and artisanal co ee purveyors. Chefs and mixologists come trained from all over the world and live music acts take place every other night – an impressive lineup for a bay small enough to walk across in five minutes.
“Hiriketiya was initially a small surfing town, and saw a massive boom in tourism over the last five years,” says Don Ranasinghe, co-owner of the bar Smoke and Bitters. “We attract a young, fun-loving and inquisitive type of traveller.” Smoke and Bitters itself is also attracting global attention: after opening in 2020, it made it onto Asia’s 50 Best Bars list last year.
Despite the thriving nightlife, yoga classes are packed every morning. “Yoga ties in nicely with surfing,” says Mossad Marcel, a German yoga instructor. “It works towards relaxation and relieving pain or muscle strain that could be caused during surfing, so these classes are extremely popular on the coast – almost every B&B or hostel here comes with a yoga shala attached.”
“WE ATTRACT A YOUNG, FUN-LOVING AND INQUISITIVE TYPE OF TRAVELLER”
Farther west, Ahangama is a former fishing village turned surfers’ playground; many millennials arrive here in pursuit of work-surf balance. The co-working space Hari Hari House, which opened in Ahangama in 2020, has direct access to the ocean; here, boardrooms are even fitted with showers.
“Ahangama remains a boutique beach town which hasn’t succumbed to high-rise buildings, and the locals work hard to maintain a vibe similar to Tulum or Trancoso,” says Samath Gammampila, co-owner of Trax Ahangama, a popular speakeasy with jazz nights and Sunday brunches. “Increasingly, locals like ourselves are finding ways to bring a new dimension of style and local flavour.”
The crowd in neighbouring Midigama is younger and surfers are at either intermediate or expert levels. The mood is always upbeat here, as stunning sunsets segue into sundowners by the beach and open-mic evenings turn into raucous all- nighters. Lazy Left and Lazy Right are popular surf breaks, and surfers are reluctant to leave till after sundown or torrential rain, or both. The beach, with its slim shoreline and wild, untended edge, is also home to a large population of sea turtles, some of whom come to greet me in a rocky corner of the shore.
Fortune has not, of late, been on Sri Lanka’s side; but the challenges of the last few years have only strengthened the sense of community amongst locals, expats and travellers. “It’s because of what we all went through together, that this sense of community was born – first the Easter bombings happened, then the pandemic and now, crippling inflation,” says Paul Harding, who opened Harding Boutique Hotel in Ahangama in December. “All we want is for Sri Lanka to thrive again.”
Back in Hiriketiya bay, I plod towards the shore, surfboard in hand. The last few droplets fall heavily from the sky, making pockmarks in the sand. Wire-thin palm trees sway lazily when suddenly, the sun appears from behind the clouds, burnishing the sky into a familiar shade of blue. A sprightly garden lizard trots across the grassy edge of the beach to take a good look around.
It looks like the storm may have passed.