The north-west coast begins with the popular beach resort of Negombo – only a few miles from the international airport – but venture further north for whale and dolphin spotting, game parks and lagoons. Negombo apart, the remote coastal towns to the far north, Kalpitiya and Mannar, remain untouched by mass tourism. Wilpattu is arguably Sri Lanka’s most scenic national park, the seas off the coast of Kalpitiya are home to dolphins and whales while Mannar is a haven for exotic migrant birds from October to March. A largely unchanged region awaiting discovery.
The north-west coast, beginning from Negombo, is easily reached from the Bandaranaike International Airport in Katunayake. Negombo is only 15 minutes from the airport and less than hour from the capital. Heading north up the A3, you can either head up a narrow land strip to Kalpitiya, or reach Wilpattu game park and Mannar by remaining on the main A3.
The coastal towns just north of Colombo, including Negombo, Marawila, Chilaw, Kalpitiya, Puttalam and Mannar, rich with cinnamon and spices, have attracted traders since the 5th century. Many of those traders settled in the area, including the Portuguese and Dutch in more recent history.
Those cooking independently can buy fresh seafood straight from the fishing boats as they come ashore in the mornings. Negombo’s fish auction at the harbour is also worth a look. Negombo, Kalpitiya and Mannar have a few grocery stores, pharmacies and banks.
From December to April, hundreds of dolphins can be seen off the shores of Kalpitiya. The giant blue whale is another occasional visitor. Migrant birding season in Mannar is from October to March when flamingos and other water birds in their hundreds line the lagoons and waterways. In August each year a colourful perehara, including fire walking, takes place in Chilaw, organised by the Munneswaram Kovil.
Negombo follows the weather patterns of Colombo, only 20 miles to the south, and has its best weather between December and April, also being affected by the south-west monsoon which brings rain from May to July. By the time you travel up the north-west coast as Mannar, however, the picture is much more different: a dryer landscape for much of the year with the bulk of the rain falling from October to December – a weather pattern typical of the north-east monsoon. There is also an inter-monsoonal period of unsettled weather in October.
Old fishing crafts such as the ‘oruwa’ or catamaran with its bellowing sails, are used by Negombo’s fisherman and is characteristic to this part of the island. The majestic view of the catamarans as it sets sails into the sunset is a wonderful sight. The deep sea off the Gulf of Mannar in Kalpitiya is home to dolphins, whales, stingrays and several species of Marine turtles. Watersports are also available here. Sri Lanka’s largest salt-water wetlands, the Muthurajawella marshes, lie south of the Negombo lagoon. A century’s old network of canals, linking Colombo’s seaport to Negombo, still function as active waterways and can be explored by boat, or by cycling or walking along sections of the path.
North east of Puttalam is the beautiful Wilpattu National Park, with a chance to see leopards, elephants, sloth bear, water buffalo, deer and many birds. Covering an area of 131,000 hectares from the Northwestern coast to the north-central province, Wilpattu is one of Sri Lanka’s oldest wildlife parks. Situated away from the common tourist routs, Wilpattu is unspoilt and can be enjoyed in tranquil seclusion. What it may lack in animal stocks it makes up for in tranquillity.
Bird watching is rewarding in Mannar during the migrant season when flamingos and numerous other birds line the lagoons and waterways. The Giants’ Tank, constructed more than 1,500 years old, is also popular for boating and fishing. Adam’s Bridge is a 30km expanse of 18 sand banks which connect the island of Sri Lanka to India; part of the legend of Ramayana. Just as the sandbanks link India to Mannar Island, a causeway links Mannar Island to the Sri Lankan mainland. Arippu Fort was built by the Portuguese in the 17C, whilst the ruins of Doric House date back to the first British Governor of Ceylon, Sir Frederick North.