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A road-tripper’s recipe to beach-hopping: Sri Lanka south coast





Nay-sayers said it couldn’t be done. Well-wishers said it probably shouldn’t be done.
The fact that the mercury would rise to its zenith high in the peak summer didn’t stop us from travelling to the southern coast of Sri Lanka last month. After a rickety eight hour bus-ride that saw us descending into the plains from the hill country, we reached the bustling sea-board town of Weligama. If you are travelling along the same route, keeping a day in hand for the Yala National Park would seem like the most obvious choice. However, short of money and time – my fiancé and I headed straight for the holy trinity of sun, sea and sand.



It would be safe to say that any road trip involves the road (duh!), a pair of trusty-ish wheels and at least one companion (who you will most likely fall out with at least once a day. But regardless the offense these silly skirmishes that start with ‘let’s stop for a cola’ have a knack to smooth itself out soon enough). Like life, which’s about the journey and not the destination, beach-hopping (which isn’t the same as beach-bumming as described by me here) too is more about the ingredients than the recipe itself.

Find your crockpot

Like a hearty stew that needs to simmer and brew, a good crockpot can either make or break the process. You don’t want to keep switching off the heat to transfer the broth from pan to pan. No. What you need is a base that can contain your anticipation and improvisation. For us, Weligama was that crockpot. It was big enough to accommodate all the holiday ingredients together yet not too big to become a cumbersome mess.
Beating the humdrum of the main Weligama Beach at this small cove.

Just a five minute walk from our home-stay.They call it Weligama Cape
Weligama was conveniently located giving us access to all the beaches we wanted to hop to within a 50km radius. It had a quaint town centre with cheap juice shops and milk bars around the bus stand and easy conveniences like mood shopping or like in our case – bike rentals. Away from all the buzz of mid-town heat, we settled down for the four day jaunt at a budget home-stay called Month Villa (Airbnb home-stay), a ten minute rickshaw ride from the city centre.

Marinate the meat overnight 

For obvious reasons, it’s live homo sapien meat I’m talking about here. And the secret to the recipe is keeping this meat un-dead and fresh throughout the prep and cook time. After reaching the home-stay around four, we marinated the evening with some chilled beers from the local wine shop and yummy kothu paratha at the juice shop.



Sautéing on high flame

The trick to browning the meat adequately is to hold it down on a hot pan for about 4 min on each side till it acquires a shiny caramel-ly sheen. Of course when the meat intrinsically comes in shades darker than caramel, sautéing will only deepen the tan into burnt-like-sienna. But like any self respecting diplomat (the keyword here is non-racist)I would like to add that no matter the colour of the sauted skin, the flesh, whether it is chicken race or human race, must not be cooked through and instead only partially softened to a moist bright “pink” (substitute pink with sunburn).

No. That's not me. Yes. I love the hat
Cooking like life is bound in time. But ever had the feeling that time has a mind of its own? That it can stretch itself out when you least want it to and flies by at breakneck speed when you’re having fun? Actually, a clever dude called Murphy already had this feeling a long time ago and even made some asinine laws after his own name (what a brag!)
Anyhoo, we got a chance to experience the whimsies of time first hand, at Mirissa. As though clinched from a travel catalogue of exotic beaches, Mirissa falls under the proverbial postcard variety of palm-fringed white sand beaches. A crescent cove littered with quaint beach shanties with chipped wooden chairs and hammocks - serving beer and snacks, if Gokarna had an exotic foreign cousin – Mirissa would be her. So languorous is her charm that we remain blissfully unaware of how the ten hours evaporated, leaving only the briny salt on our skin to speak for our hours of inactivity in the 40 degree tropical heat.


Care for some fish kothu paratha?

Toss in the tension with a dash of hope

The urge to stir in too many places in way too less time can be overpowering. But like a slow-cooked broth that leaves room for improvisation, whisk in your sense of self-discovery and trust the road to improve the flavour. 


The view along the Galle Road
If the ingredients were Unawatuna, Jungle Beach, Galle and Hikkaduwa - it would be safe to say that we hadn’t quite mastered the recipe for slow-cooking yet. It was more like the elimination round of Masterchef where we sped against the clock trying to squeeze all the punch out of the lemon. To make things even worse – we started late (no surprise there).The result was a bit hard to swallow but so is learning to appreciate life and each precious day that we’re alive.

The jungle before the Jungle Beach
I’m not going to elaborate much on Unawatuna or Jungle Beach. Only that Jungle beach, roughly 2km after Unawatuna (on the Galle – Colombo road) is tucked behind a dense forest only to open into the sea-face quite suddenly - it once must’ve been a beautiful private paradise. But then came things like commercialisation and sand-encroaching construction. In fact we knew this beforehand but well, even Alice B. Toklas knew what she was cooking (don’t ask).
On the other hand Hikkaduwa was quite the pleasant surprise. Earlier we had decided to give this one a skip till a fellow traveller we met in Kandy convinced us otherwise. And he was right! After a grueling day of hopping around dehydrated under the midday heat, we chased down the sunset at Hikkaduwa.


This thin stretch of beach runs for nearly five kilometres - out of which only one has been commercialised. It is so long that it leaves room for all kinds of taste. Whether you want to shake it in a trance bar or sip a beer and brew over beautiful horizon or just want to be left alone with nothing but the sound of bids and the surf for company – just keep walking and you’ll find your pleasures.




Quiet evenings at Ranjith''s Rest and Bar., Hikkaduwa.

Or you could try the crab at the Moon Beam Restaurant

But when working with too many ingredients, it’s easy to miss something. And some time it turns out to be a very big miss. For us, this was Galle. Scalded and parched as we were crossing the city, we thought, ‘it’s Ok, we’ll come back here in the evening’. Turns out we were just way toooo deadbeat. I truly regret this one. I’m sure anybody who’s been there is probably murmuring – how could you... you were so close.

Season with a sense of adventure

The fun part about cooking or for that matter road- tripping is that some time you can just act on your instinct. Just as we were about to reach Tangalle, we came across this tiny board marking the way for the Blowhole. We took the right without a thought and followed the signs to wherever this Hole is. Turns out it’s quiet the cool phenomenon.
Apparently the Hummanaya Blowhole (named after the ‘hoo’ sound that comes from within it) in a small fishing village called Kudawella is the second largest in the world. The cliff facing the sea has a narrow fracture 20m deep. As waves crash into the rocks the pressure pushes the water up like a natural fountain - often blowing up to about 30m with a loud whoosh sound. With a breathtaking view of the ocean it was an exhilarating experience.


Hummanaya Blowhole




On your way to the Blowhole, you will see women selling all sorts of fried and dried fish. It’s where I also had my first taste Soursop juice. The texture of the fruit is a lot like guava that leaves this tingling sweet aftertaste. But here's a random picture because I was too busy eating and ogling at all the fish

Umami: The mysterious taste of Tangalle

Pronounced ‘ooh-mummy’ the Japanese call it the ‘mystic flavour’ or like the famous chef Raymon Blanc describes it as ‘layer upon layer of velvet and silkiness’, Tangalle for us was umami. Picture indigo blue ocean, white soapy surf, moss covered rocky promontories that make for natural Jacuzzis and tropical fruits – the only thing missing was a glass of champagne. And James Bond (I’m thinking Pierce Brosnan). Tangalle could easily be one of those unheard-of exotic beaches where multimillionaire Russian spies parading their porcelain girls meet to plan their next heist.






Screwpines. Or what we Indians call Kewra. The distilled water extracted from this tropical fruit is a key ingredient in our Biriyanis





Moss covered rocks. Watch your step now!
Slightly delirious from the heat and the blinding blue of the Indian Ocean, we walked down the sandy beach, awed by everything. Even if there were certain faults, we completely missed them because clearly love is blind. Like for instance, Tangalle despite being the paragon of peace and tranquillity, the ocean was anything but. The undercurrents are extremely strong and make swimming almost impossible. Of course you could sun-bathe but that’s not my thing (since I’m naturally tan-coloured). Instead we settled into that Jacuzzi I was talking about (no, it wasn’t a figment of my James Bond imagination).


Did I say Jacuzzi? Yea, right there behind that rock is a 3 feet tub-like dent in the rock

Beach finds
We had tasted Tangalle and our brains were unanimously going ‘mmmm’ – we were floored – we were umamied.


NOTES


Rekawa Beach (close to Tangalle) – a 3km long protected beach where depending on the season turtles come to lay eggs almost every day. There’s a famous BBC documentary on the turtles – chances are most of us have seen it
Polhenna Beach (another detour from the Matara - Tangalle road): Nice spot for snorkelling and I hear turtles come to say hi
Weligama Cape: This is the secret cove I was talking about behind our home-stay. It’s roughly 3 km down along the Galle Road from Weligama bus stand. You will need to make a left into one of the side lanes
I heard Bentota is a nice quiet beach from the same source who changed my mind about Hikkaduwa. It was on our go-to list on the same day we went to Hikkaduwa (evil laugh at past self)
While I understand that the east coast is more famous among surfers, I still saw a lot of people carrying surf-boards in the south and not one person surfing. Weird, right?
On the right side of the Blowhole, like literally if you are facing the mouth of the hole from the centre. After you go about fifteen metres to the right, the path thins out into a narrow pagdandi that runs into the undergrowth. While we really wanted to explore ahead, we didn’t have time and we were dressed for the beach and not a trek. May be if you’ve been there or planning to go soon, let me know what I missed.
All the beaches mentioned above have some crazy good sea-food joints (Hikkaduwa especially). Because my love for food supersedes my love for documenting things - usually the thought of taking pictures strikes me on a full stomach. With no proof to the pudding here, it’s going to be a bit hard to believe when I say how good it was.
To be fair, if you prefer more happening places to quiet deserted beaches, Unawatuna might just be your umami. Only, not my kind of thing.
Having a camera is handy but holding onto a rocking boat in the middle of the sea with five different lenses and light diffusers and whatnots is a whole different story. Keep things light; trust a 50mm to do the job.



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