The Guardian

MAN EATING SHARK

The exotic coastline of Sri Lanka is a great place to learn to surf says Alf Alderson, editor of Surf magazine.

It’s seventeen years since I first paddled out into the Sri Lankan surf, and I’ve yet to find a more mellow place to ride the waves. One of the American surfers who was with us at the time had brief cause to think differently though after chatting with a local fisherman.

In pidgin English he enquired “Is there man eating shark here?”. “Oh yes, many” replied the fisherman with an enthusiastic smile, at which the Yank started to look a little perturbed. Then the penny dropped. “Oh, no, no” cried the fisherman, “man eating shark, not shark eating man”. Yes, sharks are a staple part of the local diet, but to date surfers have yet to become a staple part of the shark’s diet.

And for the enthusiastic beginner it would be hard to find a better place to improve your surfing, especially since two weeks of warm waves and surf instruction here will cost you little more than two weeks in the cold, grey waves of Britain. Add to that the chance to take day trips to elephant sanctuaries, national parks where leopards, monkeys, crocodiles and other exotic creatures roam free, and spectacular cultural sites such as Sigiriya Rock Fortress, and it all rather leaves Newquay out in the cold in both senses of the word.

From December through to April, Sri Lanka’s south west coast is the base for a cosmopolitan bunch of surfers from all parts of the globe who come here not so much for the challenge of huge, ferocious waves but for the chance to surf easy, user-friendly breaks that seldom get big enough to be scary. And that’s what makes it so good for beginners, for whilst most of the waves break on reefs rather than beaches, they lack the raw power of more established surf destinations such as Hawaii and Indonesia and are far less likely to bounce you across the reef when you wipeout.

Even better, the main surf spot in the town of Hikkaduwa also has the equivalent of a skier’s ‘nursery slope’. Inshore of the main break here is a reef that gradually becomes buried beneath sand deposited by the waves over the winter (the sand is washed away again later in the year), and the broken waves that roll ashore over the sandy banks make for an ideal place to take your first steps at wave riding. This, along with the fact that the hassle of inserting yourself into a tight, smelly wetsuit a la UK is replaced by the minor inconvenience of slipping on boardshorts and smearing yourself in sun cream make for the nearest thing to surf paradise any beginner is likely to find.

Mark Griffiths from Kent certainly thought so after his first session in Hikkaduwa’s waves. “First and foremost as a novice you want to feel safe in the surf, and even on the reef I wasn’t too worried about wiping out” he said. Mark was also enthusiastic about the place as a family surf destination, and plenty of surf dads – and the occasional surf mum – are happy to leave their kids splashing about on body boards in the shallows whilst they surf the more challenging reef breaks offshore. Nick Ulczak of Sunset Surf Shop in Newquay is a regular visitor to Sri Lanka and has seen both his children learn to surf here – indeed, his daughter Jo is now one of the top female surfers in Cornwall and now visits the island with her boyfriend Alan Stokes, one of Europe’s best young professional surfers.

Beginners can also get reasonably decent lessons from local instructors, although admittedly they aren’t up to the level of qualified surf coaches in the UK, but surfing is very much about practice as much as theory and the best way to learn is to get out there and do it.

This mix of absolute beginners through to seasoned pros and hard core surf travellers is one of the best things about Hikkaduwa. Everyone tends to rub along well in the surf and in the beachfront bars and cafes, and it’s both encouraging and inspiring when you’re new to the sport to watch good surfers in action, and then chat to them over a beer and even pick up a few tips. There are few airs and graces amongst the surfers here, unlike many other surf spots around the world.

However, it can get busy out on the main break (known as the ‘A-Frame’ for the consistent apex-like peak that forms here), especially in February and March, and less experienced surfers may find it hard to get a wave to themselves. But if it does get too crowded, the smaller waves on the beach to the south are usually quieter and can be as much fun, and once you get confident surfing over reefs there are plenty of waves to be found down the coast at spots such as Unawatuna, Mitigama, and Mirissa when there’s a good swell running.

The combination of the events of September 11 and last summer’s terrorist bombings at Colombo Airport mean that Sri Lanka is suffering badly from a lack of visitors due more to the perceived than actual terrorist threat, and the exchange rate is very much in your favour. It’s highly unlikely you’d get caught up in terrorist action as the south west corner of the island is not a target, and neither are tourists, whilst the Sinhalese people are amongst the friendliest you’re ever likely to meet – even the street and beach hawkers walk away with a smile if you tell them you’ve bought 25 souvenir wooden elephants already.

But despite the laid back nature of the place you can’t relax too much on a surf holiday in Hikkaduwa since the best time to take on the ‘A-Frame’ is just after dawn, when fewer surfers are out and before the sun gets too intense and the wind turn onshore and messes up the waves. Just sitting astride your board waiting for a wave is a real pleasure – hot sunshine warms your back while on the reef below brightly coloured fish can be seen darting to and fro through the clear, glassy water. Occasionally a sea turtle may pop up to check out the action, and when you eventually take off on one of the clear blue walls of water that rise up from the horizon with surprising speed, you’re enjoying surfing about as relaxed and fun as it gets.

Once your session is over paddle back in, shower down and drip-dry at one of the array of beachfront cafes. Here, for under ?2, you can enjoy a breakfast which includes delicious fresh tropical fruits, whilst watching the action out on the waves and bullshitting with your new surf comrades. You may get the chance to catch a few more waves before the onshore wind kicks in around mid-day, after which most people sit in the shade of the palms and read a book or take a siesta until late afternoon when the wind generally drops off again, the waves take on a good shape once more and you can get in one more session before the tropical night falls like a shutter.

Compare this to fighting with wetsuits, cold winds and frigid waters in Britain and – well, and I know which of the two I’d go for every time.

WAY TO GO

Getting there
Flights to Colombo with the excellent Sri Lankan Airlines (0208 538 2000 srilankan.lk) cost around £350. From the airport take a shuttle (£20) for the 3-4 hour drive to Hikkaduwa and look for accommodation at the south end of town above the beach. The Hotel Moon Beam (0094 75 450657) is right in front of the surf breaks, has spotless double rooms with fans for around £12 per night, and a beachfront restaurant. Close by is the Brit-owned Sunbeach Hotel (sunbeachsurf.com) with similar rooms and prices and a restaurant serving excellent traditional Sinhalese meals. Both can arrange for transport to and from the airport.
Lanka Sportreizen (0094 1 824 500, LSR-srilanka.com) organise activity-based holidays featuring surfing, windsurfing, mountain biking and scuba diving from around £300 per person per week including accommodation but not flights.
Surf hire & lessons
The A-frame Surf Shop (0094 74 383216, mambo.nu/) above the beach in Hikkaduwa offers surf lessons and board hire for around £2.70 per hour and its instructors are registered with the Ceylon Tourist Board. Rates are reduced for multi-day hire.
Eating out
Hikkaduwa has some excellent restaurants serving everything from local cuisine to English and Italian-style meals, and you’ll be hard pushed to spend over £5 on a full meal with beers. Amongst the best are the Refresh Restaurant, the Cool Spot and Spaghetti and Co., all on Galle Road, the town’s main strip.
Other activities
If you want a break from surfing, try snorkelling on the local reefs; a trip up into the tea plantations and Raj town of Nuwara Eliya in the Hill Country, where it’s always much cooler than on the coast; or visit the wildlife rich Yala National Park to the east of Hikkaduwa.
Further information
Sri Lanka Tourist Board (0207 930 2627, lanka.net/cb).
Total flight time to Colombo: 11 hours
Country code: 00 94
Time difference: 6 hours
£1 = 130 rupees

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