A Surf Spot with Style
Arugam Bay, Sri Lanka
So what does the average Antipodean know about Sri Lanka?
They play good cricket, it’s near to India and it is hot. Not much by all accounts! When my boyfriend suggested we go to Sri Lanka for our much needed summer holiday, I initially scoffed at the suggestion. My immediate response was, “The only reason why you want to go there is so you can do a surf trip with the boys!” And surf trip we did, but much to my surprise – in the most relaxing, stylish way possible.
So we packed our bags for Arugam Bay, 2 surfers and myself, all of us desperate for a break from the smoke of London. Aragum Bay is an isolated surf spot on the Eastern Coast of Sri Lanka. It is briefly referred to in the Lonely Planet as the spot where diehard surfers head. It is, in fact, an 8-hour trip from Colombo, Sri Lanka’s capital and base of the international airport. We were fortunate enough to have a contact based in Colombo, who offered to drive us to Aragum Bay. He was keen to make the trip as he thought he might be able to drum up some business on the Eastern Coast. Sadly he was a little disappointed to learn that we had our hearts set on Arugam and were not at all interested in the tourist attractions of Trinco, where he valiantly tried to persuade us to go.
Sadly for him and embarrassingly for us, the trip was an exhausting experience; eight hours of chaotic traffic trucks, tuk-tuks, heat and for the last three hours of the trip, pot-holed roads. Thankfully there were a few welcome highlights to the journey which relieved the tedium; strangely a sit down dinner at a very posh Chinese restaurant in Kandy (our guide’s idea of the ultimate in hospitality!), a swim with the locals as they took their evening bath at sunset, and most excitingly, a full-grown elephant taking a late night stroll across the main highway, sauntering in front of our car.
Thinking I was driving to the end of the earth, we finally arrived to the most beautiful of hotels, The Stardust, at the bridge end of the Arugam village. The Stardust was known to be the most expensive hotel at the beach. But on the basis that it was £10 per day, I figured we deserved a treat from the demands of London and believe me – it was worth every penny! Walking into a courtyard of frangipani trees and palms, I felt the sand slip through my toes and knew I was in for the holiday I had been waiting a very long time for. We were meandered out to our bungalow, which was styled in a colonial fashion, with low-slung, dark stained beams, dark antique drawers and a desk, and a simple bed with a quilted throw. The bathroom was clean and compact, with a squat toilet – which although intimidating at first, I actually became familiar with very quickly, and built up some good muscle tone in the process!
It took a bit of time to get used to the super-high level of service offered by the Stardust. Not being accustomed to silver service, I found it slightly off-putting when Ramesh, the head waiter brought me tea in bed, poured the tea for me and even stirred in the sugar. Thankfully I got over this pretty quickly and adjusted to my new comfort levels with relative ease! The menu on offer was outstanding. Seated in a formal dining room, with open sides, looking out to the courtyard and bungalows, it had a formal, yet tropical feel. The menu was extensive, with both traditional Sri Lankan and Western food on offer. Highlights for me included the fruit plate for breakfast, the prawn curry, the unforgettable homemade vanilla ice cream, and the best gin and tonics, served in the relative cool of the evening on the beach.
As our holiday was originally planned to be a surf trip, some of the consideration did need to be given to this issue. The place to surf was off the point, a gruelling 25-minute walk with our surfboards tucked under arms, in 30-degree heat. We set off along the beach, pasty, covered in indiscreet sun block and looking very much the part of the classic tourist. At the point were a thatched roof shack, a few locals and a few bench seats. Certainly no Carlsberg on tap at this local hangout! The boys were pretty keen to get out there, so with wetsuits and yet more sunscreen on, they braved the waves for the first time, which thankfully were rather unimpressive.
I busied myself on one of the benches at the café. Being at least 30 degrees, I was not quite ready for any hard-core sun exposure, so I set myself up with a book under one of the coconut palms, hoping that those coconut falling stories were exactly that!
This was my first trip to Asia, and I was as I think most European women are at first, quite uncomfortable being surrounded and watched by such an entourage. When I went into the café, and asked for a Coke, I felt like I had asked for pan-baked tuna with a pesto sauce. The look I was given made me feel like I was asking the impossible. Anyway having finally secured my Coke, I scuttled out and kept to myself for the next couple of hours, waiting for my boys to come back in.
Come in they did, looking sunburnt, barely having caught a wave between them. Citing general unfitness, they slumped onto the bench and we were immediately surrounded by a group of locals, who were completely fascinated by them and hung off their every word. In this grouping they started to include me and talk to me, asking me the odd question, which was a relief, having felt so isolated and different yet a few moments before.
There was of course the issue of modesty, something else I had never had to consider seriously before at a beach resort. Although it was unbelievably hot, I kept my shirt and denim skirt (bad choice) on all day, as I didn’t want to attract any more attention than I was already receiving. On the way back from the surf spot, and desperate for a swim, I braved the water. I waded into what looked to be the only swimming lagoon on the beach – a calm spot where a number of other women and children were bathing. In I went in a top and skirt, feeling slightly ridiculous, but at least covered. Everyone stared – I felt like I might as well have been wearing a string bikini. Fortunately as the days moved on and we settled into our holiday, I started to get more and more comfortable about this. I got used to making the long walk up and down the beach, being stopped by young boys and friends wanting to shake my hands and chat. I even got brave enough to start swimming with my sarong around my waist, and then gave up all together on modesty and just stripped down to my bikini.
Aside from lounging at the beach and of course in the comfort of The Stardust, there was little else for me to do, which suited me just fine. The boys were suitably knackered from their surfing, so we all slipped into the easy routine of an afternoon siesta, priming us up for our afternoon drinks on the beach in the evening. A highlight of the trip for us all was the elephant tour. We were picked up by Sammy – an 18 year old local and his mate in his tuk-tuk. With Bob Marley blaring from the speakers in the back and a few beers in our hands, we rocked out of town in the evening sun, towards the national park. Within about 25 minutes of potholed roads, we slowed down to see no less than 40 elephants grouped on either side of the road. They were about 200 m away, blinking in the sunlight, so gracious and unaffected, by this main highway that seemed to run right through their home.
After eight days of rest and relaxation at Arugam, it was time for me to make the arduous haul back to Colombo airport. I left sun drenched and happy, having had my final gin and tonic on the porch outside, and would thoroughly recommend a visit to any traveller keen to experience a surf beach with a real difference.