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sunset palms

Arugam Bay in the off season – a pleasant surprise

Sri Lankan tourism is heavily influenced by the two separate monsoon seasons that impact the island. This means that for most of the year, one half of the country is in ‘low season’, while the other is inundated with travellers from all over the world. In January as the crowd swelled and the prices kept rising on the South Coast, we decided to roll the dice and head East… it turned out to be a bloody good call.

Arugam Bay is a relatively small fishing village on the East Coast of Sri Lanka that has experienced a bit of a tourism boom in recent years thanks to the country’s most famous surf break. With a primarily conservative Muslim population and a fast expanding tourism industry, it’s a town in the midst of adolescence, slowly evolving while coming to terms with sometimes baffling contradictions. “No Bikini’s” signs are plastered along the main street outside shops selling skimpy swimwear, while the busy sounds of happy hour at the many ‘unlicensed’ bars compete with the wail of prayer call emanating from the village’s many mosques.

boats

Fishing boats on the Southern end of Arugam Bay

We were warned that all the shops would be closed, there would be no where to eat and it would rain for days on end. While the rain undoubtedly must sometimes come, we lucked out with 18 days of perfect weather. It rained just once, for a couple of hours, in the middle of the night. We spent our mornings and afternoons lapping up the sun and serenity – like most of the locals, we swung in shaded hammocks to avoid the baking midday heat.

And what of the shops and restaurants? While in peak season (April to September) there is definitely a lot more going on in ‘Abay’, we were still spoilt for choice with a huge number of amazing places to eat, without any of the crowds. We’ve heard about massive lines to eat at Hideaway, but we strolled straight in and enjoyed the freshest fish tacos on the island (seer fish caught that morning). We called ahead to the beautiful Dream Garden at Whiskey Point and were rewarded with authentic Italian pizza that the owner had rolled himself after our heads up the day before. Most nights we ate Khottu at Bambini’s (the number one Abay restaurant on Trip Advisor) with a handful of other tourists sitting at candlelit tables.

hammock

Swinging in a hammock at East Surf Cabanas

We’ve heard about some great parties in peak season and you won’t find much of that in the ‘winter months’, though there are still plenty of bars where you can enjoy a drink. There’s also plenty of wildlife around, and you don’t have to venture far before spotting crocodiles, monkeys and elephants.

One of the great advantages of visiting in the quieter months are the fantastic bargains you can find for accommodation. East Surf Cabanas quickly became one of our favourite spots in Sri Lanka. Located a short walk (but welcome separation) from the main street, East Surf is a small guest house run by the vivacious Italian import Rafaella and her partner Sudu, a local fisherman, animal spotter and all round expert guide. They were often accompanied by their young daughter Jada and Labrador puppy Jack.

They’ve built a small number of divine tropical cabanas, impeccably finished with thatch rooves, polished concrete, huge beds and private outdoor showers. A lot of their food is sourced from their own organic farm in nearby Panama and you can drink fresh water from any of the taps around the property. There’s a fridge to keep your beers cold, a kettle for piping hot tea and a blender for fresh smoothies or pinacoladas depending on how you feel.

One of the highlights at East Coast was the included breakfast. There are a range of choices (including vegetarian and vegan options), the highlights include Sudu’s famous spicy omelette, freshly toasted muesli with buffalo curd and a big Sri Lankan breakfast (string hoppers, dahl, potato curry, sambol and a fried egg). You can also order great meals for lunch and dinner – vegetarian curries and grilled fresh fish were our favourites.

To keep you occupied you can borrow a bike and ride through the rice paddies to Panama, stroll along kilometres of white sand beaches or go on safari. One downside to Arugam Bay in the off season is that there is no surf to speak of with constant onshore winds and closed out waves. It is definitely fishing season, which means finding a safe and secluded spot to sunbathe or swim requires a bit of planning.

If you’re happy to take a chance on the weather and don’t mind missing the surf, you should definitely consider the East Coast during ‘Monsoon’. There are great deals to be had on accommodation, plenty of delicious places to eat and fantastic beaches and wildlife without the crowds. We’re looking forward to heading north and checking out the rest of the coast!

Things to do in the off season:

  • Watch the sunset from Crocodile Rock or Elephant Rock
  • Fishing and a picnic at an organic farm in Panama
  • Walk to Whiskey Point
  • Take a cooking class
  • Rent scooters or pushbikes and explore the surrounding villages (be respectful and consider appropriate clothing)
  • For the foodies; explore the towns restaurants that remain open – local or not, there is still a surprising about on offer!
boat sunset

Sunset over the lagoon at Whiskey Point

*Note: we have no affiliation beyond affection for any of the businesses mentioned in this article. Here are some links if you want to check them out:

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