Bentota is 62km from Colombo and begins on the southern side of the Bentota River, which is also the border between the Western and Southern Provinces. In Sinhala, it is Bentara, and the river is the Ben Ganga. If you drive down to Bentota for the day, you’ll breathe a sigh of relief as you cross over the river by the road bridge. Why? Because the suburbs seem to slip away and the heavy concentration of houses and traffic along the Galle Road from Colombo thins out. At last you know you are beside the seaside.
Bentota is halfway between Colombo and Galle. The mouth of the river, which forms a long lagoon, is used for jet-skiing and banana-raft riding.
When the British built the railway along the coast (in 1877- 1890) beaches were not valued as a resource as they are today. The locals used them only for domestic purposes or for parking their handmade, palm wood, fishing boats. Foreigners, with their delicate complexions, shunned the sun and the closest they would get to the beach would be a shaded verandah for a sundowner. The British saw no reason to preserve the tranquillity beside the sea and so they laid the railway line along the beach’s edge.
That’s why hotels in Bentota today have to share the shore with the rail track, with the thunder of the occasional train from dawn to late evening competing with the splash of waves. By road, you cross the railway line that runs between Alutgama and Bentota stations, just before crossing the river. The railway line and the river are markers to watch for as they indicate that Bentota is beginning. Blink, and you’ve driven through it.
There is no real town at all, just a few shops given over to tourist knickknacks, the man-made lake awaiting its development as a tourist attraction, a couple of monstrous wayside park-and- eat joints, and then the road and the railway line meet again, and you have left Bentota and are driving through Induruwa with glimpses of the beach beyond palm groves. Go to Bentota for the day by the right train (Number 40 from Colombo Fort station at 0900, arrives Bentota at 1027) and you can alight at Bentota railway station. This has a single platform (with a guest house adjoining it) and a footbridge over the rail-way line to a picnic area beside the beach. There are two open-sided pavilions there for anyone to enjoy a party free of charge, and a shower and toilet facility.
The rest of the beach is walled off from the road by hotel premises.
On Sundays and holidays, locals enjoy the hotels’ lunch buffets, pools, and bars on a pay-for-the-day basis. Otherwise the beach is usually very sparsely populated as visitors loll in the hotel gardens or splash about in the hotel pools. The more energetic might stroll along the magnificent strand of golden sand that stretches for five kilometres from the river mouth in the north, where Alutgama swelters on the opposite bank of the lagoon, to the deserted sands beyond Induruwa. When Bentota’s potential for tourism was first recognised in the 1970s, a National Tourist resort was created there, embracing the beach frontage land for a structured 100-acre complex. The early commercial architecture of Geoffrey Bawa is in evidence as he created a shopping arcade (it still seems to be looking for customers), and a toy town square complete with bank, post office, police station, resort authority bungalow, and the railway station. Hotels sprung up on the shore, mostly built under Bawa’s influence with a preponderance of white avails and angular concrete frames, although the stark architecture has become softened over the years with luxuriant frangipani trees and a patina of age wrought by the sea’s breezes. The stolidity of its buildings helps to create Bentota’s aura of respectability. It seems to be a staid, middle level resort, with none of the hustle and hankypanky associated with its southern neighbour, Hikkaduwa, or skimpy beaches of Kalutara to its north. It has the best beach of them all. You can swim happily off Bentota’s beach, and there is a life guard hut alongside the picnic area. Red flags are flown when the sea is considered too rough. Non swimmers should beware of going too far out as the beach shelves rapidly and strong currents swirl.
Some 20 years ago, when tourism was in its youth, the beach used to be thronged with independent travellers who walked there from their inland guest houses. Beach vendors offered bananas, jelly nuts (thambili) to drink, sun hats and even cool drinks. Now you must bring your own.
Tourists on all inclusive packages who pack the Bentota hotels don’t have as much fun as the independent day trippers who explore the place. A river trip is easy to arrange, either in a local catamaran rowed energetically by its young owner, or by outboard motor launch to explore the byways of this magnificent river.
A whole day river cruise could include a visit to a village hideaway for a special rice and curry lunch, and even a local wedding ceremony performance. Crocodiles are rare now but there are plenty of water monitors and river birds. It is delightfully relaxing to cruise along the river, detached from the rest of Sri
Lanka, wallowing in one’s own -wonder at the magnificence of the riverine scenery.
Inland village life has changed for the best over the years, as residents find employment in the tourist industry to supplement their incomes from fishing and farming. Many smart guest houses and mini-hotels have sprung up, sometimes with sponsorship from tourist partners, others as an independent venture for guests who want a home-stay atmosphere instead of the buffets and bingo of the package-tourist resorts.
Miss Bentota and drive off the Galle Road at Alutgama inland through Dharga Town and you’ll discover Brief Garden. It was a 23-acre rubber estate before its transformation by Bevis Bawa (brother of Geoffrey) into an elaborate -whimsical fantasy combining European classicism with a lavish tropical layout.
While the area’s history has been overwhelmed, there are temples -with long pedigrees. The historic Galapatha Raja Maha Vihare (royal patronage temple) built from 600 to 900 years ago. It contains stone inscriptions, stone carvings, pillars, ponds and troughs from the medieval period. The Wanawasa Temple
is an ancient forest hermitage.
Bentota is not just for the meditative. There is action too. The Club Intersport, which is part of the Bentota Beach Hotel complex, has all kinds of water sports facilities available for the day visitor. There is a gym, a swimming pool, and squash and tennis courts. The hotel itself is popular for tourists coming to Get married on all-inclusive wedding/honeymoon packages. Its rooms have views of the sea or the magnificent lagoon where, close to the river mouth, the Ceysands Hotel enjoys the pretense of being on an island. Access to this popular resort is only by hotel ferry from a private jetty off a road behind the Alutgama Police Station.
You can arrange to have scuba diving lessons at the water sports centre of the Lihiniya Beach Hotel, a popular venue for locals having an enjoyable day out. The adjoining Serendib Hotel, built parallel to the horizon and with access through a meandering tropical garden straight on to Bentota’s famous strand
of sand, has long been a favourite of foreign tourists, many of whom become enthusiastic repeaters. With its simple lines, free of clutter, it has a beguiling charm.
More upmarket, and just beyond Bentota’s railway border, is Saman Villas with luxuriously furnished mini-villas and a swimming pool breathtakingly perched atop a cliff. Further south, on the headland at the other end of this section of the curving beach, astride the Galle Road at a prominent corner, stands the Induruwa Beach Hotel. Its atmosphere is over whelmingly holiday; it is the archetypical beach resort: few frills
and lots of fun.
Bentota is the home of the Bentota Aida Group, the enterprise of a local man, universally known as Aida, who started working life making jewellery. He is now chairman of a group that includes Aida Ayurveda and Holistic Health Resorts, specialising in natural rejuvenation therapy. One is on the bank of the Bentota River, and the other is a seaside ayurveda hotel by the 67km post on the Galle Road at Induruwa.
Opposite Aida’s Induniwa Hotel, is the Gimanhala Restaurant, which excels in food that is ‘simply Sri Lankan’ served speedily with a smile. For international cuisine in pavilions overlooking the river, try Aida’s Restaurant, which is behind Aida’s Gem & Jewellery emporium in Bentota. The restaurant is linked by a gallery to the brand new extension of Aida’s Bentota Hotel. This has bright, comfortable rooms in a lush, tropical setting right by the river.
Don’t be surprised to see an elephant lumbering along the Galle Road carrying its lunch of leaves under its trunk. Elephant rides are popular on the beach and horse riding is another pastime that’s beginning to catch on. Rural crafts can be seen too. On the river bank there is a coir (coconut fibre) yard. Look up at the right time of the year and you will see agile men bounding along ropes linking the tops of coconut trees to tap toddy. This is the sap of the coconut flower that makes an effervescent beverage, like nature’s
champagne. Distilled, it becomes Sri Lanka’s equivalent of France’s cognac, pure coconut arrack.
There are spice gardens by the Galle Road at Bentota, and thatched wayside kiosks where you can buy a king coconut to drink.
Gaudily-painted carved masks (from the devil dancer’s wardrobe) make unusual souvenirs. Old and reproduction furniture can be bought from the selection of period pieces in the vast showroom of De Silva Antiques. If it’s too big to carry on the plane, the company will have it shipped to your home.
There is a daily train that stops at Bentota (at 1350) on its way from Galle to Colombo, where it is supposed to arrive at 1730. Or there are plenty of minibuses that can be hired from the journey back to Colombo if you miss the train (expect to pay around Rs3,000). Or perhaps you’ll stay for another day. Some tourists do; they like Bentota so much they buy a house there and never so home!