North of Colombo
Leaving Colombo most eyes look south, but for those with time on their hands and a sense of curiosity, or for those on the slow road towards Anuradhapura, then the northbound A3 heads out of Colombo, skirts some charming old Dutch canals, slides past some sandy beaches and gets utterly lost among a matted tangle of coconut groves and wildlife-filled woodlands.
Negombo is a modest beach town located close to Bandaranaike International Airport. With a stash of decent hotels and restaurants to suit all pockets, a friendly local community, an interesting old quarter and a reasonable (though polluted) beach, Negombo is a much easier place to get your Sri Lankan feet than Colombo.
Aluthgama, Bentota & Induruwa
Protected from noisy Galle Rd by the sluggish sweep of the Bentota Ganga, the ribbon of golden sand that makes up Bentota beach is a glorious holiday sun-and-fun playground. While it’s primarily dominated by big package hotels, it also has a number of smaller places catering to independent travellers.
Ambalangoda & Around
Ambalangoda is a sweaty, workaday town, which is completely overshadowed by nearby Hikkaduwa as a tourist destination. The main reason for visiting – and it’s a good one – is to dig under the surface of the Sri Lankan souvenir scene and discover the magical meanings behind the ubiquitous ‘devil’ masks.
South of Negombo
The narrow belt of land between the gulf and the lagoon that stretches much of the way from the northern suburbs of Colombo to Negombo is sometimes called Pamunugama, after its biggest settlement. It’s a lovely strip of coconut palms, old Portuguese-style churches, cross-dotted cemeteries on dunes and pockets of tidy houses. There are some small hotels along here.
Muthurajawela Marsh, which evocatively translates as ‘Supreme Field of Pearls’, is a little-known gem of a wetland at the southern end of Negombo’s lagoon. It's Sri Lanka’s biggest saline wetland and home to 75 bird species including purple herons, cormorants and kingfishers, as well as crocodiles, monkeys and even some rarely seen otters.
Kalpitiya to Negombo
Although the A3 stays close to the coast, there are few ocean views from the road. Rather, you'll pass through an endless series of coconut plantations, which have their own rhythmic beauty. Roughly halfway between Negombo and Kalpitiya, Chilaw has a strong Roman Catholic flavour and has elaborate statues of religious figures and local cardinals in the centre.