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Ever felt so relaxed you didn't mind that mangosteen juice was running down your chin as you stood by a roadside shack. If you haven't, you are missing out and the only thing for it is a visit to Kalutara.
This thriving village on the mouth of the Kalu river, just 42kms south of Colombo, has supposedly the best mangosteens on the island. However, that is not all it has to offer. An important spice-trading centre up until the 18th century, Kalutara now has a deserved reputation for fine basketware, has a wide expanse of beaches and is a great base to really get to the heart of Sri Lanka.
Now back to that mangosteen. When opened, this dusky purple fruit reveals a white flesh that tastes a bit like a peach but is more the size and look of a tangerine! Perfect as a freshener when the Asian sun is getting too much for you. As well as delicious fruit, there is fresh seafood to savour at Kalutara, curries, arrack, (the local coconut-based firewater) and, of course, the ubiquitous cup of tea.
Kalutara was once the capital of Sri Lanka back in the 11th century. The area is still steeped in history, including Richmond Castle, a colonial mansion built over 100 years ago. It sits grandly on top of a hill surrounded by 42 acres, with gardens full of coconut, guava and mango trees, shading the many marble statues that abound. Visitors can wander around at will, admiring the intricate carvings, while local children benefit from the mansion as an education centre.
If that doesn't grab you, how about the world's only hollow Buddhist shrine? Gangatilaka Vihara, built in the 1960s, is normally besieged by visitors and Buddhists wanting to make a donation. Step inside the cool, peaceful interior and marvel at the golden Buddhas plus the 74 paintings depicting his life. The view from there is excellent too, with panoramic sights over the river and town.
Sri Lanka may not be particularly well known for its beaches but you can't go far wrong with the soft sands at Kalutara. From this point to Galle in the south is an unbroken stretch of 130kms of beaches. This takes in the stunning scenery of Bentota, Beruwela and Hikkaduwa, where scuba diving on the coral reefs is a must. Kalutara's lagoon offers all sorts of watersports for the fanatic.
This market town is a bit of a hidden gem at the moment and hasn't been developed as much as other areas, even though it's not far from Colombo's international airport. There are places to eat and drink with most restaurants and bars still mainly within the hotels. A few independent ones are springing up now, but with Colombo not that far away, an evening in the capital can come as a refreshing change.
Other places that are a taxi ride away include the mighty 2,243m of Adam's Peak, also known as Sri Pada (Sacred Footprint). The huge 'footprint' at the top of the mountain belongs to either Adam, Buddha, or Lord Shiva, depending on which faith you choose to listen to. Leaving that aside, this mountain has been a pilgrimage centre for over 1,000 years and is worth climbing at night so you can watch the sun rise as you stand on the summit.
More down to earth is the Pinnewala Elephant Orphanage, which houses the most amount of elephants in captivity - around 3,000. At 80kms north west of Colombo, the orphanage is a bit of a trek from Kalutara but is well worth the visit. Being able to scrub an elephant down with a coconut husk in the river is an experience you never forget.
Another great hands-on animal experience is at the Kosgoda Turtle Sanctuary, about 50kms away. It was destroyed by the 2004 tsunami, but has been re-built and you can take part by releasing baby turtles into the Indian Ocean where they belong.
Sri Lanka is also one of the best places in the world to see whales and dolphins at sea. You can go on whale watching trips from Mirissa on the south coast, about 100kms away. If all this sounds too far when you want to relax on holiday, consider hiring a personal driver. It's not as grand as it sounds and is a quick and fairly economical way of seeing sights further away, as buses are very crowded and trains not that reliable.
However for getting round locally in Kalutara, a tuk-tuk can't be beaten. These covered three-wheelers are in abundance, just make sure you agree the price before you get in!