Lonely Planet Sri Lanka (Travel Guide) (2015)
MOUNT LAVINIA AND DEHIWALA ZOO
For a pleasant day’s break from central Colombo, this tour takes in a morning relaxing on the beach, an alfresco lunch and an afternoon stroll through the lush National Zoological Gardens.
DISTANCE: 15km (9 miles)
TIME: A full day
END: Dehiwala Zoo
POINTS TO NOTE: While the public beach alongside it is free, there is a charge for non-residents to use the beach facilities at the Mount Lavinia Hotel. Foreigners visiting the zoo are charged 20 times more than Sri Lankans for admission, but there’s no exclusivity or special facilities in return for paying extra.
If your visit to Sri Lanka is too short for you to relax on the broad, and more peaceful, west-coast beaches south of Colombo, then the stretch of sand at Mount Lavinia will give you at least a quick taste of local beach life. The beach here is busier than those down the coast at Bentota and Hikkaduwa, particularly at weekends, when crowds of locals descend on the sands to play beach games, swim, and hang out at the shack-style snack bars which line the seafront, giving the whole place a slightly raffish air. It’s also within easy reach of the neighbouring suburb of Dehiwala Zoo, where’ll you’ll find the attractive tree-shaded park that houses the city’s well-run and enjoyable zoo.
The drive south from Colombo is along the busy Galle Road, with gleaming new shop frontages beside dilapidated general stores, and noisy buses and cars competing for space as they weave in and out of the traffic lanes. The steep flyover (built with British aid) at the Dehiwala Junction provides glimpses into second-floor apartment windows, adding to the novelty of the drive. Heavy, slow-moving traffic means that journey can take longer than you might expect: allow at least thirty minutes for the 10km (6-mile) drive from the city centre - longer if heading out during the morning or evening rush-hour.
Mount Lavinia Beach, with Colombo’s skyline in the background
MOUNT LAVINIA BEACH
The turn-off to Mount Lavinia Beach is about 1km (0.6 mile) south of the town’s General Cemetery (which is on the seaside). Look for the Odel boutique and the eye-catching Lion Pub next door and take the side turning here down Hotel Road to reach the beach. You’ll cross the main railway line south out of Colombo, so watch out for trains as there is no marked crossing point.
Mount Lavinia Hotel
At the far end of Hotel Road stands the venerable old Mount Lavinia Hotel 1 [map] (for more information, click here ), which is also right next to the railway station - convenient if you arrive by train. One of Sri Lanka’s premier heritage hotels, the Mount Lavinia sits grandly atop a small promontory jutting out to sea, separating the public beach from the more sedate hotel beach (open daily to non-residents; charge). This sprawling hotel has grown up around a 200-year-old colonial villa, originally the retreat of Governor Thomas Maitland who, legend has it, entertained his local mistress (Lavinia) here. The hotel retains much of its old colonial charm and offers a variety of splendid lunch options after a morning on the beach.
The beach to the north of the hotel stretches in patches right up to Colombo, but the broad expanse of sand that borders the hotel’s northern wing is the city’s most popular. Here are several restaurants of varying standards including the Golden Mile , see 1 [map] , built out of timber like a lookout platform, and Loon Tao , see 2 [map] , in an open-sided thatched pavilion. The beach is equally popular for alfresco dining and impromptu parties at night.
After lunch, catch a tuk-tuk to Dehiwala Zoo 2 [map] ( http://nationalzoo.gov.lk/zoo ; daily 8.30am-6pm; charge) by returning northwards along the Galle Road and back over the Dehiwala flyover. After 1 km (0.6 mile), you will turn inland at Dharmapala Mawatha to reach the zoo.
Officially known as the National Zoological Gardens, Colombo’s zoo comprises a spectacular spread of gardens, ponds, shaded walks, and animals from all over the world. Begun by John Hargenberg as a depot for exporting animals, the zoo was taken over by the government in 1936 and now provides a home for approximately 3,500 animals representing roughly 350 species. Arrows clearly indicate the direction to follow from the entrance to make a circular tour to see the whole zoo.
The zoo pioneered the policy of placing animals in an artificial habitat, rather than simply displaying them in cages. Here lions, bears, tigers, rhinos, giraffes and gorillas all benefit from a relatively high degree of freedom.
In the Reptile House you will find a rare albino cobra. Watch out for the little tortoises that ride piggyback on ferocious crocodiles. Don’t miss the 500 varieties of marine life at the Mini Medura (aquarium), which is ideal for children. The Nocturnal House allows visitors to see night creatures such as owls and lemurs in their natural habitat. The zoo also has an excellent collection of primates.
During an afternoon visit you can see animals being fed from 3pm, and also hear talks about elephants, chimpanzees and sea lions. On weekends and public holidays there are elephant and pony rides (2.30-4pm). It’s a good idea to escape the crowds and leave the zoo an hour or so before it is due to close, to catch a three-wheeler back to Colombo.
Food and drink
1 GOLDEN MILE
43/14 Mount Beach, off College Avenue, Mount Lavinia [map] ; tel: 011-273 3997; www.seafoodsrilanka.com ; daily 11am-midnight; $$$
The ritziest of the various beachfront restaurants, in an impressive two-storey wooden pavilion and serving up huge portions of fresh seafood and grilled meat dishes. Friendly service and a well-stocked bar make for a good time.
2 LOON TAO
43/12 College Avenue, Mount Lavinia [map] ; tel: 011-272 2723; daily 11am-3pm, 6-11pm; $$
Rustic looking beachfront restaurant specialising in Chinese seafood including Sichuan and Cantonese-style dishes, plus assorted Thai and Malaysian offerings and plenty of other meat and veg mains. It’s usually pretty sleepy by day but gets lively after dark. Free corkage.
A pair of leopards at Dehiwala Zoo