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!