The Hikkaduwa beach festival showcases the best of Sri Lankan hospitality and way of life

"Paradise" is still the most common word used by tourists to describe the lush island of golden beaches and brilliant blue waters. My friends and I decided that it was time to unleash our tropical side and experience for ourselves the much-talked-about magic of Sri Lanka and what better time to enjoy the sun and sand than during the famous Hikkaduwa Beach Festival!

The island kept up its promise of being a friendly nation right from the Bandaranayake International airport with its courteous and smiling immigration officers to the locals of the villages and cities. The exchange rate is a definite 'upper' with a dollar (that I got for 48 Indian rupees) going for 114 Sri Lankan! But don't be fooled. Sri Lanka is an expensive country and the feeling of being rich didn't last long!

The drive to Colombo took longer than the said 40 minutes with bouts of traffic congesting the already bustling streets. However, the city of Colombo was a treat! It is clean, with tree-lined wide roads, great shops and restaurants. The apartment we stayed in overlooked the ocean and was set in the middle of a residential area neighbouring a deliciously stylish restaurant, café and lifestyle boutique.

Ready for the night

After an afternoon siesta, a divine dinner got us all hyped up for a taste of Colombo's legendary nightlife. Disappointingly there was very little crowd during our survey of the after-dark scene and was told that most of Colombo's night crawlers had left down South for the Hikkaduwa drum festival that had already begun. Drinks and a casino later it was time to call it a night at 4 a.m.

The morning after began with breakfast at McDonalds followed by a three-hour drive to Hikkaduwa. The drive is one to stay awake for, even after a heavy breakfast. The road follows the coast line and becomes increasingly picturesque with buttery sands and turquoise waters.

The small town of Hikkaduwa was exactly what I had expected. Beachfront bars, restaurants and small colourful shops along the beach. Wooden, hand-painted signboards pointed out massage parlours, scuba diving spots and water sports. Our guest house, called Ranmal, was right on the beach with large spacious rooms that looked out to the ocean and served delicious food.

It was just noon but the drinking and festivities were already in full swing! It must be said that Sri Lankans know how to party! Later that night we got out of our rooms for the rave to find the locals just as we had left them at noon. Still drinking. A 10-minute walk down the sandy road and a delicious Italian meal later we entered the rave, walking past cops and the STF. Smiling and well armed. The rave was in full swing when we entered a little after midnight. Over 10,000 people, food stalls, bar counters and a large stage from which the DJ spun beats. The music wasn't too great and most of them who were at the fest last year agreed that the music was way better in 2008. People were also taken aback by the fully clad women dancing on stage wondering what happened to the bikini clad dancers of last year. Even the number of dancers had reduced! Guess recession has hit Sri Lanka and I guess I picked the wrong year!

The night went on with us moving to another roped-off area hosted by a club from Colombo called Amuseum. The DJ went from retro to house to hip hop to Sinhala songs. The place was rocking! Not because the music was great but because the crowd was in its own high to notice the terrible mixing.

The sun was rising and the rave was still going on but we decided to get back. At Ranmal the locals were still drinking. It was six in the morning and it seemed like nothing had changed since noon the day before. They had joined us at the rave but were back to pay homage to the rising sun. Later that day, we roamed the beach of Hikkaduwa and had a late lunch at an incredible little restaurant that had the largest menu I had ever seen and served almost every type of cuisine you can think of. With an afternoon of checking out sand castle competitions, swimming and a spot of shopping I decided to grab a couple of hours of sleep before another night of partying. It was 5p.m. and Ranmal was getting ready for the nightthe locals had started drinking.

Happening place

At 11.30 p.m. and a divine Italian meal after, we followed the crowd to the Narigama stretch; an area of the beach that hosted "theme parties". This stretch catered to four different parties under RnB and Hip Hop, Retro, Space, Paradise and House Orchestra. The beach had food stalls serving both local and international food and looked like it attracted more people than the night before. The music had definitely improved and the crowd swallowed it whole. The parties were in full swing and were on till Sunday morning.

The quick-paced beach festival was slowly replaced by serene wilderness at a stop on the way back to Colombo. The setting was picture perfect at a place called the Lake Sanctuary. We lunched on a slow boat on the waters of a calm lake amidst lush vegetation. With only a night left before our departure to namma Chennai, we toasted our trip with a fantastic dinner at the Lagoon restaurant of The Cinnamon Grand hotel; the best sea food restaurant by far! From the Modha fish with lemon and chilly sauce to tangy cuttle fish and baked crab, the flavours were unbelievable! For someone like me, who has never been a fan of sea food, this one dinner changed it all!

Sri Lanka is the country to visit for a laid back, chilled out holiday. Maybe not for the music at the rave but definitely for the food, sights and incomparable local hospitality! Go tropical!

The writer is a musician, RJ and a theatre person based in Chennai.

For more details on the Hikkaduwa festival, see www.hikkafest.com, www.srilankantourism.org.uk

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