Copyright © David Graham
Who discovered Sri Lanka as a surfing destination? I could be wrong, but I believe it was John D. MacDonald, creator of the Travis McGee series of novels. A Wharton School MBA, MacDonald was a lieutenent colonel in the U.S. Army stationed in Ceylon (as Sri Lanka used to be known) during World War II.
Like Julia Child, who was also stationed in Ceylon, MacDonald was assigned to Wild Bill Donovan’s Office of Strategic Services or OSS, the fabled forerunner of the CIA. MacDonald’s intelligence work brought him to the Galle Fort area in the early 1940s, and in later years he wrote and spoke so enthusiastically about the waves he rode there that the surfers among his fans were intrigued enough to bring their boards to Ceylon. That’s my theory, anyway.
Legend has it that Arugam Bay itself was discovered as a surfing destination by nomadic Australian surfers in the late 1960s. But Nihal Hewapathirana, a professional scuba diver who spent time in Arugam Bay in the 1970s, points out that Mike Wilson had been diving in this area back in the early 1950s. Nihal thinks that Wilson, who also surfed and who explored the Great Barrier Reef with Arthur C. Clarke and Rodney Jonklaas, could have been the dude who enlightened the Australians.
Arugam Bay seems to cast a subtle spell over some people, especially those who love the sea: After his time here, Nihal worked in India, hitchhiked to Europe, lived in Southern California for twelve years, and ran a hotel in Hikkaduwa. And then he came back.
With Manfred Netzband-Miller (Fred to his friends and enemies), it was a little different: In 1977, he thundered into Arugam Bay on his motorcycle, liked what he saw, and stayed.
At first glance Fred, who grew up in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania, looks like a character right out of Conrad or Graham Greene—the dissolute European going to hell in the tropics. But that first impression would be wrong. By all accounts, the cerebral civil engineer’s partying days are mostly behind him. The December 26, 2004, tsunami probably had something to do with that.
It was a sobering experience. Fred and his friends had hosted a wild Christmas party at his hotel—the iconicSiam View Hotel, built in 1979—on the night of December 25. (As it happened, my brother Tyrone and I were there, having been invited by an amusing English bloke named Simon Napper. We left the party at 2:00am, checked out of our beach hotel at 8:15am, and headed out of Arugam Bay less than an hour before the waves turned the area into rubble.)
Happily, all of Fred’s guests survived the disaster. According to published reports, one of his employees, noticing that the sea was starting to behave in a strangely menacing way, had sounded the alarm and rousted the hungover revelers out of bed around 8:45am. And although the tsunami wiped out some cabanas Fred had built earlier that year, the Siam View Hotel itself proved equal to the occasion, and withstood the waves with its trademark panache.
Other hotels in the area were not so fortunate. In the aftermath of the tsunami, Fred was thrust into a role he’d never aspired to, coordinating a patchwork of relief efforts involving international aid agencies, non-governmental organizations (NGOs in the local parlance), volunteers, and the contributions of individual private donors. He also dug deep into his own pockets and shared what he had left.
Much has changed in Arugam Bay since then, and much hasn’t. For instance, there are many more ways to get here, and many more places to stay. Local businesses like restaurants, cafes, a surf school and taxi services have mushroomed everywhere, as evidenced by the exuberant signage (sometimes misspelled). And Fred and some of his kindred spirits created Arugam Surf, a website that attracts visitors from around the world (Fred, by the way, is one of the few area hoteliers who promotes other hotels).
Arugam Surf’s lively Facebook page—replete with examples of Fred’s droll sense of humor—has over 100,000 fans, making it the largest Facebook page of its kind in Sri Lanka. Fact is, Arugam Surf has done more to attract visitors to the area and benefit local businesses than paid advertising ever could.
So what hasn’t changed in Arugam Bay? Well, the surfing for one thing. For seven months of the year, you can surf at Arugam Bay Point Break, Pottuvil Point, Peanut Farm, Sangamankanda Point, Crocodile Rock and Whiskey Point, among other spots.
As Fred Netzband-Miller points out, it’s not just one thing, but a combination of factors like the waves, the length of your ride (from 500 to 800 yards, in some places), the warm water (80 degrees Fahrenheit, thank you), and the fact that there are no sharks all contribute to Arugam Bay’s cachet. Also, it’s remote enough that you get bragging rights just for having made it all the way out here. What’s not to like?
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Copyright © David Graham
Arugam Bay & Area
Tucked away on the South Eastern coast of Sri Lanka- about 300 km (or about 8 to 9 hrs. drive through beautiful Countryside) from Colombo, is the lazy little fishing village of Arugam Bay – richly endowed with a beautiful stretch of ocean and vast expanses of deserted beach. For many years a popular sea side holiday resort for local travelers, Arugam Bay has grown in the last twenty five years, into a big attraction for lovers of the surf, who converge on it in numbers from different parts of the world, to indulge in their favorite hobby of surfing and enjoy the bonus of a cheap, easy going, hassle-free lifestyle, among friendly Sri Lankan people.Arugam Bay is unique, in that it enjoys the distinct advantage of being unaffected by the ravages of two monsoons which hit the Island each year from opposite directions – the South West and North East. A phenomenon which makes Arugam Bay a “year round” destination with excellent weather and ideal conditions for a nice, relaxed holiday away from it all. Meteorological records show 330 sunshine blessed days/year in average.
Another rare phenomenon which sets Arugam Bay apart from other tourist destination is that, despite its popularity among visitors it managed to retain its natural beauty, charm, simplicity and above all, a tranquil atmosphere which makes it an ‘unspoiled’ holiday resort, offering low budget travelers a perfect ‘get-away’.
Away from the sea and sands, Arugam Bay has a wealth of magnificent inland landscapes for the nature lover, a sleepy lagoon which comes alive with an abundance of indigenous and migratory bird life in the European winter, plus the remains of an ancient heritage in the form of temples and monasteries. Sri Lankas’s biggest wild life sanctuary the Yala National Park and one of the most venerated Hindu shrines in the country -Kataragama, are also easily accessible from Arugam Bay.
Accommodation is as modest as the village itself, with very basic facilities available in several small hotels or guest houses which continue to provide unpretentious ‘homely’ accommodation, with no such luxuries as air conditioning, for instance. However, there are also a few hotels which are star class and provide up to date luxuries/facilities.
Events like the Tsunami destruction has affected all the seaside hotels and guesthouses.
No real help has been received from any Organization, Government or any other official source claiming to rebuild the Nation. With own resources, as well as goodwill from guests some visitors only true private help has resulted in the slow, but still rather low quality rebuilding of most establishments.
Arugam Bay is very lucky to be far away from any unrest and violence in the Country.
The Bay is strategically totally unimportant and it is also very easy to police and patrol.
The only access is via a small, narrow bridge across the lagoon; where a good check point is located.
Even in the prolonged civil war years most residents only heard the news on the radio and media. Taking everything into account Arugam Bay is perhaps one of the safest destination you could visit globally these days!
In September 2006 the sleepy Bay was caught in the middle between a dispute of nearby PottuVille residents and Security forces. Although there were no injuries in the Bay, the civil unrest resulted in a travel warning issued by a number of Countries.
For the first time ever, and from our point of view unjustified, Arugam Bay has lost its reputation as being a very peaceful, stable destination.
AbHa is committed to report all relevant news, right on our front page.
Some Government plans are a welcome improvement on past situations, but in the case of distant Arugam Bay the idea of a Super Resort has run into strong local opposition.
Not all resorts are suitable for so called ‘quality’ tourism.
Due to our location, in a kind of cul-de-sac, our history of excellent Full Moon Parties as well as its good international reputation many feel that the buying and staying power of so-called budget travelers should not be overlooked.
Goa in India
Koh Phangan in Thailand
Ibiza in the Mediterranean Sea
All the above are an example how much other Nations value similar ‘alternative’ visitors.
International studies seen by AbHa have shown that on average the so called “Budget” traveler actually injects at least as much if not more cash into the local economy.
Often this money goes direct to the lower income classes rather than to a large hotel chain.
As “Quality” tourists only stay for a week or two they do spend a lot more each day.
But a typical Arugam Bay visitor often remains the entire season and what they spend in 3 or 6 months in Sri Lanka is a great deal more than any high class tourist does!
Is it really that good to ‘upgrade’ the resort?
Arugam Bay is 9hrs. away from the airport and we attract a very special kind of visitor!