Until 1983, the Uppuveli and Nilaveli were up and coming coastal resorts, popular with both Sri Lankans and foreign tourists for their big huge golden beaches, sparkling seas and rich marine life.
Then civil war struck Sri Lanka with a ferocity that lasted for more than 25 years. As a Tamil area of the island, and next to the important strategic harbour of Trincomalee, Nivaveli and Uppuveli both became pretty much off limits to tourism during this time, and what did remain of the industry was swept into the sea by the tsunami in 2004.
Not the most pleasant start to an adoration piece, but stick with me…
What does that mean for Uppuveli and Nilaveli now?
Well, when the civil war ended in 2009, travellers started to rediscover Sri Lanka as a tropical paradise again, rather than a beautiful and exciting war zone. And the formerly turbulent north and eastern territories were once more opened up for exploration. With Trincomalee being one of only two towns on the east coast with a train station, Nivaveli and Uppuveli were some of the first resorts in the war-battered region to welcome the flabby march of tourism.
Right now, these beaches are currently enjoying what I like to call their ‘golden era’. Striking that perfect balance between pulling a Robinson Crusoe under a bunch of palm leaves, and being reluctantly cajoled away from the all-inclusive burger bar for Tuesday afternoon water polo with the Sunshine Club. Just enough development so that there are a couple of places to sleep, eat and buy fresh water, but not so much that you struggle to find a good sunbathing spot.
In these days of cheap long distance travel it’s a rare thing to find beaches this beautiful and accessible so relatively untouched. Of course, they’re by no means pristine or undiscovered, this isn’t The Beach, but the war and the tsunami have, for all their horror and destruction, ended up putting the whole tourist infrastructure back 30 years or so. In 2017 this is as close as you’ll get to what backpacking South East Asia would have been like in the late 70s and 80s.
There’s only one, what you’d call ‘hostel’, on Uppuveli, and none on Nilaveli. They have a handful of restaurants and a smattering of other accommodations, so it’s just blossoming. But it is blossoming, and it won’t be long before it blooms into a big fucking bush and draws in every insect with a Lonely Planet and a bumbag.
Now, is very much the time to visit.
Uppuveli is the closest of the lovely Veli sisters to Trincomalee, just a few minutes in a tuk-tuk from the station, and by far the more developed of the two.
There are no large hotels, or anything in the area more than two storeys high really, but there is a decent variety in accommodation choices ranging from basic wooden cabanas to a couple of of reasonably luxurious hotel complexes. The Aqua Inn, the backpacker’s hostel, even offers what they call ‘Backpacker’s Caves’ for those whose pockets have more moths than rupees. Effectively a buried length of (hopefully unused) concrete sewage pipe with a single bed slotted inside, which you enter via a hobbit-like round door.
A growing network of alleyways back from the beach is home to your basic ‘Oreo, weird crisps and water’ shops, a couple of cracking restaurant shacks, and some nice small accommodations that are much cheaper for the lack of sea view. Silaa Cabanas offers a handful of beautifully comfortable cabanas, incredible food, and hospitality so friendly it even stands out in a country as innately amicable as Sri Lanka.
The beach itself is a gorgeous stretch of sun-scorched golden white sand lapped at by clear gentle waves. There are half a dozen or so restaurants/guesthouses along the beach that offer tasteful, rustic sheltered beds during the day and fresh seafood on the beach at night. In peak season Aqua Inn holds the occasional beach party but nothing on the scale of Thailand, Vietnam or Bali.
Admittedly, there is the odd lighter, sun-bleached plastic toy and lonely flip flop sticking out the sand here. Partially remnants of the the tsunami debris, and partially the result of having more tourists than Nilaveli but not enough for the local authorities to shell out for regular beach cleaning. But it’s not what you’d call ‘dirty’, and that’s the price you pay to not have fat bellowing Russians shouting at waiters while their botched-faced wives pull poses in the surf.
Just 10 miles up the coast, Nilaveli is a little further from Trincomalee, and therefore a little slower in the development stakes. The beach is bigger, cleaner, and arguably nicer, so it’s only a matter of time until it catches up. But for now it is a little slice of heaven. When we visited we walked the whole length of the beach and saw only 6 other tourists.
The only other people enjoying the surf here were half a dozen young Sri Lankan soldiers throwing a ball around. As a hangover from the war, there still seems to be a small military presence in the area, albeit not an intimidating one. These were just kids from the rural inland who’s hobbies include talking about cricket, asking you about cricket, and endlessly listing you names of cricketers while you nod along and pretend to know who they are.
Just off the coast from Nilaveli is snorkelling and diving hotspot Pigeon Island. For about £10, a boat will take you up there in the morning, lend you flippers and a snorkel, and pick you up a few hours later. The island is surrounded on all sides by what was once an incredible reef system. The tsunami unfortunately destroyed or killed a lot of this, and left the island blanketed in dead bleached coral.
The plucky reef however, is recovering strongly and there is certainly no shortage of sealife thinking it’s better down where it’s wetter. On the far side of the small island is an aquarium’s worth of brightly coloured fish and corals, and for those with slightly stronger bladders the near side is home to some much toothier residents.
Try to hold your shit together as black-tipped reef sharks up to 2 metres in length loom out of the darkness underneath you. Even though they’re in no way interested in eating your Pot Noodle flavoured flesh, they still look far too much like Jaws for that thought to entirely abandon this film fan’s subconscious. If herbivores are more your thing, maybe stay focused on the turtles gently coasting around the turqoise waters instead.
Uppuveli or Nilaveli?
Heavenly though it may sound, the downside of Nilaveli’s tranquillity and lack of tourism is that there are certain beach side pleasures you must go without.
The Sri Lankan sun can get very, very hot, and those of us who are of a milkier persuasion do occasionally need a bit of shelter from its rays to stop us becoming human jerky. There seemed to be no such shelter on Nilaveli’s otherwise perfect beach.
Call me Mr Touristface, but I’m also a fan of eating dinner at a nice table and chairs in the sand, lit by a little candle in half a Fanta bottle. It’s something about eating to the sound of the waves, I’m a sucker for it. Sorry Kerouac, but if that makes me a soft-cock, luxury-loving package tourist then call me Bazza McTowie and reserve me a sunbed by the pool at dawn. Beach restaurants haven’t quite arrived at Nilaveli yet though. However, the guesthouse we stayed at (Theepan’s Home) laid on a banquet of some of the nicest food we ate on the entire trip, so I was so engrossed in that I wouldn’t have noticed if we were IN the sea.
Of course, with the extra tourism of Uppuveli comes the accompanying annoyances: More dogs running around, more boarding school wankers with dreadlocks talking shite, and the inevitable heartbreakingly polite women on the beach selling sarongs.
While Nilaveli is currently the most underdeveloped, it won’t stay that way for many years longer. And by the look of the developments on the way my prediction is that in a few years time this will be the more luxurious of the two resorts, while Uppuveli will be the local backpacker mecca.
- Can buy alcohol (important!)
- A social scene, although not an overbearing one
- Sunbeds and shelter
- Restaurants on the beach
- More accommodation choices
- Can hire paddleboards and kayaks
- Bigger, cleaner beach
- Clearer seas
- Less tourists, you have almost the entire beach to yourself
- Closer and cheaper to get to Pigeon Island
But the truth is, they’re close enough that you can visit both from a base at one of them, or stay for a few days at one and a few at the other. There’s no reason you can’t enjoy both. Especially if you hire a scooter.
Whichever of the sun-soaked Veli Sisters you decide on, this is a part of Sri Lanka that simply can’t be missed, and if you wait too long it will be.