x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

The unspoilt beaches with a reassuringly low profile

I am always puzzled by those articles in travel magazines about "undiscovered gems". It's a paradox: the article celebrates precisely the quality that publishing the article will ruin.

I am always puzzled by those articles in travel magazines about "undiscovered gems", whether the "gem" in question is a little hotel tucked into a quiet neighborhood, or a beautiful beach that's not yet been walled off by a string of luxury hotels. It's a paradox: the article celebrates precisely the quality that publishing the article will ruin.

I thought about this conundrum last month, when we were on a family trip to Sri Lanka. Anyone with children understands that for the most part, a "family trip" is not the same thing as a vacation. A vacation is taken alone, or with friends, or with a partner; it differs from a family trip because "vacation" usually involves more culture and far fewer French fries.

We chose Sri Lanka because we were told it offered something for everyone: natural beauty, culture, beaches, and even the possibility of whale-watching as a kid-friendly activity that had nothing to do with Disney. Scouting for big mammals is a win-win for family trips: children love the spectacle of bigness and parents get to pretend they're photographers for National Geographic, snapping endless pictures of whatever large creature wanders into focus.

After a late-night, many-hours delayed flight, we arrived in Colombo, where we were met by our hotel's driver, who bundled us into a van and drove us south. In a semi-stupor, I watched Colombo whiz by outside - tin-roof shacks leaning haphazardly next to construction sites, billboards hovering over empty lots - and then we entered the green hills of the countryside, the lush colour a welcome respite from Abu Dhabi's khaki-coloured cityscape.

We went all the way to Mirissa, the tiny dot at Sri Lanka's southern tip. Mirissa still qualifies as a village, with a few thatched-roof restaurants along the beach, one or two shops selling sarongs and T-shirts, and a natural harbour where whale-watching boats jostle against bright blue fishing boats. A smattering of European and Australian families shared the beach with us, but there were no tour buses, no hordes of slow-moving tourists snapping photos of "the locals".

On our whale-watching expeditions we saw some of these types, most of whom had driven down from Galle for the day; they weren't staying in "our" little town.

Whale-watching has brought much-needed income to the impoverished south; Mirissa harbour is full of boats, each with a sign claiming "best whale watching". At the same time, however, all the boats puttering around the whales' feeding grounds may be driving the whales away. Sperm whales and blue whales are the Greta Garbos of the ocean: they want to be left alone, not harassed by boatloads of cetacean-obsessed paparazzi.

Having satisfied our need for Big Creatures, we spent a day at Weligama Bay, where waves break smoothly across the shallows, perfect for children who want to learn to surf. At one end of Weligama, fishing boats were pulled up in front of small houses painted pink and yellow and orange, and in the early hours of the morning, I had the beach almost to myself, except for the surfers. I walked towards the fishing boats, but when I turned to walk in the other direction, I saw what I sometimes think of as the Abu Dhabi national symbol: a yellow construction boom, rising above the palm trees.

The crane swayed above a hulking pile of grey cement blocks, already many metres taller than any existing structure and clearly far from finished. I asked the surfing instructor what was being built. "A Marriott," he said, shrugging. "Many rooms."

Many rooms mean many jobs, most of which, I hope, will go to the locals and bolster the local economy. But many rooms also means many guests, all wanting breakfast buffets, theme nights and all-inclusive packages. And their arrival means farewell to that quiet expanse of beach.

What's to be done? Does everyone get access to unspoiled natural beauty, even if developing these places effectively spoils the beauty? Do we erect a barricade of luxury hotels that act as gate-keepers, admitting only the affluent, or charge admission, as if nature is some kind of curated exhibit? Or do we simply hope that at least a few "undiscovered gems" remain undiscovered by all but the most dedicated traveler?

I don't have an answer. But stay tuned: perhaps next year, you can contemplate this question from the terrace at the Marriott Weligama Bay. As for me? I'll be at the same tiny beautiful hotel where we stayed this year. And no, I won't tell you its name.


Deborah Lindsay Williams is a professor of literature at NYU Abu Dhabi