Mount Lavinia is a suburb of Colombo that possesses the nearest beach to the city centre, and is therefore especially convenient for those who are confined to Colombo for part or all of their stay. The beach is adjacent to a headland that juts into the Indian Ocean, atop which is the famous colonial-era Mount Lavinia Hotel. Considering its proximity to the hustle and bustle of Colombo the beach is pleasant enough, and enjoys a quiet atmosphere. There are several beachside restaurants and bars. The sea is usually safe for swimming, but can be rough and you need to be wary of the strong undercurrents typical of this coast.
There are two theories as to the origin of the Westernized name. Governor General Sir Thomas Maitland had built a mansion there in 1805 (now part of the Mount Lavinia Hotel) and had fallen in love with a beautiful low caste dancing girl called Lovina, who was discreetly smuggled into the mansion through a tunnel. But perhaps it’s a corruption of an old name, Lihiniyagala – “rock” or “cliff of the birds”.
If you stay in Mount Lavina there are several nearby attractions. The closest is the National Zoological Gardens at Dehiwela, better-known as the Dehiwela Zoo, one of the largest in Southeast Asia. The zoo and its gardens are best experienced early morning as soon as the zoo opens (8am – 6pm everyday). The animals - some 350 species - are naturally more active at this time, going through feeding and cleaning rituals, it is cooler, and the crowds wouldn’t have arrived as yet. Bear in mind the zoo tends to get overcrowded at weekends.
Though the zoo was a pioneer of the open plan concept, this is yet to be implemented throughout the zoo, so bars and cages are still to be found, but enclosures like the lion and gibbon islands are a fascinating place to watch the animals in their simulated surroundings.
The elephant show - which is still a major attraction - has yet to be discontinued, even though it is unnatural and demeaning. However, these days it is preceded by a talk on conservation and human-elephant conflict.
A few kilometres inlaid with a grand extent of 37,400 hectares, stretches Bolgoda Lake. Sri Lanka’s largest natural water basin and greatest freshwater pool. Up to 45 fish species have been identified, five of which are endemic and 160 bird species (mostly migrants and waterfowl) prowl and flit along the lakeshore. The flora biodiversity is equally rich, including aquatic, semi-aquatic and terrestrial plants – grasses, trees and water pants – and, of course, dense mangrove.