The fastest way to get to Mirissa is on the rusted train that rattles south along the Sri Lankan coast from Colombo past old Dutch forts towards the white sand beaches of the southern coast. The walk from the station – such as it is – to the beach is short and delicious thanks to the hopper vendors that hang out by the coastal road. And the bay is beautiful: Surfers bob on the waves and tiny hotels relax in the shade. The Weligama Bay Resort is a brief ride away, but this stretch of coast is come as you are.

But Mirissa also offers plenty of reasons to leave behind the oil-soaked German tourists who come for ayurvedic treatments and head either inland or offshore. The town, which is more of a strip than a burg, is an hour's bike ride from the Sri Sunandarama Ancient Temple, which is younger than the name suggests and better preserved as well. The complex resembles Angkor Wat but is splashed with colorful murals and presided over by a wedding cake of a tower, which casts enough shade to allow picnickers to take an afternoon nap.

At the port just north of town, tourists climb on the thin wooden boats (one of the better operators is a man named Raja at +94 77 695 3452) that head out into the Laccadive Sea, perhaps the best place on Earth to spot blue whales. The massive cetaceans hang out amid schools of porpoise, announcing themselves with colossal chuffs that are audible from a half-mile away. When their flukes rise above the water, tourists grow silent – awed by the sudden sense of scale. 

At night, the beach serves as main street. Fishermen sell their catch to cooks who prepare it then and there for diners. Smart travelers avoid the spicier options, but embrace the haphazard culinary scene while wandering from spot to spot with a Lion Stout in hand. 

More information: Shuttles regularly leave Colombo's international airport for the city's main train station. Catching a ride south is easy from there, and the snacks offered onboard are delicious.