Places to visit in Trincomalee | Sunday Observer

Places to visit in Trincomalee

28 March, 2022

Trincomalee on the North-East coast of Sri Lanka is a charming city with oodles of history and fascinating sites. The famed port city boasts one of the largest natural deep-water harbours in the world and has been a strategically important location for Sri Lanka. The best time to explore Trincomalee is when the weather is most pleasant between March and August.

So, put on your travelling boots, sprinkle some wanderlust and join me on a sojourn to explore the best places. Whether you seek solace at the tranquil Buddhist viharas, Catholic cathedral and Hindu temples or unravel marine mysteries, there is no dearth of places to visit. From forts to breathtaking beaches, bays and coves, it has lots to offer to the discerning travellers.

You can spend some quality time and admire the beauty of romantic places such as Fort Frederick or chase the ocean waves in Uppuveli or Nilaveli beaches. I have explored the famed port city of Trincomalee from 1979 through 2018 when I served in the Navy and was a frequent occupant of the majestic ‘Navy House,’ serving on the personal staff of successive Admirals.

1. Trincomalee Harbour

The Trincomalee harbour has attracted seafarers such as Marco Polo, Ptolemy and traders from China and East Asia. The earliest known reference is found in the Mahavamsa, stating that in the 5th century BC King Vijaya got down his youngest son Panduvasdeva and he landed at Gokanna as Trinco was then known. In the 12th century, King Parakramabahu I used Gokanna as his Eastern port, to launch a successful invasion of Burma.

The Trinco harbour, is overlooked by terraced highlands, and its entrance is guarded by two headlands. It has 1,630 hectares of water, while the entrance channel is 500m wide. The bay includes the first of a number submarine canyons, making Trinco one of the finest deep-sea harbours in the world. It is the deepest natural harbour in South Asia.

During the colonial expansion into the Indian Ocean, Trincomalee harbour experienced Naval battles between the Danes, Portuguese, Dutch, French and British during the 17th and 18th centuries. The British used the natural harbour extensively, using it as an anchorage for Royal Navy ships. They made the famed seaport, a permanent Royal Navy shore establishment and the Headquarters for the Eastern Fleet. The Japanese bombed Trincomalee harbour and sunk HMS Hermes, HMAS Vampire and HMS Hollyhock during the World War II. With the advance warning of the impending attack, HMS Hermes sailed out of the harbour but she was spotted and 70 Japanese bombers attacked her 40 times and she went down with 307 sailors on April 2, 1942. Such were the allurements of this harbour and relics such as Fort Frederick and Fort Ostenberg stand witness to these colonial forays of the past.

2. Fort Frederick

Breathtaking sunsets and panoramic sights of Trincomalee make the visit to Fort Frederick truly rewarding. The presence of freely-roaming spotted deer adds charm to the stroll through the fort. This historical landmark with an imposing entrance is a must-do for history and nature enthusiasts. Fort Frederick built by the Portuguese in 1624 on Swami Rock from the debris of the world-famous ancient Hindu Koneswaram temple, was captured by a Dutch Admiral Adam Westerwolt in 1639 and the Dutch built a new fort in 1665. The French captured Trincomalee in 1672.

In 1782 British troops took over. They named the fort after Frederick Augustus, the Duke of York and Albany. The residence of the Duke of Wellington, Colonel Wellesley who occupied, ‘Wellesley Lodge’ is within 100m from the fort gate. The British established civil administration in Trincomalee in 1799 with the appointment of a military officer, Lieutenant Thomas Young as Assistant Government Agent. During 1920, Trincomalee had the services of Sir Henry Monk Mason Moor, who later became the first Governor General.

3. Koneswaram Kovil

One of the first sites to be ticked off is the revered Sri Thirukoneswaram Kovil or simply Koneswaram Kovil, atop a cliff inside Fort Frederick. Surrounded by magnificent views of the Indian Ocean, this fabulous Hindu pilgrimage site displaying Dravidian architectural style believed to be one of the five abodes of Shiva with a swayambhu lingam. The shrine exudes sacred vibes and is a wonderful place for seeking solace in the divine presence.

4. Lovers Leap

The story of Lovers Leap is a sorrowful tale of unrequited love in which Francina Van Rheed, the daughter of a Dutch official, engaged to a young Dutch officer who broke off the engagement upon the end of his foreign service. Forsaken and distraught, she watched atop Swami Rock as the vessel carrying her faithless lover passed beyond the horizon in 1687. Overcome by sorrow, she flung herself into the violent sea – a drop of 400 feet.

5. Navy Museum

. Sri Lanka was always a magnet for seafarers and has a long history of naval campaigns. The roots of the modern Sri Lankan Navy dates back to 1937 when the Ceylon Naval Volunteer Force was established, which was renamed and absorbed into the Royal Navy as the Ceylon Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve during the World War II. You will receive a detailed explanation about artefacts mainly used during the war at the Naval Museum in Hoods Tower.

6. Belfry Gate

The ‘Belfry Gate’ is a national architectural monument built in 1821. The once twin-towered belfry is now a single tower. It is a unique structure reflecting British architecture. Every single Naval Officer and sailor recalls with sentimental pride, the unique service it has rendered over 200 years as the timekeeper. All buildings within the dockyard premises were accessed through the Belfry Gates.

It stands where three roads meet, marked by a traffic light believed to be the first in Sri Lanka. The lights were probably needed to ensure the safety of vehicles carrying building material, ammunition, artillery, spare parts, and sailors who were busy fortifying the naval dockyard and attending to the needs of ships and craft anchored in the harbour.

7. Navy Dockyard

The Navy Dockyard is the pride of the Sri Lanka Navy. The Eastern Naval Command and the prestigious Naval and Maritime Academy are located within established by the British as the Royal Naval Dockyard, Trincomalee. It was home to the Eastern Fleet of the Royal Navy during World War II under the command of Admiral Sir James Somerville.

Later, it accommodated the Royal Ceylon Navy Fleet. With the beginning of the 20th century, size of the dockyard grew and the facilities increased. A large tank farm to store fuel oil of any size fleet, along with dry docks and maintenance facilities to support ships came up. Due to the increase in personnel on shore and visiting ships, the Naval Hospital was established as well.

With the outset of World War II, Trincomalee’s defences were boosted with the installation of two BL 9.2 inch Mk IX–X guns and anti-aircraft batteries manned by the Royal Artillery and the Ceylon Garrison Artillery. The Eastern Fleet returned to Trincomalee in 1942 and the Operation Diplomat, a training exercise, took place in 1944.

The objective was for the fleet to rendezvous with a group of tankers and practise refuelling at sea. They then rendezvoused with United States Navy Task Force 58.5, comprising USS Saratoga and three destroyers. In 1944, a wireless station HMS Highflyer was established. The Naval Dockyard was handed over by the Royal Navy to Sri Lanka on October 15, 1957.

8. Navy House

The ‘Navy House’ on the charming, grassy lawns on a small hill is the official residence of the Commander of the Navy. It was formerly the residence of the Naval Officer Commanding the Dockyard. It was acquired for the Commander-in-Chief, East Indies Station of the Royal Navy at a cost of £1,750 in 1810 and identified as ‘Admiralty House.’ A large bell, which was rung to summon sailors for duty, donated by Rear Admiral Charles Austin in 1850 adorns the majestic building. 

9. Dutch Bay

Dutch Bay is a beautiful crescent of white sand. The suburb’s tree-lined lanes are cluttered with crumbling colonial workingmen’s cottages from the days of the Dutch occupation of Sri Lanka. The beautiful Dutch Bay and neighbouring Back Bay are unrivalled for character and friendliness. The historic Fort Fredrick flanks one end of Dutch Bay, and a bushy headland, the other. Colourful fishing boats dot the beach like many stretches of sand in Trincomalee.

10. Maritime Museum

Located in a beautifully restored 17th century Dutch mansion, this informative museum offers important insights into Sri Lankan maritime history. The ground floor takes you through the country’s naval history dating back from Marco polo’s time with models depicting naval scenes and some video presentations. The exhibits on the first-floor throw light on the marine ecosystem with special emphasis on the flora and fauna of the East coast. This wonderful museum also offers lovely views of the Dutch Bay.

11. Catholic Cathedral

Tucked away in a quiet part of the city, this beautiful St. Mary’s Catholic Cathedral is just walking distance away from the beach. Built in 1852, the attractive blue and white facade of the cathedral exudes warmth and tranquility.

12. War Cemetery

This final resting place of 314 mainly British soldiers and sailors who laid down their lives during World War II, is a quiet solemn place. It is one of the six Commonwealth war cemeteries in Sri Lanka. As you pay homage to the fallen and walk through the poignant place, you gain insight into what price we pay for wars. One of the most humbling places, the war cemetery is also a place for quiet contemplation.

13. Pathirakali Temple

The spectacular gopuram of this Pathirakali Amman Temple with its vibrant colours and myriad sculptures catches your eye from a distance, while the unique interiors will leave you spellbound. You can feel the powerful and benevolent presence of the goddess in this popular Durga temple.

14. Army Museum

The Orr’s Hill Army Museum is an outdoor display of past military hardware, well worth a wander around with interesting history attached to the various styles of guns and tanks made by a number of countries. The main attraction is the tanks and you can go inside some tanks as well. There is a place to try out some shooting by air rifles which is adventurous and memorable. Then, there is a heart touching short film to watch at the auditorium.

15. Uppuveli Beach

The Uppuveli Beach with amazing palms and wide coastline is five km from Trinco. This is a great place for leisure, as well as swimming and sunbathing. The descent into water is quite smooth, so swimming is quite safe. Local reefs are very popular and extremely beautiful to explore. Besides that, you can also take a boat ride during the whale and dolphin migration to look at the process, rent a bicycle or a bike, make a mini trip, fish or partake in kayaking.

16. Hot Water Wells

Kanniya Hot Springs stands six kms from Trinco. There are seven square wells close to each other, shallow just about 3-4 feet deep. The temperature is considerably high but varies slightly from one to another. The first written references are found even in the Hindu epic the Ramayana. According to the legend, this is the place where King Ravana carried out the last rites of his mother. It is believed that the site was frequented by Ravana – the king of Sri Lanka. These hot springs get the name ‘Kanniya’ after his mother.

17. Kinniya Bridge

Kinniya Bridge 11 kms from Trinco is the longest bridge in Sri Lanka with a length of 396m (1,299 ft). It crosses the lagoon area surrounded by Koddiyar Bay and Tambalagam Bay and links Trincomalee with Kinniya, enabling civilians to cross the lagoon to reach Kinniya and Muttur areas. The bridge was opened on October 20, 2009.

18. Marble Beach

Marble Beach 15 km from Trinco is bordered by a beautiful cove that’s fringed on one side by a verdant stretch of woodlands. The beach got its name due to the crystal-clear waters that lap away at it. On a sunny day, the water’s surface can be seen shining brilliantly as though it had been fashioned out of marble. You’ll find fringing corals beneath the surface that makes a perfect refuge for an array of reef denizens, range from the beautiful and brilliantly coloured parrotfish to the bizarre and unsettling moray eel.

19 Air Force Base

The Air Base in China Bay is 16 kms from Trinco. It was built by the British in the 1920s. The Royal Air Force established a base in 1942. The air squadron initially placed here was for the protection of the Naval fleet and the large oil storage tanks. The base was bombed by the Japanese on April 9, 1942 during the World War II. The RAF handed over China Bay to the Royal Navy in 1944. After independence, the British maintained the naval base in Trinco and it included the air base in China Bay. All British military bases in the country were taken over by the Government in 1957 and RAF China Bay became RCyAF China Bay. At present, it is the Headquarters of the Eastern Air Command of the Sri Lanka Air Force and also houses the Air Force Academy.

20. Nilaveli Beach

Nilaveli Beach is 16 km from Trinco. You drive pass a thriving lagoon on either side and lush coconut palm groves before arriving at the hamlet of “Errakkandy” and a sharp right turn will take you to white sandy beach with gentle surf. Across the beach into the ocean, you will see the Pigeon Island and a cluster of reddish rocks referred to as the red rock beach. Although you can wade out for a couple of hundred metres, the sea is not a boring millpond but a frolicking, frivolous, soothing and invigorating. Nilaveli sunsets are only outdone by Nilaveli sunrise, competing to paint the brightest gold on wave and sand. For the shell seeker, Nilaveli is extravagantly generous, with cowrie, spiral, conch and butterfly-winged beauties cast up with each wave.

21. Pigeon Island

The pristine and beautiful Pigeon Island National Park off the coast of Nilaveli is a great getaway from the city. Comprising two small islands, the national park is home to the endangered rock pigeons, vibrant marine life and stunning rock formations. The powdery white sands, glittering rock pools and the shallow turquoise waters make this a memorable trip, along with ample snorkeling opportunities right off the beach.

The writer is an Associate Professor, International Scholar, winner of Presidential Awards and multiple National Accolades for Academic pursuits. He possesses a PhD, MPhil and double MSc. His email is [email protected]