Beach Hut, Arugam Bay
This simple collection of rooms has been around for almost 25 years, and the atmosphere is pure surfer-casual – which is appropriate, given that Arugam Bay is Sri Lanka’s surf hotspot. Seven rustic treehouses on stilts have views and cool breezes, and there are six more rooms on the ground (some have shared bathrooms, ask before you book). The popular restaurant turns out set lunches of fresh Sri Lankan seafood and hosts barbecues on Friday nights – grab a seat at the long communal table and strike up a chat with some of the surfers who have been coming to stay with legendary owner Ranga for decades. A loosely fenced-in outdoor area has tables and hammocks interspersed with scrubby trees just a few metres from the sea – the perfect place to hang loose with a lassi.
• +94 773 179 594, Facebook page, double rooms from £10
Meedum Villa, Unawatuna
Popular with European travellers, the beach resort of Unawatuna is jam-packed with hotels that range from bare-bones to eco-chic but good value is thin on the ground. A few minutes’ walk from the sea, Meedum Villa is a smart choice. The guesthouse offers large en suite rooms (those on the top floor are enormous) with hot showers, four-poster beds and good (ie hole-free) mosquito nets. Ask friendly owner Janath to book you a whale-watching tour in nearby Mirissa (at a rate much lower than you’d get by booking it yourself), and he’ll give you a discount on the room rate as well if you stay more than a couple of nights. The open-air common spaces on each floor have refrigerators and drinks, and are the perfect place to meet other backpackers. The short walk to the beach takes you past trees full of monkeys.
• +94 77 716 3674, meedumvilla.com, double rooms from US$35 a night B&B
Husband-and-wife owned Siesta is one of the friendliest and cheapest places to stay in Tangalle. Plain, impeccably neat rooms come with oversized bathrooms and mosquito nets, and the 30-second walk to a wide and uncrowded beach makes this an outright bargain. Harshani turns out excellent Sri Lankan food while husband Tharindu is voluble and accommodating. Bright paintings add to the cheerful, homey atmosphere (there was a giant wedding photo on display as well on a recent visit) and there are thoughtful touches throughout, like the drying racks in each room that are perfect for beach-damp towels.
• +94 714 190 885, Facebook page, doubles from 1,000 Sri Lankan rupees (around £5) a night, breakfast £1.50
The Green Rooms, Weligama
Local and sustainable aren’t just trendy words at the Green Rooms – they’re part of an ethos that means that electricity comes from a renewable source, the guesthouse doesn’t have a negative impact on the local fishing village, and that as much of the furniture and fixtures as possible are made nearby. Currently there are five spacious, en suite cabanas, with five more due to be ready in September. Several have open-air showers and balconies with seas views. The Green Rooms offers one-week packages that include accommodation, breakfast, lunch and three hours of instruction in surfing and yoga per day from £450pp.
• no phone, thegreenroomssrilanka.com, doubles from £28.75 B&B
Aqua Hotel, Trincomalee
A sprawling place on under-populated Uppevelli beach – one of Sri Lanka’s best – Aqua is a party zone in the high season. The fan-only rooms are a bit musty, but the more expensive, air-conditioned ones are good value, and the elevated restaurant (an open-air platform populated with cosy sofas and tables) offers unbeatable views right over the sea and in the quieter months is a relaxing spot to settle in for an evening meal and drinks. Aqua rents motorbikes and helmets if you want to ride into nearby "Trinco" or explore beaches further up the coast.
• +94 712 519 749, aquahoteltrincomalee.com, fan-only doubles from £22 B&B
For a splurge that won’t put too big a dent in the budget, Udekki is a design-led resort in Kalpitiya, an up-and-coming destination for surfers and other water sports fans. Owned by blues musician Glen Terry from Australia, Udekki has three villas that comprise a variety of suites and loft rooms that can be booked individually or together. Cool, spacious, white-walled rooms are dotted with Middle Eastern and north African rugs, lamps and paintings. The H-shaped pool, complete with hot tub and surrounded by designer wicker loungers, is a tempting alternative to the beach, and the restaurant sources all of its ingredients locally (and takes requests).
• +94 777 446 135, udekki.com, doubles from US$165 B&B
Surfing Life Guesthouse, Midigama
This tiny place has just a handful of rooms but this home-turned-guesthouse attracts a loyal clientele of surf nuts drawn to the nearby reef breaks. There’s no air-con in the rooms but there are ceiling fans and mosquito nets (essential). A grassy yard is paradise on lazy afternoons after a swim, with hammocks tied between trees and a brightly coloured mural adorning the yellow-painted wall. The mattresses are somewhat unforgiving but the bright red sheets are perfectly clean, and games and books are available for guests. Owner Eric rents surfboards for less than £5 a day but there is upright storage space for those who bring their own.
• +94 777 401 667, surfinglifemidigama.com, doubles from £7
Ocean View Cottage, Hikkaduwa
Hikkaduwa is overrun with accommodation options (and tourists in the high season), but the Ocean View is a reliably good budget option with direct beach access, a swimming pool and a garden – all good places to escape from the visiting hordes. There are 14 spotless en suite rooms, all of which come with air conditioning or fans, mosquito nets and mini-fridges. The last is a necessity for keeping your beer cold, as no alcoholic beverages are served here although the owners – who live on site – don’t mind if you bring your own. All that is blocking the view of the sea from the second and third-floor balconies are the palm trees.
• +94 912 277 237, oceanviewcottage.net, doubles from $25 room only, $31 B&B or $46 half board
Paradise Beach Hotel, Negombo
This is more of a traditional hotel than many of the places on this list; the kind of place where a waiter will bring you a cocktail made with fresh juice while you splash about in the (enormous) swimming pool. The 66 rooms are simply but brightly decorated in a style that looks like it hasn’t changed since the 1970s, with satellite television, air conditioning, balconies and room service. It is not especially notable for its decor (except for the pirate-themed bar!) or character but the location is excellent: it is walking distance from the bars and restaurants on Negombo’s main street, 15 minutes’ drive from Colombo airport, and metres from the sea. Paradise is ideal for travellers in transit who are looking to take it easy for a day or two.
• +94 312 238 154, paradisebeachsrilanka.com, doubles from $75 B&B
Ivory Inn, Mt Lavinia, Colombo
While Sri Lanka’s largest city is right on the coast, Mt Lavinia is the only Colombo neighbourhood where bathing is really possible, so the beach gets crowded with local families in the evening, when the numerous beach bars and restaurants do most of their business. Ivory Inn is off the beach, which means it’s quiet, and the spacious garden provides a cool, green spot that provides respite from the blazing heat. White walls and old-fashioned dark-wood furniture give a streamlined vibe to the simple rooms, which are sparkling clean and have hot showers (air conditioning is optional). The mattresses could be thicker but the mosquito nets are hole-free, and the staff friendly. The hotel does a Sri Lankan breakfast of "string hoppers" (nests of noodles topped with sambal and curry sauce) that’s a filling way to kick off a day of swimming or sightseeing in the city.
• +94 112 715 006, no website – book through agoda.com, doubles from around $22 B&B