GETTING OFF THE BEATEN TRACK
Words Jo Hollingsworth
Sri Lanka was the first place I ever travelled to with my husband, long before we had children, and the memories of sugar-soft, white sand, deserted beaches fringed with palm trees, and the heady scent of frangipani trees after the monsoon rains, lingered long after we returned. I think I always knew that we would go back, and as one of the few long-haul destinations with a good July climate, this magical island in the Indian Ocean, was an obvious choice for a family holiday- exciting and varied enough to appeal to adventurous families, but not quite the culture shock that is India.
Although there are packaged tours, in a country where nothing is very far apart and there is a well -worn travel route, it is relatively simple to put together an independent itinerary, and Sri Lanka packs a punch when it comes to things to do.
A typical agenda can include palm fringed beaches with crashing surf, exciting wildlife safaris, ancient temples, dolphin and whale watching, colourful tea plantations, bright green paddy fields, turtle hatcheries, elephant bathing, and breath-taking train journeys, so it’s important to prioritise and plan in advance. It’s a developing country, so whilst most places are only 2-4 hours apart, English is widely spoken and the locals are hugely welcoming, it can be tiring and it’s important especially with children to build in some downtime.
We flew into Columbo, the bustling capital, it is chaotic and colourful, and although it would be easy to spend a few days there exploring the markets and temples, we chose to head South to Bentota Beach to have a few days of downtime and acclimatisation. We stayed at The Centara Ceysands, reached by boat across the Bentota River. Early the next morning we hired a boat and driver to take us on a private tour of the mangrove swamps, our guide pointed out spice gardens, baby crocodiles, and clouds of fruit bats suspended in the tree canopy as he expertly twisted a waterlily flower into a necklace for our daughter. That evening, eschewing the (very nice) hotel restaurants, we consulted the Rough Guide and headed along the railway track to have dinner at Trax, a tiny restaurant serving Sri Lankan curries and delicious lobster-, and whose main claim to fame is that it is literally beside the rail track which provides a good photo opportunity when the open sided train rattles past. Getting back was easy thanks to the Tuk (an open sided 3 wheel vehicle) kindly summoned by the restaurant owner, Tuk Tuks are ubiquitous in Sri Lanka and are a fun and slightly hair raising way to travel, that children will love.
Having self -driven in Sri Lanka before, which can be a daunting experience, we decided to hire a driver who would stay with us throughout the holiday, this doesn’t cost significantly more than self -drive and is infinitely more relaxing (most hotels have driver accommodation on site or nearby) and so we headed to Galle, a picturesque walled fortress town on the coast, (stopping en route at a moonstone mine and cinnamon plantation)
Having been occupied by the Portuguese, Dutch and British, Galle has a more European feel than the rest of Sri Lanka, and has stunning colonial architecture. We stayed at Galle Fort Hotel, a beautiful colonial hotel with only 14 rooms built around a tranquil courtyard and pool. The library suite is perfect for families with two huge four poster beds plus day beds, beneath lazy ceiling fans. The narrow streets are crammed with gem merchants and we spent a couple of days walking the ramparts and exploring the fort, shopping for gemstone rings (Sri Lanka is famous for gems including blue moonstone, aquamarine and pink rubies), getting henna tattoos (my daughter) and browsing for sweet scented incense and clothes in the tiny bohemian boutiques.
Evenings were spent sipping cocktails on wide colonial verandas before candlelit dinners served by white gloved waiters (service in Sri Lanka is exceptional), or eating in a myriad of lively restaurants overlooking the Ocean or thronging the narrow streets.
Wildlife is a big draw in Sri Lanka and it’s easy to get up close and personal with elephants in Uda Walawe National Park and to even to spot leopards in Yala. We opted to stay for just one night near Uda Walawe, which enabled us to do both an early morning and evening safari, we were picked up by an open sided jeep, and saw herds of elephants including babies, close up (think a few metres away) and troops of playful monkeys. It is possible to visit Elephant orphanages in Sri Lanka (Pinnawala being the best known ) and even to help walk and bathe elephants, but having been before and having read mixed reports about the welfare of the elephants ( do your research) we were happy to see these majestic animals in their natural habitat and to visit the Elephant Transit Home for feeding time, where you can see them close up but at a respectful distance, and where they are genuinely rehabilitated and released into the wild.
Other wildlife highlights included visiting a turtle hatchery and helping to release baby turtles into the ocean at sundown, (turtle’s eggs are a delicacy in Sri Lanka, eating the eggs is illegal so the turtle hatcheries pay the fisherman to buy the eggs and then they safeguard them until they hatch and are released back into the Ocean).
One of the highlights of our travels was staying in the Hill Country in Nuwara Eliya, here the temperature is cooler and overall more ‘English.’ We stayed at the Heritance Tea Factory, perfectly preserved, and skilfully converted into a beautiful hotel with breath-taking views of the tea plantations. A visit to a working tea factory is essential and children will love the opportunity to dress up as tea pluckers and pick their own leaves which can then be made into tea and taken home.
Kandy, the old capital is a bustling city set around a central lake where the locals and tourists stroll, it is the home to the Temple of the Tooth, a magical ancient temple which houses the Buddha’s tooth in an inner sanctum.
The temple itself is huge and extraordinarily beautiful, visit late afternoon to witness the daily ceremony, light flickering oil lamps and incense sticks , and offer gifts of flowers bought from the many nearby stalls, it is a magical and spiritual experience. With it’s markets, and colourful shows including Kandyan dancers, fire eating and fire walking spectacles, (young children will be mesmerised) and teeming streets, Kandy can be hectic, and we opted to stay in the hills above the city, in The Elephant Stables, a serene hotel with an infinity pool and panoramic views of the city spread below (children will love the resident tortoises in the garden) . There is a stunning huge white tented room (The White Company eat your heart out!) that can easily sleep 2 adults and 3 children, and escaping to the calm of the hotel for a swim, cocktails and dinner each evening, and watching old black and white Hollywood movies (some shot in Sri Lanka) ) thoughtfully provided by the hotel was relaxing.
We made a day trip to Sigiriya a huge rock fortress and heritage site that it is possible to climb, to dizzying heights, accompanied by troops of mischievous monkeys, teenagers and intrepid younger children may find this exhilarating as some of it is up metal staircases on the outside of the rock (not for anyone with vertigo) very young children may find this too much, although the views of the rain forest from the top are worth it.
Taking a family train journey in Sri Lanka is well worth it, the open sided trains run along the coast close to the surf which almost touches the tracks in places, or across lush green mountain passes past stunning waterfalls.
Finally, the pool and spa beckoned and we headed back to the beach for a few days of relaxation. The surf on some of the beaches can be huge and wild at certain times of year, but there are sheltered reefs for example in Unawatuna where it is typically safer and shallower and possible to snorkel (make sure to check local conditions) dolphins can be spotted and there is good whale watching and deep-sea fishing in Mirissa.
TLB VERDICT: If you are looking for an adventurous
but still stress-free family holiday, Sri Lanka has it all.
- December to March is the best time to visit the West and South coasts and the Hill Country,
- and from April to September for the East coast. Year round temperatures are in the 80s, with
- most sunshine in March.
- Accommodation ranges from seriously chic hotels including barefoot luxury and eco
- spa retreats, to boutique gems, colonial elegance and simple Airbnb rooms. Many hotels or
- guesthouses have family rooms and are happy to supply extra beds (although it can be hard
- to find baby cots and highchairs)
- Many restaurants offer Western style dishes, rice, noodles and mild curries are easy to find,
- and children will love trying the local hoppers or bowl shaped pancakes.
- Medicines, imported baby food and disposable nappies are all readily available- whilst breast
- feeding is acceptable, it is difficult to find dedicated baby changing facilities.
- Keep children away from stray animals including dogs, cats and monkeys as to avoid any
- rabies risk.
- Remember to bring a spare mosquito net (at the time of writing Sri Lanka was not malarial
- but you will need travel vaccinations) a backpack or child carrier (sand tracks and paths are
- hard going with prams) a car seat if you plan to use one, and entertainment for car journeys.