Travel: Sri Lanka

Dreaming of taking the family to India but afraid of well, everything, that it entails? Sri Lanka is a decidedly less daunting vacation alternative. More manageable yet is still deliciously exotic with some lovely boutique hotels and incredible food. And while still less-travelled than the usual Hong Kong holiday spots, Sri Lanka is quickly becoming the new IT destination. So, when my family was craving an adventure, we traveled to this ‘teardrop of India’ island for an intrepid two weeks filled with new experiences.

Sri Lanka is relatively small, but it is still a challenge to decide where to spend your time. Distances can be deceiving with traffic and narrow, congested roadways (and insane drivers!). For these reasons, most visitors hire a van and driver for the duration of their stay.

Both Sri Lankan Airways and Cathay Pacific fly non-stop to the capital Colombo. Unfortunately, the flights arrive at the unseemly hours of between 9:15 pm and 11:30 pm. Don’t let this put you off though, plan on bookending your trip with a stay near the airport, as there are several excellent hotels nearby to retreat to for a good night of sleep.

Just 15 minutes from the airport, tucked in five acres of lush gardens is the boutique hotel The Wallawwa. On a larger scale, the Jetwing Lagoon in Negombo is 20-25 minutes from the airport and has a 100-metre swimming pool (see photo gallery) with a “family room” option that works well if you have three-plus children. We spent our first two nights at the Jetwing Lagoon to catch up on sleep and let the kids use the pool before we began our adventure.

From here, there are many options. If you are limited on time, you could head directly down to Galle at the southern tip of the island where you will find European charm amongst the local culture and beautiful stretches of beach beyond.

Samudra Beach
Samudra Beach

Galle Accommodations:

  • 41 Lighthouse St.: This historic villa is located directly inside Galle fort within walking distances to shops and restaurants
  • Taprobane Island: A private island manse with 5 bedrooms on 2.5 acres is for big spenders
  • Amangalla: A luxury hotel in a 17th century Colonial-style building is in the heart of Galle Fort
  • Kumara Villa: Located near the Weligama surfing beach, this villa is about 25 minute drive from Galle and has 3 king-size bedroom suites
  • Samudra Beach: Fifteen minutes from Galle, this spacious, two-bedroom, beachfront villa boasts a gorgeous pool and friendly staff

Sri Lanka is a wildlife paradise and there are several national parks. From Galle, you can do a long day trip to Yala National Park or stay overnight. If you are lucky, you might even see a leopard or two!

Yala National Park
Leopard Trails Yala National Park

National Park Safaris:

  • Leopard Trails: If you are looking for a high-end “bespoke” safari experience, this is the outfitter for you
  • Shehan Safari: This reputable company has a variety of jeep tour options for day-trippers, from five-hour tours to full-day

Sri Lanka is world famous for the production of tea. Up north in the hill country is where most of the tea is grown. Riding the rails from Kandy, a major city in the middle of the country, up into higher elevations is an experience in and of itself, as the train slowly winds its way up the hills. There are only fans (no air-conditioning) so the train windows mostly stay open for the breeze. This train journey requires some patience (around 4-7 hours depending on where you alight). However, the kids can stick their heads out the window (a highlight), walk around, and buy snacks from the sellers, who board the train at the frequent stops, selling mango with cinnamon and salty corn with butter. Visiting a tea plantation should not be missed! You might think that kids couldn’t possibly be interested in learning about tea — something they likely don’t drink, but we were amazed how fascinated they were by the process. They practically became connoisseurs! They couldn’t believe that each tea leaf is picked by hand. Teatime became their favorite part of the day. If you don’t have time to make it to the tea country, there is also a white tea plantation near Galle (see below in Things to Do).

Tea Trails Kandy
Tea Trails

Kandy & Tea Country:

  • Tea Trails: This Relais & Chateaux resort comprises four luxurious bungalows connected by walking trails in the tea gardens
  • Bougainvillea Retreat: A home converted into a boutique hotel about 30 minutes drive from Kandy; this was a perfect spot for our large brood but there may be other options closer to Kandy

The cultural triangle of Sri Lanka is in the center of the island and includes several World Heritage sites and ancient cities. These locales are incredibly old — think millennia old — but sadly the immensity of this was lost on our children, where last month seems hundreds of years ago! We largely missed this area except for the hike up Sigiriya rock (660 feet tall). With 1,200 steps, we started early in the morning to beat the heat. There was a bit of whinging from the kids on the way up, but the views at the top were outstanding.

Cinnamon Lodge
Cinnamon Lodge

Cultural Triangle:

  • Cinnamon Lodge at Habarana: An ancient palace turned monastery in the heart of the cultural triangle; kids’ fave = the pool, of course!
Bathing an elephant at Millennium Elephant Foundation

Things to Do:

  • The Story of Cinnamon: Visit Koggala outside of Galle to learn all about the harvesting of cinnamon on this vast plantation and eat a cinnamon-inspired four-course lunch. The kids were fascinated learning where cinnamon comes from and they even got to peel the cinnamon sticks.
  • Surfing at Weligama Beach: This beach is a great place for the kids to learn how to surf. The waves are only about two feet, year-round. It is easy (and cheap!) to hire a board and private instructor. The water was so warm the kids stayed in for hours!
  • Sea Turtle Farm & Hatchery: This non-profit organization has released more than 500,000 turtles back to the ocean. The kids can learn all about how they rescue turtle eggs and injured turtles. They may even get to see the eggs hatch and the turtles swim to the ocean!
  • Millennium Elephant Foundation: A non-profit organization that cares for captured elephants, this sanctuary gives you the opportunity to feed, bathe and ride on an elephant; it also includes a tour of the Elephant Dung Paper Factory. Seeing elephant poo turned into paper was very educational and a real highlight for the kids!
  • Handunugoda White Tea Plantation: This sea-level tea plantation in the southern region (if you cannot make it to tea country) will explain how white tea, one of the most expensive in the world, is grown and produced; the kids enjoyed the tasting session at the end and the small shop where you can buy the tea, of course.
Weligama Beach
Surfing Weligama Beach

My Top Tips:

  • Call in the experts and have Sri Lanka in Style arrange everything for you! They can hire a van and driver, book villas, set-up tours and provide invaluable advice about child-friendly itineraries.
  • Request seatbelts for the van, as these are not standard.
  • Trust your driver; there is an art to driving in Sri Lanka — it’s best not to look!
  • Ask for a wireless toggle in the van for long journeys when you need to check email, post pictures (or play Clash of Clans).
  • Pack a lot of snacks for the long drives.
  • Read The Tea Planter’s Wife, Anil’s Ghost, Bone China, and Running in the Family
  • Pay for an “extra” night at The Wallawwa (or other hotel nearby the airport) as most flights leave around 1:00 am! It was well worth the money to have dinner, shower and let the kids fall asleep before transferring them to the van to the airport at 11 pm.
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