Sri Lanka is having its moment. Battered by the 2004 tsunami and years of civil war, which finally ceased in 2009, this teardrop island in the Indian Ocean is emerging as one of the globe’s hottest destinations. It is not difficult to see why: for an island only just larger than Wales, it offers the traveller an incredible variety of experiences. Tropical beaches, lush tea plantations, colonial history, exotic wildlife, an intriguing ancient culture and truly delicious cuisine – there’s an awful lot of good stuff to cram in. Often referred to as ‘India-lite’, and lacking the extremes of poverty and dirt that make travel in its neighbour so challenging, it’s the perfect introduction to South Asia.
I first visited Sri Lanka with my wife just a few months after the devastating Boxing Day tsunami of 2004. Our trip took us through the classic circuit of the Cultural Triangle, Kandy and the Highlands around Nuwara Eliya, finishing up on to the coast. Whilst at our beach hotel in Bentota, we encountered a charming family whose kids, we could see, were having the time of their lives; we resolved that, God willing, we would one day bring our own children to follow in their footsteps.
13 years later, married and with three kids (aged 9, 6 and 2), I set about fulfilling that promise. The timing seemed right. We were confident taking all three children long-haul, having tested the water the previous year with a trip to Thailand and Singapore. Significantly, in 2016, Sri Lanka was designated malaria-free, which is a game-changer for young families – no pills to deal with (a serious no-no for 2 year olds). I am delighted to report back that the trip was a major success; Sri Lanka delivered on our (high) expectations and vindicated our long-held belief that this would be an incredible place to come with our family. Here’s how we did it – and how you should too…
1. Go at Easter
The Easter holidays are the perfect time to travel to the island. Still in the ‘dry’ season but without the inflated prices of travel over Christmas/New Year, Easter importantly offers the potential of two weeks or more away: Sri Lanka isn’t really a one-week, half-term destination. We actually spent 10 nights in Sri Lanka before heading on to the Maldives for 5 days. Travel at Easter has the added benefit of reducing the time difference by one hour: Sri Lanka is GMT +5.5, but does not have daylight saving time, so you shave an hour off when the clocks go forward in the UK. Every little helps with dealing with the jet lag!
2. Fly direct
Many of the Gulf airlines such as Qatar, Etihad and Emirates, as well as Turkish, fly to Colombo from London with a change of planes en route. Only one airline, however, Sri Lankan, flies direct and my advice is to fly with them, even if you end up paying a slight premium to do so. The flight timings work well: on the way out the flight leaves Heathrow at 9.45pm. You can feed the kids at the airport and then let them drop off after a movie. The flight arrives into Colombo at lunchtime; once you’ve transited to your hotel (which for us was a 2.5 hour drive), you arrive for a swim, some dinner and the kids (and you) will be sufficiently exhausted that they are ready to hop into bed by 9pm.
3. Stick to the South Coast
I debated whether to take the children on a similar circuit round the island to that which my wife and I went on during our first visit. But I decided that the amount of travelling required would be too gruelling. Sri Lanka may be small but getting around is slow; the average speed is about 30 mph. You really don’t want to spend your whole holiday in the back of a car with fractious kids. I worked out too that you didn’t actually need to travel far to experience all the essential elements of a Sri Lankan holiday. Sticking to the South Coast we visited a tea plantation; went on an elephant safari; visited a turtle hatchery; enjoyed a train ride; climbed up a rock temple; and obviously enjoyed the wonderful beaches. No journey was longer than a couple of hours but I never felt I cheated my kids of experiencing the ‘best’ of the island.
4. Make the most of travel days
We stayed at 4 hotels and moved on every 3 nights. Our first stop was the wonderful Dutch fort town of Galle; from there we went on to Tangalle, further east, before returning westwards to Thalpe. The idea of a touring holiday with such young children may seem terrifying and exhausting in equal measure, but I found it worked. The kids actually loved the excitement of moving on and were energised by arriving at new destinations. The trick is to adopt the mantra of ‘one day on, one day off’: try not to have two big travel days back-to-back. Make sure the day after a long-ish journey or day excursion there’s a day of chilling by the pool or on the beach. The beauty of Sri Lanka is that you can use the days you travel between places to good effect by stopping en route. We broke up the journey from Galle to Tangalle by visiting the tea plantation at Handunugoda. Likewise, on the return to Thalpe, we stopped off at Mulkirigala rock temple and the Koggala turtle hatchery. This way, the travel days never felt wasted – in fact, they were some of the best of the holiday – and we saved time at our destinations for relaxing.
5. Choose your hotels carefully
Where you stay will make all the difference to your trip. There are many beautiful, boutique properties in Sri Lanka but not all of them are overly kid-friendly (some don’t take them at all). Likewise, there are in increasingly larger international-style hotels opening up but these may lack the intimacy and service that make such a difference when travelling with kids. I can whole-heartedly recommend all the places we stayed.
In Galle, we chose Fort Bazaar. It’s the sort of place that is so cool you can’t quite believe it’s going to be family-friendly; but it is, very much so. The accommodation – gorgeous, two-bedroom family suites – works perfectly; the food is delicious and offers easy options for kids (burgers, chicken) alongside incredible curries for Mum and Dad. There’s complimentary afternoon tea and cake (loved by everyone in the family) and the staff are exceptionally warm and welcoming with the kids. The only downer is that the swimming pool is awaiting planning permission from the authorities, so you have to take a (free) tuktuk to a nearby hotel or beach club if the kids want a splash; but we actually made little adventures of the outings which the kids loved.
In Tangalle, we stayed at the Anantara Peace Haven, which offered a very different feel to Fort Bazaar – a much bigger resort, right on the beach, on perhaps one of the most beautiful stretches of the south coast. Everything at the Anantara is done to an incredibly high standard – it feels luxurious, and it is. For a new hotel, service is surprisingly slick and kids are well looked after, with a little kids club and teens room. My son commented how nice the staff at the buffet were, helping to carry his plates and serve his ice cream! Plus the daily towel art was a thing of much wonder and amusement. The beach here, like a lot of the south coast, is steep and rough – too dangerous for young kids and many adults to swim; but the pool more than makes up for it with a huge shallow wading area for toddlers. What’s more, the beach just round the little headland is fantastic for body-surfing and was a daily sunset trip for my elder two.
Back in Thalpe, we chose a well-recommended property called Why House. It didn’t disappoint. More like a house party than a hotel, Why is a special place. You are hosted by charismatic British expat Henrietta, who will make sure you are looked after and do all the things you want to do; particular highlights for us were a bike ride through the paddy fields and Henrietta’s cultural show – a very kid-friendly 20 minutes of Sri Lankan dancing, drumming and fire-eating! The food at Why is outstanding, which means you have no need to leave (ideal). And best of all, if you’re there during school holidays, it’s likely there will be lots of other kids. Ours quickly formed their own ‘kids club’ with new friends and the safe enclosure of the property meant they could run feral whilst Mum and Dad enjoyed a Gin and Tonic. Perfection.
Our final night was spend near the airport, at the Walawwa, sister property to Fort Bazaar. The nicest place by far to stay in the area, it’s perfect if you have an early start, like we did, to get on to the Maldives or back to the UK. (My son actually declared this his favourite hotel due to the Rubik’s Cube provided in the bedroom!).
6. Go on an elephant safari
Probably the best day of our holiday was our trip to the Uda Walawe national park to go on an elephant safari. We organised this from the Anantara hotel in Tangalle, as it’s only about 90 minutes’ drive inland from there. To avoid the stifling heat, an early start is recommended (we set off at 7am). You start with a visit to a conservation centre to see baby elephants being fed – which, to be honest, we could take-or-leave. The cool bit was jumping on-board our safari vehicle and heading into the park proper to see elephants in the wild. Fortunately for our impatient kids, one was grazing pretty much by the entrance gate. We set the kids a challenge of spotting a further 20 and they embraced this enthusiastically. There were enough other creatures too – water buffalo, bee-eater birds, peacocks, crocodiles – to fill the downtime between elephants. In fact, our kids’ favourite spot of the day wasn’t an elephant at all, but the skull of a buffalo. And therein lies the joy of travel with children: you never know what’s going to be the ‘thing’ that does it for them – but there’s an awful lot of fun, and memories, in finding out.