For my husband and me, independent travel had been on hold since our three-year-old daughter and 20-month-old son were born. Now, despite there being many well-established package tours to Sri Lanka’s coastal resorts and interior, we’d decided to go it alone. On the short, four-hour flight to Colombo our plane was full of families. From Bandaranaike International Airport we were whisked away south through the steamy night, dozing in the private minibus and catching glimpses of banana trees or the light of a Buddhist shrine. Child car seats and, sometimes, seat belts weren’t available but at least the going was fairly slow.
We woke the next morning at our guest house in Unawatuna under the haze of a mosquito net. Our room opened onto what looked like paradise: coconut palms swayed against big blue skies, and golden sand stretched out before us. We headed straight for the water. This bohemian south coast resort, largely destroyed by the tsunami of 2004, has been rebuilt and the sea laps, subdued again, just metres from beach-side guest houses. My daughter spent the best part of three days tumbling in the surf. For older children needing more than a wave for entertainment, there are glass-bottomed boat tours, scuba diving and kayaking.
Getting around is all down to the tuk-tuk, or three-wheeler taxi, which you can hire for a short hop or a day. Two adults, two small children and a folding buggy easily fit in the back, so we decided to explore. Along the west and south coast, endangered species of turtle lay their eggs in the sand. Sadly, the eggs are often taken for food by locals but a growing number of hatcheries are buying the eggs back and releasing turtles into the sea. We visited a hatchery in nearby Habaraduwa, where a series of pools contain hand-sized creatures just a few days old, as well as much older turtles ready to go back to the wild.
On from there to Lagoon Herbal Garden. Embedded in Sri Lanka’s psyche is a belief in natural medicine, with many gardens open to tourists, exalting the healing properties of vanilla, cinnamon and aloe vera.
‘This is a natural hair removal cream’, our guide informed my husband. ‘Women all over the world order it from us. Would you like me to show you? In four minutes it will take the hair from your leg.’ Before my husband could find a suitable response, the cream was spread over part of his shin. In minutes the area was as smooth as a peach. Since then he’s grown a beard; I don’t know if the two are connected.
Meanwhile our children were playing hide-and-seek with the tuk-tuk driver – and this became the story of our trip. Children and family are at the heart of Sri Lankan society and ever-patient waiters, guesthouse staff and tuk-tuk drivers indulged ours, told us about their own families and we all compared notes. ‘I have a girl, four-and-a-half’, said one guest-house owner. ‘Never stops talking’. I know how he feels.
From Unawatuna we headed north east to a tea plantation in the hill country near Bandarawela. MF Holiday Bungalow is a beautiful six-roomed guest house set in 30 acres. The owner, Frank Prabaker, organises local tours and a chef and other staff take care of every need. Our now thoroughly spoiled children were given the run of the grounds and played with the owner’s two gorgeous puppies.
Tea country is much cooler than the coast and very changeable at this time of year. After a soggy day in a tuk-tuk visiting tea factories and colonial properties, we were keen to make the most of the following morning’s sun. On a guided walk around the area we were joined by a group of local children who wanted to practise their English. Fifteen-year old Priya and her friends showed us the fruit, flowers and crops of the valley as we trekked to the village and Buddhist monastery.
The head monk, Sri Bodhirajaramaya, welcomed us in and introduced us to some of the young Buddhists. Most of the boys, in their early teens or younger, had been orphaned or given up by families too poor to support them. ‘Where are you from?’ they eagerly demanded. As we talked, a steady stream of locals arrived to pay their respects to the monks.
Heavy rains overnight caused landslides, scuppering our plan to take the train through the mountains to Kandy. The journey, described as one of the world’s most beautiful rail rides will, sadly, have to wait until next time – we were back on the road.
After the calm of a quiet hill village, Kandy’s noise, colour and bustle was a big contrast. Our guest house – Castle Hill – was set high above the city with spectacular views. The classy, 19th-century property was filled with the ambience of the colonial era. Its owner, Ayoni, proudly told us that it was Kandy’s first guest house and that Sri Lanka’s President, Rajapaksa, had admired it and visited twice.
In most guest houses dinner can be prepared for you with prior notice, a great option if you are travelling with young ones. Until now the absence of high chairs had made meal times unpredictable, so you can imagine our delight when Castle Hill produced one!
Sri Lankan food has quite a reputation for heat – but in the tourist hot-spots Western food and children’s menus are widely available. We stuck to the local fare and were not disappointed. Curries, tempered for our tastes and our children, came as a colourful selection of small dishes – eggplant, okra, green beans, pumpkin, plantain or eggs with a single meat or fish dish – accompanied by masses of rice. Tropical fruit was abundant – papaya, mango and pineapple – and when our children disappeared from view they’d often be in the kitchens, begging for more of the delicious bite-sized bananas.
I’m told that if you haven’t seen monkeys or elephants, you haven’t been to Sri Lanka. Monkeys were plentiful at Kandy’s Sacred Tooth temple. For elephants you have two choices: the best option is to see them in the wild at one of the national parks, Yala or Minneriya. However, we decided to visit the well-known Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage.
While concerns have been raised about its commercialism and the level of contact between animals and humans, it should be remembered that the balance between elephant and man in Sri Lanka is delicate and the orphanage has achieved a high profile for their protection. Either way, watching these amazing creatures lumbering through the river, down the street and grazing in the fields was very thought-provoking.
Sri Lanka is an exciting place for families. People are welcoming, and travelling with young children opens another dimension as the locals invite you into their lives through the shared experience of parenthood.
In 12 days we visited less than a quarter of this beautiful island. There’s no doubt we’ll be back to see some more.
When to go: December to April (South and West) May to September (East)
Jabs: Typhoid and Hepatitis A. Up-to-date Polio and Tetanus recommended
What to pack: DEET mosquito repellant and bite cream, sunscreen, lightweight long-sleeved tops and trousers, a raincoat, hand antiseptic and a travel high chair.
While you’re there: Drink bottled water
Accommodation: Book in advance, Dhs180-Dhs360 average cost per night
Flights: Sri Lankan Airways Dhs1,305; Fly Dubai Dhs1,180