Asia Travel

A family tour of Sri Lanka: No organised trips or villa stays here

By: Katie Roberts

Watching on-location cooking programmes was the unusual impetus for Katie Roberts’ family trip to Sri Lanka. And despite a tsunami warning 28 hours before departure, she crossed her fingers and took the plunge to visit a tiny country that’s on the cusp of becoming a major tourist destination.

Over the course of six months, casual chats and much web searching didn’t reveal many people who’d travelled independently with children in Sri Lanka. It was more the domain of the well-heeled or the backpacker, with families sticking to organised trips or villa stays. But after many long nights of determined research I put together an ambitious nine-day itinerary that incorporated a little bit of everything that Sri Lanka has to offer: animals, history, curry, dramatic scenery and, of course, tea.

Arrivals and Departures: Negombo

There’s something exciting about waking up in a new country and opening the blind to look outside. What did we see? The calm, blue ocean, a sandy beach, palm trees and the large hotel pool. Despite our being a little bleary eyed from the 2am arrival, it was paradise.

Arriving as we did on Sinhala New Year’s Day, we were greeted with many a “Happy New Year” and our replies were met with big, appreciative grins. The country was noticeably in holiday mood.

For many people, Negombo is the base for their entire trip, but we only spent a night here catching some sleep before heading further afield. With our own transport and driver, Lucky, who met us at the hotel, we moved around the country easily. We planned to avoid the cities and soak up as much of the glorious countryside as possible.


family tour, Sri Lanka, no organised trips or villa stays here, family trip 

Cultural Triangle: history and nature

Ancient monuments do not immediately spring to mind when one thinks of Sri Lanka, but a 2,000-year history of kings and royalty left behind a legacy of palaces, temples and ruins to explore. We all enjoyed visiting Sigiriya Rock (US$30 per adult, children half price), which juts out of the flat landscape and is visible for miles around.

There is disagreement as to whether it was a royal palace dating back to 500BC or a monastery, or both. What’s not in dispute are the beauty of the frescoes painted on sheer walls high above the ground, the astounding mirror wall and the stunning view from the summit, which is only reached by a staircase literally pegged into the sheer rock face.

Those prone to vertigo may find this three-hour climb challenging, but it is worth the effort to marvel at the engineering prowess of the architects. Taking a guide enhances the experience.

Afterwards we visited a silk shop, a wood-carving factory and the Gamini Gem Shop. Leaving without buying a piece of jewellery featuring Sri Lankan gems is impossible. The Ceylon blue sapphires are stunning, but sadly my purchase, a pendant, was far smaller than Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge’s 18-carat engagement ring!

Visiting the ancient ruins of nearby Polonnaruwa takes a full day, although it is probably better for those with older children, as cycling is the recommended way to get around. (It’s on the list for next time.)

Dambulla Rock Temple (US$10 adult) can be covered in an hour and is better done in the evening when it is cooler. It’s regarded as an important religious site. The long sloping rock houses five dark caves which hold numerous images of the Buddha, many of them colourfully decorated. There are, of course, monkeys, whose antics provided light relief for the children. The caves are easily accessible from Dambulla town; a good place to grab dinner is the Gimanhala Hotel, where the curry and spaghetti bolognaise hit the spot for us.

While you’re in the area, a visit to the magnificent Kandalama Hotel is a must. It’s one of Geoffrey Bawa’s architectural masterpieces. Visitors are taken on a free tour and are welcome to eat in the café. This is just one of Bawa’s many famous buildings: cleverly designed around large rocks without disturbing so much as a tree in its construction.

Hill Country: tea plantations and train rides

Kandy signals the start of the hills, but we gave the town a miss, only stopping to stretch our legs for 10 minutes near the famed lake. Instead we went to the vast Royal Botanical Gardens (US$8 per adult, children half price) a few kilometres out of town, where the children watched hundreds of flying foxes and ran on endless paths and grass.

Staying on a tea plantation is one of the pleasures of Sri Lanka and there are numerous possibilities at different price points. Twenty minutes outside Kandy is the colonial Ellerton Bungalow, a comfortable, welcoming place. After negotiating the challenging road, you’ll want to stay for a few days and take in the beautiful countryside.

Whatever itinerary you choose in the hills, be aware that it requires hours of driving, admittedly on reasonable roads, but it can be slow going. For the children’s sake we took many stops: the Labookellie Tea Factory for a tour, a cup of tea and a slice of chocolate cake; a look at the Ramboda Waterfalls and a snack at the Strawberry Café, which, aside from strawberry milkshakes, serves strawberry pizza.

No matter what the season, it can and does rain in the hill country, and it’s safest to organise activities for the early morning. Throughout the trip we fell into the habit of a daily 6.30am walk. Despite the sleep deprivation, this became a highlight of our trip and also threw up all manner of surprises, including two leeches near Kandy. We also enjoyed a surprise sunrise chat with a local on a tea estate outside Bandarawela who explained Sri Lanka’s pension system to us in perfect English, as he walked home with his morning newspaper. About 80 percent of Sri Lanka’s population lives outside the cities and towns, so the countryside is alive with people and activity.

The scenic rail trip through the hills around Ella rates as one of the top visitor experiences and is much touted on brochures. Alas, our experience was a little different. When it finally arrived two hours late, the train was actually two third-class carriages (US$0.30 each) and a couple of goods wagons. With hard seats, grimy, broken windows and jammed with sweaty people, it was standing room only. On top of that, someone lit a cigar, and did I mention it was raining? The 90-minute journey was not the highlight we’d expected, but a few glimpses of the amazing mountain scenery showed it is definitely worth doing again – in  one of the swanky, first-class observation cars, though.

Other than the spectacular view of Ella Gap, a morning walk to Little Adam’s Peak and the rail experience, there is little to do at Ella, so one night at the Mountain Heavens Hotel was adequate.

Down South: beaches and Galle Fort

After three days of incessantly winding roads, the trip south to the coast was pure bliss. At the end of an easy two-hour drive from Ella to Udawele National Park we stopped at the Elephant Transit Home (US$4 per adult, children half price) which houses around 50 orphaned baby elephants, cared for until they can be released into the wild. Tourists can watch feeding-time, which is very, very cute, then have a big buffet lunch at Athigira Restaurant across the road.

Sri Lanka’s beaches are highly rated and the area around Tangalle on the south coast did not disappoint. Perfect blue skies, a deserted beach and warm temperatures are the perfect recipe for lazy days. From December to April, a half-day whale and dolphin watching tour (US$60 per person) from Mirissa is highly recommended.

Tourist activity became more noticeable the further west we drove towards Galle, the major city on the coast. For a break in the journey we stopped at the Sea Turtle Farm and Hatchery at Habaradura, a sobering reminder of the devastating impact of humans: the freshly laid eggs are regularly stolen from the beach and sold for consumption. We stopped again for lunch and a swim at Wijaya Beach Café, an expat haunt about 10 minutes before Galle that serves fabulous Western food right on the beach.

Aside from hotels and villas along the beach, there is a lot of upmarket accommodation in Galle Fort. Since the 1600s, the historic town has been ruled at times by the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British, but was largely forgotten when the recent civil war decimated the tourism industry. It’s a gracious step back in time, but real estate is booming and million dollar price tags for crumbling old buildings are not unusual.

We spent a couple of relaxed days in this picturesque spot, walking the fort walls at sunrise and sunset; we also took a walking tour past well preserved buildings including the Maritime Museum and the imposing Dutch Warehouse. There are many good cafés and cute boutiques; Barefoot was my favourite.

Galle was a wonderful place to end our busy holiday and take some time out to contemplate the beauty and diversity of Sri Lanka, which has so much to offer all types of travellers.

Make it Happen

Emirates flies direct to Colombo, departing at 12.50am. The flight time is three-and-a-half hours. Sri Lanka is two-and-half hours behind Singapore. Get a visa online:

Words of Advice:

  • December to March is peak time for international visitors.
  • Avoid the New Year period from 13 April, which is a 10-day holiday season for locals. Trains, roads and attractions are extremely busy and Nuwara Eliya is best avoided.
  • Driving distances may appear short in kilometres, but believe your driver when he says it takes over four hours to get from Kandy to Nuwara Eliya, 75 kilometres away.
  • Check ahead that driver accommodation is available at your chosen hotel. If it is not up to standard the driver may choose to stay elsewhere (and you will pay for it).
  • Don’t expect it to be cheap. Unlike Malaysia, Vietnam and Thailand, Sri Lanka it is not a budget destination for families.
  • The food in hotels and tourist restaurants is generally of a very good standard. Western food is widely available and any request to tone down the spicy Sri Lankan food is usually met.