Like a jewel dropped into the ocean, Sri Lanka sparkles bright. Tamer than its Indian neighbour, the spicy isle is heaving with culture, wildlife, gems, adventure, welcoming locals, and exotic beauty every which way.
Unlike other Asian hotspots Sri Lanka is virtually untouched by tourism compliments of the 25 year war. The country breathes a collective sigh of relief as the war is finally over. The figurative doors have flung open and tourists are invited in as one might welcome a long lost friend, or in this case a young friend.
Accommodating restaurant owners cater well to your cherub’s exacting food requirements. Often compared to Indian food, Sri Lankan curries use a wider spice base, less oil and a gentler cooking method to heighten the flavours. The secret is in the freshness and that combined with a high standard of cleanliness ensures safe eating for your beloveds. There are also excellent Italian restaurants, seafood just plucked from the ocean, plenty of Western and Chinese options, and if nothing else steamed rice and fresh fruit is a healthy option.
Beginning with the capital, and although Colombo seems like an unlikely family destination, it does have a certain charm about it. Built in 1877 and housed in an impressive colonial building, the National Museum is a fascinating starting point to Sri Lanka’s cultural history and the museum is on the south side of the city’s largest park, Viharamahadevi Park. Nearby is the air-conditioned Odel’s department store offering upscale fashion including a fantastic children’s section.
More intrepid families with lose themselves in the Pettah Bazaar and its clothes, jewellery, Ayurvedic herbs and fresh produce, and its best to avoid the early morning and after work crowds.
There are temples galore and one in particular worth exploring is the Gangaramaya Temple complex which was established in 1890 and includes a library, museum, hundreds of Buddha’s sitting in various positions, Bodhitree, and its very own elephant.
The elegant Galle Face Hotel makes the most of its westerly direction offering its guests crimson sunsets and high tea and cocktails. Take a break from the heat and relax like the colonials on the cool terrace and lawned area. In the adjacent wing is the refurbished Galle Face Regency with a salt-water pool open to the public for a small fee.
About 10 kilometres away is the Dehiwala Zoo and although conditions have deteriorated during the country’s hardships, the kids will love the monkeys and elephant shows. Nearby is the swanky Mount Lavinia Hotel for more of those sunsets and cocktails and a small fee gives access to the pool, its spectacular views and the hotel’s private beach. North of Colombo is the charming beach town of Negombo with several very good hotels and guesthouses, an old quarter and an interesting fish market.
Heading much further north is the Cultural Triangle and although the dusty ancient ruins of Anuradhapura (showcasing Sinhalese culture 2,000 years ago), Polonnaruwa (the former medieval capital), and Sigiriya (palace remains on top of a huge outcrop) may not hold the kids’ attention span for long, a safari will. Minneriya National Park and Kaudulla National Park are in the region and host herds of elephants, deer, sloths bears, abundant bird life and the illusive leopard.
The hill town of Kandy is included in the Cultural Triangle and can be reached by a scenic train ride from Colombo. Listed as a World Heritage City and hosting the Tooth Relic of the Buddha, Kandy is famous for its Kandyan dancing and drumming, and for 10 days over the months of July and August is the procession of Kandy Esala Perahera to honour the sacred tooth. The procession includes thousands of Kandyan drummers, dancers and decorated elephants; surely a sight your beloveds will remember for many years to come.
Another awe-inspiring activity is located 30 minutes from Kandy at the Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage, which is home to 80 elephants who have been either abandoned, orphaned or injured. Interact and observe the elephants roaming freely around the sanctuary and the sight of them heading down to the river at bath-time is spectacular.
If time permits on your Sri Lankan adventure take a jaunt over to the tea plantations of Nuwara Eliya. As the mist lifts, green tea bushes weave over rolling hills and you could almost imagine you’re starring in your own Dilmah Tea T.V. advertisement. The mild temperature is a cool reprise from the flats and a night or two in a colonial hotel or converted tea-house is an escape from the maddening pace. Before heading to the south coast, break up the arduous journey at the pretty town of Ella and its stunning views through Ella Gap, temples and waterfalls.
The south coast awaits with its idyllic beaches, outstanding restaurants, and relaxing pace.
It won’t be hard to spot the foreigners who came for a visit and couldn’t bear to leave. The hippy surf town of Unawatuna hugs the coast and when you’re back home, don’t be surprised to find yourself longing for this spot. Restaurants and bars dot the palm-tree lined shore as locals and visitors alike frolick in the waves. Young families should head for the area beneath the temple where the currents aren’t as strong. Nearby are the quieter but equally gorgeous beaches of Tangalla, Weligama and the exquisite Mirissa.
A few kilometres west is the picturesque fort town of Galle and its Dutch-colonial buildings, artisans and its tres chic reputation. Unlike most of this region which was devastated by the tsunami, the fort was unscathed and a wander through its winding streets will enchant.
As the end draws near, the journey back to Colombo can be broken up with a visit to one of the turtle hatcheries in Kosgoda. See if you can pick the five different species of these cute critters? Spot the green, olive ridley, hawksbill, leatherback and loggerhead turtles make their perilous journey back to the water; much as you prepare for the journey back to reality.
Sri Lanka is the recent survivor of a 25 year war and a tsunami which devastated much of its south. There is still evidence of its tumultuous past as the following reveals:
Transport: apart from the roads in the south which were rebuilt after the tsunami, many are in poor condition or are in the process of being upgraded. As a result the traffic is hard going, time consuming and at best invigorating. Always allow more time than you think you will need, use a recommended driver and inspect the vehicle (particularly for seat-belts) before negotiating rates.
Tuks-tuks: a fun way to travel short distances. Check-out the decorations inside including the tame pin-up posters and take the time out to listen to the driver’s tales.
ilitary: there is a strong military presence and the frequent sight of guns can be a little alarming and there are frequent vehicle inspections.
Heat: the humidity is energy zapping and the sun is harsh. Don’t forget your sunscreen, cover up and rehydrate regularly. On the upside, the kids will be pleasantly exhausted and will sleep soundly; as will you.
Beach: The tidal currents are strong and the provision of life guards hasn’t exactly caught on yet, so always take care at the beach and if in doubt ask the locals.
Health: Sri Lanka is very clean, however consulting with a doctor before leaving home is highly recommended. The chemists and supermarkets are well stocked with medicines but may not have familiar brands. Clinics can be variable and consult with your consulate on the best treatment.
Utilities: with regular power outages air-conditioning and refrigeration are unreliable and water pressure is low.
Accommodation: can be hit and miss and it’s advisable to do your research.
Insects: the mosquitos are brutal and insect repellent is essential.
Pace: things move slowly in Sri Lanka and while this is part of its charm, the little ones might not understand why their lunch is taking so long. Be prepared for long waits in restaurants, at monuments, when touring and shopping.
National Museum, Albert Cres, Colombo 7, 011 269 4767
Viharamahadevi Park, Ananda Coomaraswamy Mw
Odels Department Store, 5 Alexandra Place, Colombo 7, 011 268 2712, www.odel.lk
Pettah Bazaar, Pettah District, Colombo 11
Gangaramaya Temple, Sri Jinaratana Rd, Colombo 2, 011 232 3038
Dehiwala Zoo, Dehiwala, 011 271 2751
Mount Lavinia Hotel, 100 Hotel Rd, 011 271 5221-7, www.mountlaviniahotel.com
Minneriya National Park and Kaudulla National Park, arrange transport from Giritale 12km northwest of Polonnaruwa
Pinnewala Elephant Orphanage, Rambukkana Rd, Kegalle
Kosgoda Turtle Conservation Project, Galle Rd (beachside) just north of Kosgoda 091 226 4567
Galle Face Hotel, Galle Rd, Colombo, 011 254 1010, www.gallefacehotel.com
Hilton Colombo Residence, (serviced apartments) Union Place, Colombo 2, 0 11 230 0613
Kandy House, Ratwatte Walauwa, Amunugama, Gunnepana 081 492 1394 www.srilankainstyle.com
Serendip Stone Bungalow, Natterampota, Kundasale, Kandy, 071 6820 700
Giritale: Deer Park, Giritale, Polonnaruwa 027 224 6272/6432/7685/7686 www.coloursofangsana.com
Amangalla, cnr Middle & Church St, Galle Fort, 091 223 3388, www.amanresorts.com
Thaproban Beach House, Thambapanni Leisure, Unawatuna Beach, Galle, 091 438 1722 www.thambapannileisure.com
Secret Garden Villa, Unawatuna, Galle, 091 224 1857, www.secretgardenunawatuna.com
Villa Araliya, 154/10 Porutota Rd, Negombo, 031 227 7650
Contact www.go-lanka.com for more options
The Gallery Cafe (recommendation: Black Pork Curry), 2 Alfred House Rd, Colombo, 011 258 2162, www.paradiseroadsl.com
The Green Cabin (authentic Sri Lankan cuisine at an absolute bargain), 453 Galle Road, Colombo 011 258 5511 or 011 259 1841
The Fort Printers (fine chic dining), 39 Pedlar St, Galle Fort, Galle, 091 224 7977
Mama’s Galle Fort Roof Cafe (casually tasty with lovely views), 76 Leyn Baan St, Galle Fort 091 222 6415
Dream House (Italian food at its best at local prices) Unawatuna Beach, Galle, 091 438 1541
Published in Asian Geographic Passport issue 2/2010