Child-friendly resorts and fascinating culture make Sri Lanka a top-tier family destination
Words by Jo Caird
“Can we go in a tuk-tuk?” It’s a question my two-year-old daughter Mabel asks every time we set foot outside. We brought a car seat for long drives on this two-week trip to Sri Lanka, but for short journeys it’s three-wheelers all the way and Mabel can’t get enough of this exhilarating new way of getting around.
Her obsession begins in Colombo, where we spend a couple of nights acclimatising after our 11-hour Tui flight – direct, thankfully – at the very lovely Shangri-La Hotel Colombo. The plan for this trip is to squeeze in as many authentic Sri Lankan experiences as possible while still being toddler-friendly, so we start with a half-day tour of the capital with Tuk Tuk Safari Sri Lanka.
Picked up from the hotel, we’re whisked to locations including the Sri Kaileswaram kovil, one of the largest and oldest Hindu temples in the city; the Independence Memorial Hall, built when Sri Lanka gained independence from British rule; the tranquil Buddhist shrine on Beira Lake; and Gangaramaya, Colombo’s most important Buddhist religious site. Between the life-sized statues of lions and elephants, the series of staircases leading to eclectic collections of knick-knacks or historic vehicles, and the resident felines, it may as well as have been designed with a toddler in mind.
The tuk-tuk tour is a brilliant way of getting a sense of the city, especially with a jet-lagged toddler in tow. Stops are kept fairly short, the open sides of the vehicle keep us cool; and Donald, our ever smiling driver, is so good with Mabel that it’s not long before she’s letting him carry her around (a rare privilege, let me tell you).
Back at the hotel we all take a nap and cool off in the pool before visiting nearby Galle Face Green, Colombo’s historic oceanside promenade, for a sunset stroll. I buy a colourful kite for 150 Rupees (50p) from one of the many vendors on the seafront and keep it in the air for all of 45 seconds before crashing down onto the parched grass.
Most travellers treat Colombo as a jumping off point for a trip to Sri Lanka’s famed ‘Cultural Triangle’, but we have other ideas. Rather than attempt an itinerary that requires almost daily travel and a keen appetite for historical and religious sites, we’ve opted instead for a couple of bases on the west and south coasts, dividing our time between days on the beach and occasional short excursions.
It’s a long drive to the Shangri-La Hambantota Golf Resort & Spa, but the peace and quiet of its remote location, plus the fantastic facilities for families, makes it worth the four-and-half-hour schlep down the coast. The waterpark, with its slides, fountains and wading pool, keeps Mabel so busy that we never get the chance to explore the toys and soft play at the kids club, but the mini tables and chairs at the Bojunhala all-day dining restaurant and ever patient staff ensure that meal times are nearly as fun as play time (and her buffet meals are free, which is a nice touch).
We’re here to relax (massages at the CHI Ayurveda Spa and the fantastic Sri Lankan cuisine at Bojunhala take care of that) but also to take advantage of the local wildlife-spotting opportunities.
First up is an afternoon boat trip on the nearby Walawe River. A short transfer by three-wheeler (“red tuk-tuk!”, squeals Mabel when she spots it waiting for us at reception) is followed by two hours of near constant animal and bird-spotting. From the water buffalo mother and calf making their way across the river to the roosting bats disturbed by the presence of eagles, via peacocks, langur monkeys and crocodiles, even Mabel is captivated.
The following day we’ve got bigger quarry in mind on a visit to Udawalawe National Park, an hour’s drive north of the resort. Aware that Mabel’s patience for being strapped into her car seat has its limits, we opt for a two-hour morning safari, and cross our fingers that some of the park’s 250-strong elephant population will make an appearance. We spot our first lone male five minutes into the safari and they come thick and fast after that, along with crocodiles, water buffalo and all manner of beautiful birdlife.
Heaving a sigh, we depart for the final stop on our Sri Lankan odyssey, a week in the busy beach village of Hikkaduwa, on the coast between Colombo and the southern city of Galle. Unlike in Hambantota, the waves crashing onto this long stretch of white sand are gentle enough for swimming, but we’re glad to have the option of dips in the shady hotel swimming pool too.
You could spend all day every day just lounging in the sunshine here but there are a few more elements of Sri Lankan history and culture that we’re keen to pack in. We meet Vinitha at Galle’s historic Dutch Market one morning and learn about all manner of weird of wonderful Sri Lankan vegetables before heading her to house for a cooking class and delectable lunch. On the way back to Hikkaduwa we stop at Galle Fort, built by the Dutch during their occupation of what was then Ceylon in the 17th century, for a sunset walk around its imposing ramparts and atmospheric streets.
Another day we take a trip inland for a tour of the Herman tea plantation and factory. Mabel is less interested in the intricacies of the tea harvest than she is in the promise of cake served – with a cup of tea of course – at the end of the tour, but we all have a good time nonetheless. A short hop up the coast on a noisy local train, its windows wide open to let in the sea breeze, is another family activity that hits the mark.
Before we know it, it’s the final afternoon of our adventure and the three of us are holding hands on the beach, the Indian Ocean crashing onto our feet as the sun sinks into the clouds out to sea. “Bye bye, waves,” shouts Mabel, jumping up and down in the surf. It’s been a fantastic trip.
IMAGES by Steve Pretty
Jo and her family travelled as the guests of Shangri-La Hotel Colombo (doubles from $180) and the Shangri-La Hambantota Golf Resort and Spa (doubles from $293; shangri-la.com). They flew with Tui, which operates a weekly direct flight from London Gatwick to Colombo on the 787 Dreamliner (tui.co.uk/destinations/indian-ocean/sri-lanka/holidays-sri-lanka.html).
Vinitha’s Kitchen experience is available with specialist operator Essential Escapes as part of their culinary destination itineraries (020 7788 4242).