There’s a moment of the complete unknown when an elephant steps in front of our jeep and faces us, head on. It’s a huge male. In Sri Lanka, the females have tusks so the elephant staring us down is tuskless, but its large ears flared out, and sheer bulk of the animal make this a daunting moment, nonetheless. Everyone holds their breath and I subconsciously tighten my grip on my children. Suddenly he decides a showdown isn’t worth it and turns slowly off into the bush, crushing bristles under those giant feet as he goes. The kids didn’t even notice the tension melt between the adults aboard the jeep, too busy merrily taking photos and pointing out animals, here there and everywhere.
THE travel hot spot of the moment, Sri Lanka has it all. Beautiful beaches, excellent food, mountain escapes and animal safaris. Here's how to plan your trip and the best places to stay.
Get over jet lag at: Bentota
It’s the ideal spot to either start or end your holiday as it’s only about 90 minutes to Colombo airport so you can go straight there when you arrive. It's also home to famed Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa and lots of the villas in this area are inspired by his sprawling, “tropical modernism” designs.
By the pool at Sri Villas. That's the beach, past the palm trees.
We stayed at the idyllic Sri Villas just out of Bentota which was right on a lovely stretch of beach, in designer-chic accommodation with an oceanfront pool and reasonably priced fresh food. It’s the kind of place you come back to again and again. From there you can either just enjoy the beach and pool or head out into the busier Bentota for markets, restaurants and bars. A great way to wear off the jet lag before you trek further.
Our room at Sri Villas was so pretty.
The beautiful pink concrete bathroom with my trusty Glow Queen Glow I used all over my skin and hair throughout the trip.
Go shopping in: Galle
Galle Fort is one of the only touristy shopping spots you’ll get in Sri Lanka, and comes with good restaurants and pubs. I found some excellent semi-precious jewellery to bring home and also bought some for my girls to wear when they're older. Travel tip: stay inside the fort walls and get the whole experience. A lot of the hotels are outside the walls which means you’ll have to tuk tuk there and back. If you’re inside the walls, everything is a walk away.
Poolside at the Amangalla where we bunkered down for a few days.
We stayed at the Amangalla which used to be called the New Oriental Hotel and is straight out of a movie set, colonial in decoration and one of the most delightful hotels I have ever stayed in. The food was incredible - seriously some of the best food I've ever eaten and their vegetarian selection is out-of-this-world good. The pool was warm and shallow enough for kids to play in, plus they serve scones with homemade strawberry jam and cream every afternoon. By the pool, in your own cabana if that’s what you want. Need I say more?
The restaurant at the Amangalla was my happy place. Try the banana leaf and prawn salad.
Learn to surf at: the Beaches
There are a bunch of beaches hidden from the street in a stretch of coast road about 30 minutes from Galle, like Hikkaduwa, Unawatuna, Weligama and Mirissa, which is the base point for blue whale watching. Note - the blue whales live off the Sri Lankan coast, so they’re there all year round but the ocean can be rough in different seasons. Here you can learn to surf, swim with turtles or just soak up the sunshine.
Don’t expect a lively nightlife like Bali. There are restaurants around but you may end up eating at your hotels. That’s not a bad thing because the food everywhere is amazing (even on the planes). Tip: when unsure about what to order, “rice and curries” is an excellent bet. It’s a mound of rice served with about six different curries and honestly tasted great at every restaurant.
Rice and curries. It's different in every restaurant, but always delicious. This was at the Amangalla.
Break up the drive in: Tangalle
This was a halfway point between the beaches and Yala National Park, but is also a great destination on its own as there is a fair bit to do and see around Tangalle, from the various beaches, markets, temples and a blowhole which was a big trek in steaming heat and a tourist destination for Sri Lankans as well.
The only exercise I did all holiday was swim laps of every pool we stayed at. This is the Amanwella and we always ordered lunch by the pool. Heaven is hot chips while swimming.
Turn onto a tiny dirt road which looks like it’s going nowhere (like a fair few roads in Sri Lanka!) and the Amangalla appears out of nowhere. It’s a seriously luxe resort with a huge 47m pool but I found the silver service at every meal too much while on holiday (though I know some people expect that if they’re paying top dollar). The highlight was the beach restaurant which is literally on the sand and a beautiful place to enjoy barbecue seafood if you want a break from all the curry. Book in here for dinner even if you’re staying somewhere else.
Our villa at the Amangalla was incredible and had its own pool, it was the highlight accommodation of the trip.
Spot the leopards at: Yala National Park
Yala is home to the highest leopard density in the world and should be on your must-do list when visiting Sri Lanka. My husband wanted to go camping but I wasn’t exactly keen, so we agreed on “glamping”. Leopard Nest Lodge was a great compromise. You’re met by a 4WD jeep on the road, then taken for a very bumpy off-road drive until you get to the “campsite”, consisting of an open-air hut, a few cabins and a most excellent fulfiller-of-childhood-fantasies treehouse. Unfortunately we couldn’t stay in that because it only fits two, but our cabin was fabulous nonetheless.
The tree house. Seriously amazing if you're travelling with just one other person!
Yala National Park is huge - almost 250,000 acres - so spotting a leopard was always going to be tricky and we didn’t see one. I would suggest staying a few nights and doing multiple safaris to increase your chances. We did see a bear, lots of deers, loads of monkeys, a few too many snakes, crocodiles, wild boar, elephants and very spooky spider webs. It was getting back to nature in the best possible way. Dinner was served under the stars, cooked on the BBQ. It was such an incredibly real, raw and emotional experience, connecting with the earth and with the surrounding animals compared to the usual of a regular hotel and the perfect time out from reality. Highly recommend this one if you are travelling. Just risk it.
Our cabin was so fab. Simple accom but I'm sure you'll agree, way better than a tent.
Get your elephant fix in: Udawalawe
You’ll be presented with a dilemma when booking your Sri Lanka trip, to choose between Yala or Udawalawe National Parks. Here’s my advice, don’t choose. Book both. You want to see all the animals you can get and NOTHING compares to seeing them in their natural habitat, not in a zoo. It's next level animal closeness.
The two parks are within driving distance of one another and very different experiences. Udawalawe is about a third of the size of Yala (“only” around 76,000 acres) and home to around 300 elephants.
We were bumping along in your jeep, keen to spot animals, then came across an elephant herd by the lake. Including a two month old baby! Just enjoying their family time and wandering the grass, spraying dirt and splashing in the water. It’s a bit of an out-of-body experience to get as close as we did and one of those special, unforgettable feelings shared by your own family inside the jeep.
We passed solitary males very close by and even had a stand-off with one bull, who thankfully chose not to ram our vehicle but peacefully wandered into the bush. Eagles soared above and crocodiles stayed as still as statues lakeside. There was even a little chameleon on a tree that our guide spotted. Udawalawe is worth the visit.
The elephants in Udawalawe are not to be missed. Even if you think you don't want to, you actually do.
Slow down and drink tea in: Ella
When you get sick of the heat (and you will), head up to the mountains for some hiking and a spot of afternoon tea. Ella is over 1000 metres above sea level and a cute little town, though the centre does look similar to Thailand 20 years ago which was a little disappointing considering the other places we visited were so not touristy. Quick, get there before it develops further! Ella is a great base to head to other destinations like Kandy and then onto Sigiriya via the picturesque train.
There are some lovely hikes to do through beautiful, lush green rainforest that make you feel alive and at one with nature, even the kids didn’t complain about the length of the walks. And visit a tea plantation while you’re there because this is the tea capital of Sri Lanka.
There's a whole walk you can do along the train tracks to the Nine-Arch bridge and it was the perfect, cloudy afternoon to do it. The train goes SO slowly, you'll have time to jump out of the way.
City highlights: Colombo
The capital is a bustling city full of life and great food. It’s also a great place to stop and experience life as a Sri Lankan before making your way around the more sleepy countryside, or on the way out of the country. We stayed at the Jetwing Colombo Seven which gave us haven after a day of haggling at market stalls in the heat.
My kids were most excited to see a rooftop pool overlooking the city.
GET THE TIMING RIGHT
The best time of year to go is December to April. It’s not actually about the weather in Sri Lanka which is what you look up before booking, because it’s usually always hot. It’s about the temperament of the ocean.
HOW TO GET AROUND
There is so much to see - we travelled the country with a total of seven stops over three weeks which most thought was insane with young children, but they were as excited about new holiday adventures as we were.
The roads are frustrating. There is one lane each way and vehicles overtake into oncoming traffic which is dicey, I had to close my eyes at times. The buses drive at breakneck speeds and overtake even around corners. But they are cheap, so if you can deal with the speed they’re not a bad way to get around. Trains are also cheap, but they are slower than driving. However they’re a good way to see the countryside.
Booking a driver will help as they’ll pick up and drop off directly to your accommodation and when travelling with kids was exactly what I was after.
HOW TO GET THERE
Fly: Singapore Airlines and Qantas both fly to Colombo via Singapore with a 14 hour total travel time, but Sri Lankan Airlines has now introduced direct flights out of Melbourne which is a 10 hour trip.
Visa: All Australians need visas to travel to Sri Lanka, get it via a quick online form at https://www.srilanka-visagov.com/
Cars: Book a driver to take you around the country https://tourmastersrilanka.com/
Language: Almost everyone speaks English, and certainly the staff at hotels do, which make for easy communication.