A family tour across Sri Lanka, with elephants, beaches and the warmest people

This emerald island has plenty of adventures to offer children, teenagers and adults alike

Tea picking outside Nuwera Eliya in central Sri Lanka. Photo: Christine Harding
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The warmth of Sri Lanka is present from the moment you step on to their national carrier, with the crew’s palms pressed in a “namaste” welcome, ushering you into a world of peacock-coloured gowns.

It's a 10-hour flight from London, where my family and I are travelling from, and just over four from Abu Dhabi. And that warmth of SriLankan Airlines is more evident when you arrive in the embracing tropical heat and a people who are unfailingly courteous.

Sri Lanka is an emerald gem. Verdant, certainly, not only in its lush landscape but in its multi-ethnic people who, despite their lower incomes, appear to welcome all that life throws at them.

In 2019, it was hit by the ISIS Easter bombings, followed two years later by the constrictions of the Covid-19 pandemic and then a financial crisis of the now-collapsed former government.

Those were severe blows, with the country’s annual 2.3 million foreign visitors, accounting for 12 per cent of GDP, plummeting to a mere few hundred thousand in 2021. But a suggestion of Sri Lanka's resilience – an innate attraction – is that the tourism is returning.

Not in droves as yet, but that will surely happen if the current political climate remains sensible while natural and man-made shocks remain dormant.

A family adventure across an emerald island

Travelling as a family always comes with its challenges, as two teenagers and a child will testify, but not for a single moment do we experience any threat or danger.

In a two-week journey, spanning great swathes of the country, the only remote peril comes from sharing a swinging suspension footbridge with a large family of boisterous Macaque monkeys.

In Sri Lanka's North Central Province, about 182 kilometres from Colombo, we skim the edge of Minneriya National Park’s broad, shimmering lake. We pass small herds of water buffalo gently grazing on the shore. Driving for an hour through forests of rosewood and ancient weera trees, where overhanging branches create an enchanting aura of the unexplored, we reach a large clearing, where in the distance a herd of 26 elephants nuzzle together.

Males, females and playful youths drink water through their trunks and sweep the grass in graceful swishes, engorging great mouthfuls. One tusked pair have a mock fight while another dashes a good few metres, showing the scope of their immense power, size and speed, before all melt back into the bush. These are just a handful of the herds that can number up to 700.

Sigiriya rock magic

We return for a welcome dip in Cinnamon Habarana Village’s diamond-shaped pool before contemplating the climb up legendary Sigiriya.

From afar, Sigiriya is a granite rock that stands far above the surrounding forests whose canopy hides a 5th-century palace of carefully crafted pools and stone walls.

The ascent begins with endless stone steps, trodden by visitors for 1,500 years, leading up to a staircase that clings to the sheer rock face and ancient wall art featuring partially dressed noble Sri Lankan ladies.

At the foot of the final ascent lie two giant carved lion’s feet, a place for ancient worship that now merits an Instagram stop.

Passing through the formidable paws, we begin the final ascent up the last 100 metres of steel staircase, zigzagging up the cliff.

The nerve-racking ascent is rewarded by a plateau and astounding views of the jungle, lakes and rivers that appear unchanged since the days of the dinosaurs.

Ancient swimming pools make you wonder how people from 1,500 years ago might have contemplated their place in the world.

Secrets of Kandy

Bustling Kandy, a large city in the centre of Sri Lanka, contains the sacred shrine of the Buddha’s tooth, well recommended for an alternative cultural experience. The delightful Mahaweli Reach Hotel is cocooned behind high walls and green terraces that lead down to the river, with the steep city hills framing the background.

Initially there are teenage groans at the prospect of visiting the Royal Botanical Gardens, but these are soon stifled amid the long limbs of the mahogany trees that lend themselves to climbing or the astonishing California-like avenues of high palm trees.

In addition to 4,000 different plant species, it also holds a gem of a corner where scores of trees have been planted by dignitaries ranging from Queen Elizabeth II and her grandfather George V.

Through the tea hills

The tea plantations that straddle the sharp hills of the central highlands cascade down hillsides that offer a beguiling aspect not dissimilar to England’s Lake District, albeit with a more accommodating climate.

With waterfalls gushing in the distance, the area is flowing with terraces of green bushes where we are expertly shown the process of turning them into tea – green, white or black.

We are then given a wicker basket and told to start picking, which the children take to with smiling alacrity. Though it would not last the full eight hours it takes expert pickers to fill a quota of 18kg for $3.25 a day.

We find ourselves in Nuwara Eliya walking in a refreshing, air conditioning-free climate. English Tudor and Scottish granite-style houses nestle in the town’s slopes. The colonial aspect – it was where the British migrated for long weekends away from Colombo’s heat – is most evident in the wood-panelled Grand Hotel, where high tea can be taken on the lawn or drinks savoured at its tasteful Art Deco bar.

Leaving in tepid 17ºC, we descend through roads hugging steep river valleys, terraced with rice paddies, down to a railway station where the temperature surges to 32°C.

Curving around an emerald hillside, the train pulls into the station for its short journey to the popular backpacker town of Ella.

Passengers lean out of a doorway as the train chugs over a nine-arch viaduct. Vegetation is within touching distance and the piping of the engine’s whistle makes it an exhilarating experience.

Hambantota heaven

It is the little, almost unseen touches at the Shangri-La Hambantota, located along the ancient Spice Route, that sets it apart, complemented by its pleasing interior design of timbered ceilings and wide openings.

The rooms have those hidden touches that enhance a stay such as noiseless air-conditioning and deeply soft pillows.

We open the blackout curtains to a vista of waving palm trees, pleasant green gardens and, beyond, the crashing waves of a beach completely unspoilt by any man-made intrusion.

The food – as it is across Sri Lanka – is a fine mixture of spicy local, Eastern, European and Chinese cuisine. At times the choice is so broad and tempting that it is impossible not to load up a multinational plate of excellence.

A short drive from Hambantota lies Yala National Park that has the attraction of glimpses of white deserted beaches with waves crashing before coconut-laden palm trees.

It also has at least 35 of Sri Lanka's leopards, which can occasionally be spotted lying on rocks, as well as families of elephants.

But it is the slightly menacing proximity of its many crocodiles that gives Yala an added aura – watching the reptiles slide under the surface then emerge close by, wondering what their reaction would be if game were to approach.

From east coast to west coast

While Sri Lanka’s east coast is fabled for its white sands and resorts, there is also beauty to be found on the west of the island, where the outstanding Teardrop Hotels have their luxurious Kumu Beach residence looking out on to the Indian Ocean.

Bathing in its eternity pool, watching the waves crashing in while basking in sunshine, is accompanied by excellent pool services and knowledge that the evening will bring a superb dining experience.

Similarly, its sister hotel of the colonial-era Wallawa, close to Colombo and closer still to the airport, is an excellent soft landing or departure spot with its gardens enclosed by dense vegetation, cocooning the visitor from the outside.

Sri Lanka has many qualities, foremost its people, including our driver and national tourist guide Kelum Jayasinghe, who is unfailingly polite and a library of useful information. With liberal and clever use of the horn, he smartly navigates us past slower tuk-tuks and carts.

After two weeks of travel there are no upset stomachs nor severe ailments, instead deep tan lines and a reflection of the smiles that grace our Sri Lankan hosts.

The final hours of the country’s hospitality are enjoyed on the busy flight home, with the customary warmth of SriLankan Airlines, where, with laptop out, a flight attendant asks what I'm writing.

“A travel piece on Sri Lanka.”

“It had better be good,” she responds.

“That won’t be difficult,” I reply.

Updated: November 09, 2023, 7:01 AM