Sri Lanka , the teardrop island just below India that promised us everything we wanted from our holiday – sunshine, beautiful beaches, amazing food, wildlife and interesting environments to explore, and all in a place we could travel safely and comfortably on a budget with our young children. We spent 3 weeks exploring, I’ve written our impressions of Sri Lanka in this earlier post, and this is a more detailed itinerary of our route and highlights.
Its never easy choosing a holiday destination, but the more we considered Sri Lanka the more it seemed to offer something for everyone. Adventures, beaches, and wildlife, on a budget that fitted a family of 6. Tourism in Sri Lanka has really started to increase over the last few years, so it felt like somewhere we wanted to explore before it got too popular, but it would still be set up enough so that we wouldn’t struggle too much in a foreign country where none of us spoke the language, where we were obviously tourists and travelling with young children – our youngest is just 5. We couldn’t really choose our travel dates with too much flexibility as we are tied to school holidays but Easter gave us a chance for 3 weeks, so we decided to go for it and do our best to avoid the rainy season in the south by heading there first then heading up into the hills for the second part of the trip. We followed a fairly standard loop, starting in Colombo and heading south to the beach, then winding up through the national parks to the tea plantations, then back west to the airport via the jungle. This seemed the right balance of not moving too fast, and being able to enjoy each place, but still seeing a few different parts of this diverse country. We had planned to visit Kandy but rerouted due to some civil unrest there, which suited us anyway as it meant we could spend a few days in the jungle.
I am pretty sure when you think of Sri Lanka, its the long golden beaches with palm trees that spring to mind. This was absolutely what I was going for! I had read too many reports of dirty beaches in Negombo so we headed straight down the coast to Hikkaduwa. This little coast town was the perfect place to get our feet wet in the Indian Ocean for the first time, discover the best roti in Sri Lanka and relax at what was our favorite Air BnB of the whole trip. The beach was lined with backpacker hostels, beach bars and surf schools, and the main road was full of busy fabric shops with seamstress ready to whip up a pair of custom fit trousers for just a few pound, roti shops where you could choose from a huge list of amazing fillings, and tuk tuk drivers waiting to take you wherever you needed to go. But the highlight for everyone was the turtles that swim right on the beach, so you can wade into the water and feed them, swim with them or just watch them float around. We could have stayed here a lot longer, and it was an unexpected gem of a town. There was so much we didn’t get to see.
Heading east, we stopped off for the day In Galle, exploring the old fort and wandering the tiny streets. This is such a lovely old town, with plenty to see – from snake charmers trying to charm a few pounds from the tourist, to every day life of Sri Lanka – we saw a photo shoot for a couple under one of the amazing banyan trees that line the streets, got caught up in a school trip and enjoyed lunch in a cafe that was just the front room of someones home. Apparently the ice cream shop here is amazing, we didn’t get to try it out but if you head to Galle, try it and let us know?!
From Galle we took the coast road, passing through Kogella where you can stop to see the stilt fisherman ( and pay heavily for the privilege of taking a photo), and also visit turtle hatcheries. We felt like we had experienced turtles already in Hikkaduwa and were keen to experience the beaches of the south east coast so we pressed on to our hotel near Tangalla. This was our one long stay of the trip so I was nervous that it was going to be nice enough that we would want to be here for 6 days. The view from the pool was enough to reassure everyone that it would all be ok.
We booked this hotel through Booking.com – it only had three apartments and a bungalow in the grounds which was were we stayed, which was so lovely as we had the pool and restaurant and gardens of the hotel but also our own space and garden. We spent 6 days exploring the area, visiting Tangalle, canoeing around the lagoon, going to the rock temples on Poya, snorkeling and swimming in nearby coves and also spending a lot of time in the gardens and in the pool just relaxing, reading and playing a lot of Uno. The children were entertained with another family who were staying so it was just perfect for everyone! We were so reluctant to leave the beach and the warmer weather but headed along the coast to Tissamaharama, the gateway town to Yala National Park. There are so many places to stay around here, from small guesthouses in the town to tree houses out on the lake. We went for a treehouse, open sided and rustic and it was a real adventure for everyone – it was so hot, and we really were sleeping under the stars, which meant we heard every single bug, bird and wild dog for miles. It wasn’t the best nights sleep but the dawn chorus was worth it, and it made the safari feel much more special.
Half way through our three weeks, and we headed up into the tea plantations of Ella, a little village in the hill country that is a popular stop for everyone traveling around Sri Lanka. Our driver stopped on the way to our hotel to show us the views from Ella Gap and stop off at Rawana Falls, a wonderful waterfall that’s quite spectacular to see but you cant swim in it so I am glad we didn’t plan a trip there especially. Once we got to Ella we were spoilt for choice – its obvious this village is a mostly tourists, which means plenty of cookery classes, lively hostels and a wide range of restaurants used to serving westerners – yes, the children had pizza and they loved it! There was plenty to do here, which was lucky as we had rain for several days and the temperature was much lower than on the coast.
Of course no visit to this area would be complete without going to the tea plantations, so we visited a factory for a tour to see how tea is made right from the picking to the packing. I didn’t expect to learn quite so much and as it was a factory tour the children were interested too as it wasn’t too much talking and we got to see the machines up close. And of course, almost every one comes to Ella for the train, which is known to be the most beautiful train journey in Asia. We weren’t traveling on by train but still wanted to experience it, so we just took a day trip to a nearby town of Haputale – it was more than enough time to experience the train, appreciate the amazing views and cost just £3 for all 6 of us. Haputale is a busy Tamil town that couldn’t be more different from Ella, and its a great place to go to so you can visit Lipton’s Seat, which has views for miles over the hill country and if you catch it early before the fog comes in, down to the coast.
However our favourite activity in Ella was hiking Little Adams Peak. There are so many great hikes in and around Ella, and in Sri Lanka but we knew some of the more challenging hikes to Sigiriya Rock or Adams Peak wouldn’t fit in with our plans this time so I knew we had to hike Little Adams Peak – absolutely manageable for even our littlest 5 year old but at 1140m high enough to make the adults feel like we had got somewhere special. Its an easy path through tea plantations and full of things to see on the way, and the 360* view from the top is well worth every step.
We had thought about heading from Ella up to Kandy – its a popular route and one that most people seem to take, but we decided we had seen busy towns and temples in the south and wanted to fit in a different type of location, and squeeze in another safari, so we headed back down to Udawalawe then across to the Sinharaja Forest Reserve. We only stayed one night in Udawalawe and as soon as we arrived we wished had booked longer. Its a totally different vibe to the safaris in Yala, and the reservoir and town is beautiful. We booked a dawn safari this time, and explored the park for three hours with a guide who was also a park ranger. We couldn’t believe how different this park was to Yala, and we saw a lot more birds and of course elephants – although this time with calves too.
After a hearty breakfast at the Air BnB, we headed towards Sinharaja. I am going to be honest here – I didn’t enjoy the journey there one bit, twisting and turning up tiny mountain roads, over tired from the 4am start for the dawn safari and trying not to look out the window at the Sri Lankan driving, but the kids thought it was amazing. The house we booked was almost at the top of a mountain looking down over the jungle, and had a pretty amazing pool so this part of the trip was for them really. The jungle was exciting and an amazing place to experience, the weather and landscape literally changed as you watched it, with fog rolling in creating a total blanket and then disappearing again all within about ten minutes. The lightening was intense and meant we spent quite a lot of time just playing games and watching the weather so we didn’t explore far ( there were also leches in the bushes which made me a little nervous). It was also really humbling to see this area where many families live in poverty and the juxtaposition between these huge staffed holiday homes that are only used some of the time, and the tiny village houses full of children playing in the mud was quite hard to see. But I am glad we visited this area, it was a world away from the busy tourist towns and felt like a very important part of Sri Lanka to see to help understand more about this country and how people live away from the tourist trail.
Nearing the end of the three weeks, we headed back towards Colombo to an Air BnB about 20 minutes from the airport. We had a few days to explore Negombo and confirm that yes, what we heard about dirty beaches and tourist trap restaurants was true, so we just enjoyed the pool and gardens at the Air BnB before heading to the airport. It was great to be so close to the airport especially as we were flying on the Sri Lankan New Years Day so there was no public transport and limited taxis around but I couldn’t see other reasons to hang around here. Heading south so quickly at the beginning of our trip had been the right decision, especially as by mid April the rain had arrived and we were hearing reports of bad weather all along the south coast.
Over the three weeks, we sunbathed on amazing beaches under palm trees, explored hot and busy towns, walked through small mountain villages, visited tea plantations, watched elephants, crocodiles and water buffalo in national parks, took in the smells and sounds of a rock temple on Poya, slept in an open tree house, hiked up a mountain, rode the most scenic train in Sri Lanka, ate delicious food and really got a taste for this amazing country. If we had a little more time, I would have visited the east coast beaches and if we go back, I would head north to see more of this undiscovered part of the Island, but for three weeks, traveling on a budget with children, this was the perfect route.
Have you been to Sri Lanka? Did you see something we missed? We would love to know what your route was! If you haven’t been yet, what do you think of this route, does it offer everything you are looking for in this amazing country? Pin this image so you can refer back to this post when you are planning your own route.