When it comes to picking a long haul family holiday we always like to go somewhere new, but with so many places still on the wish list where on earth do you start? So out came the atlas again and a few destinations jumped out for us, one of which was Sri Lanka.
There are plenty of fascinating things to do with kids in Sri Lanka besides the beaches; spot wildlife, swim with turtles, ride the train (or ride in a tuk tuk!), go whale watching, see stick fisherman. And that’s before you introduce them to Sri Lanka’s delicious curry cuisine!
As both our kids are in school, we were looking for Easter breaks in the sun and this helped narrow down our choice. Looking at the weather during March/April, Sri Lanka with the kids looked perfect!
One great benefit you'll find if travelling over Easter for a Sri Lanka family holiday is that flights are pretty cheap, in general much more affordable than during the Christmas or summer holidays. We did end up taking the kids out of school for 3 days, but it was well worth it for the brilliant deal we got with Qatar Airways (and the fact we got a longer holiday!)
We've taken a few long haul trips with the kids now and the flights to Sri Lanka's capital, Colombo were a breeze. You can fly overnight from Heathrow via a short transit through Doha and arrive into Colombo mid-morning.
Once you clear immigration (I'd recommend doing your Sri Lanka ETA visa online before you fly to save time and money), you’ll be ready to hit the sunshine. The first feeling of heat when you arrive in foreign climes is always welcome and Sri Lanka didn't disappoint us, it was baking!
We planned most of our itinerary before leaving the UK, which I would recommend. From previous experience, we knew we’d want a pool everywhere we stayed. We also knew we wanted a bit of culture, a bit of adventure and some beach, so here's how our Sri Lanka itinerary panned out:
We were picked up from the airport and had a 3 hour drive to our first stop Jim's Farm Villas. A beautiful family-friendly farm set in the hills between Kandy and Dambulla with amazing views. It was so beautiful in fact that for the first 3 days we didn't even leave the farm! We just chilled by the pool, got steadily used to the heat and ate some lovely food (everything is organic and grown on the farm). Bliss!
This farm is remote, but it makes an ideal base to explore the cultural north of Sri Lanka. Whilst here, we organised a driver and went to Dambulla caves and also to Sigiriya, the ancient fortress set on a 200 metre high rock. We left at about 8am and zipped up the rock in no time - even with the kids in tow.
The walkway up the rock is steep but safe; towards the top you need to hold hands with the little ones but everyone will be fine! It took around 45 minutes or so to get up and along the way you can see ancient carvings, before reaching the top where the view is breathtaking. An experience as a family we'll never forget.
After 5 nights at the farm we got a ride to Kandy for the next 'must do' part of our trip; the famous 6 hour train ride from Kandy through hill country to Ella.
We booked ridiculously cheap Second Class tickets on the day (about £6 in total for all four of us) and enjoyed the great views and the breeze with the windows open. You could pay a bit extra for First Class, but the sealed carriage with air con didn't appeal to us as much. The air cools once the train climbs, so the heat really isn't an issue.
On-board as you rattle through the countryside, you’ll find that hawkers board the train selling various street food and tea. We all tried various things (samosas, breads, bhajis, roti, nuts, fruits) and it was all delicious! The scenery changes as you head slowly through the villages, it's absolutely stunning and was a real highlight for us, well worth a day sat on the train.
On arrival in Ella it was clear that this place has a very different and more hippy vibe. We stayed in 98 Acres, which we reached by jumping in a tuk tuk. The four of us were only travelling with backpacks but we all managed to squeeze in).
In terms of hotels in Ella, it’s not exactly a cheap place to stay, but it’s a unique spot with breathtaking views in every direction and well worth the money. They proudly display their 2015 award for “World’s Best Luxury Mountain Resort” on the wall. Perched up in the hills, 98 Acres is also a working tea plantation so tea pickers will often be seen dotted around the place. It’s ideally located for a morning walk up Little Adam’s Peak which we easily walked with the kids.
Aside from riding the tuk tuks up and down the hill (great fun for the kids), while in Ella we also visited the Halpewatte tea factory. This was built in 1940 during British rule and seemingly hasn’t changed a great deal since then. It’s a fully working tea factory and they offer a really informative tour, culminating in some tea tasting and the freshest cups of tea you’re ever likely to drink.
After 3 nights in Ella we headed down to the increasingly popular beach resort of Mirissa. It’s a good 4-5 hour drive from Ella which you could break up with visits to one of the national parks if you wanted. As we were meeting up with some friends, we did the whole journey in one go.
Mirissa was our first taste of beaches in Sri Lanka and it’s rated as one of the best (if not the best!). It’s not hard to see why, it’s a beautiful sweeping arc of sand, very clean and popular with backpackers.
The sea was a little rougher here than we’d expected; OK for paddlinh but great for boogie boards. It’s relatively shallow and there are lifeguards for reassurance, but you wouldn’t want your little ones getting out of their depth.
The first guesthouse we checked into was the ‘Spice House’. I wouldn’t recommend staying there with kids, it’s a poor location on the busy main road and we took one look at our room and decided not to stay. We jumped in a tuk tuk and headed down to Mirissa Beach – the best place to stay if you’re here for the beach. There are heaps of choices to suit all budgets but we opted for Paradise Beach Club. Not our usual kind of accommodation, but right on the beach with a fantastic pool next to the sand (with the sea being rough this was an essential for us). Along the beach are several low-key bars and restaurants; the pick of the bunch for us was the Zephyr where we ate a few times.
While in Mirissa, the best thing we did was to head down to Polhena beach by tuk tuk. It's a calm turquoise bay protected by the reef about 10-15 minutes away. A few guys hire out snorkels and flippers and we all got to swim with giant turtles which was something really special.
There are also (Blue Whale) whale watching trips that depart from Mirissa, but as you'll be out in the boat for 4-5 hours, you need good sea legs. We really wanted to go but our kids tend to get sea sick so we decided against it.
After 3 nights in Mirissa (and via lunch in Galle - highly recommend for a visit), we headed on to Hikkaduwa. With the new modern highway in Sri Lanka from Colombo to the Southern beaches, most people pass Hikkaduwa by.
Hikkaduwa is a kind of forgotten surf town. At one end of the beach are some bigger resort hotels while at the southern end where Villa Saffron is it’s a selection of more upmarket villas and smaller hotels. The sea is also here, but the beach is deserted at the southern end and we loved just playing in the sand and kicking a ball around.
After being spoilt where we stayed at Jims Farm and in Ella, we just wanted to be made a fuss of again and the location wasn’t the main draw. In Hikkaduwa we stayed at Villa Saffron, a gorgeous new 5 bedroom villa right on the beach, with an amazing staff and a chef. For our last 2 nights to have the place to ourselves, which was complete bliss. We stayed 3 nights and will always have fond memories of Hikkaduwa, mainly because of the amazing hospitality at Villa Saffron.
Sadly Hikkaduwa was largely destroyed by the Tsunami of 2004, in fact it was the scene of the world’s worst ever train disaster that day claiming 1,700 lives as the coastal railway was washed away. It’s gradually coming back, but with beach resorts like Mirissa, Weligama and Unawatuna now served by the new highway further south it’s unlikely to return to it’s heyday of the 70’s and 80’s.
We took the kids to the Tsumami memorial and museum in Hikkaduwa, a pretty harrowing and humbling experience, but we coupled that with a trip to the turtle hatchery where we all got to hold some very cute baby turtles.
If you’re looking for Easter breaks in the sun, Sri Lanka family holidays really tick all the boxes. With such a wide variety of culture, beach, wildlife and landscapes it’s ideal for travelling around every few days to experience different parts of the island. Just over 2 weeks was perfect to get a real flavour of the place. In fact we’re still enjoying now, having brought back various spices to enjoy our favourite Sri Lankan rice and curry. Delicious!
If you’d like to plan a trip with your family to Sri Lanka or need other family trip suggestions, we can help. Talk to one of our many well-travelled parents in the Travel Nation team on +44 1273320580 or make an enquiry by email.