Sri Lanka is a wonderful destination for families. This little island seemingly has it all with something to offer every family whether you’re looking for culture, wildlife, adventure or just a week or two soaking up the sunshine on some of Asia’s best beaches. Little kids will love the palm-fringed beaches and calm, swimmable waters, and will delight at the numerous turtle sanctuaries found near Bentota. For big kids and teens Sri Lanka is activity heaven, from water skiing and surfing on the coast to canoeing, and mountain biking in the hill country. And for parents there’s everything you could possibly hope for in a family holiday destination – action, adventure, culture, history, relaxation, great food and the chance to create some incredible memories with your kids. And, if you’re looking for some great places to stay, have a look at our favourite family hotels.
1. Release baby turtles into the ocean
Five species of sea turtle call Sri Lanka home, the Olive Ridley Turtle, Loggerhead Turtle, Green Turtle, Hawksbill Turtle and Leatherhead Turtle. Their major nesting habitats are located along the southern coast in the Galle District and a number of turtle hatcheries can be found along the southern coastal road, from Bentota onwards.
Established to help protect these wonderful creatures, it’s definitely worth stopping by a turtle hatchery at least once. Learn about the dangers turtles face, the conservation efforts in place and meet the turtles! Kids may even be able to help release baby turtles back into the ocean – an unforgettable experience. Near Bentota, Club Villa is a great hotel for families.
2. Fish like a local
If you want to fish in Sri Lanka you’re going to have to practice your balancing skills as local fisherman traditionally perch on stilts to snare their catch of the day. The stilt poles, known as riti panna, can be seen along the southern coast stuck a few metres offshore in the water. A small bench is attached to the poles and this is where the fishermen balance above the water. This method is used only for catching small reef fish called ‘Bollu’ and ‘Koramburuwo’, tiny fish not dissimilar in size to a sardine.
The origins surrounding stilt fishing are unclear although traditionally the skill was handed down generation to generation. Sadly there are fewer and fewer fishermen practicing the skill today but you’ll usually see some fishing at sunset, noon and sunrise – you can even have a go yourself!
3. Explore the Ancient Fort of Galle
Galle’s 17th-century Dutch Fort is one of Sri Lanka’s highlights. Originally built by the Portuguese in 1588 and then extensively fortified by the Dutch from 1649 onwards, the fort has been beautifully preserved and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Walk the ramparts and then wander the charming, narrow streets lined with old houses and historic churches. There’s also a good selection of boutiques, art galleries and restaurants. What’s really interesting about the fort, however, is that it’s still a living, breathing community with administrative offices and children heading off to school. Travel writer Juliet Coombe’s book Around the Fort in 80 Lives is a great introduction to some of the characters that live here. Don’t miss the locals jumping off the ramparts into the waters below!
4. Catch a game of cricket
Cricket was first introduced to Sri Lanka (then called Ceylon) when the island became a British colony in 1802. It didn’t take long for the game to take off and today it’s the most popular sport in the country.
Despite its tiny size, the island has eight grounds that have been used to host international cricket matches including stadiums in Colombo, Kandy and Galle. The Galle International Stadium was originally opened in 1829 as a horseracing course but was soon taken over by stumps and wickets. Today it’s one of the most picturesque Test grounds in the world with views of the Dutch Fort from the stadium. If you’re lucky, your trip might coincide with a Test match and even if you can’t get tickets, you can watch with the locals from the fort ramparts. Check the schedule here.
5. Learn to Surf
Sri Lanka is well known as a great surf destination. Because of the island’s two seasons you can always find waves somewhere; the south west coast between November and March and the east cost from May to September. But what if you can’t tell your barrels from your breaks? Fortunately Sri Lanka offers consistent, small beginner-friendly waves, especially along the south west coast. Weligama in particular is a popular spot for beginners as it’s a sheltered bay, protected from the wind. There are a number of local surf schools here where you can have lessons or simply hire a board. It won’t be long before you’re charging and carving like the best of them. For hotels near Weligama, we love Cape Weligama and W15.
6. Meet the elephants
The Asian elephant has played a central part of Sri Lanka’s culture and ecology for thousands of years – amazingly 10% of the world’s elephant population is concentrated on this small island! There are many ways where you can get up close and personal with these incredible creatures – you can even learn how to make paper from elephant poo at the Eliphus Maximus project!
The Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage is a family highlight and one of the most popular places to visit. This orphanage, nursery and captive breeding ground for wild Asian elephants was originally founded in 1975 to care for and protect orphaned elephants found in the wild. Visitors can watch the elephants bathing in the river and being fed.
Other elephant encounters can be had on an elephant safari at Minneriya National Park, where herds of up to 150 elephants gather and the Elephant Transit Camp in Uda Walawe National Park. In Uda Walawe you can stay at Elephant Trails.
7. Climb Lion’s Rock
Located in the Central Province, the mythical ancient rock fortress of Sigiriya (Lion’s Rock) is one of Sri Lanka’s most mind-blowing sites and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Originally built as the fortified capital for King Kassapa (477-95) after he had assassinated his father, there is little left of the original palace today but the views from the top of the rock, nearly 200 metres high, are breath taking.
Access to the top is via a series of zigzagging staircases, past detailed frescoes of over 500 semi-naked females dating back some 1600 years. A small plateau about halfway up boasts a gateway in the form of an enormous lion, which is where the name comes from. Nearby family-friendly hotels include Jetwing Vil Uyana and Aliya Resort & Spa.
8. Watch whales breach
Sri Lanka’s tourist board likes to boast that it is the only country in the world where you can see the biggest land animal, the elephant, and the largest marine mammal, the blue whale, in one day. Indeed the southern coast of Sri Lanka is one of the best places in the world to see blue whales. The southern tip is surprisingly close to the deep waters of the continental shelf, where these giants swim. Nowhere else in the world do these incredible creatures come so close to land, or are so reliably seen. Here, you may be lucky enough to see dozens of whales feeding and even mothers and their calfs.
Numerous companies have set up shop offering trips to see the whales but we recommend choosing one such as Jetwing, an eco-tour specialist that ensures that their boat tours keep a comfortable distance from the whales so that they are not stressed. Parents should note that these boat trips are not short (contact your chosen operator for tour lengths) and so usually best suited to older children who are happy to spend hours at sea.
9. Visit the kingdom of Kandy
Kandy, the easy-going capital of the hill country, and the cultural capital of Sri Lanka, sits 115km inland at a cool height of 500m. It served as the last capital of the Sri Lanka kings before being toppled by the British in 1815 (having previously held out against the Portuguese and the Dutch). Today it’s a lovely hill town surrounding by jungle (leopards have been known to step into town at night) with a picture-worthy lake in the middle and a gorgeous array of architecture.
Kandy is also home to Sri Lanka’s most important Buddhist relic, a tooth of the Buddha. Housed within the golden-roofed Temple of the Sacred Tooth in the royal palace complex of the former Kingdom, tradition dictates that whoever holds this relic holds the governance of the country. Poojas (offerings or prayers) are held and dawn, noon and dusk daily during which time the room housing the tooth is open to devotees and tourists. That said, you won’t see much as the tooth itself is kept in a golden casket shaped like a stupa. An annual festival, the Esala Perahera, is held in July and August to pay homage to the tooth.
10. Ride a train in the Hill Country
The rolling green hill country is simply beautiful. With mountains green hills, dramatic peaks and carefully manicured tea plantations it’s a world away from the steamy coastal lowlands. There are various ways to enjoy the area, and big kids and teens will love the adventure activities on offer, however one of our favourite activities is to travel by train.
The train ride from Kandy to Nuwara Eliya, a charming colonial town by the British in the early 1800s as a summer retreat, is spectacular. The track climbs through pine and eucalyptus forest, past tea covered hills and roaring waterfalls with breath taking views of the emerald green hills. Pack a picnic and grab a seat in the observation car, normally at the rear of the train, for the best views. Make sure to book in advance. For more information on train travel in Sri Lanka, take a look at the fantastic website The Man in Seat 61… If you decide to stay in Nuwara Eliya then Heritance Tea Factory, a family-friendly hotel set within an old tea factory, is a great option.
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