Sri Lanka had been on my “To visit” list for a long time and the main reason for that is the wonderful people from Sri Lanka I have had the chance to meet through the years. Chinese New Year (January / February) has proven to be an excellent period to go and explore the Southern part of the island. We made choices that could satisfy the whole family finding a balance between cultural interests, nature walks and leisure time on the beach. Having only one week ahead of us, we were constantly on the go and had quite a few miles to drive every now and then, however that turned out to be a pleasant part of the trip as the landscapes are very picturesque and the roads far better than expected.
I do advise advance planning, as good hotels get booked up quite ahead which we did not expect. You will find all the useful details on my google map.
Discover sacred Sri Lanka in Kandy
We arrived at night in Colombo and just picked a hotel close to the airport in Negombo (two suggestions on the map). The next morning, the driver we had booked through an agency (Mai Globe Travels) came to pick us up and we headed directly to Kandy. It was a four hour drive as we experienced some traffic on the way. We arrived in Kandy for lunch and stopped in a restaurant by the river.
Visiting the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic was a memorable experience. We were lucky, in these early hours of the afternoon, it was not too crowded but still vibrant with a continuous flow of pilgrims coming to honor the Buddha’s relic. People spontaneously came to us, generously sharing their offerings and patiently showing our children how to open their lotus flowers.
We spent a couple hours wandering around, exploring the different shrines, getting a full flavor of the rituals.
The neighboring Catholic Church, St Paul, seemed very quiet and looked stark afterwards; still we received the same warm welcoming from the people in charge.
Later we went to The Kandy Lake Club for a mesmerizing performance of traditional dances with acrobatic acts including fire-eaters. This was a hit for our children. The kids also enjoyed our stop at the Rajanima wood-carving workshopas they were given a chance to sculpt their own craft. The wooden painted deities we bought there were great souvenirs to add to their travel collection.
We selected a simple hotel, Sharon Inn, which had the benefit of being centrally located, clean, with spacious connecting bedrooms and offering a delicious srilankan buffet on its rooftop.
Ride on a train through the hill country
We drove from Kandy to Nuwara Eliya exploring the breathtaking tea country, following winding roads through the steep hills covered with lush tea bushes. We discovered the hard work of the tea pluckers. Our stop at the Blue Field tea factory was very interesting, the guided-tour allowed us to understand the whole tea-making process which has not changed over the past century. It was a long road (three and a half hours) and the kids did get a little car-sick, therefore if we had to do it again we would probably take the train directly from Kandy, if you decide to do so make sure to book your seats in advance.
We drove through Nuwara Eliya, which we found too busy and dusty. It was just enough for us to get a feeling of it, to peek at the old colonial buildings and to enjoy a lunch-break by the lake. The lakeside was very lively with locals coming for a family stroll, flying kites and snapping selfies.
We caught a train at Nanu Oya station and got off at Ella station. We could easily find seats in a regular coach. The whole experience was fantastic. The train rode through misty forests, emerald tea plantations and colorful villages. The atmosphere was brilliant, full of life, entertainment and fun exchanges with the local travellers. The children were thrilled to stick their faces out the open windows and to gobble the blowing air, listening to the roaring music of the engine.
Rest & trek at the heart of the tea country
Ella is a little heaven nestled in the most picturesque landscape. Our hotel, Zion View, offered breathtaking views to Ella Rock and Little Adam’s Peak. It is the kind of place where you just want to settle in for the day with a good book, admiring the forest-covered mountains and waterfalls, listening to the singing birds and whistling train crossing the valley.
Ella Rock was too difficult for our little walkers whereas Little Adam's Peak was the ideal trek to walk through the tea plantations and climb up some stairs to a panoramic viewpoint. It was nice to go early in the morning and be able to enjoy some peace and quiet before other tourists started climbing up. We enjoyed a tasty curry at Nilmini restaurant, a place where you can take cooking lessons.
We went on another walk in the afternoon; there are plenty of trekking paths starting from Ella. Considering the heat, we would have enjoyed the pool at the 98 acres resort, which unfortunately was fully-booked.
A stop in the land of elephants, Udalawawe national park
This is probably the one stop of this trip, which I would have skipped, however it proved to be a good way of breaking off the car journey and a fun experience for the kids to go on a safari and sleep in a tent.
The safari itself was a disappointment as the only place where you get to see elephants is by the lake where all the jeeps gather and start circling the animals in a quite unfriendly and unprofessional way. The rest of the safari was within a very bushy park, with limited visibility, mainly interesting for bird lovers. The one stop we all enjoyed very much was the feeding of the baby elephants at the nearby Elephant Transit Home (feedings 9am, noon, 3pm & 6pm).
We stayed at the Athgira River Camping, which was located in a really nice rural area, by a quiet river. We had a lovely morning walk through the countryside to the neighboring village where we received a warm welcome from the children heading to school. The camp was nothing extraordinary but well kept, with a good buffet and a refreshing swimming pool.
Relax on the beach at Talalla retreat
A friend recommended Tallala and I have to say this was probably the best tip we received for that trip, as Talalla beach is a unique 1 km-long stretch of unspoiled sandy beach, hemmed in by tropical trees. You will find no loungers, sunbeds or umbrellas on the beach, just the beautifully painted fishing boats. The return of the fishermen in the late afternoon was probably our kids’ highlight as they got to help bringing up the nets and sorting out the catch of the day.
Talalla retreat is just off the beach, nestled in a green garden with palm trees and tropical flowers. The rooms are spacious, simple but pretty and comfortable with an open-sky bathroom and a nice sitting area outside. The pool was family-friendly however it remained very calm. We enjoyed the yoga classes in the mornings and evenings. The buffets at breakfast, lunch and dinner were diverse and delicious. The whole environment, staff and guests were extremely friendly.
Plunge back in history in colorful and vibrant Galle
Walking through the narrow streets of Galle Fort is a plunge back in history since every building (house, church, post office, library, museum, Court-house) has a story to tell which anyone can start reading just by admiring the different architectures.
However Galle is not just another museum-city, invaded by tourists. What really struck me is its vibrant soul and lively local life. Head for an early morning stroll and you will meet herds of kids rushing to school in their uniforms, stumble across women in their elegant saris lining up in front of the Court of Justice and struggle against a flow of colorful rickshaws buzzing around. In the evening, you will meet romantic couples admiring the sunset over the ramparts, youngsters playing cricket on the empty squares and neighbors chit-chatting on their doorsteps.
Galle offers a wide range of lovely accommodations in old colonial buildings. We stayed in the intimate and beautiful Fortaleza on Middle Street, which felt more like a private home than a hotel.
The restaurant scene offers a wide variety: we enjoyed a refined dinner at the Fortaleza restaurant, a drink on the porch of the iconic Amangalla hotel, a tasty Sri Lankan lunch at KK The collection and yummy ice creams from Pedlars Inn Gelateria.
Galle is also fantastic for shopping: spices at the Spice shop, crafts at Sithuvili Gallery, Antiques and furniture at Olanda and fabrics at Tallentire House.
We also enjoyed our stop at the fish market and regret we did not get a chance to go to the Dutch market in the New Town.
It was then a three-hour-and-a-half drive back on a brand new highway to the international airport in Negombo.
You will find all the useful details on my google map.