Sri Lanka is a rising star of the holiday scene. The island nation south of India is well-known for three things: fragrant tea, playful elephants and landscapes that dazzle with every shade of green.
Exploring Sri Lanka with kids is affordable, illuminating and easier than ever, as Carolyn Beasley’s family discovered in their recent visit.
My Jeep comes to a stop in Sri Lanka’s Minneriya National Park and I pop my head out of the open top. My daughter and son (6 and 9) jump up, eyes agog. My 76-year-old dad stands too, and we beam at each other. A second vehicle pulls up with four heads above the roofline – those of my eldest son (12), my husband and my parents-in-law.
A herd of 30 elephants are purposefully walking our way. Elephant grandmothers, mothers, aunties and newborns pass us, almost brushing the fronts of our Jeeps, snorting and flapping as they go.
The eight of us share looks of amazement, and later over dinner, we wonder if this multi-generational family was on an adventure, just like we were.
Right on trend
Turns out we’re not the only human extended family that travels together. Worldwide travel-agent network Virtuoso identifies multi-generational travel as the hottest travel trend for 2019, as it has been for the past few years.
Families are increasingly geographically divided, across states and countries. Holidays bring us together.
Seniors are driving the trend; with better health and with travel prices reducing, many seniors are sharing their bucket-list adventures with loved ones.
“People are busy; overdrive has become the de facto speed for everyone. Travelling to another place that is less familiar to everyone allows life to slow a bit,” Michael Londregan, Virtuoso’s APAC Managing Director says.
“Families learn together through shared experiences; they create memories, and all of it leads to better family conversations – before, during and especially after the trip.”
So, where should your family go?
My favourite multi-generation destination is Sri Lanka. Think historical sites, tea plantations, train journeys, wildlife and beaches. This is a holiday that will suit every age and every desire.
Publishing giant Lonely Planet recently named Sri Lanka as the number-one country to visit in 2019, citing improved tourism infrastructure and post-civil war stability. Families can get her on a direct flight between Melbourne and Colombo.
Our elephant encounter took place two years ago, on our first trip to Sri Lanka, and we still reminisce about the trip. In the ‘cultural triangle’, we visited Dambulla Cave Temples and the ancient fortress of Sigiriya, with its 200-metre-high volcanic rock. At old capital Polonnaruwa, local cricket-mad kids erupted with laughter when my dad said his name was Don Bradman. On the east coast, we snorkelled at Pigeon Island and surfed at Arugam Bay. In the hill country, the scenic train journey from Ella to Nuwara Eliya was spectacular for all ages.
Two years later, we are visiting Sri Lanka in a different way, this time staying near the southern coastline, with less touring. Joined by my parents-in-law, my sister-in-law and two nieces (10 and 12), we hire the same driver. Accommodation options in the south are diverse, and we choose three different luxury villas for their privacy, communal areas to relax together and convenience (read: decadence) of personal chefs. With a large group in tow, villas can offer better value than booking several hotel rooms.
Our first villa experience is Royal Indigo Villa in Talpe, where the living room opens to an infinity pool and the ocean – and, for ‘wow’ factor, the master bedroom has its own plunge pool. The kids have a blast with the rope-swing on the beach before villa manager Lakmal connects us to the sound system and the grandkids teach Nana how to dance to ‘Baby Shark’. For dinner, Chef Janaka recommends seared yellow-fin tuna, while the kids relish his pasta. After the kids are in bed, the adults unwind with a peaceful nightcap in the garden.
The next morning, we all stroll along the beach to a safe natural rock pool, watching fishermen diving into the pool with a net, emerging with small flapping butterfish. We all swim and our kids laugh, finding a place inside the rocky edge where waves splash over them. Later, our driver Rachitha takes us 30 minutes east to Weligama. Here, we rent surfboards and boogie boards and aunties, uncles, nephews and nieces swap surf tips while grandparents cheer. Lakmal suggests lunch at a rural homestay, where a gracious multi-generational Sri Lankan family welcomes the three generations of our family. A traditional clay pot lunch is devoured and my mother-in-law is offered a cuddle of their three-month-old baby.
Our second stay is along the coastline at Villa Victoria, a classic villa where the pool sits amid grassy lawn and towering coconut trees. From the gazebo right above the seawall, sunset drinks in hand, we watch turtles feed in the ocean before us. The ocean feeds us too; Chef Anil recommends the crabs. He has a fisherman on speed dial who promptly arrives at our beach gate. Five excited cousins help select crabs and negotiate the price (it’s a win for the fisherman) and soon we are up to our elbows in crab curry.
Just 20 minutes from the villa, Galle Fort, built by the Portuguese in the 16th century, has a vibrant buzz. We explore the fort walls and quirky art-deco architecture. We sample the ice- cream at Dairy King, where the owner says he’s the only king of Sri Lanka. Browsing eclectic shops, we nose through wooden masks, and at souvenir shop The Three by TPV, we bag up candelabras and placemats. The youngsters tire of wandering, so we placate them with food. A brass-clad tuk-tuk, styled as an elephant, draws us into Heritage Cafe & Bistro, where local herby fruit juices restore us. We browse the upcycled artworks while waiting for fresh seafood, pizzas and curries.
Loving the Sri Lankan food, we book a cooking class with Yamuna of Nautilus cooking School in nearby Unawatuna. All 10 of us, from 8 to 72 years old, don aprons and prepare Sri Lankan dishes. The kids get hands on grinding fresh coconut and we dine in Yamuna’s kitchen.
Our last stop is in rural Koggala at Ivory House. Bumping up the village lane, gates open to a plantation-style house overlooking rice paddies. Kids spot shy grey langur monkeys jumping through treetops and chipmunks romping. Wild peacock calls announce the sunset hour. Nearby, we tour lowland Handunugoda Tea Estate, the world’s only virgin white tea plantation. The term ‘virgin’ refers to the premium tea itself, with pickers not touching the leaves. The kids are surprisingly engaged, especially enjoying tea with chocolate cake.
For breakfast the next morning, we each request a Sri Lankan egg hopper, a bowl-shaped rice-flour crepe incorporating an egg. Chef Sunil includes caramelised onion and a chilli-coconut sambal, a feisty wake-up indeed. Well fed, the younger generations take a cycling tour. We opt for the shortest ride, a peaceful 12 kilometres through a bird sanctuary, village lanes and rice fields, with children calling “Hello!” as we pass.
At our final dinner together, Nana gives each of us tongue-in-cheek awards, and staff member Prudeep volunteers to ride his motor scooter into town to fetch chocolate bars for prizes. Prudeep goes the extra mile – he’s that kind of guy, and Sri Lanka is that kind of place. It’s a place to share adventures and build memories to last a lifetime – or at least until our next visit.
Ethical wildlife tourism
Sri Lanka has amazing wildlife but little regulation. Beware of animal exploitation disguised as conservation. Before you visit an elephant orphanage or sea-turtle centre, or go on safari or whale-watching, check for reviews from people who have similar values to you. Unethical companies may harass or even collide with animals and whales or keep turtles that should be released. Consider going to lesser-visited national parks.
Fly direct from Melbourne on Sri Lankan Airlines to Colombo or via Singapore on Singapore Airlines.
Hire a private driver. Ask around for a reputable driver who will not just take you places for his commission, and make sure the vehicle has working seat belts. I recommend our safe and trusty driver Rachitha Milanka (email@example.com).
Sri Lanka Villa (srilanka-villa.com) is ideal for families of all shapes and sizes, thanks to its wide choice of properties and concierge service.
Best time to visit
The best season depends on where you go. The driest weather for the south, west and hill country is December to March. The best time for the cultural triangle and east coast is May to September.
Kids aged 5 and above. Child car restraints and swimming pools fences are not the norm in Sri Lanka, and the adventurous activities such as cycling and climbing up Sigiriya rock would be trickier for littlies.