Last May, we suddenly realized that by coincidence we had a four-day holiday gap together. We really needed a break from our hectic work schedules but didn’t want to travel too far. (We are a family of four; me, my husband, my daughter who is 9 and my son who is 10 years old). The problem with booking holidays is that I hate going to places full of tourists, so I passed the idea of Sri Lanka to the family and amazingly the idea was greeted with a unanimous – yes! 

So some serious research followed; My husband left the planning to me, (probably his first mistake) – as he would happily fly to a beach resort and stay there for a week, however this is type of holiday is my idea of hell! So a few days of serious research showed that the south western corner of Sri Lanka is fairly commercialised and we would need to avoid the area near the airport. (I do have to say that the bit I missed in my eagerness to plan is that on a map Sri Lanka looks really small – but just for the record, it’s not! The bonus however, is that the costs of hotels on the east coast are considerably cheaper than those on the west and it is beautifully undeveloped and relaxed.

After checking many maps and travel sites, I decided we should try and fit in a safari park, Dondres Point (that is the most southerly point of land before Antarctica), Mirissa, a tea plantation and of course a few temples and Buddha statues, but with only 4 days we had to plan carefully.

I found what appeared to be a beautiful small boutique hotel in the middle of a bird reserve called Turtle Bay. It is on the east coast in a little village called Kalametiya near Tangalle and is a small six bedroom boutique hotel right on the beach. The reviews on trip advisor were good, and the hotel looked idyllic, so with fingers crossed I booked.


Travel

The night before we left, my husband decided to show in interest in the bookings I made and pointed out that the hotel was nearly 200km from the airport (so much for my thoughts that Sri Lanka was a small island!)  He then went on to say that May is the start of the monsoon season on the south east coast! Don’t you just love last minute advice?! It was too late; I had booked – so we were going and we hastily packed a few wet weather clothes and with slightly “dampened spirits” we set off to the airport. 

Whenever we travel we have a “no electronics rule” so I was slightly dreading the long drive at the other end after a night flight, so I hastily dropped a pack of cards and a colouring book into my rucksack as a last minute thought and off we went.

We traveled with Emirates and the flight is only 4 hours away. On arrival we found our driver easily. Colombo airport is slightly chaotic but small and easy to navigate, with lots of English spoken and very helpful people. 

As we pulled out of the airport car park the kids were fascinated by the sight of Tut-Tuts as this was a totally new concept to them, and the bustling markets and general colours and busyness of the whole city delighted them. The driving there was random, exciting and terrifying all at once! The drive took four and half hours and by the time we got to the hotel which was as remote as I had hoped for, down a little muddy pot-holed track, everyone was longing for a nice meal and a rest. It was of course dark and raining, the kids announced they were looking forward to room service, TV and an early night. I wasn’t quite sure how to break it to them; there was no TV, no Wi-Fi and certainly no room service!

We pulled up at the hotel front door and we were greeted by a group of friendly helpful staff, and were directed to our rooms and they took our order to cook our supper. My children are not very good at trying new food so the chef kindly agreed to make pasta for the them and my husband bravely asked for curry and they smiled and said “not too hot” and I settled for fresh fish. 

We were the only people in the hotel, and were ushered into a beautiful rustic dinning room, which was open air, and we could hear the sounds of the sea crashing onto the beach behind us although we couldn’t see anything in the dark of the night. The hotel then turned on the pool lights while we ate our dinner and we all took a deep breath at the beauty of it all and relaxed for the first time in ages. 

The rooms were basic, but comfortable, the bathrooms clean and useable – this is not a hotel that would register on the luxurious standards of Dubai, but it was a refreshing change from all we had left behind. After a comfortable nights sleep we were woken with the kids bouncing into our room and opening the shutters telling us to look at the view. The sun was shinning, the beach was clean and inviting and it all looked so amazing we couldn’t wait to walk along the clean sands washed by the Pacific Ocean – amazing to think the next land to the south was Antarctica.

As we came downstairs the hotel staff asked what we wanted for breakfast and promised to have it ready when we got back from our walk. As we were the only guests they went out of their way to make us feel welcome. We strolled through the hotel garden to a small gate and let ourselves through onto the beautiful beach. Our feet sank into the soft sand and the waves covered our toes as we walked. The only point to note here is that the sea is not safe to swim in due to such strong currents, but the hotel pool overlooks the beach and was more than enough for us.

Breakfast was a feast. We all laughed as a plate of fresh fruit was placed in front of my son who simply doesn’t do healthy eating and he was quite horrified he might actually only have this to eat. Luckily it was just the appetiser and a cheese omelette freshly cooked soon put his mind at ease.

The hotel manager joined us after breakfast and we arranged transport with him for getting around so that we could do as much as possible. To the children’s delight he suggested a Tut-tut to get around in. 

Things To Do

There is so much to do in Sri Lanka, we chose to fit the following activities into our very short stay.


Mulkirigala 

A famous ancient monastery which still functions and is situated 210 metres up in high rocky cliffs. There are ancient caves with painted murals and Buddha statues and one cave houses a library that dates back to 1826 when a British administrator found a palm leaf manuscript containing the key to translating the Mahawamsa – the Great Chronicle of Sri Lanka. 

The climb was hard but the view from the top was certainly worth it. There are five terraces and the climb becomes increasingly more challenging at each one. The kids loved seeing the monkeys on the walls leading up the steps,; they were obviously there to take food from the tourists as they made the steep climb.

Tangalle

This area of was hit very badly by the famous 2004 tsunami and a lot of it has been or is still in the process of being rebuilt. The little shanty town of Tagalla is a monument to this, with new buildings more firmly made interspersed with shacks and graves bearing tribute to those who had perished. It is an interesting place, with a beautiful beach area and is well recognised for it’s surfing. It is not far from Mirissa where the Whale watching boats leave in season and is absolutely full of back packers just hanging out. It was certainly worth a visit but the backpacking vibe made it feel less friendly for families and more a place where you might want to hang out without family to try and find links to your lost youth!

Yalla Safari Park

An incredibly early start is needed to visit Yalla safari park, so the hotel packed us off with a packed breakfast and the safari company provided a packed lunch. Yalla Safari park is the second biggest in Sri Lanka. It has an incredibly beautiful area that is protected and this houses elephants, the highest population of leopards (which we were incredibly lucky to see) along with a variety of other animals and birds from land monitors to alligators to green bee-eaters. The marketing material had said if we were really lucky we would also see a king cobra and I am thankful to say we were not that lucky! The Safari was expensive (relative to everything else), bumpy, dusty and hot, but an experience we would not have missed for the world.  We opted for half a day tour, which was long enough to get a flavour.

We returned to our hotel at lunchtime and we all had a sleep by the pool in the afternoon. When the kids woke up the hotel staff insisted on taking them down the road to see the monkeys, which they were delighted with. 

Rekawa Turtle Conservation Project

After an early supper we were off again – this time to see the turtle conservation project at Rekawa coming in to the beach to lay eggs. We visited the turtle protection area and were given lots of educational information. We then had to trek down to the beach in the dark and along the sands, and it was a little risky as the path was rough but we saw fireflies which kept us all intrigued until the turtles came ashore. This requires lots of patience and it is obviously not a guaranteed event but again we were lucky and a huge turtle hauled itself up the beach to lay some eggs. Although we learnt about turtles, it was not well organised and due to the long walk in the dark it was incredibly dangerous. I am certainly not sure I would recommend it.

Handunugoda Tea Plantation

There are many to choose from and we opted to go to this one. It’s a must visit place, the location is pretty, it is not all touristy or commercial and the guide was so informative as we learnt all about tea, rubber plants, peppercorns, coffee, cinnamon, along with so much else. The highlight was sitting on the balcony having tea and cake and the estate is renowned for producing virgin white tea. The gift shop is well stocked and offered a range of inexpensive gifts from teas to candles that’s worth visiting.

I have always wanted to see a tea plantation and I was thrilled that the guide was so good and engaging that the kids also enjoyed every minute of it. The tour was amazingly free (as was the cup of tea and cake) and it took about 1.5 hours but was absolutely fascinating. Even more amazing was that my 11 year old son had so much knowledge about plants and tea making (only to discover it has been gleaned through mine craft)!

Unawantuna Beach 

Inspired by the famous pictures of stilt fisherman, I wanted to take my own photos and see them for myself, and this is where the disappointment in Sri Lanka started. As soon as a car pulls up by the beach where the stilts are, you are accosted to pay $50 for a fisherman to go and sit on a stilt for you to take a picture. I do recognize the need for them to make money, but this was simply not the experience I looked for.  We strolled further down the beach and were constantly accosted by people trying to sell beads, shells, and so on. 

We continued our journey onto Colombo, where we had booked a hotel in the city so that we could have a look around, and the same level of hard selling was there and I have to say that I certainly would not return to Colombo again. 

Unfortunately due to flight change by Emirates we lost a day of our trip and had to take the morning flight out rather than the evening. I think actually we were all rather grateful for this as it meant we didn’t have to linger in Columbo.

So in summary, If you are looking to experience Sri Lanka head out of the tourist areas, and really enjoy the lovely people and the beauty of an amazing country that has so much history and heritage, you will find that prices are cheap and the food is amazing, fresh and full of interesting flavours. 

Accommodation

www.turtlebay.lk  The property cost 1,400 AED for full board for 4 nights.  

Transport

We booked a driver from the airport to the hotel, which cost $50

Tut-Tuts were approximately 100 AED per day (we should have negotiated for cheaper I am sure!)

Flights with Emirates direct to Columbo were 4,200 AED return (for 2 adults & 2 kids).

Places to Visit

Yalla Safari Park for 4 people was 3443 RS plus 200 RS for the park tracker (mandatory) and a 200 tip for the driver.($35.00) pp

Rekawa turtle conservation project

This cost 1000 RS ($10.00)

 Hudangoda Tea Plantation 

Free entry

 Mulkirigala 

$2.00

 Food and Beverages

We spent approximately $10 per day including drinks and food. (Breakfast & evening meal were included in the hotel rate, so it was just drinks and lunch.)

 The budget for our 4-day break was 8,000 AED and we came home with plenty of spare change on that. It was not luxurious but it was relaxing, different and fun. There are no kids clubs, but they will get many new experiences and be fascinated by a country so diametrically opposed to Dubai. I wouldn’t advise it for very young children but certainly my two had a blast.

By British mum Heather Harries

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