“Where’s the runway?” asked my six-year-old son Senan as we sat under the shade of the tin-roofed hut that served as the terminal at Dickwella, on Sri Lanka’s south coast. The answer came with the sudden buzz of engines, and the Cinnamon Air seaplane swooped and landed on the surface of the Mawella Lagoon, pulling up at the jetty beside us.
My husband, Senan and I were on our way inland to the tea country that surrounds Kandy, our last stop on a two-week family holiday in Sri Lanka. We had come in pursuit of the ultimate beach – and Sri Lanka, with its ravishing green landscape surrounded by glorious white sand, all contained within a malaria-free island a little smaller than Ireland, had delivered.
Since the end of the civil war between the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tigers in 2009, Sri Lanka has been ascending the must-go-now lists. The east and north east of the island has opened up to visitors and the south coast, badly hit by the tsunami of 2004, has a raft of new places to stay. You could just fly and flop on a beach along the southern coast, but that would be slightly missing the point of Sri Lanka, where you can pack culture, wildlife and great beaches into a relatively small space. As well as the variety, it’s also much better value than the Caribbean or the Maldives, where staying put in the same resort is the usual plan. To really do Sri Lanka justice, we chose a multi-location itinerary from Audley Travel.
Our trip had started on the east coast. From the airport outside Colombo we had headed straight to Galle on the south-east tip with our driver and guide, Mirtha. “Coconuts!” exclaimed our son in excitement as we sliced through the patchwork of palm, mango and rubber plantations on either side of the road. “It’s a paradise.”
Hiring a driver is still an affordable option here, and Mirtha, experienced with young guests and his own grandchildren, proved the ideal companion, with a prescient knack for knowing when a roadside break or change of scene was in order.
It also gave us the chance to make unscheduled stops along the way, quiz him about Sri Lankan life and delve into the local scene.
Galle Fort feels like a time warp. Founded in the 16th century by the Portuguese and later colonised by the Dutch and British, this Unesco World Heritage Site is one of Sri Lanka’s most charming spots. Its sturdy ramparts enclose a diminutive grid of cobbled streets lined with low-slung colonial houses concealing hidden gardens, and historic buildings such as the 19th-century All Saints Anglican church and a hive of cafés, shops, restaurants and hotels.
One of the newest is Fort Bazaar, set in a converted 18th-century Portuguese merchant’s house on Church Street. It’s done with a contemporary spin on colonial style, and its airy rooms are arranged across the main house and a courtyard at the back. Despite the high style, it’s resolutely child-friendly. For breakfast there were freshly squeezed tropical juices and Sri Lankan pancakes called string hoppers, as well as home-made granola loaded with the local staple of buffalo curd drizzled with treacle.
We slipped into local life, wandering the cobbled streets while monkeys bounded across the rooftops. We joined the locals strolling on the ramparts to view spectacular sunsets; ate dinner on the veranda of the Amangalla hotel, all whirring fans and wicker, and housed in the former home of the Dutch governor; and watched teens diving into the sea from the walls and playing cricket around the Triton Bastion.
A photo posted by Aman (@aman) on Oct 26, 2016 at 9:06am PDT
The road from Galle east along the south coast skirts the ocean. The route passes a series of bays and beaches populated by small boutique hotels, surfers and fishermen balancing on poles in the water, framed by the glittering Indian Ocean beyond.
The further east you travel, the less developed it becomes. We checked into the Anantara Peace Haven Tangalle Resort, which opened a year ago just outside Tangalle – one of the first of a number of luxury resorts to open on the south coast.
Anantara clearly had the pick of locations, occupying the former Goyambokka coconut plantation, dotted with gently tilting palms leading on to an idyllic mezzaluna of sand framed by a rocky outcrop and crashing surf.
It proved the ideal place to stay put for a few days. There is a yawning 25m infinity pool with a shallow, lower level for children, a signature spa buried in the tropical gardens with holistic and Sri Lankan inspired therapies, a daily children’s club, tennis courts, cookery school and excursions beyond the resort.
While we snatched time at the spa, our son spent a few hours in the kids’ club, going on nature walks to spot peacocks, parakeets and squirrels. There are six restaurants: the main event is a nightly Sri Lankan and Asian buffet in the resort’s Journeys restaurant and there is the upscale, Italian-themed Il Mare, good for a pizza or pasta night, with mesmerising views of the ocean from its perch on a bluff. At breakfast each morning, Senan loved drinking straight from a King coconut expertly sliced by a machete-wielding staff member.
We could easily have lingered in Tangalle for longer. Instead, we set off to answer the call of the wild. A two-hour journey further east, Yala National Park is Sri Lanka’s second-largest wildlife park. The vegetation changed; coconut palms gave way to tamarind and ebony trees, rice paddies and water buffalo-dotted fields.
There are only a handful of places to stay close to the park – a legacy from being off-limits during the civil war – but luxury landed late last year with the opening of Chena Huts, a safari-style camp overlooking the beach in the park’s buffer zone.
The ultimate prize is to spot one of the reserve’s resident leopards – they proved elusive during our two-night stay, but we were compensated by a close encounter with a herd of elephant bathing with their offspring, numerous crocodiles, mongoose and the antics of langur monkeys.
Although we had carefully gauged driving times, trying to spend no more than three or four hours per leg, Yala to Kandy was going to be the longest journey of our trip. Distances can be deceptive in Sri Lanka, and faced with the choice of an eight-hour drive from Yala or a two-hour drive then a 30-minute flight from Dickwella near Tangalle, it was a bit of a no-brainer with a child in tow.
As we ascended above the tourmaline water, gently buffeted by the breeze, the lush uplands unfurled beneath us as our captain pointed out the sacred mountain, Adam’s Peak, before landing smoothly on a reservoir just outside Kandy.
Our next stop was Taylors Hill, a five-bedroom guesthouse outside Deltota, reached via a winding road 25km outside Kandy. The house had terraced gardens shaded by hibiscus, acacia, pine and monkey puzzle. Taylors Hill is named in honour of the Scottish tea planter James Taylor. This year marks the 150th anniversary of when he planted the very first tea bush on the neighbouring Loolecondera Estate, which kick-started the tea industry in the mist-draped hills surrounding Kandy and Nuwara Eliya.
The next day, we rattled and bounced our way in a tuk-tuk to Loolecondera. We were the only tourists inside its warm, dimly lit and fragrant factory, where our guide explained the tea harvesting and roasting process. Fragrant mounds of orange pekoe sat on the wooden floors waiting to be sent to the tea auctions in Colombo. To our surprise, Senan loved the factory, the ancient whirring machines and playing peek-a-boo with one of the workers.
Unlike the squat, neatly manicured tea bushes, Taylor’s original tree has been allowed to grow wild and stands a short distance from his favourite vantage point. We clambered down and sat, gazing breathlessly over the panorama of the lush, velvety green mosaic and mountains stretching out before us. “You never told me were going on a tea adventure too,” whispered Senan.
And that was the beauty of our trip: we came for the calming escape that any sunny spell by the sea brings. But the richness of my son’s experience on the island makes me think that you’d be hard pressed to find a better stretch of shore for families in the world.
The writer travelled as a guest of Audley Travel (01993 838 300; audleytravel.com), which has a similar 12-day itinerary starting at £2,795 per person, including international flights, transfers, bb accommodation, some meals and excursions.