The perfect holiday for parents and teenagers: does such a thing exist? Abigail Flanagan and family set off on an adventure-packed tour of Sri Lanka to find out
“By those bushes… They’re twinkling!”
It’s nightfall at Horathapola: a coconut plantation and guesthouse, hidden away north of Colombo in ludicrously lush countryside. We’re just above the Equator and the sun’s slumped into the shadows faster than an old dog on a midsummer’s day, yet the air’s still as fragrantly steamy as a hot towel in a curry restaurant. Ironic, really, as my husband, Paul, 15-year-old son, Joe, and I are about to scoff the best curry of our lives, but first there’s sparkling foliage to investigate.
As we near, the tiny iridescent blips start swirling around us; it’s like standing in a game of Pong!
“Fairies?” I’m only half joking.
“Fireflies,” laughs Joe.
A magical starting point for our two-week tour, so far we’ve lazed in Horathapola’s salt-water pool; sizzled on sun-loungers while sipping on king coconuts (you’re a mere machete-swipe and a poked-straw away from a fresh one on this island) and pootled around Frangipani-scented gardens in a jet-lagged haze.
The 1920s Plantation House, with its copper roof and sprawling verandas, oozes old-school colonial style, and there’s service, from sarong-clad stewards, Raj and Thamara, to match. With no set menu, Horathapola’s chefs aim to accommodate guests’ wishes (great if you’ve picky eaters who’ll only touch pasta), but they’re famed for Sri Lankan cuisine, so we’re going with the flow…
“Wow, is this all ours?” asks Joe. Clearly “curry and rice” Sri-Lankan style means a banquet, because alongside a chicken curry there’s numerous vegetarian dishes, too. Aubergine and okra we recognise, but breadfruit (like potatoes); snake gourd (cucumber-ish); string hoppers (rice flour noodles) and bitter gourd (oniony!) are new discoveries.
We’re chilli-fans, but Sri Lankan’s like their food fiery so we’ve requested: “Hot… but not Sri Lankan hot” and the chefs have got it spot on. Supper – while undeniably “zingy” – is still incredibly delicate.
“It’s delicious,” mumbles Joe between mouthfuls, “nothing like the stodgy takeaways we get.”
Horathapola has five rooms/suites in the main house, plus a two-bedroomed family lodge – beautifully furnished with carved four-posters – where we’re ensconced. The last thing I see as I close my eyes are fireflies sparkling like sequins beyond the mosquito nets. Bliss...
Hours later the serenity's shattered.
THUD… SCRAMBLE. Something’s on our roof.
“What’s that?” shouts Joe, rushing in. It’s pitch black, so who knows? Unnerved, we eventually fall asleep as dawn breaks.
Next day’s plantation tour by bullock cart gives a hint of how incredibly fertile Sri Lanka is. Coconuts; bananas; mangoes; breadfruit; jack fruit; papaya; pineapple; passion fruit; cashews; rice; cinnamon… everywhere we look something edible grows.
“It’s the perfect place to survive a zombie invasion,” mulls Joe, wisely. (Until now he’s always chosen Richmond Park, convinced – as we both are – that every family needs a zombie plan.)
The air’s buzzing with the din of desperate cicadas. But what made last night’s racket? A commotion in the trees above gives a clue.
“Giant squirrel,” laughs Raj. Turns out Sri Lanka’s national animal’s the size of a small dog and likes jumping on roofs.
Not zombies? Phew.
Day three sees us heading into the island’s centre. Sri Lanka’s roughly the size of Ireland but narrow roads and a riotous stream of tuk-tuks, buses and the occasional wild elephant make driving often slow and not for the faint hearted.
“What are the rules here?” asks Paul. “Hoot, accelerate, pray?”
Like most visitors, we’ve a chauffeur-guide to navigate the chaos. Our chaperone from airport onwards, unflappable Prasad is both brilliant driver and mini-wiki, answering our questions and expounding on interesting things we pass: “No, it’s not unusual to see Hindu and Buddhist shrines in the same place… Yes, those cows are always on that roundabout…”
Home for three nights is Jim’s Farm Villas: a hotel and organic farm below Dambulla. Dotted across the verdant plantation are three individual villas that, together, sleep nearly 40. We’re the only guests, though, so off we phut in a tuk-tuk (the estate’s preferred mode of transport - it’s big and it ain’t flat) to Hilltop, seduced by the swimming pool on its doorstep.
Not that we do much chilling, for this is Sri Lanka’s Cultural Triangle. We’ve barely time for breakfast each morning before Prasad whisks us off on another adventure.
First up is Polonnaruwa. Created largely in the 12th century, this once magnificent city was the country’s second capital. Hiring bikes and a local guide, we set off - with Prasad and our guide following, somewhat bizarrely, in the van.
“We’re like Team Sky,” I joke.
“If you say so, Mum”, replies my sardonic son.
Vast dagobas (stupas); palaces; colossal statues of Buddha: we spend several hours pedalling around Polonnaruwa’s archaeological treasures, many remarkably still intact. It’s undoubtedly impressive, but by lunchtime we’ve reached temple-overload.
Far more successful is Sigiriya: a 200-metre high chunk of granite that’s way more than just a rock. For when, back in the 5th century, King Kassapa needed an impenetrable palace (as you do when you’ve assassinated your dad and usurped your brother), Sigiriya, in an incredible feat of engineering, became his HQ.
“Two moats were built,” explains local guide, Upali, as we enter through what were once lavish water gardens. “For extra protection they were filled with crocodiles!”
“How many stairs are there?” asks Joe, as we start climbing.
“I’ll tell you at the top,” teases Upali, who’s done this some 850 times so should know.
The higher we get, the ricketier things become. Passing between two giant stone paws (the remains of an enormous lion statue), we zigzag up Sigiriya’s flank to its summit, overtaking several terrified individuals literally frozen to the spot.
It’s taken ninety vertiginous minutes, but the view that greets us – extending 360 degrees to the horizon – is truly fit for a king.
“Twelve hundred and twenty-two!” announces Upali with a grin.
Next up is Borderlands: an adventure camp in Kithulgala, where accommodation ranges from canopied tents to open-fronted cabins overlooking the Kelani River and rainforest. We’re here for white-water rafting and canyoning, so with raft lashed to the tuk tuk’s roof, we drive to the launch point.
We’ve two instructors – Brett, in support kayak, and Supun, onboard – and after their safety briefing we’re off.
The water’s roar almost drowns out Supun’s commands as we rear over rapids christened “Killer Fall” and “Butter Cruncher” (frankly, buttock cruncher would be more apt).
“It’s like a rollercoaster!” yells Joe.
“This next one’s called Angry Bird,” jokes Supun.
“Why?” Joe asks.
“He was catapulted out here, like in the game,” laughs Brett.
Breaking halfway, we trek to a canyon. A natural waterpark: jumping out of our comfort zone into plunge pools, down waterslides we go. Brilliant fun, as the obstacles get bigger so Brett’s use of the word “awesome” increases, too, but no one minds, for this place really is. And how often can you say that?
This beautiful country constantly astounds, but nothing prepares us for Kelburne Mountain View Cottages, near Haputalé. For starters we’ve a butler, Ravi, who leads us through flowering gardens to “Aerie”, one of Kelburne’s three bungalows.
“It’s like somewhere your Gran would own,” observes Paul, spotting the knick-knacks and ancient Readers Digests. Quaint, homely Aerie also feels slightly damp. Stepping onto the terrace we see why.
“We’re on top of the world,” declares Joe.
He’s right. Perched on a ridge, 5,000 feet above sea level, Aerie’s literally in the clouds – open the door, they come right through - while below is a rolling tapestry of emerald hills; cloud forests and tea plantations. Extending across five provinces, to the East, South and West coasts, it’s the most extraordinary view of our trip, if not our lives.
“Mind-blowing,” Paul whispers.
Tearing ourselves away, we play badminton on the lawn, as clouds drift by. But it’s that view we return to, made more magical one evening by macaques foraging metres away. Memorable, also, is a delicious Sri Lankan breakfast of egg hoppers - a pancake “bowl” with a baked egg in the middle – eaten while sitting in a cloud!
“Best breakfast ever,” says someone - possibly Joe.
Sri Lanka’s diverse terrain, climate and people – be they Sinhalese or Tamil; Buddhist, Hindu, Christian or Muslim – ensures everywhere we visit has a unique vibe, especially Treetops Jungle Lodge, near Yala. It’s so off the beaten track that we’re met and transferred from the nearest town, lest we get lost.
“We’re definitely not being kidnapped?” jests Joe, dryly, as we’re driven deep into the bush. Finally, nipping through a gap in a massive electric fence, we reach a thatched lodge and three safari tents: elephant country.
Many see Sri Lankan’s 4,000 wild elephants as dangerous, crop-stealing menaces; human/elephant conflict typically results in more than 60 human and 200 elephant deaths annually. But Lars, Treetops’ owner, has a mission:
“I want to show it’s possible to exist alongside elephants if we give them space and don’t provoke them,” he explains.
“So they’re the other side of that fence?” asks Paul.
“No - this side,” laughs Lars. “When the villagers built that new fence to protect their crops, the elephants had to rethink their lifestyle. Things were difficult at first; one male decided he’d eat our thatched roof instead and I had to show him I wasn’t afraid of him. Now the elephants accept us. They know here is safe.”
Treetops’ USP is wilderness walks with its local trackers. Setting out early, we follow elephant footprints into the dank, shadowy jungle. A world of giant parasitic banyan trees, fungi and leaf mulch, the team point out signs of life everywhere - an eagle’s nest; a funnel web spider; a sloth bear’s tracks - as countless butterflies pirouette in dappled shards of light.
Another morning we head before dawn to Yala: the country’s second largest but busiest national park. We’re expecting jeep-jams, but entering via a quiet gate means we don’t see another human for hours. Grey langur monkeys; snuffling wild boar; crocodiles feasting on a rotting water buffalo: we’re on quite a roll when Danushka, our guide, spots fresh leopard tracks. Yala’s the best place on earth to see leopard, so we cross fingers this will lead somewhere. It does: a huge tree some distance from the track, a leopard sprawled in its branches.
“He’ll come down for water,” Danushka explains. “We should wait.”
Even though we need binoculars to see the leopard clearly, it’s beyond exciting being near such a magnificent creature, and so we wait.
Finally, after three hours, the leopard gets up, flicks its tail…
(“At last,” Joe whispers.)
… and collapses again.
Patience exhausted, we crack on. Luckily, a family of elephants are playing at the next waterhole. The baby clowns around in the shallows while we try to supress giggles. Then, flanked by its mum and sister, it’s frogmarched away.
Heading for home later, we make one final pass by THAT tree. Nothing’s changed.
“That’s the laziest leopard ever,” Danushka laughs, apologetically.
Our closest encounter comes that night. Waking suddenly, I realise we’ve company and nudge the boys awake. For the next hour we barely dare breathe as, just outside the tent, elephants snatch trunkfuls of vegetation and rumble with happiness. Then, suddenly, they’re gone - a ginormous poo on our doorstep the only proof they were ever there!
Our last stop is Galle and the delightful Sun House (Sri Lanka’s first “boutique” hotel). It’s still monsoon, so not beach weather as, even though it’s hot, the sea’s too rough for safe swimming. Instead, we explore Galle’s historic Old Fort area – buying incense from Barefoot; knocking back cocktails and mocktails in Living Room and scoffing curried crab at Elitas – and its new town, where we snaffle up tea; spices; honey and a hopper pan!
Our last day’s spent with Nirosh of Village Rider, and starts with a cruise down the Kapu Ela river. Purple faced langurs; eagles; water monitors … there’s wildlife everywhere, yet we’re just south of Galle. Nirosh is passionate about promoting this rural area, so next we collect bikes and cycle inland. We’re en-route to Wackwella village to cook egg hoppers when the clouds erupt. In seconds we’re soaked to our undies: we’ve been monsooned! Recreational cycling isn’t big here, and the villagers laugh out loud at our soggy, mud-splattered state, amazed that we’re doing this by choice. One little girl, immaculate in white school uniform, looks simply horrified. But on we pedal, through paddy fields and puddles. The wettest, funniest bike ride ever AND egg hoppers? It’s going to take more than warm rain to stop us.
From our first meal at Horathapola, I knew I’d love Sri Lankan food. It’s hot but they don’t use tons of chilli, just loads of different spices and coconut so it’s packed with flavour. We ate curry virtually every meal – even breakfast, when we’d have spicy dhal, coconut sambol and roti breads – it was fantastic! We also had delicious fresh fruit, including stubby little bananas that tasted way nicer than the ones we have here. The only thing I wasn’t keen on was buffalo curd. It’s basically buffalo yoghurt and sharp tasting, even though it’s served with palm treacle.
Borderlands was brilliant. The rafting and canyoning was insane, and when we cleared the rapids we jumped overboard and floated back to camp, which was fun. The camp’s very well designed and our cabin was so cool. When we woke up in the morning the light was streaming in over the river, the mist was coming off the rainforest and there were water buffalo grazing on the bank. The only thing wrong about it was that we were only there one night.
I got bored at Polonnurawa, though. The afternoon was better, as we went on safari to Minneriya National Park. We saw crocodiles, monkeys and heaps of birds. I was hoping to see masses of elephants, too, because in the dry summer months hundreds of them come and graze there. We must have been a tad early though, as it seemed there were more jeeps than elephants. Our driver was good and kept the right distance, but lots didn’t. It made me feel uncomfortable, seeing elephants getting harassed.
Our time at Treetops and Yala was excellent, though. My favourite bit of the whole trip was seeing two adult elephants and a baby playing at the watering hole at Yala. The baby elephant was so cute, rolling around and spraying its mum and sister. Its happiness was infectious; I just had to laugh.
Sri Lanka’s amazingly beautiful. The views were incredible, especially at Sigiriya and Kelburne, and I’ll never forget having breakfast and playing badminton in the clouds. It was funny, though, as the shuttlecock behaved really oddly because of the altitude, making it difficult to play! Luckily I don’t mind heights, because when we climbed Sigiriya people were freaking out all the way up. What was scary was that towards the top were huge hornet nests and signs warning people to be quiet. Mum said I shouldn’t worry, but later Upali said there’d been a hornet attack recently and more than 100 people had been hospitalised.
I’d definitely go back to Sri Lanka. There’s so much to see, the food’s great and the people are really friendly. Even the street vendors in Galle (who tried to sell us tablecloths all the time) were polite! But next time I’d like to visit fewer places and have time by a beach. We spent hours stuck in the van, which was boring, even if I did sleep for most of it.