Major travel adventure: we took our kids to Sri Lanka! Matt’s parents planned the entire trip and generously hosted us. This was my first time going on a vacation that I did no planning for, and it was a real luxury to sit back and let the itinerary unfold.
We flew into Colombo, where we were greeted by Pradeep from Sri Lankan Safest Driver (yes, he was the safest driver). Pradeep had worked with my mother-in-law Gail to tailor a ten-day tour of Sri Lanka, and he was our driver throughout the trip. He kept the van completely clean, which was no small task with all of our snacking, and provided the carseats for both kids. As Auden would say, “Thanks, Mister Pahdee!”
It is definitely a good idea to hire a driver for your family, rather than trying to navigate the Sri Lankan traffic on your own. Pradeep was happy to suggest restaurants, but we used Trip Advisor to plan our lunches and dinners (all hotels included breakfast). Restaurant and hotel details are in the itinerary at the end of this post!
Day 1: Dambulla to Sigiriya
We arrived in Colombo first thing in the morning, bleary-eyed from the long haul travel. I was worried that the kids would give me a hard time about getting into car seats after so many hours in an airplane, but they were happy to get the adventure started.
The Dambulla Cave Temple, one of Sri Lanka’s many UNESCO World Heritage sites, is an ancient monastery at the top of a hill. The climb isn’t strenuous, but it is a solid 15-20 minutes of stairs in the sun and humidity. The caves are beautifully preserved, and well worth the detour as you go to Sigiriya.
Day 2: Polonnaruwa and Elephant Safari
We started the second day at another UNESCO World Heritage site, Polonnaruwa. Pradeep drove us between the most impressive and culturally significant ruins. We did see some people cycling throughout the site, but in the heat and humidity, it would have been a pretty miserable few hours. I say that as a genuine cycling enthusiast.
Then it was time for everyone’s favourite: the elephant safari at Minneriya National Park! I absolutely LOVE elephants. We saw hundreds of elephants at this wildlife sanctuary, where they are free to live natural lives and roam about. I had never seen a heavily pregnant elephant, breastfeeding elephants and such tiny elephant babies. They were still hairy!! It was incredible to be so close to them. Adult male elephants (bulls) hang out on their own or in twos, so I’m sharing the photos of large groups of females and calves.
Very important advice: bring your car seats into the Jeep! It turned out to be nearly an hour’s drive before we even got to the elephants. It would have been super unsafe without the carseats. It also would have been a nightmare trying to keep the kids contained throughout the bumpy safari drive. Thankfully, they woke up in time to see the elephants!
Days 3-4: Lion Rock and Kandy
Arguably the most famous historical and archaeological site in Sri Lanka is the Ancient City and Rock Fortress of Sigiriya, also known as Lion Rock.
Right after breakfast, Matt and I left our kiddos with their grandparents and went to climb the rock. The morning is best for beating the crowds. We were able to explore the ancient ruins, climb to the top, enjoy the view and return to our hotel within 2 hours. The later you go, the longer it will take you to climb the rock, because you’ll be stuck behind so many people – many of them exhausted – on the single-file stairs. The stairs are well-enclosed, so I don’t think there’s a fall risk. We did see some people with small children and quite a few older people, but they took double the time to make their way around. Be sure to bring water if you’ll be spending 4 hours there.
We regrouped with the family and packed up for our next stop: Kandy! When we arrived at the Elegant Hotel outside of Kandy, it took our breath away. It is a beautiful hotel with stunning views from the rooms, a delicious restaurant and a dreamy pool. You should definitely stay here instead of in the town of Kandy. Extra cots and baby cribs are available, and the rooms are absolutely massive. Below: views from Elegant Hotel room and balcony; Auden with her welcome drink; the hotel restaurant and pool.
In Sri Lanka, every Full Moon is a public holiday called a Poya Day. We visited the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic on Poya Day, when it is absolutely slammed with both local worshippers and tourists. There are so many offerings of flowers and food that the temple workers clear the whole table into rubbish bags every 15 minutes or so. The relic is behind gilded doors that were supposed to open at 10am, but by 10:30 we decided to squeeze our way out.
As someone who is not Buddhist, I thought the jewel of Kandy was the lake at the centre of town.
We also enjoyed the beautifully landscaped Royal Botanical Gardens.
Still to come… the beautiful train journey to Ella, visiting the tea factory, and the stunning colonial fortress town of Galle!
Itinerary: Days 1-4
Land in Colombo and eat lunch en route to the Dambulla Cave Temple. Athula Restaurant, a traditional rice and curry buffet, seems to be the go-to tourist lunch stop on the road toward Sigiriya. This is a good time to mention that it takes FOREVER to get your food in Sri Lanka. From the nicest hotels to the most casual shacks, the only way to get your food in less than literally 20-25 minutes is to find a curry buffet. It’s definitely challenging with the kids, but we learned to stop cutting off the snacks based on mealtimes. Just because you’re stopping for lunch or dinner “soon” does NOT mean you are eating soon!!
Stay at the Flower Garden Eco Village hotel near Sigiriya, which has a pool, air conditioning, breakfast and baby cribs. Our first dinner in Sigiriya was at Ranithu Restaurant, but I recommend going to Wijesiri Family Restaurant (where we ate on Day 2). I preferred the food at Wijesiri, and plus, they serve Lion lager in a teapot! Many restaurants in Sri Lanka don’t have alcohol licenses, but this was the only time we saw this fun approach. Below: Wijesiri tea and the Flower Garden Eco Village.
Visit Polonnaruwa and Minneriya National Park. On our way to the elephant safari, we stopped at a pretty curry buffet called Gamagedara Village Food, pictured below.
Visit Lion Rock and head toward Kandy. On the way to Kandy, we stopped at Spicy Kitchen Restaurant for lunch. We had a lovely dinner at the Elegant Hotel.
Visit the Temple of the Tooth, the Royal Botanical Gardens, and the center of Kandy. We also saw a “cultural show” with traditional dancing and fire-walking. We ate lunch at Cafe 1886, which was completely random because every other place we considered was closed for Poya, but it ended up being a great choice! The food was really delicious, they had high chairs (rare!), the bathroom was so clean (amazing!) and it was convenient to the real beauty of Kandy: the lake. We also enjoyed an ice cream snack at Cool Corner, and if you’re ready for a change from Sri Lankan cuisine, dinner at Sala Thai is great.
Look out for Sri Lanka: Part II!