As I type this sunny Sri Lanka post in my very urban working space in London, I am transported back to the leopards, the elephants, the soft sand, the perfect waves, the curries, the tuk tuks, the temples... First, our safari night in Yala National Park, then our four-nights at beach house stunner Saffron House in Hiriketiya, and our last night in photogenic and Unesco-protected Galle (which I will write about in a final post). It had been a while since we had travelled to a small country that offers so much diversity for the travellers. Sometimes, you really can have it all.
FAMILY SAFARI TIME
Sri Lanka has many parks. Someone told me that up to 70% of the country is under national park protection. Wow. You’ll need to choose your safari experience according to the time of the year and the wildlife that you would like to spot. You could do it as a day trip from wherever you are based but ideally, it’s good to spend a night or two in a national park (actually in the buffer zone, as no safari operators are allowed to be based exactly inside parks) 1/ to avoid the crowds early morning or late afternoon and 2/ to feel connected with the calmness of the park.
Two of the most visited parks in the country are Udawalawe (where Master Campers has a solid reputation), and Yala, famous for having the highest concentration of leopards in the world. We went for Yala, for Marcelo’s love of wild cats and the fact that we had already spent some time here close to the elephants.
We were guests of Kulu Safari, a long-established campground in the buffer zone of Yala with 15 tents hidden in the bushes, reached after a long dirt road. It was a pampering experience, on par with the more famous African safari combos of delicious food + perfectly appointed tents (with a/c ?!) + knowledgeable naturists. They had set up a curry feast for our arrival, before our first safari that afternoon under torrential rains. We still managed to stop and observe a cute baby leopard, and we were all breathtaken, expect perhaps Lior who, at 4 years old, had a hard time realising how special this was.
A safari in Sri Lanka is a good intro for younger children. You can do just 1 night (and limit the cost), get an exciting encounter with wildlife (buffalos, elephants, crocodiles, leopards, eagles…!) and decide whether they’re ready for a full-safari trip in Africa. Dinner was candlelit back at the camp. We had the luxury of having it all for ourselves, shared only with a fun couple from New Zealand. Sarah was a school teacher (with this great travel blog on the side), and she had a few good tricks for the children, such as her drone that she flew over the surrounding plains, our children jumping up and down of excitement together with the staff of the camp. Meanwhile, I was keeping an eye out for cobras and tarantulas, as you should…
SEA SUN SURF at HIRIKETIYA BEACH
I was glad that we started by travelling around Sri Lanka and then rested at the beach because it was the perfect excuse (did we need one?!) to indulge in the luxury of Saffron House. It is a magazine-like villa perched up on a hill, overlooking the Indian Ocean. It does feel a bit grown up in style, with stunning four-poster beds, custom-made mahogany furniture and open air bathrooms, but nothing feels so precious that you are uncomfortable with the children. The Balinese style of the architecture, with several pavilions overlooking the swimming pool and the ocean, give it an easy vibe of living in and out. Of note, I would not recommend it to families with very young children as the bedrooms are each in separate pavilions, and they require to walk near the unfenced pool.
We were pampered all day long by house manager Chris and her staff (one of them was even a trained massage therapist, lucky me!). Chris runs the house as if it was hers, with love and attention to every detail (it belongs in fact to an English man who has fallen in love with the coast and often comes with his family). Oh, and Chris can babysit too (we once went for dinner tete-a-tete at the Aman hotel not too far away, but it was a bit of a disappointment – especially the bill – when you can eat so much better for so much cheaper elsewhere!). Let’s not get started with Chris’ cooking extravaganza: from home-made pizza to the best brownies ever to fresh prawn curries… We learnt how to make hoppers, but now that we are back home, I must confess that I’d rather go eat at the new Hoppers, because it is a very very labor intensive process! Is there any good Sri Lankan restaurant where you live?
I had searched a lot for a beach that would be safe for the children, as there are regular drowning accidents on the coast in Sri Lanka (it is very important that you inform yourself before jumping in the waves). Saffron House is on Hiriketiya Beach, also called Horseshoe Bay, located in the village of Dickwella, about 1h30 drive south from Galle. It is one of the safest beaches on the South West coast, with hilly land on both sides of the bay. There is a perfect surf break, hidden within the vegetation, and a cool vibe all around, a cross of hippy + hipster. We booked surf lessons for the children through Marty, an Aussie who owns the small beach cafe / hotel Hiriketiya right on the beach, and we also had a few yummy lunches there when we were not simply lazying around by our pool.
– These are some of my bookmarks from when I was searching for our beach accomodation: Salt House Sri Lanka is a stylish and economical option, with yoga classes and healthy juices. This airbnb has a nice view on the ocean and amazing location by the beach (2′ from Saffron House). This new hotel has so so reviews but maybe needs a bit of time to get up to speed with service. This site and also this one has a good collection of properties. This villa is a showstopper although the beach is tricky. Oh, and this one too, with older children.
– Try to avoid the national Sri Lanka holiday around April every year when the whole country is on hold, and the national parks (and hotels) get very crowded (and more expensive).
– Surf South Sri Lanka, run by Julian Runnette, will put together an entire surf trip, accommodation included
– You could go back to Colombo airport Bond-style, flying with a seaplane from Cinnamon Air near Dickwella…
… We wanted to spend our last night in atmospheric Galle, so we took the road one last time, with a stop at Geoffrey Bawa’s summer house in Bentota, and a night in Galle, on time for my little Amalya’s 8th birthday. To be continued…