Friends, get ready for a report of one of the best trips we’ve taken as a family.  There are 31 other Trip Reports on this blog, this one is top three.  We loved Sri Lanka.

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What made this trip so good?  In bullet form:

  • The Location.  Sri Lanka was the NYT destination of the year 2010, and that put it on our radar.  This country – its land, its people, its beaches, its food, its wildlife – is gorgeous.  It was clean and un-hurried.  There was never a smash of people and it didn’t feel over run with tourists.  All this only a 5 hour travel time from Penang.
  • The Itinerary.  Yep, we pretty much followed the loop Lonely Planet told us to.  Turns out they know a thing or two about traveling. It was diverse – culture, hiking, tea fields, animals, beach, a bit of city – and kept things interesting.  Also, we had carved out 10 days over the Chinese New Year for the trip, meaning we didn’t rush and really got to savor.
  • Our Accommodations.  We didn’t skimp on our hotels, and with 4 littles in our group (lots of “home time”) it really paid off.
  • The Company. We traveled with another family, National Instruments expats from Penang.  Between us, the kids were 4, 3, 2, and 1 yrs old.  Adult time when kids were asleep was basically a party every night (a hushed one, but still. 4 makes a party)

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Getting there.  We had a late evening flight out of Penang and landed in Colombo just before midnight.  Immigration was smooth with our online-obtained visas, they even handled our typo mistake with ease and welcomed us to Sri Lanka with a smile and a SIM card (pre-loaded with credit).  We were led to a large air conditioned van and checked in easily to our hotel, which was waiting with baby cots.  Seamless!  The next morning, I ventured out solo on the hunt for mobile credit.  The concierge pointed me down a dirt track where I found a wooden shack that would be ubiquitous in Sri Lanka – packets of biscuits behind glass cabinets, a counter top full of jars of individual sweets, a case of fresh made roti and hoppers, and a box of tiny mobile top of cards at the register.  I got 80 cents of credit that would last 4 days.  Another van arrived to bring us to our next destination, and the kids all passed out for the four hour ride, while we bumped along and watched the green country roll by.

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Kandy.  First stop in Kandy, the train station.  I was nervous about getting tickets, and even though we weren’t due to leave for three days, wanted to clear my anxiety by ticking this box.  Luckily, we secured 6 of the remaining 8 seats for the ride to Ella.  Off to our hotel.  The Cinnamon Citadel was on a river, and seemed miles from town.  It took us a bit of room shuffling, but we finally ended up in two rooms in the garden just beneath the pool (261 & 262).  We could open the doors and let the kids run, there was a small patio where we would sip G&Ts while the kids slept inside.  Each night, at dusk, the colonies of fruit bats from the nearby botanical garden would take wing and go out to feed.  Sorry Austin, Kandy’s got you beat.  These giant fruit bats were the size of crows, and their silhouette on the firey sunset was something to see.  A definite highlight.  We spent three days here, heading into town to see the Temple of the Tooth (an excursion which necessitated a clothing shopping spree in town as none of us were properly clad for temple touring – forced shopping! I’m not complaining), youth park and the spectacular botanical gardens.  Mostly we just relaxed, enjoying the smiles from the bartenders as Miles took their hands and lead them around, the pool in the afternoons, and the view from the balcony outside the extravagant breakfast buffet.  Tim and Arves spent the majority of the time in their Sri Lankan sarongs, Tim receiving a namaste-style greeting from every male server when he once wore it to dinner.

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The Train.  Again, no crush, no rush, it was easy to get on the train.  We found our seat and settled in for the 7 hour ride.  There was a group of about 10 boys in the back of our car, with drums and a tamborine, and they provided a soundtrack of folk music for the first 3 hours.  The train stopped every 20 minutes or so at a station, and vendors sold samosas, yogurts, water and fruit through the windows or hurriedly in the aisles.  Miles and Hazel each took their turn at a couple hours of sleep across the bench, and Tim spent a good chunk of the journey hanging out of the door, taking photos of both our train (blue train Thomas, says Hazel) and the tea fields rolling by.  We arrived on time to quaint Ella.

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Ella.  There’s not a ton going on in Ella, but the view from our hotel was enough entertainment for the 2 nights we had.  Mountain Heavens was located right at the center of the top of the Ella Gap, and we spent sunrises and sundowners on our huge balconies taking it in.  The stars in the new moon sky were fantastic.  In between, we visited a tea factory that smelled strongly and pleasantly of, well, tea.  We took a few walks down the railroad tracks (it’s the thing to do), and submitted the Small Adam’s Peak.  It was dry (especially on Sri Lankan National Day Feb 4 – all the bars were shut!), cool and relaxing.   Exhale.

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Uda Walawe National Park.  We hemmed and hawed on whether or not to stop by the elephant park on the way to the beach.  It would be noon, hot, and would we even see any animals?  In the end we did stop (may as well support the national park with our entrance fee) and it was a great decision!  We had a fully canopied jeep which means at noon that everyone inside has shade.  We bumped through the park for about 2 hours, seeing an astounding number of animals, elephants being the highlight, but also water buffalo, a python and an assortment of birds.  This was a major highlight of the trip for me, and the kids loved it!

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Marwella Beach.  The impetus for this entire trip was a villa I had found for rent on Holiday Lettings, we finally made it!  We pulled into the Tangalle Mansion at 5pm, took off our shoes and made for the beach.  The sand was powdery and felt like velvet, the sea cool and marvelously clear and clean.  The kids ran, caught clams (which we ate at dinner), and got soaked in the surf.  The next 3 days would follow a delightful routine: sunrise (6am) walk on the beach watching the local fishermen launch their boats, breakfast at the villa prepared by our in-house chef, beach time splashing in the waves and building in the sand, drinks and relaxed lunch of goodies from the market (rotis, which are kind of like grilled burritos full of masala potatoes and eggs or chicken), siesta/more beach, and then a local rice & curry dinner by our chefs.  We only saw our staff and the fishermen, the beach had no hotel and only a few other villas to provide tourists.  It was breezy, tropical, quiet, perfect.

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Colombo.  Alas, we had to leave paradise.  We replaced our shoes that had not been worn for 3 days, loaded back up in the van and drove clockwise along the coast, stopping in Galle, with it’s European charm, for lunch.  I was shocked how different the sea was after we rounded the 6 o’clock point on the island, it was calmer and the sand was rougher. There were little rock formations to scuba around and we saw lots of whale watchers and surfers.  Here we found the tourists.  We arrived in Colombo at sunset for the night, at another very nice Cinnamon hotel.  Determined to explore, our family ventured out for dinner, wandering the deserted unlit streets and got the runaround by some tuk-tuk drivers.  Colombo redeemed itself the next morning as we wandered around the market and had delicious local breakfast.  It was time to go home.

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I’ll say again, a fantastic holiday.  Highly, highly recommended location.

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