Note regarding my thoughts on Sri Lanka safety at the moment: My family and I traveled to Sri Lanka in June 2019, just a few months after suicide bombers attacked several locations in the country on Easter Sunday. I must admit, we were a bit rattled when it happened but ultimately did not want to cancel our travels there. We have visited many places where terrorists have attacked — Bali, London, and Paris come to mind — as well as closely experiencing the 9/11 attacks in NY and the liquid-bomber incident at Heathrow in 2006. And I have to say, security is much tighter following an attack than prior. Many travelers canceled their trips which presents a second blow to the locals whose livelihood depends on income generated by tourist’s spending. Many hospitality locals expressed their sincere gratitude to us for not canceling our plans, and urged us to tell others about the current safety in Sri Lanka. We never felt unsafe, and noted the many precautions put into place by hotels, restaurants, and tourist sites. If you are thinking of visiting, now is a great time to do so… prices are down, and the number of tourists is much lower than the past couple years when popular sights were overcrowded with visitors. PLUS, it is an AMAZING and beautiful country, one that I hope to have the pleasure of visiting again in the future.
DECIDING ON ITINERARY
I have been traveling the world for 36 years and only one time enlisted the help of a travel agent. That was a trip to Namibia where we wanted a fly-in safari rather than self-drive and the local airline that flew from camp to camp informed me that we could only book with them through one of their approved agencies. Thus we ended up working with a wonderful travel agent devoted to safaris in Southwest African nations — we didn’t have to do a thing! Other than pay them, sit back, and enjoy the ride.
Sri Lanka was a bit intimidating when I first started researching it — there just seemed to be so many different areas! We usually book our flights using points almost 1 year prior to the trip in order to secure seats, and then plan the itinerary and accommodation later so flights were booked in early September 2018 for a June 2019 trip. My husband started to worry that I was dropping the ball on the itinerary — bear in mind, this was 9 months prior to the trip 🙄 — AND he was convinced it might be a destination best suited to the services of a travel agency. So, much to my chagrin, he reached out to several for quotes and itineraries. Still… I was intrigued by what they suggested, so I immersed myself in the fancy itinerary packets one afternoon and highlighted what interested me for the family.
Two of the itineraries held little interest — one was better for families with young children and the other didn’t seem to remember we asked for higher-end properties — but the other two seemed nearly perfect. I treated these two like an ala carte menu rather than pre fixe and chose favorite areas, hotels, and activities between the two, making sure it was doable on the map in our allotted time. Then I tallied up the costs FOR EVERYTHING. We both decided that if the markup from the agency was roughly $1000-1500 USD (or less) then we would let them take care of the many details involved in planning such a busy itinerary in an unknown locale. However, after pricing everything out, I realized that the costs would be more than doubled using an agency. Plus, I was actually able to book better rooms and resorts than had been offered, book a van with driver, AND include additional meals by booking everything on my own — still saving us 55% over the agency mark-ups. Meaning, it was WELL worth the time and effort to book on our own… and then some. And totally doable. It just required some effort and careful record-keeping.
Since I had a rather difficult time finding an itinerary online suited to our family — there seem to be plenty of itineraries geared towards backpackers — I thought I would share ours with you. You can click on each location for more detailed information and photos. Feel free to use it or customize it further to satisfy your own needs and wants.
- 1 night in Colombo near the airport
- 3 nights in the Cultural Triangle — Sigiriya
- 3 nights at a beach on the east coast — Pasikudah Beach
- 3 nights in the Hill Country — Ella
- 2 nights in Yala National Park for a safari
- 2 nights in the trendy old town of Galle Fort
See below for further information on each spot. And you can also find detailed posts on each location as well.
COLOMBO — 1 NIGHT NEAR AIRPORT
We arrived in the early evening and stayed one night at a VERY lovely hotel only 20 minutes from the airport. The Wallawa is a former Colonial estate with beautiful serene gardens. Meals are served in the garden — we had dinner and breakfast during our stay and both were delicious. Our 2 bedroom, 2 bathroom family suite was large with stylish finishings, updated bathrooms, and access to the gardens. Staff were all kind and helpful. I would have been happy to stay 2 nights just to sit by the pool and decompress if our itinerary had allowed for it. Initially we had considered staying in the city of Colombo but the location of The Wallawwa better suited our travel to the Cultural Triangle the following day.
CULTURAL TRIANGLE (ANCIENT CITIES) — 3 NIGHTS IN SIGIRIYA
The Cultural Triangle is a large area north of Colombo which encompasses several ancient cities and monuments. The most famous are Sigiriya (an enormous rock with the ruins of an ancient kingdom on top), Dambulla (5 cave temples devoted to Buddhism dating back to 1st Century BC), Polonnaruwa (ruins of an imperial city from the 12th Century AD), and Anuradhapura (ruins of a city whose prominence in Sri Lanka lasted for a millennium.) Note: we ended up not going to Anuradhapura as it was a long drive from our resort and we wanted to include some chill time as well. We interspersed the itinerary of antiquities and ruins with some easy but rewarding hikes, pool time, and spa treatments.
We chose to stay near Sigiriya as it was a good location to reach all the sights PLUS the landscape here with the rock rising from the valley is spectacular. Our hotel — Watergarden Sigiriya — was absolutely GORGEOUS with a fantastic view of the citadel in the distance. We were extremely happy with both our choice of resort and location.
Most of the beaches recommended in the guidebooks are on the south or west coast, but the weather in those areas was not a good for our time period in late June/early July so we went to the east coast. Pasikudah beach is beautiful with soft white sand and gentle waves since it is a small bay. Perfect with younger children!
There are several good-looking resorts along the beach. We stayed at Uga Bay and were happy enough with our choice. It is a very pretty resort, not the most luxurious we’ve enjoyed, but an extremely easy place to relax for a few days. Staff were all very friendly if not always the most efficient. Our time was spent chilling at the pool or beach, playing cards, reading, walking along the beach, and one extremely memorable sunrise snorkeling trip.
The Hill Country is a MUST-see while in Sri Lanka, in my opinion. I had seen so many photos of the beautiful tea plantations and knew we had to stay here for a few days. We toyed with the idea of staying in Kandy 1 night, then training down to Ella, but nixed it. In hind sight, I would have shortened the beach stay to 2 nights, then 1 night in Kandy, train to Ella (6.5 hours!), and then Ella for 3 nights. There definitely was more we would have enjoyed seeing and doing in the Hill Country vs. the beach, but that is just us. You might be up for more beach time!
We stayed at 98 Acres in a 2 bedroom villa set on a steep hill with views stretching for miles over the magnificent tea-plant covered hills. It was also an ideal location within walking distance to Little Adams Peak, the zipline, and the Nine Arch bridge.
YALA NATIONAL PARK (SAFARI) — 2 NIGHTS
I think this was everyone’s favorite experience and resort of the entire trip, including our time in The Maldives at the beginning of the trip which you can read about here.
We saw SO many amazing animals in Yala — elephants, leopards, sloth bear, peacocks, water buffalo, a bazillion gorgeous birds, grey langurs or monkeys as we referred to them, and more. But it was the resort which made this all even more magical than it already was. Chena Huts may in fact be our favorite resort experience yet. Luxury, amazing service, KIND-hearted… well worth EVERY CENT and then some. If you can spend even one night here, do it.
FORT GALLE (TRENDY COLONIAL TOWN ON WATER)– 2.5 NIGHTS
We stayed within the fort which the old town section of Galle. It is filled with old sea merchant homes from the British Colonial era many of which have been restored into boutique hotels, trendy shops, restaurants, or homes. There is great shopping to be found, as well as good food. We stayed in a beautiful boutique hotel called Fort Bazaar. We all enjoyed our stay here but you would be wise to skip a whale tour! Trust me…
We rented a Mercedes van from Malkey Car Rental with the option of a driver. This seemed to be fairly normal in Sri Lanka as many hotels offered free accommodation for the drivers. Malkey Car Rental was upfront with any additional costs we would provide for the driver. Unfortunately we were not enamored with our driver — he was a very slow driver — tuk tuks and busses even passed us — and his bookkeeping was rather confusing so we weren’t always sure if we were being cheated. But we mostly only spent time with him on the drives between locations, and the van was decent though windows that open in the back would have been appreciated for photography and fresh air purposes. But overall, this was a VERY easy and reasonably affordable solution to getting around the island. Note: Malkey rents all types of vehicles, including a cool vintage VW van and tuk tuks!