Few places in the world can offer families such a remarkable combination of stunning landscapes, pristine beaches, captivating cultural heritage and unique wildlife experiences within such a compact location like the island of Sri Lanka.
There are eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites, over 800 miles of coastline (much of it pristine beach), 15 national parks showcasing abundant wildlife, miles of lush tea estates and botanical gardens, 350 waterfalls, and a culture that extends back to over 2,500 years.
Sri Lanka, a teardrop-shaped island in the Indian Ocean, lies south of India and is a stone’s throw from the Maldives. This part of Asia is where the original soul of Buddhism still flourishes and where nature and wildlife are abundant and unspoiled.
Family Travel in Sri Lanka: First Stop
Start your journey in Anuradhapura, which is considered to be the original capital of Sri Lanka. Rich with culture and history, it is home to ancient temple ruins, some of the largest stupas of the world and palaces dating back to the 10th Century BC. Anuradhapura is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
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On your way to see Anuradhapura’s attractions, stop to see the architectural wonder of the rock fortress of Sigiriya – the impressive citadel built by the rebel king Kashyapa. Gardens, bathing pools, rock carvings, and a palace perched on the majestic rock as well as colorful frescos on the rock walls are the highlights of this historical site.
Minneriya National Park, famous for the annual gathering of its elephants –one of the world’s largest recorded assemblies of elephants – is teeming with wildlife and should not be missed.
Wilpattu National Park is the place to go to see Sri Lankan elephants, the elusive leopards, sloth bears, spotted deer, buffaloes, sambar, mongoose, and over 30 species of animals, exotic birdlife, reptiles, and amphibians. The park is spread over an area of approximately 500 square miles.
Staying several nights at Uga Ulagalla allows for day trips to various sites, including a cycling tour of the ancient capital Anuradhapura; wildlife safaris to witness elephants in Minneriya and leopards in Wilpattu; tours of the ancient engineering wonders such as the giant reservoir Kalawewa; exploration of the ruins in Ritigala and Sigiriya Rock Fortress, and to archaeological and historical sites in Dambulla and Polonnaruwa.
Uga Ulagalla appeals to families because they have 25 large villas—almost 2,000 square feet in size— each with its own private pool and separate living area.
The property is spread across 58 acres of land and focuses on authentic experiences such as village cycle tours, Tuk Tuk tours, horseback riding, archery, kayaking in the local lake and kite making.
Don’t be surprised to see monkeys, peacocks and elephants wandering around this cultural triangle retreat.
Family cooking class allows kids to learn the flavors and tastes of Sri Lanka by making a traditional curry using locally-sourced rice and produce from the resort’s organic garden.
Younger rangers can join Ulagallas junior ranger program which has been designed to catch curious minds when it comes to nature, wildlife and the environment in a fun and engaging way. Rangers take children on a journey of natural discovery including identifying animals and birds; learning about the importance of ecosystems and threats to wildlife and exploring the traditional harvesting techniques of rice.
Exploring Yala National Park in Sri Lanka
After families explore Anuradhapura, the next stop should be to Ruhuna National Park, commonly known as Yala. Here you’ll find semi-deciduous and thorn forests, grasslands, freshwater and marine wetlands and sandy beaches where the only footprints you will see belong to foraging birds and animals.
It is the largest and oldest of a chain of six national parks and three sanctuaries in the vicinity and by far the richest in biodiversity, boasting 44 different resident mammal species and one of the highest leopard population densities in the world. There are also dozens of reptile species, including turtles, crocodiles, flying snakes and elegant fan-throated lizards. As for birds, Yala has no less than 215 resident and migrant species, of which the flamboyant peacock is one of the most common.
Apart from Yala and its satellite parks, other nearby attractions include the Great and Little Basses reefs, which is an ideal spot to see blue and humpback whales as well as dolphins.
Most families will stay several days at Uga Chena Huts which borders Yala National Park on Sri Lanka’s southern coast. Included in the property’s rate is all meals and morning and evening game drive safaris in Yala with an experienced ranger guide. Yala is one of the world’s best spots to sight wild leopards, and sloth bears as well as plenty of bird life and other mammal sightings. The property can also organize whale-watching expeditions.
Chena Huts is popular with families because there are private pools in each cabin—with only 14 cabins in this seven-acre property. Each cabin is over 1,600 square feet and includes a spacious living room, bedroom, and en suite bathroom with a free-standing bathtub.
Sri Lanka will feel like an adventure for the whole family, from animal encounters with elephants, leopards and baby turtles hatching on the shores of the Indian Ocean, to plenty of culture and history thrown in.