Sri Lanka is a destination that’s rising in popularity, with plenty to entertain the kids year-round, writes Mark Daffey.
It’s just before 10am when a warning siren sounds.
Pedestrians hurriedly clear the
cobbled lane leading to the banks of the Maha Oya River, shopkeepers and restaurateurs
remove souvenir stands and advertising boards from harm’s way, if they don’t, they’re
likely to get trampled. Further up the road a policeman walks ahead of three men
dressed in matching green shirts.
Shadowing them, but closing in fast, is a herd of
elephants of all shapes and sizes, 50- or 60-strong.
I retreat into the closest empty space – wedging myself between racks of cotton
clothing, shelves filled with wood carvings and bowls of jewellery made from
seashells – and wait for the herd to thunder past.
They’re trotting – cantering,
almost – towards me, in a rush to reach the river. There, they’ll splash about for
two hours, until the time comes for them to return to their enclosures at the
Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage, 70 kilometres east of Sri Lanka’s Bandaranike
International Airport, near Colombo.
When they draw level with the souvenir stall I’m watching from,
I’m surprised at how big they are up close. And boy, are they close! So close, in
fact, that I feel a rush of air being pushed aside as they pass on by.
I doubt there’s
anywhere else in the world where you can stand within arm’s reach of stampeding
elephants like you can here, and no one bats an eyelash.
It’s like I’m watching a
magnified version of the Running of the Bulls, with front-row seats.
A visit to the elephant orphanage is one of the more popular activities for kids
holidaying in Sri Lanka. This teardrop-shaped paradise that Marco Polo once described
as “the finest island of its size in all the world” is once again attracting foreign
visitors as the memory of its long-running civil war fades. Hotels and resorts are
starting to rise above its magnificent beaches, and improved highways have
dramatically cut down commute times.
But on an island devoid of theme parks and water slides, what is there for kids to do?
Well, for starters, its beaches are some of the best in the world. Along the west
coast, Negombo and Hikkaduwa have long been favourite haunts for package tourists,
while backpackers have tended to gravitate towards the quieter, palm-fringed shores of
Unawatuna and Mirissa.
Tangalle, on the south coast, has grown in popularity in
recent years, while surfers make beelines for the point breaks off Arugam Bay between
May and September. Further north, endless coastlines stretch out either side of
Batticaloa, and gentle waves lap against the shores at Nilaveli.
Offshore you’ll find a plethora of opportunities for dolphin spotting and snorkelling
with turtles. And between the months of November and March, Mirissa is one of the most
accessible ports in the world from which to see blue whales and sperm whales, so
jump on a tour with family-run Raja & the Whales.
For adventurous souls wanting to venture into the wild on a safari, you simply can’t
do better than Yala National Park. It’s here, along the southeast coast, where you’re
most likely to see leopards.
Not to mention the buffaloes, crocodiles, several species
of deer and monkeys. Hundreds of elephants roam the wooded grasslands inside
Udawalawe and Minneriya National Parks. And Sri Lanka’s largest national park,
Wilpattu, is considered the best place to find sloth bears.
Older kids will love whitewater rafting on the Kelani River in Kitulgala, where a
bucking two-hour ride through Grade Three rapids costs as little as $20 per person
with Go Kitulgala. Along the way you’ll pass the site where ‘The Bridge Over the
River Kwai’ was filmed… not that this will mean anything to the little ones.
Without a doubt though, in my mind at least, it’s the Pinnawala bathing experience
that will stay with you long after your Sri Lankan adventure.