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Sri Lanka's secret coast

Discover hidden beaches, wildlife hotspots and family adventures on Sri Lanka's little-visited east coast, writes Carolyn Beasley.

The open-sided jeep jolts to a halt in a cloud of dust. I'm scanning the thickets for spotted deer, iridescent peacocks, jackals or perhaps the promised elephant. Our National Parks guide makes out the silhouette first: "It's a leopard. There," he whispers as he points. Piecing together the camouflage, my kids are wide-eyed as they spot the predator, full of deadly potential, nonchalantly licking a paw under the trees.

The animals of Kumana National Park, only accessible by a little-travelled east coast road in Sri Lanka, might be the region's best-kept secret, but they are not its only treasures. While the country's southern coast has long been a popular destination for families, the east receives just a fraction of the tourists (this is despite the fact the weather from May to September is much better on the east coast).

Fisherman and forts in Northeast Sri Lanka

The northeast region of Sri Lanka, hit hard by the 2004 tsunami, saw the last skirmishes between the Tamil Tigers and Government forces in 2009 and tourism is slowly returning. Visitors feel safe here now, and lovely Nilaveli Beach rewards adventurous families who make the journey. At sunset, we swim in the gentle ocean and observe fishermen haul wooden boats up the beach, watched by a herd of skinny cattle.

Nilaveli Beach Hotel, right on the beach next to the Pigeon Island departure point, offers double or triple rooms and a large, shady pool. The hotel's spicy curry crab is the best we try and there are plenty of kidfriendly options on the menu, too. The journey to Pigeon Island National Park is 15 minutes of fun by speedboat. A guide from the Department of Wildlife and Conservation takes us snorkelling around the tiny coral island and the kids squeal with excitement as they swim with black-tip reef sharks and endangered hawksbill turtles.

Trincomalee Fort

Nearby, Trincomalee is rich in multicultural history, and said to be one of the oldest cities in Asia. Fort Fredrick, built in 1623, was a military base for the Portuguese, Dutch, British and now Sri Lankans. Inside the fortified walls, the Koneswaram Temple is dedicated to the Hindu god, Shiva. Hindu pilgrims visit today, as they have for 2000 years, and kids of all cultures love the towering blue statue. Beside the temple is Swami Rock, also known as "lover's leap". Today, high safety fences are in place and, rather than leaping, lovers pray for a baby, hanging colourful wooden ornaments in clifftop trees.

Surfing at Arugam Bay

With the history box ticked, it's on to Arugam Bay ('A-Bay' if you're a surfer). It's a laidback town with a cool vibe. On the street, dreadlocked backpackers load surfboards on the roofs of tuk-tuks, and local lads recount their latest surf session. In an open-air cafe, kids play in hammocks while the parents all enjoy a sundowner or two.

Following the beach around a J-shaped bay, the main break appears on the point, with experienced surfers picking off perfect righthanders.

For the beginners

At Whisky Point the surf instructors stand in the shallows, whooping as they push everyone from laughing kids to nervous mums onto the waves.

Hideaway Resort Arugam Bay is a gorgeous place to stay, with rustic family bungalows set in a garden oasis alongside the largest pool in A-Bay. There's a juice bar and garden cocktail bar and the chef will make the kids whatever they desire.

Nature's way

The pre-dawn departure to Pottuvil Lagoon is excruciatingly early, but worthwhile. In tiny farm communities, roosters announce daylight's arrival, while fishermen stand in wooden boats, casting nets. The trumpet of distant elephants marks the end of our trip. Back in Kumana National Park, we climb high up a viewing tower as the sky is painted pink. Below, a system of lagoons stretches away through forest and grasslands and hundreds of storks feed chicks in precarious treetop nests. The chicks are almost ready to fly, eager for their first great adventure. We climb back into our safari jeep, eager to resume our own.

Getting there

SriLankan Airlines fly daily nonstop services between Melbourne and Colombo. From other origins, Sri Lanka can be accessed via Singapore or via Kuala Lumpur.

Getting around

Most families hire a driver and van for the entire trip. Choose your driver carefully and bank on averaging 40 km/hour outside of the expressways.

Stay

Nilaveli Beach Hotel

Hideaway Resort, Arugam Bay

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