Then we sat listless and spent on rooftop terraces, slurping banana lassi and bottles of Sinhala beer while waiting for the kids’ cheeks to lose their humid flush.
The thing about travelling with children – at least our four- and five-year-old offspring – is they assume the worst about a destination until ultimately being proven wrong. At home they despise getting in the car, but when, on Day 4, our driver arrived to take us eastward, they began to realize driving meant wildlife spotting. We’d see cows and horses, goats and sheep, but also seabirds, water buffalo, iguanas, turtles and langur monkeys hanging from canopies of trees. Our Punch Buggy games took on a new twist. “Elephant in the bush – gotcha!”
We saw our first elephant by the side of the road near Udawalawe National Park, unsure whether it was a baby or mama; subcontinental elephants are disarmingly small. At the wild elephant reserve, which includes a pachyderm orphanage and a 30,000-hectare safari park, we stayed overnight in a guesthouse owned by one of Sri Lanka’s cricket stars, Romesh Kaluwitharana, or “Kalu.”
It was like a Sri Lankan version of Kellerman’s Hotel from Dirty Dancing , with an enormous log-cabin mess hall serving buffet meals, a pool, tiki spa and billiards room.The kids weren’t thrilled about the early-morning safari either, but they learned that a 5 a.m. wake-up meant watching the sun rise over a field of mint as a herd of elephants padded past. They became obsessed with identifying the animals by gender – not terrifically challenging with elephants – and named them accordingly until we’d seen too many to bother.
During the three-hour drive between Galle and Udawalawe, southern Sri Lanka spreads out in a tangle of jungle and rocky coast. We spent a day doubling back, stopping at the fashionable resort town Tangalle. In Matara, capital of the south, a watchman gave us a private tour of the Dutch-built Star Fort; we were the only tourists he’d seen that day. We bought already melted ice creams from Elephant House, the local Good Humor, on a stone boardwalk where young lovers kissed under umbrellas and walked the bridge to an island temple offshore.
The next stretch detoured into the hills where old Sri Lankan families run still thriving tea plantations and women in saris harvest rice in the paddies. But around here all roads lead to the beach. Mirissa beach, whose blissful landscape we’d heard about in hushed tones, had a handful of thatch-roof cafés on a bay edged by palm-forested cliffs. We’d come for lunch without our beach gear but by the end had stripped naked (the children, at least) and coated ourselves with hours worth of salt and sand. The kids would still be there today had we not dragged them home via Weligama, a still more isolated beach with a single snack shack looking onto an atoll that’s been converted into a luxury resort.
We passed our last week at a villa north of Galle, from where we cut into the west of the country. On afternoons we’d hike into the rain forest and try to avoid the notorious leech population. Or we’d visit friends staying on an old plantation inland and scout for monitor lizards and benign snakes. In the evenings we developed a habit of jumping in the pool after dessert and nodded off still wrapped in towels.