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Sri Lanka Trip

We just spent our spring family vacation in Sri Lanka: nine days of beach, hills, and cities. Our first stop after landing in Colombo was Unawatuna beach, which is a two-hour drive to the south. As we drove away from the airport we marveled at the clean, empty highways and even more at the lush greenery surrounding it. Sri Lanka is one of the greenest places on earth with wildlife to match. We saw plenty of monkeys and large lizards from the road. We didn’t stop at the leopard parks, elephant sanctuaries or turtle hatcheries but there are plenty of those too.

Beach: Unawatuna

Unawatuna is a charming though highly touristic town in the south of Sri Lanka. We stayed at an Airbnb called Unique View villa; a beautiful wood-crafted bungalow owned by a local family. The house was located on the same property they lived with their adult kids and dogs. This in contrast to the many Russians in Unawatuna who mostly stayed in Russian-owned hotels, barely patronizing local businesses, to the frustration of the Sri Lankans. Then again, the current government reportedly prefers high-end tourism over backpackers, so in that sense these Russians and their fancy hotels are more than welcome.

The villa we stayed at wouldn’t fit everyone’s idea of the perfect accommodation—there was no functioning WiFi, no hot water (though it wasn’t ice cold either) and no supplies like potable water or shampoo. Moreover, the way to the beach was 150 steps down an uneven stone stairs! But for us this wasn’t a problem: it just made an already active vacation into an even more physically challenging one!

The older I get the more I welcome reasons to move, particularly when it involves overcoming natural obstacles in beautiful surroundings. It’s also fun to see how tough and agile our kids have become. They think nothing of a four hour hike, even if it involves chafed knees or blisters. And although they don’t realize it, they feel, eat and sleep much better after being physical all day. And it makes me more comfortable handing them their beloved IPads after dinner.

We stayed in Unawatuna for four days. I got up every morning at seven to go to diving class. Read about my scuba diving training experience here. Long story short: it’s a ton of fun and it’s not for softies! I was exhausted every night but managed to squeeze in a 20K run at 6:30 AM on the fourth day, after I had my PADI certification in the bag. This is just more proof that you can do anything as long as you put your mind to it! Meanwhile the kids spent their days in the ocean snorkeling and playing with the waves that crashed into the shore nonstop.

Food wise, Sri Lanka is all about sea food, especially calamari, prawns and oysters. The minute we stepped on the beach we saw a local fisherman take a living octopus from a plastic contraption and stab it with his spear. Then he tried to sell to us. No thanks! I hadn’t even changed into my flip flops yet. We had some calamari later though, along with some amazing tuna steak. We ate fresh oysters and my 10-year old son was brave enough to eat several, trying them with various degrees of lime seasoning. He also loves battered prawns and salmon sashimi these days, so he had an easy time ordering dinner every night.

Hills: Ella Odessey

From Unawatuna we took an Uber Intercity to Ella—a popular tourist town in the hills. Just like the first ride, we found the driver polite and driving responsibly and there was no traffic to speak of. Such a relief after Mumbai! More generally, it began to dawn on us that Sri Lanka is very family friendly for travel. We saw several couples with small kids, which makes sense given how warm, safe, affordable, relaxed and green the country is.

The views in Ella are great; all jungle and tea plantations with picturesque railway tracks instead of highways. We took the Ella Odyssey train to Kandy, which is a truly spectacular ride. Seeing the little towns and railway stations on the way is part of the fun—like something from another era. Everyone was hanging out of the open doors to make photos and so did we.

In Ella we hiked up to one of the highest points called Ella Rock. A local lady who spoke some English nominated herself as our tour guide. She explained that she’d been guiding tourists up the hill for years until COVID hit and recent episodes of political unrest kept tourists away. We noticed how well tourists are treated in Sri Lanka, perhaps because they’re such an important part of the economy. I didn’t find any of the salespeople too pushy. Though prices really have to be negotiated or you may end up paying triple the amount.

City: Kandy & Colombo

The final leg of our trip consisted of two nights in Kandy and one evening in Colombo. I would have loved to just spend more time on the beach or in the hills, but there’s something to say for exploring the cultural sights as well, including Buddhist temples, museums, dance shows, architecture, and Dutch colonial history.

The downside of visiting bigger towns is all too obvious: traffic, pollution, general chaos. It’s quite fun to see traditional Sri Lankan dance, and to visit a major Buddhist shrine, but it’s also a little icky. Still, we learned more about the world. We were all sad to leave Sri Lanka behind.


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