An Off-The-Beaten-Track Sri Lanka Itinerary for Adventure and Serenity
Step away from the tourist trail of the Sri Lanka hotels on the Southern coast and you’ll find a paradise of an island, with a hugely diverse landscape offering many different experiences within one trip.
I headed to Sri Lanka to test out the best itinerary for families with teens, and to answer the question, “Is Sri Lanka good for a family holiday?” Yes. Beyond the beach resorts, you can experience a hotel hidden deep in the heart of the tropical rainforest or take a tranquil houseboat cruise close to the bustle of Colombo city.
In recent years Sri Lanka had become a must-visit destination, seen as a tropical sanctuary that was still largely untouched by modernity. In early 2019, Lonely Planet voted Sri Lanka the best country in the world to visit, due to a recent crop of new hotel openings, the emerging surf scene, a rich mix of cultures, an abundance of wildlife, and the friendliness towards visitors.
This was a country that was really having its moment in the spotlight.
Tourism after the Sri Lanka Attacks
Then the attacks of Easter 2019 happened, shocking the world and all but grinding the tourism industry to a halt.
My visit was four months after the attacks and shortly after the state of emergency had been lifted. It was a great relief to be greeted by a country that seemed remarkably harmonious and peaceful, working hard to rebuild its tourism industry.
Visitors slowly started to make their way back to this stunning south-Asian island. It is almost as if the clock has been turned back to an era prior to mass tourism, or as Mustafa Najmudeen, Director of the Palmstone retreat observed.
“The Sri Lanka you experience now is like Bali fifteen years ago”.
The Palmstone Retreat
Our first stop was the Palmstone Retreat in Kitulgala, a boutique hotel owned by The Amber Collection, set deep in the heart of the rainforest.
During the three-hour drive from Colombo’s airport (transfers can be pre-booked through Palmstone), we passed tiny rural villages, with brightly decorated stalls selling coconuts and winding roads leading us further into a dense jungle, alive with squeaking birds and monkeys playing in the trees.
Set amongst this dramatic, lush wilderness, Palmstone is like a little oasis. The central hub is all clean lines and chic furnishings, having been built in the Tropical Modernist style, inspired by Sri Lanka’s most prominent architect Geoffrey Bawa.
The open-air restaurant serves up a selection of traditional Sri Lankan dishes alongside a handful of Western options, plus there’s a special kid’s menu. For a really special breakfast experience, ask to have the local string hopper breakfast, sitting out on the deck overlooking a dramatic waterfall.
Immersive jungle soundtracks included
The boutique size of the retreat and attentiveness of the staff create a feeling of staying in someone’s palatial house, rather than a traditional hotel. There are just six guest rooms and chalets in total, cocooned within the jungle and accessed by lit walkways.
All the apartments use floor to ceiling windows to soak up the views of the babbling stream running through the resort. Larger groups can book interconnecting rooms and the Araliya suites come with either a private plunge pool or steam room, whilst the Nelum apartments have the best river views.
All of the bedrooms designed with teal and muted hues include all the amenities one would expect from a deluxe hotel, including king-sized beds, private decks, en-suite shower rooms, and a minibar.
A Sri Lanka vacation in the jungle
Yet, as luxurious as Palmstone feels, you are never far from the wilds of the surrounding jungle. We were given a wonderful reminder of this whilst walking from the restaurant to our apartment one evening, when three large wild boars stampeded right across our path, waking us out of our post-supper stupor!
There is also a constant symphony of noise – from the birds and monkeys squawking overhead, to the serenade of the small but impressively noisy frogs, or the clatter of sudden rainfall, which leaves as swiftly as it arrives (bring waterproofs!).
Snails the size of your fist meander past and the air is heavy with the scent of Frangipani flowers. Staying in the rainforest is a truly immersive experience, and one that children will never forget.
Kitulgala Jungle Activities
Palmstone Retreat also organizes a guide-led trek through the rainforest to a magnificent secret waterfall, where you can swim in the private lagoon. This lake activity is recommended for age 8 and upward.
Palmstone is also ideally situated for family watersports, as the nearby Kelani River is dotted with adventure sports centers. This area has the claim to fame of being the filming location for “The Bridge On The River Kwai,” and some of the locals were even featured as extras in the 1957 movie.
Daytrips from Kitulgala
Alongside this stunning wildlife, Palmstone also has plenty of activities and daytrips within easy reach. We took a morning trip to the ancient Belilena Cave, which is less than 1.5 km away. It’s one of the largest prehistoric caves in Sri Lanka, where the 12,000-year-old skeletal remains of a man have been discovered, alongside fossils thought to be more than 32,000 years old.
Given its historical significance, it was surprising to see that the cave and surrounding area were almost entirely deserted and seem to have fallen under the tourism radar.
Adam’s Peak (pictured at the top of the page) is a two-hour drive from Palmstone retreat and attracts thousands of visitors each day. The sacred mountain is situated in the centre of the island and has huge religious significance across multi faiths.
The temples and botanical gardens of Kandy, Sri Lanka’s second largest city, are also within driving distance, as are the tea plantations and colonial houses of Nuwara Eliya, an area of hill country known locally as Little England due to the lasting influence of the British colonial period.
A Sri Lankan Lake Safari
We had to tear ourselves away from Palmstone’s tropical wonderland after only three nights but could easily have extended our stay by another couple of days.
Driving back towards Colombo, our final destination was the Flow houseboat, also owned by The Amber Collection. Flow is located on Bolgoda Lake, the largest freshwater lake in Sri Lanka, around 40 minutes from the commercial capital.
The Flow Houseboats
Docked in a private marina, Flow has two houseboats, one with two bedrooms and one with three, depending on the size of your family.
At first glance they are reminiscent of the houseboats of Kerala in Southern India, but step on-board and you’ll find them to be far more spacious and luxurious, with four-poster beds, freestanding baths, and antique furnishings.
Flow differs from traditional Indian houseboats by offering a wealth of activities, making guests more inclined to stay on for a few more days. These include an early morning nature-watching cruise led by a local conservationist.
We spotted parrots, eagles, and the odd crocodile.
There are temples and mosques within walking distance of the boat. In the evening, the air filled with the atmospheric chants and prayers from the local places of worship. We received a warm welcome when we ventured to the local Buddhist temple, which happened to be marking the full moon with a candle-lit ceremony.
Flow Amenities and Activities
We enjoyed a cookery class, where we made a traditional prawn curry and dhal. Sri Lankan cuisine is big on spices and coconut, which are grown locally, and children will love the variety of desserts on hand, including the outrageously delicious biscuit pudding!
The on-board cuisine is of an impressively high standard, with plenty of locally sourced dishes including a catch of the day from the lake alongside international options.
Guests at Flow can also enjoy moonlight alfresco film screenings in the marina, pre-book Ayurveda spa treatments, or—for a truly unique dining experience— enjoy a lavish castaway picnic on a local private island.
The marina where the boats are docked is part of a private club, where jet ski and speedboat adventures can be arranged.
Our favourite excursion at Flow was the fishing trip, led by local fishermen on oruwa rafts, which offers families a fascinating insight into Sri Lankan culture. We didn’t manage to catch any fish but returned contented, having been treated to one of the island’s famous blazing sunsets.
If you are looking to extend your Sri Lanka visit for a few more days, it’s worth looking into adding a safari trip. Wilpattu National Park is known for its lakes and leopards, Minneriya National Park has an abundance of elephants, whilst Yala National Park is the place to spot crocodiles, leopards and exotic birds.
Daytrips to Colombo
Daytrips into the capital of Colombo are easy to arrange, with transfers organised by Flow. Once there, head to Pettah Market – not necessarily for the slightly generic goods on sale, but to explore the bustling streets, alive with local life.
From here you can walk or catch a tuk tuk to a number of vibrant Hindu temples, mosques, Catholic churches and Buddhist places of worship, which reflect the diverse religious make up of the island.
A day trip to Colombo wouldn’t be complete without spending time in the historic Dutch Hospital Shopping Precinct. The area dates back to the 17th century when it housed a hospital for Dutch soldiers, and still retains its cobbled streets and low-slung, terracotta-tiled buildings.
The Ministry of Crab
It’s now a buzzy destination with shops, bars and Sri Lanka’s most famous restaurant, The Ministry of Crab which is the brainchild of renowned chef-restaurateur Dharshan Munidasa, in partnership with Sri Lankan cricketing legends Mahela Jayawardena and Kumar Sangakkara.
However, be warned that you may need to book a couple of weeks in advance as the restaurant has become the major hot spot in Colombo with both locals and visitors.
I tried the tasting menu and found the pepper crab to be the best I’ve tasted, with the freshness of the crabmeat fusing with the heat of the pepper gravy, it was quite spectacular!
We rounded off our meal by walking over to Botanik It’s a great bistro in the heart of the city with spectacular views over a very historic part of Colombo.
Colombo, as a city, is a vibrant, sensory overload, so visiting for the day and then retreating to the tranquillity of the Flow boat in the evening, offered the perfect balance.
Planning a Sri Lankan Family Holiday
Our Sri Lanka adventure, from the wilds of the rainforest to the peace of the Flow houseboat, was the perfect antidote to the mass tourism trail, offering instead, a small-scale experience that connects a visitor on a far deeper level to this truly beautiful and resilient island.
Best Time to Visit Sri Lanka
Due to its close proximity to the Equator, Sri Lanka has an average year-round temperature of 80°F. However, there are two monsoon seasons on the island to keep in mind when planning a visit.
The best time to go on holiday in Sri Lanka to visit the western and southern coasts and hill country (where Palmstone and Flow are located) is from December to March, while the best weather on the East coast is from April or May to September.
Sri Lankan Airlines flies to Bandaranaike International Airport, Colombo from London’s Heathrow. The flight is about 11 hours.
Zoey was hosted by the Amber Collection, but these opinions are her own.