A self-guided family adventure around exotic Sri Lanka

It's way past midnight when we hear a rap at our door. "Elephant", comes a whisper. "Wild elephant." Bleary-eyed, we rush down the stairs: husband, two teen boys and myself, a single light in the service area guiding us to the rear of the restored manor house perched high in the tea-fields of Sri Lanka's hill country.

Manager Mahlinda puts a finger to his lips to silence us and points to the shadows where an elephant is making an early breakfast of palm trees. The bull is so close we can hear its jaws moving – and we collectively hold our breaths as he stops, his eye glistening as he sizes us up. The elephant cocks its ears forward and shakes its head furiously in warning until it slowly backs away and disappears into the inky darkness.

We return to our beds thinking ourselves fortunate to have experienced such a close encounter but as the sun rises behind Lipton Seat, the summit of the Scottish tea pioneer's vast estate, our hungry pachyderm returns, slumbering across the lawn where we had staged impromptu cricket matches with staff that afternoon. At the infinity pool, with its magnificent valley views, the elephant crushes a stone wall, fells a palm, tosses some chairs about and leaves two steaming puddles behind as it departs through the tea fields, the same way it had come.

It is week two of our 21-day family trip to the teardrop isle and already this country, smaller than Tasmania, has delivered in spades on its promise of culture, astounding food, architecture, and wildlife.

From Negombo, a largely Catholic fishing town north of the airport, we travel to the cultural triangle in the central provinces, on to the ancient capital of Kandy where we board a scenic train to the former English hill station of Nuwara Eliya, and then to Haputale. Ahead of us lies a four-hour drive to the beaches of Sri Lanka's famed south coast, where we are to laze a week, before visiting the fortified old town of Galle, and then fly home.

In these explorations, our family follows a tourist trail, shaped to the interests of two teenagers, the eldest an urbanite foodie and his brother, a gregarious wildlife lover. Husband is easily pleased with some picturesque colonial pile which is how we come to be at The Planter's House face-to-trunk with our wild elephant.We opt for breakfast and half board options where possible, squeeze into triple bedrooms to keep prices down and try for a pool at each destination to keep tempers from flaring. And it's pretty harmonious, the teens pronouncing it the best family holiday. Ever.

Our travels occur weeks before the Easter bombings. Sri Lanka is brimming with optimism, riding a tourism wave. We feel safe as houses. The Catholic tuk-tuk drivers in Negombo take our rupees and bless us. A beggar approaches our eldest at Kandy Station. When my son shows him empty pockets and expresses sympathy for his plight, the beggar shakes his hand. So our boys are devastated when the news comes of the cruel barbarism.

On pretty Hirikitaya beach, near Tangalle, my son takes surfing lessons while toddlers frolic on the shore and our tuk-tuk driver shares the waves. An expat Australian next to me likens the scene and its crush of surf shacks to Kuta Beach in the '70s before the mass tourism.

Sigiriya, the ancient rock fortress, monastery and royal palace of a fifth-century king  is surrounded by tropical forests, and is a popular spot for locals and tourists alike. We climb it with wobbly toddlers, the seriously unfit, and schoolchildren, never encountering the wasps of which the signs warn. On the way out we do, however, fall for one of the oldest tourist tricks in the book: the snake charmer, who places a tangle of pythons around our sons' necks and asks for money for photos.

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Our youngest makes many friends, including Silva from Waterland Villa, who cuts him fresh King Coconut toddies and sings him Sinhalese songs. At the Kalpitiya bird sanctuary, on Sri Lanka's south coast, our guide hands him the pole to sluice through the wetlands. We spy kingfishers, egrets, cormorants, even a flock of godwits, in a pink-streaked dusk sky as our boatman shares his lunch box treats.

On the bone-jarring jeep ride to The Planters' House we come across two boys dressed in the whites of high school walking up the mountain. We squash up to let them sit, we four plus a French couple on honeymoon. When we wave them off, I turn to the eldest: "Don't you ever complain about getting up early for school again." Two days later we bring exercise books and pencils to the local primary school and they sing us songs.

But it isn't all cultural immersion. At the Grand Hotel, a mock Tudor pile in the hill town of Nuwara Eliya, we indulge our fantasies of Sri Lanka's colonial past. For dinner, we head to the nearby Hill Club, a blue stone lodge whose wood-panelled halls are bedecked with taxidermied stags and portraits of British royals. Suit jackets, collared shirt and ties are mandatory (the club has spares) and our boys eye themselves appraisingly as they dress for a three-course set-price dinner of mutton pie, pork pomades and chocolate mousse which proves standard fare, while the white-glove service is unmissable.

For sheer luxury nothing surpasses our three-day stay at Cape Weligama, between Galle and busy Mirissa Beach overlooking the Indian Ocean.  There's more surfing, coastal walks and a stunning half-moon infinity pool and separate cove pool overlooked by our suite . As storms break overhead at night, our boys watch movies from an at-call, in-room television. At the cocktail bar, the boyssip mocktails from margarita glasses.

With 22 national parks, herds of elephants and the elusive leopard and migrating flamingoes, Sri Lanka is a haven for wildlife. Four hours from Colombo is Heritance Kandalama, the fifth-floor deluxe room sits in the treetops from where grey langurs hop our balcony and stop outside our windows Monkeys drink from the swimming pool where the boys swim and strip leaves from overhanging trees, squabbling among themselves as if they have taken lessons from our sons.

Rekawa Beach, two hours west of Yala, is a pristine sweeping beach with a vicious undertow but what makes it dangerous to swim makes it the perfect maternity ward for green and leatherback turtles, who lay their eggs in its sands at night.Mating pairs bob on the surf breaks and we walk the beach in the morning tracing the tracks of pregnant females.

At the end of our three weeks, the boys wrangle a deal: if they apply themselves at school they get to come back to Cape Weligama and maybe venture to Trincomalee and beyond. The Easter outrage only reinforces their resolve. We will be back.

TRIP NOTES

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traveller.com.au/sri-lanka

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FLY

Singapore Airlines flies to Colombo from Sydney via Changi Airport. See singaporeair.com

STAY

Rooms at Cape Weligama  from $US507 a night. See resplendentceylon.com/capeweligama/
Two-bedroom Peacock Villa at Waterland, Negombo, from$US150 a night. See waterlandvilla.com 
A family room at The Grand Hotel, Nuwara Eliya,from $US200 a night. See thegrandhotelnuwaraeliya.com Sunbird Suite and Bunk Room for two adults, two children at The Planter's House starts from $US320. See theplantershouse.com 

Linda Morris was a guest of Cape Weligama.

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