From top to toe, Sri Lanka offers abundant opportunities to spot wildlife. Whether at sea or on shore, there’s an exciting checklist of birds, mammals and reptiles to view, making for a truly memorable family holiday. Nadine, our Kids Collection Editor, rounds up the best places to see fauna, and suggests some cool family-friendly accommodation into the bargain…
Spot dolphins off the northwest coast
Just 2 hours north of Colombo is the unspoiled Kalapitiya Peninsula, which is blessed by the Indian Ocean to the west and the Puttalam Lagoon to the east. Take a boat trip out to sea; nothing much beats seeing playful pods of resident dolphins undulating through the waves, and if Lady Luck is with you, orca and sperm whales can also be sighted. What’s more, the coral reefs are home to 250 species of fish, and you can birdwatch on the lagoon or at nearby salt flats.
Stay at Dolphin Beach. Best visited between November and April, these comfortable and airy family tents have 2 bedrooms each, plus sea-facing verandas. They sit by a safe swimming beach, and there’s a pool with a shallow end plus a sand garden for the kids to play in. Daily sea safaris operate in season.
Meet turtles near Bentota
Five species of sea turtle are found in Sri Lanka: Olive Ridley, loggerhead, green, hawksbill and leatherhead. There’s a well-known turtle hatchery and farm at Bentota, where you can help release newly hatched turtles into the ocean by day or bury turtle eggs at night. In addition, take a boat tour along the mangrove-lined backwaters of Balapitiya to spot baby crocodiles, or have a go at riding an elephant.
Stay at Club Villa. Families will love this colonial Dutch-style villa turned boutique hotel, which is close to the beach and has a pool with a shallow end.
Whale-watch off the south coast
Many consider southern Sri Lanka to be the best place on the planet to see the largest creature ever to have lived on Earth: the Blue Whale. And, on boat trips, you might also see the super-pods of sperm whales, orcas, pilot whales and spinner dolphins which frequent these waters. What’s more, day trips to the leopard-filled Uda Walawe park are easy to arrange.
Stay at chic resort Cape Weligama for its stunning location atop a headland jutting into the Indian Ocean. There are 2 beaches, and its family-friendly accommodation is centred around a shallow pool (with a regular ice-cream trolley!). There’s also a wealth of watersports, including surfing and snorkelling.
Go birding in the rural northwest
Head off the beaten track, 3 hours north of Colombo, for wetlands and ancient watercourses that are teeming with birdlife (storks, ibis, herons, spoonbills) and often visited by buffalo and elephants. For more spectacular birdlife – owls, eagles, waders, kites – a visit to Sri Lanka’s largest national park, Wilpattu, is a must; it’s also one of the best places in the world to spot leopards. The Anawilundawa Bird Sanctuary boasts 3 different habitats and a wonderfully diverse avian population, too.
Stay at The Mudhouse. Get back-to-nature in wattle-and-daub thatched huts, set amid woods and lakes, with trails, cooking classes and wild swimming all on offer.
Enjoy safaris in the southeast
Yala National Park’s habitat is dry-zone scrub jungle – perfect for leopards, elephants, jackals, sloth bears and monkeys, best viewed on a game drive. There are also manmade lakes and wetlands with butterflies, dragonflies, 150 species of bird (many endemic) and crocodiles.
Stay at Cinnamon Wild, a tranquil safari lodge just inside the park with a choice of Jungle or Beach Chalets dotted through the trees. The buffet-style meals include Western options for fussy eaters, and there’s a freeform pool. Best of all, it offers unique ‘Yala by Night’ jeep tours where you wear night-vision goggles.
And for nearly all of the above…
Base yourselves near Tangalle and you can take in all sorts of wildlife sightings. Watch egg-laying marine turtles come ashore on Rekawa Beach, go whale- and dolphin-watching from Mirissa, see leopards, monkeys and more in Bundala National Park, and relax in beautiful surroundings awash with colourful kingfishers, peacocks and hornbills.
Stay at Maya Villa, a 19th-century manor house surrounded by emerald paddy fields, with an L-shaped pool and 2 acres of bird-filled gardens.