How best to celebrate a landmark birthday? That was the question that Stubborn Mule traveller, Lucy Guthrie found herself asking. However, rather than having a party which other friends had done when turning 50, she chose instead to try and recreate the magic and wonder that travelling had instilled in her some thirty plus years earlier – and bring her family along for the ride.
Read on to find out how Lucy and her family celebrated her 50th birthday abroad in Sri Lanka – a great read for both those contemplating similar or wanting to visit the beautiful subcontinental island for themselves.
Why a foreign family holiday puts a party in the shade
If turning 50 feels like an ordeal, then planning what you are going to do to mark the occasion can loom larger. Friends have parties of varying degrees which you attend, enjoy and make you seriously consider your options.
As a 17-year-old travelling was a huge part of my late teens, backpack laden with clothes, essentials, beaded ankle bracelets, coral earrings, short hair and Lonely Planet in hand.
Is it possible to capture that magic carefree feeling once more as an ageing woman with responsibilities and your family in tow (four children and partner) in just two weeks?
The excitement of landing somewhere new with anticipation and apprehension of what may lie ahead and live out of a small hold-all, not care about wearing any make-up or jewellery or how many times you wear the same top and shorts and get sand between your toes.
Can a holiday experience bridge all the age gaps for a family ranging in age from 14 to 50? All achieved with a larger budget than when you were 17 but still feel like you’re being a little edgy at 50!
The answer is YES!
Off to a good start: The road to Palagama Beach
Landing at Colombo and being met by a driver rather than having to negotiate local transport was a definite improvement from the 1980’s budget aware traveller and a welcomed start to our two-week family holiday.
As the airport automatic doors opened and we walked outside the heat was like a curtain of soothing reassurance that told us in no uncertain terms we had travelled far enough away from the cold and we now needed to ditch the socks and trainers fast and acclimatise to some serious heat.
Palagama Beach resort in Kalpitiya was our first stop for four nights and the chosen destination to spend my 50th.
It was a two-hour drive along a busy two-lane road with every mode of transport jostling for position on the road, with beeping horns to indicate imminent over-taking on corners, often with on-coming traffic. An exciting introduction to our holiday! Gazing out of the window we saw small towns come and go, coconut palms, salt plains, rice paddies and market stalls over-flowing with fresh produce, tuk-tuks, mopeds, dogs and people all going about their day.
The Birthday Bash in Paradise
Finally, a narrow dirt track led us to Palagama Beach hotel where we received a delightful warm welcome and were immediately shown the turquoise infinity pool over-looking the sea, lined with palms blowing in the breeze and two sun beds strategically placed at the end of the pool setting the perfect postcard scene. Sand pathways winding through vegetation lead us to our accommodation; a large Cabana for the four big children with two en-suite bedrooms, large outside seating area and an outside shower room.
The best was yet to come, 200 meters away Andrew and I were led to our idyllic accommodation, nestled next to the trees and just off the beach was Sunflower, a rustic beach hut with a king-sized bed, large outside shower room with the shower tied to the trunk of a tree and a large verandah facing the sea – perfect.
During our stay we totally relaxed, lying by the glorious pool savouring good food, enjoyed an entertaining cookery lesson with the head chef where we learnt to cook a Sri Lankan Dahl, fish curry and vegetable accompaniment which we then devoured for our lunch.
Four of us had spa treatments, we all watched pods of spinner dolphins during an early morning boat trip, ate curry at most meals (through choice) with Hoppers and Dahl for breakfast a highlight for all of us. Tom even wondered if he could eat five and be a record-breaker!
Birthday celebrations culminated in cocktails and a private barbecue for the six of us outside Sunflower on the beach. We sat at a table and the chef cooked fresh seafood on a barbeque which was followed by a homemade unexpected chocolate birthday cake.
What a way to celebrate my 50th!
Safari, So Goodie: Wilpattu Adventures
It was with some sadness we left Palagama to head towards Wilpattu for our safari adventures. We arrived midday to searing heat and an arc of green tents on hot scrub land. We managed to grab some lunch before embarking on our 2pm safari – upon entering the park a bull elephant was spotted immediately on the road and this was to herald the beginning of an exciting four hours of wildlife spotting; a sloth bear, toucan, iguanas, crocodiles, kingfishers, peacocks, monkeys, deer – many types, wild hare, wild boar, mongoose and three leopards – which was most definitely a rarity and a lucky day for us.
The following morning at 6.15 am we went on our safari no.2 – the animals didn’t want to be found as easily and a leopard spotted by another jeep resulted in ten vehicles lining up to catch a glimpse of the sleeping leopard in the long grass and the ensuing traffic jam rather spoilt the idea of a safari and turned it instead into a hectic diesel fuelled noisy car park for few minutes, this momentarily made me wonder if Wilapattu will be able to look after the needs of all the tourists and the best interests of the precious animals in the longer term.
Dambulla was our next stop and Anuradhapura – the lost city, a spectacular discovered ruin of an ancient city. It was so hot that we did struggle in the midday heat to fully appreciate the splendour, but our guide and driver made it as easy as possible to navigate the ruins and see as much as we could. Serious midday heat and having to wear long trousers here was a challenge in 36 degrees.
We managed to grab a great late lunch en route to our hotel in a local bakery/café that offered freshly cooked rice and noodles with generous portions that kept everyone happy. Then at last we reached the Rangiri Dambulla Lodge just in time to enjoy a swim as the sun started to fade.
Dambulla day 2 we climbed Sigiriya early. Leaving our hotel at 7.30 as we had been recommended the heat and queues only increased during the morning – good advice. The climb is steep, and we spotted a couple of older people struggling with the gradient and heat. Not for those with vertigo, low blood pressure or the unfit. The steps are narrow, and you need to keep going as there is always someone behind you offering little opportunity to stop at times. The views and the historical relevance of this place makes it absolutely worth the visit, and we all agreed we are glad we did it.
In the afternoon we opted to not visit the caves but chill by the hotel pool instead, there is only so much culture, archaeological finds and history we felt we could absorb and appreciate in one day. Dinner in the evening was at a local Dambulla restaurant which was inexpensive and good – Mango Mango next to the supermarket on the main high street, we recommend, most main dishes are between 400 to 600 rupees.
Polonnaruwa by bike
There was some discussion the night before about whether we really wanted to visit another place of historical relevance in the stifling heat however the lure of bicycles and an opportunity to explore the grounds on wheels persuaded us this was one not to miss.
Our guide was a gem and took one look at the six of us and instantly knew how to gauge us and only gave us relevant historical bite sized bits of information in seconds and orchestrated a whistle stop museum visit before we cycled round the extensive ruins. The boys even commented and were super impressed with our guides calm demeanour, humour and knowledge. Was he a Buddhist they wondered?
I would definitely recommend this tour – it offers an impressive insight into a medieval city of times gone by with some stunning archaeological finds, with yet more still to be uncovered and discovered.
Arugam Bay: A surfer’s hangout
Sri Lanka’s laid-back beach scene with cool vibes, waves, an abundance of fresh seafood and eclectic cafes, bars and eateries. There is a notable western influence here, with a number of businesses being owned and run by westerners which means broader international influences are evident – a red telephone box stands proud outside one bar!
In short, we absolutely loved it. We stayed at the Hideaway; friendly staff, the most scrumptious breakfasts and excellent in-house yoga classes offered in an open sided garden studio under fans next to the swimming pool – not a bad way to start the day, I managed two classes during our brief visit.
Our two days were spent jumping waves, surfing, laying on sun beds under beach umbrellas being served freshly made mango and lime juice, and observing (even helping at the last moment) the local fishermen as they hauled and landed their large drag net onto the beach. This slow laborious fishing method was great to watch. But be prepared you will be sharing your beach sun bed shade with stray sleeping dogs and may even watch a cow meander down the beach – this is Sri Lanka where its charm and people never stop delighting.
Hiking Adams Peak with Buddhist Pilgrims
After a long, winding car journey to Adam’s Peak – 8 hours through narrow roads, we arrived at our destination hotel just metres away from the base of the mountain.
Our hike began the next morning at 2am and I was apprehensive, various bits of information had revealed a tough two to three-hour ascent which apparently could leave even the hardiest hill walker quaking.
5,500 steps that start off quite gently leading you through closed stalls and past a fairy light lit Japanese temple slowly ease their way further up the mountain and gain momentum in degrees and challenge as the summit gets nearer.
Tea shops and over head lights line the pathway with the odd stall selling brightly coloured cuddly toys fascinated me. Why the toys, surely this trek was not for children and yet during our journey we spotted lots of family groups, and small children and babies being carried, and on asking our guide why, was told that families who had asked Buddha for a child would later return to offer their thanks.
In the peaceful dark with our able guide this climb did prove to be a real highlight and worthwhile holiday challenge that we all found exhilarating, tough and rewarding – and our calves still ached two days later. The descent in someways was tougher than the ascent despite being quicker.
A Buddhist monk taking a selfie on his Samsung Galaxy during his descent was one of my favourite moments as well as the sunrise and the pyramid mountain shadow seen on the west side of the mountain. In total the ascent and descent took about 6.5 hours – we were absolutely starving as we tucked into our breakfast at 9.30am.
White water rafting, Millennium Elephant Foundation and Goodbye
A tight itinerary meant we were soon back on the road heading for our afternoon adventure of white water rafting. Yet again our guide and driver ensured we had a ball, with rapids approached to ensure maximum impact, water and fun that had us all laughing as we made our way down the river, with river swim to complete the adventure.
Our final day was a visit to the Millennium Elephant Foundation.
This was an ambitious holiday that ensured we kept away from big towns and saw a great deal of Sri Lanka and its magic.
More about a birthday celebration abroad
If you enjoyed Lucy’s blog and would like to talk about planning a birthday celebration abroad, do ring us or get in touch via our website contact form… we’d love to hear from you.
You can check out our Sri Lanka family holidays section and see two example Sri Lanka itineraries for more ideas. Also don’t miss our Sri Lanka with kids top 10 activities blog, which is packed with photos. And for more about the weather visit When to go to Sri Lanka.
Stubborn Mule Travel
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