5 things you need to know to plan a first family adventure

Make a family’s first long-haul adventure run smoothly and you’ll have loyal clients for life, writes Joanna Booth

The baby turtle’s tiny flippers flapped enthusiastically as it hurled itself down the dauntingly vast beach towards the Indian Ocean. The first wave broke tantalisingly short, but this little one ploughed on through the sand and its efforts were rewarded as the next surge swelled around it and carried it into the relative safety of the sea.

Releasing newly hatched turtles at a sanctuary was just one of the unforgettable experiences we enjoyed with my eight-year-old son Dexter on our Sri Lanka holiday – his first multi-centre adventure in a tropical locale. However, there were moments in the planning stage where I felt rather like that turtle – a little overwhelmed.

Yes, I had decades of experience as a travel writer and had been to Sri Lanka before, but structuring a solo or couple’s trip is very different from a family one. When you’re helping clients in a similar situation, here are a few points to bear in mind.

Spinner dolphins

1. Destination: entry-level adventure

For a first intrepid trip with a youngish child, suggest somewhere that’s entry-level adventurous. Sri Lanka hit the sweet spot for us. We didn’t need anti-malarial medication or too many vaccinations, and the island’s established tourist infrastructure meant the quality of accommodation, transport and activities could be relied upon.

Travelling at Easter, it was dry season on the south coast, with temperatures about 30C and not punishingly humid. And with resident leopards, elephants and whales, our wildlife-mad son would find plenty to keep him interested while being gently introduced to a different culture.

For kids with different passions, this might mean the sights of ancient Egypt, volcanoes and jungles in Central America or samurai and sumo in Japan.

Leopards in Yala National Park

2. Pace: take it slow to see and do more

Top of my tip list? Slow down. When my husband and I came to Sri Lanka as a couple, we moved location every two nights to pack in as many sights as possible, but this time we stayed in two bases over 10 days – the coastal resort of Koggala and Yala National Park – before an overnight in Colombo on the way to the airport.

This gave us time to recover from jet lag and for Dexter to feel at home in each hotel and to chill out around the pool as well as explore the area. We saw many families staying just one night in Yala, arriving late and exhausted, rising early for a safari and then having to check out over-tired kids and hit the road again. Spending three nights there meant we were able to fit in two safaris and still leave refreshed.

We also minimised drive times to avoid car sickness. Urge clients not to attempt to see a whole destination in one trip, but to choose one region and actually enjoy it.

Cinnamon Wild Yala Jungle Chalet

3. Accommodation: pick a resort with a pool and plenty of space

Instead of the tiny, romantic boutique hotels we’d booked on our previous visit, we opted for slightly larger, family-focused stays where we knew Dexter splashing loudly in the swimming pool wouldn’t ruin someone’s honeymoon.

This didn’t mean giant soulless properties. We chose The Fortress Resort & Spa in Koggala, with lush grounds and a large, beachfront pool; and Cinnamon Wild Yala, one of the bigger safari properties with chalets rather than tents and a good swimming pool.

Air-con was a non-negotiable in the heat, and I checked reviews for positive family feedback. Villas can be a good choice too, particularly for larger families or fussy eaters who’ll benefit from self-catering.

The Fortress Resort & Spa

4. Dining: try local foods alongside familiar favourites

Our son isn’t particularly picky, but we knew that he would find some of Sri Lanka’s hotter curries a challenge. While we’d usually eat in local restaurants, the tourist-level spicing and buffet choices meant hotel dining worked well on this trip, with Dexter trying a good range of Sri Lankan dishes alongside the odd spaghetti bolognese.

If clients are concerned about cuisine, recommend hotels with a wide menu or check whether there are international restaurants near their accommodation, so they can fall back on pizzas or burgers if need be.

Dexter in a tuk-tuk

5. Activities: get kids involved and they’re less likely to be bored

Keep things short and sweet and children are more likely to remain in good spirits. We planned nothing longer than half a day, which was tiring enough in the heat, and interspersed things we knew Dexter would enjoy – a whale-watching trip to spot spouting fin whales and leaping spinner dolphins, and safaris where we sighted elusive leopards and watched elephant families at play – with elements he had less overt enthusiasm for, managing to tick off temple and tea plantation visits by keeping them brief.

Interactivity always wins points; think cooking classes and scavenger hunts. Our hands-on hatchling release at the turtle sanctuary was utterly magical and one of the moments I knew our family adventure would be the first of many.


Dos & don’ts of booking a family adventure

Do

● Consider climate, time difference and driving distances, as well as what there is to do.

● Choose lively hotels with good facilities and in-house dining where children are welcomed, rather than tolerated.

● Recommend sensible precautions in the tropics – SPF 50, regular shade breaks and insect repellent.

Don’t

● Pack too much in. Build in downtime and give clients longer in fewer locations.

● Lose sight of what kids are interested in. Swap long tours at cultural sights for quick-hit experiences with elements of fun.

PICTURES: Shutterstock/Whales_Srilanka; Joanna Booth


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