Sri Lanka is a land of extremes – despite being about half the size of our own North Island, it boasts tropical beaches, misty highlands, dense jungle, bustling cities and grassy plains.
Following the end of a tragic 26-year civil war in 2009, as well as the devastating 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, the country has been slowly recovering economically, and a blossoming tourism industry has been a major part of that renewal.
Nadia, Carlos and son Bodhi visited Sri Lanka recently and spent 10 days enjoying the sights, smells and flavours of this unique island off the southern tip of India.
If you're thinking about visiting Sri Lanka, there's one question you need to ask yourself: "Do I love curry and rice?"
Despite being a huge fan of curry in all its forms, even Nadia found herself all curried out after just five days on the ground. "We've always wanted to go to Sri Lanka and the food is meant to be really amazing," she says.
"And it was! But because it's a lot of curry and rice and I was 23 weeks pregnant, I got really bad heartburn! But all the tropical fruit was so amazing – and the rice hoppers (they're like crispy pancakes with an egg cracked in the middle)."
Nadia and Carlos were keen to visit Sri Lanka because of its rapid growth as a tourist destination and their wish to see it while it was still relatively under-developed.
The island is a tourist's paradise, boasting luxurious beach resorts, health spas, jungle safaris and mountain-top tea plantation eco-hotels among its diverse attractions.
Starting in capital city Colombo, the family went on a mini tour of the largely Buddhist nation, taking in just a few main destinations to accommodate 2-year-old Bodhi's needs.
The long civil war from 1983-2009 caused a generation's worth of damage to Sri Lanka's infrastructure so its roads and transport networks are a little frozen in time. As a result, booking a driver and travelling by car is by far the best way to get around, says Nadia.
"To get from town to town and city to city, it's best to drive because there aren't that many domestic airports. It's great, though, because then you have someone to tell you about the local culture and history and give you their perspective. It was interesting hearing our driver's perspective on the civil war, rather than reading a history book or watching a documentary."
The narrow, bumpy roads take time to navigate but offer a fascinating, car-window view of daily life in this bustling nation. Herds of cattle, marketplaces and locals going about their business all share the winding network of roads.
One of the best things about travelling this way is the easy access to huge stalls piled with the fresh tropical fruit that grows in this fertile land.
"There were lots of fruit stalls by the side of the road, so we'd be like, 'Can we stop there?'" recalls Nadia. "You can buy coconuts for eating and drinking, all different types of watermelon, all sorts of mangoes; there were whole tables laden with them. We bought heaps and took them to our hotel for snacks."
From Colombo, the family drove to Sigiriya in the Matale District, which is famous for its 5th-century fortress built atop a 200m-high rock in the middle of thick, monkey-inhabited jungle.
Ever the intrepid travellers, Nadia and Carlos decided to strap Bodhi on and scale the rock."We had to take turns carrying Bodhi!" Nadia laughs. "It's not for the faint-hearted. There are parts where you're on a tiny little plank. But the views were incredible."
Also while in Sigiriya, the family were lucky enough to take a safari to see a herd of elephants in their natural habitat on one of Sri Lanka's grassy plains in Minneriya National Park.
"The herd we saw had 40-50 elephants with babies as well. They're not scared, they're very used to tourists, and the closest they came was about five metres away. Bodhi loved it. He wanted them to come closer!" says Nadia.
A slightly hair-raising drive up steep roads into Sri Lanka's highlands led to the idyllic Madulkelle Tea and Eco Lodge.
From their very own glamping-style canvas tent, the family relaxed with easy nature walks, tea plantation tours and even a massage for Mum, Dad and Bodhi, too.
The misty mountains, stunning vistas – and heaps more curry and fresh fruit – were an ideal way to relax at the end of a busy trip.
But the highlight of the experience?
"Bodhi got on like a house on fire with the locals," Nadia says. "He even learned to say a few of the local words, like 'Istuti' which is 'thank you' in Sinhalese. The people overall were just so friendly, so smiley, so good with kids and so nice to be around."
To book Nimal De Silva, the driver Nadia toured with, email firstname.lastname@example.org
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