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Bucket list | Join us for our Indian Ocean special

Sri Lanka & The Maldives for families

By Rebecca Miles –9th October 2020

The Indian Ocean is the holiday destination of dreams. A region of the world filled with exotic islands, its headline appeal is all sparkling sandy beaches, clear waters full of sea life and tropical palm-fringed sunsets.

Full of bucket list destinations but also with more to it than immediately meets the eye, we’re turning our attention to the Indian Ocean this month. Holidays to the region don’t tend to taken on a whim, and require research and planning – so how better to spend the increasingly dark evenings of November than by exploring these dazzling islands?

Beautiful and popular, Mirissa Beach on the south coast is one of Sri Lanka's finest

What’s the current situation in the Indian Ocean?

Let’s start with the basics. The Indian Ocean is the world’s third largest ocean, and borders Asia, Africa, Australia and Antarctica. It’s home to some of the most beautiful islands in the world – Sri Lanka, the Maldives, the Seychelles, Mauritius, Madagascar and Réunion; all islands or archipelagos that offer the classic dreamy white sands and deep blue sea landscapes, but also have lush interiors and compelling local cultures, which we’ll get into the details of later.

At the time of publishing at the end of October 2020, the Covid situation for these destinations is as follows:

– Sri Lanka’s borders are currently closed to all non-nationals

– The Maldives has been added to the UK government’s travel corridor list, so Britons can visit without having to self-isolate for 14 days on their return. But please note two things: On arrival in the Maldives, you must present evidence of a negative PCR test issued no more than 96 hours before departure; and you’ll need to fly direct (so with British Airways). Fly via Dubai, Abu Dhabi or any of the other typical hubs and you’ll still need to quarantine for 14 days on arrival in the UK.

Just another incredible sunset in the Maldives, from the small resort island of Maafushivaru

– Seychelles is open to Britons but with restrictions – you must be able to show a negative Covid test from within 48 hours on entry; once there, you must stay in a designated hotel and not leave the premises for five days; and you’ll be tested again on the fifth day. If negative, you’ll be free to travel within the Seychelles. Brits don’t need to quarantine on their return to the UK from the Seychelles.

– Mauritius is open to UK travellers, but you have to quarantine for 14 days in a government-approved hotel on arrival and follow these rules: you must book your airline travel and accommodation through the official Mauritian Tourism Promotion Agency website; provide a negative Covid test result on arrival taken no more than seven days before departure; and be tested on arrival, as well as on day seven and day 14.

– Madagascar has currently suspended nearly all international flights, and has imposed restrictions on arrivals from the UK

– Réunion is on the quarantine list, and the FCDO currently advises against travelling there.

While it’s fair to say the region isn’t open for business as usual, these are the sorts of destinations that require forward planning and budgeting. It’s expensive to travel to these islands so if you’re going to do it, it’s worth doing right – and that means researching, planning and speaking to the experts (which is exactly what we’re offering in the Girl About Travel Club).

The practicalities of a holiday in the Indian Ocean

Sigiriya, one of Sri Lanka's most picturesque sites, is an ancient rock fortress in the Central Province

The islands are between four and five and a half hours ahead of GMT. Direct flights are available – at least for some of the year – to all except Réunion and Madagascar, and average flight times are approximately 11 to 12 hours (19 hours for Réunion; 14 hours for Madagascar). English and French are widely spoken across the islands.

Despite first impressions, this region offers so much more than ‘just’ honeymoon resorts and luxury hotels. With the right insight, it’s an incredible place to take kids to of all ages, and offers lots of adventure and one-of-a-kind experiences.

This month, we’re focusing on Sri Lanka and the Maldives so we can properly do these countries justice. We’ll put our spotlight on the others down the line.

Sri Lanka

Elephants from the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage in Rambukkana have a bath in the Ma Oya river

Just off the east coast of India, Sri Lanka has one of the world’s most diverse landscapes, making it incredibly scenic. Topping out at 2,500m, it has everything from wild jungles, rainforests and plains to mountains, beaches and savannahs.

With a history dating back over 3,000 years, it has an enticing culture of temples, festivals and food, mixing spices and curries with vegetables and meats.

The capital, Colombo, is the melting pot you’d expect, and certainly worth exploring for a day or two before heading out to the rest of the country.

With so much on offer and so much to choose from the best advice is to team up with a local travel agent who can provide a guide, for as little or as much of your stay as you wish, perhaps combining a stay at the beach with some time travelling around.

Major attractions on Sri Lanka include:

– The Yala National Park, a vast wildlife reserve in the southeast where you’ll most likely see elephants and leopards, as well as crocodiles, and macaque and langur monkeys.

– Galle, a UNESCO World Heritage Site coastal city on the southwestern tip. An exotic old trading port full of Dutch colonial history, it’s a warren of atmospheric streets and sumptuous seafood.

– Sinharaja, another UNESCO World Heritage Site, is Sri Lanka’s prime area of tropical rainforest. Just as you would expect a jungle to look, it’s dense with foliage, huge trees and animals and insects.

– Kandy, Sri Lanka’s second city and often referred to as its culture capital, is in the middle of the island’s mountainous heart, and surrounded by tea plantations, misty hills and Buddhist temples.

Palm trees on a Sri Lanka beach
Palm trees, white sands and blue seas in Sri Lanka

The coastline of Sri Lanka offers as much variety as its interior, and the pear-shaped island’s east, south and west coasts each come into their own, depending on the time of year.

The west is the most developed with the liveliest atmosphere, especially around Negombo just to the north of the international airport. Expect long stretches of golden sands, but they’re largely unprotected by reefs so the sea can be unsafe for swimming (but great for surfing).

Along the south, between Galle and Yala, the coast has more of a traditional feel with hidden coves and untouched sandy bays backed by palm trees and wildlife-packed lagoons.

The east coast has some of the most family-friendly beaches and a real up-and-coming atmosphere, as well as small fishing villages and a growing number of low-key resort hotels. Here you’ll find the dinky village of Passikudah, which sits on a stunning bay of white sand and shallow reef-protected waters – that perfect Indian Ocean cliché.

Join us this month in the Girl About Travel Club where we’ll be talking to experts from the Sri Lanka tourist board, local tour companies, and sharing live streams from the country’s nature reserves.

The Maldives

The over-water spa at Kihavah Huravalhi Island Baa Atoll, Maldives

The Maldives need little introduction – those picture-perfect white-sand islands gently lapped by turquoise waters, with private bungalows jutting out into the sea, are the dream destination for honeymooners, luxury lovers and anyone wanting proper sun, sea and, erm, sand.

The Maldives is made up of a staggering 1,192 islands that stretch over 871km in the middle of the Indian Ocean, close to the equator, and grouped into a double chain of 26 atolls. But of those islands, only 200 are inhabited – some with all-inclusive resorts of course, but others with locals, and some are used for agriculture, or industry.

Holidaymakers arrive at Malé airport and transfer by speedboat (or seaplane) to their chosen island and resort – arriving by boat always adds a sense of adventure to things. Once checked in, it’s all about making the most of the incredible surroundings, lapping up the luxury and making your way through the cocktail list.

Reef diving at Anantara Kihavah Maldives Villas, Maldives

But the Maldives isn’t just about the sun loungers. With all that water around, it’s also an incredible destination for diving – either snorkelling or scuba. Home to about five per cent of the planet’s reefs, the hard and soft corals shelter thousands of species of fish, and the rich nutrients that flow with the currents attract turtles, manta rays and whale sharks.

Just under half a million people live in the Maldives. A third of these live in the capital Malé, an island filled with narrow streets and high rises, local markets and a bustling waterfront, the complete opposite to the calm resorts found out in the atolls, but well worth spending a few hours exploring if you can.

The alternative Maldives

Just look at that stunning sunset - the view from Haathim Beach on Kinbidhoo in the Maldives

While the Maldives is utter bliss for honeymooners, it’s also growing in popularity as a family destination – all those honeymooners who came and loved it are now returning with their kids. The watersports and beaches are crying out to be played on, and resorts are starting to offer fun and educational activities to learn about the incredible marine life. Kurumba is a great option for families – it’s just 10 minutes from the airport and has a children’s club for four to 13-year-olds.

In the Travel Club we’re also going to be talking to Ruth from Secret Paradise, one of the leading tour companies in the Maldives. She’ll be telling us about the alternatives to all-inclusive resorts – increasingly, guest houses on smaller islands are opening up to visitors, and allow for a more immersive holiday among the locals. Having a week in a guest house followed by a week at a resort in proving popular.

Ruth has been running Secret Paradise for nearly 10 years. Originally from the Midlands, she now lives in Malé and spends as much of her time as possible diving. She’s going to be sharing her insider knowledge with us.

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