Travelers can visit a Ceylon tea plantation and factory. // © 2016 iStock
Feature image (above): See Sri Lanka with Intrepid Travel. // © 2016 iStock
I’ve always been a planner, especially when it comes to travel. Before my family set off on our last vacation, for example, I pored over the 17-page itinerary, taking notes, writing packing lists and committing each section of our eight-day journey to memory.
Call me crazy (though, I prefer “prepared”).
My younger teenage brothers, ages 13 and 16, do not take after me in this way.
“Vacations shouldn’t be busy,” 13-year-old Isaac explained to me. “It’s all about the chill.”
Even as the cool older sister, I have to admit that I’m not always “about the chill.”
As for my parents? They are in a league of their own. When given the opportunity, they’ll branch out from the confines of an already packed agenda, preferring to incorporate detours and new stops when they get wind of something exciting nearby.
As a result, many tour operators may find it challenging to form an itinerary that caters to each of my family members’ travel styles. But when we decided on a vacation to Sri Lanka, the private groups department at Intrepid Travel ensured us early on that they would be able to customize a trip to suit each of our needs.
I had my doubts, but I couldn’t deny that Intrepid has a stellar reputation in the tour sector. Priding itself on grassroots, immersive travel experiences, the international operator — which offers 1,600 itineraries around the globe — gets a large part of its business from families.
“Families make up roughly 25 percent of our yearly revenue, and we are seeing that number climb with the growing popularity of FIT and custom-tailored travel,” said Connor Frey, a private groups manager for Intrepid. “We make sure the transportation, accommodations and activities we include are tailored to all travelers and can easily accommodate special requests.”
This was proven time and again during our 10-day trip. Intrepid had planned for us to hit all the main tourist attractions, including UNESCO World Heritage sites such as Sigiriya and Galle Fort, along with Dambulla cave temple, Dambatenne Tea Factory and others.
Although these excursions took up much of our time, the “chilled-out” teens of the family were happy to find that there was still plenty of relaxation time set aside at our well-equipped accommodations. In fact, we were even upgraded to a suite with a private plunge pool at the elephant-themed Aliya Resort & Spa in Sigiriya.
While Sri Lanka is still considered an emerging destination — Southeast Asian countries such as Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam are more popular with families, according to Frey — we still had several tourist-friendly activities to choose from, including a visit to a baby elephant orphanage, a tour of several Buddhist temples, a bike excursion, a game drive through a national park and lunch in a local village.
Another unique standout is the tour operator’s dependence on local guides. My family was especially fond of our leader, Sudesh, who greeted us each day by teaching us a new word in Sinhalese and who continually asked for feedback on that day’s itinerary.
I found one such experience with him to be especially impressive. My stepmom, a landscape designer, was disappointed that we didn’t have time to visit the Royal Botanic Gardens, Peradeniya, near the city of Kandy (we had tickets for an early train to a different province that same day). When Sudesh learned that she wanted to see the gardens, he arranged for her to miss the first leg of the rail journey and spend a couple of hours there. Then, he asked our driver to take her to meet us halfway along the route. He even ordered her a couple of guidebooks on Sri Lanka flora and arranged for a meet-and-greet with their author.
And when he learned that I’m a budding yogi, Sudesh led our family in a special Buddhist meditation session — and did his best to ignore the giggles that escaped from my brothers as he showed us the proper (loud) way to breathe.
By the end of the trip, Sudesh even surprised us with a visit to a local home — his. Once there, we met his wife and daughter and feasted on Sri Lankan favorites such as "dahl" (lentil) curry, curried potatoes and sweet baby bananas.
Although we were following a slightly tweaked version of Intrepid’s Sri Lanka Family Holiday, I found that the many perfectly executed, yet unplanned, experiences were ultimately what elevated our vacation to the next level.
It left us all — planners, chillers and the like — wanting more.