The parent trip

Simon Hoggart embarks on a holiday in Sri Lanka with the kids — but this time they are the ones in charge

Where to go ... daughter Amy's advice includes a visit to the celebrated Dambulla cave temples. Photograph: Maurizio Gambarini/dpa/Corbis

When your kids are small, you inform them where the family holiday is going to be. If they don't like it, they know what they can do — which is, come along and enjoy themselves. Or else. But when they're older — ours are 21 and 18 — and you want them to choose your trip in preference to them spending a riotous week in Spain with their friends, you have to ask them politely where they would like to go. And it's you who must like it or lump it.

Which is why we went to Sri Lanka this year. Our daughter Amy, the 21-year-old, had spent part of her gap year working in an orphanage there, up country, near Kandy. She and the other volunteers had been adventurous, using every weekend to visit historic sites, temples, national parks, the tea-growing area and, of course, the beaches. They met some delightful people, ate terrific food, and had a thoroughly exciting time. It was these places that she wanted us to enjoy. Meanwhile, she planned to spend a few days back at the orphanage, getting to know the nuns again, caring for the children.

We could not have chosen a better time. The fear of terrorism (irrelevant to tourists, so far as we could see) has kept visitor numbers down. Many of the best hotels — and Sri Lanka has some superlative ones — are desperate to fill their rooms and will offer eye-watering bargains. ("Rack rates" of hundreds of dollars a night listed on websites, and can be confidently ignored.)

What most people do is to tailor their holiday to their requirements. We went through Jetwing Travels, which also operates many of the best hotels. We told them our daughter's recommendations, and a few days later they sent back an itinerary.

The package included an air-conditioned van with driver. Don't think of driving yourself; Sri Lanka is not great on English signage, and the roads are less highways than social gathering places. Pedestrians flap a casual arm just before they cross the road in front of you, bikes and tuk-tuks (three-wheeled taxis) spring out of nowhere. It's like trying to drive between the stalls in a crowded market. You'll also want to stop and look at the roadside attractions: we saw kingfishers, peacocks, water buffalo, mongoose and hundreds of fruit bats hanging asleep from a tree, all on our first day. And the fruit stalls are more enticing than any supermarket: paw-paws, melon, pineapples and mangos, alongside the more exotic — rambutans, sour sop and the dreaded durian, famous for combining a stinking exterior with perfumed flesh.

Our driver, Mohd, was affable, spoke decent English, and knew plenty about the places we visited. So after two days recovering from jet lag at a fine beach hotel near Negombo The Beach, just north of Colombo airport, we headed up to the orphanage, pausing for lunch at the elephant orphanage (elephant numbers are down to around 2,000 in the whole country, thanks to deforestation) where we watched a herd bathing and splashing happily in the river.

There was a touching moment when we arrived at the orphanage, and the children who remembered our daughter were thrilled to see her: "Amy, auntie!" they shouted. The nuns were gentle and kind, and the children clearly well-fed, healthy and lively, though it is deeply sad to meet a three year old whose highest ambition is to be picked up and hugged.

So the rest of the family set off on the travels Amy had recommended. We started high in the hills above Kandy, at the Hunas Falls Hotel, which has stunning views down the valley and the most vertiginous golf course I have ever seen. I am no golfer, but even I know that a 40ft vertical drop is unusual at any hole. (They also have the one where you have to get the ball up 40ft.)

After exploring Kandy, with its temples and astounding trees, we headed toSigiriya, the greatest site in the country, a 660-ft high slab of rock topped with a combined fortress and pleasure palace, built 1,530 years ago by a king so evil he seized power by walling up his own father. The climb is steep but easy; you'll be passed by hundreds of schoolchildren, and teenage monks in red, orange, saffron and brown robes. Our hotel there was the remarkable new Vil Uyana, built on water gardens, every room a small house, reached by a bridge.

On Amy's advice we took in Polonnaruwa, one of the two finest archaeological sites, and the celebrated Dambulla cave temples. We picked her up at the orphanage, then set off for Nuwara Eliya and the tea country – you sip tea at the plantations, looking out on the deep, pleated, 40-shades-of-green valleys. We took a train to Ella, a journey along rickety tracks barely clinging to the mountainside, like flying at 10mph.

Our last stop was the Lighthouse Hotel near the old Dutch fort of Galle on the south coast. Here we spent a week doing little more than lazing and swimming, reading, eating and drinking. Sri Lanka offers a variety of food, but much the best is their own cuisine: fresh, zingy curries utterly different from the industrial sludge served in some UK Indian restaurants. Or you can eat in guest houses, negotiating the menu in advance with the owner, and a feast there will cost you little more than £2 a head.

Now is certainly the time to go to Sri Lanka, and it's easily arranged by letting the organiser know where you want to go, and how much you want to spend. We were very grateful to Amy for her guidance. She will make a great parent: "I tell you we're going to Sri Lanka, and you'll like it!"

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