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Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka: Over the tea country, into the mountains

By Satarupa Datta 28 July 2021

Header image courtesy @teatrails (via Facebook)

The road from Colombo rises to leave behind the tropical air. The climb gets winding while the views keep you off the dizzy spell. The recurring scenes flashing by are those of lush tea plantations girdled by wooded mountains. If not for the British, tea would not have come to Sri Lanka. Planting tea was the ideal remedy to the plantation industry in crisis after a debilitating blight in Ceylon’s coffee plantation in the 1880s. Since then, tea has sustained the country’s economy and remains to this day the country’s largest revenue generator.

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Three more hours to go before we reach our destination.  Higher up, the green outside towers upon us. Both sides are dotted with vast tea estates and factories, each flaunting English names on white stilted boards. Colonial bungalows sit primly on the ridge, surveying wide sweeps of tea. Many of these early British planters, perhaps out of nostalgia, named their estates after their hometowns, thousands of miles away in the British Isles.  

Our friendly Sinhalese driver offers us a pit stop at a quaint tea stall. We get off into a world of wholesome fresh air bursting with fragrance. We relish a cup of broken orange pekoe, a major export for the country, before the sprawling Rothschild tea estate and the great forests of pine guarding behind—a sight to soften the hardest of hearts.

We drive up mountains through quaint little towns and lonesome settlements of plantation workers. After miles of rocky roads and twisting and jarring ascends, we stumble upon a whiteboard proclaiming Heritance Tea factory, our mountain stay in Nuwara Eliya. 

We find ourselves on a narrow wandering trail, surrounded by miles of dark wooded forest. Slowly, the driver pushes the tires through the forest undergrowth. We are soon engulfed in the mountain mist. At five past ten, we have to rely on the car lights to illuminate our path ahead. The trail is much harder for him than us, sitting at the comfort of a backseat, though he never complained. Finally, the wooded driveway merge into a landscaped walkway.

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All we can see are the grand glass gates of the hotel, beautifully printed with the words: “Heritance Tea Factory: Where Tradition is Alive.” Welcoming us is the butler in a cotton shirt and sarongs, smiling wide as a Cheshire cat. The outside is pitch-dark and drizzling.  

The hotel interior reflects an old-world charm with colonial-era luxury, replete with teak wood furniture, artefacts, and silk fabrics. It was a tea factory in its heyday, serving the plantation known as Hethersett. The reception is a museum in itself, studded with photo frames and storyboards of its origins.

The windows and the woodwork are the originals designed by British engineers. The timber used in the old days was teak, brought from Burma and Jarrah from Australia. The steel façade of the factory building was imported from Dorman Long in the United Kingdom. The floorboards are of original pinewood imported from Sweden in 1913.

Welcoming us are servings of delicious savoury bites and cakes on three-tier trays paired with a pot of orange pekoe. We also enjoyed a tea tasting—my favourite is the amber-hued, fruity orange pekoe first flush. Another popular one is the lemon-coloured white tea handpicked and carefully rolled from the buds.

As we sit in the in-house restaurant, we admire the black-and-white photographs of eminent hill country planters and other celebrity royals who visited that are hung along the corridors. In 2000, the site was honoured with a conservation award by the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, which is why you will find a photograph of Prince Charles sharing a frame with the founder of the tea factory.

In the backyard garden stands an entire train bogie on tracks, which is actually a fine-dining restaurant where waiters use a lever to simulate the chug-chug rhythm of a moving train.  

Dinner is also served at the Kenmare Restaurant, once the sifting room of the old tea factory. Rows of distinctive tea crates from olden times support the buffet serving stations, but à la carte is also served. We opt for the roast chicken paired with tea-infused cream, served in fine porcelain plates with a cloche cover. It’s cooked to perfection, transporting us back to 1900s Ceylon.

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Retiring on a cumulus cloud of luxurious bedding on a Victorian-style four-poster bed, we rose with the sun. The mist had gone by now and sunlight glints off the white façade of the hotel outhouses. In a valley squatted the main building of our hotel, right by the lush tea plantation. Beyond that, all you see are slopes of pristine green. 

Looking closer, I can locate women plucking tips between the rolling rows of tea. In the presence of such breathtaking views, we stayed in a kind of companionable silence as we sample Ceylon’s best brew from the estate.

I slip on a light jacket and grab my camera to wander out to the town for a first-hand taste of Nuwara Eliya. The hill town looks different in the sunlight. Passing by the red brick post office, golf course, turf club, and Tudor-style hotels, it truly feels like a little piece of England.  

The eureka moment arrived when I saw a seaplane lashed to a floating dock at the scenic Gregory Lake. The seaplane legacy in Sri Lanka started back in wartime Ceylon in the Second World War when Koggala, about nine miles east of Galle, operated as a naval base. 

Today, intrepid travellers hoping to see Sri Lanka from the sky sign up with a Sri Lankan air taxi service—what they call seaplanes—to go from one part of the island to another by air.

Lunch is at the famous Grand Hotel, an iconic Elizabethan-style manor house built in 1829. The Grand Thai restaurant serves sumptuous Thai specialities made with regional produce. Highlights include the banana blossom salad dressed in coconut milk and tamarind sauce, and the lobster in red curry flavoured with coconut milk, basil leaves, and lime leaves served with steamed Thai jasmine rice stewed in coconut milk. To cap it off, dig into the tender baked coconut served in a young coconut shell.

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Early morning calls for hiking. Spend the tranquil hours wandering through quiet trails crisscrossing mossy ridges, waterfalls, pristine tea gardens, and hilltop villages. I trek until I reach the quaint hamlets of Kandapola, the highest village in Nuwara Eliya.

Breakfast is an elaborate affair—a buffet of sandwiches, eggs, and tea cakes alongside Sri Lankan staples. After your belly is filled, head to Hakgala Botanical Gardens, home to endemic plants of the island nation. Another landmark is the Galway’s Land National Park, the small forest reserve and sanctuary for endemic and migratory birds. 

Evenings at the hotel means getting pampered by our butler. We watch hotel residents play croquet on the lawn and later retired to the bar, a vital part of an erstwhile planter’s routine.

Nuwara Eliya is a world apart from Sri Lanka. Today, the locals carry on the custom of holidaying in the hills alongside the Brits, just to escape the lowland heat, and revel in the breathtaking beauty of the mountains and lush tea gardens. At the trip’s end, I understand why the Europeans, especially a significant population of British travellers, ache to return to the hill country. It makes for a cosy retreat, a home away from home.

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Satarupa Mitra Datta has dashed off scripts for television channels for a long time in her career stint until wanted to interpret the world through her travel stories. On days she is not working, shouldering her camera backpack, she flies off to new destinations in the hunt for cultures, landscapes, gastronomy, art, and frames that tell stories.