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The train ride from the highlands of Sri Lanka to Ella is one of the most spectacular train journeys in the world

We had risen early in the morning to visit Horton Plains National Park, and it was around lunchtime before we arrived back in Nawara Eliya for our train journey to Ella, a popular tourist destination, especially for those back-packing their way around the country. This was one of the things that I was most looking forward to on our itinerary!

We have always loved train journeys and I was almost wetting myself with excitement as we pulled up to the station. There was a little time before our train arrived so we went into the cafe on the platform to grab some food as we hadn’t left enough time for a proper lunch. Our experiences of trains in recent times, especially the last one we caught in India we had half expected to be hanging around for hours. But no worries this time as the train arrived in the station pretty much on time.

The train station at Nuwara Eliya
This might sound obvious but ...
A sign at Nuwara Eliya train station showing the altitude

There a number of trains that travel through Nuwara Eliya to Kandy, most of them make many stops and take hours and hours to get there. Our guide had booked us on to the express train which makes the trip in about 2 1/2 hours with only one or two stops which sounded perfect.

We had been booked into the first-class carriage which actually sounds nice and it did have some sniffing and comfortable seat, which were only two people across, and best of all it had airconditioning. Those were the good points the bad points, which for me far outweighed the benefits were that the windows did not open and they were dirty so it detracted from the beautiful scenery and I couldn’t take photos. I was so bummed, in fact, I got a real hump on! This had been something I was really looking forward to and it was ruined! I could have wandered down the carriage and set in the stairwells on the connecting sections between the carriages, risking life and limb. But these were already occupied by younger and more daring folk who would have bounced better than me if they fell out.

Karen, the ever practical, decided to solve the problem rather than sulk. My only justification is that I am a man. Anyway, after a brief and slick negotiation, she managed to persuade a very generous Sri Lankan family in second-class to squeeze up so we could take their seats. They were simply travelling on the train to see family, a journey they had done many times so they had little interest in the scenery! The benefit of being in second-class was the windows opened and I could take as many unobstructed views as possible. I was finally in seventh heaven and could restrict my bemoaning to the fact that the power and telecom lines on the ugly poles run alongside the train track! Oh, why can’t people think about these things when they make planning decisions! 

View from the Nuwara Eliya to Ella train
View out of the door
A ride through the higlands of Sri Lanka
Spectacular scenery is the hallmark of the train journey from Nuwara Eliya to Ella

The journey is glorious as the train runs along the ridge atop the mountains offering spectacular views to the valleys below which we a patchwork of small villages and town, jungle and paddy fields. The two hours of the journey shot past and we finally arrived in Ella, a small tourist town in Central Sri Lanka and popular stopping off point for backpackers and people taking the many hiking trails that leave from here.

We met with our driver and went off to explore. One of the most iconic features of the railway line here is the nine arch bridge. Unfortunately, it lay on the train line heading south of Ella so we had not crossed it on the train. So, as a second-best option, we decided to walk and see the bridge in person. You can wind your way through the village and get to a point where you can get a great place to view the bridge itself. Or if you want, and don’t mind scrambling down a slightly sketchy trail you can climb down to the track. By the railway line, there is a little cafe so we took the opportunity to sit down with a king coconut and enjoy a marvellous view of the nine arch bridge. Finished with our coconut we decided to join the multitude and walk across the bridge, of course keeping a beady eye out for approaching locomotives. It was a somewhat surreal but fulfilling experience. 

The train station at Ella
Taking a trail down to the nine-arch bridge in Ella
The nine-arch bridge is one of the highlights of the train ride through the highlands
Everyone throws caution to the wind and cross the nine-arch bridge
Crowds gather on the tracks across the nine-arch bridge for those Instagram shots

As we left the nine-arch bridge to find our hotel we could not but help ourselves taking some more pictures including a tuk-tuk being serviced. I had never seen this before I had always assumed they were indestructible.

Climing the hill back form the nine-arch bridge
Back up to the top - yeah!
Even tuk-tuks need repairing - not surprising when you see the driving!

Having dropped our bags off at the hotel we set out to make the walk to the top of Little Adams peak to catch the sunset. The main climb to the top starts a couple of kilometres outside the town, which any number of local tuk-tuk drivers would only be too happy to take you to. We decided to walk from the town, it is a gentle uphill climb and quite pleasant in the latter part of the day.

The last part of the journey to the top does require trekking up a fairly steep, narrow trail that is not always in the best of conditions. It is a fairly easy climb for most. It took us about 15 minutes to make the final climb to the summit. 

The journey to the top was well worth the effort as we joined many other fellow travellers enjoying the spectacular views across the vast Ella Gap as the sun descended behind the mountains. On top of the mount was a small Buddhist shrine – which felt so pertinent to the moment as we enjoyed this beautiful moment. With the sunset complete we set off back down the trail to Ella, passing many on the way up, not quite sure what was still drawing them to the top. I am not sure how I would feel coming down this trail in the dark without a light.

Starting the trail to the top of Little Adams Peak
A small set of houses we discovered on the trail to Little Adams Peak
Goats are real survivors - they'll pretty much eat anything
A helpful sign?
A shrine atop of Little Adams Peak
The sun goes down across the Ella Gap - Little Adams Peak
The sun starts to set on Little Adams Peak
The final rays!

In Summary … 

  • Don’t sit in first class on the trains to Ella – you want windows that open
  • Eat something before you travel or take a snack
  • In Ella go to the nine arch bridge and take a walk across and enjoy the views
  • Take the trip to the top of Little Adams Peak at sunrise or sunset

Planning the journey

You can basically go to the Nanu Oya train station (this is the name of the train station serving Nuwara Eliya) on the day of your and buy your ticket at the ticket office. Keep in mind, that the train station can get very busy especially during peak tourist periods and public holidays in Sri Lanka.

We would recommend getting your tickets beforehand, either with your tour company or if you are travelling independently, online. This avoids being disappointed by not getting the ticket you want and avoids the crowds in line for the ticket office at the station.

Starting location:Nanuoya (Nuwara Eliya)
Ending location:Ella
Journey time:2 1/2 Hours
Pricing: 1st Class ($20) 2nd Class $14
Online Ticketshttps://12go.asia/en/travel/nuwara-eliya/ella
Timetable:Trains with First Class reserved seating: 06:40, 09:24 and 11:57. There is a website that can help with planning train journeys in Sri Lanka, https://www.seat61.com/SriLanka.htm

Best time to visit Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka has a variety of different tropical climates where rainfall periods and amounts of precipitation determine the distinction between a rainforest climate, tropical Savannah climate and tropical monsoon climate. Sri Lanka can be visited year round, however because of the two rainy seasons there is a lot of confusion as to when is the best time to visit. Here is a peek into the various monsoon periods: You have the Yala Monsoon; this means rain in the west, southwest and inland from the end of April to September. The other is the Maha Monsoon; this means rain on the east coast from October to March.

Are you planning to travel to the west and south coasts or inland? Then you have the highest chance of pleasant weather from December to March. Are you going to the east and north coasts? Then you have the highest chance of good weather from April/May to September.

Things to do in Nuwara Eliya

1. HIKE IN HORTON PLAINS & VISIT WORLD’S END

Horton Plains National Park is a protected area in the central highlands of Sri Lanka and is covered by montane grassland and cloud forest. It is one of the most popular outings when staying in the Highlands city of Nuwara Eliya. There is a pleasant 6-mile hike with some spectacular views at the World’s End viewpoint.

There are plenty of options for transportation and tours from Nuwara Eliya.

2. VISIT A TEA PLANTATION

There are plenty of tea plantations in Sri Lanka and Nuwara Eliya is a great place to take a tour from.

Ceylon Tea is known throughout the world and is grown extensively in the Highlands of Sri Lanka. We visited the Damro Labookellie Tea Factory to see how tea is processed and sampled some of the tea.

3. TAKE A WALK AROUND NUWARA ELIYA

Nuwara Eliya is known locally as ‘Little England’, mostly due to the climate (which can be cold and wet) that is very different to the rest of Sri Lanka. 

There are some older buildings in the town that date back to bygone times when Sri Lanka was known as Ceylon and was part of the British Empire.

A trip to the post office was interesting, it is a working office but going back is a step back in time – it has a museum feel.

There are other interesting places to see around town, so take the time to explore.

Where to stay in Nuwara Eliya

1. SERENDIPITY LAKE BUNGALOW BY HEIDI

Serendipity Lake Bungalow by Heidi is located by Lake Gregory a couple of miles outside Nuwara Eliya – which can be reached in a few minutes by tuk-tuk. The decor is eye-catching and bold and their property is filled with beautiful antique furniture.

There is a charming jungle-like terrace garden to sit in and look down across Lake Gregory from. You can also take part in cooking classes. For those interested in wellness or yoga, the homestay also runs an ashram where you can take part in a variety of different wellness retreats There is onsite parking and there is free Wi-Fi.

The breakfasts are amazing.

2. THE HERITANCE TEA FACTORY

The Heritance Tea Factory is a stunning hotel is located a bit out from Nuwara Eliya, but is well worth the extra travel time.

Staying here feels like you’ve slipped back into 19th-century Ceylon with five-star luxury pampering instead of working outside picking tea.

Since the hotel is surrounded by a working tea plantation you get to enjoy stunning views of the lush greenery as well as fun tea-themed experiences. You can pick your own tea to then take home with you, take part in a tea-tasting of different varieties or just indulge with a delicious high tea in the beautiful garden. The luxurious spa offers many different beauty and relaxation treatments, so you’ll definitely feel as if you’re in heaven after indulging.

3. LA GRANDE VILLA

Looking for something closer to the heart of Nuwara Eliya then La Grande Villa could be a good option. This is a more upscale option.

La Grande Villa is 1.8 km from Gregory Lake. La Grande Villa also includes barbecue facilities for guests at the hotel. Guests can enjoy a meal at the on-site restaurant or make use of our outdoor dining facility in the garden. The property also has grocery deliveries. The rooms at La Grande Villa are extremely comfortable.

Things to do in Ella

1. UDAWALAWE NATIONAL PARK SAFARI

Udawalawe National Park is a long 1 and 45-minute drive from Ella but is well worth the time to include on your visit to Ella. It is one of the best places to see elephants in Sri Lanka. 

Once you reach the park you can join one of the many safaris that venture into the Park. As well as elephants you can see many other animals including wild buffalo, spotted deer, barking deer, wild boar, sambhur, hare, mongoose and crocodiles.

Also, if you have time visit the elephant transit home to see the baby orphaned elephants.

2. HIKE LITTLE ADAMS PEAK

One of the most popular things to do in Ella is to hike to the top of Little Adams Peak, especially at sunrise and sunset.

The trail starts a couple of kilometres out of town, so you can walk from there (which we did) and this is relatively flat. Alternatively, you can take a tuk-tuk as far as motorised vehicles are allowed. From here the climb starts, it is fairly steep but is not too bad and is short.

At the top, there are some lovely views. There is also a small Buddhist shrine.

3. HIKE ELLA ROCK

If you’re up for a bit more of a challenge, then definitely consider hiking Ella Rock whilst in town. This is definitely a tougher hike, but visitors are rewarded with stunning scenery and magical vistas across the tea plantations. This hike takes around 3-4 hours from Ella town centre/the train station. I would start the Ella Rock hike either early in the morning, or in the early afternoon, so you don’t do this hike in the dark.

Where to stay in Ella

1. THE SECRET PLACE

Located in a former tea planter’s home converted into a small luxury boutique resort, The Secret Ella is simply enchanting! The original planter’s bungalow is a gorgeous building with ensuite rooms, but you can also stay in private chalets overlooking the mountains and valley below.

The views are really incredible here, you can even see trains passing over the famous nine arches bridge from the edge of the resort’s garden.

The infinity-style swimming pool is a real highlight, allowing you to relax in the cool waters on a hot day while gazing down into the valley at the lush greenery everywhere.  Guests can enjoy tea picking on the plantation and a tour of the resort’s tea factory for free, which includes a tea tasting at the end

2. ZION VIEW ELLA GREEN RETREAT

For a more affordable choice that still has stunning views, head to Zion View Ella Green Retreat. This is a bed and breakfast which also offers wellness activities like yoga.

As well as the comfy hammocks for lounging around, you can also relax and enjoy the views from the infinity pool. As a “green retreat” you’ll be able to partake in daily yoga sessions in the rooftop shala and have a heavenly Ayurvedic massage in the spa

Rooms are comfortable, clean and nicely furnished, all with hammocks on the balcony so you can enjoy that view straight across to Ella Rock! Zion View is also very central, right in the heart of Ella and within walking distance to the train station.

3. INSPIRA ELLA

Looking for something closer to the heart of Nuwara Eliya then La Grande Villa could be a good option. This is a more upscale option.

La Grande Villa is 1.8 km from Gregory Lake. La Grande Villa also includes barbecue facilities for guests at the hotel. Guests can enjoy a meal at the on-site restaurant or make use of our outdoor dining facility in the garden. The property also has grocery deliveries. The rooms at La Grande Villa are extremely comfortable.

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