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  11. Sri Lanka: The Highlands...

The Highlands of Sri Lanka has the perfect climate for the production of tea and were a getaway for the British colonialists to escape the heat

Tea is a big business in Sri Lanka and has been for many, many years. It is still referred to as Ceylon tea (the country’s former name), a through back to a time when the country was ruled by the British, who brought tea cultivation to the country in the late 1860s. Today, the country produces 340 million kilogrammes of tea per year and employs over 1 million people.  As you drive through the highlands of Sri Lanka the impact of the tea industry is all too obvious with hill after hill covered in tea plants. The tea plants are densely packed, of on the sides of hills, so the most effective way to harvest them is through someone picking the leaves by hand. The harvesting is hard labour, mostly done by women and children – the picked leaves are collected in baskets and carried on the backs of the pickers.

Sri Lanka’s Tea History

Sri Lanka, or Ceylon, as it was known when it was a British colony, is one of the largest tea producers in the world. It’s said that the first tea plant was brought back (i.e. smuggled!) from China by the British in 1824. It was planted in the Royal Botanical Gardens in Peradeniya, Kandy.

In 1867, a Scottish man and a huge name in tea, James Taylor, started growing the first commercial crop of tea on the Loolecondera Estate in Kandy. Although the first tea factory in Sri Lanka is no longer in operation, you can take a historic tour.

After a blight of the coffee crops, tea began to take over as the main crop of Sri Lanka, and now around 350 million kg of tea per year are exported by Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka makes some of the best tea in the world, and it’s ranked just behind Chinese tea, Indian tea and Kenyan tea.

It’s not just the large tea estates producing tea, there are thousands of smallholders all contributing to the Sri Lankan tea industry. How many tea plantations are there in Sri Lanka? That’s pretty hard to answer as there are lots (and lots) of tiny smallholdings.

 

Sri Lanka’s Tea Growing Areas
There are a number of Sri Lankan tea plantations covering large areas of the Hill Country, so the chances are you won’t be too far from one wherever you are in Sri Lanka.  The main tea growing areas in Sri Lanka are :

  • Kandy
  • Nuwara Eliya
  • Uda Pussellawa (between Nuwara Eliya and Ella)
  • Uva (area around Ella and Badulla)
  • Sabaragamuwa (sweeping from west of Kandy down past Horton plains and to Udawalawe)
  • Dimbulla (between Hatton and Nuwara Eliya)
  • Ruhuna (southern province of Sri Lanka encompassing Yala)
The tea produced varies depending on where it’s grown. The higher the elevation, the lighter and subtler the tea. Higher elevation tea plantations are found around Haputale and Nuwara Eliya. The lower the elevation, the stronger and less subtle the tea. Lower elevation tea plantations are found near the coast in the area around Galle.
The glorious verdant hills around Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka
Views along the road from Kandy to Nuwara Eliya

There are a number of tea plantations that you can visit in Sri Lanka, our journey took us to the Damro Labookellie Tea Factory and Garden, close to the city of Nuwara Eliya deep in the highlands of Sri Lanka. This place is well presented, with a traditional looking tea room and additional large glass and steel building housing a large shop and more seating for drinking your tea.

Tea is a major export for Sri Lanka
Tea room at Damro Labookellie Tea Factory
The factory and visitor building at Damro Labookellie Tea Factory

From the main building, they run tours of the Labookellie tea factory where you get to see how the tea leaves collected from the plantation. At the end of the tour, there is a chance to sample some of the teas. We hadn’t realised there were different stages of the tea leaf development that produce a different flavour. Known as “golden tips” or “silver tips,” tea tips are the small, unopened leaves of the tea plant.

Tea sorting conveyor belts
Tea processing rooms
The factory floor at the Damro Labookellie Tea Factory and Garden

The best part of the tours – well we enjoyed it was to sit down at the end and enjoy a cup of tea. Lovely. We decided to buy some tea in the shop to take back home with us, so we chose some gold and silvertip tea and I went outside on the deck to take some more photos leaving Karen to pay. Unfortunately, our math on the exchange rate was slightly off so instead of buying a box of tea for $4.99 we paid $49.99. We’ll probably not drink this but keep it as part of our children’s inheritance – just go to hope that they actually develop a taste for tea!

Just a short distance from the Damro Labookellie Tea Centre is the city of Nuwara Eliya. This hill city is blessed with cool temperatures (it felt positively chilly here compared to other parts of the country and can get below freezing at night) and fertile soil, sits in the shadow of Mount Piduratalagala (2524m) more popularly known as Mount Pedro. When the British colonial officer, John Davy, arrived here in 1819 it was a wilderness covered in a jungle and for some reason only known to himself, he thought it a great place to build a sanatorium. It wasn’t until 1846 that the town of Nuwara Eliya, meaning “city of light”, was founded by the renowned explorer Samuel Baker. The cool weather reminded the homesick British of dear old Blighty and was an ideal escape from the hot and humid weather of the lowlands. It also turned out to be an ideal climate to grow familiar crops such as root vegetables (i.e. potatoes), lettuce and strawberries. They also thought it would be a great place for coffee plantations, which it was until the crop was blighted by disease. So, they instead turned to tea which thrived in the hilly surroundings.

Today, Nuwara Eliya still has an English country village feel to it, with its red telephone boxes, pink brick Victorian post office, a well-maintained golf course, horse racing course, colonial bungalows, and rose gardens. Sprinkled in among the homely remanents of British colonialism there is a lot of traditional Sri Lanka and you don’t have to wander too far to find a more local feel in its bustling markets and small shops.

A colonial mansion in the Srl Lankan highlands city of Nuwara Eliya
The old post office building in Nuwara Eliya
The original letter mailing box

In summary …

  • You simply must visit a tea factory when you’re in the Sri Lankan Highlands
  • Check the price of any tea you find in the shop at the factory before you buy
  • Don’t go to Nuwara Eliya during the monsoon season unless you are a duck
  • Take a woolly-pully or jacket with you to Nuwara Eliya for the chilly evenings

Best time to visit Sri Lanka

It is not advisable to visit from June until the end of August as this the monsoon season and it gets very, very wet.

Except for this time of year, the weather should be pretty good. From November to February / March it can be chilly. We went in December and there was definitely a nip in the air at night. So, this is the only place in Sri Lanka where you might need to break out a woolly-pully at night time.

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 GREGORY LAKE AND TAKE A BOAT RIDE

This lake was built during the British ruling in India by Sir William Gregory. The purpose of building this lake is believed to be to generate electricity for the City. It is mainly used for water sports and other recreational activities by locals and tourists alike.

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.

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