Sri Lanka: The Highlands – Tea Plantations and Nuwara Eliya
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 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 employes 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.
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, near 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.
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.
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 to 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 surrounds.
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.
When to visit
It is not advisable to visit from the 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.
In summary …
o You simply must visit a tea factory when you’re in the Sri Lankan Highlands
o Check the price of any tea you find in the shop at the factory before you buy
o Don’t go to Nuwara Eliya during the monsoon season unless you are a duck
o Take a woolly-pully or jacket with you to Nuwara Eliya for the chilly evenings