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Off the beaten track: Staying in the hills of Sri Lanka’s enchanting tea country

A number of bungalows up in the hills where British managers of the tea plantations used to stay have been converted into gorgeous little boutique hotels.

Off the beaten track: Staying in the hills of Sri Lanka’s enchanting tea country

Camellia Hills with its sensational view of Castlereagh Reservoir and tree-cloaked hills has just five rooms and 22 staff. (Photo: Teardrop)

One of the less heralded joys of Sri Lanka is its tea country. While everyone else seems to hightail it to Kandy in the country’s Central Province or zip south towards the coastlines of Bentota, Galle and Tangalle, few make the trek up into the mountains where the air is crystal clear and the climate, after the heat of the lowlands, refreshingly cool. 

Here, 2,000m above sea level and off the beaten track ‒ literally, as the modern expressway from Colombo turns into bumpy lanes ‒ are vast tea plantations. Their boundaries stretch clear to the horizon, and their names ‒ Castlereagh, Norwood, Dunkeld, Rockwood ‒ emerge from a distant past when Sri Lanka was called Ceylon, and the island was a colony of, first, the Dutch and, then, England.

The vast tea plantations are located 2,000m above sea level and off the beaten track, where the where the air is crystal clear and the climate refreshingly cool. (Photo: Daven Wu)

Despite its famous association with the island, tea came relatively late to Sri Lanka. Coffee arrived first in the early 17th-century along the Muslim pilgrimage route from Yemen and India. The Dutch began systematic cultivation in the mid-17th-century with production peaking around 1870 before the crops were devastated by a blight. 

Luckily, a few years earlier, the Scotsman James Taylor had begun to experiment growing tea and when the coffee crops were hit, he converted the dead fields to his pet project. The first shipment of Ceylon tea arrived in England in 1873 and the rest is amber-hued history. 

The Lakeview Bedroom at Camellia Hills. (Photo: Teardrop)

The British managers of the tea plantations usually lived at the top of the hill, in spacious bungalows set on green-lawned estates overlooking the tea-shrubbed slopes and valleys below. A number of these bungalows have been converted into gorgeous little boutique hotels.

Leading the charge is Teardrop, a local Sri Lankan hotel group whose three tea country hotels ‒ evocatively named Camellia Hills, Goatfell and Nine Skies ‒ are the very last word in old world glam, but with excellent WiFi. 

There is something wonderfully nostalgic about the three estates, especially if you experience them the old-fashioned way, which is to leisurely wend your way across the central highlands, spending two or three nights at each. (Anxious, OCD travellers can relax because Teardrop provides a driver who will pick you up from the airport and drive you to each hotel, before dropping you back at the airport at the end of the trip.)

What’s particularly attractive is the small number of rooms. 

The view at Camellia Hills. (Photo: Teardrop)
One of the bungalows at Camellia Hills. (Photo: Daven Wu)
Camellia Hills with its sensational view of Castlereagh Reservoir and tree-cloaked hills has just five rooms and 22 staff. On our arrival, the general manager earnestly assured us that he was at our disposal 24/7. “In the middle of the night, I will wake up and attend to you,” he promised. 
The sunset view by the pool at Goatfell. (Photo: Teardrop)
The Concordia Bedroom at Goatfell. (Photo: Teardrop)

At Goatfell, on a hilltop near the faux English town of Nuwara Eliya, the four-bedroom bungalow was built in 1923, its bracing scenery of mountains, fat blooms of purple and white Agapanthus, cypress, holly and oak trees gloriously reflected in the infinity pool set at the edge of the hill. 

The five-room bungalow at Nine Skies was built in 1920. (Photo: Teardrop)
The pool at Nine Skies. (Photo: Teardrop)

And a two-hour drive away at Nine Skies near the Bali-esque town of Ella, the five-room bungalow built in 1920 opens out into a neat lawn and lap pool under a domed sky; and echoes of the distant train chugging by on the famed Demodera Loop on its way to the equally famous Nine Arch Bridge.

On some nights, we were the only guests which really made us feel as if we were the lords of the manor, complete with a cohort of small-boned, gently smiling staff who seemed to glide in and out of rooms, the soft swish of their sarongs and slap of their slippers the only sounds they made.

The lounge at Nine Skies. (Photo: Teardrop)

Dressed in a retro chic palette of low-slung furniture, deep comfy sofas and natural colour palettes, the MO at each resort is reassuringly similar. There are no fixed times for meals, though the spectacular curry and rice spreads need about an hour’s advance notice. And the mantra seems to be: Do as much or as little you wish. 

For energiser bunnies, there are diversions aplenty. Catamaran paddles with the resident naturalist around Castlereagh Reservoir at Camellia Hills; walks in cedar glens and lawn croquet at Goatfell; a wonderful train ride through a countryside dotted with Buddhist shrine, ramshackle villages and high ridges at Nine Skies. 

The indolent can look forward to evenings on the patio watching fireflies flit through the jet-black sky; curled up by the log fireplace with a book plucked from the bedside nightstand; afternoons by the pool with binoculars searching for Yellow-Billed Babblers, Spotted Doves, Streak-throated woodpeckers and Red-vented Bulbuls. 

There are visits to tea factories and waterfalls along roads lined with trumpet flowers and Callias. Drives through cloud-misted mountains through noisy, dusty towns called Somerset, Edinburgh, Clarendon and Sussex. Afternoon tea of Orange Pekoe and a lazy wander through the vegetable gardens, the latter brimming with rhubarb, radish, leeks and celery, all of which end up on the menu that evening. 

The libraries at each estate deserve mention. Someone at Teardrop obviously spent a lot of time thinking about the kinds of books and games that someone with a night stretching ahead might want to read or play. At Nine Skies, a side table was piled high with board games. At Camellia Hills, I was astonished to discover a volume of letters by the Mitford sisters; whilst at the sister properties, heavy doorstoppers on nature, gardens and history lay next to well-thumbed copies of Clive Barker and John Grisham thrillers, biographies and sci-fi. 

On every metric, driving through the high tea country and staying at tiny hotels like Teardrop is a way of travelling that not many people experience anymore. It’s more Merchant-Ivory slash EM Foster slash 19th-century European Grand Tour than it is millennial. (Only Goatfell has TV.) 

Much of it has to do with time. The distances between each estate means you simply cannot do a whistle-stop tour, making the six-to-nine night trip something of a luxury that few can afford to take. And in this time-pressed world, that is as indulgent and aspirational a holiday as you could possibly get. 

Source: CNA/bt