The tiny island of Sri Lanka is known for many things: its beautiful scenery, its hospitable people, its ancient civilizations, and its brutal civil war that ravaged the country until 2009. But most of all–more than its incredible natural beauty or its turbulent recent history– the small island nation is known for its production of high-quality tea.
As long-time lovers of nature and tea, Emma and I were immediately drawn to the idea of visiting Sri Lanka’s Hill Country–one of the world’s most famous tea-growing regions.
The Hill Country of Central Sri Lanka is an emerald land of mist-wrapped peaks, of hillsides carpeted with tea plantations and of waterfalls tumbling through thickets of dense vegetation. It is a stunning region, with neatly-pruned tea plants that drape over the area’s peaks and valleys like a patchwork quilt.
After marveling at the ancient wonders of the Cultural Triangle, Emma and I chose to spend three days in the Hill Country–one day on a train from Kandy to the central highlands and the following two days enjoying the scenery in and around the town of Ella.
The ride from Kandy to Ella is an adventure in its own right, as navigating the hills by train can take the better part of an entire day. The rickety blue passenger train traverses the undulating countryside at such a slow pace, that the mere 140 kilometers between Kandy and Ella took us over nine hours to travel.
Yet, despite its leisurely speed, the train journey is not to be missed. For the local train costs less than two dollars to ride and offers jaw-dropping views at every bend. It is often regarded as one of the most beautiful train rides on Earth.
Due to its popularity, the train from Kandy to Ella is crowded with tourists and locals alike. We quickly realized that fighting for a seat in the second-class compartment would be a futile effort, so we made our way back to third class and perched in front of a large window. A few hours later, a spot freed up near the entrance to our compartment. We rushed to the doorway, sat down on the floor with our feet hanging out of the carriage and watched the world pass by in slow motion before our eyes.
From the doorway of our train carriage, we were practically able to reach out and touch the dense foliage and emerald grasses that carpet the landscape.
Once we arrived in the tiny town of Ella, Emma and I set off in search of a place to stay.
We eventually found Nest of Peak, a budget guesthouse perched atop a hill outside of Ella. For $10 each, we had a room with a private bath and a balcony affording unbeatable views of the Ella Gap.
We immediately knew we had found paradise amongst the Hill Country’s misty emerald peaks.
Ella is bustling with guesthouses, hotels and seemingly more restaurants than the rest of Sri Lanka combined. It is a little backpacker’s utopia–slightly out of place in a country where finding eateries can be a daunting task.
During our time in Ella, we took advantage of the little city’s culinary delights and indulged in the country’s flavorful cuisine. We started each day with a pot of tea, filled our stomachs with curries and papadams and stopped by the Down Town Roti Hut after every meal for a scrumptious banana-and-chocolate-filled dessert.
Sri Lanka’s Hill Country is noticeably higher and cooler than elsewhere on the island. Its combination of temperature, rainfall and fertile soil has created ideal conditions for growing and harvesting high-quality tea. In these alluring hills east of Kandy, some of the finest tea in the world has been grown for over a century.
Tea cultivation in Sri Lanka dates back to the 1880s, when James Taylor introduced the first tea plantation to British Ceylon. Today, independent Sri Lanka is the world’s fourth-largest producer of tea. The tea industry generates billions of dollars annually for the Sri Lankan economy and employs over one million people.
On our second day in the region, Emma and I set out to learn a bit about Sri Lanka’s most popular beverage. The Uva Halpewatte Tea factory outside of Ella is the perfect place to learn more about the production and distribution of tea in Sri Lanka.
For about three dollars, a one hour tour of the factory brings visitors through the different production rooms and allows them to see the process by which tea is plucked, sorted, dried and packaged.
Unfortunately, taking photos of the machinery is prohibited.
After a morning at the tea factory, Emma and I set out on a hike to the Nine Arch Bridge. The path to the bridge follows the main road leading out of Ella, before veering to the left past private homes and tea plantations. The return journey follows the train tracks back into town. It is a leisurely walk that affords a birds-eye view of one of Sri Lanka’s most picturesque bridges.
The Nine Arch Bridge is a relic of former Ceylon. It is a beautiful attraction, as well as an impressive feat of engineering.
A small family-owned cafe sits atop a hill overlooking the bridge. Since we were in no particular hurry, Emma and I bought smoothies from a small cafe, found a shady place to sit, and waited for the train to make its way along the tracks.
On our last day in Ella, Emma and I spent a leisurely morning indulging in food and relaxation. We ate our usual banana rotis, climbed to the top of Little Adam’s Peak and made plans for the subsequent days of our journey.
Little Adam’s Peak is fairly easy to climb, with a well-marked, well-maintained path leading all the way up. The trail passes by verdant plantations that are dotted with tea-pickers and Hindu shrines.
At its summit, Little Adam’s Peak affords breathtaking 360 degree panoramas of forested hillsides and mist-shrouded peaks.
Though we only stayed three days in the Hill Country, Emma and I could have easily spent our entire vacation exploring the tea plantations and mountainsides of Sri Lanka’s central highlands. With its emerald terraces, its mist-wrapped mountains and its carpet of neatly-manicured plantations, the Hill Country is a jewel on Sri Lanka’s scenic crown.
And if you’re coming from the hot and sticky scrublands of the Cultural Triangle, the cool mountain climate is a literal breath of fresh air.