TRAVEL: Why Sri Lanka Is Everyone's Cup of Tea; Mike Watson Enjoys a Taste of the Exotic as He Braves Hairpin Bends for a Creamtea at a Historic Plantation

Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales), May 10, 2008 | Go to article overview

TRAVEL: Why Sri Lanka Is Everyone's Cup of Tea; Mike Watson Enjoys a Taste of the Exotic as He Braves Hairpin Bends for a Creamtea at a Historic Plantation


Byline: Mike Watson

NEXT time you pour yourself a cup of tea, drink a toast to Devastating Emily. That was the lurid nickname of a leaf virus that wiped out the coffee crop in Ceylon in the 1870s.

But a group of mainly Scottish pioneers weren't to be beaten.

They were already growing tea - green gold.

The plantations they established and the bankrupt coffee estates they bought are still producing some of the best of the world's crop.

Four thousand feet up in the centre of the country, now Sri Lanka, life has hardly changed since those days.

The British connection is still strong and many plantations have British names - Blair Atholl, Brookfield, Kew and Kirkoswald. On the winding railway (designed by Brits) up to the best plantations there's even a station called Great Western.

Until recently the area was hardly a holiday region. Transport isn't easy in Sri Lanka; most people travel in crowded buses that hurtle and roar around the hairpin bends.

This is definitely not a self-drive destination and most visitors hire a car with a driver for their trip.

It's worth it. Tucked away amid the rolling, vivid green tea estates is Tea Trails, four large bungalows that were once the homes of European planters.

Now tourists sample the luxurious life they once lived, complete with complementary gin and tonics, British cooking and even clotted cream high teas.

These historic buildings, with a total of 20 luxurious bedrooms and suites, have been restored by Dilmah, one of Sri Lanka's leading tea producers.

There's plenty to do from your bungalow base. Activities include white water rafting, mountain biking, kayaking on the lake and treks and walks through the hillside tea plantations.

We stayed in a bungalow called Norwood and spent a fascinating morning walking through the estate for lunch.

One essential visit is to one of the tea factories, huge three or four-storey multi-windowed buildings where - in less than 24 hours - freshly picked leaves are turned into the black tea that we know so well.

The higher the altitude, the better the tea, so the Bogawantalawa has a great reputation.

The tea is taken to Colombo for auction and more than 90% is exported. But you can buy it at one of the many factories which welcome visitors and have their own shops.

The gateway to the tea country is Nuwara Eliya (City of Light), the highest and most British of the island's towns. It's bustling and crowded, a strange mixture of modern concrete, 19th century Scottish-influenced architecture and hedges and rose gardens.

Nuwara Eliya started life as a sanatorium for the British Army and still has market gardens which grow crops such as lettuce, strawberries and blackcurrants which seem a little out of place until you enjoy them by the pool at your bungalow. …

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