Famously described by Marco Polo as the finest island of its size in the world, Sri Lanka continues to enchant today. The island has some of the world's most beautiful beaches, a rich historical legacy, national parks filled with leopards and elephants, waterfalls splashing down mountain slopes and tea. A lot of tea.
The Hill Country, which is painted in a thousand shades of green, is an embroidery of rippling, rolling tea estates that stretch as far as you can see. Sri Lanka is the planet's fourth largest tea producer and ‘tea tourism’ is an increasingly popular activity. So if you’re keen to travel for your tea, here’s our pick of Sri Lanka’s best tea experiences.
In the highest, dampest reaches of Sri Lanka’s gorgeous Hill Country is the small town of Nuwara Eliya. It was once the summer retreat of choice of British colonials wishing to escape the repressive heat of Colombo and the coast.
Today the town is known for its quaint Home Counties of yesteryear atmosphere. It also sits at the centre of Sri Lankan tea production. Combining the best of both tea and colonial memories is High Tea at The Grand Hotel.
The half-timbered Grand is one of the town's top historic hotels and every afternoon at 3.30pm sharp smarty turned out waiters in white reveal a spread of cheese and cucumber sandwiches, Battenberg cakes and a range of high quality teas served in dainty cups that would make Queen Victoria herself proud.
The tourist boom of the past few years has seen once decrepit colonial-era tea planters’ bungalows being restored and turned into boutique hotels. Of the many such options now available perhaps the best are the five Tea Trails bungalows located in the middle of some of the oldest tea estates in the country.
A stay at one of these bungalows is all about tea time pampering. Your own personal butler will wake you with ‘bed tea’ (essentially just a cup of tea to be drunk in bed), after which you’ll be taken for a long walk through the surrounding tea estates with the resident expert, visit a tea factory, do an awful lot of tea tasting and then come back to your bungalow where your butler will serve you single malt whisky around an open log fire. There are certainly worse ways to spend your time in Sri Lanka...
Dilmah is Sri Lanka’s biggest tea producer and t-Lounge, in the upmarket Fort area of Colombo, is their showpiece café. The tea served here isn’t like the tea you know and it certainly doesn’t come from in a bag.
This is gourmet stuff that uses only the finest leaves and it comes served in champagne flutes or martini glasses. If you’re feeling peckish then their Long Afternoon Tea is an indulgent ceremony of snacks and hot drinks not to be missed.
There are several tea estates and factories across Sri Lanka’s Hill Country that offer short tours. The most informative is at the Dambatenne Tea Factory around 10km northeast of the tea-producing town of Haputale.
Tours here, like those anywhere, are short and best done early in the morning when the factory is at its most active. You’ll be shown the whole process behind tea production and, if you’re lucky, be invited to taste the tea afterwards.
A working, dusty and noisy tea factory probably isn’t the kind of place you would want to sleep but at the Heritance Tea Factory they’ve converted an old factory building into a gorgeous boutique hotel. Much of the original machinery has been retained and incorporated into the hotel décor and they’ve even thrown in a steam engine and spa as well, of course, as expert-led estate tours and tea tastings.
There’s a common misconception that tea only flourishes in the mountains of Sri Lanka, but at the Hundungoda tea estate, just a few kilometres back from the beautiful south coast beaches near Koggala, a very rare form of white tea is grown.
So valuable is white tea that it’s rumoured that in the past it was only ever picked by virgins using gold scissors. Hour-long tours of the estate are available between 8am and 6pm. It’s best to call in advance.
All of the previous experiences will give you a flavour of tea at its best, but what about the everyday cuppa? For the overly sweet and milky tea drunk by almost every Sri Lankan then look no further than the nearest hole in the wall tea shop found on street corners in towns across the nation. It’s not gourmet tea, but it is Sri Lanka’s tea.
The author of this piece flew to Sri Lanka with Sri Lankan Airlines who operate daily direct flights from London Heathrow to Colombo (flight time of ten hours).