Occupying the island’s southern heartlands, the sublime green heights of the hill country are a world away from the sweltering coastal lowlands – indeed nothing encapsulates the scenic diversity of Sri Lanka as much as the short journey by road or rail from the humid urban melee of Colombo to the cool altitudes of Kandy or Nuwara Eliya. The landscape here is a beguiling mixture of nature and nurture. In places the mountainous green hills rise to surprisingly rugged and dramatic peaks; in others, the slopes are covered in carefully manicured tea gardens whose neatly trimmed lines of bushes add a toy-like quality to the landscape, while the mist and clouds which frequently blanket the hills add a further layer of mystery.
The hill country has been shaped by two very different historical forces. The northern portion, around the historic city of Kandy, was home to Sri Lanka’s last independent kingdom, which survived two centuries of colonial incursions before finally falling to the British in 1815. The cultural legacy of this independent Sinhalese tradition lives on today in the city’s distinctive music, dance and architecture, encapsulated by the Temple of the Tooth, home to the island’s most revered Buddhist relic, and the exuberant Kandy Esala Perahera, one of Asia’s most spectacular festivals.
In contrast, the character of the southern hill country is largely a product of the British colonial era, when tea was introduced to the island, an industry which continues to shape the economy and scenery of the region today. At the heart of the tea-growing uplands lies the town of Nuwara Eliya, which preserves a few quaint traces of its British colonial heritage and provides the best base for visiting the misty uplands of Horton Plains and World’s End. To the south, in Uva Province, a string of small towns and villages – Ella, Bandarawela and Haputale – offer marvellous views and walks through the hills and tea plantations. At the southwestern corner of the hill country lies the town of Ratnapura, the island’s gem-mining centre and a possible base for visits to the Sinharaja reserve, a rare and remarkable pocket of surviving tropical rainforest, Uda Walawe National Park, home to one of the island’s largest elephant populations, and Adam’s Peak, whose rugged summit, imprinted with what is claimed to be the Buddha’s footprint, remains an object of pilgrimage for devotees of all four of the island’s principal religions.