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Sri Lanka’s Golden Valley of Tea may be far-flung, but getting here is a pleasure however you travel. The two-hour train from Kandy to Hatton is an experience to be treasured; this is the first part of the famed Kandy-Ella stretch, arguably the most scenic train journey in the world. From Colombo it’s a five-hour train (via Kandy), or a four-hour drive along winding roads. If you’re feeling flash, catch a seaplane straight from the airport to Castlereagh Reservoir.
Perched on the banks of the Castlereagh Reservoir, these five colonial bungalows – the oldest of which dates back to 1888 – transport you back to the age of the planter. There are manicured gardens filled with roses and dahlias, wicker chairs in which to sit and enjoy the tranquil scenery and croquet sets left invitingly on the lawns. We love the bracing chill of the pool (it’s filled fresh from the mountain spring) and the nostalgic interiors enhancing the property’s charm – think antique prints, grand four-poster beds and free-standing, roll-top baths.
Each bungalow comes with a chef who’ll tailor the menu to your whim and a butler ready to whip up cocktails at a moment’s notice. Visiting Dunkeld Tea Factory gives a real insight into everything from picking to packing, while kayaking across the reservoir will soothe and exhilarate at once. But really, it’s hard to beat taking a stroll in the fresh mountain air. You can walk through tea fields for miles without seeing another soul, and these are the kind of views you just don’t get bored of.
At Camellia Hills, nearby on Dunkeld Estate, you can soak up all the Hill Country’s solitude in a slightly more modern setting. The newly built, five-bedroom bungalow is stylish and serene; minimal interiors are punctuated with dashes of slate gray and ocean blue, the sweeping views highlighted by floor-to-ceiling windows. The living room – with its great array of books and roaring fire come evening – brings a homely feel to the place. On chilly nights, staff are on hand with woolly blankets and hot water bottles to make sure you don’t feel the cold.
We could have spent hours in the infinity pool: set on the front lawn, and flanked on one side by an ambalama, it’s the perfect place to gaze out upon the reservoir. Cookery demonstrations and tea tours give a nice taste of rural Sri Lanka, while a boat trip to the quaint Warleigh Church is an unforgettable experience.
Sri Pada (Adam’s Peak)
About 40km west of Castlereagh Reservoir you’ll find Sri Lanka’s holy mountain. If you’re here between December and May and aren’t afraid of a little hard work, you really should make the trek. Thousands of pilgrims climb the 5,500 steps to the “sacred footprint” each year; it’s best to reach the summit for sunrise, so set off about 2am to give yourself plenty of time – be sure to wrap up because it can be wet, cold and surprisingly windy. You might wish you were back in bed on the way up, but the cultural resonance and visual spectacle once you reach the peak make this one of Sri Lanka’s must-sees.
Hatton and Dickoya
If you’re the type who finds taking the stairs at work a chore, you might prefer a trip to nearby Hatton or Dickoya. The twisting bus ride to Hatton is enchanting, followed by a walk around the town (where you can get your kottu fix) before stopping at the crumbling Dickoya Maskeliya Cricket Club on the way home. Dating back to 1868, it was one of the first sports clubs founded by the British tea planters: a relic of days gone by, and a real part of Sri Lanka’s cricket history.
Often dubbed “little England”, Nuwara Eliya is Sri Lanka’s most famous Hill Country town. Sitting 1,868m above sea level, here you’ll find a fairytale post office, a 130-year-old golf course and cottages which look like they belong in the Cotswolds. The Sita Amman Temple, set in the neighbouring countryside, gives a good chance to see some Hindu culture. It’s the only temple dedicated to Sita; you can also see the monkey-god Hanuman’s footprints imprinted on the rock by the river.
Southwest of Nuwara Eliya lies the small town of Haputale. If you’re coming from Bogawantalawa, why not jump on the train. Hatton to Haputale is best stretch of the Kandy-Ella train; a three-hour ride you simply never want to end. You’ll pass waterfalls and villages, cut through verdant tea fields and crawl along the edges of mountains. That said, driving the Hill Country’s winding roads can also be a special experience, especially if you set off early in the morning, when the verdant landscape is shrouded in mist.
This elegant bungalow, built in 1870 by the legendary Thomas Lipton and encircled by 20 acres of rolling lawns, boasts views that are a treat for even the most worldly of travellers. When the clouds swoop low, there’s a magic to this place that’s not easily described. Behind the property, 4,000 hectares of bottle-green tea stretch up towards Lipton’s Seat. Spending time outside is a particularly pleasant: rise for a swim at sunrise and take breakfast on the lawn, or ask staff to pack you a picnic and discover your own quiet corner of the grounds.
It’s steeped in history, too. The seven suites – each named after a figure who helped shape the region – boast original antiques, while next door is Dambatenne, the estate where Lipton’s Tea was founded. Guests are given special access to tour the factory and bungalow that was Lipton’s home for 20 years, a trip that takes you back to the birth of Sri Lankan tea.
Thotalagala’s open house feel only enhances its old-world charm. Hostess, Claire, makes sure you feel right at home. You’ll meet other guests; dine together at the large communal table or chat over drinks in the garden. After dinner, slip into the frozen-in-time cigar room for a nightcap. Cognac, anyone?
This little Hill Country town is surrounded by some of Sri Lanka’s best outdoor pursuits. Wander under and along the iconic Nine Arch Bridge, hike up Ella Rock or Little Adam’s Peak (much easier than its sibling) and spend the afternoon cooling off at Ravana or Diyaluma Falls. If you’re hungry for lunch, Matey Hut is a cosy, roadside spot that serves up some of the best curries around. They also run a great cooking class that gives you a chance to take the menu home with you, right down to the poppadoms. For dinner, check out the more upmarket Ceylon Tea Factory Restaurant, where you can wash down crab or mutton curry with thirst-quenching tea-infused cocktails.
This national park just south of Nuwara Eliya is one of Sri Lanka’s best hiking spots. With its long grass and antlered deer, in places it almost feels like the Scottish highlands. Walking through cloud forests is captivating, and if you reach World’s End when the cloak is not too thick you’re in for some breathtaking views – after 4km the plateau gives way to a sheer 880m drop. Just don’t look down.
Udawalawe National Park
Nestled just south of the Hill Country, Udawalawe is perhaps the best spot to get a close-up look at Sri Lanka’s elephants. These gentle giants throng to bask in the park’s reservoir; 250 are said to call the sanctuary their home. They’re not alone; the 300km2 park has plenty of spotted deer, wild boars and water buffalos, plus magnificent birdlife. With mountains rising to the north and stretches of untamed forest, a trip here offers a chance to see some of nature’s most noble creatures in a truly spectacular setting.
Yala National Park
Lunugamvehera, east of Udawalawe, is another bountiful national park – but if you’re really want to see Sri Lanka’s nature in all its glory, Yala is the place to head. This near 1000km patch of scrubland bordering the Indian Ocean is home to skulking sloth bears, soaring eagles – and, of course, the rare Lankan leopard.
Yala is Sri Lanka’s most celebrated national park due to its abundant animal population. Game drives as dawn breaks or sun sets are exhilarating; catch a herd of elephants enjoying a bath, crocs skulking in the brackish lagoon or a leopard racing through the scrub. The guides are eagle-eyed and extremely knowledgeable, ensuring you make the most of the experience.
Yala’s popularity continues to grow and in recent times some have complained about the number of jeeps in Block One (the park’s main tourist area), so you may want to ask your driver to take you to a part of the park where you can drive undisturbed. At Sithulpawwa, nature and culture dramatically converge. This ancient Buddhist monastery tucked away inside the park remains somewhat undiscovered. A hike to the top offers sweeping views over Yala – but keep an eye out for crocs.
Just minutes from the park you’ll find Chena Huts, an enchanting property set on seven acres of jungle, framed on one side by a lagoon and the other by the roaring sea. The 14 thatched-roof cabins which make up the hotel stand on a raised platform and were inspired by the lookout huts local farmers use to keep an eye on their crops.
Here, they’re on a slightly grander scale; the cabins are bigger than most London flats and come decked out with free-standing baths, floor-to-ceiling windows and plunge pools facing out to the wild. Interiors are modern and jungle-inspired – expect log furniture and plenty of wood – while tall trees envelope the huts, making it feel like you’ve got nature all to yourself. Post-safari, you can freshen up in your outdoor shower or sip an ice-cold beer on your private deck as darkness sweeps across the bush.
That said, it’s not a place where you can (or should) entirely switch off. We met a group of mischievous monkeys on our way to breakfast, were given a jump by a giant iguana rustling through the bushes and had to our stop our car to let an elephant cross the road at his leisure. Walks on the beach should be kept short (you never know who you might meet) and the sea is a little too rough for swimming. Chena Huts brings you nature in all its power and glory: this is a place where you truly feel the thrill of the wild.
Wild Coast Tented Lodge enjoys an equally enviable location in nature’s clutches. The architecture here dazzles; the enormous, otherworldly pavilion housing restaurant and bar is stunning inside and out, with bamboo shingle and fretwork. Its open-air walls edge right onto a magnificent beach-facing infinity pool. If you want to you could float about all day and let the safari come to you.
You’ll bed down in one of 28 linen-walled “cocoons” made to mirror the egg-shaped boulders sprinkled along the coastline. Inside, they take you back to the golden age of exploration, with copper tubs to sink into and porthole windows to gaze out of, elegant vintage furniture in leather and teak. Some have private pools, others are purposely placed by watering holes to give you the best chance to catch your wild neighbours going about their business. The cosy library doubles up as a learning centre, where guests can chat to the hotel’s guides and learn a little more about Yala’s wildlife.
THINGS YOU SHOULD KNOW
Many who climb Adam’s Peak during the off-season (from May through to December’s full moon) find it a disappointing experience. During these months the peak is more likely to be above the clouds, and without the pilgrims this special place loses some of its allure. We’d also recommend avoiding the climb on poya days (full moon) and around Sri Lankan new year (13-14 April), when it’s busier than Brighton beach on a sunny bank holiday.
Blocks 1 and 2 of Yala often close during September and October due to the drought.
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