Green gold: Sri Lanka tea plantations

Not long after the British occupied the ‘Teardrop Isle’ in the early 19th century, the colonists realised Sri Lanka’s highlands were ideal for growing tea, and they began work in earnest. Plantations were terraced into the mountainsides, factories and rudimentary accommodations built for pickers, and a rail network engineered to transport leaves down to Colombo. The stretch of line between Kandy and Ella is considered one of the most beautiful in the world.
Hill stations such as Nuwara Eliya served as sanctuaries for those seeking to escape the heat. They quickly took on a distinctively English appearance, giving them their ‘old world’ charm today.
Tea remains a significant part of the Sri Lanka’s economy – they call it ‘Green Gold’. The most popular plantations to visit are those around Nuwara Eliya, Kandy and Ella. Guided tours of fields and factories are often complimented with accommodation in planters’ homes renovated with materials from old factories, which adds to the romance.
‘Two leaves and a bud’

‘Two leaves and a bud’

Sri Lanka is one of only a few countries where tea is still plucked by hand, from bushes planted along the contours of the slopes. A highly skilled workforce, predominantly women, moves along rows of bushes, stripping two leaves and a bud from each plant and often covering over 10kmin a day. The leaves are immediately carried to the nearby factories where they are dried, processed and packed into crates ready for transportation.
Visiting the plantations, you can be guided around by a former worker, take a fascinating tour of a working factory, and perhaps shadow a picker in the fields, seeing if you can come anywhere close to their speed and accuracy (you won’t).
We went for early morning walks alone up the paths in the tea plantation around which was very romantic.
– Kate Mills on a tailormade vacation to Sri Lanka

Nuwara Eliya: a corner of England in the tropics

Nuwara Eliya is the highest town in Sri Lanka, situated 1,900m above sea level. Known as the ‘City of Light’, its flower gardens, red letter boxes and a refined golf club give the hill station an unmistakably English character. Sought-after orange pekoe is a specialty in this prime growing area, where the terraces are frequently split by tumbling waterfalls.
The fashionable set popularised Nuwara Eliya after the British governor built a home here, and the train journey up is particularly scenic. Planters and civil servants on leave would fill their free time hunting and racing ponies, and there are many photos in the old golf clubhouse that shine a light on this bygone age.
Bird watchers love it here too, with many endemic and migratory species such as Kashmir flycatchers and Indian blue robins regularly turning up in the town’s Victoria Park. Nuwara Eliya is a good base for seeing the wildlife of nearby Horton Plains National Park, and Uda Walawe National Park is a few hours away.

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What to see and do in Sri Lanka tea country

We experienced so many different sights, activities and scenery it's hard to pinpoint one highlight but probably the train journey from Nuwara Eliya to Kandy through the tea plantation. Seeing the beautifully manicured clipped and extraordinary undulating green terrain is hard to beat
– Jane Tosetti, in her Sri Lanka vacation review
Visits to the tea plantations usually form part of a longer Sri Lanka vacation, and often provide some of the most memorable imagery. Guided day trips may feature some of the following sites:
Adam’s Peak

Adam’s Peak

Near the summit of this mountain there is a rock formation in the shape of a footprint, variously ascribed to Adam, Buddha or the Hindu god Shiva, and therefore very sacred. Climbing up Adam’s Peak, past various monuments and shrines, is best done in the dry season between December and May.
Haputale

Haputale

Less visited than other hill stations and so retaining more of a genuine Sri Lankan feel, Haputale is a good place to be located for seeing the World’s End and Adam’s Peak. Nearby is Lipton’s Seat, a favoured lookout of Sir Thomas Lipton, an early developer of Sri Lankan tea whose eponymous brand is still going strong today.
Ella

Ella

Ella is a charmingly laidback hill country village, ideal for hiking through plantations or swimming in waterfalls. It has become a victim of its own popularity in some respects, with several unattractive accommodations popping up, but the panoramas through the famous Ella Gap, all the way to the south coast, are absolutely mind-blowing.
Demodara Loop

Demodara Loop

A very scenic train journey just outside Ella, taking you along a unique track that carves around the mountain and over a well known nine-arch bridge.
Knuckles Mountains

Knuckles Mountains

So named because their shape resembles a clenched fist, the Knuckles Mountains are close to the city of Kandy, a good base for hiking or mountain biking around the tea plantations. You can stay in a 1930s planter’s bungalow, wander picturesque villages, and admire the flora and fauna of several cloud forests.
Horton Plains National Park

Horton Plains National Park

Close to Nuwara Eliya, Horton Plains National Park is a fantastic place for walking and wildlife-watching. Key attractions include the huge Baker’s Falls, and the World’s End, a precipitous cliff-edge that drops almost 1,000m and serves up dramatic views as far as the Indian Ocean.

When to visit the Sri Lanka tea plantations

Visit the hill country and get off the beaten track – also stay up in one of the tea plantations. We stayed in Warwick Estate Bungalow which was just magical. Be prepared however for the rain!
– Anna Phillips in her Sri Lanka vacation review
The high quality teas originating from Sri Lanka’s central highlands are not entirely the result of inspiration and hard work. Climate plays a big role too. This elevated region is cooler than any other part of the country, humid and rainy.
Looking specifically at Nuwara Eliya, which is among the most popular destinations here, March and April are the warmest months of the year, averaging around 17°C in the daytime. They are also the months when humidity tends to be lowest. Early April however is Sinhalese and Tamil New Year, and accommodation is usually tight. October through to December meanwhile see the most rain. The best time to visit the Sri Lanka plantations is generally between February and May, but if you don’t mind putting up with the monsoons, the temperatures are suitable year round. June is the most humid month of the year.
People come to Sri Lanka for family vacations, honeymoons, bird watching, cycling or trekking vacations, and the tea plantations will often feature midway through their itineraries – the central highlands are the perfect breakpoint to cool off and slow down for a while.
Written by Rob Perkins
Photo credits: [Page banner: Asantha Abeysooriya] [Tea plantation: Vinnie Cartabiano] [Two leaves and a bud: Anjadora] [Factory: istolethetv] [Kate Mills quote (Nuwara Eliya): Chris Shervey] [Nuwara Eliya: Chris Shervey] [Train: Vinnie Cartabiano] [Indian blue robin: Koshy Koshy] [Jane Tosetti review: Samantha Weerasinghe] [Adam's Peak: NH53] [Haputale: Rehman Abubakr] [Ella: Charlie Marchant] [Demodara Loop: Charlie Marchant] [Knuckles Mountains: Chamika Gallage] [Horton Plains National Park: Chamika Gallage] [When to visit - Rain!: Voyages etc...] [When to visit - Nuwara Eliya: Vinnie Cartabiano] [Woman and waterfall: Patty Ho]
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