Sri Lanka has a very wide-ranging landscape and nowhere is this better exemplified than in the Ceylon Tea Country. The transition from the warm coastal regions to the cooler climes of the hills is rapid and occurs under an hour of travel, as the roads which hug the mountainsides go through a series of steep climbs. Kandy is considered the beginning of the hill country and beyond it, the rolling hills open up in carpets of lush, manicured green fields of tea right up to the colonial hill stations of Nuwara Eliya and Bandarawela. Nuwara Eliya lies at the foot of the tallest peak in the island and was used by the British as an escape from the stifling April heat in the lowlands and Bandarawela’s cool and dry climate made it a recommended destination for convalescing patients. Most of the hill country towns retain much of their colonial charm with iconic buildings and settings from the period being preserved as they were a century ago.
Must Do List
- Take a train journey into the region
- Stay in a colonial era tea planters bungalow
- Climb the sacred Adams Peak at night
- Stunning vistas from the Haputale and Ella Gaps
- Journey by jeep to the Horton Plains National Park
- Golf at the Nuwara Eliya Golf Club
- Nature trek through lush tea plantations and mountain landscapes
Ceylon Tea Country – In Focus
Before the British arrived in Ceylon Tea Country most of the land was under thick forest cover. However on their arrival, they found that it provided ideal conditions for growing coffee which was in high demand at the time. Soon the jungle began to disappear and orderly coffee plantations came up in its place. The coffee plantations died a natural death with the invasion of the coffee rust disease and tea was chosen as the alternative as conditions were more than suitable. Turning out to be more popular back home than coffee, tea plantations were established at a terrific pace and most of the hill stations like Nuwara Eliya, Hatton and Bandarawela are the result of the development carried out by pioneering planters of the time. To feed this growing industry British engineers embarked on a monumental campaign of building a complex road and rail network to open up the largely untamed region. Working under treacherous conditions and at great risk of life, their legacy lives on as it is these roads and railways that are still in use today. Just over 50 years after attaining independence, little has changed in the hill country and its colonial charm is largely intact.
Although Sri Lanka has no seasons, the hill country has markedly cooler temperatures than the lowland areas due its elevation. Generally, the region is cool and dry with an average temperature of 20°C, but temperatures can range from between 10°C to 25°C without taking into consideration the wind chill factor. On occasion Nuwara Eliya sees the formation of ground frost, and it is advisable to bring warm clothing when travelling to the region as weather can be unpredictable. The predominant rainy season on the Western slopes is during the South-West monsoon between May and August and the Eastern slopes see most of its rainfall during the North-East monsoon between November and February.
Nuwara Eliya in the Ceylon Tea Country is usually approached from Colombo through Kandy, with an alternate route through Kitulgala and Hatton, while Bandarawela is accessed through Ratnapura. Although road travel is the quickest, those wanting something different can take a train journey which offers a most scenic experience.
Colombo to Nuwara Eliya – 6-7 hours
Kandy to Nuwara Eliya – 4 hours
Colombo to Haputale via Ratnapura – 5 hours
Bandarawela to Ella – 1 hour
Accommodation – Hotels in/around Tea & Hill Country – Click
Options for accommodation in Ceylon Tea Country vary widely and lodgings can be found to suit any budget. The most popular offerings though are the refurbished tea planter’s bungalows like Kirchhyan in Bandarawela which offers a very high standard. At the top end of the scale boutique bungalows like Ceylon Tea Trails pamper you with luxurious facilities and food to die for. Colonial period properties such as Jetwing St. Andrew’s, The Grand Hotel and Hill Club offer Victorian style grandeur, and if you require luxury and a unique concept bundled into one try out the Tea Factory in Kandapola, which is an actual tea factory that has been converted into a plush hotel retaining most of its original buildings and machinery.
As the name of the region suggests, tea is the mainstay of the economy of this region. You will find a number of outlets selling hot tea and snacks as well as a variety of grades of factory fresh Ceylon Tea in attractive caddies that are perfect for presenting to friends and family back home. Roadside stalls sell fresh fruit and veggies from home gardens and must be sampled to experience real freshness.
Attractions & Events
Commonly referred to as ‘Little England’, Nuwara Eliya is set against a beautiful backdrop of mountains, valleys, waterfalls and tea plantations. Even though it is known as one of the coolest locations in the island, its weather is in fact similar to an English spring day, although the temperature does drop at night. Around Nuwara Eliya evidence of the British influence can be seen in houses designed on the lines of country cottages and Queen Ann style mansions. The Victoria Park, in the centre of town, is a lovely place for a stroll or a picnic and is also good for birding as a few rare species inhabit the park. Seasons may be absent elsewhere in Sri Lanka, but here you can read them by the flowers, which bloom in the spring (March to May) and the fall (August and September). It is during these “seasons” when low-country folk flock to Nuwara Eliya to escape the sea level heat and humidity.
The second most important hill station during the colonial planting tea era, Bandarawela’s cool and dry climate made it a recommended destination for people recuperating from illness to spend their time. The influence of British colonialism is everywhere to be seen, with establishments like the Cargill’s building, Bandarawela Hotel and the post office in the centre of town smacking of late 19th Century British architecture. Bandarawela also housed a large contingent of Boer prisoners during the First World War, and the facility still exists today with it being converted into permanent health camp for convalescing serviceman.
Literally translated, Ratnapura means ‘city of gems’. World famous for its high quality sapphires, it is set like a gem itself in a panorama of glorious scenery. Here visitors can witness gem mining firsthand and the dangers miners go through to find the perfect stone. Most miners still rely on ‘lady luck’ to guide them through their digging, sifting, washing and sorting of the stones and very little modern technology is used here in the mines. In private gem museums collections from all over the world can be seen alongside collections of all gem stones found in Sri Lanka as well as some pre-historic relics collected from the gem pits in the Ratnapura district.
Kitulgala lies on the banks of the Kelani River and is located 100km from Colombo. Although most popular for white water rafting adventures, there are many other attractions in Kitulgala that should not be missed. Chief among these are the historic Beli Lena Caves, that are reached by a 10km drive off the main road through the Kitulgala tea estate and archaeological evidence indicates that the pre-historic Balangoda Manlived here 20000 years ago. David Lean’s epic war film “Bridge on the River Kwai” was filmed on the Kelani River in Kitulgala and remnants of the concrete structure of the bridge still remain. The Kelani Valley Forest Reserve on the far bank is a low elevation forest where rare and endemic birds can be spotted, including the Serendib Scops Owl (Otus thilo Hoffmani). The Forest Reserve also has a host of other rare ampibians, reptiles, frogs, endemic tree snails and endemic fishes in its stream. Fresh water fishing offers great sport here as the Kelani River has the largest game fish found in Sri Lanka, the Mahseer (Barbus Tor), and also the Freshwater Shark (Wallagonia attu) and Loola (Channa orientalist).
Located 12km from Bandarawela, on the leeward side of the central mountains the view from Ella Gap is one of the most spectacular scenic sights in Sri Lanka. The landscape here falls away in a dizzy drop of 3000 feet to the Eastern Plains and on days when conditions are just right it is possible to see the Indian Ocean from this vantage point. The Ella Rock is famous for the cave of Ravana, a legendary King of Sri Lanka who ruled in ancient times. The 1080-foot multi-stage waterfall a few miles from the Ella Rest House is one of the most beautiful falls in the country.
Considered a sacred mountain in Sri Lanka by all four major religions of Buddhism, Hinduism, Muslim and Christianity, Adams Peak is located 40km from the city of Ratnapura. Buddhists refer to the mountain as “Sri Pada” (the sacred footprint) and say it was visited by Lord Buddha who placed his footprint on top of the mountain. To Hindus, the peak is “Shiva Adipatham” believing that it is Lord Shiva’s footprint. Muslims insist it is the place where Adam first set foot on earth when he was expelled from the Garden of Eden and Catholics say the footprint impressed on the boulder at the summit is that of St. Thomas, an early Christian apostle who preached in South India. People of all religions ascend the mountain on pilgrimage from the Full Moon in December till the Full Moon in May when the pathway to the summit is lighted in the night and other facilities are provided.
On a tributary of the Kelani River in Kitulgala is to be found some of the best rapids for whitewater rafting in the country. All rafting expeditions get you the service of a seasoned guide, who will clearly call out instructions on how to negotiate the seething rapids. Whitewater rafting at Kitulgala will take you through breathtaking scenery and is a perfect mix of calm easy coasting interspersed with wild tumbling rapids. The complete course is 7km long and features seven rapids from Level 2 up to Level 4, with the journey taking 90 minutes if no stops are made at the numerous scenic rest-stops on the way down. Rapid strength and water levels are seasonal, with the best action being when water is released from the hydro-catchment areas upriver at the peak of the rainy season in the hill country.
Nuwara Eliya Glof Club
Established in 1889 by British tea planters as one of the few leisure activities they could pursue in the isolated tea country at the time, the Nuwara Eliya Golf Club is the second oldest golf club in the island after the Royal Colombo Golf Club. Its 18-hole course spreads across the Nuwara Eliya town and features a tight and hilly challenge in scenic surroundings, with tight fairways, dense rough and water which comes into play on six holes. Weather conditions are reminiscent of the legendary St. Andrew’s course most of the time, so try timing your visit during the dry season to get in a good round.
Hakgala Botanical Gardens
55 acres in extent and lying at the foot of the Hakgala Mountain Range 7km from Nuwara Eliya, Hakgala Gardens was established by the British in 1860. It was initially an experimental cinchona plantation which was the source of the raw material quinine used as a malaria antidote, but later was converted into a botanical garden when the cinchona market crashed. Lying at an altitude of 5,600 feet the species of flora are very different to low country Botanical Gardens and its main attractions lie in the roses and numerous species of rare ferns.
Originally the country seat of Sir Thomas Villiers who was in 1928, Chairman of George Steuart and Co. one of the largest tea broking house in the island, this imposing building of rough hewn stone cut from a quarry nearby, is now a Benedictine Monastrey. It was named Adisham, as Sir Thomas Villiers was born in the Adisham Rectory in Kent and the building lies in a location handpicked by him high on a mountain slope in Haputale. Modeled on Leeds Castle in Kent, it provides magnificent vistas of the surrounding mountains and valleys and surrounded by virgin forest. Adisham is now a place of solitude and reflection for a small group of monks who preserve this piece of colonial legacy the way it stood a century ago, with meticulously tended gardens and vegetable beds. The monks are famed for producing mouthwatering jams and cordials fresh from the garden and the surrounding hillsides which help fund the maintenance of the property.
Horton Plains National Park
Horton Plains National Park lies on Horton Plains, the highest plateau in Sri Lanka lying at an altitude of 7,200 feet, and is located 32km from Nuwara Eliya via Ambewela and Pattipola. Horton Plains was made a Nature Reserve in 1969 and upgraded as a National Park in 1988 due to its unique watershed and bio-diversity values. Its flora has a high level of endemism, and its undulating hills are covered with diverse wet low evergreen forest with large trees growing flattened to the ground on the high windswept slopes. Horton Plains harbours 52 species of resident birds and 11 species of migrant birds. More than 2,000 to 3,000 sambhur, bear monkey, leopard, barking deer, giant squirrel, fishing cat, wild boar and hare roam the forests and grasslands but are seldom seen except for the Sambhur, which comes out onto the plains to feed in the early morning and late evening hours. Baker’s Falls, named after the British hunter and explorer Samuel Baker should also be visited when at Horton Plains. This is the only National Park where visitors can walk without a game warden along designated trails.
World’s End is a frightening escarpment offering stunning views of the lowlands and is located at the edge of Horton Plains. World’s End has a vertical drop of about 1,000 feet and continues to drop a little less steeply for another 4,000 feet. For best viewing conditions get there before 10am to be able see the silver rim of the Indian Ocean to the South as mist tends to obscure vision after that.
Bambarakanda Falls is the highest waterfall in Sri Lanka with a height of 241m and is located in the Badulla District 18km away from Belihul Oya. Set amidst an evergreen forest, its source is the Kuda Oya which springs from the Uduweriya-Haputale mountains. Kuda Oya is a tributary of the Walawe River which flows to the arid South of the country.
The Aluvihara Temple is situated just north of Matale, about 18 miles from Kandy and is where in 2BC that the Buddhist scriptures or the Tripitaka were first transcribed onto ola leaves by a group of 500 senior monks. The caves around the temple have numerous ancient frescoes and icons and one cavern depicts a sinners hell. It is one of the few places where visitors can actually see the method of preparation of ola leaves for books and how they are inscribed.
Batadomba Lena is a pre-historic cave located on a 250 foot high hill 1km from the Kuruwita town off the Colombo-Ratnapura main road. The cave is 500 feet deep and is associated with the Balangoda Man (Homo sapien balangodensis). Anatomically modern, prehistoric human remains found in Sri Lanka are commonly referred to as Balangoda Man. Archaeological evidence uncovered from Batadombalena caves indicates that items found date back to before 28,000 BC.
Bogoda Wooden Bridge
This famous wooden bridge from the Kandyan era lies in the Bogoda Raja Maha Temple 11km from Hali Ela on the Badulla-Banadarawela road. Built over the Gallanda Oya which is a tributary of the longest river in the island, the Mahaweli, it is the only surviving wooden bridge from this era. It was originally constructed out of wood without the use of nails and it is said to lie on one of the ancient pilgrim paths leading from Kandyan Kingdom to the Uva province.
Diyaluma Falls is a 217 meter waterfall lying on the Poonagala Oya which arises from the Mahakanda Pass. Situated close to the road between Koslanda and Wellawaya, it is the last in a series of falls and is also the tallest of the them. The six other waterfalls above it can be seen by climbing a steep path to the ridge above.
The Dunhinda Falls is one of Sri Lanka’s most beautiful waterfalls located 5km from Badulla town. Dunhinda is 63 metres high and gets its name from the spray which surrounds the area at the base of the fall.
Knuckles Range Forest Reserve
Located in the Kandy District on the Kandy-Mahiyangana road the Knuckles Range Forest Reserve is 28,000 hectares in extent. The range comprises 35 peaks above 3,500 feet and two peaks above 6,000 feet. Rich in bio-diversity, the Reserve is a nature lover’s paradise with more than 100 species of birds to be found out of which 25 are endemic. 28 species of fishes are also found with nine being endemic and three of them live only in the Knuckles Mountains. The Knuckles Range is also home to a number of endemic species of trees.
Ravana Ella Falls is a spectacular 1080 feet high cascade of several falls situated by the Ella-Wellawaya road 6km from Ella. The stream, a tributary of Kirindi Oya rises from Wewatenna Highland and plunges with a foaming spray over a series of ledges into the valley close to a bend in the road. Generally, the bedrock of waterfalls in Sri Lanka consists of hard gneiss or granite but here the material is khondalite, a type of limestone which undergoes decay rapidly. As a result the area is pockmarked with caves and legend has it that King Ravana from the Ramayana legend lived in one of the caves above the falls.
Ramboda Falls is a very powerful, three stage waterfall lying on the Gampola-Nuwara Eliya road. The first fall is 100 meters tall and is concealed in the jungle above the road, the second stage of 3 meters can be seen from the bridge on the road and the third stage of 100 meters lies below the level of the road. Descend into the Ramboda basin and relax at the Ramboda Inn where all three stages of this majestic waterfall can be viewed.
Spice gardens abound in Matale and Mawanella on the Colombo-Kandy road where cinnamon, cardamom, pepper vines and other spice trees, plants and creepers are grown for display. Visitors can see in real life from where their ground spices come from, and are given a tour of the gardens where facts about each tree and plant is explained in detail and also the use of each of them in food preparations. Dried spices are available for those who wish to purchase them to take back home.
The Saman Devalaya is a temple dedicated to the Deity Saman, the God of Adam’s Peak and is located 4km from Ratnapura on the Ratnapura-Kiriella road. Built by King Parakramabahu II (1236-1270 AD) who ruled in the 13th Century, it reached the height of its glory during the Kotte Period two centuries later. The Portuguese destroyed it in the 1620s, but the temple was restored in the latter stages of the Dutch period. The temple conducts an annual three day perahera or cultural pageant in August or September in which many elephants, dancers and drummers take part. Special dance forms of Sabaragamuwa could be seen in this Perahera. The highlight of the event is the water-cutting ceremony where boats carry the entire procession except the elephants downstream where the rite takes place.
Sita Amman Kovil
Located on the outskirts of the Nuwara Eliya town, the Sita Amman Kovil is a quaint little temple with statues of Rama, Sita, Hanuman, Lakshmana and Sugriva. According to the Indian epic Ramayanaya, the area where Sita, Queen of King Rama of Ayodhya in India, who was abducted by King Ravana of Sri Lanka and was kept hidden in the area and she roamed the hill country of Sri Lanka. Its distinguishing factor is that it is the only Kovil in the world dedicated to the Goddess Sita.