Since the 19th century, the British have been travelling to Sri Lanka to harvest their beloved tea. Now recovering from civil war, the country has become a popular spot for the Englishman abroad with its stunning natural beauty, friendly local people and delicious food.
I travelled to the teardrop of India to discover the wonders for myself.
I had my first cup of tea, aged four, served in my favourite Pocahontas Disney cup with a digestive biscuit on the side. I can still remember sitting in my playroom marvelling at my own maturity as I sipped the hot milky liquid. What was this warm serenity and instant calm I wondered? Little did I know but from that morning on a life-long romance had begun.
Almost 50% of the British population take tea bags with them on holiday, according to research by the Daily Mail. It seems this is one home comfort we are not willing to part with even when in pursuit of a dramatic change of scenery. As a nation we seem incapable of going without our beloved Darjeeling or trusty English Breakfast for more than a sunny week or two. Our empire was built on cups of tea after all.
Since my first cup of tea, I have mastered the art of the perfect cuppa. I like to choose carefully the bone china cup from a keenly curated collection to suit the occasion. I am propelled into pearl-clutching dread at the thought of clunky novelty mugs or America-style ‘creamers’. I admit I am one of those dreaded Brits abroad that stashes a ziplock bag in my hand luggage, terrified the hotel might not have my tea of choice.
But on my recent trip to Sri Lanka, I was told I could leave my Earl Grey at home. The website for Ceylon Tea Trails hotel assures its guests that they will provide the ultimate tea experience with options to hike through the tea plantations and to take a tour of a tea factory. And so, with some trepidation, I began my pilgrimage.
Tea Trails is located in the Bogawantalawa region in south central Sri Lanka. The area is made up of endless rolling hills covered in the verdant green tea plants the area is famous for. Over its history, the country has passed through the hands of several Western empires whose memory is preserved by the Portuguese, Dutch and English architecture dotted alongside roads and in the bustling cities. A Sri Lankan railway could be in Surrey if it were not for the jungle surrounding it.
“Our driver reminded us that Sri Lanka is still a nation in recovery and its infrastructure remains fragile.“
Following our overnight flight we landed in the steamy afternoon heat of Colombo but were quickly whisked off to the cool air conditioning of our own minibus to start the five hour drive to our hotel. When planning your own trip to Sri Lanka make sure to allow plenty of time to get from place to place. Drives, which on paper look relatively short in distance, can take the best part of a day because of the uneven, narrow and constantly twisting roads. Our driver reminded us that Sri Lanka is still a nation in recovery and its infrastructure remains fragile. Traces of the civil war, which ended in 2009, are there, particularly in the North, where landmines are still being discovered.
We arrived at the hotel in disorientating darkness and, with only the light from the stars, navigated our way up to the bungalow. Tea Trails is split between five bungalows, all once the homes of Scottish families who settled in the area centuries ago to plant the thousands of tea plants you can see today. That night, in our spacious rooms, with the breeze drifting in from the open windows and through our mosquito nets (the hotel has no air conditioning to keep things ‘authentic’) we slept soundly.
The main event happened the next morning at breakfast on the hotel’s white veranda. After discussing the day’s menu with the chef, I was presented with a very extensive tea list to accompany my breakfast. I went with the waiter’s recommendation, a local Ceylon variation similar in make-up to my favourite Earl Grey. Many of the teas available on the menu are grown at a higher altitude which create a more delicate flavour and are served in pristine white bone china. Not your standard builder’s brew. Perhaps it was the exhaustion from the journey the day before, but I guzzled down four cups of the glorious golden liquid in record time. It didn’t disappoint.
I could have happily stayed on the veranda working my way through the tea menu for the entirety of our four day stay but my family had other ideas. Tientsin bungalow has two main hikes you can take, both around four miles long, winding up and down the plantations along little dirt paths which we alternated each day. It was a real delight to see the women in their colourful saris dotted about the fields as they dexterously picked the tender green leaves used for the tea which we would come back and drink with freshly baked scones in the afternoon.
“You can even have your butler draw you a bath with locally grown cinnamon if you are so inclined.“
The rest of our days were spent playing tennis on the jungle-infested courts, swimming in the inky black pool and engaging in fierce games of scrabble fuelled by Sri Lankan strength gin and tonics. We even went on a two-hour nature walk with a guide who showed us waterfalls, explained the plants and wildlife and introduced us to the local people. To relax at the end of the day, my sister and I indulged in a massage in our room, followed by a soak in the olympic-size bathtub. You can even have your butler draw you a bath with locally grown cinnamon if you are so inclined.
On our last day, we drove to Dunkeld bungalow (athletic types can hike the 17 kilometre route there) which overlooks Castlereagh lake and has a fully functioning tea factory in its grounds. Bernard, our guide, took us through the making of tea from the moment the leaves were picked, to the wilting and rolling process done on the same Victorian machines first shipped over from Britain, to the final grading tests; the complete journey from plant to pot.
The tranquility and beauty of Ceylon Tea Trails is hard to beat. Perhaps it’s the friendliness of the local people, or the slower pace of life. Or maybe it’s the astounding natural beauty of a country that less than 10 years ago was devastated by war. When people asked me if the long, hard journey was worth it, I give them an emphatic yes. It’s nothing that a cup of tea can’t fix.