SRI LANKA is known by a lot of names — Ceylon, the Teardrop of India and the Resplendent Isle — but nowhere is its beauty more prevalent than in the rolling hills of the central highlands.
Known as the hill country, this region, just 100 kilometers from the capital, is often swathed in mist and cloud, laced with tea plantations, old British hotels and fantastic opportunities to get out into nature among the main national parks and wildlife sanctuaries.
And of course, if you’ve heard of Ceylon tea, you’ll want to come here to get a drop right from the source. We’ve selected five places to explore and experience Sri Lanka’s finest scenery and pursuits in the hill country region.
Kandy is really the only other city in Sri Lanka after the capital Colombo. But don’t let the thought of traffic clogged streets or honking buses dissuade you. Kandy is a far cry from any of that with wonderful forested hills surrounding the town and plenty of history and culture to go along with it – in fact it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage city in 1988.
The town itself is renowned for being home to the Temple of the Tooth where a relic of the Buddha is stored, the annual Kandy Esala Perahera festival in July/August, its orange-clothed monks, nearby elephant sanctuaries and the vibrant Kandyan dance.
But at any time of year the town center, Kandy’s beautiful lake, old shops, wonderful markets, fine hotels and good walking opportunities nearby make it a fine place to visit – just rug up for the journey, Kandy is 500m in altitude and a lot cooler than Colombo.
The Queen’s Hotel is full of reminders of Kandy’s British colonial history. Wonderfully located by the lake and with beautiful gardens, it’s a luxurious place from which to explore the city. There are 54 rooms at the hotel all with attached bathrooms, televisions, phones and terraces with views of lake or the Temple of the Tooth.
If that’s not enough there’s also an enormous pool, the Queen of Hearts restaurant, Royal Ball Room, The Pub Royal and The Lord Mountbatten Lounge Bar.
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This fine old colonial hill station is even higher set than Kandy and the cool and often misty climate has made it the perfect setting for rose gardens, hedges and bungalows – you might actually feel you’re in England here. There are a series of vestiges of old British days such as the post office, the race course, large gardens, country mansions and the Hill Club.
Jetwing St. Andrew’s is a fantastic way to experience Nuwara Eliya and one of the quaint old mansions this area is renowned for. St Andrew’s was an old Tudor country house and retains plenty of old world charm. In fact they still serve high tea on the lawn and brandies by the fire. There’s even a snooker room with a 117-year-old table.
Even the activities they offer are like a step into the past, with opportunities to explore the tea plantations and taste the produce, play golf on the famous local course, fish on the lake or go horse riding.
While there’s a real sense of the past the rooms are all well appointed with modern amenities like hot/cold water, heaters, phones, TVs, mini bars and more. St. Andrew’s is also located close to the heart of town.
The scenic railway journey between Kandy and Haputale, and beyond to Bandarawela and Badulla, is a spectacular journey and a great way to arrive in Haputale. The unlit tunnels and the clackety clack of the old locomotive makes for a great experience and the train goes slowly enough that you have time to enjoy spectacular views of waterfalls, rivers and brilliant green of the tea plantations.
Haputale lies at an elevation of 1579 metres along a mountain ridge that provides a great view of the landscape around. Like other towns in the central highlands there’s a distinct Victorian heritage to Haputale with pretty old churches, cemeteries and even a quaint monastery not too far away at Addisham.
One of the highlights of a visit to Haputale is to visit Sir Thomas Lipton’s Dambatenna Tea Factory that was built in 1890. The organic tea producer Greenfields Bio Plantations is also in this area. A lot of people also visit Haputale to access Horton Plains National Park.
The Kelburne Mountain View Cottages lie just a kilometre or two from the town centre right in the middle of a tea estate. Not only do you get a real sense of what happens on one of these plantations, with fresh tea at every turn, but the cottages are also located on a cliff where you can actually overlook five of Sri Lanka’s provinces.
There are three cottages and these are aptly named Aerie, Wildflower and Rose. Each is like a private house with several bed rooms, living and dining rooms, private terraces and gardens. Snacks and meals can be arranged with the head chef at your house or at the restaurant.
Just 10 kilometers from Haputale, the busy market town of Bandarawela is another good place to explore Sri Lanka’s hill country. In this region agriculture and tea plantations dominate. Sri Lanka is of course the world’s second largest tea exporter with a 20 percent market share.
“Ceylon Tea” is the most well known of the Sri Lankan teas and indeed it commands a premium, regularly reaching double the value of other competitors. The railway network built through the highlands was an important part of transporting the tea and coffee from the highlands to the ports for exportation.
Today, the town remains a good central point to head out to explore the region around; World’s End, farms and tea plantations, trekking/jungle walks, the Dowa temple, Ayurveda treatment and the weekly Sunday market.
The Bandarawela Hotel was developed at the turn of the 19th/20th century just near the station at Bandarawela as a Railway Hotel. The British-built property today hasn’t changed much in the last 70 years, although it is now run by the Aitken Spence group. It contains 32 rooms with the usual modern amenities that remain the original features; high ceilings, a cozy bar, billiard saloon and wonderful gardens.
A mere ten kilometers from Bandarawela is Ella, a hilly countryside perfect for tea plantations, waterfalls, temples and artefacts. When in Ella, 98 Acres Resort & Spa is an absolute treat.
The small town of Ambewela is just 17 kilometers from Nuwara Eliya in a landscape famous for its rhododendron flowers, wide grasslands, forest cover, wild animals such as leopard and elephant, bird-watching and World’s End, a 1219-meter deep cliff that offers superb panoramic views. The altitude of 1848 meters does mean it rarely climbs much over 20 degrees but it is also ideal for growing tea and even dairy cows.
Jetwing Warwick Gardens is another of the colonial gems of Sri Lanka’s hill country and the ideal place from which to explore the area around Ambewela. This bungalow, built by a Scottish tea planter, has been recently restored and has wonderful open terraces and gardens, a library, dining hall and five rooms giving it more a house party feel than a hotel.
Warwick Gardens is located within a property of 29 acres and makes the most of the lush scenery around. They can also arrange trips into Horton Plains National Park, Adam’s Peak, various botanical gardens, farms, waterfalls and tea factories.