As the van snakes around the tea-blanketed hills of Up Country Sri Lanka, I inhale the freshness of the dewy air. The road ascends the mountain’s contours until reaching Hatton, the centre of Sri Lanka’s tea-growing district. It is Bak Full Moon Poya Day and all the locals have retreated to backyard festivities and celebratory cricket-field gatherings. The surrounding tea plantations are still, allowing a clear view of the planting patterns that mirror the curves of this mountainous landscape. A sprinkle of rain is ominous, while the mist and high altitude create an eerie atmosphere.
My destination, Ceylon Tea Trails, comprises four luxurious colonial-era tea planters’ bungalows, connected by walking trails through stunningly beautiful Ceylon tea gardens. Built between 1888 and 1950, the bungalows offer a taste of gracious living thanks to butler service, period furnishings and all-inclusive gourmet meals and afternoon high tea. Guests can follow the Tea Trail from one unique bungalow to the next, staying a night or two at each, or just lazing about and enjoying one location. Days are filled with a trek, bike ride or picnic at spectacular locations in cool comfort. And enjoying a spot of croquet or billiards at dusk, while indulging in a tea-infused cocktail, is a brilliant way to end the day and commence the evening’s extravagance.
My evening experience at Norwood Bungalow is just as one would expect of the time-honoured planter’s traditions. Lounging by a roaring fire, I admire the drinks menu and select a tea-infused gin and tonic. As spicy Sri Lankan nibbles are circulated, other guests start to gather around with a similar agenda in mind. Whilst sipping on my cocktail, I talk with other travellers about their journeys around Sri Lanka and other parts of the world – swapping stories, photos and recommendations. The lodge is intimate, but it also allows for comfortable interaction in spaces that arouse the feeling of visiting someone’s home. My spectacular four-course dinner is encrusted, herbed, rubbed and infused with a concoction of local teas, spices and garden-fresh ingredients. I retire to my luxurious room cradling a rose-scented tea, with a request from the butler that I ring the bedside bell for my chosen wake-up ‘pot’, accompanied by the drawing of the glorious claw-foot bath that adorns my bathroom.
The essential Tea Trails experience is a tour with resident tea planter Andrew Taylor, whose great uncle was the first to bring tea into Sri Lanka. Andrew shows the age-old tea-making process, starting from the fields where it all begins – with the picking of ‘two leaves and a bud’ – to the factory where the all-important conversion to ‘made’ black tea happens. The machinery used is of traditional British design (some as old as 100 years) and the process is a very artisanal one, unchanged for a century. The tour concludes with Andrew’s animated tasting (including the mandatory group slurp) of the different grades of the factory’s tea, and his explanation of the tea sensation around the mouth is definitely one to be remembered.
A local adventure not to be missed is the pilgrimage to the summit of Adam’s Peak. For as long as man can conjure, Adam’s Peak has been an object not only of worship but also of pilgrimage by kings and commoners. My Tea Trails guide picks me up at 1:00 am for a one-hour drive to the base of the mountain. We walk for four hours in the dark along with thousands of other pilgrims, some of whom have started the trek the previous day, and are now sleeping along the side of the trail. There are even 80-year-olds making the journey up the 5,000 steep steps to the summit, with the assistance of young relatives. This mountain, whose local name is Sri Pada, meaning ‘Butterfly Mountain’, is sacred to the Buddhist, Muslim and Hindu religions, each with their own legend.
Regardless of your chosen connection, it is a beautiful place. We have almost reached the 2,250-metre summit when the trail traffic comes to a standstill. Bak Full Moon Poya Day is in high pilgrim season and we have to wait with the crowds on top of the world for our chance to view the monastery at the peak. A surreal experience! But it is the perfect place to pause, and, just as we do, the sun peeks over the horizon to a thousand unanimous gasps at its beauty. We all stand in silence as the sky is filled with the vibrant colours of dawn. Few mountaintops create a comparable impression with such unimpeded views. On the drive back to the beautiful Tea Trails, the previously abandoned fields are now a hive of activity, as the pickers have returned to the fields with the excitement of the previous day’s festivities imprinted across their faces.
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