Where neon green rice paddies end at the foot of the mountain, the steep ascent into hill country begins. Produce stands line the slow, winding route into the clouds. Drivers stop to break from tedious road conditions, and tuck into tree-plucked mangoes, red lychees and boiled corn on the cob.
Dozens of waterfalls cleanse the air with spray as they rush over rocky ledges. Higher up, the humidity drops, and the air chills. It is up here, in these cool highland parts, that British colonialists sought refuge from lowland heat. And it is also up here, in these mist-shrouded peaks, that tea plantations carpet vast acreages in waves of waxy green. From one single camellia sinesis plant evolved a $1.5 billion export business — now, Sri Lanka fluctuates in status as the second to fourth leading tea producer globally.
If you’ve ever steeped a Lipton’s bag in your hot water with lemon, you’ve likely drank Sri Lankan tea. Visitors to this region can tour factories, taste a range of brews and reside amidst the lush beauty of Sri Lanka’s fields.
Little known fact: In the 1860s, Sri Lanka was the world’s largest producer of coffee. One can still find a handful of growers trying to resurrect — or at least keep alive — this lost crop, a crop that a disease called leaf rust ravaged, along with its economy, by 1870. On the brink of ruin, many devastated farmers were forced to sell their land for a song. Wealthy, enterprising Brits swooped in, and the tea industry was born.
In 1867, James Taylor founded the country’s first estate, Loolecondera, in the verdant hills of Kandy. Soon to follow, millionaire and Scottish-born Thomas Lipton, a grocery-mogul and frequent vacationer on the isle, bought several coffee farms to convert to tea cultivation. Cultivation turned to production, and production to packaging. Soon, he would realize his dream of bringing tea to the masses at affordable prices at a time when it was a luxury item. “Direct from tea garden to tea pot” was his catchy slogan. But shackled to that dream was the darker reality of human exploitation and suffering. To carry out the back-breaking work of plucking young tea leaves known as the flush, female Tamil laborers were imported from Southern India.
Tamil women, identifiable by the pop of their colorful sarees against a sea of green leaves, still work the fields. To this day, many believe women have gentler, more nimble hands than men, more suited to plucking. While wages remain low, the quality of living conditions has risen, and today, relatively speaking, there’s more opportunity for young women to seek alternative employment paths than in past generations.
There are several important growing regions, but for tourists, the concentration of sights and lodging can be found in the Uva and Central Provinces around Ella and Nuwara Eliya. This area reaches the greatest heights of around 6,000 feet. Plants grown at higher altitudes produce the finest quality teas, with deep golden liquor and intense flavors. Most of the island’s tea is oxidized to create Ceylon’s famous black version. Several quality and grade levels can be sampled at hotels, cafes, farms and factories. The most common types served include the broken leaf grade called BOP for “broken orange pekoe,” or a whole leaf grade called OP for “orange pekoe.” A cup of OP will taste more delicate than BOP.
The town of Nuwara Eliya goes by the moniker Little England or, more dubiously, Switzerland of the East for its climate and colonial architecture. Be warned, however, lest these characterizations set expectations too high. From a tourist perspective, Nuwara Eliya is really a string of unpaved, scruffy streets that offer little space for strolling. A central commerce area, slightly off from the main historic hotel, primarily serves the needs of residents. While British officer-era structures abound, appearing in good condition from the exterior, many need extensive refurbishment inside. Several new high-rise development projects loom in a stalled state behind the low-slung skyline, their boxy edifices directly contradicting the region’s proclaimed architectural vernacular. According to locals, these unsightly projects belong to the president’s relations and associates.
Clearly the country is in flux as it figures out which direction the tourism arm of the economy will take. Two tragedies — a 29-year civil war and the tsunami of 2004 — took their toll on the population while hampering development. Without deep pocket developers or significant outside investment, most property construction was on a small-scale, and thus, perhaps inadvertently, a robust boutique hotel market arose around the country’s lush topography rather than through and over it. Now, with the war over and the word out, foreign investors are banking on this island as the next big destination. Chinese-backed grand resort concepts are already underway in Colombo. Depending on your travel style, this may signal that now is the best time to go.
Logistical Note: Most tourists hire a chauffeur for the duration of their trip. We used Scott Dunn Travel and Red Dot Tours to book our car, English-speaking driver and tours for two weeks. As this is standard practice across the country, hotels and guest houses often provide driver accommodation or else will advise where he can stay nearby.
Lauren Mowery, Special for USA TODAY