Sri Lanka’s hill country is quite stunning. Beautiful hills covered with tea plantations (tea plantations are the new vineyards we’ve decided!), lovely hikes through fantastic scenery, temples and waterfalls, it is a great place to visit. It’s also a fantastic place to literally chill – the elevation makes the temperatures much cooler than the rest of Sri Lanka and gives a welcome respite from the heat.
Our first stop in the hill country – was a couple of days in the cute town of Nuwara Eliya.
Nuwara Eliya is sometimes known as ‘Little England’ due to some of its colonial era buildings, and it’s a lovely place to visit. It’s also the hub of Sri Lanka’s tea industry and as a devoted tea drinker from way back, I was super excited to learn more about where my favourite cuppa comes from. Here’s what we got up to in Nuwara Eliya.
1.Exploring Nuwara Eliya town
Nuwara Eliya is a small little town and easily explored on foot. We spent a morning wandering around, checking out some of the colonial era buildings:
Nuwara Eliya post office is definitely like a piece of Little England, complete with red postboxes that you’d find on any British high street.
The 100+ year old golf club is quite beautiful and has an air of grandeur about it from a bygone age. If one would like to play there, one must hire a caddy and afterwards one must relax on the balcony with one’s traditional steak and kidney pie. We just looked as it was a bit pricey!
The Grand Hotel is THE place to stay in Nuwara Eliya – again we just looked. You can go and have high tea on the lawn. It also has a great Indian restaurant where we ate one night.
As we were visiting over Easter we decided to go to church on Easter Sunday. Along with half the town, it was packed out, so we had to sit outside in the churchyard garden!
It was a cool juxtaposition seeing an Anglo-style church with tuktuks parked out the front.
The service was in Sinhalese (the main Sri Lankan language) but I could just about make out what was going on and what part of the mass it was. The music and psalms were definitely more funky than the boring church services I’ve been to!
2. Visiting a tea plantation
We hired a tuktuk one morning and went back over the windy roads to Blue Field Tea Factory, one of the oldest tea producers in Sri Lanka. Tea was originally grown in Sri Lanka (then known as Ceylon) in the 1800’s by the British and now 4% of the country is covered in tea plantations.
We had a lovely lady show us through the factory and it was quite fascinating learning about the tea making process – picking, drying, fermenting and the different grades and types of tea.
It’s still an extremely labour intensive process, with most of the machines over 100 years old.
Another fascinating aspect was learning which grades of tea you should serve with milk and which need no milk. The higher grades are called ‘orange pekoe’ and are the ones you should drink black, they are generally the less broken up tips of the tea leaf. The lowest grade is actually called ‘dust’ and it’s pretty much what goes into tea bags! These are all the crushed bits of tea leaf that produce darker teas and are meant to have milk added.
About 20% of the tea produced here is retained by the company for selling direct, and the rest goes to the Colombo Tea Auction where around 6.5 million kilos are sold weekly and it is bought up by some of the larger tea companies such as Dilmah and Lipton for blending. So you never know, some of your next cup of tea could have come from here.
After the factory tour we got a free tasting.
We also bought another cup of golden tip tea – the highest grade there is and known as the ‘champagne of teas’ just to try it. It was lovely and I bought a small bag of it for those desperate times when a cup of tea and a lie down are needed!
Blue Field also had a cool kids’ playground that our kids loved running around in.
We went for a lovely wander out the back of the factory in the plantations afterwards.
Our lovely tuktuk driver let the kids have a play in his tuktuk and then Jack stood between his legs and ‘drove’ the tuktuk halfway home, he was beside himself with excitement 😉
The tuktuk ride was great, with beautiful views out over the tea plantations. It was much slower on the windy roads than a car, so much better for the motion sickness.
Another English legacy is all the market gardens that line the roadside selling beautiful fresh produce. During colonial times, the English introduced vegetables like leeks, carrots, cabbages, potatoes etc and they’re still grown and sold today on this highly fertile land with an ideal climate.
I told our tuktuk driver that the price of cauliflowers in New Zealand at the moment was 1000 rupees ($10 NZD) and he looked at me like I was off the planet! They’re about 100 rupees here ($1).
3. Wandering through Victoria Park
Lonely Planet describes Victoria Park as ‘one of the loveliest parks in South East Asia’ and we thought so too.
It’s a beautiful park in the middle of town, and we took a picnic and some of the Easter Bunny’s delivery and spent a lovely morning running around and admiring the beautiful flowers.
As per usual the kids attracted attention and Sophie was quite into taking selfies with the locals.
It’s not free though – the park costs 300 rupees / $3 NZD for us to go in but the kids were free. It’s 30 rupees (30c NZ) for locals. Most things here have a dual local and foreigner pricing system, we understand why, but sometimes it’s hugely more for foreigners which is a little bit off-putting.
Where we stayed
We stayed at the New Tour Inn in Nuwara Eliya which was in a really convenient location about 3 minutes walk to town, and across the road and with nice views out over Victoria Park.
We stayed in the giant family room which had 2 big doubles and 1 single and we all appreciated the extra space.
It’s a little bit tired, but a good budget option. The nice family who run it and their warm hospitality more than made up for it.
Where we ate
There aren’t that many restaurants of note in Nuwara Eliya, but one that is definitely worth a mention is the Indian restaurant at the Grand Hotel. We had read on Trip Advisor that it’s popular so we got there about 6.10pm (it opens at 6.30pm). By the time the doors opened there were around 30 people queuing! The food was really nice though, we enjoyed some delicious north Indian curries – yes Indian food is completely different to Sri Lankan – and some nice lassies and you can get a beer here which you can’t always get in various parts of Sri Lanka.
The train from Nuwara Eliya to Ella
We really wanted to do a train ride in Sri Lanka and were originally going to get it from Colombo to Nuwara Eliya. But we mucked around booking and forgot it was Easter so we ended up missing out when we tried to book about a week out, so we ended up getting a driver.
Luckily we were able to get tickets from Nuwara Eliya to Ella though which we were pleased about, as this is reputedly one of the top train rides in the world. So – if you’re visiting Sri Lanka and want to do a train ride, make sure you book in advance, especially during peak season!
There are three classes of train in Sri Lanka – 1st, 2nd and 3rd. We wimped and decided to go first class which would get us an air-conditioned carriage, reserved seats, food and beverages and an observation car to take photos from. The main reason we did this also is we have a ridiculous amount of luggage and the kids to manage and we would have struggled with keeping an eye on both of them in 2nd or 3rd class which can get pretty packed.
There are two types of first class carriage – the Rajadhani Express and ExpoRail which we travelled on. They are privately owned carriages that attach to the main government run trains. They are much of a muchness but we went with ExpoRail because we could book everything online on their website. Sorry Rajadhani Express, your booking process was too complicated for us, it involved ‘buying online’ but then having to go to a mobile phone shop and get it validated.
We were booked on the 3.55pm train from Nanu Oya, which is about a 20 minute drive from Nuwara Eliya. We got there about 45 minutes early, got our tickets, crossed to the platform – and waited. And waited. And waited.
We had read that the rail often runs late, and Sri Lankan people often measure the lateness in days eg it’s quarter of a day late, half a day late etc! There were no announcements and everything was on old school wooden boards – no up to the minute digital boards here, so we had no idea what was going on.
To compound things there was a torrential downpour while we were waiting, and a few holes in the platform roof! The kids enjoyed watching all the puddles and little waterfalls forming though. They also thought it was hilarious watching the stray dogs chasing pigeons along the tracks, until one actually caught a pigeon and we had to swiftly move them away from the feather and blood carnage that resulted!
Finally an hour later, the train arrived. We managed to get on ok, and settled into our seats ready for the three hour journey.
They brought us around bottled water, nice cup of tea and a roll filled with the hottest chutney you’ve ever had! It was no good for the kids but luckily we had stocked up on a whole lot of snacks for the journey. They also turned on the movie ‘Pitch Perfect’ for anyone who didn’t want to look at the stunning scenery…??!
Off we went, and it was just a beautiful way to travel, looking out over all the tea plantations covered in mist from the rainy weather.
It continued for an about an hour until gradually patches of thick forest began to appear. It was so reminiscent on New Zealand bush it was uncanny – tree ferns and thick forestation – except we don’t have leopards or elephants wandering through it 😉
I’m not sure what happened to the observation platform, as there didn’t seem to be one on our train, but given that it was raining we probably wouldn’t have gone out there anyway.
As it turned to night, we continued through more tea plantations and small towns tucked away in the hills, with the landscape punctuated by the white stupas of a Buddhist temple. It certainly was a great way to travel and the photos don’t really do it justice.
It was a little bit of a shame that the train was an hour late, as the last hour of our journey was in darkness so we missed out a bit on the beautiful scenery.We finally arrived in Ella after 3 and a half hours, tired but happy after a brilliant train ride.
Travelling first class was fine, but it was full of tourists. If you’ve got less luggage than us and want to experience the train ride how the locals do, then 2nd class would be the way to go.
It was full of families who loved smiling and waving to us out the window of the train and I imagine it would be a lot of fun. 3rd class looked a bit grim – it was pretty packed, but if you’re on an uber budget and don’t mind being a sardine then go for it!