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Sri Lanka Road Trip: Hill Country, Highlands & Plains!

The road through Sri Lanka’s hill country provides scenes from a postcard. Beginning early, Kandy is shrouded in mist. At an elevation of only 1,700 feet (520 metres), Kandy appears to be in the clouds.

The next stop on our Sri Lanka Road Trip is Nuwara Eliya. At an elevation of 6,200 feet (1,890 metres), you actually are in the clouds.

The picturesque road ascends, winding around the highland mountains. The climate changes with low-level cloud and mist, while the scenery becomes lush with waterfalls, mountain peaks and steep valleys.

The highlands surrounding Nuwara Eliya make up a large percentage of Sri Lanka’s tea-growing region. A stop is planned for a tour and a cuppa. Are you ready?

 

Kandy to Nuwara Eliya

On the way out of Kandy, morning scenes comprise veneration at stupas and temples while Buddhist Monks receive alms. A care package including outer robe, inner robe, belt, bowl, sewing needle, thread, and razor are presented as well as food and other offerings.

A popular lookout high above Kandy overlooks Kiri Mahuda or the Sea of Milk. This man-made lake, built by the last king of Sri Lanka, is said to have a secret tunnel from the Palace at the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic to the central island where he used to bathe.

Kandy. Sri Lanka.

 

Ramboda Falls

The dramatic Ramboda Falls can be reached by visiting the Ramboda Hotel. The winding driveway takes you to the hotel with further descent via the hotel’s elevator. Magnificent views across the valley open up when entering the restaurant.

A well-worn path takes you to the base of the waterfall. Going down is easy. Coming up, not so much, but it’s worth every step.

Nuwara Eliya. Sri Lanka.

 

Roadside Snacks

At the first sign of rumbling stomachs, a street food stall replicating the one near Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage magically appears.

At these government-approved roadside snack stops, sanitary standards are regularly inspected. Turn over is also high making them perfectly safe for roadside indulgence.

Here, the much talked about polos cutlets (jackfruit filled balls) are available. Roti with spring onions, chilli sambol and a confectionary using jaggery, an unrefined sugar, is addictive.

Jaggery is used in confectionery throughout South East and South Asia. In Sri Lanka, jaggery is made using the treacle of the kithul tree. Mixed with nuts, coconut, rice, or sesame, jaggery is said to contain minerals used in ayurvedic body balancing tonics.

Jaggery has many uses aside from food preparation. Mixed with mustard and buttermilk, it is used to season the inside of a tandoor oven. Jaggery is also easily fermented for alcohol production and in some areas, it is smoked through a hookah.

Nuwara Eliya. Sri Lanka.

 

Famous Ceylon Tea

Sri Lanka is the fourth-largest global producer of tea. It all began in 1824 when a small tea plant was smuggled out of China by the British (along with growing and production secrets) and planted in the Royal Botanical Gardens in Peradeniya, a suburb of Kandy.

This plant was later joined by other experimental plants from India.

It wasn’t until 1867 when 17-year-old Brit, James Taylor planted his 19 acres of tea in Kandy that a tea industry was taken seriously. In 1872, Taylor’s sales were local, by 1873 his first shipment of 23lbs (10 KG) arrived in London.

The 1880s saw tea plantations spread throughout the highlands and by 1893 one million packets of Ceylon Tea were sold in Chicago and London saw the price reach £36 per lb.

Tea had become a big deal.

Nuwara Eliya. Sri Lanka.

Today, a million people are employed in the Sri Lankan tea industry and almost 5% of the country is planted with tea. Much of it in the misty highlands.

Tea houses line the winding road and factories are open to visitors. Depending on the weather, you can get out among the tea and join the pluckers (pickers).

One of the larger plantations is Damro Labookellie. This agrotourism centre houses a factory along with tea rooms and retail.

The tour begins with the morning’s harvest. All styles of tea come from the same tea plant. It’s the process after plucking that changes the flavour and intensity.

Nuwara Eliya. Sri Lanka.

Using only the bud, the highly coveted white tea is the least processed. Left to dry naturally in the sun, it is then sorted and packed.

Green tea is made from the top two leaves below the bud. It’s air-dried, then taken through a roller 3 times. From the roller, green tea is placed in the shaker to be sorted into size, ready for packing.

As with green tea, black tea comes from the same leaves. The airdrying process is applied followed by the same sorting method. Where black tea comes into its own is in the additional fermentation process. Left for the desired fermentation time, black tea is then packaged and sent to market.

Nuwara Eliya. Sri Lanka.

A small part of Damro Labookellie Tea is packaged, branded and sold at retail. The bulk of their tea is wholesaled to local and international tea brands at the market in Colombo.

From plucking to packing, this Damro Labookellie Tea factory processes 2000kg of tea per day.

The tour concludes with tea tasting. Green, black and flavoured teas are offered complimentary but if you’re keen to taste White Tea, you’ll pay a small surcharge. It’s worth it to follow the flavour profile from white, to green and onto the richer black teas.

A retail outlet in the centre allows for take-home purchases and, with attractive packaging, make perfect gifts.

Nuwara Eliya. Sri Lanka.

 

Farming

Although the cloud may be low and wet weather gear needed, the riches of the highland farming community are on display.

Sumptuous spreads of local fruit, vegetables, flowers and herbs are lodged in elbows on the roadside at every bend. The majority of produce from this area is sent to the markets in Colombo.

Nuwara Eliya. Sri Lanka.

 

Nuwara Eliya

Still referred to as Little England, Nuwara Eliya began as a British vacation town. Colonial architecture dominates with grand hotels and converted mansions.

Sri Lankans flock to Nuwara Eliya in April for Sinhalese and Tamil new year. The festival begins on April 1st and continues with celebrations throughout the month.

Following British past times, the festival includes boating on Lake Gregory, golf tournaments at Nuwara Eliya Golf Club, and motor racing.

To conclude a month of partying, Governor’s Cup is the highlight at Nuwara Eliya Racecourse.

Accommodation is at a premium in April so make reservations early if colonial celebrations appeal.

Nuwara Eliya. Sri Lanka.

 

Victoria Park

By planting a single Oak tree in the late 1800s, a German princess set in motion today’s Victoria Park. Opened in 1897 to commemorate Queen Victoria’s 60th Jubilee, Victoria Park now encompasses 27 acres of research area for Hakgala Botanical Garden.

The park consists almost entirely of international plant species. A huge border of dead straight gum trees have us feeling right at home.

Rare bird species (Indian Blue Robin, Pled Thrush, Scaly Thrush and Kashmir Flycatcher) are found in the Park and with Nanu Oya River meandering through creating lakes, Victoria Park is a beautiful place to take a breather from sightseeing.

Nuwara Eliya. Sri Lanka.

 

Mountain Views

From Nuwara Eliya’s main drag, near Victoria Park, drive, ride or walk the winding track to Single Tree Hill and  Swarnagiri Maha Viharaya Buddhist Temple.

The hill track climbs through Mount Pedro tea plantation and provides outstanding views overlooking Nuwara Eliya and north to Sri Lanka’s highest mountain, Mount Pidurutalagala. Pidurutalagala, or Mount Pedro, is 8,280 feet high, about 2,520 metres.

Nuwara Eliya. Sri Lanka.

 

Jetwing St Andrew’s Nuwara Eliya

Adjoining Nuwara Eliya Golf Course, Jetwing St Andrew’s Nuwara Eliya is a welcoming colonial classic.

The land, initially gifted by the crown to a British civil servant, soon became a club followed by a hotel. During the Second World War, it was used for servicemen’s R&R.

Now it is a sprawling hotel complete with conservatory, open fireplaces, billiards and beautifully maintained English gardens.

Nuwara Eliya. Sri Lanka.

 

Blue Train

Sri Lanka’s famous Blue Train is one of the most Instagrammed of Sri Lanka’s many attractions. Photos from the viewing platform, just outside Ella, capture the train as it reaches Nine Arches Bridge.

From Nuwara Eliya, the closest train station is 8 kilometres out of town at Nanu Oya.

Travelling by train is inexpensive, so live a little, and opt for first class. Seats are allocated and perfectly comfortable for the 3.5 to 4-hour journey to Ella.

Although we didn’t see the second and third-class carriages, there seemed to be many tourists in a panic at boarding time feeling there wasn’t enough space for them.

Our first-class allocated comfortable seats were 1500 Rs each – about AU$12, US$8.60 and EU€7.65.

Nuwara Eliya. Sri Lanka.

The journey’s changing scenery captures your attention and time passes quickly. Leaving Nuwara Eliya, tea plantations dominate. Descending the highlands, tea is replaced by tree ferns and waterfalls.

Nuwara Eliya. Sri Lanka.

The richness of the soil is evident in the cultivation of the many small farm plots. Buddhist and Hindu temples dot the track and activity in villages opens a window into rural life.

Nuwara Eliya. Sri Lanka.

Train travel in Sri Lanka is a popular and fairly reliable way to navigate the country. You may not have the flexibility of a guide and driver but the price is very attractive. Delays can occur, though, so try to keep your schedule flexible.

The train just before ours experienced a delay of 5-hours due to a fallen tree blocking the track.

Nuwara Eliya. Sri Lanka.

 

Ella

Ella is one of Sri Lanka’s most popular towns drawing hikers, rock climbers, and photography enthusiasts.

Little Adam’s Peak, Ella Gap, Rawana Falls and nearby Rawana Cave are some of the reasons for Ella’s popularity.

Tourists are well catered for with bars, cafés, local and international eateries, and abundant budget to mid-range accommodation.

Ella is a busy little hamlet. Anyone looking to meet like-minded travellers won’t have an issue here. Party the night away? No problem. There are dance clubs, and bars offer happy hours, buckets of beer and shot specials.

Nuwara Eliya. Sri Lanka.

 

Wellawaya

If Ella and its many tourists aren’t tempting you, how does resting your head at Sri Lanka’s first agro eco-luxury resort sound?

Wellawaya, in the plains between the hill country and the coast, is 25 kilometres from Ella (about 40 minutes drive). Steep valleys one side and mountain peaks on the other, hug the winding road.

On the plains, it’s rice harvesting season. Keep an eye out, you want to avoid the rice drying on the road.

Past flowing creeks and waterfalls, the lush tropical entrance of Jetwing Kaduruketha appears. Fruit and nut trees line the meandering track through the property.

Nuwara Eliya. Sri Lanka.

This region is home to betel trees and both nut and leaves are part of the diet. The traditional welcome in Wellawaya homes is a betel leaf wrapped parcel with shredded coconut, chillies, spices and tobacco.

Chewing this parcel with tobacco creates a slight headspin, but it’s also responsible for red teeth and red eyes. You’ll experience this warm traditional welcome on arrival at Jetwing Kaduruketha, without the tobacco.

We’ll share more of Jetwing Kaduruketha next time when our Sri Lanka Road Trip continues to the coast where wildlife awaits.

 

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Should you decide to stay in Ella or any of the Jetwing accommodation is unavailable, complete the search below with filters for your preferences. You’ll find a wide selection of hostels, homestays, and hotels within your budget.

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Getting To Nuwara Eliya

If you’ve decided on a Jetwing Travels itinerary then you don’t need to worry about this at all. Your guide/ driver will be on call (within reason) and take you where you’d like to go.

Nuwara Eliya can be reached from many directions via bus, train and automobile.

Cinnamon Air offers 45-minute flights via seaplane from Colombo to Nuwara Eliya landing on Lake George.

Check your Über app. Private cars, taxis and tuk-tuks are available but may be limited in the Highlands.

 

When To Go

Sri Lanka’s Highlands, specifically Nuwara Eliya has a subtropical highlands climate. Heavy rains occur from May to July and October to December. Nuwara Eliya experiences about 150 days of rain and even in the drier months of January to April, showers are experienced.

Average daytime temperatures are much cooler in the highlands at 18-22C and drop to 9-12C in the evening. It’s not unusual for frosts to appear overnight and minus temperatures recorded during the cooler months. Nuwara Eliya’s average rainfall is 1950 mm. Humidity sits around 80%, sometimes dropping to 65%.

For info on exploring Kandy, Colombo and tips on planning your entire Sri Lanka adventure, please follow these links. Sri Lanka: Colombo to Kandy Road Trip!, Sri Lanka: Colombo, the Commerical Capital! and  “Sri Lanka: Where to Begin?”.

Disclaimer: This article contains discounts and upgrades that will never affect our 100% honest opinions.

 

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Nuwara Eliya. Sri Lanka.

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