Discover Sri Lanka: Nuwara Eliya

From the verdant natural beauty of Ella, EZ and I continued our journey through the Hill Country to Nuwara Eliya, the land of the tea, shaped by rolling green hills with a striking patchwork of tea estates.

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As our car wound up the hilly road to Nuwara Eliya, the temperature plummeted even lower. We noticed locals wearing puffy American jackets over their usual outfits and beanies on their heads. The monkeys and dogs on the side of the road sported thicker coats of fur, adapted to the cooler climate. It was hard to believe that just a couple days before, we had been beachside. Here, where the terraced carpet of green swept over the hills, it felt like another world.

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A Taste of History

The region was originally comprised of wild, unpeopled forests and meadows until “discovered” by a British colonial officer in 1819 and developed into the town of Nuwara Eliya (of course, ancient Sri Lankans had known of the area much earlier). The British were thrilled by this newfound part of the island, which reminded them of home. Here in the Hill Country, the cool climes mirrored England, allowing English fruits and vegetables to thrive where they had failed in other parts of the island. The British did try to cultivate coffee in the region, but disease wiped it out; undeterred, the colonists tried tea instead. And so, a giant industry was born.

Nuwara Eliya became the tea capital of the Hill Country. The British brought Tamil laborers from South India to work the tea plantations (these newer “Hill Country Tamils” were a different group from the Sri Lankan Tamils who descended from the Jaffna kingdom or migrated from South India in ancient times). Tea was not only exported, but consumed throughout Sri Lanka (then called Ceylon) as British cultural quirks like teatime became integrated into local society.

At various tea estates in Nuwara Eliya, EZ and I came across these fascinating drawings of the local tea scene during colonial times:

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The British pioneered a lucrative Ceylon tea trade that was eventually passed on to the locals and remains a booming industry today. Given the outsized British influence in the region, vestiges of their presence linger. In fact, Nuwara Eliya is known by some as “Little England.”

Architecture

The town in Nuwara Eliya still has a bit of British flavor to it, although many of the original shingled rooftops have since been replaced with colorful corrugated metal, mitigating the effect. Still, new stone cottages are cropping up, pitched as English-style homes.

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Grand Hotel

The aptly named Grand Hotel, nearly 200 years old, was originally a colonial manor house for a British soldier. Now it’s a stately hotel annexed with restaurants, including the delicious Grand Indian restaurant (try the tandoori chicken, garlic naan, paneer tomato, and vegetable curry!).

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High Tea is the highlight of the Grand Hotel. For 1800 rupees, High Tea gets you an assortment of finger foods (sandwiches, sliders, tarts, cakes, and pastries, all in miniature atop a three-tiered serving platter) alongside your selection of tea. And despite the grand treatment, the service didn’t feel pretentious at all. No need to dress fancy or put your pinkies up. Just sit back, sip, nibble, and enjoy.

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19th  Hole Pub

With its wood panels, barrels, hunting rifles, and dusty bottles on display, the 19th Hole Pub exudes an old Scottish atmosphere. I enjoyed a couple of tasty virgin mojitos while EZ partook in stiffer fare as we chatted with a young English couple at the bar.

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Though we were all making a similar circular journey around Sri Lanka, EZ and I were traveling counterclockwise, while the English couple was traveling clockwise. So we swapped stories and travel tips; where we had already been, the other couple would visit soon, and vice versa. They were also interested in the political climate in America, while we wanted to hear their take on Brexit.

Meeting fellow travelers is always an interesting exercise; you learn so much about each other’s countries. And yet you also share the unique experience and excitement of exploring the country to which you traveled. Halfway around the world, you converge at an intersection point (in this case, a pub). Then, just as quickly, you go your separate ways and return to your corners of the planet.

Aralyia Mall

Aralyia Mall, within the Aralyia Green Hills Hotel, has a food court with a variety of cuisine options from around the world. The mall also features some touristy shops with souvenirs. Though these features were certainly convenient, I was mostly enamored with the massive oil lamp display in the lobby.

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Sri Lankan oil lamps are culturally significant instruments of worship and honor, lit to give weight and blessings to life milestones (birth, marriage, death), important functions, ceremonies, and festivals. Many of the more decorated oil lamps are topped with a rooster, which symbolizes a new beginning (as roosters herald a new dawn). The oil lamp EZ and I used at our wedding was a simpler variant, but meaningful to us; it belonged to my late grandmother, who lived in Mirissa, and both my parents and EZ’s parents helped us light the lamp to signify the joining of our families.

Nuwara Eliya Race Course

Among the traces left by the British is a horse-racing track. Our visit was off-season for racing, but EZ and I still spotted some horses that looked more like ponies trotting about with their jockeys. In the summer, though, the race course is supposed to be quite the scene, vibrant with festivity for the Governor’s Cup Race. The race course is surrounded by grand, more authentic British Colonial style houses once occupied by English plantation owners. Historically, these manors hosted lavish soirees or hunting parties to celebrate the races and entertain visiting guests.

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Lake Gregory

Lake Gregory is another remnant of the British, constructed under the British Governor Sir William Gregory in 1873. The lake is pleasant to stroll around, especially at night, when the lamplit path creates a warm glow and reflects off the water. On the night EZ and I took our walk, we came upon a low-end children’s carnival on one side of the lake, complete with small rides, games, and food.

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The Local Scene

The local scene is also worth checking out. In walking distance to many of the centralized hotels and colonial sites, you can find the Central Market, the temple, small shops, and—my favorite—the most delicious Sri Lankan breakfast ever.

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Although sidewalks do exist here, they could definitely use some repair and expansion. The sidewalk is made up of narrow pavement stones, some of which are wobbly, with a dangerous ditch beneath. But we were thankful to be somewhere walkable.

The Central Market is a long hallway flanked with market stalls. Strolling through, EZ and I passed whole branches of banana clusters, hanging legs of raw meat, bushels of produce, bags of rice, and bins of piquant dried fish, among other interesting food products.

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But the best discovery was on the other side of the market: Hela Bojun Hala (True Sri Lankan Taste), a counter where you can order fresh, hot, made-to-order Sri Lankan breakfast dishes and shorteats (appetizers/snacks). Hela Bojun Hala is operated under a government program that provides cooking jobs for local underprivileged women, so patronizing this establishment helps support these women.

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As EZ and I emerged from the Central Market, we were lured into the open-air Hela Bojun Hela structure by the incredible aromas that met our noses. Upon closer inspection, our excitement was further stoked by the display of delicacies, piping-hot treats whipped up and replenished each minute by the women behind the counter:

  • Pattis: Fried, empanada-style pastries filled with potatoes, veggies, and meat or fish
  • Vadei: Spiced, fried savory donut-like concoctions in traditional flour and ulum flour varieties, with the ulum variety having the consistency of a bagel
  • Pan cakes: Thin crepes rolled with coconut treacle and sugar
  • Cutlets: Crispy, fried balls of dough filled with potatoes, veggies, and spices, coated with a cornmeal consistency
  • Kavum: Small, sweet deep-fried oil cakes with a pastry shell, popularly consumed at New Year
  • Hoppers: Bowl-shaped, crispy-edged coconut flour pancake fried in a wok-like pan, with a soft, doughy center, often with a fried egg cooked in the middle
  • Dosa: Similar to hoppers, but flatter and more expansive, served with chili paste, fresh green sambo, and hodi (potato broth)

To name a few…

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The prices for this fresh fare were surprisingly cheap; we had paid much more for similar, stale foods at shorteat shops. But here, we appeared to be the only tourists in sight. The place was crowded with locals.

We surveyed the counter and the numerous separate lines of people, trying to understand the rules. Clearly this wasn’t a one-line buffet type deal where you moved along the counter. An older Sri Lankan gentleman nearby noticed our confusion and offered to help. He explained that people queued up behind each separate treat that they desired, as a different woman was responsible for cooking and collecting payment for each food.

Once EZ and I had stood in a few short lines and filled our plates with a selection of shorteats for an incredibly low price, we realized that all of the tables in the area were taken. The Sri Lankan gentleman came to our rescue once more, inviting us to sit at his table. He and his family were very kind and hospitable; they were visiting Nuwara Eliya from Negombo, a city north of Colombo. As we chatted, they offered us tips on our journey, graciously treated us to tea, and generously tipped the low-income woman who cleaned our table. Thus far all the locals we’d met had been very friendly and happy to help, and this lovely family took Sri Lankan warmth to the next level.

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Tea Plantations

Of course, we couldn’t come to Nuwara Eliya, the heart of tea country, without visiting a tea plantation. So we visited two!

The first plantation, Pedro Estate, was not far from the town center. In fact, the miles and miles of lush plantation land rolling out across the slopes serve as the town’s scenic backdrop.

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At the Pedro Estate, we toured the factory. The aroma of tea, gentle and subtle, permeated the air. To our surprise, the factory was more rudimentary than we’d expected. It seemed almost frozen in time, with mechanical equipment, manual sorters shaking filters, and a general lack of modern technology. And yet, the tea produced—Ceylon black tea—remains one of the most popular teas (if not the most popular tea) in the world. I couldn’t help wondering how much this tea estate would benefit from investment in more modern, efficient equipment.

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The resulting tea, though, remains even better than the Ceylon tea found outside of Sri Lanka, because the tea produced within Sri Lanka is high-purity, undiluted tea. However, Sri Lanka is not permitted to export most of this tea in its current high-purity state, and must first sell to middlemen. Nowadays, these middlemen often blend the Ceylon tea with tea from China or India, diluting the quality, while still marketing the tea as “Ceylon” tea for the same price or higher.

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After our tour of the factory, we enjoyed a fresh pot of tea at the estate’s teahouse, savoring the rich, smooth purity of flavor. Luckily, the tea estates are allowed to sell their high-purity teas within Sri Lanka, so we snatched up as many boxes of tasty tea as possible at the gift shop.

The second plantation we visited was Mlesna Tea Castle, which was about an hour outside of Nuwara Eliya’s town center. Here, away from the hustle and bustle, the landscape was even more picturesque.

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EZ and I visited Mlesna Tea Castle at the recommendation of my uncle. This site didn’t include the factory, but the tea house (er, “castle”), has a façade that mimics the appearance of a castle, so it’s a fun stop.

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Here, we enjoyed lunch and tea with our driver on the balcony, which overlooks the vast sweep of surrounding plantations.

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The lower level of the tea castle holds a small tea museum, which displays tea equipment, advertisements, documents, and artifacts from colonial times.

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Nuwara Eliya was a relaxing stop to take in the unique history and stunning landscape of Sri Lanka’s tea culture, now an inextricable part of the country’s identity. Still, we looked forward to a day-trip away from the cultivated tea lands, to the unique natural beauty of Horton Plains National Park.


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