As Rebecca and I open the bedroom blinds and take in our first early morning view of the Sri Lankan valley, gardens lead down to a shimmering lake, and we find ourselves right in the middle of a working tea plantation – hillside after hillside verdant with orderly ranks of tea bushes.
After sweltering Singapore, it’s blissfully cool at 4,000 feet, particularly at night. And although the noonday sun is hot, black clouds lower and sweep across the valley to deliver brief showers of rain that clear the sky once again.
The Tea Experience
Tea is what this place is all about, so a visit to the government-owned Norwood Tea Factory, built in 1934, is a must. Your guide is resident tea guru Andrew Taylor. His informative talk on tea production starts from the hand-picking of “two leaves and a bud” in the fields, through the fascinating factory process during which the leaves are transformed into “made black tea”, and concludes with a professional-style tasting.
The production process is amazingly precise. For example, the temperature and relative humidity at the time of plucking, which is done by hand in the early morning hours, dictates the total time that each day’s crop will spend in the rolling room for the oxidation stage – on the day we visited, the ordained time was two hours and forty minutes – which releases the tannins and aromas from the leaves by withering, chopping, sifting and fermenting them.
The fermentation is stopped by popping them into a huge oven to dry them, for exactly twenty-one minutes at 120°C. I’m surprised by the meticulousness of the timing, and by how absolutely natural the process is.
After sifting, grading, and bagging, samples of the day’s tea production are sent to tea brokers in Colombo, who employ tasters to determine its market value – which, it seems, can be the subject of heated argument and not a little negotiation with the factory manager. It’s then sold at weekly auctions to buyers such as Dilmah, Lipton and Ceylon Tea, to whom the bagged tea is dispatched directly from the factory.
Even within Sri Lanka, the teas produced are completely different according to the elevation at which they are grown, from mountainous terrain to coastal plains. They also have seasonal characteristics; the Uva, for example, has unique properties due to the eastern wind that it benefits from.
Did You Know?
In 1610, the Dutch learnt about tea from the Chinese, and started introducing it to the Dutch colonies in the Far East, from where the tea-drinking habit spread to Europe, the British Isles and America.
The first British planters who came to Ceylon (later renamed Sri Lanka) in the early 1800s planted coffee. After a fungus destroyed the coffee trees, the plantations were systematically replanted with the tea tree camellia sinensis. Fifty percent of Sri Lanka’s GDP comes from tea exports.
Left to grow naturally, camellia sinensis reaches a height of about 25 feet. For tea production, it is trimmed to a low bush for ease of harvesting. Some of the Bogawantalawa valley bushes are as old as 130 years.
Whether black, green, oolong, or white, all tea comes from the same plant. The difference lies in the production process. Green tea is simply steamed and then dried. Oolong tea is partially fermented, and black tea is fully fermented. The less fermented the tea, the higher the amount of antioxidant, free-radical-fighting polyphenols it contains; the more fermented it is, the higher the caffeine content.
Stored in airtight aluminium foil, tea will retain its freshness for three years.
To make the perfect cup of black tea, fill your kettle with fresh water each time and bring to a boil. As it starts to boil, pour it into a warmed pot containing one teaspoon per cup of loose tealeaves. Let it draw for three minutes, then serve it preferably as it is. You can use a little milk, ideally warm, but the caseine in milk is thought to block some of tea’s health benefits. Don’t add sugar, says Andrew Taylor. To offset any bitterness, brew the tea with cinnamon, ginger, mint or orange-peel, each of which has its own health-giving properties.
By drinking up to four cups a day, the polyphenols, caffeine, fluorides, A and B vitamins, manganese, potassium and other substances that tea contains are said to help ward off the following diseases: atherosclerosis, Alzheimer’s, cancer, high cholesterol, inflammatory bowel disease, liver disease, diabetes, obesity and more.
Castlereagh is one of the four bungalows that comprise Tea Trails, the others being Norwood, Summerville and Tientsin. Dotted along the valley, they were built between 1890 and 1939 and have been beautifully restored by Dilmah Tea. Each has five or six rooms and suites, and was previously the home of a British colonial planter and his family. They all have spacious rooms with period furnishings and décor, including mosquito-tented four-poster beds and huge bathrooms, and are surrounded by landscaped gardens that are brilliant with flowers.
Thoughtful and unusual touches are everywhere: the tiny “two leaves and a bud” freshly plucked from the top of a tea bush are on your turned-down bed-linen each night; on the “bed-tea” tray that your butler brings to you each morning, complete with green tea cosy to keep the pot warm; and next to the handmade tea-tree-oil soap on the rack across your vintage ball-and-claw-foot bath. There’s a clutch of freshly sharpened pencils on your desk, and first-edition copies of apposite books are dotted around your room and in the lounges, such as History of Ceylon by L. E. Blaze, and Woolf in Ceylon by Christopher Ondaatje.
Despite these similarities, each bungalow is unique. Castlereagh, where Rebecca and I spent the first two nights, has its plantation location and lake view. Tientsin, at the other end of the valley, is where we spent the third and final night. It has the strongest colonial feel, with extra-wide corridors sporting the original 1890s wooden panelling.
We also got to see the other two. On our first day, a tiny outrigger canoe ferried us across the lake to Summerville for high tea. On our third day, we had lunch at Norwood, and afterwards walked the pleasant 16-kilometre trail through tea plantations and villages to Tientsin in just under three hours.
Managed as a whole by the affable Aselan Wavita, the concept of these four boutique hotels is an amazing one. The smiling butler assigned to you seems instantly available at whatever hour. All meals and drinks – including alcoholic beverages – are included in the price of the accommodation. Decanters of port and sherry sit on the coffee tables; a full bar-trolley stands nearby. A frosty Lion lager hit the spot after the long hike to Tientsin, and a large pre-prandial Famous Grouse in front of the flickering fireplace was just perfect.
After the first twinge of exploitative colonial guilt, this is a wonderful way to taste the life of the relatively privileged of a bygone era. No internet, no phones, no TV, and discreet service at the touch of a button engraved with a bell.
In-room massage treatments are available at reasonable prices. Lalit, who was also the excellent guide on our walks, delivers a “nurturing and therapeutic” deep tissue massage guaranteed to melt away the tension.
In our exquisite suite at Tientsin, I was scribbling early morning notes when assistant manager Damien brought the bed-tea we had rung for, and asked if he could prepare my bath. (I decided I could manage that myself!)
Timing and Itineraries
Our comfortable 4pm flight on SriLankan Airways from Changi Airport to Colombo took three-and-a-half hours. A time difference of two-and-a-half hours behind Singapore meant that we landed at 5.30pm. The 160-kilometre trip from Colombo to Hatton takes at least four spine-jarring hours along narrow, potholed roads teeming with dogs, pedestrians, bicycles, three-wheeler taxis and other vehicles of all descriptions. You could try the five-hour train journey, and ask the hotel to have you picked up at the station at Hatton. Book well in advance, and request the observation car.
We suspect that the only guests who don’t love the Tea Trails experience are those who do not allow enough time for it. Be warned: the roads in this part of the world are dreadful and travel is uniformly slow. You will arrive tired and perhaps disgruntled; to stay for just one night is a waste of your time and energy in getting there. We recommend a minimum of three nights.
If you have only four or five nights in Sri Lanka, spend a night in Colombo and visit only the Tea Trails. If you have a week or longer, you could spend two nights in the Cultural Triangle to see the sights at Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, Sigiriya and Dambulla, then spend one night in Kandy to see the impressive Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic – we hear that the town itself has been injudiciously overdeveloped and is now hot, over-crowded and smelly – and three nights at the Tea Trails. Kandy is about two hours’ drive from Hatton, the town nearest to the valley, so you could take a day trip to the Tooth Temple.
While at Tea Trails, you could devote a day to climbing the nearby Adam’s Peak, an important pilgrimage site sacred to Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims alike. Other options include scenic walks, mountain-biking, a day trip to Horton Plains National Park, or white-river rafting from Kitalgala, a 75-minute drive away.
And if you’re going down south for some sun-and-sea time at one of the coast resort towns, such as Galle, which our fellow-guests heartily recommended, allow at least two but preferably three nights there to make the arduous journey worthwhile. Do not, as some misguided souls have done, do the back-breaking eight-hour drive from Galle to the Bogawantalawa valley for just one night