Sri Lanka - Getting to know Nuwara Eliya and Tea Country

Much of Sri Lanka's southern-central region is known as ‘Tea Country’- nearly everywhere you look in this highland area, you'll see glossy green fields full of tea plants, often dotted with tea pickers in bright saris.

Sri Lanka Nuwara Eliya and Tea Country Travel Guide

Ceylon tea is a British luxury for good reason; this region is famed for growing some of the finest tea in the world. At 1,893 metres above sea level, its climate can be reminiscent of Britain, too, but don’t let that put you off! It’s a nice place to retreat from the heat of Sri Lanka’s lowlands, which is why so many Colonial British built their mansions and lodges in the area - many of which have been converted into very attractive accommodation indeed. 

The area's ‘capital’ is Nuwara Eliya, three hours south of Kandy by car or a very picturesque train journey, which rises from 600m to 1,893m through mile after mile of tea terraces. The scenery is breathtaking, and the train's observation carriage (which you should book early) ensures a prime vantagepoint over the green valleys, waterfalls and pretty villages below. 

Journey complete, both Nuwara Eliya and its surrounding valleys are home to a number of plantation houses and Colonial villas. During your stay you'll have ample opportunity to wander the landscape, visit working tea plantations or simply relax amidst some of Sri Lanka’s most immediately compelling scenery.

Around Tea Country

  • Adam’s Peak, aka Butterfly Mountain, stands at 2,243 metres, towering over the the hills of central Sri Lanka about three hours drive east of Nuwara Eliya. At its top sits a temple protecting a holy relic revered by Buddhists, Christians, Hindus & Muslims. It’s a beautiful place, & not a difficult climb - plenty of locals do it, because whenever a baby is born, they carry it to the top! Selective Asia’s Ed managed it in just under three hours. We recommend avoiding weekends.
  • The Knuckles Mountain Range is a rugged landscape of peaks covered in semi-evergreen forest, full of all manner of flora & fauna. It offers marvellous trekking, through forests & pastoral landscapes, along rivers & past dramatic waterfalls. 

Hatton

Hatton's lush tea estates are all about 30-40 minutes from the town itself, and offer both the perfect opportunity to explore Sri Lanka's magnificent hill country, and simply the chance to relax at your lodge in a beautiful rural landscape.

It's relatively cool up here, and can rain, but watering all that tea would be an expensive undertaking if it didn't. You'll get the chance to visit a working tea factory to learn more, and enjoy great walking through the plantations themselves.

A large number of Hindu plantation workers have been relocated to the region, and their distinctive look and colourful temples are easily spotted, but Hatton itself is small and fairly unremarkable.

It's all about the plantations, here, but a picturesque railway connects the town to Nuwara Eliya and Adam's Peak, so you'll may well encounter a trickle of pilgrims, and could even choose to join them. Hatton is about 70km from Bandaranayake airport and 1h45m from Nuwara Eliya.

Horton Plains

30 miles south of Nuwara Eliya, Horton Plains National Park protects biodiverse cloud forest, ancient archaeology, and the headwaters of three crucial rivers.

The Plains, a rocky plateau around 2,000 metres above sea level and covered with lush vegetation, has numerous dramatic features, with World's End amongst the most stunning. Here, the plateau drops, suddenly and almost vertically, by 880 metres (ie, 3 x Eiffel Towers).

Although the view is often obscured by mist after 10am, we think this enhances the sense of endless, mysterious plunge - nothing like a glimpse of infinity to make a five mile round hike worthwhile.

Some rain falls here all year round, but there is a dry season from January to March. You should still bring a sweater and a sunhat, and the park is less hospitable during south-west monsoon season (June to September).

Tea plantations were introduced to Sri Lanka in 1867 by James Taylor, who traded with a certain Mr T. Lipton

What to do in Tea Country

  • Get hands on with tea production - and we don’t mean boiling a kettle. Getting into the fields & factories is the only way to get a true sense of the extraordinary process that starts with a seedling, & ends up in a box in your kitchen. You can pick tea alongside the women who make a living as harvesters on Sri Lanka’s mountainsides, & watch the transformation from freshly picked plant to hot fragrant cuppa during a visit to one of the region’s tea factories.
  • Drink tea! Preferably with sandwiches & cake, on the finely manicured lawns of a restored planter’s residence.
  • Trekking. Tea Country is excellent for a good scenic wander, be it through the tea plantations or beyond, in beautiful locations like Horton Plains National Park, which is famous for its breathtaking ‘World’s End’ vista.

Pilgrimage up Adam's Peak

At the top of Adam's Peak sits the temple that protects Sri Pada, considered to be Buddha's sacred footprint (by Buddhists), and that of Shiva by Hindus - while Christian and Muslim tradition holds that Adam's foot made the impression. 

It's a three to five hour climb, and can be bustling with pilgrims during peak season, between November to April. If you're not bothered by crowds, it's interesting to witness such an active multi-faith pilgrimage site in action.

That said, the limited number of guesthouses can get very busy during pilgrim season, and the queues to the summit during these months can be very long. Our tips are to avoid weekends and stay in a basic guesthouse at the bottom of the climb, setting out very early next morning to reach the summit in plenty of time for sunrise.