Exploring Sri Lanka’s Tea Plantations

by May 21, 2016South Asia, Sri Lanka, Travel Tips3 comments

After the heat of Kandy and Dambulla, we were more than ready to head to the cooler, hilly region filled with Sri Lanka’s Tea Plantations. The temperatures were cooler and we were going to finally get to see how all this tea we drink is made.

We were heading to Nuwara Eliya for a few nights and then on to Ella. Both were pretty, picturesque little towns. Nuwara Eliya with a more bustling, local vibe and Ella more of a backpacker haven of tourism, tasty food and hiking. Both shared one thing though: there is a beautiful train journey there.

Train from Kandy to Nuwara Eliya

The train from Kandy to Nanuoya (the closest stop to Nuwara Eliya) is one of the most scenic journeys in Sri Lanka. We had opted for the cheap (like less £1 each cheap) 2nd class unreserved train because we weren’t able to get the reserved seats (they were sold out in advance). Unfortunately this did mean we had a mad rush to get onto the train and race the locals to get seats…a race that we lost.

The train was full when we got on and I resorted to the “I’m so sorry but my wife is pregnant, could she please take this seat?”. It worked and Dayna had a seat. Jessie and I were left standing for a while but a few stops down the line we got seats of our own and settled in for the journey.

This is the real hill country of Sri Lanka; the train tracks run right up to nearly 2000m above sea level and along long portions we were treated to picturesque views of lush, green, tiered tea plantations for miles.

Those lush tea plantations are just part of the story though. All that tea doesn’t just get picked and then brewed to make tea though (actually, I wouldn’t have been that surprised if it did…I knew literally nothing about how tea was made before visiting the tea plantations); we were off to see how the magic happens.

Mackwood’s Tea Plantation in Nuwara Eliya

Dayna was in dire need of a “pregnancy day” involving lying in bed, eating double stuffed Oreos and watching Grey’s Anatomy so it was just Jessie and I that headed out to probably the most popular and historic of the Tea Plantations that surround Nuwara Eliya.

Mackwood’s was founded way back in 1841 (one year after the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi for you Kiwis) so they have been doing this awhile.

Once we had haggled with a Tuk Tuk driver to get us out there, there was no cost to our tour of the Mackwood’s factory. They showed us the plants up close and took us through each step of the process as we watched the workers toiling away.

Tea making process

As a complete clueless idiot when it comes to tea making (…and a lot of other things), I found the tour pretty interesting. Here’s a few stand out points/things I didn’t know before:

We were shown the tea plants up close and the leaves that were picked grow back about every 6-9 days. The trees themselves last about 50 years so that is A LOT of tea and a great business to be in.

All these different types of tea aren’t different plants. It’s the same tea leaves, just processed slightly differently (I thought green tea was from a different plant but nope!).

The tea plantations grow the tea, process it and package it up for auctions in Colombo where all the different brands like Dilmah and Lipton taste the tea and buy the ones they like best.

The most expensive type of tea was the white tea made from just the tips/buds rather than the leaves.

The tea is broken down and rolled as part of the process and the smaller the bits, the stronger the tea. The smallest is called “dust” and usually ends up in tea bags.

Uva Halpewatte Tea Factory in Ella

Arriving in Ella, Dayna still hadn’t seen a tea plantation up close so we had to rectify that. The closest one to us was Uva Halpewatte Tea Factory, up one long windy, potholed road. After a longer-than-we’d-have-liked, bouncy tuk tuk ride we got there in one piece and got another full tour of a tea factory.

The Mackwood’s tour focused on explaining the process and we got a good look at each stage but for the Uva Halpewatte tour we got much more hands on. We hand our hands in the tea at each stage of the process to see how it differed and then got to taste the different strengths as well.

Ella wasn’t all about tea though, this little mountain village is a haven for tourists with loads of good food options and different hikes to explore the area.

Hiking up Little Adam’s Peak in Ella

Jessie and I chose to skip the hike that our host recommended that involves hiking along the train tracks and through a relatively busy tunnel (where you must pay careful attention to the time and scheduled trains for that day). Instead, we chose to go for a relatively small hike up to Little Adam’s Peak.

The hike took us through tea plants and right by a tea factory before a short but steep hike up to the peak. The view from the top was worth the effort and also gave us a peek at Ravana Falls which we also got to see up close.

My favourite thing about the hike was finding that a bunch of the local dogs had made the trip too and were all chilling out at the top. Ella seems like a haven for dogs as well as backpackers as the place is FILLED with them. You can’t walk a few metres without seeing another dog and they all seem so chilled out and happy. Check out how happy this guy looks.

As well as playing a lot of monopoly deal (a card game we have with us), and celebrating Jessie’s birthday at the aptly named Cafe Chill, we ate a lot of good food in Ella. One of the top restaurants there is AK Ristoro which was right by us and Cafe Chill had some of the western food we had been missing.

After 2 nights in Nuwara Eliya and 3 nights in Ella, we were ready for the next adventure…a safari in Udawalawe National Park.

Where to stay in Nuwara Eliya

The top restaurants in Nuwara Eliya were all at the Grand Hotel and we went there every day. It’s also close to town and the golf course there so I’d probably stay there if we go back one day. We stayed at Hotel Green Stars and it was OK, nothing special but it was fair value for what we paid and in a decent location about 10 minutes walk from the Grand Hotel restaurants we went to each day.

Where to stay in Ella

We stayed at Freedom Inn which was right by AK Ristoro and only a 5-10 minute walk from the main stretch of restaurants and bars. It was a pretty good spot to explore from and cheap.

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