“A tree is a wonderful living organism, which gives shelter, food, warmth, and protection to all living beings,” says my Black Tomato guide Amith, as he reads from the plaque of a towering banyan tree. “It even gives shade to those who wield an axe to cut it.” The quote, attributed to Gautama Buddha, serves as a dose of wisdom for all who enter Sri Lanka’s revered tea country, an area ripe with golden shower trees, banana palms, and powdery angel trumpet flowers, complemented by a perpetual mist that only adds to the country’s mystique.
After 17 hours of flying across the world, I arrive to Kandy’s tuk-tuk-packed streets, where Sri Lanka’s tea industry first began, 150 years ago. I begin my exploration of this small island nation, previously known as Ceylon, to discover more about the country’s revered plant. First brought to Sri Lanka in the 1800s during British colonization and only increasing in reverence after a country-wide coffee blight, Ceylon silver tip tea is now world-renowned. While the island also produces spices like cinnamon, cardamom, clove, pepper, Sri Lanka’s tea industry continues to be a vital player in the country’s economy and one of the main sources of foreign exchange.
Discover Sri Lanka’s Tea Origins in Kandy
To begin an exploration of Sri Lanka’s tea country, venture to the hilltop town of Kandy, a city in central Sri Lanka known for its myriad sacred shrines dedicated to Buddha. Set within the lush, biodiverse rainforest is Taylors Hill, a quaint, 150-year-old tea plantation and 5-room boutique hotel nestled among Kandy’s verdant tea plantations. It’s almost always shrouded in an ethereal mist, and offers the perfect perch to view the rolling hills from above: A stay at Taylors Hill ensures you have intimate access to the best of Kandy’s tea country.
Neighboring Taylors Hill is the Loolecondera Estate, where James Taylor began Sri Lanka’s first tea factory in 1872. With the assistance of Thomas Lipton, founder of Lipton brand tea, Taylor began Loolecondera Tea Factory, developing what would become the island nation’s booming tea industry. Plot 7, the original patch of land where James Taylor planted his first evergreen shrub, is still in production. Now the company is run by Sri Lankans, who will give you an introduction to the trade; women wear pastel pink and purple saris as they shuffle tea plants through a series of steps, separating the tea by grade. Before it becomes the coveted Ceylon Silver Tip Tea, this process of diligent selection must be done. Much of the equipment at the facility offers a glimpse into the past, relics from British occupation.
Before departing Kandy, visit the Temple of the Tooth to partake in a traditional sacrifice to the Buddha. Purchase a bundle of candy-colored frangipani and lotus flowers at the steps of the gold-roofed temple, shuffling behind locals as you snake your way to the second-story shrine, believed to harbor a tooth of the Buddha. Sip a tea at the nearby Empire Café before strolling the tropical Royal Botanical Gardens at Peradeniya. For a final stop in Kandy, visit the Ceylon Tea Museum, an institution housed in a former tea factory, harboring intriguing memorabilia and archives of James Taylor and his fellow tea pioneers.
Take an Antique Rail Car to Hatton’s Forested Estates
Leave Kandy for the Peradeniya railway station, then journey three hours south through tropical lowlands and cool tea-growing regions, to Hatton, the epicenter of Sri Lanka’s tea production. After a winding drive through densely covered hills where macaw monkeys swing through trumpet flower, bamboo, and fishtail palm tree trees, arrive at Camellia Hills, a hilltop property set above the stunning Castlereigh Valley. Surrounded by emerald tea gardens, the property’s infinity pool is the perfect place to enjoy the view of the canoe-dotted Castlereagh Reservoir. Explore nearby tea estates, forests, and waterfalls before arriving to the Leopard Conservation Centre to learn more about the region’s hill-dwelling big cat population. Other highlights include a visit to the colonial-era Warleigh Church and the valley’s own Hindu kovil, a turquoise mountain temple where worshipers gather from morning to night.
Rise early to take a short drive to the base of Adam’s Peak, an iconic Sri Lankan landmark famed for its history of ancient pilgrimages. A day hike up this mountain may seem somewhat impossible at first, but the trek up—more than 5,500 steps built into the 7,359-foot peak, known as Sri Pada in Sri Lanka—is attainable, and well worth the view. The mountaintop temple is believed to harbor the Buddha’s footprint, so devotees pen intentions on flags and tether them to the temple gates for only the clouds to read. To ensure your journey is cool, begin your hike before daybreak to witness the summit stand stark against the pastel pinks and blues of a light-kissed morning sky. Look out to see the Seven Virgins range, a series of peaks that are home to prized endemic herbs and dwarf elephants. Although only wildlife experts are allowed in this protected area, the view from Adam’s Peak is enchanting.
Discover the Future of Sri Lankan Tea in Colombo
For a last foray into Sri Lanka’s tea country, learn how the plant translates into city life in the country’s bustling capital of Colombo. Arrive at Maniumpathy, a luxurious boutique hotel in the heart of Colombo’s most exclusive neighborhood, Cinnamon Gardens, a well-positioned point from which to explore nearby art galleries and boutique shops. Steeped in history, the property has been passed down through five generations of the accomplished Hallock family, and is now a stylish retreat of just eight suites, all arranged around a peaceful central courtyard and petite lap pool.
Try to secure an invitation to the city’s coveted Colombo Tea Auction, where the country’s tea purveyors bid and sell their harvest. With the strike of a gavel, the auditorium proves to be an electrifying atmosphere, as each buyer tries their luck at outbidding competitors. End your trip to Sri Lanka with a visit to downtown café Dilmah Tea. Browse the floor-to-ceiling wall of tea canisters, all featuring varieties of Sri Lanka’s finest blends. Founded by Merrill J. Fernando, Dilmah Tea is the first single-origin, Sri Lankan-owned tea company to harvest direct from plantation to café. Since the 1950s, Fernando has worked tirelessly to evolve the country’s tea industry from large corporations to more of a locally-owned structure. Unlike the multi-origin blends that monopolize supermarket shelves, Dilmah utilizes both ethically and socially responsible practices and is packed freshly at the source. Take home a silver tin of Dilmah Tea’s Ceylon Silver Tips, arguably one of the world’s most exclusive teas.
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