Plantation Nation

From the Central Highland estates to a luxe coastal resort, we take a look at how tea has been infused into the culture of Sri Lanka.

The roots of Sri Lanka’s tea industry began, oddly, with coffee. It was the 1870s and a disease known as ‘coffee rust’ was gradually wiping out all the country’s coffee plantations, leaving growers with two choices: either abandon their businesses, or follow the lead of a Scottish man named James Taylor. Considered a pioneer of the Sri Lankan tea industry, Taylor had a few years earlier planted seven hectares of tea in Kandy, in the centre of the island, and was having success with its production. Many people got on board; including the man credited with commercialising Sri Lankan tea, a fellow Scotsman, the entrepreneur Sir Thomas Lipton.

From those first few trees has grown an industry worth more than US$1.6 billion, and today, the island once known as Ceylon - as it was called under British rule until 1972 - is the fourth largest producer of tea in the world. Many years may have passed since Taylor first started out in tea, but his legacy continues to leave a stamp on Sri Lanka’s landscape.

About seven million kilograms of tea is harvested each year in the rolling green hills of Bogawantalawa in the UNESCO World Heritage Central Highlands region. A visit to this beautiful terraced hillside, roughly 150 kilometres east of the capital, Colombo, offers a glimpse into a way of Sri Lankan life that has been relatively unchanged by time.

A good way to experience plantation life is with the Ceylon Tea Trails. Created by one of Sri Lanka’s most globally recognised companies, Dilmah, in partnership with the Bogawantalawa Tea Estates, it’s the first resort of its kind, as well as the country’s first Relais & Châteaux-accredited accommodation.

There are five estates for guests to stay in, scattered across the tea country region at an altitude of 1250 metres. Each has its own renovated colonial-era planters’ bungalow, extensive grounds and working plantation. The lodges vary in size, but all are connected by the many walking trails that snake through the landscape. The peaceful retreats - the silence only broken by music rising from the villages below - are inclusive of meals, tours and, of course, bottomless cups of tea.

Bungalow Living

At the Norwood bungalow, it’s encouraged to start the day with the tradition of ‘bed tea’ which, as its name suggests, is tea served in bed. There’s a surprisingly long menu to choose from, including single-origin estate, flavoured and even ‘white tea’, which is made from highly prized and limited silvery young buds.

While you recline in your four-poster bed drinking the fragrant brew that was harvested in the hills just outside your room, a butler will draw your bath before breakfast is served in the airy dining room. Western and Sri Lankan-style meals (some infused with tea, naturally) are prepared by a skilled chef - a fastidious man keen on fattening you up with coconut sambols, curries and traditional string hoppers. Offset that with the many outdoor activities on offer, including walks around the estate’s manicured lawns, a game of croquet or a dip in the pool. If the weather cools however, you might prefer to stay warm beside the outdoor fireplace on the deck of your bungalow.

Further afield you can trek up Adam’s Peak, a mountain that attracts pilgrims in search of ‘Buddha’s footprint’, which is enshrined near the summit, or head into the verdant plantation with the resident tea planter. If you’re lucky you’ll stumble upon a group of pickers weaving through the low-slung tea trees. The pickers are mainly women dressed in brightly coloured clothing who, barefoot, carry their haul on their head. Their target is about 16 kilograms of tea a day and as you watch them pluck the leaves from the trees with a graceful twist of the wrist, you get a glimpse of the back-breaking work that goes into a simple cup of tea.

Not that tea is ever a simple event at the Tea Trails. As the sun begins to set, the plantation guide leads the tour to a table that’s been prepared with an impressive spread of scones, sandwiches, sweet treats and Dilmah’s original earl grey. Afternoon tea in a tea plantation - how very excellent.

The Dilmah Journey

Just as coffee had an unexpected role in shaping Sri Lanka’s tea industry, Australia also played a part. It’s a story that began in London’s Mincing Lane - once the mecca of tea. Merrill J Fernando was there for training in tea tasting but he also got an insight into the dysfunction of the industry, with middlemen taking their cut and the high-end Ceylon tea being blended with inferior leaves.

It encouraged him in 1988 to set up Dilmah Tea as the first producer-owned tea brand, or rather, the only Sri Lankan tea company to grow, harvest, process, package and sell its own tea - allowing him to keep the quality in check and eliminate all the people taking their cut. Dilmah remains the only producer-owned company in Sri Lanka to this day and, although ‘vertical integration’ and ‘single origin’ are now common ways for companies to define their products and brands these days, it was relatively unheard of back then.

Regardless, he found it tough to get any traction among conglomerates and supermarket chains until he approached Coles in Australia, which is where he first launched his new brand.

Fast forward to today and Dilmah (the word comes from a combination of his two sons’ names, Dilhan and Malik) is one of the largest tea companies in the world, sold in more than 100 countries. It has even sponsored the Sri Lankan cricket team: a big deal in this cricket obsessed country.

Dilmah’s foray into tourism is only a recent development. After realising that people enjoyed visiting the plantations, they launched Ceylon Tea Trails in 2005, followed a decade later with their second resort, Cape Weligama. The luxury cliff-side retreat, on the southern coast about 26 kilometres from the fort town of Galle, is a vast step up in the accommodation scene for a country still healing from years of civil unrest (later this year Dilmah will also open a beach camp in Yala National Park, in the south, and a resort in the north’s Cultural Triangle).

The hotels are all part of the Dilmah Resplendent Ceylon tourism arm, which, according to Malik Fernando, offers an itinerary for travellers wishing to get a taste for the different sides of the country. “The goal is to offer the curious traveller a range of experiences linked to Sri Lanka’s history, culture and nature,” he says.

Beyond the Tea

Sri Lanka may be a small island but driving around can be challenging, thanks to the traffic, potholes and a relaxed approach to the road rules. Vastly quicker, and more glamorous, is travelling by Cinnamon Air’s seaplane. It’s also an efficient way to resort-hop across Resplendent Ceylon’s portfolio.

From the plantations, air travel time is 30 minutes to Cape Weligama, a glorious resort named after the bay it overlooks.

Set on five hectares, the 39 free-standing private villas and suites are arranged within eight wattas (gardens), each with its own pool. The rooms are named after old Ceylon explorers and writers, and come with a private butler service. There’s even a steam room in the bathrooms, which are larger than some Australian apartments. If you can tear yourself away, there is a crescent-shaped main pool, a number of dining rooms and a well-stocked bar.

The resort is unquestionably luxe and, if anything, a sign of what is to come for a country only just opening itself up to the travel industry. The hotel backs onto a beach, a perfect spot for surfers looking for a trip where expense isn’t an issue. From here there are also day trips to other quality surfing spots.

There’s a plan to set up a surfing school for the locals. The initiative is part of Dilmah’s MJF Charitable Foundation, which is one of Sri Lanka’s largest charitable enterprises (10 per cent of profits are donated towards social programs). The school will run lessons on how to make boards, and then work on branding and selling those boards, as well as teach surfing - with the aim of getting a Sri Lankan surfer onto the international surf tour. They’ve recruited Sri Lankan-born Aussie chef Peter Kuruvita, who has worked with the Dilmah group before, along with renowned board shaper Thomas Bexon, to run the program.

This part of the coast was devastated when the 2004 tsunami struck the island. Driving east from the hotel to Mirissa Beach you can still see the damage, and the odd washed-up boat sitting beside the road. The effects of this, and the 25-year-long civil war between the majority Sinhalese and the Tamil minority, which ended in 2009, are still keenly felt, and the recovery efforts that followed have accelerated change. Many age-old traditions such as stilt fishing, which you can still see along this stretch, are slowly disappearing. High-end and boutique hotels are either opening in response to a growing number of tourists or because they believe that if you build it, they will come. Nearby, overlooking Sri Lanka’s Koggala Lake is the country’s first contemporary sustainable luxury design hotel, Tri.

Not that people seem to pay much thought to any of this on the hot sand at Mirissa. They recline on day beds under palm trees that line the sand, and the restaurants and bars are thriving. Zephyr Restaurant & Bar is the pick, with an upmarket, yet still suitably relaxed, setting. And as tourists drink cocktails and eat Negombo-style crab curry while waves create the soundtrack, it’s hard to believe that tea - such a traditional Sri Lankan trade - is part of the modernising force shaping the future of the country.

Sarah Norris - Published in Voyeur June 2016
Quick Facts 
Population Approx. 700,000
Area 675 km2 (Colombo District)
Time Zone GMT + 5:30
Languages Sinhala (official and national language), Tamil (national language)
Currency Sri Lankan Rupee (KRW)
Electricity 230V 50Hz
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