Nuwara Eliya is the stunning highland region of Sri Lanka, remarkable for its green landscape, abundance of natural waterfalls as well as its marked British history that is still very much evident (despite Sri Lankan independence) in the customs, architecture and names of local establishments. Most people visit the region to learn more about tea growing and to try the common brew at one of the many tea plantations. But don’t just stop for tea on your journey! There is so much to see and experience in beautiful Nuwara Eliya.
Sri Lanka may only have opened its doors to tourism in the last twenty years but do not be fooled, almost everywhere you go in Sri Lanka nowadays is undiscovered and in places like Nuwara Eliya, you will probably come across more foreigners than locals. However it shouldn’t deter you. There are many gorgeous pockets in this region so different from anywhere else in the world. Most people that visit Sri Lanka hire a driver, partly because it is so cheap and also as it is not possible to reach most places by public transport. However do not rely solely on your driver when planning your itinerary as drivers will take you where it is convenient for them and where they have a friend working so they can receive extra perks… if you get what I mean. Here is my overview of the best of Nuwara Eliya with a few tips to help you plan your trip.
Visit a Tea Plantation
This region has a rich history in growing tea. The very first tea plantation was established in nearby Kandy by James Taylor in 1867 and soon thereafter more plantations were setup in the surrounding areas including Nuwara Eliya. The hilly and temperate climate is ideal for growing and cultivating tea and most plantations today will enable visitors to learn about the process as well as sample some of the local brews. There are also stunning views of the landscape and fresh country airs to take in that make it a special experience.
After Sri Lanka gained its independence from Britain it was decreed that all businesses, including tea plantations, must be at least 50% Sri Lankan owned. We followed our drivers advice rather than do our own research and he took us to the Glenloch Tea Estate, which is one of the only 100% locally owned plantations in the area. Unfortunately it was not a great experience for us because the employees lacked customer service skills and we were rushed through the tour of the plantation before being asked rudely for a tip by our guide. Nonetheless we did learn something about the tea making process.
Upon entering the Glenloch Estate we were taken to the upper floor of the factory where we saw the fresh picked tea leaves being dried. This process is called withering whereby plucked leaves are spread on long trays with warm air passing through the leaves for 18 hours.
The leaves are then broken down into pieces using rolling machines before being fermented in cool and humid roles to facilitate oxidation. The leaves are then dried in the oven and then sorted, graded and packaged for consumption.
At Glenloch, similarly to most of the other estates, their core offerings were Broken Orange Pekoe Fannings (BOPF), Broken Orange Pekoe (BOP), Pekoe and Orange Pekoe (OP). All of these teas are essentially breakfast teas with some differences. Tea that contains fannings is typically of lower quality as the fannings are the broken pieces and dust left overs of higher grades. OP is the highest grade and has a stronger flavour, which tastes good with a drop of milk or sugar.
Glenloch also make delicious, nutty chocolates on site. After our lacklustre tour we sampled some teas and enjoyed hazelnut chocolate bars in a very British-like ceremony complete with dainty china teacups and ornate teaspoons. We then headed to the shop to buy some loose leaf tea to take back home. Surprisingly, or perhaps unsurprisingly, our guide suddenly came to life and showed interest in helping us make some purchases. Perhaps they make a commission?
Visiting a tea plantation is a worthy experience but you want to make sure you do some research on TripAdvisor so you visit an estate that truly cares about sharing its history as well as the tea production process with visitors. There is nothing worse than being treated like a dollar bill.
Across the landscape in this area you will notice brightly dressed women in the fields picking the tea leaves. As women have softer hands, only they can get jobs picking the tea. Unfortunately this type of work is not well paid and many of them live in very basic accommodation on the estates. If you take photos of them, give them a tip.
Because the British introduced tea to Sri Lanka, most of the estates have very British names. Later that same day we stopped off at the Rothschild Estate. If you do not stop for the guided tours here, you can still learn about their tea in the shop and drink it for free (you just pay for the milk and sugar) whilst enjoying spectacular views on their glass balcony. The employees here were so accommodating and happy to talk about their product, which made up for our misadventure at Glenloch.
Do a Waterfall Hike
As you drive through the windy roads of this region you cannot help but notice there are waterfalls here, there and everywhere! It is truly spectacular. And very few tourists take the time to get out of the car and do some hiking because they follow the itinerary their driver sets. The Romboda Falls are the most magnificent of all the waterfalls and we had the unique experience of sleeping one night at the Ramboda Falls Hotel. This hotel is off the beaten track and we could see and hear this magnificent waterfall from our hotel room. This is another little establishment that was 100% Sri Lankan owned at the time of our visit, but during our stay we witnessed the new partnership between the owners and some Japanese bosses. Expect to see a lot more Japanese tourists here in the future!
Around the corner from the hotel is one of the most difficult yet rewarding hikes I did in Sri Lanka. The Ramboda Ella Falls are formed by the Panna Oya River which is a tributary of the KothmaleOya. There is a pathway leading from the road just before the bridge and a very steep and rocky incline from there on out. After climbing about one hundred metres you will notice most locals stop to go for a swim at the base of the falls. But if you keep going up the many more steps you will be taken to a truly beautiful and isolated scene of rocks and rushing water. You need to be really careful here as some of the rocks are slippery so watch your step and if possible, see if your driver or guide would be willing to accompany you on the hike up.
Hot Roti at a Roadside Cafe
The best roti we tasted during our week in Sri Lanka was at a small roadside cafe in Nuwara Eliya. Roti is wholewheat flatbread cooked on a hot stone or stove. If you keep driving for about 10 minutes after the Glenroch Estate towards the city centre (in the opposite direction of Kandy) you will see an unassuming, ramshackle cafe with Coca Cola advertising on the righthand side of the road. This small establishment is run by a single uncle (an uncle is a southeast Asian term for old man) who makes hot roti with chilli paste and mushroom curry on premise. Normally one serving consists of two pieces of bread with side dishes but the food tasted so incredible we devoured roti after roti, bowl after bowl of chilli and curry. The uncle was flattered but also surprised at our appetite and the fact we were foreigners! You cannot beat these local tastes and I guarantee you there will not be another tourist in sight as they will all be eating their lunchtime meals at the hotel or one of the tourist kitchens at the tea plantations. I still crave more of that hot bread and spice just writing this.
Visit Nuwara Eliya Central
Whilst you are here you might as well stop in the city centre of Nuwara Eliya, which is also known as Little England in Sri Lanka. It is an unusual town that is marked by the supposedly British-looking post office in the centre. The building looks really new with its bright red bricks and perfect clock tower, actually not very British for that matter, and it just seems so out of place compared to the rest of the town, which is totally Sri Lankan. Do wander inside as they sell some beautiful postcards of Sri Lanka as well as other souvenirs.
The highlight of my visit here was stumbling upon the Central Market of Nuwara Eliya. This market is crazy! Imagine hundreds of stalls selling all sorts of random and delicious items from raw fish and fresh fruits to second hand clothing and hardware. The best thing about it is watching the locals bargain and negotiate for the best deals. It was a colourful and very animated experience and I spent an hour purely observing the culture here.
If you want to buy religious icons (the main religion in these parts is Hinduism) or cheap clothing, there are plenty of small shop fronts to browse for bargains as well. There are also many bakeries along the high street selling sweet and breaded delights.
A Picturesque Train Journey
The highlight of our visit to these parts was taking a picturesque train journey from Nanu Oya station to Ella. However we could not help but feel privileged in doing so. Most people take a train as a mode of transportation to get from A to B. Like scores of other tourists, we were dropped off at the train station by our driver in order to experience the sensation of riding a Sri Lankan train. Our driver then picked us up from Ella station at the end of our journey. We rode second class, which afforded us comfortable seats and everyone else in the carriage were also tourists so there were many iPhones out taking photos throughout the journey.
It is a once in a lifetime experience so I tried to enjoy the train ride rather than focus on taking photos. The old fashioned train pulled up at the station with a loud, chugging sound and we boarded among a throng of people. During the journey the windows were wide open and we could smell the fresh country air and witness stunning views of hills, waterfalls as well as city life of the towns the train passed through. Vendors selling nuts and curry puffs strolled up and down the carriages throughout the trip. Their offerings were rustic and as I had not eaten lunch I did snack on a few fried puffs, which my stomach punished me for later.
This was a highlight of the trip but also made me appreciate how lucky I was to have the experience. Locals travelling in third class carrying produce, goods and luggage needed to stand the entire trip amongst crowds of other people. No doubt the number of tourists that wish to experience this train ride have jacked up the price of train tickets for locals as well.
If you are holidaying in Sri Lanka, exploring the best of Nuwara Eliya region should be a highlight for a first time visitor. The outlook is green, the air is fresh and there are many interesting things to see that you would not have the opportunity to experience back home. However do not rely too heavily on your driver to create your itinerary and read plenty of TripAdvisor reviews in advance.