HILL COUNTRY - Lonely Planet Sri Lanka (Travel Guide) (2015)

Lonely Planet Sri Lanka (Travel Guide) (2015)


This route through tea-clad hillsides to the former colonial retreat of Nuwara Eliya offers a memorable glimpse of the hill country and provides a welcome respite from the heat of the coast, with a pleasantly temperate (and sometimes positively chilly) climate, despite lying within seven degrees of the Equator.

DISTANCE: 248km (154 miles)

TIME: Two days

START: Kandy

END: Colombo

POINTS TO NOTE: It is possible to make this trip by train from Kandy (or from Colombo) to Nanu Oya station, the closest station to Nuwara Eliya. Instead of returning to Colombo the next day, you could embark on route 8 to Haputale.

Ringed by green mountains close to the highest part of the island, Nuwara Eliya is the most popular and appealing hill resort in Sri Lanka. The town also offers a haunting reminder of British rule, dotted with old colonial-style houses and complete with a breezy boating lake, verdant parks and a picture-perfect golf course. Nuwara Eliya was established in 1828 by governor Sir Edward Barnes (1776-1838), who promoted it as a health retreat for British officials wishing to escape the oppressive heat of the lowlands. The bungalow that was originally built for Barnes was expanded in 1891 to become the mock-Tudor Grand Hotel, setting the style for other buildings in the area and turning Nuwara Eliya into a tropical version of a British county town. Even today Colombo’s smart set converge here for Sinhalese New Year in April, when temperatures begin to rise in the capital.

Hill Country



Early morning view from the Tea Factory

Sylvaine Poitau/Apa Publications


Tamil tea-pickers at work

Sylvaine Poitau/Apa Publications


Leaving Kandy at the beginning of the morning’s drive to Nuwara Eliya, follow the A1 road past the Peradeniya Botanical Gardens (for more information, click here ) and then branch off the A1 to pick up the A5, signposted to Gampola. Alternatively, follow the road due south out of Kandy until the second roundabout and take the road from there, signposted to Galaha, heading past the picturesque campus of the Peradeniya University , designed by leading Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa. After about 3.5km (2 miles) take the right fork, following the old road to Gampola 1 [map] , 20km (12.5 miles) south of Kandy.

In spite of having been the island’s capital for a brief spell during the 14th-century, the main interest of Gampola nowadays is the busy gateway town to the hill country’s major tea-producing districts. There is a small rest house, The Heritage , see 1 [map] , in the village of Pusselawa , some 20km (12 miles) further along the well-made A5 highway.


Stunning Ramboda Falls

Dmytro Sukharevskyy - Fotolia


About 10km (6 miles) past Pusselawa, the road skirts the magnificent Ramboda Falls 2 [map] , which tumble over the cliffs in two 100m (328ft) high cascades.

Some 15km (9 miles) before Nuwara Eliya, the Labookellie Tea Factory ( www.mackwoodstea.com ; daily 8.30am-6.30pm; donation) is located in pleasantly cool and breezy countryside around 1,500m (4,921ft) above sea level. The factory hosts guided tours explaining how tea is made, as well as offering visitors the chance to walk through its immaculate tea gardens, buy tea to take away or just try a cup or two, accompanied by a slice of chocolate cake, in its garden café.




Nuwara Eliya’s market

Sylvaine Poitau/Apa Publications


Another twenty minutes’ drive brings you to Nuwara Eliya 3 [map] , the road into town swinging past the stately St Andrew’s Hotel , which overlooks the beautifully tended links of the Nuwara Eliya Golf Club A[map] (tel: 052-222 2835; daily 8am-7pm; charge). Established in 1889, this 18-hole course is one of the best, and lushest, in South Asia, winding a serpentine course through the centre of town between houses and hotels. Visitors are welcome to play or to look around.

Drive slowly through the town to take in the sights. Before the crossroads as you approach the northern end of the main street, on the left, is a Nuwara Eliya institution, the Lion Pub , see 2 [map] .

Market Place

Turn into New Bazaar Street, the town’s main street, where you’ll find Nuwara Eliya’s colourful covered market (daily 6am-6pm) stacked high with locally grown fruit and vegetables including strawberries, miniature potatoes, bright cauliflowers and plump leeks, all selling at much lower prices than in Colombo. Stalls on the opposite side of the road sell woollen sweaters, hats and jackets to help ward off the surprising chill that usually grips Nuwara Eliya at night.


Fresh produce for sale

Sylvaine Poitau/Apa Publications

Victoria Park

The pink brick spire ahead marks the gaudy colonial-built post office , while opposite is Victoria Park B [map] , opened in 1897 and best visited during the April season when it comes alive with blooms, as do the gardens at the nearby Grand Hotel C [map] (for more information, click here ), a magnificently old-fashioned half-timbered pile which looks like it has been airlifted straight from a golf course in Scotland. Many of the pioneers who created Nuwara Eliya are buried in the Anglican Holy Trinity Church behind Victoria Park.

Racecourse and lake

Follow the road as it curves past the Grand Hotel to reach the similarly incongruous Hill Club D [map] , a hoary granite hotel steadfastly withstanding modern trends. Its interior, complete with stags’ heads and time-worn books, is a perfect period piece, while evening meals - with waiters wearing white gloves - is Sri Lanka’s most enduring colonial ritual, seemingly unchanged since the days of empire.

Returning to the main road and heading south brings you to after a further kilometre or so to the town’s the racecourse E [map] . The meeting held here in April and August regularly attract Colombo’s fashionable set - akin to a Sri Lankan Ascot or Kentucky Derby. Slightly further south is breezy Lake Gregory ; boats can sometimes be hired here, and even if not, it’s a nice place for a traffic-free wander. Standing on the shores of the lake and looking north, you should be able to see (unless it’s too misty) Mount Pidurutalagala ,which at 2,524m (8,281ft) is the highest mountain in Sri Lanka, towering 635m (2,081ft) above the town.


Heritance Tea Factory Hotel sign

Sylvaine Poitau/Apa Publications


One of Sri Lanka’s most memorable places to stay - and worth a visit even if you’re not overnighting here - the Heritance Tea Factory Hotel (for more information, click here ) is located 14km (8.7 miles) from Nuwara Eliya amidst picture-perfect tea plantations around 2,200m (7,214ft) above sea level. The hotel was ingeniously converted from an abandoned tea factory, and from the outside that’s exactly what it still looks like. To reach the hotel, take the road eastwards from the Grand Hotel junction to the plantation town of Kandapola 4 [map] , from where a signposted track leads northwards uphill through vegetable and tea gardens.

Here, you can explore the surrounding countryside on two-hour nature treks (daily at 6.30am, 10am and 4pm; charge) taking in the hotel’s rose, organic vegetable and tea gardens. Guests learn about the art of tea picking and can pluck their own leaves - which are turned overnight into a packet of freshly made tea ready for you to take home. Beyond the hotel, walks leads past the Hethersett village temple and into the nearby Kuduratte Jungle, a carefully conserved forest that is home to amazing numbers of birds, butterflies and mammals.


The next day, it’s well worth the 10km (6 miles) drive south of Nuwara Eliya to the prominent Hakgala Rock , whose sheer face rises 450m (1,500ft) above the surrounding countryside. At the foot of the rock lie the pretty Hakgala Botanical Gardens 5 [map] (daily 8am-5pm; charge), situated at just under 2,000m (6,562ft) above sea level and boasting a herbarium, rose garden, fernery and wild orchid collection. The gardens were originally established in 1860 as an experimental plantation of cinchona trees, which are the source of quinine, the world’s leading anti-malarial drug of choice right through until the 1940s, and a life-saver in Sri Lanka’s early colonial days.


Verdant tea country

Sylvaine Poitau/Apa Publications

Adam’s Peak

Rising south of Hatton is the dramatic mountain of Adam’s Peak (2,243 metres; 7,360ft), rising in solitary splendour above the surrounding hills. The Peak has been an object of worship and pilgrimage for centuries amongst the Sinhalese, thanks to a strange impression on the bare rock at its summit that is popularly claimed to be a footprint (Sri Pada) made by the Buddha himself during one of his three legendary visits to the island. Thousands of pilgrims haul themselves up the hundreds of steps to the mountain’s summit every year to pay their respects to the footprint. The arduous ascent from the village of Dalhousie on the peak’s northern side is traditionally made by night during the pilgrimage season from January to April. Arriving in time for dawn, one has the best chance of seeing the spectacle known as the ‘Shadow of the Peak’, whereby the rising sun casts a perfectly triangular shadow of the peak’s summit, which hangs miraculously suspended in mid-air for 20 minutes or so.


Beyond Hakgala, at the southern edge of the hill country and 32km (20 miles) from Nuwara Eliya, lies Horton Plains National Park 6 [map] (daily 6am-6pm, ticket office closes at 4pm; charge). While it is home to wildlife like sambhur (large deer), the scenery - often shrouded in mist - is the attraction. The park offers excellent hikes, the most popular being the 9km (5.5-mile) round trip from the entrance to World’s End, a stunning viewpoint at the very edge of the hill country, where the cliffs fall away for the best part of 1,000m (3,288ft) to the plains below.


Returning to the park entrance, you could continue on the A5 to Ella (for more information, click here ) or return to Nuwara Eliya. If you are driving back to Colombo, take the A7 signposted to Hatton through Nanu Oya (or go to Nanu Oya to catch the train). Off the A7 take the northern fork diverting to Radella 7 [map] , where the Somerset Estate has a shop (daily 7.30am-5.30pm) selling packets of estate-grown tea, strawberries and home-made strawberry jam. From Hatton, you could take the memorable side-trip to Adam’s Peak (see box), adding a day to your tour if you fancy making the ascent of Sri Lanka’s most famous mountain.

Back on the A7 bound for Colombo, drive through Talawakele 8 [map] and glorious tea country, keeping an eye open for two waterfalls, St Clair and Devon, located on the northern valley side of the road. There are roadside viewpoints, while a commanding view of the whole valley is to be had from the battlements of the Tea Castle , see 3 [map] , an extraordinary building with a restaurant and tea shop. From there it’s a 50km (31-mile) drive to Kitulgala 9 [map] , with its delightfully laid-back rest house , see 4 [map] , offering a good option for lunch or dinner while overlooking the river made famous as the location for the film, The Bridge on the River Kwai . It’s another 86km (53 miles) via Avissawella back to Colombo.

Food and drink


Pusselawa [map] ; tel: 081-247 8397; www.chcresthouses.com/pussellawa ; daily 12.30-3pm, 7-9pm; $

Poised over a magnificent valley view, this recently upgraded old rest house provides a reliable lunchtime option for rice and curry and other local and international dishes served in its glass-walled restaurant.


20 Kandy Road (Old Bazaar Street/Bandaranaike Mawatha), Nuwara Eliya [map] ; daily 11am-10pm; $

A Nuwara Eliya institution, the Lion Pub is a real slice of hill-country life, usually packed with friendly vegetable farmers in woolly caps. Beer is served and there are plenty of snacks, including succulent fried local beef.


Talawakele [map] ; tel: 051-222 2561; daily 8am-6pm; $$

From the outside it looks like a miniature castle, but inside it is a charming restaurant for authentic rice and curry from a menu, or for a top-quality cup of tea and scrumptious cake.


Kitulgala [map] ; tel: 036-228 7528; www.chcresthouses.com/kithulgala ; daily breakfast 7-10am, lunch 12.30-4.30pm, dinner 7.30-10pm; $$

Beautiful old colonial-era dining room overlooking the Kitulgala river, convenient for a quick meal from the rice-and-curry buffet, the local and international a la carte or snack menu.