Lonely Planet Sri Lanka (Travel Guide) (2015)
HAPUTALE, ELLA AND BANDARAWELA
Travel through some of Sri Lanka’s highest and most memorable scenery, a landscape of precipitous green hills covered in endless tea bushes, where the local culture is Hindu with a quaint dash of British colonial style.
DISTANCE: 70km (43 miles)
TIME: One or two days
START: Nuwara Eliya
END: Ella Gap
POINTS TO NOTE: This journey to Haputale and Ella can also be made by rail from Nanu Oya station (near Nuwara Eliya): a memorable two-hour ride along hilltop ridges and through long tunnels, via the island’s highest station, Pattipola, 1,891m (6,203ft) above sea level. From Ella you can drive south for 134km (83 miles) to reach Yala National Park (tour 12).
The route starts by heading to Haputale, dramatically perched on the very edge of the hills, before sampling some of the area’s old-world colonial charms at Adisham and Bandarawela, and then finishing in the pretty village of Ella.
A panoramic view of tea plantations
NUWARA ELIYA TO HAPUTALE
The drive from Nuwara Eliya starts by heading south along the A5, passing the Hakgala Botanical Garden s (see route 7) en route. Some 15km (9-mile) beyond the gardens, take the road turning south at the small town of Keppetipola . This eventually wends its way around many bends to Haputale. If you have time, stop at Idalgashina 1 [map] and visit its railway station, located 1,615m (5,298ft) above sea level, for its stunning views of scalloped hills dropping away from both sides of the platform. The tea gardens here are organic (no artificial fertiliser is used to promote growth) and produce special long-leaf premium tea as well as Sri Lankan green tea.
About 3km (2 miles) before Haputale the country lane brings you to Adisham 2 [map] (Sat, Sun, Poya days and school holidays only 9.30am-12.30pm and 1.30-4pm; charge). Now used as a monastery and novitiate by the Congregation of St Sylvester, a missionary order that came to the country in 1840, this Gothic, granite-block house was originally built in 1931 as the home of Sir Thomas Villiers (1869-1959). His grandfather, Lord John Russell, was twice prime minister of Britain, but Villiers was the black sheep of the family and arrived in Ceylon in 1887 with ten pounds in his pocket.
He prospered and rewarded himself for his successful business dealings by building Adisham as an expression of his nostalgia, modelling it on Leeds Castle in Kent and furnishing it with imported carpets, porcelain, furniture and glassware - the fine library remains as Villiers left it.
The attraction of Haputale 3 [map] is hard to define. Most visitors just gasp at the sight of the main street which seems to tumble off the edge of a cliff - you can walk around town in ten minutes and see where the main road skirts the long drop down to the plains below. But Haputale, in spite of its grubby streets - in strange contrast to the carefully tended tea plantations surrounding it - has an agreeable quality. Perhaps it is the town’s compact size, sense of activity, and various eccentricities including a climate that changes from warm sunshine to freezing mist in seconds and the railway track running through the town centre which also serves as a market place for vendors, who have to move their wares quickly whenever a train comes along.
Kelburne Mountain Resort
For lunch there is the famous local drinking den, High Cliffe , see 1 [map] , by the rail track, or the welcoming Sri Lak View Holiday Inn , see 2 [map] .
Bags of tea at Dambatenne
However, the best reason for visiting Haputale is to stay in one of the time-warped plantation bungalows close to the town. Taking the road eastwards to Lipton’s Seat, you pass above three of these, tucked into the hillside with views across the plains right down to the south coast. British planters always chose the best locations for their bungalows, so that they could keep an eye on the labourers in the tea fields below, and enjoy panoramic views to boot. To stay in one of these, waited upon by butler and cook and dining on traditional fare like mulligatawny soup, fish pie and trifle, is to taste the colonial planter’s lifestyle.
The four-bedroom Sherwood Bungalow (reservations tel: 011-238 1644) has an old-fashioned air to it, with a garden gazebo instead of a veranda for nature-watching while having a cup of estate tea.
A little further from the town, Kelburne Mountain Resort (tel: 057-226 8029; www.kelburnemountainview.com ) has three separate bungalows grouped around a central plateau where meals are served in a pavilion, or to the dining rooms of each bungalow.
The grandest, 3km (2 miles) from Haputale, is Thotalagala (reservations tel: 011-238 1644), set in a garden of ponds and flowers and with a secluded swimming pool for the hardy. It consists of three linked pavilions with a teak-panelled smoking room and log fire.
View from Kelburne Mountain Resort
Dambatenne Tea Factory
Although it’s only 13km (8 miles) from Haputale to Lipton’s Seat, the drive takes time because the road is too narrow in places for vehicles to pass each other, and much of it is unsurfaced. It’s well worth the effort, however, as the road winds slowly upwards, slaloming between immaculately tended tea gardens, revealing ever-more expansive and sweeping views with each bend - one of the most memorable short drives on the island. Alternatively, hire a taxi to the top and then walk back down again to either the tea factory or Lipton’s Seat, an easy and immensely enjoyable half-day walk.
The road passes the Dambatenne Tea Factory 4 [map] , which is the longest in the island at 105m (345ft). Dambatenne was one of many estates owned by Sir Thomas Lipton (1848-1931), the Scottish grocer who was hugely successful in marketing Sri Lankan tea worldwide.
Wild flowers in Haputale
When Lipton stayed on the island he would ride his horse up to the estate’s highest point, now called Lipton’s Seat 5 [map] (daily 7.30am-6pm; charge) to survey his tea gardens. The view from here is one of the finest on the island, looking out from the hill country escarpment, with the lowland plains far below stretching away to the coast, although thick clouds usually roll in by about 10am, so it’s best to arrive early if you want to see anything.
From leaf to cup
Following the experimental growth of tea by James Taylor at Loolecondra near Kandy (see route 6) in the 1860s, the topography of highland Sri Lanka was changed for ever. Large tracts of the hill country were cleared by British settlers attracted by the riches to be made from growing tea in a British colony. Within 20 years, the environment of the hill country was transformed from dense jungle to swathes of neatly manicured tea bushes. In time, the best area to grow flavourful tea was discovered to be around Bandarawela.
Tea begins its journey from hillside to cup when two top leaves and a bud are gently picked by a tea plucker, usually female. The freshly gathered leaves are swiftly transferred to a nearby tea factory where they are withered overnight in blasts of hot air to remove excess moisture. The withered leaves are rolled and crushed by machinery, often dating from Victorian times, to release the remaining sap and to trigger fermentation. The leaves are then fired in enormous ovens before being sifted and graded according to particle size. Orange Pekoe (OP) is the standard size for light tea without milk, while Broken Orange Pekoe Fannings (BOPF) is a small-size grade for a strong cup of tea mixed with milk and sugar.
Continue towards Ella by taking the Bandarawela road (A16) out of Haputale and then turn off westwards to Diyatalawa . The road winds through a forest of eucalyptus pine trees down to a valley cantonment, a prison for Boers and then for German combatants in World War I and a convalescent camp for military personnel in World War II. The area has a salubrious, dry climate in contrast to the rainy chill of Haputale.
A colonial throwback at Bandarawela
After passing through Diyatalawa, the road climbs up to join the A16 again. The road swings into Bandarawela 6 [map] alongside the railway track. Highlight of the town is the sedate old Bandarawela Hotel (for more information, click here ) built in 1893 when the railway arrived (Bandarawela was the terminus of the main line until the railway was extended to Badulla in 1924). With its tea-planter club atmosphere - a long lounge with chintzy armchairs and rooms with old-fashioned, brass-knobbed beds - it seems settled in the 1920s. Tea on the lawn served by waiters clad in tunics and sarongs is almost obligatory.
The beautiful hills around town are still the best area for what tea planters call ‘flavoury tea’; pears and strawberries also reach their prime here, as the climate is drier and milder than at Nuwara Eliya.
Early morning at Ella Gap
Dowa Cave Temple
Roughly 6km (4 miles) northeast of Bandarawela, the small Dowa Cave Temple stands right by the roadside, but is easily missed thanks to the thick woodland surrounding it. The main attraction here is a striking figure carved in bas-relief into the rock above the temple: either the historical Buddha or the future Buddha Maitreya.
Trains can offer spectacular views
Another 2km (1 mile) further along the A16, at the southeastern cusp of the hills by the turn southwards on to the A23, is the pretty little settlement of Ella 7 [map] . A sleepy village a decade ago, it now attracts large numbers of foreign visitors, with an ever-growing plethora of guesthouses and cafes which are now threatening to overwhelm the gorgeous natural setting which brought the tourists here in the first place. The main attraction is the stunning view through a narrow cleft in the hills, known as Ella Gap the garden of the Grand Ella Motel , see 3 [map] , offers one of the best vantage points.
It’s possible to walk up Ella Rock - a steep but exhilarating hike of about three hours return. Alternatively, the shorter and less strenuous walk up the nearby Little Adam’s Peak provides almost equally memorable views.
If you wish to linger in Ella, try Dream Café , see 4 [map] or Ravana Heights , see 5 [map] for lunch.
Rawana Ella Falls
Ella is also famous as one of the Sri Lankan sites most closely associated with the Ramayana, and particularly with the villainous Ravana, who is thought to have imprisoned Sita in the Rawana Ella Cave, just south of the village. Ravana also gives his name to the Rawana Ella Falls , a great cataract of water tumbling over a cliff right next to the road to Wellawaya some 6km (3.7 miles) south of Ella. Unfortunately, the graffiti scrawled on the rocks and the persistence of vendors trying to sell pink quartz contrasts with the beauty of the place.
Food and drink
1 HIGH CLIFFE
15 Station Road, Haputale [map] ; tel: 057-226 8096; daily 9am-10pm; $
This bar, whose entrance is hidden behind a brick wall, has evolved over the years from a tiny guesthouse with bunk beds for backpackers, to a neat 11-room hotel and bar-restaurant where snacks like beef with deep-fried garlic bulbs are sensational. You can sit with locals at tables with bells to summon stewards, or have your snacks in the private lounge upstairs.
2 SRI LAK VIEW HOLIDAY INN
Sherwood Rd [map] ; tel: 057 226 8125, www.srilakviewholidayinn.com ; daily 7am-10pm; $
On a small side road just below the town centre, the Sri Lak’s cosy little dining room offers superb views from its cosy little dining room and well-prepared local and international mains, as well as snacks, at bargain prices.
3 GRAND ELLA MOTEL
Ella [map] ; tel: 057-567 0711; www.chcresthouses.com ; daily 7am-11pm; $$
This upmarket rest house offers typical rice-and-curry fare or simpler snacks and sandwiches, served in either its sedate dining room or the garden at the rear, which boasts spectacular views of Ella Gap.
4 DREAM CAFÉ
Main Street, Ella [map] ; tel 057-222 8950; $$
This is easily the best - and best-looking - of Ella’s innumerable backpacker cafes, arranged around an attractive courtyard area, although there is indoor seating too. Standards of cooking are high and cover plenty of culinary bases, ranging from rice and curry through to pasta, burgers, wraps and salads, not to mention the best pizza in the hill country. Also does good breakfasts, both Western and Sri Lankan.
5 RAVANA HEIGHTS
Wellawaya Road, Ella [map] ; tel: 057 222 8888; $$
Good Thai food served in this friendly little guesthouse just below the village on the road out to the Rawana Ella Falls and Wellawaya. Non-guests should book for dinner by 4pm.