If it's Kandy, it's time for tea

Richard Browne
You can't visit the hill country and not make a trip to a tea estate

Kandy, the capital of Sri Lanka's verdant hill country, is famous for Buddhism, cultural pride, and of course tea, which grows outside the city and throughout the region, and which, until the government nationalisation of the tea estates in 1972, was a world of its own: the "Old Ceylon" of hardy British planters, gentleman's clubs, and, especially in the tea capital of Nuwara Eliya, a tangible taste of Britain, with picture postcard cottages, red letterboxes, and imposing clubs with hunting memorabilia on the walls. Even today, on hazy mornings, you get the feeling of being in a Miss Marple novel.

The train ride from Kandy to Nuwara Eliya, about 20km south east, is one of the most stunning in Asia. Go to Peradeniya station, 7km from the city, and get a train to Nanu Oya, which is the same distance again from Nuwara Eliya, where tuk-tuks will be waiting to complete the journey. The trip takes two and half hours and offers jaw-dropping scenery of waterfalls and vast plateaus of greenery, intermingled with tea plantations.

The Ceylon Tea Museum is about 2km from Kandy - an appealing-sounding walk in the early morning cool, but unless you have recently returned from the Himalayas, the steep gradient will be too much. The museum is a good starting point to get an overview of the tea industry and is spread over four floors, with pre-World War II machinery and a host of archives and fascinating pictures. The real treat lies on the fourth floor, which has a telescope offering almighty views over Mount Hunnasgeriya and the Knuckles Mountain Range. And when you look at the archive photos it becomes obvious that the landscape has not changed for a century.

Hantane is a working estate and produces around 350,000kg of tea per annum. The factory is open to visitors, but outside of peak season (March-April and November-December) it is advised to phone beforehand to make sure there is something going on on the day you want to visit. A manager will be only too happy to show you around, and if you're lucky he'll provide a few stories from the old days about "the wild men of the hills".

Bizarrely, a good cup of tea is quite hard to find in Sri Lanka, outside of the top-end hotels. The best tea is exported, and the average Lankan cuppa will taste a little odd to the unacquainted: vast amounts of sugar, often condensed milk, and a sharp aftertaste. So tea lovers on a budget should fill their boots when visiting a plantation and take advantage of the low prices for top-quality teas. Most plantations, including Hantane, offer a tasting session at the end of the factory tour.

Kandy has many treasure troves, from the famous Temple of the Tooth to the fascinating Kandy Garrison Cemetery, where the informative workers double as tour guides for a tip and offer a good potted history of the region's turbulent history. Kandy was the last part of Sri Lanka to be colonised, by the British in 1812 after the Dutch and Portuguese failed, and Kandyans still have an obvious pride in their independence and a slightly snooty regard for "low-country" Sri Lankans.

A trip through Sri Lankan tea country is very much a voyage of discovery: the region is so vast and undeveloped and so full of scenic wonders that there is a journey for everyone. Numerous bungalows of plantation managers have been converted to inviting holiday homes. The British all left in 1972, but speaking to old hands, very little has changed since.

To break up the journey to Nuwara Eliya a stop at Loolecondra estate is recommended. The home of James Taylor, widely considered to be the father of the Sri Lankan tea industry (he planted his first crop in 1867, after disease had wiped out virtually the entire coffee crop) it has more scintillating views, none more so than from Taylor's stone chair, in which the Scot would sit and admire his handiwork.

The factory as well as being the longest in operation in Sri Lanka is also the busiest and the best bet for an off-season tour, although the manager/guide is busier than those at other estates, and thus has less time to devote to the tour. For tea connoisseurs, the Silver Tip tea, the finest in Sri Lanka, makes the trip worthwhile in itself. The Hindu temple on the estate in open to visitors and, like the saris of the tea pluckers, is colorful and memorable.

Just south of Nuwara Eliya, in Haputale, is Adisham Hall, Sri Lanka's only stately home. It is now a Benedictine training school for clergy, and the parts that are open to the public are a slightly odd mix of 19th century vicarage and English public school, with the tropical flora of Sri Lanka as the backdrop. It is open on weekends and can be opened for private viewings with the consent of the church during the week.

The hilly terrain of the region is obviously not ideal for cricket, and during the British era, tennis and rugby were more popular. The remains of grass tennis courts are all over the region, but trying to find one on which to play is nigh on impossible. The Kandy Rugby Club has long been a dominant force in Sri Lankan rugby. For golf lovers Sri Lanka's finest course, Royal Victoria, is just the other side of Pallekele Stadium, and heading west is the village of Kitulgala, where watery fun in rafts and kayaks awaits.

Cricket does, of course, play a role in hill country life. Muttiah Muralitharan and Kumar Sangakkara are two of Kandy's most beloved sons. Games are played between teams from tea plantations - big events, normally planned to coincide with major Hindu festivals (a lot of tea estate workers are Tamils of Indian descent), but it would take a healthy dose of luck to stumble across one, since they're not as frequent as in past years. If you get lucky, make sure to try the local delicacy of mallung - chopped leaves crushed with red onions and grated coconuts - that is served in abundance at these games.