Tea cultivation was Sri Lanka’s main driving factor for economic prosperity during the British era. Till date, the industry holds a vast share of the commercial exports that Sri Lanka gives to the world. Accounting for a quarter of the island’s earnings, the tea industry once survived a disastrous nationalization and was re-privatized again. Despite this, Sri Lanka remains amongst the top three producers of tea in the world.
Head into the southern highlands of Sri Lanka, where you will find majority of the tea fields in addition to waterfall covered mountains, breathtaking scenery and trains rattling their way through these colonial towns.
The tea empire in Nuwara Eliya is the main attraction of these highlands, with rows of deep green tea bushes that can be seen for as far as the eye can see. Look closely to notice how these estates have specks of color scattered across as women dressed in traditional sarees carefully work their way through these shrubs to pluck tea and collect them into the basket strung across their backs. The leaves are later bagged, weighed and sold to tea factories for drying and processing.
How tea estates came about in Sri Lanka
Did you know that before tea came about in Sri Lanka, coffee was the main production of the hills? Arabs introduced coffee to the island, long before Europeans came in, but at the time, the Sinhalese used the leaves to add flavor to their curries instead of brewing coffee beans. When the British came in, they tried cultivating sugar and indigo but failed at both. Since coffee cultivation was prospering in their other colonies such as Jamaica and Guyana, they thought of giving it a shot in Sri Lanka too.
Until the 1880s, the British managed successful coffee production. The crop was then hit by a fungus on the leaf that was ruining plantations across the world. By this time, James Taylor, a Scottish had already begun tea production on his 19-acre estate and was successful. The coffee states were then purchased at a very low price and transformed into tea plantations. By 1940, there were about 1200 tea estates across Sri Lanka, contributing to a huge transformation of the nation’s economy.
Mackwoods is an awe-inspiring tea estate situated on the A5 highway that goes from Kandy to Nuwara Eliya. The estate entrance is hard to miss as it is prominently located in a white and green hoarding on one of the bends on the road. The lush green hillsides are surrounded with rows of swirling plantations, and a few tea pickers here and there. The tea museum at Mackwoods is a highlight and an enjoyable visit as you get to taste tea in a variety of flavors.
Sample teas are infused with delectable flavors such as apple, strawberry, cinnamon, cherry and orange. Pick your preferred flavor and enjoy a hot cup of tea overlooking the gorgeous views of the estate. You can also go for a tour of the factory where the entire tea making process will be shown to you, which is indeed very impressive, and of course, no harm in learning a few things while on holiday!
Pedro Tea Estate
3km east of Nuwara Eliya is the Pedro Tea Estate, sitting amidst the greenery of Pidurutalagala. This is the exact spot that James Taylor planted the first ever tea bushes in Sri Lanka to kickstart the industry. From 1885-1975, the tea factory was owned by the British, then nationalized, and re-privatized ten years later. Although the atmosphere at Pedro is less scenic than others, it is a very easily accessible location. From grading to packaging, the tea manufacturing tour here is about 20 minutes long and introduces you to several colonial-era equipment that are still being used today!
Just overlooking the Pedro factory building is the Lovers Leap Ethical Tea Boutique. Don’t miss out on enjoying a cup of tea amongst a gorgeous mountainous backdrop and a stunning view of the Bomburella Reservoir. The Lover’s Leap Waterfall is also just here, plunging over a cliff at the base of Pidurutalagala. You can get to this point via a scenic 2km hike from the Pedro Tea Estate.
Damro Tea Estate
Set in a whopping 5000 acres of serene rolling hillsides, the massive Damro Labookelle Tea Estate is 20kms north of Nuwara Eliya. With absolutely beautiful views of the undiscovered surrounding countryside, this estate is worth a visit. Initially, the Damro Estate was part of Mackwoods but has now separated and provides a modern visitor center with a café and tea sampling facilities available. It has an easy to reach location on the main road between Kandy and Nuwara Eliya, which makes it rather busy during the peak season. They also offer a short tour to enlighten visitors of the tea production process.
Dambatenne Tea Factory
In 1890, James Lipton planted all of his tea plants in Dambetenna, which eventually grew into a global empire – with the name Lipton now synonymous with tea worldwide. The factory is located exactly in between Haputale and Bandarawela, and is still more or less in the same state as it was in 1890, with machinery and processes remaining unchanged over the last 130 years. It is best to visit before noon for a factory tour, but there is no sale of tea on-site.
Hire a tuk to take you further up 7km from the tea factory to Lipton’s seat, named after the owner of the Dambatenne Tea Estate. This is one of the best viewpoints in the country where Sir Thomas Lipton himself came to admire the scenic views, also bringing his business associates here to amaze them with the splendor of the vicinity.
Instead of a tuk, you can hike up to the peak of the hill – which is a 2-hour journey but can be reduced via shortcuts up the stone steps hidden between rows of tea bushes. As you get higher, the views are more expansive, and the best 360-degree view is at the summit where the statue of Thomas Lipton is located. Mist and clouds can obstruct the view in the afternoon so early morning would be the best time to get to the summit.
Accommodation in Nuwara Eliya
If you are looking for a luxurious stay in Nuwara Eliya, Heritance Tea Factory will give you the ultimate experience of living amidst the tea boost of the British Era. About 14km away from the town, located amidst a scenic hilltop, this hotel was built within the well preserved Hethersett Estate Tea Factory. To maintain its originality, not much has been done to the exterior of the factory so it may not look too appealing from the outside. But the inside is extremely cozy, luxurious, modern, and has many of the machinery used in the old plantation stylishly incorporated into the interior of the hotel.
Nuwara Eliya is a very popular tourist destination and has plenty of accommodation options. So, if you want to stay closer to the city, or are looking for something with a lesser budget, or want a private villa stay for your group, plenty of options are available and can be booked online or via tour operators in Sri Lanka.