High tea in the hills
Stay at a colonial plantation bungalow in upcountry Sri Lanka
WE have entered a universe of tea. The narrow roads from Kandy south to Hatton wind through terraced and textured hills, past windbreaks of avocado and acacia trees, sudden silvery waterfalls, bright flamboyant trees and tin-roofed muster sheds.
Roadside tearooms bear names as jolly as Breakfast Cup and Upcountry Flavour. ‘‘Happiness is brewing’’ says the sign over a rickety little stall where lorry drivers have stopped for sustenance, warming their hands on simple enamel cups.
Green is not a mere colour here in the southern highlands of Sri Lanka but an altogether more tactile substance that swells and fills our heads and lungs and vision so we feel immersed in chlorophyll and leafiness and air so sharp and fresh it seems mentholated.
That night my dreams will be of floating in a vitreous green sky past clumped Camellia sinensis bushes that drift like cumulus clouds.
Our guide, Susantha, imparts snippets of tea lore as our minibus trundles ever upwards. They are not tea ‘‘pickers’’ we can see in the plantations, their bright headscarves bobbing like wind-caught poppies. No, they are pluckers, Susantha tells us. ‘‘They pull the leaves, they do not pick,’’ he says, before commanding the driver to pull over. It’s time to have a ‘‘rescue stop’’ for tea and toilet.
Our destination is Tientsin, a bungalow in the Bogawantalawa Valley near Hatton, about 1400m above sea level. The self-contained house, shaded by African tulip trees and rebuilt by planter Irwin Stuart in 1939 on a site dating back to 1888, was named for the village in China from where tea seedlings were first imported to the highlands. The classic colonial bungalow is one of four on a linked circuit known as Tea Trails and run by Sri Lanka’s giant Dilmah corporation.
The bungalows each feature between four and six ensuite guestrooms and are scattered along a lofty route — from Tientsin, perched at the highest altitude, it’s 15km down to Norwood, from where it’s another 12km to Castlereagh and only 5.3km on to Summerville, the smallest, which has just had a garden pool added, in line with the other three.
Despite initial promises to hike or bike the circuit, calling in for lunch or tea or just a stickybeak, we soon succumb to the idle charms of colonial bungalow living and resolutely stay put.
Tientsin feels like your own holiday house, albeit with round-the-clock staff and prompt laundry service; there are no room keys, set meal times or pressure to mix with other guests. Our party of five books the entire bungalow and the implicit invitation is to stroll at leisure, enjoy a spot of tennis on the clay court, or explore the gardens, which seem prim and English at first look (there’s even a croquet lawn), but soon dip into a series of meandering stone paths, a vine-wreathed pergola and stands of hard old trees planted amid the yielding black soil of the hills.
It is mid-afternoon on the first day and time for a jolly cuppa on the columned and tiled veranda served by a procession of butlers wearing black and white sarongs. There is a two-page menu of best blends, infusions and four single-estate, or watte, teas, said to ‘‘inspire poets and kings’’, although to what lofty endeavours is not
clockwise fro Tea pluckers bungalow su tea on the te and staff at T