Tea trail in Sri Lanka
Choices and decisions—to savour the aromatic blend of Sri Lankan
brews at the pinnacle of misty tea trails, alongside safari wildlife at Yala National Park,
or by the crashing waves at Weligama Bay?
With Resplendent Ceylon and Lightfoot Travel, you do all three—and then some.
“Would you like to have a cup of Ceylon tea, sir?” The poised stewardess from Sri Lankan Airlines suggests this beverage during the flight’s lunch service. Being a tea lover, I gladly accept her offer. Ceylon, the name Sri Lanka previously had during British colonial rule, is the fourth largest producer of tea in the world. No prize for guessing where I’m headed to on the national carrier.
Tea is an important commodity for Sri Lanka—accounting for about two percent of its GDP—and is also the main form of livelihood for the island country’s population.
The touchdown in Colombo is smooth and I am greeted with a temperature that’s akin to the climate in Singapore. “Tea leaves wouldn’t flourish under this scorching heat,” I think. Bingo. The first destination, Ceylon Tea Trails, is approximately a five-hour journey from the airport to the high altitudes of the Bogawantalawa region in south-central Sri Lanka. Managed by Resplendent Ceylon (which is owned by the Fernando family of Dilmah Tea), Ceylon Tea Trails is the world’s first tea bungalow resort that comprises five restored colonial-era tea planter residences.
Without succumbing to motion sickness from travelling on the tight and winding uphill road, I am able to get a glimpse of local activity in the towns I am passing by. Before long, the air turns cooler as my vehicle stops at the doorstep of Tientsin Bungalow. Built in 1888, this is the largest and oldest of the five aforementioned bungalows—a solitary architecture while the rest of its kin are clustered at the eastern end of Castlereagh Reservoir.
I inhale the refreshing air and behold the lush forests and tea contours on the elevated slopes. The colonial-era bungalow has withstood the test of time—a well-preserved facade that’s unmistakably British. Its sustainably restored interiors include pine wood floorings, teak trims and uncomplicated switches for lights and fans (an airconditioning system would probably be redundant here). I walk down the long hallway to reach my assigned room which is the furthest from the entrance. Escorted by the bungalow’s informed butlers, I am told that each room in the bungalow bears the name of a different Scottish tea planter who once lived in Tientsin, like Mior, Fraser and Meares. The furnishings in all rooms are identical—four-poster canopy beds (a shield against mozzies), inbuilt fireplaces, monochromatic framed photos and an electric-powered towel warmer (my first encounter with this uncommon appliance).
The sun takes its leave and conversations are exchanged between me and my travel companions in the warmed-up sitting room with pre-dinner drinks in hand. No menus are handed out for the omakase-style three-course meal prepared with ingredients that are in season. Dietary restrictions? Flag them to the consummate chef and an equally delectable alternative will be served. Curious about the main dish? Moroccan mint tea-crusted lamb rump steak with grilled herb polenta and roasted peppers—a chef signature. All meal services are held at the veranda to the symphonic sounds of the wildlife ensemble without any repeats on the repertoire.
A Dunkeld Tea Factory visit is scheduled the next morning, but not before breakfast—a choice between
English or Sri Lankan, in bed or out. If you favour sleep to sustenance, request for Bed Tea—an age-old colonial tradition served by the butler as part of a gentle wake-up call.
Surrounded by verdant hills and contoured tea fields near Castlereagh lake, we gather at the factory’s main hall where we are introduced with informational posters on the tea industry in Sri Lanka, grades of tea available and the tea making process. In Sri Lanka, tea is grown on slopes at three elevations—1,200m above sea level (high grown), between 600m and 1,200m (midgrown) and below 600m (low grown). Each elevation has its own distinctive characteristics in appearance, flavour, aroma and strength.
No tour is complete without an on-site experience. The excited party take turns in picking tea leaves after a demonstration by the resident planter. We spot a skilled picker on the job, collecting her loot at lightning speed, and observe a group of pickers delivering their leaves from the fields to the factory for weighing.
It’s time to process raw black tea. The resident planter leads us back into the factory and explains the methods and machinery used to obtain tea ideal for consumption. All teas are made from the leaves of the Camellia Sinensis plant. A specific treatment process and oxidation will determine the production of black, green, oolong or white tea— rolling, oxidising, firing, drying and grading of the teas. The tour ends with quenchers of sampling different tea grades—dust, broken and leaf.
Back at Tientsin Bungalow, afternoon English tea (you know it’s authentic when there’s clotted cream with scones) is prepared by the attentive staff. Itchy for something to do after refuelling your stomach? Choose from a list of board games, tennis, croquet and a book from its humble library. There are two pools too, one’s filled with water and the dry alternative involves cue balls.
After receiving this crash course on tea, our group is whisked southeast to our next destination, Wild Coast Tented Lodge, about four hours from Tientsin. Located along a beach on the fringes of the renowned Yala National Park (leopards, elephants and sloth bears, oh my!), the lodge boasts 28 tented ‘cocoon suites’ that rivals ‘glamping’ but is equipped with facilities and amenities provided by a luxury hotel.
Yala is the second largest national park in Sri Lanka, spanning nearly 1,000 square kilometres of floral, fauna, grassy plains and coastal wetlands. Wildlife roam freely at the lodge—I am greeted by a monitor lizard at my door one morning and the scaly visitor scuttles away before I capture a clear shot of
the rare encounter on my smartphone. Bashful perhaps? You’re bound to see an animal before you leave, I wager. If not, put on your ranger hat and head out to Yala with the lodge’s experienced safari warden in a jeep. Spot the mongoose, water buffalos, Sri Lankan junglefowl (the country’s national bird) and the elusive leopard in their natural habitat.
The roomy dome-shaped lodge, which looks like a dead-ringer for a membrane, is decked in complementary safari-themed furnishings, a freestanding copper bathtub and brass fixtures. It’s bronze across the board, except for the sheets, which are in cream. Outside is a cosy patio where you can enjoy a desired brew of tea for the day while waiting for the next stray animal to visit your grounds.
Traces of eco-friendly touches and sustainable materials are presented throughout this Resplendent Ceylonowned lodge too—drinking straws are made of washable stainless steel and the open-air restaurant pavilion was constructed with bamboo latticework and reclaimed teak shingles. Near sea level, the temperature rises by the digits in a sweat-inducing heat. Cool off at the adjacent quartz gravel-floored bar with tea-infused cocktails or mocktails along with roasted warm cashews with curry leaves (been trying to recreate this at home). Forget Netflix and chill, (sea) breeze and booze will trend soon. Mark my words.
After bidding goodbye to Wild Coast Tented Lodge, we head to our final stop of the trip at Weligama Bay. Approximately a two-and-a-half-hour journey, Cape Weligama is a resort that frequent Bali or Phuket travellers can identify with. Designed by Thai architect Lek Bunnag and with interiors envisioned by JPA Design’s Singapore studio, this mod-Asian resort celebrates three distinct themes: Sri Lanka’s prominent maritime heritage, its diversity of fauna and the renowned Ceylon tea. Literary lovers will appreciate the historical books on Sri Lanka stocked throughout Cape Weligama.
Perched on a breathtaking clifftop, the property’s emphasis on well-being is reflected in the bathroom, which is larger than the bedroom and has a walkin shower that converts to a steam room. Amazed? Lock your jaws in advance before heading up to the resort’s iconic crescent-shaped clifftop infinity moon pool and take in the 270-degree panoramic view of the Indian Ocean. The other end of the horizon, beyond the deep turquoise sea, is Australia.
The freshest catch from the sea can be found at Cape Weligama’s Ocean Terrace restaurant. The taste and presentation of the cinnamon woodsmoked tuna makes this dish a star choice in its extensive seafood menu. I am told that the generous seafood platter draws gourmands from Colombo too.
Craving to do some water sports? The resort’s in-house activities centre, which is managed by a local firm called Borderlands, offers whale watching and sea kayaking if the weather conditions are ideal. Otherwise, riding a bike or taking a short trip to the UNESCO Heritage Site Galle is recommended.
Who says tea drinkers are dull and often retreat indoors? Resplendent Ceylon’s tea plantations and coastal hideways draw out the best of nature, prompting you to step out and appreciate its beauty.
Forget Netflix and chill, (sea) breeze and booze
will trend soon.
Top: the view of Castlereagh Lake from Summerville Bungalow. Above and facing page; tea is serious business in Sri Lanka.
Nomadic Resorts and Bo Reudler Studio teamed up to design and construct the spectacular Wild Coast Tented Lodge—the first of its kind in Sri Lanka.
Above and left: stunning panoramas await you at Cape Weligama.