Tea trail in Sri Lanka

Esquire (Singapore) - - Contents -

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.

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