There are lots of travel reviews on how to travel the Sri Lankan tea country, what’s the best route, where to stay. I struggled a little as I really wanted the authentic experience and not end up in a tourist trap. We managed quite a good balance so here are my tips on how to travel the tea country authentically without missing out on the good stuff:
The Whiter Waters of Ramboda
1. Travel to and stay in Nuwara Eliya
We avoided the tourist traps of Haputal, Dambulla and Nanouya and travelled a little off track from Kandy to Nuwara Eliya. The 3 hours drive is absolutely stunning through luscious green tea fields up winding streets. We did a quick stint to a tea factory and visited a couple of waterfalls on the way. Nuwara Eliya itself sits fairly high above sealevel in the mountains and you can really feel the change in air and temperature. Bring some jumpers with you as the temperature difference to Colombo and Kandy is quite noticeable. Jumper and jeans are definitely recommendable, especially in the evening.
View from the top of the hills at Ramboda
Don’t expect a beautiful little mountain village – Nuwara Eliya is robust and convenient. It isn’t packed with colourful restaurants, bars or little tea shops. It’s very local, not necessarily the richest of villages but its people have big hearts and a lot of curiosity. It’s a good location if you want to travel to Adam’s Peak for the sunrise hike – unfortunately we weren’t able to go as I fell ill the night before but I would certainly recommend it over Sigiriya where you have to pay entry and it’s all over in an hour. It is also meant to be very over-run whereas Adam’s peak due to its off the track location still has kept some authenticity and beautiful calmness
2. Book a home-stay
We stayed with a local family at a home stay, definitely an experience I can recommend if you want to experience the real Sri Lanka and its real people. It’s the reason we fell in love with the country – the most welcome, warm and hospital people I’ve met on my travels and they just want to make your experience unforgettable. Our home-stay was called Redwood Inn, run by a young couple just outside on the outskirts of town. They will cook you a delicious Sri Lankan dinner (just avoid the fruit salad, that was my down-fall) and the breakfast is beautiful home-made cake.
Picturesque drive up the valley to Nuwara Eliya
Restaurant recommendation: The Grand Thai
3. Take the train to Ella
Yes, you will read this in every guide book and yes everyone will say it’s the most beautiful train journey. And – they are right. I was violently ill when we attempted the train journey which definitely dampered the experience for me, but I am very grateful we did it. You will need nerves of steel. The train is delayed – always. At least 2 hours. And tickets – forget about it. Unless you book them 1 year in advance or find someone who sells them under the table, you are in the cattle class. But that’s the point, isn’t it? That’s how the locals travel so that’s how we travelled. With a 39 degree fever. But hey. 7 hours to cover 75 miles in snail pace through the winding hills of the tea country and the 100 shades of green of the tea farms. You will experience all the elements throughout this journey, one of the highest points of the trip will literally take you through the clouds. We arrived in Ella with a beautiful sunset, exhausted but very happy.
4. Stay 2 nights in Ella
Ella is the complete opposite to Nuwara Eliya. The main road from the train station to our hotel where all the restaurants and bars are reminds me a little bit of Thailand. Loud and colourful, some shacks, some elaborate terraces. But welcoming. What struck me was that you don’t see a single local. It’s very much westernised and all white people sitting in the restaurants. The locals have their houses higher up in the hills and further into the jungle and you tend to see them much on the main road. It does feel like tourism has taken over this little village but when you are exhausted – and I don’t say this lightly – and you have an upset stomach, a slice of pizza really did the job. I was strong enough again to climb Ella’s Rock the next morning.
Our morning view of Ella’s Rock from our guesthouse’s rooftop terrace
5. Climb Ella’s Rock
Most people go very early to catch the sunrise, similar to Adam’s Peak. We frankly couldn’t get out of bed as we bagged a pretty good room at the Hilltop Guest House with a beautiful rooftop terrace AND an Italian café (don’t judge, Sri Lankan coffee is tought on the oh so sensitive stomach) at the bottom of the hill – bliss for breakfast with views of the entire valley. We set off at 11am and had crowds of people coming towards us on the first quarter of the way and to be honest, I can only imagine how packed it must have been at the peak at 7am so we were very happy to have left “late”. Just take plenty of water and you should be fine in the heat – the hike should take 2 hours each way.
The track isn’t very well sign-posted – basically not at all. We followed descriptions from a guide book and asked some locals. Our hotel was located right at the beginning by the rail tracks, which you have to walk along for the first 30 minutes. Then take a sharp left at a little hut selling drinks, cross the bridge of a natural swimming pool and you are at the foot of the peak. The climb is quite steep and challenging, but the panorama is breathtaking. At the top, we were almost by ourselves apart from a few guards and of course some stray dogs with puppies.
Ella Restaurant recommendations: We really wanted to try AK Ristoro and Café Guru but unfortunately they were shut the night we stayed. But we heard very good things about these restaurants so if you go to Ella, please try them on our behalf!