1. Sri Lanka’s Hill Country is everything Maldives is not
After living for 6 months in Maldives, the world’s flattest country, surrounded by nothing but impossibly blue ocean and sun-kissed beaches, I crave chlorophyll, miserable weather and steep mountains. Sri Lanka’s Hill Country gives me all of that and much more.
As we climb higher and higher from Kandy, I begin putting on the layers, including socks in sandals. By the time we reach misty Nuwara Elyia at nearly 1900 metres above sea level, I don’t care if I look like a bad German national stereotype, I just want to be warm! We have chosen a room high up on the mountain along a pot holed steep road where the wind howls all night. And for two nights I love it! By the third night, I am over it.
We’d planned to travel to Nuwara Elyia along one of the world’s most scenic train trips. Alas, I’ve eaten a dodgy curry somewhere between Colombo and Kandy, and a chartered minibus is my only option. Two hours on a winding road is a real challenge for my already challenged stomach, but the reward is a place that is like nowhere else in Sri Lanka.
2. Nuwara Elyia is ‘Little Britain’ in the tropics
The British came to Sri Lanka’s fog-shrowded highlands during the summer months to escape the heat of the plains. They chopped down the jungle, tamed the landscape into neat tea plantations and built a replica of the motherland. From the red-brick post office, to the bank, even the public toilets, the landscape is dotted with 19th century Victorian architecture.
We begin our exploration with a walk through the manicured 18 hole golf course, established in 1889 by a Scott. On top of the hill towers the most famous colonial establishment, the Hill Club. Built in the late 1800s as an exclusive planters club, unlike the nearby re-furbished Grand Hotel, this remains pretty much like it was back in the day when ladies had to ingress through a separate entrance, the bar was reserved for men only, and the billiard room demanded absolute silence so as not to distract the players.
Except these days ladies are very much welcome and Benedict, the over-enthusiastic sommelier, doesn’t have to twist my arm to come back that night for dinner despite our lack of appropriate attire. The dress code remains as strict as it was back in the day of colonial rule. Men must wear ties, closed shoes and a dinner jacket. “Not to worry, Madam, I’ll provide jacket for man.” But what about Madam, who didn’t think to pack a nice frock? “It’s not so strict for ladies. Just you wear your prettiest dress Madam.”
That evening as the fog rolls in and the temperature plummets to below 13 degrees, I wear my only dress, a thin silk beach dress over leggings and arrive at the Hill Club wearing every layer in my pack. Benedict receives us wearing white gloves, he whisks Nigel to a mens-only back room and in no time has him looking like a true British gentleman.
We have just enough time for a quick photo before a Chinese tour bus arrives and the 19th century British dining room fills with animated chatter in Mandarin. Oh golly gosh what would the British have thought of their exclusive club invaded by a flock of Chinese women dressed like exotic birds accompanied by a handful of men wearing ill fitting suits.
The dinner itself is amongst the worst we’ve had in Sri Lanka, or anywhere for that matter. But that’s ok, we’d sort of expected that and come purely for the spectacle and we are not disappointed. White-gloved Benedict pulls off an impeccable performance. He lights a warming fire for us, makes us pose in front of faded shots of Queen Elizabeth the Second that decorate the walls over the mantlepiece and indulges Madam in a lengthy wine choosing ceremony.
3. World’s End in Horton Plains National Park
The next morning, like everybody else who comes here, we aim to get up at the crack of dawn to hike through the wind and rainswept Horton Plains National Park, 45 minutes away by car. The weather has turned from bad to dismal and our decision to roll over for a lazy 7 am start turns out to be a blessing as we manage to avoid the crowds. It’s an easy hike on a 9.5 km circuit loop through this spectacularly wild landscape of high-altitude grassland, red-topped rhododendrons, pristine cloudforest and misty waterfalls.
By the time we reach the World’s End, the spot everybody is so eager to reach before the fog rolls in, we have the dramatic vistas all to ourselves. Contrary to all predictions, at 9 am the fog magically lifts like a curtain being pulled away and we watch as the escarpment falls away in a dizzying sheer drop of a kilometre or so.
As the name suggests, this is the end of the world of Sri Lanka’s Hill Country. The guidebooks claim that on a clear day you can see all the way to the ocean from here, but our driver, who has done the hike at least 100 times, shakes his head. Visibility doesn’t get any better than today, he says as he skips ahead of us in his thongs, pointing out a rare purple-faced monkey high up in a tree. The elephants who used to roam the Plains were hunted into extinction long ago by the British. The only other four legged wildlife we see are friendly sambar deer hanging out near the carpark, striking a pose in exchange for treats.
4. One of the world’s most scenic train rides
After three nights amidst hauling winds and vistas of the fog rolling in and out at high altitude, I am ready to shed the layers and embrace the sunshine in pretty Ella. We’ve scored the front seats in the Observation Saloon of the train and I feel like an excited teenager at the movies. Even the Nanu Oya train station in Nuwara Elyia looks like a colonial era movie set complete with original 19th century props and smiling officials in crisp starched white uniforms and polished black shoes. Like everything else in Sri Lanka’s “Little Britain”, it was the British who established the Ceylon Government Railway as it was known back in the mid 19th century.
For two and a half hours the world glides by as if on the big screen. Woo woo, the train winds its way through bright green tea plantations and highland villages, it shakes and rattles in and out of tunnels, up to Pattipola, the country’s highest train station at 1893 m and steadily down to 1000 metres above sea level at Ella. As soon as the train has passed, the track fills with locals – Tamil teapickers in colourful saris, monks in saffron robes, men in sarongs returning from the evening outdoor bath. All over Sri Lanka the train tracks are being used as convenient pathways and shortcuts.
5. The hike to Little Adam’s Peak in Ella
Once in Ella, we do as the locals and use the train tracks as a walking track to and from our guest house, which is conveniently located right above the tracks. We have superb views of Ella Rock from from the veranda of our simple but very pretty guesthouse and we can hear the multilingual moans and groans of those who’ve climbed the rock in the heat of the day coming back 2.5 along the train tracks. My bout of food poisoning has left me a little weak and a strenuous hike is not what the doctor ordered. Little Adam’s Peak is the very pretty and much less strenuous alternative – though if I had been feeling better I would have attempted both of course.
Eating in Nuwara Elyia: Don’t go to the Hill Club for dinner, go for the spectacle of it. Or just go for a drink at the bar, which only a few years ago started to admit women.The club remains a members only establishment and you’ll have to take out temporary membership for a token fee of 100 Rp (less than U$1).
Another superb place for a drink by a log fire or for high tea on the veranda overlooking lavish English-style manicured gardens is the Grand Hotel next door. We weren’t tempted by their buffet dinner, but we LOVED The Grand Indian, just opposite. We loved it so much we ate lunch and dinner two days in a row. It’s very popular, both with Indians and other travelers, and you’ll have to come early to get a table.
Eating in Ella: we only tried the food at our simple, inexpensive guesthouse “Village View Homestay.” We’d found it on Airbnb and hadn’t intended to stay for three nights, but the young couple who run the place are the nicest hosts you could wish for and their freshly prepared food was hands down the best we’ve had in all of Sri Lanka. We even got a free cooking demonstration. They only have 3 very spartan rooms, which doesn’t suit everbody. But Ella is only just taking off as a tourist destination and guesthouses and hotels in all price categories are mushrooming all over the place.
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