The Golden Valley of Tea, in the Central Highlands of Sri Lanka (similar to Scotland in the name alone), is the home of old Ceylon and synonymous with the world's finest 'cuppa'. I didn't come here because of my love of tea; I came because of its undisputed reputation as one of the most beautiful destinations the world over. This region surpassed our expectations. Ceylon's most superior teas draw their unique and distinctive flavour from their altogether special environmental conditions. These conditions do not only produce the finest brew, but they also provide the most picturesque landscape to drink, in all of Sri Lanka.
After a life-defining morning, organised by the team at Amanwella – with the elephants in the low-lying grassy plains at Udawalawa Wildlife Reserve – a drive over the forested Ceylon Mountains and into the Tea Country Highlands was altogether something different. Sri Lanka does this to you. It takes you into the unknown and delivers spectacular surprises with some being peculiarly familiar, stirring an uncontrollable sense of nostalgia.
Rising up 4,000ft through mountainous terrain to the Bogawantalawa Valley, also referred to as the Golden Valley of Tea, the trees on the ascent fascinated and bemused. The specimens were both conifer and eucalyptus, with soaring chalky naked trunks, which reached such dizzying heights I had to crane my neck and squint against the sun in order to see even the first branches.
This was the nature of the terrain before the planting of coffee, rubber and tea. While the verdant crops of tea do not have forests of gargantuan trees within them, they need and enjoy the shelter from a select few. As a result, the luminous meandering slopes, of flawless iridescent jade and deep emerald, are punctuated by these shade-bearing trees, creating an asymmetrical complexion of eye-glistening beauty.
Sweet home Golden Valley
Our lodge, Castlereagh, benefitted from the most breathtaking vista of all four lodges. Dating back around 90 years, the bungalow nestles in a leafy forest glen, with the appearance of a charming single-storey colonial house. It wasn't grand, as that would look out-of-place; it was more quaint and cabin-chic, with cream walls, a green corrugated iron roof and many picture-frame windows, all wide-open, with a 'country-chintz' style of décor. I gasped when I saw a television (we had been blissfully without one thus far) but it works here. The cricket was on!
We walked through the welcoming reception room, past the drinks salon and onto the verandah, where a table was still fully dressed in preparation for our late lunch. Though famished, it was the view we had to consume first. With the lake, valleys and mountains, it is utterly, totally and completely breathtaking.
We enjoyed a delectable meal of seared tuna with French beans and baby potatoes, a mixed salad with a classic dressing, along with a basket of home-baked breads and creamy salted butter. This shortly flowed into high tea, an institution at the lodges, and, with pastries to impress Raymond Blanc, we perused the long list of teas.
The food at the lodges is consistently excellent. The skilled resident chef, eager to ensure complete satisfaction, discussed the menu with his guests each morning. When I asked for a Sri Lankan curry he went off menu and delivered a veritable delight. These are the only Relais & Châteaux establishments in Sri Lanka and they do the acclaimed association proud.
With eyes now in near focus, having been enraptured by the far-reaching views, we noticed just how pretty and (English/Sri Lankan) the perfectly manicured garden appeared. The pine-toned pool – shaded by soaring conifers with sun loungers facing the view – was an instant hit with Bibi my little daughter, though perhaps a little chilly. This is due to the fact that the climate here is more temperate than tropical, a welcome respite for many, which requires an extra layer for early mornings and evenings.
Another great advantage to this cooler weather system is that no air-conditioning is necessary. Plus, from a personal perspective, our faces no longer glowed uncontrollably and our hair relaxed: a cosmetic breakthrough.
Staying here, you will discover how tea is grown and made, exploring the lushly carpeted hillsides of working tea estates. Tamil women, clothed in bright saris with headscarves as sun protection, pluck the tea with skilled caution, leaf by leaf, before releasing it into their hessian white sacks upon their backs.
You can also visit a tea factory in full flow, with a guided tour, followed by a detailed and fascinating presentation. Your education into the art of how this illustrious brew is conjured up is made interesting and informative, while you are always enraptured by the glorious countryside in which this unforgettable crop yielding unfolds.
Up until the 1860s, coffee was the main crop grown in the area. However, when a vicious rust fungus, Hemileia Vastatrix, wiped the bulk of these crops out, Scottish resident James Taylor was put in charge of sowing the first seeds of the illustrious nectar: tea. That was in 1867. After his first teas, sold locally, were noted as 'delicious', his fully-equipped factory packed off teas for an auction in London. The rest is history. The early tea crops in Ceylon owe their success to this gentleman; it was with his great nephew, Andrew Taylor, that I later sipped a tea that suits me, while developing a greater understanding of the machinations of tea production.
The introduction of tea in the 1860s into Sri Lanka transformed a quiet economic backwater into one of the foremost economic mainstays of the colonial era. More land was cleared and subsequently carpeted in vales of glossy green tea bushes. An existing shortage of labour led to the immigration of thousands of Tamils from southern India, changing the ethnic make-up of the hillsides, forever more. Today, as then, colourfully-clad women picking tea is one of the iconic images of Sri Lanka, though they remain among the poorest communities in the country.
The juxtaposition of the Tamil's scanty and colourful dwellings, with that of the Olde-World charm of the British settlements, has surprising and engaging appeal. The rural hamlets housing colourful Hindu temples and modest makeshift homes – nestled into lush tropical pockets – are a cultural chasm away from the neo-gothic churches, antiquated railways and charming cottage-style residences.
However, no one who lives in the area forgets that life here is all about the tea, on which many families depend. Apparently, the snapping of the leaf is all in the movement of the wrist, swift but gentle, requiring small hands with a feminine touch, a skill that only they have mastered; the pickers are an extremely important asset within one of Sri Lanka's most valued exports.
The stunning lodge of Norwood, around an hour from Castlereagh, is a more modern build from the 50s, with panoramic views of the eastern part of Bogawantalawa Valley. The gardens here are manicured with a fine horticultural toothcomb, while they brag some of the finest bamboo stands to be found anywhere in the world.
The pool is twice the size of Castlereagh's, with sunbeds running along either side and enjoying garden and valley outlooks. However, we would not have wanted to be without our wondrous view across the lake. Each lodge delights with its own character, while all come with the most outstanding personalised service and remarkably good cuisine. Food, beverages and laundry are all included.
So, after an ice-packed minty Pimms, followed by grilled prawns, a divine pudding of cinnamon tea poached pears with decadent butterscotch ice-cream, we finally met with Andrew – resident tea-master, planter, and A-list megastar – for a cup of tea. Looking far too youthful for his age (thanks, he swears, to the profound goodness in tea), he not only made tea-making sound as exciting and complex as wine-making, but he also inspired me to try a variety that converted me.
It was a high grown (the champagne district of tea) Dilmah leaf variety, called Ran Watte, with a dark orange colour. It was elegant with a pinch of spiciness, a touch of citrus, and a fragrant peach aroma. That's now my cuppa and in order to elicit the outstanding anti-oxidant benefits, you must drink your tea undressed: no milk, no sugar.
The oldest and most 'haute colonial' lodge, Tientsin, came a close second to ours. A further 45-minutes away from Norwood, it rests exceptionally pretty above a nestled village and strikes an instantly faithful-to-old-charm appeal. Awash with sumptuous original features, together with a soaring aspect of the incredible mountains that divide the valley from the World Heritage Horton Plains National Park, Tientsin is alluringly authentic.
High tea – delivered in premier style with a silver cake tier stacked with scones, smoked salmon sandwiches, cinnamon cake, ginger cake, egg and cress fingers and wheat-free biscuits served in true colonial style on the original Victorian black and white tiled verandah – was world-class.
The gardens here are so sweetly English-Cotswold in design and type, with banks of agapanthus, chrysanthemums, lilies and daisies and a cobbled footpath with an archway covered in rambling roses and sweet-smelling jasmine. However the altogether more tropical specimens – palms, banana trees and exquisite pastel pink angel's trumpets (brugmansia) – add sensational exotica to this otherwise delightfully homespun scene.
The lodges are extremely sociable country retreats. With only a few gorgeous suites in each, it becomes natural to acquaint yourselves with your 'housemates'. You don't have to but you want to, because you are all eager to discuss how each other's day has unfolded; from a serious 20km hike, to a gentle stroll, to undertaking the unforgettable climb to the summit of nearby Adam's Peak at dawn.
When discussing various options for daytrips or hikes with your butler, or the resident manager, it appears that nothing is too great a task to undertake or achieve. Their willingness for you to maximise on experience is commendable. However, taking it easy is fine too, because you are meant to relax at home, especially when everything domestic is taken care of – in a manner that deserves a standing ovation.
The more energetic guests enjoyed some amazing hikes, walking the numbered paths from lodge to lodge, with spectacular views and a close-up experience with tea pickers and village life. As Bibi could not rise to these energetic occasions, we thoroughly enjoyed visiting each lodge, which as a round trip took a whole day. We also stopped with our car at different spots along the way in order to admire a view, or visit an area of interest.
En-route to Summerville bungalow – the other country-cottage-style-lodge star-struck by the lake (and in our opinion extremely suitable for honeymooners) – we visited a quaint little Victorian church and graveyard. We had admired this winsome unencumbered build from across the valley. The picture-postcard pretty grey-stone church is perched up high atop a piercingly shimmering green hill. Standing quite alone, it faces out across the lake and back towards Castlereagh lodge.
It held such a fascination for us; though it only dates back to the 19th century, it is enshrined with the history, lives, deaths and souls of that small British community who left their blustery isles for an Asian idyll.
On our last night, we (all the guests) gathered spontaneously for aperitifs in the charming ambient salon beside the dining terrace for some easy banter. By now our butler was au fait with our tipple and, with our long drinks in hand along with Bibi's freshly squeezed nectar, we sat back on the plump sofa. It was also such a treat to have log fires in the reception rooms as, even though it was not cold, it warmed the environment and scented the air with sweet burning pine.
Within minutes, I not only met someone from my primary school in South Africa, but also a young man who had finished school in England last year with my eldest son. Of all the places? But then again, that's Sri Lanka! There is much to chat about in these congenial and warm lodges, over fine cuisine and flowing wine, which continues until you make your way to your extremely comfortable, spacious and inviting boudoirs, where we all slept very soundly.
However, our overriding memory of our stay at this quaint lodge has to be the mesmerising view. Early mornings shroud the Castlereagh Lake in mist, with hillsides a dark dewy green and the mountains purple. Scotland or Switzerland? By mid-morning with the mist gone and life in the valley in full swing, it is most definitely Sri Lanka. However, by late afternoon, as the sky prepares for its next spell-casting performance, it looks its most enchanting. This is when I think of it as Shangri-La: a faraway haven of idyllic beauty and tranquility.
On our final morning, as with every previous day, the butler brought in our tea, coffee and freshly squeezed orange juice. He drew the red curtains and opened our trio of bay windows so we could inhale the energising misty morning magic. Before he left he asked us what time we would like our breakfast and what we would like in our little travel hampers for the final leg of our journey. I knew at that point that I would have to return.