June 7, 2017

History and Heritage at Ceylon Tea Trails

Most of us know the history of Sri Lanka. How it was visited by both The Buddha & Marco Polo, colonized first by the Portuguese, then by the Dutch and finally the English who named the island Ceylon. How coffee was the staple crop until a blight wiped it out and it was supplanted by tea.

Today, as independent Sri Lanka, it is one of the top 3 tea producers in the world and its teas are justifiably world-famous.

So it was with great anticipation that I visited perhaps the most famous of all tea resorts, Ceylon Tea Trails, to wallow in the nostalgia of a resort that has recreated the style of a “top-of-the-range” Colonial era tea estate and Planters Bungalows.

It’s located some 70 miles from Colombo, just outside Nuwara Eliya – the hill top town developed by us Brits that makes you feel you’re back in 1930’s Guildford. There’s even a Post Office (which is more than we can say for some English villages).

Style is definitely the operative word at Tea Trails.

No matter which of the five bungalows you choose, you’ll wallow in luxury. From being served tea in bed to afternoon tea served by your own private butler on the lawn after a few hard fought rounds of croquet. A log fire to warm the cool evenings. The rich woods of your 4 poster bed and the crispest of sheets I’ve encountered in many years.

Unlike many other resorts which try to provide everything modern, it really is a bit like stepping back in time. Don’t get me wrong. You’ll find everything you want here apart from the rush and bustle of modern life, the strident noise that assaults us every day and the pressure to “do something” all the time.

Like many of the Colonial bungalows of the time, the organic vegetables are grown in their own garden so you can’t get fresher than that.

It’s not just a nod to the old days, it’s a genuine desire to take the best of the old and make it relevant to today.

When I arrived in the late afternoon, I was greeted by Lakmal with a delicious hand pressed fruit cocktail and a cold towel. My single case was whisked away by unseen hands.

Then I was introduced to my Butler, a delightful man called Samath who, for the whole 3 days of my stay never stopped smiling. (Note: I must get the name of his dentist!) and, like a shadow, was there to cater to my every whim.

I stayed in Norwood, one of the Planters Bungalows that has not only been renovated and designed to the equivalent of a 5-star hotel in the UK, but also had the added advantage of being set at over 4,000ft.

I wish I could fully describe the fresh air up there, but even I can’t. It’s like breathing vintage Champaign. Fresh, yet rich. Heady and invigorating. Coming from the humidity of Colombo and the chills of the UK it was an amazing feeling. The Scottish Isles on Steroids.

I guess that’s why the original Planters were so keen to build up here. The amazing air. The staggering scenic beauty. Home grown fresh foods. Plenty of high quality local building materials that allowed them free reign on their imaginations.

And, if nothing else, we Brits have a fertile imagination.

They took the most practical of local ideas and subtly adapted them to suit themselves.

The open verandah that allows cool air to circulate but also gives a very pleasant place for an evening chat lounging in the wicker furniture with that most English of drinks. A G & T.

The French windows that occupy a full wall which, when open, leave you feeling you’re actually sitting outside.

The net curtains around the 4 poster bed that were originally to prevent sleepers being bitten by mosquito’s, but which today give a sense of romantic privacy. I felt very decadent when I drew them and imagined myself in some 18th century romantic drama. A blazing log fire, the 4 posters, the smell of Cinnamon wafting through the room… Poldark on holiday!

My first morning after being awakened by Samath with my morning tea was, I admit, difficult. Should I bathe or shower? That was the biggest decision of the day. I actually chose the latter because it gave me a chance to wallow and think what I wanted to do during the day.

And if you can, transport yourself for a moment to the World of PG Woodhouse, I felt like Bertie as I wandered into the huge bathroom resplendent in black and white with ‘30’s sinks (but today’s plumbing) and the deepest claw foot bath I’ve ever had the pleasure of sinking into.

I was actually in two minds as to having breakfast or returning to the c o m f i e s t bed since I left home. The food won.
Did I want breakfast in bed or on the terrace looking over the hills as the early morning mist burned off in the rising sun?
No contest. The terrace won.

Now, the thing about Sri Lankan breakfasts is their choice and I’m the first to admit that I haven’t eaten curry for breakfast before. I know I should try it BUT not just yet. There’s still another 2 days to go.

Once again, I was transported back to the early days. Crisp Bacon and eggs, mushrooms and sausages served with toast (home-made bread naturally) and lashings of thick strawberry jam all washed down with a strong cuppa or two.

Now I was ready for the day.

Samath asked if I would like to try my hand at some tea plucking. Absolutely not! Far too stressful I told him until he realized that I was just joking. Off we went and as we strolled to the tea bush lines he told me some of the history of the Estate.

Built around 1890 it was set up by Erwin. Originally from Scotland – as were many of the early planters – the Estate comprised of one bungalow for the overseers and the owner. The tea pluckers lived elsewhere on the Estate.

As more and more tea was exported to the UK, the Estate grew and the factory was built to control the entire process from growing, picking, sorting, drying and packing. It was left to the Master Blenders in London to both auction and blend the actual teas.
Whilst many of the actual plantation owners lived overseas and rarely, if ever, visited, there had to be suitable accommodation ready for when they did.

Hence the bungalows.

But back to the tea plucking.

The leaves that were to end up as my cuppa are the young green shoots and it was humbling to see the girls who do the real plucking work to fill the baskets draped over their backs. They knew exactly which leaves were suitable and their hands flew over the top of each bush and then their shoulder like some ritual. Which, I suppose, it is.

A tea picker fills her basket

For myself I doubt I would have kept my job for long at the rate I was picking. It took me a good half an hour to pick more than a couple of cups. When dried that would have been reduced to just about enough to make a good pot. And no more.

Of course, the leaves I picked couldn’t make tomorrows tea as it has to be dried and that will take 24 hours.

What I could do was pop over to the factory and select the leaves that WOULD make my tea.

So, that’s what Marlon and I did.

Now, I’ll be the first to admit that I can’t tell one tea leaf from another but Marlon can. He’s the resident tea planter and he’s been there for the last 15 years.

I bow to his knowledge and with my personal afternoon tea blend safely tucked under my arm, we head back to the Bungalow in the warm morning air, listening to the sounds of a peacock crying over the valley.