Day 11 (2 of 2).
Cinnamomum verum, or true cinnamon tree, is an evergreen tree native to Sri Lanka. Considered as the better tasting and has more health benefits than the other types of cinnamon cultivated elsewhere in Asia and Africa, the inner bark of Cinnamomum verum has been a precious commodity sought after by the West since colonial times. Sri Lanka nowadays exports roughly 85-90% of the world’s true cinnamon. Spice plantations can be found in many parts of the island, including the South Coast.
We stayed at Mirissa Hills, a working cinnamon plantation near Mirissa, for two nights. At the plantation, there are three buildings that offer guest accommodation. We stayed at a building called the “Museum”, a work-in-progress cinnamon museum. At Mirissa Hills, we got a chance to join a plantation tour to learn more about cinnamon production.
Our room was located at the “Museum” building, around halfway up the hill of the plantation estate.
Inside the “Museum”building, four guestrooms are allocated on both sides of the courtyard.
Despite the age of the building, our room was quite comfortable.
The main building, Mount Cinnamon, is located 5 minutes walk uphill from the Museum. Designed by architect C. Anjalendran, Mount Cinnamon is an hidden architectural gem in the midst of dense vegetation.
Served as an apprentice of architectural master Geoffrey Bawa, C. Anjalendran is a leading architect of today’s Sri Lanka. At Mount Cinnamon, C. Anjalendran arranges the guestrooms around the courtyard and swimming pool.
The common room in Mount Cinnamon is dominated by Laki Senanayake’s sculpture “Enchanted Forest”.
Laki Senanayake worked as an assistant to architect Geoffrey Bawa, and created a number of sculptures and murals for Bawa’s buildings.
Outside the common room, the covered veranda was where we had breakfast and dinner.
The two dogs of the estate often lingered around the veranda. One of the dogs is already 16 years old.
The pavilion in the backyard served as the dancing stage for peacocks to attract other peahens.
After breakfast, we walked over to a covered veranda serving as a gallery for sculpture and artwork.
Seeing such an interesting collection of artwork was a great surprise for us.
In the second afternoon just before most staff called it a day, we followed the manager for a cinnamon tour. The manager showed us cinnamon trees of different sizes and ages. The cinnamon trees were virtually everywhere in the estate: by the road, behind the buildings, on the hill slope, etc., just that we didn’t notice them until the tour.
At the factory, a staff showed us how to remove the bark of the cinnamon branch.
The bark rolls were then placed over our heads for drying.
From 1970 to now, international production of cinnamon has grown more than tenfold. It is hard to imagine that such popular spice could still be processed in such a simple and traditional manner. Such production method in Sri Lanka hasn’t changed much in the past few centuries.
In the morning of December 16th, Mirissa Hills arranged a car to drop us at Galle.
We passed by a series of beaches near Weligama. Occasionally we would see empty stilts near the shore. The traditional fishermen that Steve McCurry encountered in the mid 1990s were long gone. Today, the stilts are mainly for tourist to take selfies or locals to mimic their the bygone fishermen and let tourists to photograph them for a fee.
Most beaches were empty except occasional surfers. Half day in Galle and a dinner in Colombo would make up the last day of our Sri Lankan journey.
Day 8 (1 of 1).
In 1890, Scottish merchant Thomas Lipton who owned a vast business of grocery stores in Britain, visited British Ceylon and partnered with tea farming pioneer James Taylor to secure supply of Ceylon tea and distributed it throughout Europe and the United States. Lipton’s business plan of providing affordable tea to the mass working class in the West led to the increasing demand of tea and the bloom of tea plantations in Sri Lanka. The plan eventually developed into the business empire of Lipton tea.
Near the hill town of Haputale, about an hour of train ride west of Ella, the enormous Dambatenne Tea Factory and the surrounding tea fields have been immortalized by the legacy of their founder, Thomas Lipton. An 8km uphill hike to the lookout known as Lipton’s Seat remains as one of the best hike through the tea plantations in the hill country. Unlike taking the train or car, hiking in the tea plantations allow visitors to get close to the tea bushes and interact with the tea pickers.
From Haputale railway station, we hopped on a tuk tuk and got dropped off at the entrance of Dambatenne Tea Factory. We had no hurry to tour the factory, and left the factory tour for after the hike.
From the factory, we began to walk uphill into the plantation area along a winding road frequented by tea pickers. Tea terraces extend out in all directions from the road. We passed by all sort of buildings from worker dormitories to school complex, all apparently belong to the community of plantation workers.
Rows after rows of tea plants terraced up the hill slopes. Busy tea pickers dotted on the slope moving slowly horizontally on the slope.
Dramatic shadows were cast on the tea slope in the early part of our hike.
Everywhere was lush green as we walked deeper into the plantation.
Causally zooming into any cluster of tea pickers would create a scenic picture.
For visitors who don’t want to hike uphill may opt for a tuk tuk ride up to the destination. But surely walking would offer much more opportunities to get close to the tea shrubs and tea workers.
Past the first valley, we soon realized that the tea plantation was much larger than we thought. Tea terraces extended out from all directions to as far as our eyes could reach.
Shrines of different religions, including Roman Catholic Christianity, signify the wide range of religious backgrounds of the tea workers.
A tea plantation is much more than just a place for work. It also includes settlement of housing, school, dining places, temples, etc. Many tea workers are Tamils from Southern India, thus settlements with a Hindu shrine are quite common.
Near Lipton’s Seat lookout, we stumbled upon a weighing station where tea pickers offloaded their tea leaves, got them weighed and repacked into large bags for transportation.
Soon we arrived at the lookout of Lipton’s Seat, apart from a sleepy dog and a bronze statue of Sir Thomas Lipton, only fog coming from the other side of the mountain greeted our arrival. Some said this was the spot where Lipton loved to linger when he came to inspect the plantation. With the fog, we had no luck to see the supposedly good view from the lookout.
Soon we realized that great scenery of this hike were basically everywhere, not limited to the final lookout.
Doing the journey on foot allowed us to get close with the tea pickers.
Returning to the first valley where we started the hike, the slope with dramatic shadows was replaced by a foggy scene.
Following a tea picker, we chose a different route to descend the slope towards the factory.
The small path through the tea rows gave us a closer view of the working scenes of tea pickers.
We took our time to walk down and were greeted by several smiling tea pickers.
Close up of working tea pickers.
We leisurely walked back to Dambatenne Tea Factory in the fog. At the factory, we joined a tour to learn more about the tea making process, machinery and traditions.
Day 7 (2 of 2).
In the midst of tea plantations and cloud forests, the town of Ella situates at an elevation of 1000m above sea level and maintains a relatively cooler climate than the surrounding lowlands. Well known for its scenic valley view of Ella Rock at the Ella Gap, and a laid-back backpacker’s atmosphere, there is no surprises that the hill town has developed into the most popular tourist hub in the entire hill country. Almost all businesses in Ella are somewhat related to tourism. Because of its decent guesthouse and restaurant selection, convenience of transportation, and pleasant surrounding scenery, many travellers including us chose Ella as their base to explore the area’s hiking trails and tea plantations.
Since July 1918, Ella railway station has been an important stop on the Main Line, the oldest railway line in Sri Lanka running from coastal Colombo to Badulla in the hill country, via Kandy.
Just like other railway station in the country, curious dogs were often the first to greet us on the platform, especially when we had breakfast in our hands.
Depending on the time of day, visitors would either get off at Ella from the red or blue train.
We stayed at Zion View Ella Green Retreat for two nights. A number of guest houses, including Zion View, are erected on the valley slope facing the Ella Gap, one of the most scenic spot in town.
Every room in Zion View has a terrace overlooking the Ella Gap.
The terrace was the perfect spot to watch the sunrise over Ella Gap with the silhouette of Ella Rock.
It was also in Ella that we had our first Sri Lankan egg hoppers for breakfast.
The two German Shepherds at Zion View always welcomed us at the hotel entrance.
Walking on the railway tracks is often the the most direct routes to go between attractions. Because only a few trains would pass by Ella daily, both the locals and tourists would use these tracks as footpaths during the rest of the day to reach their destinations.
From our guesthouse we walked half an hour on the tracks to visit Kithal Ella falls. We reached the falls just before nightfall.
Just a few kilometres away from Ella, Halpewatte Tea Factory is a popular tea plantation that offers factory tours for tourists. The factory can easily be reached by tuk tuk.
Halpewatte is one of better known tea plantation in the UVA Ceylon tea region.
Founded in 1971, Halpewatte is a family run business.
Visiting a tea factory is a good way to learn more about the variety of Ceylon tea.
From the factory, we enjoyed a panoramic view of the tea terraces and surrounding scenery.
Among the many restaurants, we picked AK Ristoro in a quiet neighbourhood off the main road for dinner.
We chose to dine at the lovely veranda area at AK Ristoro.
AK Ristoro serves good fusion food with Italian, Japanese and Sri Lankan touches.
We couldn’t resist but to order a can of the local Lion beer to wash down our delicious dinner.
At night, the Main Street of Ella is flanked by lights and signage of restaurants and souvenir stores.
Day 7 (1 of 2).
Established in 1864, the railway system of Sri Lanka was constructed by the British colonial government for tea transportation. While not the fastest way to travel, making intercity journeys by train was a unique way to absorb the history of Sri Lanka, and enjoy the beautiful scenery in a relaxing pace. Some journeys are particularly more popular than the others because the beautiful scenery they offer. The journey from Kandy to Ella is one of the most popular routes, and is often referred to as one of the world’s most scenic train journey.
Getting a reserved ticket (1st class or 2nd class) from Kandy onward to the hill country is a challenge for many tourists, including us. We tried purchasing through online agent 1.5 month prior to our departure, but failed to land on any reserved tickets for our desirable date. We planned to try our luck to buy unreserved tickets and get on at an earlier stop. At worst we might need to stand for a period of time until someone get off during the 7-hour ride. The staff at Villa Rosa heard about our situation, and helped us to obtain two 2nd class tickets with reserved seats from a local agent on the day before our departure. We were grateful for his help.
The wooden timetable board at Kandy Station looks like it has been around since the colonial time.
As the train slowly left the train station, we bid farewell to Kandy and moved on into the hill country.
Soon we arrived into the tea plantation country.
Hindu temples are often erected in tea plantations as many Tamils working in the plantations are Hindus who came from Southern India.
The entire hill country is lush green and dotted with houses of pitched roofs.
Our train passed by one village after another.
On occasions, our train would get close to a sloped tea farm.
It was amazing to see so much land have been converted into tea plantations.
The tea farms seemed never ending.
Some tea farms seemed to receive poorer maintenance.
Since the train was relatively slow, many tourists chose to sit at the doorway with their legs hanging out of the train car.
Tourists took turns to lean out of the doorway of the train to take selfies and enjoy a moment of “flying” over the tea farms.
Many villagers stood near the railroad to watch our train passed by.
Many locals walked on the train tracks.
And so as dogs wandering around the railway stations.
Near the end of the journey, the weather suddenly turned breezy and foggy.
Fog covered much of the area near Ella.
After 6.5 hours, we finally arrived in the area of Ella. We would stay in Ella for two days before moving on to the south.