Friday, January 7, 2011
After the big New Year’s Eve party in Unawatuna, I spent most of New Year’s Day in a car. Six hours from Unawatuna lie the mountains of Ceylon, which are at the heart of Sri Lanka’s tea country.
The drive to Hatton, the town at the center of the mountains, was picturesque, if a bit long. Starting at the beaches, the road wound its way inland through lush green farmland until it reached the high hills of Ceylon tea country. Along the way the climate changed from sunny beach weather to damp mountain mist.
By the time I reached my bungalow at Ceylon Tea Trails—my accommodation near Hatton—it was almost 5:30pm. I was exhausted. I was hungry. I may or may not have still been feeling the effects of my New Year’s Eve festivities.
As if he read my mind, Damian, my host at Ceylon Tea Trails’ Tientsin Bungalow, already had a table on the veranda set for afternoon tea. Following a quick tour of the rooms, I collapsed into a comfy wicker chair on the terrace.
Soon my tea arrived, along with an explanation that it was grown on the hill across from where I was sitting. Wow. It could not have been a more unique cuppa. I enjoyed every sip, as well as the sandwiches, cakes, and scones that accompanied it.
Refreshed and rejuvenated, I started to explore the property. The Tientsin Bungalow was one of the four that Ceylon Tea Trails runs in the Hatton area. It is known for its high colonial character, as evidenced by the beautiful wooden dining room, the softly-lit library, and the expansive gardens around the property. The swimming pool, tennis court, and croquet lawn rounded out the lady-of-the-manor atmosphere.
That’s to say nothing of my room, which was one of only a handful in the whole bungalow. It featured a working fireplace, historic photographs, huge wooden windows next to which I could enjoy my morning tea, and a large bathroom with a stand-alone tub perfect for leisurely afternoon bubble baths.
After a decent four-course meal that evening, I went to bed early and woke up the next morning to find the sun shining in through the windows. I enjoyed my breakfast on the terrace, and then it was time to explore the tea fields.
Damian gave me a map for a 4km hike around the area, but the way was so well signed that I never had to use it. For the next few hours, I meandered along the trails that wound through the verdant green hills of Ceylon tea.
The friendly locals smiled and waived as I walked by, and in the distance I could see groups of people picking the ‘two leaves and a bud’ that are the beginning of the tea-making process.
Back at the bungalow, I explored the gardens for awhile and then sat down for lunch. It was perfect timing, too, because the downpour started right then. All afternoon the rain came down in huge splattering drops. It made me glad that I had scheduled a massage before afternoon tea.
The rest of my time at Ceylon Tea Trails followed a similar formula: breakfast, walk through the tea plantations, lunch, rain, tea, reading in the library, dinner, sleep. It was a great way to relax and spend a few very unique days in the middle of a long journey.
On the morning of the last day, everyone from the Tientsin Bungalow piled into a van and was driven to the Norwood Tea Factory. Included in our stay was a tour that would educate us on how tea was made.
Our tour guide was excellent. He was so animated that even the most disinterested person left Norwood feeling passionate about Ceylon tea.
First he explained the oxidation process that the leaves undergo to become tea. From there we moved inside the tea factory to see the huge troughs into which the leaves are loaded. Giant fans spin air into the leaves in a process called withering.
Once the leaves are withered, they are sifted to remove unwanted debris, then they are taken to the floor below to be rolled in a large machine. From there they are conveyed into another process, where they are cut into pieces and then fed into a machine that heats the tea to stop the oxidation process. All of this takes only a few hours, such that huge volumes of tea can be produced each day.
Once the process is finished, the tea is ground into various grades. At this point, recognizable names—Orange Pekoe, for example—are applied. Then the tea is packaged, and the final product is sold at a reverse Dutch auction in Colombo. When the auction is finished, the tea is shipped all over the world, from Japan to Syria to the UK.
After the Ceylon tea tour, it was my turn to be shipped out from the Norwood Tea Factory. I hopped in a tuk tuk for one final ride through the tea plantations of Sri Lanka, and headed down the mountain to start the next leg of my journey: the legendary city of Kandy.