A TRIP TO SRI LANKA, PART 1 – TEA TRAILS

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Everybody has been asking about my trip to Sri Lanka earlier this year and yes I highly recommend it! Here’s a little roundup of what I got up to – better late than never – I enjoyed reliving the splendour…

Ceylon Teatrails 

Roll back to January – I’d just survived writing the new book, filming a tv show, setting up a cafe and working with my sister 24/7 – enough to test anyone – oh and let’s not forget Christmas. Coming up next was a global book tour from Australia to Europe, Middle East to America, the opening of our first cafe in Selfridges and the launch of our TV show globally. I had 2 weeks to get some down time before the rollercoaster of 2016 got up to full speed, and all I wanted to do was make a nest in my sitting room and stay there until it was time to emerge. A little bird convinced me and my other half Nick Hopper to get some sun, sea, surf and yoga in Sri Lanka – my lovely friend Daisy Bird that is. Daisy has been visiting Sri Lanka throughout her childhood and her luxury travel PR company looks after several stunning resorts there. After 30 years of civil war this island, off the south-east coast of India, is fast becoming known as one of the must visit places. A diverse and multicultural country with a rich heritage, Sri Lanka, romantically nicknamed The Teardrop of India or Pearl of the Indian Ocean, has a legendary reputation for natural beauty and nature which is just what I needed most. So at the last minute she organised a trip with a stay in the tea mountains, a lakeside eco resort, and ending with a cliff top villa overlooking the ocean.

At first I wasn’t sure it would be the relaxing and restorative trip I was looking for with the jetlag and internal travelling all squeezed into 12 days of winding bumpy roads…Well it turned out to be just the ticket and the journey, as they say, is just as amazing as the destinations.

Flying on New Years Day (a great day to fly – no traffic and great prices!) and arriving in the Sri Lankan capital Colombo the next morning, we were  promptly whisked away by car to a roadside canteen with a buffet of curries to sustain us on our journey to the mountains. A later pit stop was at one of the many fresh fruit stalls for a variety of tiny bananas, which all tasted so ‘bananary’ you wonder what on earth you’re eating back home. Napping for the first part of the journey, the scenery grew ever more stunning as we wound our way deeper into the mountains. We made good time until we met the winding roads that led to the plantations, the slow pace being necessary to stop any queasy feelings but all the better to see the view. The light dropped quickly and we arrived in complete darkness to Tientsin, a tea planters bungalow originally built in 1888 and lovingly restored with four others situated between 2km and 15km of each other, to create Tea Trails.

A log fire and cocktails served in the library – it felt like we had taken a step back in time to the colonial era. Should we dress for dinner? We were greeted by the chef who talked us through his tantalising 4-course menu for the evening. He offered a mixture of contemporary Western cuisine and traditional Sri Lankan fare using homegrown vegetables and herbs from the surrounding estates. For us it just had to be curry for our first night please. On the candle lit veranda, joined by a few other tables (there are only 4 – 6 suites per bungalow), we breathed in the cool, clean mountain air, ate delicious little bowls of aromatic flavours, all washed down with good wine and ginger tea. Usually when offered ginger tea I expect a pale infusion of freshly grated ginger. One sip from the tiny (compared to my mugs at home) china cup of dark liquid I remembered – this is tea country and I was drinking the real deal. These are the hills of the Bogawantalawa region, one of the most famous regions for Ceylon Tea. Known as “The Golden Valley’ thanks it’s the lush and vigorous tea bushes which produce the most fragrant and delicately flavoured of leaves. My super smooth black brew, with a fiery ginger edge, tickled my already happy tastebuds and opened up a whole new appreciation for that everyday British affair. Without seeing a single tea plant or fully comprehending the fact that I was in one of the oldest Sri Lankan tea plantations, steeped in history, I had tasted it all in a single cup, jet lagged and travel weary though I was…

The next morning we awoke in our dark teak four-poster to ‘bed tea’. This colonial custom involves sleepily trying to sit up, smooth your white sheets and look regal, while your butler draws your curtains (and your bath if you so wish) and then pours your morning cuppa. Yes this felt very Downton Abbey and extremely decadent considering that breakfast on the sun filled veranda was a mere 10 second walk away, but what a way to start the day! Especially after a week of sleeping on the sitting room floor at my in-laws and being woken by whoever was picking at the Christmas leftovers in the night. We enjoyed tropical fruits for breakfast in the exotic garden that surrounded the  bungalow and began working our way down the tea menu. In the next 36 hours we hiked the tea plantations and watched the local tea pickers rhythmically picking only the youngest leaves from the 100 year old bonsai-style bushes, and sunbathed by the infinity pool while sipping iced green teas and admiring the panoramic views.

We wandered the gardens, played tennis and snuggled down in the library to read about the history of Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon under British rule) and it’s tea comeback after disease wiped out the country’s main export of coffee in the 1870’s. Also on offer was a visit to the century tea factory to see how it’s all done, and mountain bike excursions. We chose the less strenuous option of an air-conditioned 4×4 to take us over the valley to visit another of the bungalows called Castlereagh – a Scottish name – on the edge of a mountain lake where we took a gluten-free high tea and played croquet on the lawn…Lord and Lady of the manor!

To be continued…

Jasmine Hemsley