DISCOVERING NUWARA ELIYA
Sri Lanka means virgin beaches, sparkling sun, turbulent cities, and magic temple. Those curious enough to escape the cliché should visit a region and city which they will never forget: Nuwara Eliya. Sentimentally referred to as “Little England”. Back from the sandy and sunny Negombo, after a couple of days safariing in Yala and a visit to the capturing Kandy, it took our expert driver from Blue Lanka Tours, the number one tour operator in the country, a couple of hours to get us to this hillside destination. Higher in the sky, crossing clouds over the tea plantations, closing our eyes despite so much beauty sometimes... when our fragile berline careened between two overloaded Leyland buses on a hairpin bend, overlooking waterfalls (the nicest are Lover's leap, Bomburuella, and St. Clairs Falls), ready to die in Paradise...
We opened the window: the crisp mountain air, perfumed with the scent of the best tea on Earth, suddenly cleans up our lungs from the dust and fog of the not so remote Colombo (180 km) and Kandy (77 km). We didn't ask Blue Lanka Tours to include Nuwara Eliya in our itinerary, which was opportunely amended by the team of guides taking care of beotian visitors like us. The green foliage of the usually cool and rainy Central Province, makes the "City of Light" (Tamil name of Nuwara Eliya), one of the most attractive altitude destinations for foreign and local visitors alike. What a contrast with Colombo! Perched at 1,868 m (6,128 ft), this region -the coolest on the island- provides such a difference of climate. In July, we experienced around 30 degrees in the capital city vs 14 degrees in the morning in the lushly hills overlooked by Pidurutalagala (Mount Pedro), the tallest mountain in Sri Lanka (2,524 m / 8,281 ft). Note well that this was in July: summer is the ideal season to feel that contrast, and to enjoy the best of this region.
We believed that Kandy was the most British city in Sri Lanka. With its Victorian buildings, old-fashioned hotels, subtle courtesy of the inhabitants. That was our mistake. No place can beat Nuwara Eliya. Where we in Surrey, Walles, maybe Ireland? The fauna and flora look like transposed from UK.: with wild horses wandering freely along cobbled paths, a well kept hilly golf, and tenebrous oak forests. The Old England is still here, making us traveling back in time. It has Victorian red mailboxes. A Tudor Style Post Office: the oldest in Sri Lanka, made of red-bricks in 1894, dominating the quiet Queen Elizabeth Drive with its clock spire.
Almost opposite, the attractive building of the former National Bank of India (actually a colonial British bank) is fittingly for a hill-station. Founded in 1892, it continues to be used for its original purpose: just rebranded into the Hatton National Bank. We peeped inside: the atmosphere is the same as in the Post Office. The grey bricks central department store, a stone's throw from the post, advertises "Waterproofs, umbrellas, and ladies drapery" Providing a real flashback in the XIXth century.
Another landmark from the colonial period, the Hill Club, a prestigious gentlemen's club, established by and for the British tea planters in 1876, its hosts the Sri Lanka Tennis Association (SLTA). Its 26 acres (11 ha) spread between the Nuwara Eliya Golf Club and the country home of Sri Lanka’s President.
Not far, along the Grand Hotel Drive, the reputed haunted General's House (also referred as Queen's Cottage, or Lodge) turned into the Members of Parliament's country residence, after it had initially served as a pleasant vacation residence to the British General Officer Commanding Ceylon. Though MPs are only charged a symbolic Rs. 350 fee (USD 6) per night in this pleasant, extremely elegant Victorian manor (referred here as a “bungalow”!), many rooms remain vacant. Even during the peak season. Since many people reported to have been harassed by a ghost. The last official victim, MP Nalin Bandara, bet with his friends that he would be courageous enough to sleep in the spooky “Room 16”, where an English lady was found hung in dubious circumstances (suicide, murder?). In the middle of the night, he needed to use the bathroom, where he had been violently knocked, then pushed on the floor by a poltergeist. He even suffered some chin injury. This is one of the most scary landmarks on the Island.
LODGING IN NUWARA ELIYA
No ghost at The St Andrew's. Owned and managed by Jetwing, the best luxury and eco-responsible hotel group in Sri Lanka, it has some weird visitors, covered from head to toe. But don't worry: those are Arabic guests, wearing the traditional Burqa. Nuwara Eliya is a popular destination for Saudian, Qatari, Omari, and Emirati, escaping the hot, irritating climate of the Middle East from Mayuntil October. Mixing with a large number of tourists from the UK, this so-British palace hotel looks different from the other Jetwing modern design-hotels which we visited during our tour. Located in the green Bambarakelle Hills, not far from the interesting Mackwoods Tea Museum, at the foot of the Pidurutalagala, this venerable Tudor country house is nicely reminiscent of the days of the British rulers.
We loved its carefully kept lawn, bushes artistically clipped in animal shapes, making us feel like transposed in “Alice in Wonderland”, and the chic pale blue color of the walls. The public areas, restaurant, and bar are reminiscent of the eccentric social life of yesteryear. The temperature was cold enough to enjoy a glass of aged Chivas Regal, sitting beside the comforting fireplace, close to the historic pool room, carefully preserved in its past glory. What a unique impression! We felt like residing in a Bridligton or Brighton XIXth century grand hotel. Forgetting that we were touring a tropical island, meeting next day the monsoon in Gale, on the West Coast. Sri Lanka is a country of contrasts, and The St Andrew's a culmination of exquisite, refreshing pleasure.
The Old Course restaurant can be enjoyed either “garden party style”, booking a table on the impeccable lawn. We preferred it that time in the old, almost tenebrous historic dining room, untouched since the origin of the hotel. Amazingly colonial. Cinematographic, indeed. The chef brought us quite a menu which we found deliciously conservative. A mix of local curries, British specialties, and yummy desserts. Something quite reminiscent of the 1920's Ceylon.
Rooms are as conservative as the rest of this atmospheric hotel: large, comfortable, all different from each other. Some look like a chalet. The others are reminiscent of a countryside inn. We would have loved to sleep here but, as always, the St Andrew's was totally full...
We spend the night instead in what is considered as its intimate annex: the refined “Oatlands by Jetwing”, which we accessed across the exceptional wetland reserve (and organic garden), set in 2002, separating the St Andrew's from this colonial bungalow, full of charisma. It has only four luxury rooms, fragrantly polished wood-panelled flooring, and a cozy living-room decorated in a conservative 1920s style where we liked to have tea seating by the classic fireplace, pampered by our distinguished butler. The Oatlands looks like more a private residence in Mayfair than a hotel. Let's call it a luxury B&B.
The Executive-Chef kindly came from the St Andrew's to inquire about our breakfast preference, served in the private dining-room. Jetwing got a brilliant idea to book us here. It has two more properties in the same style in Nuwara Eliya: the very Scottish “Warwick Gardens”, tucked away in the refreshing hills, and the very central “The Cottage”.
SAFARI IN YALA NATIONAL PARK
NEGOMBO: A SEASIDE RESORT WITH THE CHARM OF YESTERYEAR
TOURS OF NUWARA ELIYA AND SRI LANKA
SRI LANKA TOURISM BOARD
GETTING TO SRI LANKA WITH SRILANKAN AIRLINES BUSINESS CLASS