Sep 28, 2010
On the tea trail
Live in luxury on a tea plantation in Sri Lanka and savour the finest Ceylon tea
Nimble-fingered female tea pickers (above) are preferred, while guests live in the lap of luxury at Summerville bungalow, with dishes such as tuna on potatoes cooked by the in-house chef. -- ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN
There is tea. And there is Ceylon tea, touted as the most expensive in the world. I learn this recently in Bogawantalawa, a south-central region of Sri Lanka known as the Golden Valley of Tea.
It is here, 4,000 ft above sea level, that I have my epiphany over a warm mug of British Orange Pekoe, a premium grade produced here.
Even for one weaned on cheap tea bags, its uniqueness is discernible. Its aroma reels you in and the strength of the dark tea lends a sensory kick to your taste buds. A sharpness follows, cleansing your palate like a fine wine.
I discover later that Ceylon tea is made from a traditional process called Orthodox, which purportedly retains natural flavours and benefits. Tea leaves are hand-plucked to undergo processes called withering (to cut moisture), rolling (bring out the flavour), fermentation, drying and grading by size and shape.
Other tea-producing nations are more inclined to use the CTC (crush, tear, curl) method, which skips the rolling process.
Then again, my senses are probably heightened from the salubrious air at this secluded little piece of heaven.
The Ceylon Tea Trails are a cluster of four colonial bungalows amid the lush-green terraces of Bogawantalawa's tea plantations. Owned by the country's leading tea producer Dilmah, these former homes of British planters, who first brought tea here, have been refurbished to five-star luxury for tourists.
Summerville is the name of the four-bedroom bungalow that I stay in. Perched at the edge of Castlereagh lake and facing a mountain range of tea bushes, pine and eucalyptus trees, the view there is never-ending greens and blues.
The party of four I am travelling with all have our own bedrooms and our own butler, chef and houseboys. The average staff-to-guest ratio is three to one.
I feel like I have stepped back in time to the 1800s when the island was a British colony.
My butler's name, fittingly, is Prince Anthony Milroy. In my bathroom, leatherbound books are strewn on a side table next to the bath. One is a hunter's diary from the early days - wild elephants are a particularly sweet conquest, he writes.
The price of such colonial decadence starts at €233 (S$413) per head a night. It includes meals, beverages, laundry, local phone calls and Internet access.
Lavish feasts are laid out at meal-time, with a flow of wine, liquor and the amazingly potent aniseed-flavoured arak.
Guests can dictate the menu or leave it to the in-house chef. Tea flavours, naturally, feature heavily in the food.
A highlight is a four-course, tea-infused dinner, with dishes such as baby beet salad with hibiscus tea sauce and roast chicken with Yata Wata tea sauce.
The five-year-old Tea Trails concept is one of Sri Lanka's emerging tourism offerings at a time when its 20 million people are finding their feet after the end of a 25-year civil war between the army and Tamil separatists, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.
Since the Liberation Tigers' defeat in May last year, government advisories for travel to Sri Lanka have been reversed.
In the past, tourists were forbidden, or they had to get permission, to enter the troubled north, the Liberation Tigers' stronghold and also the pristine beaches.
All restrictions have been lifted.
Driving from Colombo, a four-hour trip through villages, you still see soldiers on patrol but the threat of violence is low.
Apparent, however, is the lack of infrastructure in a country of this size and history. There are no highways, only roads jammed with humps and potholes.
But the phrase 'things are getting better' is a familiar refrain among people I talk to. Tourism takings were hit by as much as 75 per cent during the conflict, says our guide-cum-driver Yata, a 62-year-old farmer from nearby Kandy.
'But now things are different and people want to come back to my beautiful island,' he says with a hint of pride.
The worry now, some media reports say, is that there might not be enough hotel rooms and resources to cater to a growing influx of travellers.
At the Tea Trails, August occupancy was 65 per cent compared to 40 per cent before, with guests mostly from Britain, Australia, New Zealand and the Middle East.
The novelty of living in a tea plantation is a way to soft-sell Ceylon tea. Mr Merrill Fernando started Dilmah, which he describes as Sri Lanka's only tea producer with a global brand, in 1988.
'When we first took over the bungalows, they were shattered. But we spent a lot of money to bring them to this level, such that anyone going there can experience the life of the British Raj,' he says.
Tea pickers chew betelnut to fight leeches
He laments that the industry underwent a crisis 25 years ago. Multinational companies bought into it with the aim of exploiting local producers. 'The culture of discounting and eliminating competition killed the industry. With Ceylon tea, you cannot give discounts because of its high quality,' he says.
But Ceylon tea has steadily regained its former glory, he says. Over the past two years, it reached historical prices of more than 1,200 rupees (S$35) per kg.
The Tea Trails is the beginning of efforts to link tea with tourism. Dilmah, which owns and co-owns about 14.1ha of plantation across Sri Lanka and accounts for 12 per cent of production, has about 50 such bungalows.
Though only the four in Bogowantawala have been refurbished, there are plans to develop more, he says.
A factory visit to Norwood factory to learn how Ceylon tea is made, from withering to fermentation to grading, is one of the many interesting activities there.
So is a trek up the 7,000ft-high Adam's Peak. It bears the Sri Pada sacred footprint, a rock formation near the summit that is believed to be the footprint of Buddha, Shiva or Adam, depending on your religion.
Wandering among the green terraces, on foot or bike, is the best way to see the place. I pick a marked trail and hike out to see tea pickers out in full force.
Women, who earn about 400 rupees a day, are preferred because of their nimble fingers. They navigate the muddy slopes barefoot and in colourful saris.
When they grin, they reveal teeth stained with betelnut, which they chew to combat the leeches. The pests cling onto skin to suck blood but a spit of betelnut juice makes them curl up from the salt content and drop off.
It is not long before my sneaker-clad feet fail me and I tumble down the terraces into a pool of leeches.
Close to twilight, my companion and I finally make it back to our bungalow, where Milroy and his staff are waiting anxiously.
Later, sitting under the starlit sky, someone makes a joke about me being lost in paradise. I will drink to that, I say, reaching for my cup of tea.
The writer's trip was sponsored by Dilmah.
From now till Oct 31, Sri Lankan Holidays is offering a promotional package to the Ceylon Tea Trails inclusive of three nights at a bungalow and return business-class airfare on Sri Lankan Airlines. The price is $2,610, Go to www.srilankan-holidays.com