Rachel’s experience at Nine Skies near Ella, Sri Lanka
Surrounded by undulating tea plantations, Ella has one of the most beautiful settings of any town in Sri Lanka. Rachel Nicoll describes her favourite place to stay near here
Sri Lanka is home to diverse landscapes, with everything from dry plains and wildlife-rich national parks to paradisiacal beaches and, of course, rolling tea plantations. We recently stayed at Nine Skies, a lovely boutique hotel in the emerald tea-clad hills of the south, and found it to be the perfect base to explore the region and spend a few days relaxing in some truly enchanting surroundings.
To get there, we travelled by train from Kandy to Demodara, buried in the tea plantations near Ella, a hill town famous for its beauty. This journey was undoubtedly a highlight of our entire trip. The scenery was made up of lush, forested mountains, jade-green expanses, sloping misty hills and incredible flowers at every turn, and as we snaked further south, the vistas became more and more magnificent. A particularly memorable moment was crossing the Demodara Nine Arch Bridge. The story goes that when the bridge was being built, Sri Lanka was still under British rule and the First World War broke out. It is said that the British took the steel that was set aside for its construction for the war, so it was built instead by talented local craftsmen using only stone bricks and cement. It is an impressive feat of engineering!
Sri Lanka’s tea estates are dotted with charming, little-changed planters’ bungalows. Many were built by the British during a housing boom in the 1920s and have a very colonial feel to them. One such example is Nine Skies. Harking back to the olden days, this five-bedroom bungalow, on a working tea plantation, is stylishly furnished with a refined British sensibility. The spacious rooms, open onto the tea-fringed garden and surrounding estate, and the views from the shimmering infinity pool are jaw-dropping. The delicious food served here was also a real treat, with amazing curries galore that were heartily enjoyed after our sunset G&Ts on the veranda.
The area is a hiker’s heaven – Sri Lanka is home to about 400 waterfalls and several can be reached from Nine Skies – but most people come here for the scenic beauty and the tea. We recommend spending some time at a working tea factory. Very few have modernised over time, and the same machinery and techniques from more than 100 years ago are still used today. For a deeper dive into the creation of natural tea infusions, a visit to the gorgeous Amba Estate is a must. Here, we learnt about how the tea industry is evolving within Sri Lanka and how tea can be created in various ways. The plantation is said to be pioneering a new form of tea production. We, at cazenove+loyd, also work closely with a wonderful organic farm that produces tea, coffee, cinnamon and preserves. On my visit, the expert resident guide explained how the farm supports the community and the artisanal teas there are shipped worldwide to clients such as Fortnum & Mason.
The country’s agricultural history is very interesting indeed. The plantation industry in Ceylon, as it was once called, first started with the widespread planting of coffee back in 1839. However, this booming production was brought to a halt in 1869, due to a leaf disease that rapidly spread unhindered and devastated the crops. Therefore, in a frantic attempt to avoid financial ruin, planters turned to tea growing. These days, this teardrop-shaped island is the fourth-largest producer of tea globally. Sri Lanka’s plantations are found at various altitudes. The tea comes in different flavours, depending on the height at which it was grown. The sun, soil, temperature and climate all determine its style, character and taste.
When you’ve had enough tea, we suggest going to nearby Ella. While this former laid-back hippy town is now a busy backpacker hub, we still think it’s worth a visit to hike to Little Adam’s Peak at dawn (to avoid the heat). At a height of 1,141m, the walk is not particularly challenging, even if it’s a little steep in some parts. It is certainly worth the effort to appreciate the most spectacular views of the hills, valleys and the dramatic, sheer face of Ella Rock. For the adrenaline junkies, there is even a new zipline at the start of the trek for anyone seeking more thrills.
A few days in the tea country is a wonderful part of any trip to Sri Lanka, whether you want to taste and learn about tea, walk in stunning scenery or simply read your book and unwind beside the infinity pool at Nine Skies.