Relive the Raj at Ceylon Tea Trails' quartet of elegant boutique villas in lakeside Bogawantalawa Valley in the Hill Country. Each boasting a distinctive character – and we don’t mean the butler – these restored planters' bungalows befit a Somerset Maugham lifestyle, with timbered ceilings, panelled libraries, claw-foot baths and bay windows. Feast on tea-inspired cuisine and rustic views before exploring the surrounding tea estates, ravines and waterfalls. The early tea barons knew a thing or two about decadence but they never had it this good.
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A trek for two through the hills with the hotel's resident naturalist, who will talk about the tea-making process and the local flora and fauna
11am, but a room for late-flight-exits is offered when available. Check-in, noon.
Double rooms from £521.19 ($691), including tax at 21.23 per cent.
Rates include morning tea, full cooked breakfast, daily three-course lunch (or picnic) and four-course dinner, high tea, pre-dinner cocktails and canapés, all soft drinks and selected alcoholic alcoholic drinks, laundry, taxes and service.
Guests get a free tour of the tea factory and fields with the hotel's resident tea planter, including a tasting session. Between February and mid April, the valleys come alive with the annual Sami Komadu (Hindu temple) festivals: expect to hear drumming, dancing, singing and other sounds.
At the hotel
A butler for each house, library of books and DVDs, free WiFi throughout, gardens, clay tennis court, croquet lawns, guest bikes, picnic baskets to order. In rooms: wood fires, waffle-linen robe and acupressure flip-flops, organic bath unguents including green tea soap.
Our favourite rooms
Ceylon Tea Trails is made up of five colonial-era tea-planters' bungalows, scattered around Castlereagh Lake. Flaunting heritage style, each features graceful top-tier Master Suites, Garden Suites and Luxury Rooms, and comes with its own manager, chef, butler and house boys. Rooms are allocated according to availability, so you can't guarantee your first choice, but the charm of the place means everyone will claim 'their' bungalow is best. Cottage-cosy Summerville (1923) is the quietest, perched above the lake with uninterrupted views of the water and verdant hills. Glamourpuss Castlereagh (1925) is set right on the lake's edge with extensive gardens, two summerhouses and fab views. Closest to the Norwood tea factory, Norwood (1890; rebuilt 1940) feels more modern, with sensational valley vistas. Classic Tientsin (1888) enjoys the highest altitude (4,600ft) and the best pool.
Each of the five bungalows boast refreshingly au naturel outdoor pools: mountain spring-fed and unheated, fringed by cushioned teak loungers aplenty. Breezy Tientsin's stylish infinity pool can be bracing, but is the best of the bunch, set in a clandestine upper-terrace garden for maximum privacy and minimum mozzies. Norwood's pool comes with the most expansive views for sublime swimming. Castlereagh has the smallest pool, flanked by a Scottish 'loch' and tea hills, so suits dilettante dippers who prefer plunging and lounging.
Raincoats are provided but a pashmina will be invaluable for cooler evenings. No need for wellies: in the tropics, the free bathroom flip-flops can substitute. A sketchpad for recording the ravishing vistas won't go amiss.
A peak season supplement of US$200 a room, each night, including tax, is payable direct to the hotel for stays from 20 December–10 January. Alcohol cannot be served on the Poya bank holiday, which occurs once a month during the full moon.
Welcome. Each extra child stays for US$95 a night (includes tax) on full board. For stays between 20 December 2019 and 10 January 2020, 20-30 January 2020 and 5-18 April 2020, each child stays full board for US$150 a night (includes tax).
Ceylon Tea Trails has a sedate, tranquil feel, so may not suit a boisterous brood, but children are welcome and will love the country location and sporty activities.
As most guests leave tots at home, well-behaved bookworms over 12 will fit in best, but kids under 12 can share your room for free.
Parents can add one extra bed and a baby cot for two children under-12 to any room at no extra charge (there's just a supplement for food and drink), but Master Suites have their own private living area for added romping space.
Distract the smalls with board games a-plenty, or work off their energy with a game of tennis, croquet or trekking on the many local trails. The over-10s should enjoy the guided mountain bike rides, but whitewater rafting is for over-12s only. Older children may get a kick out of visiting a local tea plantation, and all kids will enjoy the hotel's natural, lakeside setting.
There are no lifeguards at the bungalow pools, so kids will need to be watched.
The kitchen will happily supply meals to suit children's needs.
No need to pack
Baby cots, which are supplied free of charge. Marmite soldiers or pudding!
Families with children will be booked into the same bungalow. Castlereagh has the most child-friendly garden, but kids will need supervising at Summerville and Tientsin where terraced gardens are rife with tempting ledges. Other guests come for solitude and relaxation so may not appreciate noise if they have no children of their own. Ceylon Tea Trails asks parents to ensure kids aren't noisy inside the bungalows, as there are plenty of opportunities for letting off steam outdoors and on the hotel's fun excursions.
There's a strong eco-friendly flavour here, with all three swimming pools fed by mountain springs, and in-room herbal and organic toiletries drawing on teas and essential oils grown in the local hills. Tea is also used in the hotel's cuisine, making the most of its natural antioxidant qualities.
At Norwood, Castlereagh and Summerville, ask for your table to be set in the summerhouse overlooking the lake, illuminated by flaming torches. At Tientsin, nab the side veranda for the best garden view, most privacy and least breezy brekky.
A wee bit of cashmere will take the chill off evenings (temperatures may drop to 10°C from December–February), but if you possess your own family tartan, squire, no need to be shy about flaunting your sporran. Absolutely anything's allowed underneath it.
Each house has a formal dining room (great for groups) though we preferred the intimate tables à deux on the alfresco terraces: picture-postcard by day, amateur astronomy by night. The skilled chefs work on such a personal note that you’ll be hard-pressed to glimpse a menu, so let them consult with you each morning to discuss your heart's desires. All-inclusive rates include an English or Sri Lankan breakfast, three-course lunch, a lavish afternoon tea and four-course dinner. Staff will also prepare impeccably well-furnished picnic baskets with freshly baked bread, scones, croissants and pastries for excursions. Organic herbs are grown in the gardens and teas are used to fragrance fresh local vegetables, poultry and fish. Almost anything goes, from roast chicken marinated in Yattawatta tea to a tastebud-blasting 12-dish curry banquet: the plantain flower and jackfruit curries are standouts.
In keeping with the easy weekend party atmosphere, the bar is a groaning antique butler’s tray set by the fireplace in each living room. All soft drinks and a select range of wines, beers and spirits are included in the room rate. A range of reliable Chileans are kept at correct temperature: wines, not guests. But don’t fret, French champagnes, adventurous Australian tipples and vintage scotches are on hand at additional charge. And the bar will stay open till you drop.
As late as you like, King Farouk-Smith! Your butler is at your beck and call, but will appreciate some warning.
All rooms have garden tables for breakfast and almost anything you fancy, on or off menu, will be delivered dawn to midnight.
Ceylon Tea Trails is in the Bogawantalawa Valley in the central Hill Country, dubbed the Golden Valley of Tea. The nearest town, Hatton, is 20 minutes' drive from the most northerly villa Summerville and 45 minutes from Tientsin, the most southerly.
Sri Lankan Airlines is the only carrier that flies direct to Bandaranaike International Airport, 30 kilometres north of capital Colombo, from Sydney and selected European destinations. One-stop operators include Emirates, Singapore Airlines and Cathay Pacific. From the airport it's a four-hour drive to Ceylon Tea Trails in the Hill Country. Alternatively, splash down in a seaplaneon Castlereagh Lake – only a 30-minute flight from Colombo or helishuttle to Norwood in an hour by Bell Jetranger. Call our Smith24 Team on 03300 376 891 to arrange flights and transfers.
Taking the train from Kandy, in the north of the Hill Country, to Hatton, further south, is unreservedly picturesque but distinctly reserved on the luggage space. Gear up for your hedonistic life at Ceylon Tea Trails by getting your to driver to ferry your bags and meet you at other end.
Four wheels are the simplest way to reach the Hill Country. Drivers are easy to locate or Hayleys can arrange tours and transport around the country.
Worth getting out of bed for
There isn't a standalone spa at Ceylon Tea Trails, but you can enjoy in-room treatments in absolute privacy. Indulgent aromatherapy baths are a must: try green tea for jetlag or cinnamon for an immune-system boost.
Trekking between the hotel's five bungalows offers jaw-dropping views of lakes, mountains and tea-strewn slopes, and you can stop off for a cuppa or meal along the way. Trail maps are provided free or opt for a guide for stiffer prowling. From Tientsin it's 15 kilometres to Norwood, then 12 kilometres to Castlereagh – a good downhill walk – with a further 5.3 kilometre hop to Summerville. You can also take a 90-minute train ride passing waterfalls and unbelievable vistas, picnic en route and coast home on mountain bikes to your bungalow (between 40 and 50 kilometres). The tea estate roads are perfect for cycling.
Alternatively, get a fisherman to row you across Castlereagh Reservoir on his outrigger canoe for a fish-eye view of the surrounding hills and forests. Or up the stakes with some whitewater rafting: Kithulgala's Kelani river, about a 75-minute drive north of the hotel, will tax your thrill-o-meter but is scenic enough to have starred in David Lean’s epic movie The Bridge on the River Kwai.
Play genteel games of tennis on the hotel's clay court. Afternoon tea-tasting in your villa – originally home to the plantation managers – brings a rainy day alive: savour white, green and Orange Pekoe teas so chock-a-block with antioxidants you'll feel as pure as the high-altitude hill-country air. For another kind of tee for two, the highest links in Asia can be found at Nuwara Eliya Golf Course, then unwind at the quintessentially colonial Hill Club, probably the last bastion of the Raj. This rose-garden-dotted hill station has been dubbed 'Little England' on account of its colonial roots. The fogey is not dead.
Spoilt for choice? Pick one bungalow as a base and then savour the others' distinct charms. Bike to Castlereagh and lunch in a lakeside summerhouse. Anyone for Tientsin? Take high tea there after a game on the clay court. Then catch the best sunset views with cocktails and canapés at Summerville, before returning 'home' for Port by your log fire. You can bag just one room, take over a whole bungalow exclusively or stay at several and trek between them.
This is an unadulterated retreat setting so even if you had space after being plied with offerings at every conceivable opportunity – from high tea to canapés – you won’t find much other fare to feast on close by. If you want to wedge in a couple of vadais to fortify yourself for the nearby Adam’s Peak trek, the best of these deep-fried, doughnut-like spicy lentil treats come from Dickoya, only 15 minutes' drive away.
Country club-meets-wayside inn, the 'Rest House' is a distinctly Sri Lankan offering. Originally built by the Dutch to shelter visiting officials, they are nearly always located in beauty spots, by waterfalls or ravishing views. The remainder of a dying breed, the Pussellawa Rest House at Pussellawa, en route from Nuwara Eliya hill station to Kandy, was recently restored by the Galle Face Hotel group and proffers a wholesome curry lunch and wholly uplifting vistas. Ambepussa Rest House (a good breakfast pit-stop between Colombo airport and Kandy) has had more of a glam makeover. There ain’t no vista, mister, but the outstanding curry buffet will pick you up.
Mischief lurks just the other side of your planter’s punch, but if you’re going stir-crazy, the Darrawella Planters Club, on the edge of Dickoya, is a delightful dinosaur from yesteryear – with bar prices to match. Boasting a billiard room still clad in 1868 panels, and rugby and cricket grounds, it is dusty but quirky enough to remind you what it once was: the life and soul of the planter community. Back home, wish upon a star at Tientsin bungalow, best for star-gazing while cuddling your Glenfiddich.
Having just become Mr and Mrs Smith, we head off on honeymoon to seductive Sri Lanka. As our holiday unfolds, from the medieaval ramparts of Galle to the palm-fringed beachscapes of Tangalle, our feet don’t touch the ground. In fact, it’s all top drawer.
Jaunting around the island by Sri Lankan Airlines sea plane certainly adds to the old-school allure as we pop to lakeside Kandy. Our next stop is boutique hotel Ceylon Tea Trails in the Hill Country, but we worry that the smooth transfer might be setting us up for a fall. The two-hour train journey from Kandy threads through the most amazing tropical landscape, with the temperature gradually cooling as we chug our way up the hills. Surely something must be about to go wrong... Yes, we’ve been struck by a dreaded case of Paradise Syndrome.
Arriving at Hatton, you’d think you’d stepped into a Rudyard Kipling novel. The ramshackle station, populated with goats and chickens, is under the command of a station manager resplendent in full uniform (albeit one he’s trying to shelter from the torrential rain). We’re met by a chauffeur waving a name card, and we’re away, zipping through the bustling town.
Ears popping, we climb further up the mountains. All around lies tea as far as the eye can see, manicured to perfection like thousands of large Bonsais in orderly rows clustered around Castlereagh Lake. Named after this expanse of water, our bungalow is one of four former tea planters’ houses, and is suitably vintage-grand.
You can go to Africa, India and it seems Sri Lanka and still find little pieces of pristine Surrey, Kent or the Cotswolds waiting there for you, thanks to the sun never setting on the Empire. Castlereagh is a colonial dream with glorious views of the surrounding garden and lake. We’re greeted by our lovely butler Dammit, who gives us a charming tour of the property, introducing us to our personal chef. Yes, you read correctly, Dammit!
Decked out with elegant antiques and traditional dark wood furniture, our Luxury Room is the last word in romance, with gorgeous vistas of the lake from both bedroom and bathroom. We kick back with a G&T (cheers Dammit), anticipating the day ahead.
If you have a penchant for getting dressed up for dinner, then this is the place to do it. Come evening, we discover there’s nothing better than putting on a freshly pressed shirt and jacket (or chic cocktail dress) and gathering in the drawing room while pre-dinner martinis are mixed for us. The bungalow feels like a character in its own right and encourages you to indulge in nostalgia for the grand old days of yore. Fans of period drama will be in heaven here.
In most all-inclusive stays I’ve been subjected to buffet-style elevated school dinners, so I prepare myself to be disappointed. Instead, we’re treated to the king of all curries – one fish, one lamb, 10 sambals, two types of rice and three chutneys – all washed down by the ever-present Lion beer. We retire impressed.
After a sumptuous breakfast the next day of more curry and stringhoppers – a local steamed-noodle speciality – we opt for a morning trek to walk it off. When you stay at Ceylon Tea Trails you’ll allowed to drink or dine at any of the hotel’s quartet of bungalows, dotted around the lake and surrounds, which makes being a guest here a stand-out experience. The walk from Castlereagh to Norwood villa takes in about 12 jaw-dropping kilometres, and on arrival we’re welcomed with cold hand towels. From our perch halfway up the hills, we can see the sprawling tea plantation below plunging towards the lake – the perfect spot for lunch. Imagine Italy’s Lake Como flanked by mountains and tea and you’re there!
As if by magic a car is waiting to take us on to Summerville, across the lake from our base at Castlereagh. With the humidity cranking up we relish sitting within the cool walls of Summerville, a spacious, more flowing style of bungalow close to the lake, reminiscent of an early Frank Lloyd Wright house. High tea? Why, thank you Dammit, don’t mind if we do…
Like forbidden fruit, our decadent, four-tiered tray of temptation is served. Scones, clotted cream and jam, cucumber and ham sandwiches, tiny fruit cakes and Victoria sponge all beg to be consumed, accompanied by delicate sips of the local pekoe blend. Our fears that we’re destined to leave half of it untouched prove groundless – and being surrounded by steep, cathedral-like peaks definitely puts the high into tea.
My transformation is complete. I have become a tea baron. Ceylon Tea Trails is like a time machine with great food and views. I’m completely converted, so much so that I suddenly decide to row my new wife across the lake to the sanctuary of Castlereagh. As if on cue, the clouds blacken as we dock and rain buckets down just as we make it to the shelter of the veranda for some well deserved G&Ts. It’s a hard life.
Our most surprising adventure, though, is our visit to the nearby Norwood tea factory, where we meet the hotel’s planter-in-residence Andrew Taylor, a direct descendant of James Taylor, the English planter who introduced tea growing to Ceylon after the local coffee crops were blighted. Even if the idea of a tour repels you, bite the bullet and go, as the vibrant colour of the tea fields and smiles of the workers will bring your old geography books to life.
Spanning the history of tea in Sri Lanka and the biology of the tea plant itself, the tour is an enlightening eye-opener. We’re shown the complex drying process and the crucial part timing and temperature play in the factory (many of the machines were designed by James Taylor back in the day and still run like clockwork). Andrew’s enthusiasm is infectious and we leave feeling we are well and truly reformed coffee drinkers. More tea, vicar!
During our three-night stay at this glam getaway we savour every sip of drink and every morsel of food. Maybe it’s a trick of the inspiring location or the intriguing interiors, but everything seems to taste and smell better up here – even the tea. What’s more, our anxieties about Paradise Syndrome turn out to be unfounded. Ceylon Tea Trails is a genuine slice of heaven.