Mist –shrouded mountains, rolling tea plantations, cascading waterfalls and quaint hilltop villages –are some of the enchanting aspects of the hill country.
A short distance by car or r ail from Colombo, this region offers you the chance to escape into a world that scarcely seems possible in the tropics. With surreal landscapes, cool climes and a rich heritage, the hill country is a haven for nature lovers, hikers, adventure seekers and anybody simply in search of peace and tranquillity.
Royal City of Kandy
Nestled in lush green hills and built around a scenic lake, the Royal City of Kandy, at 500m above sea level, is the hub of any visit to the hill country. Kandy, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was the last stronghold of resistance to colonial rule. Even today, Kandyans pride themselves on their distinctive architecture, music, dance and art. The showpiece of the city is the Dalada Maligawa or Temple of the Tooth, which hosts the Buddha’s sacred tooth relic.
Each year, in July or August, the city holds the Esala Perahera, a spectacular display of medieval pageantry replete with caparisoned elephants, whirling fire dancers and pulsating drummers.
The journey from Colombo to Kandy is a treat with fine views of the scenery afforded from the road or railway. Not to be missed Enroute is the Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage, where visitors can get up close and personal with over 60 pachyderms, ranging from cute babies and mischievous adolescents to majestic tuskers.
Just outside Kandy at Peradeniya, the Royal Botanical Gardens contains a bewildering array of local and foreign species set in a tranquil site adjacent to the mighty Mahaweli Ganga, Sri Lanka’s most important and longest river.
For many centuries, traders have been drawn to the island by the allure of its spices. Numerous spice gardens to the north of Kandy allow you to see how cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, pepper and cardamom all continue to flourish in the island’s fertile soil.
Golfing enthusiasts should not miss the stunning Victoria Golf Course, set on the edge of a vast reservoir 20km east of Kandy.
Knuckles Mountain Range
Further east of Kandy, the Knuckles mountain range, a UNESCO World heritage site, provides fearless travellers with the opportunity to experience Sri Lanka at its most primal. A rugged area of pristine wilderness – including rare dwarf cloud forest – the Knuckles has 27 peaks over 1,000m, with the highest rising to nearly 2,000m.
It is also home to an exceptional array of endemic animal and plant species. Though largely uninhabited, the region contains some of the most isolated hamlets in the island, where it is still possible to witness a way of life largely untouched by modernity.
The heart of the southern hill country is Nuwara-Eliya; Sri Lanka’s highest town and a favourite hill station during British colonial times.
The town is still touted as “Little England” an illusion maintained by the presence of an 18-hole golf course, a racecourse, the Victoria Park and excellent trout fishing in nearby lakes and rivers.
The temperature in the area can drop to close to freezing at nights and it is common to see smoke rising from the chimneys of the many Tudor-style manors.
Nuwara-Eliya is a great base to explore the surrounding countryside and there are many walks on offer, including hiking around the lower slopes of the thickly forested Mount Pidurutalagala, at 2,555m the island’s highest peak. A visit to the Hakgala Botanical Gardens, a short distance from Nuwara-Eliya, is also recommended.
Among the most iconic vistas of the hill country are the rolling tea estates that carpet vast swathes of terrain in an emerald sea. Introduced to the island in the late 19th century by the British, tea remains of vital importance to the economy. Some of the finest teas in the world are produced in the hill country and a visit to a tea factory during a trip to this region is highly recommended.
Watch how the plucked tea is dried, crushed, fermented and fired using machinery that as remained largely unchanged since the Victorian times.
South of Nuwara-Eliya, the Horton Plains is a hauntingly desolate, windswept plateau set an elevation of over 2,000m.
A world apart from the rest of Sri Lanka, the plains offer excellent trekking, including a 9km circular walk to Worlds End, where the cliff plunges dramatically for nearly 1,000m, offering marvellous views to the south.
Herds of sambar deer, beautiful lizards and many endemic bird species enhance the Horton Plains experience and there is always the hope of a glimpse of a leopard.
Thrill- seekers will also find a range of activities such as canoeing and rock climbing on offer.
Perched on a hill side and surrounded by tea plantations and pine forest is the quaint village of Ella.
With pretty little bungalows and neat flower filled gardens, Ella is blessed with one of the finest views in Sri Lanka and makes a good location from which to explore other sites of interest.
Nearby is the ancient Ravana rock temple, the Ravana Ella cave and Ravana Ella falls, all linked by legend to the Ramayana, the 2,000-year-old Hindu epic. It was in Ella that the demon-king Ravana is said to have hidden Princess Sita after abducting her from her husband Rama in India.
From Ella, it is also possible to visit the remarkable rock carvings at Buduruwagala, one of the island’s most atmospheric ancient sites. Other hill country towns worth checking out include Haputale, Bandarawela and Badulla.
Train through the hill country
For visitors who are not in a hurry, riding the hill country on a train is an excellent way to savour the delights of this region.
Snaking its way through tea plantations, pine forests and plunging ravines, this is rightly regarded as one of the finest railway journeys in the world. Ascending to a height of over 2,000m, the journey affords stunning views of the scenery plus a chance to experience the romance of a mode of travel attuned to a bygone era.
Adam’s Peak (Sri Pada)
Soaring above the surrounding hills in the southwest of the hill country is Adam’s Peak. Known also as Sri Pada (Sacred Footprint) due to the curious footprint-shaped indentation at its summit.
The mountain is considered sacred to adherents of all Sri Lanka’s main faiths – Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims and Christians – and attracts many pilgrims between December and May each year.
The ascent requires stamina rather than mountaineering skills and consists of over 4,800 steps to the summit.
The best time to make the ascent is during the night, when the twinkling lights of the illuminated pathway appear to rise like stairway to heaven.
Dawn at the summit is an intensely spiritual experience. Pilgrims whisper reverently to each other as the sun rises and casts a perfect triangular shadow on the clouds below, one of the island’s more unusual natural phenomena.
In the west of the hill country is the scenic village of Kitulgala. The landscape here is particularly dramatic with vertiginous forest-clad cliffs plummeting down to the wild waters of the Kelani River.
This is also the site of some of the best white water rafting in Sri Lanka with grade three rapids some 5km upstream.
Ratnapura & Sinharaja Forest Reserve
Sri Lanka has been famous for its gems since antiquity – legend has it that a Sri Lankan ruby was given by King Solomon to the Queen of Sheba.
Ratnapura, settled in the south-western corner of the hill country, is the island’s richest source of gems.
A trip to a working gem mine provides a fascinating glimpse into the mining process which is still largely carried out by hand.
Sinharaja Forest Reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage Site is the last extensive stretch of virgin rainforest on the island. Stretching for nearly 30km across the wet zone at the southern edge of the hill country, Sinharaja is a global biodiversity hotspot. Damp, mysterious and teeming with life, it is a must visit for those seeking an authentic jungle experience.