Hubert Burda Media

READING THE TEA LEAVES

A stay at Sri Lanka's Ceylon Tea Trails is a charming lesson in history.

READING THE TEA LEAVES

SUMMERVILLE BUNGALOW, a former planters' residence built in 1923 in the Bogawantalawa Valley in Sri Lanka's Central Highlands, has a collection of books entirely in keeping with its Raj-steeped history. Among these is the splendidly titled Rifle and the Hound in Ceylon, penned by Sir Samuel W Baker, MA, FRS, FRGS, and published in 1853. The introduction leaves readers in no doubt as to the tone of what follows.

“The love of sport is a feeling inherent in most Englishmen, and whether in the chase, or with the rod or the gun, they far excel all other nations…by Englishmen alone is the glorious feeling shared of true, fair and manly sport. The character of the nation is beautifully displayed in all our rules of hunting, shooting, fishing, fighting etc. A feeling of fair play pervades every amusement. Who would shoot a hare in form? Who would net a trout stream? Who would hit a man when down? A Frenchman would do all these things, and might be no bad fellow after all. It would be his way of doing it.”

Thus armed with nothing more than a single-barrelled rifle, three doublebarrelled No.10 rifles, a double-barrelled small-bore rifle and two double-barrelled No.10 smooth bores, Baker, in the mid-19th century, cheerfully set about manfully murdering the wildlife of what was then Ceylon. Occasionally, and perhaps keen to avoid accusations of being a beastly, cheating foreigner, he would swap his armoury for a Bowie knife and take on a wild boar or two.

While there's no doubt that not all facets of the Raj were glorious – some very far from it – to stay at one of the four bungalows managed by Ceylon Tea Trails is to wind the clock back and immerse oneself in better times: a foreign country where people really did do things differently. The passing of the hours here is gentle, punctuated by meals, a dip in the pool, or even a game of croquet, the frenetic dance of Hong Kong rendered a vaguely absurd memory.

Established in 2005 by the Dilmah company, Ceylon Tea Trails, which comes under the umbrella of Relais & Chateaux, is the world's first tea bungalow resort. It comprises four bungalows, all former planters' residences – Summerville, Norwood (built 1890), Tientsin (1888) and Castlereagh (1925) – loosely scattered about Castelreagh Reservoir. Each offers a slightly different take on the tea-planter experience. Summerville is very much in the style of an English country cottage, where the cream teas served at four in the afternoon might have you thinking you're in the Cotswolds rather than a tropical island on the tip of the subcontinent. Norwood, which was rebuilt in 1940, has a charming, distinctly '50s feel to it, while Tientsin is in the highcolonial style. But whichever you choose, all are delightful, and this has everything to do with the location. Each is surrounded by beguiling gardens, established by the planters' wives who longed for a reminder of the home country. Summerville, Castlereagh and Norwood bungalows are more or less situated on the shore of the reservoir, affording fine views across the waters, while Tientsin is some 15 kilometres to the east. They are connected by trails that can be ambled along, or mountain-biked, hence the name of the resort. Beyond these are rolling hills of tea dotted with red-flowering African tulip trees that the British brought in to provide a little shade and some visual relief to the regimental rows of tea bushes; the effect from a distance is that of red beads sparsely scattered on a green pincushion, while the air itself is infused with the scent of fresh tea leaves.

Each day at Ceylon Tea Trails begins with Bed Tea, when your butler brings you a cup of what the area is so famous for. This is followed by a full English breakfast, which, touchingly, includes a small jar of Marmite presented on a fine bone-china plate. Evening meals are a more formal affair, to be enjoyed on the verandah if the weather's clement, or inside the snug dining-cum-sitting room, complete with a log fire if it's a little chilly, which it can be at the 1,200-metre elevation of the property. The resort uses vegetables, herbs and spices grown in its gardens, and of course tea, resulting in dishes such as Keemun tea- and fresh tarragon-infused roasted chicken, or the sensational cinnamon tea-poached pears with butterscotch ice cream, which somehow manages to be even more delicious than it sounds. The chef at each bungalow will also treat guests to a traditional Sri Lankan meal served thali style – a central dish of rice surrounded by countless dishes of curried vegetables and a little meat – delicious and so much subtler in flavour than its Indian counterpart. After dinner, guests can repair to the living room for a glass of single malt or perhaps a G&T in front of the blazing fire. Summerville's living room, in fact, reminded me of that of my maternal grandparents: heavy, dark-wood chests of drawers, solid tables, willow-pattern plates, framed prints of the sort of Boy's Own capers of which Baker would surely have approved, the pervasive smell of furniture polish and the metronomic beat of an old clock, each tick unveiling the years like pages torn from a calendar.

This charming style continues to the guest rooms. At Summerville, there are four, which can either be booked individually or en masse for a family or group of friends. All are en suite, the bathrooms fitted with claw-foot bathtubs, heavy porcelain basins with reassuringly chunky brass taps, and black-and-white tiled floors, while the bedrooms are simply decorated and, refreshingly, without flat-screen televisions or phones, though in a small concession to the 21st century there is Wi-Fi throughout the bungalow. A bell in the room conjures a lungi-clad butler.

Most guests, though, will be content to stash the laptop in the bottom drawer and head out for an excursion into the surrounding countryside. The Tea Experience is a fascinating tour in which Planter-in-Residence Andrew Taylor, who has some 44 years in the Ceylon tea business, guides you around the Norwood Estate factory, teaching you more than you ever thought possible about the growing, production, grading and tasting of everyone's favourite cuppa. The factory, and the machinery within, are well over a century old and still in daily use, while some of the tea bushes are more than 130 years old. Taylor, a descendant of James Taylor, the Scotsman who first brought tea to Sri Lanka in 1867 after the island's coffee crops failed, holds forth on the job of the Withering Supervisor, whose task it is to ensure that the leaves are withered to the correct degree before they are rolled and oxidised – processes that vary in time according to the ambient temperature and humidity. One particularly startling fact is that if a worker makes the grave error of wearing strong perfume or aftershave, the entire batch can be ruined by the scent it imparts. The tour concludes, naturally, with a tasting, during which Taylor, a loose-tea purist who grudgingly regards teabags as a “necessary evil”, passes expert judgement on the product. The tea is then taken to Colombo for auction, where it's purchased by blenders such as Dilmah, Tetley and Taylors of Harrogate.

Other excursions include a climb up the nearby Adam's Peak holy mountain, a visit to Kandy and the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic, or a spot of elephant watching at Udawalawe National Park, though given the nature of the terrain a day's excursion may involve more travelling on bumpy roads than it does actually being engaged in the activity in question.

A railway connects the nearby town of Hatton to the Sri Lankan capital by way of Kandy. For those who have the time – it takes five hours, but the time should be found – this really is the best way of getting to and from the hill country. Like much else in Sri Lanka, the engines and rolling stock are ancient, but are still in working order, albeit in a rattling, glued-together sort of way. The journey from Hatton passes through endless plantations, sidings and small towns before descending to rice fields and then the suburban sprawl of Colombo, ending at Colombo Fort just a stone's throw away from the iconic Galle Face Hotel. Be sure to get a seat in the observation car at the rear of the train, and watch the world slip by in a manner that is as timeless as the landscape itself.