Tea, ancient wonders and a little bit of Norfolk in the heart of Sri Lanka
- Credit: Aitken Spence Hotels/Heritance Kandalama
From stunning landscapes to ancient wonders to the world famous Ceylon Tea, the beautiful island of Sri Lanka has it all. And, as Emma Knights and Oliver Franzen discovered, there is even a little bit of Norfolk nestled high up in the hills.
As we plucked tea leaves in the lush green landscapes of Sri Lanka's hill country, we were immersed in a world so far away from home yet, bizarrely, also so close.
For during our tour of this beautiful, teardrop-shaped island in the Indian Ocean, we discovered a little bit of Norfolk waiting to be found.
Among the Britons to travel to the country in the 19th century was one William Flowerdew, who hailed from Hethersett and took the name of his home village halfway around the world.
Sri Lanka then was known as Ceylon, and Mr Flowerdew was one of the early plantation pioneers who started the beginnings of the island's famous tea industry.
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As we found out, his Hethersett in Sri Lanka reaches for the sky at about 6,900 ft, close to the town of Nuwara Eliya, or 'Little England' as it is often known, and about 5,400 miles from its Norfolk namesake.
And the Hethersett Tea Factory, where we spent a night, is now the luxury Heritance Tea Factory hotel which celebrates the heritage of the much-loved drink.
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Mr Flowerdew ran the factory from 1879 to 1881 but it continued until 1973, producing tea commercially for the best part of a century, and hotel guests today can enjoy a unique way of exploring the factory's history and the tea leaf's journey from plantation field to teacup.
Set against a backdrop of rolling hills, plantations and forests, the hotel's exterior is said to be just as it was in its days as a working factory, meanwhile inside the past is brought to life with old machinery, photos and memorabilia at every turn.
Each night guests are treated to the great spectacle of one of the old giant engines – once the throbbing heart of the factory – roaring into action, giving a snapshot of sights and sounds of days gone by.
Norfolk's own Hethersett also takes centre stage, with a parish map displayed in the hotel's Hethersett Bar, meanwhile the Hethersett name is also stamped on tea crates around the hotel.
In its heyday the factory enjoyed much success. In 1891, Hethersett Tea Factory tea auctioned at London's Mincing Lane – the leading centre for tea and spice trading – fetched 1 Pound, 10 Shillings, 6 Pence, said to be more than 30 times the average price, and from the 1930s it produced half a million kilograms of Ceylon Tea every year for nearly half a century.
Now a hotel, it no longer produces tea to sell but it does have an organic mini tea factory where guests can find out first-hand about what goes into making the drink.
It was quite an experience being dressed in a sari and sarong respectively, shown how to use our heads to carry baskets for the leaves, and then going into the plantation to try tea plucking ourselves.
One thing was clear, if we were even to begin to match the speed of the tea pluckers deft hands who every day pick vast quantites of leaves to earn their living, then we had a lot of work to do!
With our freshly plucked leaves in hand, Jayanthi, who runs the factory and whose mother and sister are tea pluckers, took us into the factory to show us the tea-manufacturing process in action and the different types of tea.
It was amazing to see how every leaf plucked goes through so many stages before reaching our teacups - withering, rolling, roll breaking, fermentation, drying, sorting, and finally, packing.
First introduced to Sri Lanka by the Scotsman James Taylor in 1867, tea manufacturing continues to be a huge part of Sri Lanka's economy.
We also visited one of the many tea factories working commercially today, Blue Field Mount Harrow, where 900 kilos of tea are produced every day.
Eighty per cent of this is taken to Colombo Tea Auctions, and from here it is exported to different countries, flying the flag for Sri Lanka around the globe.
Tea also plays a major role in the hill country's beautiful patchwork landscapes which are filled with vast green carpets of working tea estates, along with cascading waterfalls and mountain peaks rising higher than the clouds.
A drive through the hill country is truly breathtaking, and our trip along the winding roads with our tour guide extraordinaire Wasantha Silva took us from the tea plantations to the ancient royal city of Kandy, a highlight of Sri Lanka's Cultural Triangle and one of its numerous UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
The city dates back to the 13th century and was home to Sri Lanka's last independent kingdom.
Set around a picture perfect lake, Kandy's crowning glory is the wonderfully ornate Dalada Maligawa, or Temple of the Tooth, which holds the sacred tooth relic of Buddha.
So precious is the tooth - said to have been smuggled into Sri Lanka in the hair of a princess - that it is kept within seven ornate caskets and rarely shown in public.
We were lucky enough to be at the temple when the seventh casket was - very briefly - revealed, and we joined the crowds of Buddhists and tourists alike who gathered for a magical, fleeting glimpse of its golden splendour that was displayed under the watchful eye of a monk dressed in saffron robes.
Kandy is also famous for being Sri Lanka's cultural capital, and our trip to the city ended with a wonderful performance as we enjoyed watching traditional Kandyan and Low Country Dances before a fire-walking grand finale.
From here we travelled to the nearby Mahaweli Reach hotel, an oasis of luxury on the bank of Sri Lanka's longest river, the Mahaweli Ganga.
After a night's rest and a refreshing morning swim in the hotel's gorgeous pool, the centrepiece of its beautiful tropical gardens, it was time to continue our journey and climb one of Sri Lanka's most impressive landmarks – Sigiriya.
A place of legend, the rock fortress rose to power in the fifth century amid a power struggle between the rightful heir to the throne, Mogallana, and his usurping brother Kassapa, and while its role as Kassapa's royal fortress was short-lived, its ruins today are still truly awe-inspiring.
Mother Nature's great majestic rock stands proud, rising higher than 200 metres, a commanding presence towering over a sea of jungle.
Looking up at it, the imposing rock's magnificence is spellbinding, and as you climb the steps to its summit, the rock reveals dramatic panoramas of the land below as well as secrets of its past as Kassapa's fortress and pleasure palace.
Halfway up ancient frescoes of celestial maidens can be found adorning the rock face, and as you climb further you are greeted with the sight of two huge paws reaching out, the remains of a gigantic lion sculpture through whose roaring mouth it is thought visitors once had to pass.
Sigiriya rewards those who reach its highest points with the chance to explore the fortress's ancient ruins while surveying a seemingly endless wild kingdom that stretches out before it.
It is a unique experience that quite literally makes you feel as though you are on top of the world.
After conquering Sigiriya we enjoyed a stay at Heritance Kandalama.
Here stunning views allowed us to admire the great landmark from afar while marvelling at the wonder of the epic natural surroundings that wrapped around our hotel.
Heritance Kandalama is all about getting back to the wild but in five-star style.
Great care has clearly been taken to ensure the landscape is always at the heart of your stay, providing a mesmerising waterside backdrop whether you are enjoying fine dining, taking a dip in one of the hotel's three pools or having a luxurious shower in your room.
A swim in the horizon pool was the ultimate in relaxation.
The hypnotising illusion of the water blending with the huge Kandalama Reservoir left you feeling truly at one with the wilderness.
Another unforgettable experience was looking out from our balcony to see an elephant trekking across the beautiful landscape.
The resident wild monkeys proved very entertaining – and somewhat cheeky! - neighbours too.
Leaving 5th century Sigiriya and its surrounds behind, we fast-forwarded several centuries to the 12th century capital Polonnaruwa.
It is Sri Lanka's second ancient capital, after 4th century BC Anuradhapura, and walking through its vast, well-preserved ruins truly gives you a sense of stepping back through the ages.
The city's golden age was one of the high points of early Sri Lankan civilisation, a Sinhalese kingdom established by King Vijayabahu and later ruled by his successors Parakramabahu and Nissankamalla.
For about a century Polonnaruwa prospered before the great city was abandoned to the jungle where it was virtually lost for seven centuries.
Exploring the marvellous maze of ancient architecture today, with all its intricate carvings, gigantic Buddha statues, and many temples, it is astonishing to think all this lay hidden from view for so long.
And in a quiet moment, away from the tourists, as we caught an initial glimpse of an ancient ruin through the trees it was easy to imagine the excitement of being explorers uncovering Polonnaruwa for the first time.
There is a huge amount to discover throughout the 4km stretch of ruins but one of the show-stopping highlights of this kaleidoscope of history is undoubtedly the magnificent Gal Vihara.
Here four incredible Buddha statues can be found carved from the rock - two seated, one standing tall, and one enormous, 14m long, reclining Buddha whose sheer size dwarfs its visitors as well as the mischievous troops of monkeys who have made this stunning ancient capital their modern day abode.
In just a few days in the heart of Sri Lanka, we had ventured back to the marvels of the island's ancient past and into the hills to enjoy the country's spectacular inland landscapes, its own little bit of Norfolk, and its delicious Ceylon Tea.
Sri Lanka had well and truly worked its magic on us and had yet more treats in store.
See next week's paper for part two of our trip, where we went in search of elephants and explored Sri Lanka's beautiful beaches.
Our tour was organised by Sri Lanka Tourism - www.srilanka.travel
We stayed at Heritance Tea Factory, Mahaweli Reach in Kandy, and Heritance Kandalama near Sigiriya - www.heritancehotels.com/teafactory, www.mahaweli.com, and www.heritancehotels.com/kandalama
We flew with Emirates from London Heathrow to Colombo via Dubai - www.emirates.com
We travelled from Norwich to London by train with Abellio Greater Anglia - www.greateranglia.co.uk