Nuwara Eliya sits high in the heart of Sri Lankan hill country. It is a small city with a big personality, accessed most easily by train and positioned between popular tourist destinations Ella and Kandy. Aptly nicknamed ‘Little England,’ the city is like a time warp, drawing in visitors from all over to enjoy its unique and old-worldly charms.
Before making our journey up into to the hills we had heard mixed reviews about Nuwara Eliya, and admittedly had some difficulty finding accommodation that was within our (modest) budget. Nevertheless we persevered and booked a quirky but beautiful cottage through Airbnb just on the outskirts of town.
Setting foot in that cottage was like taking a step back in time. Dated in a very familiar way, it reminded me a lot of my late grandparents’ house. The cottage came complete with charming British nick-knacks, framed newspaper clippings, old paintings and hanging vintage tea towels. It is an antique-enthusiasts heaven. If the décor doesn’t quite take your fancy, you can dig into one of the hundreds of Readers Digest magazines lining the shelves, dating right back to 1956! The cold nights, open fires and extra blankets all add to the nostalgia of England; an unexpected discovery in the middle of Sri Lanka.
According to the history books Nuwara Eliya was founded by the British back in 1846, hence its nickname. Its cold climate (nearly 2000m above sea level) meant that it quickly became the prime sanctuary of the British civil servants and planters in Ceylon: A ‘hill country retreat’ where the British colonists could indulge in hunting, polo, golf or cricket. Today, the town has retained its British charisma and is commonly visited by wealthy Sri Lankan travellers, especially during the month of April for the Sinhalese and Tamil New Year. Parties, golf tournaments, flower shows, motor and horse racing events are common events at this time.
Many of the buildings in the town have preserved their colonial charm, and even newly built hotels are often furnished in the same old school style. The famous red brick Town Post Office complete with clock spire, dates back to 1894, and the Tudor-style build can be seen replicated on many of the hotels, homes and property advertisement around the town.
As for activities, there are plenty of things to keep you occupied out and around the city, from tea plantations to waterfalls to mountain hikes (Sri Pada / Adam’s Peak and Horton Plains / World’s End are both about an hour’s drive away). We managed to fit in an afternoon trip to Lovers Leap and the Pedro Tea Estate – both which we would highly recommend.
Excursions aside, the real treasures of Nuwara Eliya can be found within the city itself. Having not been in a cold climate for almost three months, we were beyond enthusiastic at the prospect of having a drink by an open fire, and had heard delightful rumours of high tea, golf greens and tennis courts.
Our first afternoon was spent indulging in the luxurious gardens of the Grand Hotel. Despite being British and an avid tea drinker, I had never experienced ‘high tea,’ but at a reasonable 1300 rupees ($10 AUD/£6) per person, we thought we couldn’t miss it. The Grand Hotel, dating back to the 19th century, is immaculately fitted out. Boasting 154 rooms and five restaurants, it has won numerous awards over the years. Dedicated and gracious staff served a three-tiered cake stand full of an unusual collection of savoury and sweet treats with a Sri Lankan twist: Salmon and cucumber sandwiches alongside mini samosas, beef sliders, spring rolls and (most importantly) delightful desserts, all washed down with a bottomless supply of tea (or Prosecco if you’re feeling particularly extravagant!)
If high tea isn’t your thing you can spend an evening indulging in one of The Grand Hotels’ many restaurants and bars. We were a bit gutted to find out that the billiards room was only available for hotel guests, nevertheless we splurged on a drink at the wine bar and were lucky enough to dine at The Grand Indian, Nuwara Eliya’s number one go-to restaurant. Truly delicious, authentic Indian food coupled with flawless service made this one of our favourite meals of the trip. There was a line out front every night and they do not take reservations so the key is to get in early! A side note for the fellow budget travellers; when we visited they didn’t include the price of beer on the menu, we found out when the bill arrived that they were a whopping 750 LKR each (400% mark up, the most expensive yet).
Another slightly controversial landmark in Nuwara Eliya is the Hill Club. Nearly as old as the town itself, the it began as a simple bar and billiards room for gentlemen only, though it has expanded over the years to include womenfolk (ladies lounge), a dining room, reading room, games room and four charming tennis courts. It is a throwback to colonial times – with stuffed leopards mounted on the wall and elephant feet as umbrella stands – that made us feel a little uneasy, but if you think of it as a museum it’s an interesting insight into times gone by.
The club has retained most of its old-fashioned customs, including compulsory suit and tie for blokes wishing to drink at the bar (a collection of oversized coats and horrific ties are available to borrow in case (like most backpackers) you left yours at home). The halls are decked out in dark wood, antique furniture and terrible taxidermy. If you are not a guest at the hotel, you must purchase a day-pass, costing about 100 LKR. Though this ticket allows to you take a look around the hotel, it does not include any of the extra bits you might like to do (an hour of tennis or billiards will set you back 600 LKR).
Away from the posh hotels we found some great local places to eat. Take a right turn out of the bus station and you’ll find some great rice and curry lunches, kottu-rotti dinners, short-eats and sweet treats. Walk a little bit further and on your left you will find a huge indoor market selling clothes, bags, blankets and gadgets. This is also where the wine store is hiding (because what better way to spend the night than in front of the fire at your pseudo-grandparents house).
Nuwara Eliya is one of the most unique places we have visited in Sri Lanka – we enjoyed fresh strawberry jam, cool nights and interesting insights in the town that time forgot. It’s well worth a visit; just don’t forget to take an open mind and a warm coat.