Away from the south's arcing beaches and the commercial energy of Colombo, the green and lush Hill Country feels a world apart from the rest of Sri Lanka. Winding roads and railways drift languidly through hillsides carpeted with tea plantations, the country's colonial heritage still infuses towns the British decamped to during the heat of summer, and active travellers can comfortably explore in the subdued cooler climate of the region's everlasting spring.
The Hill Country capital of Kandy
Trains and buses make the journey from Colombo to Kandy in around three hours – it's also possible to fly by floatplane and land on slender Kandy Lake – and the Hill Country capital's elevation of 500 metres ensures the temperature is usually pleasantly cool. Circle the compact lake on foot stopping at relaxed teahouses dispensing savoury Sri Lankan snacks before exploring the storied Temple of the Sacred Tooth, reputedly the repository of a tooth of the Buddha. At dusk, catch a careering motorbike rickshaw 6km southwest to the sprawling Peradeniya Botanical Gardens to see shapeshifting clouds of hundreds of thousands of fruit bats.
Nuwara Eliya's colonial ambience
With Tudor architecture, red telephone boxes and Victorian-era post office crafted in pink brick, the hill town of Nuwara Eliya is often referred to as 'Little England', and in colonial times the families behind Sri Lanka's tea industry moved here for a few months of the year to escape the coastal heat. An overt Britishness still lingers, especially at social events like the horse racing or on Nuwara Eliya's golf course, and heritage guesthouses are equipped with hot-water bottles and open fires, both very necessary during a Sri Lankan winter. Don't miss heading to The Hill Club for dinner – gentlemen travellers will need to borrow a tie and jacket from the property's decade-spanning wardrobe – before settling for a hearty roast dinner, followed by brandy and a few frames of billiards.
Hiking to World's End from Haputale
Southeast of Nuwara Eliya, the misty mountain town of Haputale is a convenient location for walking through the Horton Plains National Park to the cliffs of World's End, a spectacular escarpment that plunges abruptly almost 900 metres. The round trip of 9.5km traverses a wild plateau of scrubby grasslands, moss-covered marshes and stunted trees draped with ribbons of lichen. Copious birdlife darts between the vegetation and other fauna to keep an eye out for includes sambar deer, wild boar and occasionally our primate cousins, the langur and macaque. A pre-dawn 5.30am departure from Haputale is recommended for the best chance of unimpeded views from World's End to the distant beaches of the Sri Lankan coast.
The train from Haputale to Ella
Even if you're travelling with a private driver – a good way to negotiate the twisting roads and often undisciplined traffic of Sri Lanka – it's worth catching a local train on this short 24km hop through some of the Hill Country's most spectacular mountain scenery. Travel in 3rd class with the chatty locals, enjoying cool breezes through the open windows of the carriages, and don't be surprised to be offered a taste of what everyone else is snacking on. The slow-moving one hour trip weaves through tropical montane forest interwoven with tea plantations dotted with the colourful silk saris of Tamil tea pickers, and clatters across decades-old wooden bridges offering glimpses down into sleepy villages. For the princely sum of around 40 cents for a 3rd class ticket, it's one of the best value railway journeys in the world!
Cooking and trekking around sleepy Ella
There's also more excellent walking around Ella, especially when you're sharing the winding tea plantation paths with local kids heading to and from school, and other well-marked tracks lead to waterfalls and Buddhist temples. With an interesting food scene and good guesthouses, Ella is a great place to spend a few leisurely days after road and rail journeys exploring the rest of the Hill Country. The team at the Rawana serve up multi-course evening meals consisting of around eight different curries – including eggplant and potato variations – but the standout is their signature curry made of whole cloves of garlic. Cooking classes are also available, and don't leave town without a leisurely breakfast of tangy local curd made with buffalo milk and drenched with treacle from Sri Lanka's kitul palm.