Mist-shrouded mountains, rolling tea plantations, cascading waterfalls and quaint hilltop villages - these are some of the aspects of the enchanting hill country, which rises to over 2,500m in the island’s central heartland. A 125km distance by car or rail from Colombo, this region offers you the chance to escape to 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 those simply in search of peace and tranquility.
Whether you want to go rock climbing, fish for trout, play golf in stunning natural surroundings, climb a sacred mountain or trek through the rugged wilderness, the beguiling hill country has it all and will reinvigorate the body and refresh the soul. No wonder the hill country is a small miracle.
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 (Colombo 116km) a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was the last bastion 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 tooth relic, an item of veneration to all Buddhists. Each year, in July or August, the city holds the Esala Perahera, a spectacular procession and display of medieval pageantry - replete with caparisoned elephants, whirling fire-dancers and pulsating drummers - the main purpose of which is to parade the tooth relic. Strolling around the lake or exploring the numerous temples that dot the hills nearby is an ideal way to experience the atmosphere of this historic city.
Royal City of Kandy
The journey from Colombo to Kandy provides fine views of the steadily ascending scenery. Not to be missed is the Pinnewala 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 before you enter Kandy, at Peradeniya, are the Royal Botanical Gardens, which contain a bewildering array of local and foreign species, set in a tranquil site adjacent to the mighty Mahaweli Ganga, Sri Lanka's most important river. And when you are in Kandy make sure you visit Udawattakele.
For many centuries, traders were drawn to the island by the allure of its spices. Numerous spice gardens north of Kandy allow you to see how cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, pepper, and cardamom all continue to flourish in the island's fertile soil. And golfing enthusiasts should not miss the stunning Victoria Golf and Country Resort, set on the edge of a reservoir 20km east of Kandy.
Knuckles Mountain Range
Further east, the Knuckles Mountain Range, with its southern approach and northern approach, provides intrepid 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. 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. Trekking in the Knuckles is a prime eco-tourism experience in Sri Lanka.
At the heart of the southern hill country is Nuwara Eliya (Colombo 180km), 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 the Nuwara Eliya Golf Club, a racecourse, the Victoria Park and excellent trout fishing in nearby lakes and rivers. You will find the temperature can drop close to freezing at nights and log fires are a common feature of the many Tudor-style houses. Adding to the atmosphere is the spectacle of its townsfolk wrapped up in winter jackets and woolly hats, carting great bundles of turnips, leeks, marrows and cabbages to the markets. Nuwara Eliya is a great base to explore the surrounding countryside: 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 with their vast swathes of terrain carpeted in an emerald sea. Women draped in colourful saris resemble butterflies as they work their way along the tea bushes, deftly picking just two leaves and a bud from each branch and tossing them into baskets slung on their backs. 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. Visit a tea factory and see how the plucked tea is dried, crushed, fermented and fired using machinery that remains largely unchanged since Victorian times.
A few kilometers south of Nuwara Eliya is the Horton Plains, a hauntingly desolate, windswept plateau over 2,000m in elevation. A world apart from the rest of Sri Lanka, the plains offer excellent trekking, including a 9km circular walk to World’s End, where the cliff plunges dramatically for nearly 1,000m, offering marvellous views to the south. A dawn start is advisable as the clouds often roll in by mid-morning. Herds of sambhar deer, beautiful lizards and many endemic bird species enhance the Horton Plains experience - and there’s always the hope of a glimpse of a leopard.
The region to the east of the Horton Plains features some of the island's most charming villages. It is also excellent trekking country, dotted with spectacular waterfalls and steeped in history. Thrill-seekers will also find a range of activities such as canoeing and rock-climbing on offer. Perched on a hillside and surrounded by tea plantations and pine forests 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. In Ella 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 exploring include Belihul Oya, Haputale, Bandarawela and Badulla with its nearby attractions, Dunhinda Falls and Bogoda Bridge.
For visitors who are not in a hurry, riding the hill country train from Kandy to Nan Oya is an excellent way to savour the delights of this region, in addition to being a practical way of getting around. 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 of 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 hallowed to adherents of all Sri Lanka’s main faiths – Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims and Christians – and attracts pilgrims between December and May each year. The ascent requires stamina rather than mountaineering skills and consists of some 4,800 steps to the summit. Make the ascent during the night, when the twinkling lights along the pathway appear to rise like a stairway to heaven. Tea stalls line the path and the distant tolling of the bell at the summit provides encouragement to weary climbers. 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 Ganga (river). This is also the site of some of the best white-water rafting in Sri Lanka with grade three rapids some 5km upstream. Kitugala’s other claim to fame is that it was the site for the filming of the 1957 Academy Award winning film, The Bridge on the River Kwai.
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 (Colombo 101km), ensconced in the verdant hills at the south-west corner of the hill country, is the island’s richest source of gems. A trip to a working gem mine provides an insight into the mining process, which is still largely carried out by hand. From Ratnapura, it is also possible to visit Sinharaja Forest Reserve, another UNESCO World Heritage Site and 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 perfect for those seeking an authentic jungle experience.