Probably the best-known of Sri Lanka’s tea-growing districts, Nuwara Eliya is also the most rugged and mountainous, with the highest average elevation. The air is cool and bracing; the winds are scented with eucalyptus and wild mint. Rainfall is moderate except during the dry season, which falls between February and April. Nights are cold and sometimes frosty. This unique climate, combined with the terrain peculiar to the region, produces a tea that is recognized by connoisseurs as among the finest – if not the finest – in the world.
Historically speaking, Nuwara Eliya is a relatively new place. The town from which the district takes its name sits perched on a plateau 1,868 m (6,128 ft) above sea level, under the shadow of Sri Lanka’s highest mountain, Pidurutalagala. Almost inaccessible in olden times due to the precipitous, jungle-clad terrain surrounding it, this scenic plateau was effectively uninhabited when it was discovered by an English explorer in 1818. Impressed by its magnificent scenery and climate, Sir Edward Barnes, the British governor of the time, resolved to turn the locale into the similar of Ceylon, a fashionable hill-station to which the government and society of the capital, Colombo, could repair during the hottest and unhealthiest months of the year. He accomplished this by the simple expedient of building a house there himself (it is now the Grand Hotel) and occupying it every year between March and April. ‘Newralia’ thus became, for a few weeks every year, the capital of colonial Ceylon.
In the early 1840s, a boom in Ceylon coffee saw the rapid conversion into plantations of parts of the hill country barely explored by Europeans until then. The pioneers who carved out these remote estates south and east of Kandy were lonely men who endured lives of some hardship; in the vale of Nuwara Eliya they found a salubrious and centrally-located place of meeting and recreation. The town that sprang up to serve their needs was a largely womanless place at first, shaped by the interests of the men who frequented it. Clubs and watering-holes proliferated, sporting tournaments and ‘shoots’ were regular events, but domestic and civic conditions were primitive.
Later, as the boom progressed, wealth and the civilized comforts it brought changed the character of Nuwara Eliya. By the beginning of the tea era, it had become a genteel, somewhat pretentious little town, self-consciously English in character. For most of the British period it remained a largely European enclave, and a few Nuwara Eliya clubs even went so far as to maintain whites-only membership policies for some years after Independence.
But Nuwara Eliya was always a bit too high up in the hills for coffee, and the frequent rains often damaged the crops. The discrict only found its métier after the great blight of the 1870s and ’80s had wiped out the coffee industry and Ceylon planters turned to tea. Desultory experiments with the new crop in earlier times had already shown it could be successfully cultivated there; now, it rapidly became clear that Nuwara Eliya offered an almost perfect climate for tea. By 1875, the first modest plantations were already flourishing, and by the end of the century, Nuwara Eliya was one of the principal tea-growing districts of Ceylon. It was generally acknowledged to produce some of the finest teas in the world – a reputation it has retained ever since.
Tasters’ Notes for Nuwara Eliya tea
NUWARA ELIYA - “Delicately fragrant”
Nuwara Eliya, the best-known of Sri Lanka’s tea-growing districts, is the most mountainous, and has the highest average elevation. Combined with low temperature, this produces teas of exquisite bouquet. The infusion in the cup is the lightest (palest) of all the types of Ceylon Tea, with a golden hue and a delicately fragrant flavour. Sought after grades include whole-leaf Orange Pekoe (OP) and Broken Orange Pekoe (BOP).