On the rutted road to Camellia Hills, we pass a group of giggling schoolgirls in immaculate white uniforms. In fields either side of the track, their mothers are waist-deep in tea, slight and purposeful as blades in the glittering green rows. Sri Lanka is a society on the move. The laughing, educated girls are unlikely to follow their parents to the fields (literacy rates here are the highest in South Asia), yet visitors cling to a vanishing past. And the tea estates oblige, with their burnished colonial fantasy of leopard hunts and Madeira cake.
Sitting above Castlereagh Reservoir, Camellia Hills, a new boutique property from Teardrop Hotels, offers a fresh take on Sri Lankan high life. Take the seaplane from Colombo, drift down like a dragonfly onto a polished lake, then a 10-minute walk up to the sturdy, five-bedroom hotel. There’s no attempt at a huntin’, shootin’ vibe here; chintz has made way for a relaxed, contemporary aesthetic that leaves any extravagance to the view and a tropical garden designed by one of Sri Lanka’s most celebrated artists, Laki Senanayake. It’s difficult to tell exactly where Senanayake’s scheme, with its drifts of colour and stepped ponds, bleeds into the jungle where, after dark, leopards slink down from mountain ridges. This thrilling fact is confirmed by night cameras at the Leopard Project, a local conservation and education programme supported by Teardrop and other hotels in the area. Watching infra-red footage, it’s hard not to hold your breath when Panthera pardus kotiya ripples by. Then she turns to camera, and her face, with its big, soft nose and kohl eyeliner, is pure Jungle Book.
Exterior of Fort Bazaar
Teardrop has excellent form on the island already. Its first two hotels – the classic colonial Wallawwa, near Colombo, and Fort Bazaar, just down the road from the Galle cricket ground – are first-rate. It was, in fact, a one-day match that first brought Teardrop MD Henry Fitch out from England. Sensitive to societal shifts and an evolving market, his hotel business has found a smart-but-accessible groove (all Teardrop properties, including Camellia Hills, have rooms for less than £230.) And the service is still absolutely on point. Tea bungalows traditionally make a huge deal of personal butlers. But you’re not so much butlered at Camellia Hills as beautifully looked after. I run my own bath, like a big girl, but G&Ts/shawls/hot-water bottles all appear a breath before I want them. Dinner comes from a menu which focuses on fresh produce (not so interesting sounding ‘up-country veg’ turn out to be carrots and leeks, highly prized in the region) and Asian-British fusion. The daily Planter’s Lunch of curry and rice is exceptional, a feast of small, flavour-bomb dishes. I take it all back about root vegetables when I taste carrot and cashews whispery with cinnamon, and potatoes promoted way above their pay grade with cumin and fenugreek fronds.
AFTER DARK, LEOPARDS SLINK DOWN FROM MOUNTAIN RIDGES AND ARE CAUGHT ON CAMERA. IT’S HARD NOT TO HOLD YOUR BREATH WHEN THEY RIPPLE BY
I’d happily spend my time stalking the chef, but this is not somewhere to stay indoors. I could go full-Goretex-jacket and watch the sunrise from the pilgrimage mountain known to generations of Brits as Adam’s Peak (its Sinhala name is Sri Padi, to Tamils it’s Sivanolipatha Malai), but the 1am start is a powerful disincentive. We drive instead to the Norwood Tea Estate through a landscape of conical, hedge-whorled hills. Giant black boulders rise from the green, mastodons stranded in primeval ooze, and it’s easy to see why, in this terrain, mechanical tea picking is impossible. It is not comfortable to learn, among other engrossing tea facts on the factory tour, that we have spent as much on two packets of Broken Orange Pekoe as an estate worker earns in a day. I’m moved, too, by the little planters’ church at Warleigh, with its Victorian angels and giant bamboo standing in for English yew. The churchyard is packed with Dickies and their beloved Muriels, but it’s the lonely grave of John Brown, his stone erected ‘by a few friends’, that sticks in the mind.
Three more Teardrop tea bungalows, including Pekoe House, within day-tripping range of Kandy, are set to open this month. Goatfell is a former superintendent’s residence on an astonishing edge-of-the-world elevation above Nuwara Eliya, the hill station where the Thirties holiday architecture strongly recalls Torquay. Nine Skies, near the hippy hangout of Ella, is built on a grander scale, as befits a director’s bungalow, and it’s best approached by train, the wonderfully onomatopoeic yakada yaka (‘iron devil’), which smells of limes and Brasso and has an ‘observation carriage’ fitted with curtains, in case the view gets too much. The nearby pink-washed station of Demodara retains the full dignity of the steam age with a station-master’s table draped in chenille and huge mechanical levers for changing points. At all three furniture salvaged on site – claw-foot baths and rattan tables marked out for carrom (a form of finger-billiards) – is mixed with mid-century and contemporary pieces. In a country where hotels divide starkly along modern or heritage lines, the effect here is of real homes brought fully to life.
Sri Lanka’s serene south coast
Sri Lanka’s serene south coast
Courtyard at Fort Bazaar
Down on the south-west coast, the two Teardrop properties Fort Bazaar and the new oceanfront hotel Kumu Beach are yet to receive their liquor licence (BYO is encouraged). But Fitch is a step ahead. Last month saw the opening of Teardrop’s first restaurant, in Colombo’s newly buzzy Park Street Mews. Until recently, there was no great tradition of ‘going out’ in the capital – during the civil war (1983–2009) it was safest to stay at home – so Monsoon, with its sharing plates of pan-Asian street food, is a confident gesture. And it’s not just Colombo writing a new page. The hip Fort Bazaar hosts events at Galle’s thriving literary festival, while the remodelled Talpe Beach Club draws surfers up from Hikkaduwa for its chill-out brunches.
Bathroom at The Wallawwa
While Teardrop’s food and service are uniformly excellent, each hotel has its distinct character. There’s nothing yet to rival the hotly anticipated Wild Coast Tented Lodge in Yala, but Fitch has a glint in his eye about Wilpattu National Park (same animals, fewer Jeeps), and there are plans to move into the Cultural Triangle with a hotel at Sigiriya. Down at Kumu Beach, with its white-cube architecture and arty interiors, waves crash below my balcony; I’ve been farther from the sea on a yacht. I watch the water beneath the horizon and the breakers turn from back-lit blue to mauve, then pinkish pearl, and find Sri Lanka has made me philosophical. Change is life, life is now. And that Mojito won’t drink itself.
11-night trip staying at The Wallawwa, Camellia Hills, Fort Bazaar and Kumu Beach from £2,500 per person, based on two sharing, including a tea factory visit, a guided walk of Galle, flights and transfers