Haputale: Sri Lanka (and Asia’s) best-kept secret

Where the green is so green it surely can’t be green…

Haputale might just be the most under-stated part of Sri Lanka, and we’ve yet to see another shade of green like it. While we only came here out of necessity, as the accommodation we booked was here, we can safely say this turned out to be the most magical part of Sri Lanka that we visited – intentionally or unintentionally.

Despite its strong connections with the man himself, Sir Thomas Lipton, Haputale is largely untouched by tourism and barely registers as a blip on the radar for most travelers. Located in the Badulla District of Uva Province, this tiny township is set 1431 metres above sea level, watching over a number of rolling hillocks shrouded in tea plantations and ‘cloud forests’ – whatever they are. From the township, or several accommodations around it, you’ll look out over the vast plains of Southern Sri Lanka – almost out to Udawalawe National Park.

What to do in Haputale

Lipton’s Seat

This is about as touristy as you’re going to get, and we mean that in the way that you might pass a couple of other people along this hike. Arguably one of the country’s most impressive viewpoints, people usually do this as a day trip from Ella. But you’re already one up on them if you’re staying in the area, right? Are we endearing you to Haputale yet? Too much? Okay…

*READ MORE: How to hike Ella Rock, and not get ripped off
Ella: forgo the crowds and head for the hills
*Thotalagala – a 5-star bungalow in the middle of tea country
*Udawalawe: Tips for a safari on the cheap

As you might’ve guessed from its apt name, this is where tea mogul, or Scottish tea baron if you will, Sir Thomas Lipton used to come to survey his burgeoning empire – with a cup of Ceylon’s finest, probably. Legend has it you can see out to seven different provinces, and while we’d love to confirm that tidbit for you, we’ve no idea where one province ends and the next begins. But it has to be said: you can see a really long way. From the rolling hills of Haputale, the lookout gives you an excellent view over the Southern plains and out to Udawalawe (maybe?). Plus, there’s a pretty cool statue of Mr Lipton himself up there, which is just begging for suggestive posing.

The grey, right on schedule

How do you get there, you ask?
If you’re the hiking-type, there’s an 8-kilometre road from Dambatenne Tea Factory, that winds up through the tea plantations to the lookout. There are signs everywhere so you won’t get lost. However, the walk is just about better than the end point, as you’re smack-bang in the middle of operating tea plantations and you’ll bear witness to the Tamil tea pickers going about their day’s work. For people who look as though they work back-breakingly hard every single day, they’re incredibly kind and forthcoming; expect a few “hellos” to be yelled in your direction (and the odd child running up to you asking for chocolate. And then, upon receiving chocolate – running up to the rest of your group further ahead and asking for more). There will be tuk-tuks at the top if you can’t be bothered walking back down, and if the driver’s game, he might even let you fit five rather large humans inside. Yes, speaking from experience.

Tip: Make sure you get there before the grey does. The mist can roll in any time from late morning to afternoon, so the morning is the best time for a jaunt up there. Isn’t it just demoralising when you’ve walked for three hours just to not be able to see five foot from your face?

Lipton’s Bungalow

If you ask the nice people at Thotalaga, you may get to step foot in one of the most culturally-significant bungalows in the country. This is Sir Thomas Lipton’s old residence, right in the middle of tea-central, and with a pretty amazing lookout in itself.

You’ll get to look around the spectacular grounds (complete with manicured lawn, impeccable flower game, and of course, sweeping views) and if you’re up for it, you can even have a decadent high tea on the front lawn; all white linen, silver cutlery, waiters, butlers, and three-tiered cakes and scones. If you’re lucky, and the estate manager is around, you’ll even get a tour around Lipton’s bungalow.

Contact Thotalagala here.

Dambatenne Tea Factory

For a few rupees, you can get a (makeshift at best, but interesting nonetheless) tour around one of the most famous tea factories in the country. Dambatenne was built in 1890 by Sir Lipton, and still kinda looks like it hasn’t changed an inch since back then.

The tour takes in the fermentation, rolling, drying, cutting, sieving and grading of tea, as workers go about their business in the background. The level of service is sporadic here though, and though it says ‘tasting room’ at the end, there wasn’t a cuppa for us to be found. You’re not allowed to take pictures inside though, so above you get another pic of our high tea instead.

Wander the tea fields

There’s myriad paths, large and small, cutting through the tea plantations wherever you are. Some of our best memories here were just wandering through the green, having awkward, but joyous regardless, conversations with tea pickers who didn’t speak a word of English outside ‘hello’, and sampling the views. Ask your hotel for the nearest trail, or just go get lost (with a cellphone in tow).

What to eat

While yes, it’s a hotel, Thotalagala also has a top-notch chef and a bloody amazing dining experience waiting for you. If you call ahead, you might just get to experience this yourselves.

While there is a menu we are told, this is effectively a bespoke affair. Upon arrival, we were ushered into the dining room, where a lone table had been moved in and arranged beside a roaring fire. We ate the most delicious five types of Sri Lankan curry that night disturbed only by the crackle of the fire, and at that point we almost made an executive decision to miss our flight back home.

How to get around

Buses from the middle of Haputale go to both Ella and Colombo at regular intervals (every half hour during the day), for pocket change. Otherwise, there’s tuk-tuks galore willing to bargain for some business.

Does this shade of green exist outside of Sri Lanka?

Where to stay

Yep, you guessed it. Thotalagala is one of the nicest retreats we’ve been to in the world, let alone in Sri Lanka alone. See our full review here.


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