Sri Lanka might be famous for its beaches, but those who look inland will find a landscape perhaps even more remarkable. Sri Lanka's hill country is simply different. It's cooler than the rest of the country of course, and offers the feeling of going back in time to a place where fast-paced modernity has not yet penetrated -- a time when the British discovered Sri Lankan tea. And the scenery is just spectacular.
On the map, Sri Lanka is small. On the ground you realize this is a cartographic illusion. On narrow, winding roads it takes much longer than you think to cover relatively short distances. The temptation to explore should be held in check by the fact that it is easy to attempt too much, and miss out on the true beauty of Sri Lanka, which lies in savouring life in the moment, wherever you are right now. If you are thinking of visiting the hill country -- and you most certainly should be -- then planning is crucial.
Main Line to the Tea Plantations
Perhaps the best way out of Colombo and into the hills is to take the train. Known as the Main Line, the route was opened by the British in 1864 as a means to transport tea and coffee to the capital. Within three years it had been extended as far as the country's second city, Kandy, and further work saw the line reach its present-day terminus at Badulla by 1924. The initial section to Kandy is very pleasant as the train begins its climb, arriving after around two and a half hours. It is after Kandy when the magic truly begins, however, with the steep green tea plantations, waterfalls and mountains reaching an apotheosis as the line makes its way from Nanu Oya (for Nuwara Eliya) to Badulla.
The route received an upgrade from 2012 with the introduction of imported diesel trains offering greater comfort than had hitherto been the case. Indeed, the entirety of the Sri Lankan rail network has received investment over the past decade in an attempt to reverse a long period of decline and neglect. Following the end of the conflict with the LTTE, or Tamil Tigers, the route from Colombo north to Jaffna has seen reconstruction, while the eastern resorts of Batticaloa and Trincomalee have also become accessible after the Tigers' defeat. The newly opened lines and improved rolling stock certainly make a Sri Lankan rail adventure a much more attractive proposition today.
Break Your Journey
From a practical perspective, there are a pair of day trains using the new diesels, one which leaves Colombo Fort station just before six in the morning, and one which leaves a couple of hours later. This latter train finally reaches Badulla a little after six in the evening, making it a very long journey. The timings in the opposite direction are similar, although there is also a comfortable sleeper service if you don't mind missing out on the view. The length of the trip, however, means it's a much better idea to break it up with stops in Kandy and Nuwara Eliya, where you'll find plenty to keep you occupied.
The highlight of any trip to the hill country, apart from the train journey of course, is the chance to explore the countryside on foot. One popular hike if you're feeling fit is Adam's Peak, but more intriguing, and less challenging, is the trek across the Horton Plains to World's End.
In a tropical country, the Horton Plains are something of a shock -- a misty world of unique flora and fauna bearing scant resemblance to the heat and humidity of Sri Lanka's lowlands. The hike takes you through this amazing national park to the point where the world ends. A sudden drop as the high plateau stops, and the south of Sri Lanka unfolds below. Of all the remarkable sights to be found among the tea plantations, mountains, and waterfalls, this one alone is worth the journey.
Horton Plains can be easily reached from Nuwara Eliya, which would be our recommendation for a base in the hills. The town is remarkably English, and noteworthy for its lake, its botanical gardens, and the Grand Hotel, where it is forever the 19th century, and high tea is still as good as ever it was.
If You're Short of Time
The hill country is superb, but it takes time to make the most of your visit, and some travellers simply don't have that option. If you find yourself in this predicament and still want to take a train, the best alternative would be the coastal line from Colombo down to Galle and the southern beaches. This one isn't a long journey, less than two and a half hours, and the line runs along the Indian Ocean for most of its route. There is no better way to immerse yourself in Sri Lankan life than to take the train, so be sure to give it a try next time you visit this incredible island.