Hotels I love: Tea Factory, Nuwara Eliya

Here is where the clouds wafted into my room through the open window.

On our visit to Sri Lanka, we stayed a couple of nights at the Tea Factory Hotel, an erstwhile tea factory set on top of a hill, in the middle of plantations. We drove past the cluttered town of Nuwara Eliya, past the bungalows with quaint English names (it was the summer retreat of the British) and up, up, up into the hills till there was nowhere further to go. And there we were, at a hotel with the facade of a factory.

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This factory once served the Hethersett plantation, named after the initial owner Mr. Flowerdew’s home town back in the Blighty. Inside the hotel, the original pieces of machinery from the tea processing days have been kept intact and there are signboards to remind us of the history of each spot inside the hotel premises.

The hotel’s bar, for instance, was once the tea packing room, while the room we are staying in was the withering loft (so says the notice on the wall). I fell asleep that night imagining that the faint fragrance of tea still lingers in the air in the rooms that were once filled with the aroma of original Ceylon tea being processed.

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Locals call the plantation Poopanie Estate, a literal translation of Flowerdew. ‘Poopanie’ is also perhaps a picturesque reference to the thick grey mist that covers the hills around the hotel at all times of the day. The next morning I woke up to see blanket upon thick blanket of white cloud outside my window.

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We spent the two days there just walking among the tea plantations, talking to the giggling Tamil tea workers and taking in the fresh mountain air. We watched foreigners trying to pick tea leaves to make their own cup under the supervision of a plantation worker. There is also a mini factory just outside the main building where you can see the entire process of tea making from leaf to cup. And the hotel does thoughtfully provide a list of ‘things to do’ in and around the area, but really why bother?

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There is also a small “railway station” in the back, with a signboard saying ‘Hethersett Railway Station’ – there are a few tables placed by it so you can enjoy a cup of tea (or coffee, if you will) in the open air.

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We had stayed at some of the best hotels in Sri Lanka on that trip but this was experience was something else altogether. Highly recommended if you wish for some peace and quiet and of course, the experience of spending a night at a factory.

Also read – Hotels I love: Southern Ocean Lodge

An uneven path to peace

This piece on Sri Lanka appeared in Mint Lounge of April 24th.

Sri Lanka in Mint Lounge

I am in Anuradhapura at the Sri Maha Bodhi shrine, a must-visit destination for locals and visitors alike. The low fence encloses a cutting from the Bo tree (Ficus religiosa), protected and venerated by Buddhists, under which Siddhartha Gautama is believed to have attained enlightenment. Walking along the designated path, I muse slightly derisorily on the kind of things that take on religious significance. Suddenly, I stop.

Ahead in the open ground, a group of soldiers in full uniform (sans footwear) is sitting under the sprawling branches of a tree. They are listening intently to, and repeating, the prayers a yellow-robed monk is reciting. Or not so intently. I bring down my camera sheepishly when one of the soldiers, baby-faced, looks around and spots me. As I freeze, wondering if I have just committed a faux pas, he grins broadly at me. The chanting continues, the monk’s tones sonorous, the soldiers’ soft.

The monk and the soldiers

All alone in the rain

While the world may be debating whether the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) has truly been vanquished, the country itself seems to be enjoying its hard-earned peace. Everywhere in Sri Lanka, there are domestic tourists in large numbers. The president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, seems popular among his compatriots for the tough decisions that steered the country towards the end of the civil war. Everywhere there is a buzz about the impending general election and the streets are lined with fluttering pennants. In a predominantly Buddhist country, these could be prayer flags but for Rajapaksa’s beaming face on them. My driver sings his praises and is confident that he will win (and despite his several detractors, he subsequently does).

On Galle Face Green by the sea in Colombo, hundreds of people are walking around, thrilled as much by the cool evening breeze as their new-found sense of freedom. A young couple I talk to say they have never seen so few soldiers on this road. “This is the first time nobody has stopped to question us,” they say. There are groups of soldiers on the main streets of Colombo, but they all wave us through with friendly smiles. There are metal detectors everywhere too, but coming from a country where they are just as common, I do not view them as particularly ominous.

Monk at the seaside

The only time I experience a frisson of tension is on the second day of our week-long drive through Sri Lanka, when I reveal to our driver-guide my Tamil ethnicity. A Sinhalese Buddhist, he has been telling us all morning about the racial strife in the region and describing in great detail the numerous bomb blasts the country has survived. He stops mid-sentence but recovers immediately and asks in a worried voice: “Aishwarya Rai? She is not Tamil, no?”

In Sri Lanka, aggression seems to have co-existed with or preceded peace throughout its history. Sigiriya, now a part of the country’s cultural triangle, stands testimony to this fact. Built on a foundation of violence by King Kassapa, who murdered his father Dhatusena in the fifth century, Sigiriya was partly absolved when it was converted into a monastery after its ruler’s downfall.

When I reach Sigiriya, the morning drizzle has turned into a downpour. I am standing on the muddy path leading to the Lion Rock, staring in dismay at the sheer rock face (600ft high, I remember reading) that appears and disappears in the thick mist. I am half tempted to turn back: Do I want to risk life and limb to see the ruined palace of a patricidal king? An old lady clad in a monk’s white robes stops next to me and flashes an almost toothless smile. Holding on to a thin plastic sheet that serves as her raincoat, she points to the rock and me in turns, silently urging me on. I smile in return and start walking ahead, only to see her scamper away into the fog that has descended on the steep steps. Each time I stop to catch my breath, I look around for her, but doubtless she has climbed all the way to the top by then.

To Sigiriya in the rain

Sigirya's maidens

I understand Sigiriya’s inaccessibility—Kassapa intended it to be an impregnable fortress—but that knowledge does not make it any easier for me to walk down the wet steps. I am suddenly distracted by the cackle of the young boys next to me, oblivious to the rain. No such worries for them; they are giggling, perhaps at the memory of the topless women on the walls midway to the peak, the frescoes of the mysterious “Sigiriya maidens”. I remember seeing in Anuradhapura a group of schoolboys roughly the same age, walking single file holding lotus buds in their hands. None of the boisterousness of the young there, they fit right into the rarefied surroundings.

It was faith that brought them—and kept them well behaved—to that small shrine to worship a tree, just as it is unassailable faith that attracts people of all ages to Kandy, home to the temple that holds Sri Lanka’s most important religious artefact, believed to be the tooth of the Buddha himself, retrieved from his funeral pyre, no less. Legend has it that the tooth was carried into Anuradhapura in the fourth century by Prince Dantha and Princess Hemamala, hidden in the latter’s hair. Paintings in the temple show the princess in a hairdo reminiscent of actor Sharmila Tagore’s 1970s beehive. The tooth soon came to be associated as much with royalty as religion; among contenders, custody of this relic guaranteed access to the throne. Consequently, it has a troubled history and has changed hands several times—including, in later centuries, the Portuguese and the British—before arriving at its final abode in Kandy.

At the tooth temple

At the Kandy temple

The relic lies in a casket behind closed doors, taken out only for important visitors and on important days. That does not deter the thousands who make their way to the temple daily. “Every Buddhist in Sri Lanka must visit it at least once in his lifetime,” says our guide. I join the men and women clad mostly in white who queue outside, patient through the numerous security checks and barriers. Inside, they devoutly place their lotus buds at the entrance of the shrine, take photographs, light lamps and head straight to the pleasant lake beside the temple, with its duck-faced paddle boats bobbing about idly in the middle.

A pleasant evening at Kandy

The people I meet across Sri Lanka—the happy families at Galle Sea Face, the white-robed monk at Sigiriya, the young soldier at Anuradhapura, the lotus vendor in front of the Kandy tooth temple—have all been gentle and friendly, making it easy to forget that they live in a country that has seen decades of violence. Perhaps they smile hoping—or knowing—that it is now time for peace.

The Sri Lanka holiday

So it’s been over a month now since I returned from Sri Lanka and I have not blogged about it. Have you been wondering? (and if not, why not?). The truth is, the entire holiday was slightly underwhelming and I have been mulling over what was not quite right – actually, I knew what was wrong even while in Sri Lanka but I have been trying to think objectively about it since my return.

A combination of many things really – it was raining heavily the first few days of the trip, I was in poor health (and had to visit a doctor in Colombo finally – the worst thing on a holiday)… but the main culprit – without which, the others would still have been alright – is that my travel planning agents had screwed up big time.

In my travels, I have rarely used a travel agent of any sort – except to book tickets and such basic requirements – and have been wary of them. To me, ‘travel agent’ has always spelt trouble – from minor bloopers, wrong dates, unkept promises all the way to blatant cheating, I had heard all the stories and sworn off them. The only reason I considered ivinca was that I was busy during that period and was glad to have someone plan and book for me (otherwise, I love the travel planning as much, or nearly as much as the actual travel!) – and I had met the owner / promoter who had spun a story of “we are not a booking agent – we are your holiday partners and will plan your entire trip for you based on your interests and requirements” – serves me right for falling for that.

So, finally what happened was – Murphy struck – in the form of the highly inefficient and unimaginative ivinca. And everything that could go wrong, pretty much did.

Sri Lanka itself falls flat, especially on the visual front, if you have traveled a lot within India – the feel of being in rural India, say a cleaner Kerala never left us through our time in the country. And for all that, given the kind of things I had been hearing and reading about it, I felt that it did not match those expectations.

However, what I did love about being in Sri Lanka was the buzz in the country about a peaceful and prosperous future – I was lucky to be there at the right time and the enthusiasm of a country that is enjoying peace after prolonged war is infectious. I also stayed at some wonderful hotels and resorts across the country (places I had chosen from user reviews on the internet – since the choices offered by ivinca had terrible reviews everywhere).

Anyway, I am back and still bitter about that experience – what irks me more than anything else was the initial response to my feedback from the partners at ivinca. It is just.not.acceptable. to not take responsibility for your mistakes – and it is worse to try passing it on to the customer. A customer who has paid big bucks for a premium package, I may add.

Here are some tips for you from a travel-agent-weary traveler, for what it is worth:

1. Choose wisely – Trust your initial impressions and judgment about the travel company / person you choose – I ignored my instincts that screamed that they were clueless but given my situation then, I went ahead. Talk to your agents, if possible, meet them a couple of times to discuss the itinerary together – and make sure that they are intelligent and understand your needs and expectations. This, I cannot stress enough, is critical.

2. Double check on the vehicle – If you are paying for a car and / or driver – check before you leave on what kind of car you are getting – we paid for a large car and ended up with a large car that was twelve years old – my husband and I were the only properly-functioning elements inside the car (and that too, not all the time!) – and this is in a country of swanky Mercedes and Toyotas for tourists.

3. Agree on your guide’s role – Have you paid for a guide? Is the driver going to act as your tour guide – according to the package? Do confirm these – since we paid for a driver-guide and ended up having to look for a separate guide at some places since our man did not feel inclined to step out of the car in the rain on those days.

We also ended up skipping a couple of important places from our itinerary thanks to, again, our guide’s machinations – and at that time, there was not much we could do to actually force him. In such cases, my advice to you is to call your agent and demand a replacement or repair of the situation. It is not a time to be nice or resigned (we were both, unfortunately).

4. Be prepared – Rain reminds me – there is nothing you can do about the weather – but do check likely weather conditions (especially possibility of rain) before you leave – and be prepared. Luckily for us, by the time we left for the hills, the skies had cleared up and we spent three glorious days among the tea plantations of Nuwara Eliya.

5. Do your own research – Even if you go through a so-called trip planner, spend some time on the internet or asking friends who have traveled to the place for suggestions – what to do, and equally importantly, what not, special places to see, unmissables and suchlike.

For instance, December, when we went to Sri Lanka, is prime time to spot migratory whales on the Southern beaches. And our blessed holiday-planners had no idea – they did not suggest it (how could they – when they drafted my itinerary, none of them had actually visited Sri Lanka!), and in my lack of time, I had not bothered to ask around. By the time, I read about it and heard about it from several friends – as a total must-do, it was too late – our hotels were booked and there was no way of changing plans without a significant loss of money.

6. Discuss meal plans – About the hotels you finally choose, do check for proximity from tourist spots and places of your interest – what I mean is, we ended up in hotels that were gorgeous (Amaya Lake, Tea Factory) but miles from anywhere – including anywhere that serves food. And we were on an only-breakfast plan – combine this isolation with an uncooperative driver and you get a situation where you are forced to eat all meals at the hotel – and pay top-end, ridiculous hotel rates for food that you would rather avoid. By all means, choose the resorts and hotels that appeal to you, but discuss your meal plans with your travel agent – in case of far-flung locations, I recommend throwing in atleast one meal, say, dinner, along with your breakfast.

7. Avoid ivinca – After all this, I have only one bit of advice left – do not use ivinca. I regretted the day I decided to use their services for a holiday I was so looking forward to. Better holidays in every way? Sorry, but do you mean bitter?

As an aside, I find that my name used to feature on the blogroll of the ivinca blog – and has since disappeared. Shame on you, ivinca!

Also read: I had read this post about the tricks tour companies play – only I had never thought I would one day fall prey to these. Such is life…