The Central Highlands of Sri Lanka: Are we in Switzerland?

Visiting the Central Highlands wasn’t our first priority on our trip to Sri Lanka, but it is the most memorable (and relaxing) thing we did!

It all started when we were scouring dozens of blogs and websites while making our (much too short) two week itinerary for Sri Lanka. We had everything on our list from beaches to tea plantations to elephant sanctuaries to UNESCO sites to train rides…and we realized it would be utterly impossible to do it all (and feel relaxed by the end of our vacation).

So we started making cuts…I couldn’t find an elephant sanctuary as ethical as the ones we had been to in Ghana and Cambodia. There are many that don’t allow tourists to ride the elephants (thank God), but I’d rather the ellies be left to live their natural lives instead of being fed and washed by tourists.

And while the train ride from Kandy to Ella is one of the most famous things a person can do in Sri Lanka (not to mention the most instagrammable) I just couldn’t imagine a seven-hour train ride (that would have to be taken a second time) with my motion sickness.

With those two things taken off our list, we started looking for tea plantations that didn’t require such an arduous journey. We knew we’d be up north in Anuradhapura, heading down to Kandy, so we started our search there. Unsurprisingly, there are tons of options to choose from. Madulkelle stood out to us by being both a tea and eco lodge.

Nestled in the Central Highlands of Sri Lanka, the lodge can be found overlooking the Knuckles Mountain Range. An hour and a half north of Kandy, it felt like a world away from the hustle of the city.

Our driver, who was born and raised in Kandy, had never been up in these mountains before and more than once I caught him oggling the mountainside, instead of the road ahead! Not that I can blame him, as a UNESCO Natural World Heritage Site, every corner turned revealed a new view even more stunning than the last. No stranger to the Kandy-Ella views, he was quick to tell us these were equally stunning.

We arrived in the early evening, exhausted after a long day of driving and hiking (Pidurangala and Sigiriya), and were greeted with tea and biscuits. We thought we had been staying in nice hotels up until that point (and we were), but none of them could touch the luxury of the Madulkelle Tea and Eco Lodge.

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The lodge consists of 20 individual “tents” with queen-sized beds, colonial-style writing desks, rainforest showers, and porches with absolutely unbelievable views. There’s also an estate house with a dining room, lounge, fireplace, and more incredible views. And the cherry on top: An infinity pool overlooking the Knuckles Mountain Range.

As well as countless nooks, both indoors and out, to curl up and read a book or simply stare at the beauty all around. We were absolutely blown away.

The only downside we encountered was the food. Despite having an organic fruit and vegetable garden, 90% of the menu was meat-based. After trying the pasta the first night we stuck to Greek salads and fruit platters the rest of our time there. Somehow, they don’t even serve vegetarian Sri Lankan food…

If not for the food, we could have stayed at Madulkelle for weeks, waking up with the sunrise, hiking in the plantation and surrounding mountains, and breathing the fresh air.

But we made the most of our two nights there. Both mornings we woke up for the incredible sunrise. The mountain range gets its name from its folds and peaks which resemble a clenched fist. However, the Sinhalese residents have traditionally called the area Dumbara Kanduvetiya, which means mist-laden mountain range.

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That first morning I signed up to hike to Mini World’s End. This would be a solo trek – just me and my guide – because the guidebook said beware of leeches and that made Chandler give it a hard pass.

Despite the activities coordinator calling Chandler a “baby” (charming, right!) and the guide assuring him it was too dry for leeches, Chandler found a nook to curl up in with his book.

Tharaka and I began our hike at the lodge and made our way up through the tea plantation into the mountains above. We had a path to follow and, as promised, no leeches in sight.

We made it to Mini World’s End and looked out over the valleys and through the mist to the mountains on the other side.

What was in sight: Incredible biodiversity. Deciduous and coniferous trees, interspersed with lakes and streams and more tea than I have seen in my entire life. The cool thing about this area is that the tea is grown in-between the already existing plant life.

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That may make it seem like the tea plantation is an afterthought, but we hiked for two hours and saw only a small portion of the grounds used for tea. So many things were also being grown throughout the mountains, like coffee, cinnamon, jackfruit, oranges, and more things that I’ve forgotten.

It was so quiet and peaceful. Other than the occasional bird, it seemed like we had the mountain to ourselves.

This is the point in the story where I see a unicorn, go home, and never have a more magical day. Seriously, that’s how gorgeous it was.

Instead, Tharaka chose that moment to have a great idea: Hike back to the lodge a different way than we had come. On the outside, it makes sense – same amount of hiking, double the amount of viewing.

Unfortunately, my guide got lost. And then we found a “shortcut.” Believe me, you should never trust a shortcut. Thankfully, we made it out of the woods and back into the plantation below.

It was at this point that I looked down at my feet. I had noticed a tingling sensation in my right foot and as I looked down, the first thing I thought was: I squished a berry between my toes.

Wrong.

Upon closer inspection, I realized I was gushing blood from a tiny hole between two of my toes. I never saw the leech, but it was easy to picture what had happened: During our “shortcut,” a leech must have found my toes irresistible. It got its fill and happily let go.

A fun fact: Leeches release an anticoagulant when they feed and because of this, my toe would not stop bleeding! It was starting to look like a geyser. But, as luck would have it, were were only a hundred meters from the lodge’s laundry service and were able to clean the wound and apply a band-aid.

It was over in a matter of minutes.

When I got back to the lodge and shared the story with Chandler, he felt justified in his decision to stay in and read. I, however, continue to disagree. After the band-aid, we continued through the plantation and down to the lodge below.

As we walked, we saw workers picking tea leaves and vaster stretches of tea than had been visible in the forest above. I’m sure the train ride from Kandy to Ella is beautiful, but I can’t say I was disappointed by our views.

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The rest of our time at Madulkelle was spent going on short walks, admiring the views, and relaxing in front of the fireplace. I start grad school in less than a month and I’m not sure I’ve ever felt more relaxed than I did while at that lodge.

It is easily one of the most breathtaking places I have ever been. It looked so much like Switzerland I was shocked. But Switzerland only looks like this for a few months in the summer. Sri Lanka looks like this year round.

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