Nuwara Eliya is one of the highest towns in Sri Lanka's "hill country," which gives it an enviable status as it's also one of the coldest places in Sri Lanka. And sure enough, when I arrived by train in neighboring Nanu Oya, I needed to grab my lone cardigan out of my bag. And, to my surprise, it wasn't enough. People weren't lying when they described Nuwara Eliya as "cold." It wasn't just a slight temperature drop, like Malaysia's Cameron Highlands, where the temperature was pleasant by day and you needed an extra layer at night. The temperature in Nuwara Eliya sent me pulling every article of warm clothing out of my backpack and cobbling them together in an outfit that might label me as crazy: my ankle-length black skirt, tank top, long-sleeved button down denim shirt, black cardigan, white scarf. I was so covered I looked like I might be a Sister Wife, or Amish. But, I had no choice, so I set off to see what else Nuwara Eliya had to offer, besides a climate that felt like I was at the beach in San Francisco.
Nuwara Eliya is nicknamed "Little England," and I quickly saw why. When the Scottish and English tea planters came and cultivated the region for tea growing, they cultivated the town to suit their pasttimes. (I mean, close your eyes and the chilly, damp climate could put you somewhere right on a foggy heath somewhere. I'm sure they all felt right at home.) They built Tudor homes and administrative buildings, they built a giant stone hotel fit for aristocrat and Royal visits, and a private club for the men to dine, smoke and fraternize. They built a lovely public park and christened it for Queen Victoria, plus a race track and a cricket stadium. It was, apparently, the place to be and in April, when temperatures across Southeast Asia soar, would be the epicenter of British socializing all month long.
The amazing thing is, Nuwara Eliya is still the place to be. The British might be gone, but apparently every April the town becomes quite the hot spot, as wealthy Sri Lankans, Indians, Saudis, Malaysians, etc., flock to the cool climes for horse and car races, cricket matches and social events. I think it's worth noting that of many of the place I've visited in Southeast Asia, those with ties to their colonial past are actually some of the more interesting places to see. rom Luang Prabang to Malacca to the French architecture and city planning in Saigon and Hanoi, it's hard to pass over the fact that while the French, Dutch and British past is loaded with a lot of racism and destructive cultural imperialism, these groups did cultivate some of what's nicest about Southeast Asia.
Like trains, for example. The trains in Sri Lanka are almost a tourist attraction, with travellers snapping pics left and right of the charming old colonial stations, of the wooden schedules updated manually with hand-painted signs. The single track winds through the mountain curves showing off beautiful mountains and valleys; if Disney had ridden the Sri Lanka trains through tea country, I'm sure there'd be a ride at Disneyland replete with animatronic sari-clad tea pickers smiling at park visitors.
Or the Grand Hotel. Perched at the top of the incline, it looks lifted straight out of an estate in England, all built of impressive stone with a sweeping green lawn in front, with a brick pathway leading down the center flanked by rose bushes and white benches. And it's not just people like me who love all this Britishness -- all across the lawn Saudi women floated across in their black purdahs, watching their children play in the fading light. In fact, as a white girl, I was almost an anomaly wandering around the old hotel -- it was predominantly busy with Middle Eastern and Chinese families, the Chinese adults playing some card game in the lobby and the Middle Eastern groups with the wives clad in either their face-covering black purdahs or brightly-colored headscarves, managing numerous children. I think it's safe to say that it doesn't matter if you're American, British, Kuwaiti, Turkish, Brazilian, Korean or Nigerian -- wealthy people like to do wealthy things and go to wealthy places. Even people who are just aspirationally wealthy like to see themselves in places that evoke wealth and perhaps some elitism, too. Which probably explains why the Grand Hotel was fully booked and absolutely teeming with people.
I sought solace in the bar and had a glass of wine while waiting for the restaurant at the foot of the hil to open for dinner. It was warm and cozy though, and the wine was a good price, so I had two, then made my way to the Indian restaurant that had a good write up in the Lonely Planet.
I had to wait a long time for dinner since the restaurant seemed to be the most popular place in town. But I had a delicious North Indian meal, and then set off back to my hotel to get ready for my very early day the next day -- a hike at Horton Plains!
Horton Plains is one of the coldest places in Sri Lanka, if not the coldest place. It's also shrouded in cloud coverage most of the day, so you have to get there at the crack of dawn so you can be there when the clouds lift in the early morning for the views. The big attraction is World's End, a giant cliff with incredible views. Like every attraction in Sri Lanka, it's not the cheapest outing (entrance to the park is close to $30 I think, plus I had to pay to join a group going there), and when you're paying to walk for a couple hours in a National Park, it seemed a little pricey. But, I'm glad I did it.
It was insanely cold, and I hiked the 9 kilometers in less than two hours. The trail is well kept and well marked, with means it's one of the few places you can hike in Sri Lanka without paying for a guide. I'd had to get up at 5:30 to meet the minivan group and I think we were settng off on the trail around 7:30 am and basically walked as fast as I possibly could just to try to warm up a little. (Again, I was wearing every article of clothing I could.)
With the beautiful sparse landscape and the cold air, I felt a little bit like I was hiking out on the Marin Headlands, although sprouting up sporadically from the plains were not oak trees but a tree I learned was called the Keena tree.
I got back to the hotel around 1 pm and had a rice and curry, then set off to see Queen Victoria Park. I wandered around and after smiling at a Muslim woman's baby somehow found myself the center of attention as a giant group of people all clamoured to have their photo taken with me. First the woman with the baby and her husband, then their kids, then their friends, then I was followed around the park by various couples, groups of young guys, and groups of young girls asking if I could take a photo with them. (This is a phenomenon that happens all over Asia -- it happened in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan too -- and while I'm sure it's really that I "look different" and am therefore a novelty, I'd like to think really it's my stunning beauty that inspires everyone to want their photo taken with me. Obviously.)
I wandered into the real town for a bit and found that it was nothing like the cultured, British setting up the hill. It was the same bland, boring architecture found around Colombo and Kandy -- one or two story cement buildings, totally bereft of any architecture interest, crowded with people selling stuff and men ogling me. So, I made my way back to my hotel to get ready for my big night -- a dinner reservation at The Hill Club!
The Hill Club is a big, stone building that was a men's only club until 1967. It was built so British tea planters (and visiting Brits/Europeans) could enjoy all things British: fine dining, fireplaces, snooker, reading the newspaper, smoking cigars, and listening to the BBC. To this day, dinner is still served with the Sri Lankan waiters clad in formal wear, all the way down to white gloves. Also the prix fixe menu is a mere $24 for four courses, so while it seemed a bit extravagant by my frugal budget standards, by SF standards, the price for dinner was a bargain and it seemed I simply must dine at the Hill Club.
Yes, it's a little weird to be a lone female sitting down to a big four course meal at a fancy place, and yes, maybe everyone else eating there (there were two other tables with guests) maybe looked at me a little funny, but who cares? You only live once and who knows when I'll find myself in Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka again? So I went with in, enjoyed my four course meal, which was all served on real china embellished with the Hill Club's crest featuring a tiger. I imagined myself first a tea plantation's owner's wife and after that fantasy was crushed when I learned the club wasn't open to women til the late '60s, pretended instead I was a tea plantation owner. I kept hoping a waiter would lean down and whisper, "the natives are becoming very restless, sir," just to complete the scene.
After dinner I wandered around the billiards room, decked out with various heads of animals, all gifted to the club by members, and the reading room, which had a super cool old BBC radio with all the British cities from Malacca to Madras to Hong Kong on the dial, so you could tune in and get the latest British news from the region. The Sri Lankan guys working at the club got really excited by my interest and spent a good half hour fiddling with the radio to get a station to come in for me; they said one guy had been able to get something in about a week before, but sadly only static came through.
The guy at reception called a tuk tuk for me and I headed back to my freezing cold hotel room to pack as the next day I'd have to say cheerio to the cold, charming, bizarre place known as "Little England."