Ihave a confession to make: the last time I visited Sri Lanka I took a Ziploc bag stuffed with Yorkshire teabags. Yes, you read that correctly. Yorkshire Tea, carefully transported to the country that gave the Brits their obsessive love of a cuppa.
My time back then was spent in the Central Highlands, where a butler in a converted tea estate manager’s swish bungalow spotted the Ziploc and raised an eyebrow. “Perhaps,” he suggested, “madam would care to try a pot of Ceylon’s finest.”
Needless to say I felt suitably chastened, but I’ve learnt my lesson and now I’m here again (sans the Yorkshire, I hasten to add) to walk sections of the new long-distance Pekoe Trail through the heart of its lush tea country.
Goodness, it’s glorious to be back. With the 2019 Easter bombings, then the pandemic and nine months of mass protests against the government in 2022 (not forgetting an economy that continues to plummet), Sri Lanka has been especially battered by tumbling tourist numbers.
Bookings are gradually rising again — helped by the fact that in August the British government lifted its ban on travel. Right now, though, you won’t see many tourists. You will, however, feel utterly safe and experience a palpably warm welcome wherever you go.
Certainly this is true for me during five days of trekking the Pekoe Trail. Interspersed with those 30 miles of walking I spend days slurping tea at various estates (Sri Lanka’s answer to French vineyard-hopping) and make some fascinating trips to Kandy, Galle and the capital, Colombo.
Actually the Pekoe Trail is not at all new. Its 200-mile, snail-shaped route starts just outside Kandy and weaves its way through the fertile Central Highlands up to Nuwara Eliya and the heart of the hill country. These tracks have existed since the British established the tea-growing industry here in the 19th century.
Now divided into 22 walkable “stages”, these were the tracks on which freshly plucked leaves were transported by horse-drawn carts to factories for processing.
Transforming those tracks into a sustainable tourism initiative — with funding from the EU and the US — has taken ten years. Even now routes are yet to be waymarked (they will be by the end of the year, I am told), so to walk them you need knowledgeable guides. Each stage links into towns and villages where you can stay — sometimes at luxurious hotels or wonderfully homely farms and, memorably for me, even a sparse, authentic tea picker’s “line room”.