From plantation tours to private tastings, here are the best ways to explore Sri Lanka’s most famous export at its source.
In one valley near Adam’s Peak, Tamil tea pickers choose their route into the fields very carefully, so as not to disturb the spirits,” says noted tea explorer Jeff Fuchs, author of The Ancient Tea Horse Road. “In another valley to the south, these women won’t go into the fields when they detect a certain smell. They say that means the earth is unhappy.”
Based in China’s Yunnan province and best known for his explorations along the ancient mule caravan route that lends its name to the title of his book, Fuchs has an abiding interest in Sri Lanka, where tea—the country’s biggest export earner—has grown since British colonialists carried a single Camellia sinesis plant here from China in 1824. Beginning in August, Fuchs will share his passion for the island and its cherished leaf as the host of a special 12-day tour organized by local travel experts Sri Lanka in Style. The Tea Journey with Jeff Fuchs (94-11/239-6666; US$5,995 per person) will take guests through tea-growing valleys in central and southern Sri Lanka, introducing them to pickers and witherers, organizing daily tastings, and putting them up in tony, tea-oriented accommodations, including Summerville cottage, one of four colonial-era planter’s bungalows in the fertile Bogawantalawa Valley that comprise Ceylon Tea Trails.
For tea lovers with less time on their hands, Colombo, the capital, offers a variety of other tea experiences. Begin in the Fort area at Dilmah T-Lounge (62/2 Chatham St.; 94-11/ 244-7168). An offshoot of Sri Lanka’s premier tea brand (which also runs the Dilmah School of Tea at its HQ in the suburb of Peliyagoda), the lounge organizes private sip-and-spit sessions that will teach even neophytes how to distinguish between full-bodied Maskeliya Ceylon teas from golden-hued high-grown harvests, such as the Ran Watte single-origin varieties.
Tea appreciation classes, bespoke black tea blends mixed with dried flower petals, and clever tea-based cocktails await at Euphorium Tea Salon (3-14 Kynsey Rd.; 94-11/523-0523), an under-the-radar tea room in one of the city’s most exclusive neighborhoods. Owner Midori Peiris says the stylish silver-foil bags of Uda Pusselawawa tea are popular for the leaves’ “golden corona,” which holds up glowingly alongside Japanese pastries and light bites.
For full-service tea time, Teaeli (94-77/ 753-699) delivers its innovative sips to houses and hotels, with tins full of flavors such as the Paradise tea of dried berries and star anise and Earl Grey with cornflower, bergamot, and dried orange. Although storefront-less, the company’s 22-year-old founder Dushyantha De Silva has garnered credentials from serving his teas to the Duchess of Cornwall and getting his tea range stocked in two of Colombo’s most celebrated eateries, Ministry of Crab and Barefoot Garden Café.
Also worth venturing out for is a tour of Handunugoda Tea Estate (Tittiagalla, Ahan-gama; 94-77/329-0999), located 20 kilometers east of Galle on Sri Lanka’s palm-fringed southern coast. Here, resident planter Malinga Herman Gunaratne shows visitors around the fields in which virgins once clipped the rare white tea leaves with golden scissors. With day tours, a mu-seum, and tastings on the grounds, the estate’s sacred sanctions have eased, but the tradition of purity remains, tasted in each sip.
This article originally appeared in the June/July 2014 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Just Your Cup of Tea”).