The southern entrance to the town of Nuwara Eliya. Lake Gregory was created in 1873
Verdant hills with a misty aura, colourful flower gardens, strawberry fields and little cosy English cottages, create the idyllic setting of Nuwara Eliya. Sit on lawns surrounded by roses while sipping on a leisurely cup of tea, accompanied by strawberries and cream and warm butter cake as you take in this picturesque scenery of spring.
Words and Photography: David Blacker
Often referred to as 'Little England', Nuwara Eliya is an old holiday town; perhaps the oldest in Sri Lanka. The town has a collection of pretty 19th century buildings constructed by the British who discovered the valley in 1819.
Nuwara Eliya lies 1,800m above sea level, and is surrounded on all sides by high mountain ridges that tower over 2,000m into the sky. Therefore, it was built by a British colonial elite more than a century ago as a place to retreat from the April heat of the low country.
When Maj John Davy, a colonial administrator and military doctor, stumbled upon the fertile valley of 'Neuraelliya-Pattan', he described it as covered with a curious mix of subtropical and alpine forest, and uninhabited except for leopard, elephant and deer.
Fun Fact: Nuwara Eliya is sometimes called the ‘City of Light’ as in Sinhalese ‘Nuwara’ means ‘city’ and ‘Eliya’ means ‘light’.
All of this changed over the next decades. As tea was introduced to the Central Highlands, Nuwara Eliya became the second district in the country to grow it. The thickly wooded slopes were cleared and replanted in 1886, and the Pedro Tea Estate established. Before this, Sir Samuel Baker had recognised the suitability of Nuwara Eliya's climate to the cultivation of English produce, and set up farming in the valley in 1848. Today, Nuwara Eliya is famous for its strawberries, roses, carrots, and lettuce. Baker eventually returned to England, but Baker's Falls on the Horton Plains, and Baker's Ward in the Nuwara Eliya Hospital still bear his name.
When to Visit
April is when Nuwara Eliya is at its prettiest, and most popular. The flowers are in bloom, and Sri Lankans take advantage of the long holidays during the Sinhalese and Tamil New Year. Nuwara Eliya is a great place to base yourself for day trips into the neighbouring mountains. The Horton Plains, Haputale, and Ohiya are nearby, and many tea factories in the area offer tours.
As the plantations and farms brought increasing trade to Nuwara Eliya, it became a little town. British planters and administrators built clubs and country homes for themselves. In 1828, Sir Edward Barnes, the 5th Governor of Ceylon built Barnes Hall, a lavish country house of his own, which today is the Grand Hotel. A mock Tudor building constructed in 1867, this became the Hill Club in 1876, a gentlemen's club that only allowed ladies in as recently as 1967. The Nuwara Eliya Golf Club was built in 1889, by a Scottish officer of the Gordon Highlanders, one of the oldest courses outside Britain. While horse racing had begun as early as 1875, the current racecourse was laid out only in 1900.
The Nuwara Eliya Turf Club does not have daily races, but holds events on selected weekends. April is a particularly popular time to visit the races. This year there are three racing days in April: Sunday 2nd, Sunday 16th and Saturday 29th.
Nuwara Eliya is a bustling town today, colourful and noisy, but its 19th century buildings still hold pride of place, not just as monuments to a colonial past, but also as well-used places of business and leisure.
Before the English
Even though Maj Davy found Nuwara Eliya uninhabited, the name itself means 'City of Light', hinting at an older, forgotten history. Neighbouring Seetha Eliya features in the Ramayana myth, the place where Ravana, the Raksha King of Lanka imprisoned Sita, the kidnapped bride of Rama. A kovil dedicated to her sits 8km southeast of Nuwara Eliya.
Lake Gregory is one of Nuwara Eliya's most striking features, filling the southeastern end of the valley like a small Scottish loch. The lake was created in 1873, when Sir William Gregory ordered the damming of the Thalagala Stream. This flooded the swamps at one end of the valley and allowed the expansion of the town at the other. The lake was stocked with trout in 1881, and the descendants of those doughty colonial fish may still be caught and eaten to this day.You can spend hours at Lake Gregory.
Getting to the Top of Sri Lanka
At 2,524m, the impressive Mt Pedro, or Pidurutalagala, is Sri Lanka's highest feature, towering to the north of the Nuwara Eliya Valley. The mountain itself is only around 650m above Lake Gregory, and is just a 45-minute drive; probably the only 'highest' mountain of a country that can be reached by car. In fact, there is no alternative to driving. The slopes of Mt Pedro above the 2,000m line are within the Pidurutalagala Forest Reserve, a strict nature reserve into which entry is allowed only by one road, and never on foot. From the gates to the summit is a steep 6km drive during which stopping is forbidden. Signboards warn of the dangers of leopard and bear. Needless to say, motorcycles and trishaws are not allowed in.The peak offers spectacular views of the Nuwara Eliya Valley, town, and Lake Gregory, as well as that of Adam's Peak to the southwest.
Standing close to the summit of Mt Pedro, I gaze at the picturesque valley below, with its long finger of blue water. Above the tea, jungle-covered mountains of craggy rock rise, and the silhouette of Adam's Peak, the holy mountain, spikes the horizon like a single heartbeat, the temple at its summit catching the sunlight. We squint into the morning wind like mountain lions, gazing out over Ravana's stronghold.