We’re not big tea drinkers, but seeing as how Sri Lanka’s Central Highlands produce some of the world’s most highly sought after tea leaves, we made plans to visit the iconic Dambetenne Tea Plantation.
Dambetenne was the first tea plantation purchased by Sri Thomas Lipton of Lipton Tea fame back in the 1890’s. Located about 9km out of Haputale town, we made plans to tour the tea factory then trek an additional 7km through rows of tea bushes to a viewpoint known as Lipton’s Seat. From this lofty perch, Sir Thomas himself was known to sit for hours gazing across his vast empire of tea.
Turns out our well laid plans fell apart, the moment we arrived in Haputale we suffered our first setback. Jumping off the train onto the platform, Teo’s slippers malfunctioned and she ripped the callous from her forefoot.
Whipping out the first aid kit and Swiss Army knife, we performed some minor surgery on the rickety benches of Haputale Station then limped along to our guesthouse to rethink our itinerary. We encountered our second hiccup of the day shortly after arriving. A three-day religious celebration was about to begin and there would be no tours of the tea factory simply because no one would be there.
Unlike the backpacker haven we’d just left in Ella, Haputale sees few foreigners, mostly those coming to see Dambetenne and Lipton’s Seat.
We found Haputale’s lack of tourists and western-inspired amenities fascinating. This is a local town. Many of the shops closed when the mosques signaled time for prayer. A colorful line of tuk tuks drivers wait for someone to call for a fare.
For such a small town, the streets were filled with activity. What we enjoyed most was the market; piles of colorful fruits and vegetables, carts peddling samosas, and a fishmonger hawking seafood from the back of a pickup truck. The whole scene screamed authentic Sri Lanka.
Being physically unable to trek through the Dambetenne tea plantation or tour the factory didn’t stop us from going. The Dambetenne region is full of landscaped tea plantations and instead of walking through them as planned we made an early morning excursion to Lipton’s Seat for the sunrise.
We hired a tuk tuk to pick us up at 5:00 am and drive the 16 km through steep and winding roads for a most remarkable dawn. Lipton’s Seat is perched atop a steep ridgeline flanked by rows of green tea bushes. In one corner of the small parking lot a bronze statue of Sir Thomas sitting on a bench, replicating the tea magnates favorite position to observe his tea empire.
Across the parking lot is a small tea shop where you can pick up a hot morning cuppa and a spicy pol roti. Highly recommended.
We were lucky. Clear skies and the morning’s soft light combined with the surreal mists that hovered over the tea plantation producing a memorable sunrise. And best of all we were virtually alone until a few other tuk tuks showed up moments before the orb appeared. The morning scene was perfect and we would have missed the view had we been hiking up.
To put it bluntly, Haputale is underrated as a destination. Most travelers shun coming here because there are so many places in Sri Lanka’s hill country with better services and more variety.
Not far from Haputale is the famous Horton Plains National Park. The main attraction here is the 9km trail that includes the well photographed views of World’s End, a precipitous ravine attracting intrepid travelers who want to be wowed by the misty landscape of Sri Lanka’s interior. It also costs $25 USD per person to enter the park and a minivan transfer that runs $25 USD for a round trip (depending on where you start from).
As much as we wanted to see the acclaimed World’s End, we gave it a miss, unable to justify spending so much for a view that might be socked in by thick clouds.
Lipton’s Seat has similar landscape, swirling mists over green forests and tea plantations. And best of all, Lipton’s Seat is free (except for the tuk tuk, 900 rupees, $6 USD, round trip, though our hotel wanted to charge 1500 rupees). We certainly were not disappointed with this budget friendly alternative
Like Horton Plains, the weather at Lipton’s Seat is often cloudy, rainy and misty. The best time of day for clear views is early morning, by 10am locals say the clouds roll in.
Lipton’s seat is cold! We came prepared with jackets and a blanket for the chilly tuk tuk ride and still it was frosty.
There are several hotels/guesthouses in Haputale and touts will meet you at the station to lure you in. We stayed in the center of town, and it was convenient to have transportation available and some dining options.
There is a local bus to Dambetenne tea factory and we could have rented a motorbike and driven to Lipton’s Seat ourselves. To catch the sunrise, the tuk tuk was the best option for us.
The easiest way to get to Haputale is by train and chugging through the tea country at slow speed is the perfect way to soak in the green landscape and waterfalls of the Central Highlands. Alternatively you could motorbike over from Ella and it is also possible to hire a private car.
Finally, when you arrive at the station, be careful stepping onto the platform, it’s a longer drop than you may realize.