Nuwara Eliya Stand and stare, stay and feel

Hill stations are a gift of the British Raj. Nuwara Eliya in upcountry Sri Lanka is a typical ‘little England' left behind by the British. It has often been compared to the Nilgiris of South India.

But in the case of Nuwara Eliya time seems to have stood still or, at best, travels at a snail's pace. The picture-postcard hill station is best enjoyed by those who have the time and the temperament to stand and stare, stay and feel.

A park, a lake, a racecourse and a golf course make up the two well-known hill stations. Both are almost at the same elevation and get as much rainfall. But Nuwara Eliya's weather is milder.

Both the resorts nestle in an amphitheatre of hills. Pidurutalaga (2550m), highest peak in Sri Lanka overlooks Nuwara Eliya, while Doddabetta (2637m), the second tallest peak in South India, towers over Ooty.

Curiously enough, the two resorts were ‘discovered' at about the same time, in 1819. Administrator Dr. Major John Davy, while on a hunting party, tumbled on a great extent of open country, ‘the aspect of which was not less novel than agreeable'. The natives called it Neuraellyia-pattan. Administrator John Sullivan, who had ‘discovered' the Nilgiris in 1819, accidently came upon a valley called ‘wotokymund' which later became Ootacamund or Ooty.

Soaking in the warm winter sun along the deserted Lake Gregory that meanders over the best part of Nuwara Eliya town, childhood memories of the Ooty of yore flood my mind. Even as I gaze longingly, a sea plane makes a gentle landing on the placid, blue waters and takes off soon like a giant water bird. The sea plane, an air taxi service between Peliyagoda near Colombo and Lake Gregory in Nuwara Eliya, has been introduced recently. It takes only 30 minutes to fly 15 persons.

A luxury houseboat with 4-5 star comforts is to be plied soon on the lake. There is a helicopter service too which lands in the middle of the race course adjoining the lake.

English horticulture thrives in Nuwara Eliya. The landscape, despite the winter, is a riot of natural hues of English trees, flowers and vegetables. The hills are wooded with cypress, eucalyptus and pine. A variety of vegetables is grown on the slopes and in kitchen gardens — potato, turnip, carrot, beet, cabbage, cauliflower and leek. Extensive private gardens raise dahlias, snapdragon, petunias, roses and daisies amid well-tended lawns.

The fruit of the season, it seem, is strawberry. Local girls pick the berries in the morning from the endless rows on the steep slopes. It would be a shame if one cannot taste the fresh berries. Opposite the southern end of the lake, a nondescript factory sells fresh strawberries, jam and strawberry recipes. The pancake with strawberry, cream and ice crème we try is delectable.

Tea is the lifeline of Nuwara Eliya and half the 7-lakh population there comprises Tamils who work in the plantations. Colonial tea gardens and factories offer a variety of orange pekoe teas in cosy tea centres.

The Victorian charm of the town lingers with old English buildings housing the post office, police station, clubs and high-end hotels. About 200 hotels cater to the various budgets of the visitors. Houses with mock Tudor half-timbering and hedges add a quaint charm to the place.

April is the season when everybody who is somebody flocks to the hills to see and be seen by those who matter. The Sinhalese New Year falling in that month attracts the largest number of visitors.

For visitors of longer stay, there are plenty of outdoor attractions such as the mountains, the forests and national parks that are within easy reach. Nuwara Eliya is said to be a very popular base for bird-watchers and eco tourists. The Haggala Botanical Gardens are only 10 km away. The uniquely grassy Hortan Plains National Park is just an hour away.

There is no dearth of waterfalls — the Ramboda, Hellboda, Devon and the Lakshapana falls to name a few.

Nuwara Eliya is best approached by road from Colombo with a stopover at Peradinia gardens and Kandy, a distance of 180 km on a fine and scenic drive, surrounded by dense forests and tea gardens.

A mountain train on a narrow gauge line was operating from 1910 to 1940. There is now a demand to revive it.

A trip to Nuwara Eliya is not complete without a visit to Sita Eliya, a short distance from the south end of Lake Gregory. According to legend, Goddess Sita was kept in confinement in these idyllic environs. A stream roars past the fine temple. On the rocks across the stream can be seen giant foot marks of Lord Hanuman as he carried Sita away to safety. A short distance down the road, the copious waters of the Rawana Ella fall from great heights.

DHARMALINGAM VENUGOPAL

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