The tiny island nation of Sri Lanka has bounced back with a lot of heart after the infamous Easter attacks. Designers and T+L’s A-list members, Shivan Bhatiya & Narresh Kukreja, explore the lush green tea estates of Hatton and the famed wilderness of Yala National Park on their fourth visit. By Shivan & Narresh

Sri Lanka has been an interesting flame for us. We chanced upon it on a work trip in 2016, and the island nation caught us off guard with its beauty.

Hatton Tea Estate
Tea pickers at work on an estate of Dilmah Tea.

From gastronomy to pristine beaches, rich culture, colonial influences, and the architecture of Geoffrey Bawa, Sri Lanka was seductive. It grew on us, slowly and steadily, year on year, much like that love you never expect. We visited it again in 2017—twice! Once, for a friend’s post-wedding celebrations, and later, for a family holiday. Fast forward to 2019, when we heard about the deadly Easter attacks, it only made sense for us to go back and love it even more. Our fourth trip to the destination turned out to be the most experiential, and so far, the most memorable.

Hatton Tea Estate
Wild Coast Tented Lodge features tents placed around five ponds, which have been positioned to represent the paw print of a leopard.

ALL ROADS LEAD TO TEA

Having done the shimmering western coastline of Sri Lanka, covering Colombo, Bentota, Galle, and Mirissa on our previous three visits, we chose to venture inwards this time—to the fabled tea estates of Hatton—and savour the unique topography and experiences of the region. After a comfortable three-hour flight from Delhi—made easy by SriLankan Airlines and their extensive menu of fine teas of the land—we were ferried to Hatton on lush winding roads. Endless plantations of tea and pleasant weather ensured tranquillity. And the charming villas of Ceylon Tea Trails matched their enchanting surrounds. A collection of five bungalows restored by the Relais & Chateaux-certified Resplendent Ceylon (which owns the famous Dilmah Tea company), strewn across the valley estate, oozes with old-world elegance.

Hatton Tea Estate
The six-room Norwood Bungalow is one of five restored tea-planter residences at Ceylon Tea Trails.

The quaint six-room Norwood Bungalow was our home for the next few days, and nearly everything about it—the colonial-style decor, the airy family room that opens to the freshly manicured lawns, the infinity pool— made sure we felt cosy. But the food took the cake! Each meal was prepared in consultation with us—with flavours and presentation worthy of a Michelin star. The Sri Lankan curry spread is a must-try, and we suggest that you keep your camera handy during breakfast—the fruit platters are akin to art installations!

The Ceylon Tea Trails experience lived up to its name with a tour of the Dunkeld Tea Factory. The tour guide, Bernard, took us through the history of tea-growing in Sri Lanka with entertaining anecdotes and trivia whilst walking us through the present-day process of tea-making. It is fascinating just how much effort and grit go into perfecting that everyday cup of tea. After the tour, it was time for a ‘Plantation Picnic’. A short drive and walk uphill brought us to our exclusive meal—a gourmet tiffin meal set up on a cliff-side with views of expansive tea plantations.

Hatton Tea Estate
The tea estates of Hatton hark back to a simpler time.

The Summerville Bungalow of Ceylon Tea Trails hosted us for an afternoon cream-tea session. Downhill to the Castlereigh Reservoir and a swift kayak ride across takes you to the European-style bungalow. You can choose from a comprehensive menu of teas, nibble on scones, and see the day melt away. There isn’t a better way to conclude a tea trail in Sri Lanka!

YALA-AAAH AWAY!

With our chakras aligned, thanks to two calm days at Ceylon Tea Trails, it was time to seek out some wild things. A beachside wildlife national park, you say? Yes, please! A bumpy ride along the interiors of the tea estates took us to Yala National Park. Welcomed by expanses of dry forest and a signage that listed the timings of animal sightings in the last 24 hours (leopards, elephants, and sloth bears, among others), we knew we could expect some exciting time ahead.

Hatton Tea Estate
A tasting session at Dunkeld Tea Factory is a revelatory journey.

The ultra-chic Wild Coast Tented Lodge was our choice of stay, and it changed our perception of safari living. The resort is laid out in clusters around watering holes that draw wild animals, so it comes with a warning for guests: don’t step out after 7 pm unless accompanied by the resort staff! The beach is surreal, featuring wave-slapped boulders, cacti, and even sand dunes. It’s not one where you sunbathe for that beach tan, but the kind to be admired from afar for its topography. The cocoon-shaped tents of the resort come fitted with modern amenities, personal plunge pools, and a sustainable water heating system. A daytime stroll within the premises comes with sightings of langurs, monitor lizards, and mongooses.

Hatton Tea Estate
For the love of the outdoors, you could go kayaking on Castlereagh Lake.

Our beach dinner featured a sandy path lit with lanterns, a cute kangaroo rat lurking around, and a table set for a feast—grilled meats with sumptuous sides of soups and fresh salads (we strongly recommend the pineapple and chicken salad). The sun rose sooner than we expected, and before we knew it, we were seated in the safari car at 5.30 am with our friendly ranger Saranga. The forests of Yala feature clusters of short trees and a sandy terrain, making wildlife sightings easy. We were lucky enough to see a leopard and a sloth bear before the clock even struck seven, besides the commonplace monitor lizards, wild boars, and deer. After a three-hour game drive, our stomachs snarled with hunger and the ranger diverted the car towards a lagoon instead of the hotel. We were left slack- jawed by a stunning breakfast spread laid out next to the lagoon. Right then, we knew breakfast buffets would never be the same again! Our evening was spent lounging by the pool at Ten Tuskers Bar, the dining space of the resort that is built like a giant cocoon of rustic luxury.

Hatton Tea Estate
Bartenders at Ten Tuskers Bar whip up improvised cocktails with hyper-local ingredients under a bamboo chandelier.

READY-SET-SHOOT

We had fallen in love with Yala the moment we had Googled it, and the actual experience lived up to all our expectations. Having just finished a tribal art-inspired series, we couldn’t have asked for a more stunning backdrop to shoot our campaign. And that’s exactly how we ended this experience: a SHIVAN & NARRESH campaign that goes beyond the usual narrative and exemplifies our love for Sri Lanka. The final word: head to this gem in the Indian Ocean sooner than later; it’s superior, surreal, and safe.

Hatton Tea Estate
While their interiors pay homage to colonial expeditions, the exteriors of Cocoon Tents marry the past with an imagined future.

STAY

Ceylon Tea Trails offers five restored tea-planter bungalows in the heart of Sri Lanka’s Ceylon tea region. The 27 rooms and suites come with period furnishings, butler service,
and gourmet cuisine. Starts from INR 56,803 per room, per night on fully inclusive basis.

The luxurious Wild Coast Tented Lodge blends seamlessly into its surrounds with 28 tents cleverly interspersed with watering holes. Starts from INR 63,796 per room per night on fully inclusive basis.

Related: Here’s How Sri Lanka Has Managed To Revamp Its Dutch Heritage To Serve Modern…