We knew the rains would come for us, it was only a matter of time.
Though there are plenty of perks to traveling in shoulder season, the weather (which is notoriously fickle in Sri Lanka at any time of year) is generally not one of them. With each passing day as we puttered along the coastline of this beautiful country, glorying in the clear skies and sunny days, we sent thanks up to the heavens all the while wondering when the weather would turn and we would finally put King Tuk’s roof to good use.
The rains that put a damper on our leopard safari at Yala, followed us as we turned our wheels northward and headed away from Sri Lanka’s gorgeous beaches and into the heart of its hill country, Ella. The roar of the surf was replaced by the crash of waterfalls, rice paddies gave way to undulating hills blanketed by leafy green tea plantations; in a matter of hours, we were in a whole new world, the landscape totally changed but no less beautiful. The blue skies faded to a silvery gray and as we wound our way higher and higher, the clouds seemed to float down around us as a fine mist lightly swirled about and enveloped us in a foggy embrace. The closer we came to Ella, the more it felt like we were burrowing our way into a fairy tale… or maybe an Agatha Christie novel.
Despite being squarely at the heart of Sri Lanka’s countryside, Ella feels not unlike an English village… with a twist. The hotels and houses here are more aptly described as cottages, the lanes that drift off of the main road are lined with bright flowers, and the ever-present drizzle (always on the cusp of a full-blown downpour) paired with the slight nip in the air elicits cravings for thick down comforters and steaming cups of tea. Rather than women garbed in berry-toned saris and ruby red bindis rounding every corner, I half expected to see Miss Marple bundled up in a nubby wool cardigan peeking in kitchen windows and sniffing out trouble.
Bucolic beauty that it is, Ella is the very definition of sleepy country village. Apart from the persistent drumming of rain, the only other sounds to pierce the still silence of this quiet place were the occasional rooster crow (this is Asia after all), and the ringing clang of the blunt metal blades of the Kothu Roti vendors that line the main street in town. Although it looks like pasta, kothu roti originates from the northern coastal city of Baticaloa, and actually means “chopped roti” in Tamil; it uses roti bread cut into strips, which are fried up on a flat sheet of metal with veggies, eggs, various proteins, and sometimes even cheese. It’s served piping hot alongside a spicy curry sauce and is seriously delicious. A Sri Lankan mainstay, we tried it in a few different places around the country, but the version we had in Ella was my favorite as it was the perfect combination of textures, and had the right balance of spicy kick from the sauce and smoke from the grill.
Located high in the mountains, most visitors to Ella arrive seeking a reprieve from the oppressive heat of the Sri Lankan lowlands and a spectacular view. We navigated King Tuk up a steep side road to audition a few of the towns highest guest houses, many boasting rooftop patios and decks meant for soaking in the view before admitting that given the weather, the only thing we’d be soaking in up there was rain. The constant soundtrack to our time in Ella was the snare drum pitter patter of rain punctuated by tympanic drum roll of thunder; on the rare occasion the rain stopped, generally the blanket of fog that rolled in was so thick it was hard enough to see across the road, never mind across the Ella gap and out towards the coast.
We abandoned plans for breezy mountain views and switched our focus to finding a cozy cottage where we wouldn’t mind being bundled up for long afternoons reading books, working on blog posts, and watching Danish dramas. [Aside: Have you watched Borgen? It is NOT (as I pitched it to Tony) about a woman who becomes the first female prime minister of Denmark following a zombie apocalypse, but rather a fictional account about the first female prime minister of Denmark who rises to power through regular—though somewhat inscrutable to non-Danish viewers—means. Still really fascinating stuff, even without a supernatural bent!] In a bizarre series of events (still no zombies, though), we wound up finding an adorable guest house named Little Cottage run by an older woman who insisted we call her Mummy. We had actually been checking out her daughter’s guesthouse just up the hill, but the cleaning lady was the only person around when we showed up and she spoke spotty English at best and the only room she showed us smelled strongly of wet dog and cigarettes, so when Mummy showed up to “translate” and mentioned she had a whole cottage we could rent for just $15US per night, we asked if we could see it. Newly built, Little Cottage was clean yet cozy and when Mummy mentioned she loved to cook, we knew we had found our place.
[Our defection was not without issue, however, as later that day Mummy’s daughter came to see us to find out why we had elected not to stay at her establishment. It was an awkward and strange confrontation, and she clearly had harsh words with her mother later as we later found Mummy in tears. Although I think it’s a bit strange for families to have competing guest houses within spitting distance of one another (thankfully not literally!), but as an older lady without a husband, I can’t fault Mummy for doing what she can to make ends meet. At the end of the day, we chose to stay with her and not her daughter—like one of Cinderella’s evil stepsisters!—because she offered a better product at a better price. Also, given the strange family dynamics going on in that corner of Ella, I hesitate to say that Mummy welcomed us to her cottage like family, but you take my point…]
Due to the dreary weather during our time in Ella, we spent a lot of our time cuddled up under the covers in our room, or out on our covered porch listening to the gentle tap dance of the rain across the tin roof. It felt a world away from, well, everywhere, but especially from the steamy tropical paradise we had been enjoying just two days earlier in Mirissa. It’s probably hard to understand why anyone would trade that in for this, but there was something so calming, so soothing, but the gentle quiet of Ella that seemed to only thicken with the rain, and to be surrounded by so much green.
And, of course, there is the hiking. A strange thing to attract us of all people, I know, but we had heard that the walks around Ella, particularly to nearby Little Adam’s Peak, were legendary and not to be missed, not even by dedicated dawdlers such as ourselves. So we would wake up early in the morning, in that brief window of time when the rain that served as a lullaby throughout the night had tapered off and the day’s fog had yet to roll in, and head out for lazy rambles through the tea fields, waving hello to the workers picking tea, enjoying the fields of rich green punctuated ever so often by a brilliant cluster of colorful flowers.
Every so often we’d traipse of down a less-frequented path while bemused locals told us we were going the wrong way, but when your views look like this, is there really a wrong way?
I suppose we probably should have gone and visited a plantation or two, but we were content just to wander the rows of tea on our own and then drink copious pots of the stuff brewed back at our cottage with a heaping spoonful of sugar.
Because of the weather (and our dispositions, let’s be honest), we knew the likelihood of us climbing actual Adam’s Peak, a 2000+ m high mountain, was slim to none, and when the rains actually washed out the road that would take us to that part of the country, we took it as a sign that such an endeavor was definitely not meant to be. Instead, Tony decided he would summit Ella’s diminutive version, known as Little Adam’s Peak, one morning, while I was still dozing in bed. He was joined on his trek by another man whose wife had given up part way up the climb, and together—along with an eager canine companion—they made their way to the peak.
Looking at his pictures afterwards, the view was so stunning I almost regretted my choice of lazing in bed with my book. Almost.
Our days in Ella passed slowly and softly, deepening our appreciation for the diversity of Sri Lanka and relishing the mellow solitude. Sometimes bad weather ruins your time in a place, but I actually think the gunmetal skies and swirling fog only heightened our experiences in Ella, making it all feel a little bit magical and mysterious in a way that sunny days don’t.Though it doesn’t boast the golden sands and clear weather of the coasts, like the slumbering heroine in a fairy tale, Ella has a beauty that’s captivating and casts a spell upon those who visit that’s tough to break. And really, why would you want to?
Tell Us: Would you like to visit Ella, even in bad weather? What’s the grayest, rainiest place you’ve ever visited?