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The ritual of bed tea in Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka. Picking tea in the hills region. Picture: Mark Irving/The West Australian

"At what time should I serve bed tea?" asks the butler.

Bed tea? It's a quaint British-colonial pre-breakfast ritual surviving in Sri Lanka's tea-growing highlands.

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Tea and biscuits are served while you're in bed or stumbling about in sleepwear.

Sri Lanka is one of the world's leading producers of tea (a beverage still commonly referred to as Ceylon, the country's colonial-era moniker). Tourism, another key industry, has recovered strongly since civil war ended three years ago.

Imagine an island, south of India and smaller than Tasmania but with a population equal to Australia's - that's Sri Lanka.

It's where the word "serendipity" originated - to describe accidental discoveries of pleasant places or events.

That's the way it is in compact Sri Lanka - where paved but narrow roads wind from the coast into the hills, yielding unexpected delights around almost every corner.

The interior is Sri Lanka's famed tea zone. Tea and coffee thrive in the same conditions but a plant disease destroyed coffee production in the 1800s. Small-scale coffee production has restarted but is massively dwarfed by tea cultivation.

It's been possible for decades to holiday on tea plantations. But only in recent years has tea sizzled. Plantation holidays, with many choices, are mostly based in decrepit mansions transformed into luxurious boutique hotels.

To-the-manor-born luxury doesn't cost the earth, because Sri Lanka remains one of Asia's cheapest destinations.

That's a cue to mention shopping in Colombo, the capital, where a renowned department store called Odel specialises in inexpensive clothing bearing international designer labels. (These brands are customers of Sri Lanka's large garment industry.)

From Colombo, road trips to tea plantation lodgings - often as add-ons to beach resort stays near Galle or Negombo - generally take half a day.

1500-year-old paintings adorn cave walls at Sri Lanka's Sigiriya. Sri Lanka is back in the tourism game. Like tea production, tourism is a key economic activity. Picture: AAP Image/Suree Pritchard

What's more, they're conveniently close to major tourist attractions (with driver-guides available): a natural wonder called Sigiriya Rock (a fortress temple with caves containing 1500 year-old frescoes), ruins of ancient cities such as Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa, the city of Kandy (with its sacred Temple of the Tooth), the "little England" town of Nuwara Eliya, Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage where 50 pachyderms splash daily in a river (a memorable diversion for children) and tea factories where processes are explained.

One opulent option (with "bed tea" included) is Ceylon Tea Trails, four spacious and restored planters' bungalows, with tours of surrounding tea plantations as well as hiking and biking trails skirting mountains, lakes and waterfalls.

Tea factories are a common sight - oblong buildings often on hilltops. Some are abandoned because modern machinery means increased productivity, so fewer are needed.

One of these has become the Heritance Tea Factory Hotel, a 54-room five-star property 2000m above sea level, where accommodation is in former "withering lofts" where freshly-picked tea was dried.

Each morning, the hills are alive with the sound of gossiping tea pluckers. Public areas are home to old machinery.

The Lavender House, an 1890s former planter's residence, is now an antique-filled five-bedroom hotel. I reach from the pool and absent-mindedly pluck a handful of leaves - instantly realising they're tea. As I swim, tea presses in on three sides.

Owners Gabrielle and James Whight - formerly of Melbourne - also own Colombo's in-vogue Cricket Club Cafe, a hang-out for visiting cricket teams and their supporters.

The sound of a cricket bat on ball pierces the silence as I sit reading on a lawn at Warwick Gardens, run by Jetwing Hotels, Sri Lanka's largest hotel company.

A stroll to the lawn's edge reveals, far below, a school for tea pluckers' children. The kids are immersed in a game of cricket against another nearby pluckers' village.

"Guests sometimes join in," laughs manager Mohamed Faris. "Sri Lanka is completely cricket crazy."

Faris has just taken me on a hair-raising drive through plantations - along roads so narrow that pluckers perch at the edge as we pass, seemingly destined to plunge down sheer cliffs.

But the pluckers don't regard this as a brush with death. Tea flourishes even on these steep drops, reached by narrow paths that are part of pluckers' daily routines.

At one of many hairpin bends, known as Devil's Elbow, even our gutsy old Morris Minor meets its match. Faris must carefully reverse before we continue our uphill journey.

Warwick Gardens, a century-old Scottish-style country mansion filled with authentic period furniture and serving both Sri Lankan and western cuisine, has five rooms - one of which is informally called the "secret room" with access hidden behind stairway drapes.

Later, I visit the Heritance Tea Factory Hotel. A solicitous waiter inquires: "Shall I bring a pot of tea?"

I decide it would be churlish to refuse.

FACT FILE

GETTING THERE
No direct flights from Australia. Most Asian airlines flying from Australia also fly to Sri Lanka, connecting in cities where they're headquartered. One option: low-cost carrier Air Asia X (airasia.com) from Gold Coast, Melbourne, Perth or Sydney to Kuala Lumpur, connecting there with Sri Lankan Airlines (srilankan.com).

STAYING THERE
Arrange a driver-guide from hotels in Colombo. The capital's most memorable is the grand old Galle Face (gallefacehotel.com). Expect to pay about Rs12,000 ($A88) for half-day trips to plantation lodgings. Tea plantation options include Warwick Gardens (jetwinghotels.com) and Lavender House (thelavenderhouseceylon.com) as well as Heritance Tea Factory Hotel (aitkenspencehotels.com) and Ceylon Tea Trails (teatrails.com), part of the Relais & Chateaux grouping.

MORE
Sri Lanka Tourism Promotion Bureau (srilanka.travel)

The writer was a guest of Air Asia, Sri Lankan Airlines, Jetwing Hotels, Galle Face Hotel and The Lavender House