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Have you heard of the tea factory hotel?

By Hugh and Colleen Gantzer

It is a place of character and of star-class, where acres of tea meet your eyes.

TEA CHEST DINING: The character of the Heathersett tea factory has been retained even in the restaurant. PHOTO: HUGH and COLLEEN GANTZER

WE spent our nights in a high Withering Loft. Not that we were withered. To the contrary. We were cosseted in a room with all the five-star trimmings plus a bowl of fresh, succulent, red strawberries served with clotted cream. We savoured them that first morning watching dawn brightening the tea-quilted slopes of Sri Lanka's Nuwara Eliya highlands, more than 2,000 metres above sea level. We and our fellow guests were living in the 57 rooms of a tea factory converted into a luxury hotel. And thereby hangs a fascinating tale.

Back in the 19th-Century, when the British Empire still spanned the globe, a man named W. Flowerdew came out from Norfolk in England. Tea had become the new commercial crop of Ceylon after the devastation of its coffee plantations by the rust blight. Flowerdew planted tea; named his estate Heathersett after his English village; and, amidst his rolling hills of tea, he set up his tea factory.

The idea

All went well with the factory for almost a hundred years. Then, technology overtook it and its tired old machines had to be put to rest: the factory shut down in the 1970s. And there it might have stayed, crumbling slowly in the gentle sun if, in the 1990s, a director of Managing Agents, Aitken Spence, , had not got a daring idea. Director G.C Wickermasinghe suggested converting the shuttered factory into a hotel while retaining its essential character as a tea factory.

This is what had snared our attention. A block-like tea factory looks as appealing as a stack of shoe-boxes. How on earth could it compete with hotels designed to resemble Mughal-Viceregal-Babylonial-Rajput fantasies? But we had forgotten that the very idea of living in a seemingly unostentatious, functionally-designed, factory has its own allure. And its renovators have ensured that, not only its external character but also, its interiors keep on reminding one that it is a tea factory; with appropriate embellishments, of course.

Thus, we noticed that the no-nonsense lines of the building have been gentled by a topiary maze in the foreground. Tea bushes clothe the slopes leading up to the factory, and pluckers still harvest them. The wood-floored reception area was where the leaf drying ... the fourth stage in the manufacture of tea ... was carried out. There is a fenced-in well, in the centre, housing the old generator. Belts from it still soar up through the steel-latticed atrium to the two giant wooden fans that once roared air through the withering lofts. Happily, even the slow and stately lift, that brought us down from our lofty bedroom floor, is an Otis with reassuring grille doors giving unhurried views of the floors in between.

And to continue with the tea factory theme, the packing room is the bar; its fine-dining restaurant has a buffet table resting on Heathersett tea chests and above it is the bronze-cowled equipment that once sifted and sized the processed leaves into BOP, Fannings and the other esoteric terms used to identify the various grades of tea. Guests can also dine in a full-scale replica of the restaurant of a little train that chugged into the hills from 1903 to 1940.

UNESCO award

The assertively factory-like atmosphere of the hotel (Ph: +9411 2308408 Fax: +9411 2433755 E-mail: captivated us as, indeed, it must also have captured the minds of the teams of judges who gave it the South Asian Architecture Award in 1996 and the UNESCO Heritage Award in 2001.

But it is very much more than atmosphere, heritage, good food and service. Though the main factory has become a hotel, there is also a mini-tea factory in a cottage near the topiary-maze. Tea pluckers still work the bushes and carry their basket-loads of tea leaves to the mini-factory for processing and packaging. So, too, can guests. We met the Perera family, Sri Lankans settled in the United Kingdom and the United States, back for a family reunion. The mother and her Irish daughter-in-law, Kathleen, had donned head-scarves and strapped baskets on their backs the day before. Then they had joined the tea pluckers and, under the expert guidance of a supervisor, had plucked their own load of the traditional "two-leaves-and-a-bud". Shortly before we wished them goodbye, they were delighted to receive the tea they had plucked: processed and packaged and ready to be brewed. For a tea drinker, or even to a non-tea-drinker's tea drinking friends, there's a certain understandable ιclat in proclaiming, in a slightly off-hand sort of way, "Actually, we personally plucked this tea in Sri Lanka!" Which is what the Pereras are, probably, doing right now!

But, quite apart from that, a tea factory is always the focal point of acres of manicured and verdant serenity. For a short time, for much too short a time, we lived in comforting green-peace in this unique and unforgettable hotel.

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