Amba Estate: Into Sri Lanka’s heartland
Is it possible to feel like you’ve made good friends after a mere 48 hours of knowing them? Because that’s what it was like after my time at Amba Estate with co-founder Simon Bell, who I’m going to declare as one of life’s winners, hands down.
I was introduced to him through Suzi and Giles over at Ulpotha and from the start, Simon went above and beyond to accommodate me, including hopping onto an hour-plus long Skype call to offer advice and guidance on how to get Pra from one part of the island to another. It was like having a complimentary Quintessentially Concierge on hand and thanks to him, he not only made my 48 hours at Amba Estate a memory of a lifetime but also helped me map my way across the country.
Amba Estate, hidden away in the valley of Ambadandegama in the Uva Highlands, is not only a guesthouse, but it’s also a working organic farm that produces artisan teas, coffees, spices, and preserves. There’s also quite a long history and family saga associated with the land, but more on that in a bit!
I’m detecting a pattern in how guesthouses, retreats, and hotels come about here in Sri Lanka. All of the stories seem to involve casual conversations between friends (usually expats), maybe a drink or two, and a plot of stunningly beautiful land that’s up for sale!
Amba Estate is no different. When the 120 acres of land became available for development, it came up in a random conversation between an Ayurvedic doctor in Ulpotha and his friend in Ella, also an Ayurvedic doctor. Of course, with Giles being friends of Charles and Orzu, two of the sponsors of Amba, one thing led to another, becoming yet another example of how Sri Lanka is like a melting pot of friends all swimming in the same circles!
Simon is an ex-management consultant who was born in Sri Lanka but moved to the UK for the corporate life. During those days (which were spent in the US and the UK), he and the other three partners worked on setting up a number of sustainability projects in emerging countries. And then came that fateful night when the four decided to invest in Amba with the aim of maximising the sustainability potential of the property by producing tea, coffee, and homemade jams.
Three of the four partners had worked on tea sector strategy at a national level, but they didn’t know much about actually growing or processing tea. But, thanks to the amazing support of their staff and being willing to learn as they went along, the tea plantation is growing into a successful business. This is only the beginning for them.
Amba Estate is a truly beautiful property that emanates the happiness from the staff. They are respected and are all part of the family. What helps is that the four partners have created a community vibe and show their appreciation for the land and people by giving 10% of all the revenue (from the guesthouses and product sales) back to the employees, and that’s above and beyond their salaries, benefits, and overtime.
Getting There & First Impressions
Amba Estate is a mere 30-minute drive from Ella but seems so much more remote. We drove here from Kandy, which took a solid 4 hours and involved a few phone calls as we tried to find this hidden farm.
There’s also a train that goes from Kandy to Ella, which is highly recommended purely for the stunning scenery that you get to take in along the way, but Kalan (my driver) and I took to the roads. We still saw some pretty spectacular landscapes, though. Ella, Sri Lanka’s heartland of tea, is a gorgeous expanse of land that looks like something plucked straight out of a fantasy movie like “Lord of the Rings”!
We passed Ravana Waterfalls (a picturesque spot that I later learned will be the site of Amba Estate’s new boutique hotel) before turning up a dusty old track. After plenty of twists and turns that left us hoping we were headed in the right direction, we arrived at Amba’s main bungalow right next to the fabulously traditional tea factory.
Simon was there waiting for us with a gleaming smile and within 5 minutes, had completely won me over by offering “a cup of tea…or perhaps something stronger?”. Either he did a bit of research on Pra or it was written on my forehead!
A true gentleman with a good sense of humour and plenty of kindness, Simon instantly offered Kalan a room for the night to save him a trip back down to Ella. You can book driver accommodations at Amba but it was such a lovely gesture that I know Kalan was grateful for, particularly after our long drive!
As for me? I dumped my bags and quickly joined Simon out on the veranda for a crisp glass of Argentinian wine, accompanied by Gus, a long-legged Corgi-looking pup owned by the neighbour over at the Eagles Nest property next door, and Baloo, Simon’s 7-month old pitch black Alsatian who was practically attached at his hip. I dare you not to be utterly charmed by these two pooches!
Where You’ll Sleep
My bedroom was positioned perfectly to the far left of the veranda of Eagles Rock Villa, just up from Amba, so that I could walk straight out the door onto it. The room was a traditional design with a gorgeous and comfortable four-poster bed, dark wood flooring and shutters, antique furniture, and a spacious bathroom equipped with a rain shower.
But the highlight? It was the gigantic glass bottle of water. VOSS, right? Nope, just a stonking Botanist Gin bottle being repurposed and adding a touch of unique flair to the place.
Everything made it feel like being at home – the room was comfortable, cosy, had tons of character, and I’m seriously considering buying a bottle of Botanist Gin just so I can make my spare room at home come to life!
In the main bungalow, there are 3 double rooms, 1 twin room, and a small study with 2 day-beds. In the neighbouring properties, there is Eagle Rock Villa (1 family suite, 1 double room and 1 twin room, which is where I stayed) and Clove Tree Cottage (1 family suite and 1 triple room). And then the upcoming development at the top of the waterfall will have another 12 beds.
You can rent out the rooms but Amba recommends taking the entire bungalow or cottage if you can – that way you get full privacy and can really immerse yourself in the Amba way of life. If you do rent out a room, just be aware that you might be sharing bathrooms and meal times with other guests, which can also be a lot of fun and a great way to meet new people.
Sri Lanka has such an amazingly friendly vibe. Amba’s neighbouring properties are owned by a mix of locals, returning Sri Lankans, and expats who have all lived and worked around Asia. Some of the neighbours also operate guesthouses and some come and go between work elswhere, so everyone helps out when property or another is full.
But besides that, there’s just a friendly, “what’s mine is yours” air here that makes you feel happy, relaxed, and free.
Where to Dine
The staff at Amba prepares breakfast, lunch, and dinner every day. Supper is served down at the original home of Amba Estate so rather than walk that evening, we hopped in the property’s tuk-tuk, hilariously chased by Baloo who couldn’t decide if he wanted to ride with us or just stand in front of the vehicle. It reminded me of the days back in the UK countryside on friends’ farms with Land Rovers and Labradors!
That first night was quiet with just myself, Simon, and Carmen, another guest from Spain who had arrived that day. The next night was a full house so being able to spend an intimate evening eating fabulous organic, wholesome food by candlelight made me feel so spoilt! We spent hours chatting under the starry sky and it was then that I realised if I had headed to a commercial hotel, I never would have had the opportunity to sit outdoors with the owner or a stranger. It would have just been me, a waiter, and a single glass of wine before heading back up to my room!
Sanka and Nalani were in charge of supper and they also officially introduced me to jackfruit through a beautifully prepared dish, so I must thank them for that experience!
Amba has the ability to not only draw you in but to make friends. All of the guests eat together and what better way to bring people together and make fast friends than over a communal table with delicious food and great conversations?
When I awoke the next morning after a long, deep sleep, I wandered out onto the veranda where Sanka brought over some fresh coffee. (Yes, I know I was on a tea farm but a solid caffeine fix is a must for me in the mornings!)
Breakfast was simple and wholesome – like a proper farm breakfast. It brought back memories of my father’s and grandmother’s farm where we would have chunks of fresh bread and homemade jams, but this was supplemented with Sri Lankan treats like hopper with chilli salsa and buffalo curd that went a bit too nicely with treacle!
Where To Unwind
My second day here was packed with activities since I wanted to make the most of my time. First up was trekking to Ravana Waterfalls and what a gorgeous treat that was. This waterfall is one of the highest in Sri Lanka and the hike getting here was fun and adventurous. The route we took walked us past lavalu fruit trees (they taste chalky but are packed with vitamins A and D and go great in smoothies), jaggery palms that produce kithul treacle, and sisal plants out of which the people in the village still make rope.
Before we could splash around in the waterfalls, however, there was a swinging wooden bridge that needed to be crossed. Baloo was a bit more surefooted and bravely went ahead of me! But you just have to embrace it and do it because you’ll eventually arrive at 3 layers of a glorious waterfall that will have you whipping out your camera in an attempt to catch its beauty. It’s said that the cave behind these falls is where King Ravana hid the princess Sita after he kidnapped her.
Make sure you bring your swimming costume so you can take a refreshing post-hike dip in the crisp, cold water. Better yet, bring along a picnic (the staff at Amba can prepare one for you) and make a day out of it!
Here you’ll also see an old tea factory which was originally built and owned by Thamba Arunasalam Pillai, a South Indian man who first came to Ceylon in 1890 as an indentured labourer. It’s a classic rags to riches story that involves hours and years of grit and determination and a man with limited education who started his own tea factory that eventually made the family one of the richest in Ceylon.
Much has happened within the family and the estate over the years and the tea factory has been abandoned since the 70s, but now, one of Pillai’s great-grandsons works at Amba whilst another works at the larger estate in Ambadandegama Valley. The Amba partners have acquired this old tea factory and, with the blessings of the grandsons, have plans to move Amba Estate’s productions here which will also have an open air café overlooking the waterfall and a top floor dedicated to yoga and meditation.
Back on the Amba Estate property, I then took part in a tour and tea tasting, which was an enlightening and probably one of the most interesting sessions I’ve ever experienced. Laying down the basics, if you take your everyday PG Tips tea, it’s, er, no offence, but kind of the bottom of the barrel (fun fact: the lowest grade of tea is actually called “dust”). On the other end of the spectrum are the high quality hand rolled white teas like you’ll find at Amba, which are like top-of-the-line caviar!
White tea is the most expensive in the world and that’s because you can only use the bud of the plant, making its production very limited in quantity. We were walked through the entire process and a few things were explained to us that really shed some light onto this whole tea farming business. First of all, whilst one of the commercial tea factories might produce 1,000 kgs in one night, at Amba, they only make 8-12 kgs. That’s how dedicated they are to the craft and quality! It’s paid off because Amba Estate now provides to some of the elites in the tea world, like Fortnum & Mason.
We then took an actual tour of the plantation where I got to see the tea-making process up close. The women rolling the leaves work at such speed and precision, you’ll be completely entranced. I just hope it’s not a dying trade!
I also learned that white tea has the highest caffeine content out of all the teas and that not all caffeine is created equal. The caffeine in tea is good for the brain whilst the stuff found in coffee is bad for the heart (uh oh!). Tea is very much like wine in that it’s affected by a variety of environmental factors like the soil and the climate…it’s all just so much more complex than I ever imagined it to be!
After having my mind blown over tea, we continued onwards to Eagles Rock, a privately owned point just behind the property. This place has a view like no other (although I’ll say that about every spot in Ella—it’s just that beautiful in this area). When you stay here, make sure to carve out some time to take a hike up here. If you’re lucky, the two furballs Baloo and Gus will accompany you.
With so much to see and do in Ella, you could easily plonk yourself down in the area for a couple of weeks. This is exactly what the Amba partners are banking on and what they have planned for the upcoming boutique hotel. Amba Estate will be branded as a 1-2 week retreat for self-rejuvenation – a place to just throw back, relax, and recharge.
Simon told me: “Our characters are that we don’t take yoga or Ayurveda too seriously, as in we don’t just focus on them. Everything is interesting in moderation but we aren’t necessarily about a 2-week detox or purge. We are all about healthy, organic food, healthy, beautiful walks, and of course, whilst you are here, you can do yoga and treat yourself to treatments. It’s also ideal for individuals and families who are running at a million miles an hour who just want to come and recharge together.”
The plans for this hillside boutique hotel include a stone courtyard with plunge pools, fireplaces, and lots of glass windows for uninterrupted views. The design will be modern yet organic, with polished cement and granite, keeping a sleek and natural feel that melds with the environment.
My lips are sealed on the rest but let me just say, I started salivating just at the description alone so I can only imagine what a stunner it will be once it’s built!
Amba is already a place that is a must-visit, what with the stunning property and its history, the partnership-approach, the ambiance, and proximity to everything gorgeous. Even without the accommodations, it’s a spot that embodies the beauty and warmth of Sri Lanka and I truly felt at home, so once this new hotel opens, it’s going to be hard to contend with them! You’ll be hard-pressed to find a reason not to visit.
Address: Ambadandegama, Bandarawela, Sri Lanka BD 90108