There’s nothing quite like a good cuppa. Or so the Chinese Emperors from the 5th and 6th century thought centuries ago. But not any old cup would do. Their virgin white tea was made of only the most tender, perfect buds, cut with gold scissors and untouched by human hands. Young virgin girls wearing gloves snipped away at the silver tips and harvested the tea into golden bowls, which was unsullied by the sweat and dirt of human hands and offered as a ‘tribute’ to the Emperor.


But forget having all the tea in China. Flash forward a few hundred years and tea is now a global phenomenon, with Kenya and Sri Lanka surpassing China as the world’s major exporters.


Swimming in your cup of PG Tips and Tetley’s is a blend of whatever tea fetched the best price at auction. And while most people are be happy with that, there are some people who take tea a little more seriously. For them, tea is as sacred and different as wine and whiskey.


And in Sri Lanka, Malinga ‘Herman’ Gunaratne is one of those men. A plantation manager with 45 years experience, he now grows virgin white tea on his Handunugoda Estate, located a short drive south from the town of Galle.


One of the first surprises about the tea plantation is that it is grown just a few kilometres inland from the coast- a low altitude tea. Handunugoda estate differs from other tea plantations as it focuses on cultivating boutique and speciality teas like Lapsang Souchon, Sapphire Oolong and of course, the only white tea in the world completely untouched by hand.


After reading about the Emperors, Herman decided to grow a select amount of tea that is untouched by human hands, the theory being that the tea buds and leaves take on the sweat and impurities of the human hand and can influence the flavour of the tea. By leaving the tea untouched by human hands, you taste only the most pure white tea in the world. Analysed by a lab in Switzerland, it was found to have the highest known anti-oxidant content of any tea in the world- a certificate proudly displayed for visitors


Of course, that doesn’t mean it’s exactly to everyone’s taste. Sipping a teaspoon of it in the estate’s tasting centre, it has a strong and dominant flavour that isn’t to my liking. Instead, it’s the Suicide blend- tea laced with whiskey- that tickles my tastebuds.


The story behind the blend is based on Herman’s grandfather, a plantation owner with a penchant for gambling. His gambling group, called the Suicide Club, was made up of other tea plantation owners who would meet to drink tea laced with whiskey, and occasionally almost lose their plantations on the roll of a dice.


The plantation is open for tours each day, and it’s a pleasant tri-shaw drive along the coast and around ten kilometres inland to get to the property, which is also home to a cinnamon trees, herb gardens and hibiscus, all of which are harvested for tea. A smaller operation, it’s a more pleasant experience than the industrial and slightly depressing tea factories that dominate the hill country.


More than 30 types of tea are available to try (by the teaspoon) in the tea museum, with a number of single origin teas produced on the property (including their Virgin White Tea) available to purchase. It makes for a fantastic and lightweight souvenir and gift to take home.


But for me, the best part is at the end of the visit. Three women return to the factory at the end of the day, baskets strapped to their backs brimming with freshly picked leaves. One lady smiles and beckons me over, slowly peeling back the bad leaves and grasping the fresh leaves in her rough, worn palms so I can take a photo. After I’m done she plucks the leaf and without looking, tosses it over her shoulder, continuing on down the hill.


Her showmanship makes me smile.


The Rover RTW allow stopovers in Sri Lanka en route to Australia and New Zealand

The Navigator RTW also allows up to 11 stops and Sri Lanka can be one of them

Check out our Highlights of Sri Lanka tour

Sri Lanka's Turtles




The sound a turtle makes when it surfaces for air is unexpected. It’s like the heaving wheeze of a geriatric with a chest infection, a gaping, loud sound that is alarming and strangely, comforting.


Decades of devastating civil war ravaged Sri Lanka, but in a strange twist, protected its oceans. Large chunks of the coastline were strictly off limits to all non-military vessels, and in some places, even diving was forbidden, allowing marine life to thrive in unfished, untouched waters.


The coast is particularly well known for its whales, and off the coast of Galle, the Sri Lanka Navy has capitalised on the commercial opportunities the mammals bring, offering whale watching tours on military vessels once a week for upwards of $120USD for a day for eager, cashed up tourists.


But the waters of Sri Lanka truly belong to the turtles. The West Coast beaches are the favourite nesting site for five species of turtles: the Loggerhead, Leatherhead, Olive Ridley, Green and Hawkesbill, who all lay eggs three to four times throughout the nesting season. Unfortunately for them, the West Coast beaches are dominated by another species: humans.


The cruel reality is that the people along the coast are poor, and turtle meat and turtles eggs provide an easy meal for locals who don’t have a lot to eat. It’s a global problem that has pushed most species of turtles onto the endangered species list- and some to the brink of extinction.


A booming tourism industry is a double-edged sword for the animals. While people come to see the turtles, encouraging their protection, construction goes unchecked in places like Unawatuna, near Galle. Here waves regularly lap underneath the foundations of beachside bars and hotels


Turtles are instinctive creatures, nesting on the beach on which they were hatched on 30 years later when they reach maturity. Those that try to return to Unawatuna today simply have nowhere to nest.


A number of turtle projects- turtle hatcheries that collect and guard the eggs, then release the hatchlings- have been set up to try to combat the problem.

However after spending some time along the coast, it’s hard to not be cynical about these exceptionally commercial conservation efforts, where projects “keep just a few turtles” for “educational purposes”- and tourist photo opportunities.


At my fancy hotel, a mature green sea turtle swims round and in a hexagon-shaped concrete pool no more than two metres wide, while eight baby turtles, hatchlings swim in the tank next to him. It’s deeply upsetting to see.


Although I go hunting for the truth with six different staff members, I receive six different stories about why the turtles are there.  The official line is that the hotel buys eggs from locals, buries them in an on-site hatchery, and then the hatchlings are apparently released in a conservation effort.


However, I am at the hotel for three days, and the eight turtles still swim in circles in a concrete tank the day I leave. I wonder if they’re still there today.


On my last night in Sri Lanka, I stood on the beach as the sun set. It was low tide, and a group of wild turtles were feeding on the reef that lined the beach, just a metre or so from the shore.  They would raise their head for air from the water, and even over the crash of the surf, you could hear their old man wheeze as they sucked in a lungful of air.


In the time the waves sucked back and crested, to when they would smash onto the milk yellow beach, the lip of the wave acted like a brief window to the underwater world.  I would catch a sight of a half dozen or more turtles framed in the crest, a vision so fleeting, and so magic, I refused to even bother to try to capture it with my camera.


It was a bittersweet experience: just how much longer can they last?


The Rover RTW allow stopovers in Sri Lanka en route to Australia and New Zealand

The Navigator RTW also allows up to 11 stops and Sri Lanka can be one of them

Check out our Highlights of Sri Lanka tour