What’s the screen saver on your desktop that takes you away from the monotony of your work life and lulls you into a travel reverie? Pristine crystal-clear, see-till-the-bottom emerald green water on a balmy beach in the middle of nowhere? Not mine. I am a hills person – for me, the fresh, clean, crisp air, the cool misty weather and the breath-taking panoramic vistas equals paradise. This is Jannat for me and given the slightest opportunity for a holiday I will readily take to the hills. It so happened then that when I got the unbelievably good news that our office was giving us a 10-day break in December, I chose the queen of the hills – Ooty and combined it with the next best thing to the hills- the jungle. Of all the geographies found on earth, these two are the closest to my heart.
The queen’s sisters are cuter: While I was googling for places to stay in Ooty, affectionately called the queen of the hills, I came across travellers’ comments that the other two hill stations near Ooty- Kotagiri and Coonoor are less commercialised and more scenic. More googling followed. The pictures and arguments were convincing enough, so I thanked my stars for being born in the Information age, booked a hotel in Kotagiri and Coonoor and took a flight for myself and dad from Mumbai to Coimbatore. At Coimbatore airport we booked a taxi to Kotagiri.
Like on the way to at any hill station, at a certain point, the road starts snaking upwards and the hill-station experience begins. The air gets increasingly cooler, the scenery more picturesque, and the heart increasingly gladder. The glory of the hills slowly reveals itself to those who undertake a journey to its top. At one point, a scene leaped at me straight out of a fairy tale. I instructed the taxi guy to stop. As I got out of the car, I was surprised at how cool, refreshing and different the atmosphere was outside. It made a huge difference being in the car and outside it. I stood on the side of the road and marvelled at the gigantic scene that stood before. A mighty terraced hill strewn with big boulders, giant trees and a cosy cabin stood before me. There were Eucalyptus(nilgiri) trees and tea trees. Unlike the hills of say Munnar which look a monotonous carpet of green with just tea trees all around, this had variety and looked like they were planned by a first-class landscaping artist. It was a treat for the eyes and rejuvenation for the soul. A 13-megapixel pic will not bring out its glory, but here it is.
Winding our way through more tea estates, we reached Kotagiri town. I called my hotel and got a shock for the second time in my life. The first was when I was at Mumbai airport about to fly to Srinagar. I had called the hotel in Srinagar that I had booked on makemytrip, despite the clear instruction that it is not necessary to call the hotel. After giving gaalis to Makemytrip, the owner explained that the hotel is under renovation and he can’t take bookings. Coming back to Kotagiri, the owner explained that due to some error, my booking wasn’t done. So please note, even if your travel app says no need to call and confirm, do call and confirm.
Now it was upto our taxi driver to save the day. He took us to a cheap, derelict hotel in the market. We used that opportunity to fuel up with tea and biscuits and then expressing our displeasure, asked him to take us to a better place. We drove a few kilometres and the scenery started changing- the busy marketplace gave way to tea plantations on both sides dotted with houses and resorts in between.
The taxi stopped at a building called Singapore Resort. The name sounds fancy, but the building was pretty modest. I checked out the room and it seemed pretty neat- Rs. 1500 a night. It was getting dark and we didn’t want to explore more, so we chose it. The hotel was simple but the scenery surrounding it was quite beautiful – rolling tea plantations in front and a hill with tall trees behind. It was around 7 in the evening when I asked the owner if I could take a stroll - he warned us saying that that’s not a good idea because there could be bisons roaming around. How cool is that! Bisons and elephants walking freely in tea gardens. We didn’t risk the walk, however just the idea of being in the middle of nature made me glad. I called for two cups of tea and enjoyed the cool weather and the pristine air by simply staying just outside the gate.
The kitchen is on the ground floor. As fresh dal and rice was being cooked for us by the owner’s wife, the owner was sitting with us and we chatted and played games. At night, I went up to the terrace and enjoyed an experience that I would simply called divine: The cool chilly December air and mist swirling all around.
After a breakfast of deliciously soft home-cooked idlis, we went for an invigorating walk. It was easy to see why the mountains are called the nilgiris or blue mountains- because they actually look blue.
Next morning, it was time to visit Kotagiri’s main attraction- Kodanadu viewpoint. As the taxi rolled towards our destination, I found myself repeatedly asking the driver to stop - the scenery was so gorgeous, I had to click, admire and enjoy it.
Kodanadu viewpoint offers an awe-inspiring 360 degree view of the mountains. The wind blows like crazy and hence my selfie looks like I am having a bad hair day. We bought a bottle of forest honey collected by the local tribe and made our way back. On the way, we stopped at a Toda temple. This has a unique construction and looked like no temple I had seen before.
Coonoor: We arrived at a resort called The Storytellers. I had booked it after checking out the pictures and reviews on the net and it didn’t disappoint. The resort is based on the theme of books. A big library occupies centrespace and each room is named after a legendary author. The rooms are large and plush, surrounded by misty tea gardens and in the words of a guest I met there- “better than the Taj.” At Rs. 5000 per room, that was quite something. If Kotagiri has the ambience of a very small town, Coonoor has a more polished ambience of a larger town but without giving away the charm of being amidst nature. One point I readily noticed was that the roads are in excellent condition. We didn’t come across a single pothole.
Our first stop was Sim’s Park. Built by a Britisher, the park houses over a thousand species of trees and plants. What’s special about it is that it houses several varieties of trees that have been brought from across the world. So get ready to see some exotic trees that you won’t find anywhere else in India.
Visit to Highfield tea factory: Storytellers is within walking distance of the Highfield tea factory which is open to visitors. So one morning, after my walk in the pristine surroundings, I ambled over to the factory. A guide(free of charge) took me on a tour of the tea factory. Did you know that CTC leaf to refers to cutting, tearing and crushing? I learnt that and more as I made my way through the insides of the factory which was quite an experience. Another interesting fact I learnt was that tea trees actually grow to the height of trees, they are cut to plant size for ease of plucking.
I also had a tour of a nilgiri oil making machine. Eucalyptus leaves are boiled in a chamber and the fumes are distilled into a bottle. After this he took me to their shop where I sampled excellent chocolate tea, masala tea and more. Bought a few chocolates, tea powder and we headed to our next destination.
Madumalai Sanctuary: After romancing the hills, it was time for the jungle. Around an hour’s drive took us from Coonoor to Masinagudi, a village in Madumalai sanctuary. On the way when we passed Ooty market , I did not even recognise it as a hill station, thanks to the rampant commercialisation. I was glad I had picked the other hill stations. As you descend the hills to the plains of the jungle there comes a road called the 36 hairpin curves road. Right at the start, a board of statistics informs you about the accidents in different years. Any way you wouldn’t want to drive fast, because the view of the hills along the way is simply awe-inspiring. In Masinagudi, I had booked a place called the Jungle Retreat, situated in the jungle a few kilometres away from the nearest town. As we checked in we were, surprise, surprise, given a briefing – 1. No food allowed in the rooms, because it attracts rodents. And rodents attract snakes. Get it? 2. If you want to come from the rooms to the reception area after 5 pm, you have to be escorted by their staff. The reason? The resort is situated in the jungle without any fences. Yep, no fencing at all. Which means wild animals walk in and out all the time. During our stay we across lots of deer and monkeys. In fact, these guys have put up night-vision cameras across the property and they show what the cameras have captured during a special show every night. It is amazing to watch black panthers, elephants and tigers that had walked right outside the room you are staying.
In the evening we went for a jeep safari. Spotted a few birds in the waning light but the highlight of the evening was the spotting of a group of wild elephants waiting to cross the road and a chameleon in full darkness.
While the resort is exotic, there are a few cons to the place - You have to pay for a food package per person of around Rs. 2000 per day which works out to be costlier than the room price. You don’t get anything to eat nearby, and you can’t take any eatables to your room. And the ala-carte menu is extremely limited. So, make a wise choice.
There are options for a bird-sighting nature walk, a walk through coffee plantations and more at extra charges.
You can also follow this itinerary with a trip to Mysore and the Ranganatittu bird sanctuary there. I flew to Coimbarore, went down to the Nilgiris and Masinagudi and onwards to Bangalore to take a flight back home, rather than do a return trip from Coimbatore.