ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY visit Snooty Ooty, Coonoor, Kotagiri and other colonial hangouts in the Nilgiris
Like a curling tidal wave, the Nilgiri Mountains sweep up from the southwestern edge of the Deccan Plateau along Tamil Nadu, as part of the Western Ghats straddling the states of Kerala and Karnataka. Once the lofty domain of wild beasts and ancient tribes like the Todas, Badagas, Kotas, Irulas and Kurumbas, today the Nilgiris with its rolling tea plantations, scenic ridges and cool air adrift with the heady aroma of eucalyptus is a well-known holiday haunt.
But it all began with a rumour. In 1819, the British East India Company ordered John Sullivan, the Collector of Coimbatore, to investigate “the fabulous tales concerning the Blue Mountains to verify their authenticity.” When Sullivan trail-blazed up the ‘Neilgherries’ and indeed discovered it to be a cool paradise comparable to Switzerland, he acquired land from local tribes. Soon, Ootacamund (or Ooty for short) became speckled with colonial bungalows and churches, snaking mountain roads, exotic vegetables and fruit farms and the seeds of a hill-station were planted. By 1827, Ooty became the official sanatorium and summer capital of the Madras Presidency and remains one of South India’s most favoured getaways.
The Nilgiri Mountain Railway introduced in 1899 continues to chug up from Mettupalayam to Ooty via Coonoor, Wellington, Aruvankadu, Ketti, Lovedale and Fernhill. Accorded with a UNESCO World Heritage tag, the leisurely 46km train journey meanders along 208 curves, charming valleys, hills, tunnels and viaducts! Or opt for an exhilarating drive along hairpin bends.
Hike up Doddabetta peak for spectacular views, visit the famous Botanical Garden, Rose Garden and unusual Thread Garden, go for boat rides and pony trails around Ooty lake or spot wildlife at Mudumalai and Mukurthi national parks. Tee off at Wenlock Downs, discover the story of tea at The Tea Factory and Museum or head to Jolly World Lake Park for fun with the family, besides excursions to Kalhatty waterfalls, Red Hills, Emerald Lake and Avalanche.
A short drive takes you far from the rigours of mass-tourism to the quieter charms of plantation life in Coonoor. Put your feet up in sprawling old bungalows with vibrant gardens offering unhindered views of lofty peaks and unending green slopes of perfectly trimmed tea bushes. Tune in to the sounds of nature, go birdwatching or savour the scenery from your perch. Hop by at Sim’s Park, a beautiful terraced botanical garden with a fabulous collection of flowers, ferns and trees.
Drive up to picturesque spots like Lamb’s Rock, Dolphin’s Nose, Lady Canning’s Seat, Catherine Falls, Law Falls and Katteri Falls. Trek to the erstwhile outpost of Tipu Sultan, the historic Droog Fort known locally as Pakkasuran Kote. Drop by at the Green Shop for a range of items including Toda shawls, Kota stone pottery and organic hill produce such as tea, spices, honey, eucalyptus oil and home-made chocolates.
Home of the Kota tribe, Kotagiri was pivotal in changing the history of the Nilgiris when it became John Sullivan’s first base. It was also the place where the Europeans first introduced coffee in these hills before switching to tea. Sullivan’s legacy lives on as his heritage bungalow that houses the Nilgiris Documentation Centre. Run by Save Nilgiris Campaign, it is a treasure trove of everything on the Nilgiris. Visit the pristine Longwood Shola forest, the panoramic Kodanand Viewpoint and the sacred Rangaswamy Peak and pillar beyond the villages of Kil Kotagiri and Kadasholai.
Where to stay:
From five star hotels to boutique resorts, farmhouses, home stays, cottages and colonial bungalows, you are literally spoilt for choice in the Nilgiris.
Part of the Serendipity chain, Lymond House in Ooty and 180 McIver in Coonoor are stylish heritage hotels set in a garden with flowering trees with double rooms and garden suites, wooden floors, high ceilings, antique decor and fireplaces. In Coonoor, Tea Nest is a newly opened colonial plantation bungalow run by The Kurumba Village Resort. Wrapped by 1,800 acres of tea estate and lofty hills it lets you luxuriate amidst nature, relish tea-themed cuisine and watch gaur grazing in the tea gardens from the comfort of your patio. Set on a hilltop, La Maison in Kotagiri is a French-run boutique homestay in a renovated heritage villa with décor that blends European and Indian aesthetics.
How to get there:
Coimbatore, the nearest airport is 89km away from Ooty. The overnight Nilagiri Express 12671 leaves Chennai Central at 9am and reaches Mettupalayam, the nearest railhead at 6:15am, in time for the toy train up to Ooty. Several buses and taxis ply from Coimbatore, Chennai, Bangalore and Mysore (160km) to Ooty. Coonoor is 26km NW of Mettupalayam and 19km south of Ooty, along the curving ghat road NH-181. Kotagiri is 30km east of Ooty, 20km from Coonoor and 33km from Mettupalayam.
Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared on 27 April 2012 in Conde Nast Traveller online.