From milking cows, feeding chickens, rounding up horses to planting paddy and plucking oranges or tea leaves, ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY showcase India’s top farmstays where one can enjoy nature at its best
While many dream of retiring early, giving up the mad rush of city life and heading to the hills or remote villages to relax in a ranch or run a farm, some are actually living that dream. But life on a farm is no cakewalk. It’s a demanding full-time occupation that starts at the crack of dawn and wraps up at dusk with no letting up through rain or shine. Yet, there is something fulfilling about being amidst nature, growing and enjoying the fruits of one’s labour.
Today, the growing trend of farm tourism in India offers city dwellers a chance to savour country life at its best – milking cows, feeding chickens, rounding up horses, planting paddy, plucking tea leaves, coffee berries or oranges, driving a tractor, riding on bullock carts, taking guided spice tours and plantation walks and wolfing down hearty farm fresh organic meals! So roll up your sleeves for a hands-on experience at over 20 handpicked farm stays across the country.
Rainforest Retreat, Coorg (Karnataka)
A certified organic farm in the tropical rainforests of Coorg (Kodagu) in Karnataka’s Western Ghats, Rainforest Retreat at Mojo Plantation is a unique blend of eco-tourism, sustainable agriculture and environmental education. Run by a botanist-microbiologist couple Dr Sujata and Anurag (Doc) Goel and their daughter Maya, the 20-acre farm grows cardamom and coffee in the shade of rainforest trees. Go on a guided plantation walk, learn how to hand-pollinate vanilla flowers, pick coffee and follow its journey from bean to cup.
Ripe red berries are handpicked, sundried, hulled, ‘monsooned’ to impart a unique flavour, graded, roasted and ground, all on the farm. The award-winning eco lodge offers a two-room Drongo Cottage and tents deep inside the plantation. The deluxe Atlas Cottages by the stream – named after the world’s largest moth species found here – are more suited for older guests and children. There’s no TV in the rooms, but enough nature TV outside with Wi-Fi near the streamside pavilion. Delicious, wholesome meals are prepared using fuel from the biogas plant.
Farm produce like cardamom, civet cat coffee, gourmet filter coffee, pepper and vanilla are sold under the label ‘Don’t Panic, It’s Organic’ and proceeds go towards the Goels’ biodiversity research foundation WAPRED (Worldwide Association for Preservation and Restoration of Ecological Diversity). Every season has its appeal – coffee harvesting in Jan-Feb, coffee blossoms in Feb-March, vanilla flowering and pollination in March-April, fireflies by mid-April, frog mating in monsoons and cardamom harvest and blooming of ground orchids between Sep-Dec.
Besides Moonshine, Starlight and Survivor, the trio of geese by the pond, 6 dogs Stella, Venus, Leo, Luna, Aquarius, Kiri, war-hero Billy the goat, cows and cats, there’s plenty of flora and fauna – Malabar Gliding Tree-frogs, Atlas Moth, Ahaetulla vine snake, arachnids, 40 species of endemic orchids, over 100 birds and occasional wildlife like wild boar, jackal, civet cats, Malabar giant squirrel, mongoose, porcupine, slender loris and barking deer. Doc has recently published a coffee table book on the biodiversity of Mojo called Life Organic.
Getting there: 10 km north west of Madikeri and 250 km from Bangalore. Head past Club Mahindra towards Galibeedu and turn right at the signboards for Kaloor village
Tariff: Rs.2,000-4,000 (includes bed and breakfast, half-day trek and/or plantation tour, lunch and dinner available at extra cost)
Contact: Ph +91-8272 265638/6, 201428, 9480104640 Email firstname.lastname@example.org www.rainforestours.com
No Man’s Land, near Sirsi (Karnataka)
Nearly a decade ago George and Susheela Varghese left their city jobs and decided to go ‘as far away from Bangalore as possible’. They ended up 400 km north near Sirsi in the forested tracts of the Western Ghats and hoped that the city wouldn’t reach that far, at least in their lifetime! However, it isn’t the remoteness that gives the 8.5-acre farm its name. George believes that we are just caretakers of the land and no one can really ‘own’ it. However, the joke at home is that with three home-schooled daughters aged 8, 7 and 4 and his wife, he’s the only guy in the house; hence No Man’s Land!
They host one family at a time in a cottage, with a tent for a second on the anvil. Besides the original cash crop areca, there’s paddy, sugarcane, pepper, banana, ginger and turmeric. The main homestead is perched on a 3-acre hillside with 30 mangos, 40 cashew, 40 amla trees and fruits like guava, chikkoo, pomelo, avocado and lychee. It’s not exactly an orchard with neat rows of trees, but more a ‘food forest’. They shun pesticides and fertilizers, focusing on alternate energy like biogas, composting, solar cooking and baking in summer using solar boxes. To enrich the soil and increase microbial activity, they use jivamrit, a mix of cow urine, cowdung, jaggery (for a sweet environment) and horsegram flour (food for microbes) that is fermented for 3 days before being added to the soil.
Being a working organic farm, there’s never a dull moment with lots of seasonal activity – planting paddy saplings in monsoon, harvesting in early Nov-Dec and sugarcane harvest and jaggery-making in early March, celebrated as a local festival called aalemane. The small stream on the property has flowing water till Jan-Feb. Besides an organic harvest, the farm also makes ginger chutney, guava jam and banana savouries!
All the farm animals are named after infamous people – from the dogs Veeru (after Veerappan), Ozzy (after Osama) and Silky (short for Silk Smitha) to the 3 cows, buffaloes, 20 free range country hen, 5 ducks to Sheru the kitten (after the Jungle Book baddie Sher Khan) and ‘The cat with no name’ – its gender was unknown for the longest time and hence escaped nomenclature!
Getting there: Danandi village is 16 km from Sirsi off the Hubli-Belgaum road in northwest Karnataka with the nearest airport at Hubli 110 km away.
Tariff: Rs.1,500/person, Rs.750 for kids between 6-16, below 6 free
Contact: Ph +91 9481278348 http://www.nomanslandfarm.in
The Hermitage Guest House, Nersa (Karnataka)
When David and Morvarid Fernandez started their farm south of Belgaum in 1981, it was pretty much a wild tract. The isolated sanctuary seemed ideal for quiet contemplation, so they called it The Hermitage. In 2004 they established an eco lodge for guests and even after all these years, the soul remains intact. The 45-acre farm is 100% organic and grows seasonal vegetables, rice, wheat, turmeric, ginger, sweet potato, onions, chikkoo, mango, coconut, pepper, coffee, tea, cocoa and medicinal plants. Twelve acres have been left underdeveloped for wild animals.
Stay in The Machan, a bamboo and wood home on stilts 11 feet off the ground, or The Kadaba, a typical village home of wood and mud plaster or The Gota, a rural cottage with locally made red clay floor tiles. With no electricity, the farm is solar-powered with hot water available from a bhum (wood fire stove). The kitchen offers excellent Parsi and Anglo Indian cuisine incorporating unusual indigenous fruits, nuts, berries and vegetables grown locally or growing wild in the Western Ghats. Try homemade jam made from wild jamun, free range eggs, besides breadfruit, Bull’s Heart, Custard Apple and Cherimoya.
Get cooking lessons, drive a John Deere 5045, attend the local jathre (village fair) and santhe (weekly market) at Khanapur (Sun), Alnavar (Tues) and Nangad (Wed), learn pottery from Shambaji or Shankar using Khanapur’s famous red clay or relax in the perennial stream. Watch the jungles come alive with Flame of the Forest in summer and enjoy birding and stargazing in winter; the stillness broken by the call of jungle fowls or the howl of a jackal.
With an environment hostile to agriculture, farming is a challenge with monkeys, bears and fruit bats making a beeline for chikkoo. Bulbuls and barbets peck at guavas, parakeets feast on sunflower while woodpeckers target the coconut trees! Spotted deer enjoy resting in the shade of the eucalyptus, acacia and silver oak trees and pairs of peacocks nest here every season. Besides butterflies, bats, snakes, gaur and other animals that pass through the farm, there are resident geese, hens, ducks and the adorable dog Bahadur (Badmash and Scully passed away recently after a full life on the farm, as did Apache the ‘loafer cat’).
Getting there: The Hermitage is near Nersa Village, 18 km from the nearest town Khanapur and 45 km from Belgaum.
Tariff: Rs.2,500/person, including all meals
Off the Grid Farm, Castle Rock (Goa-Karnataka border)
After running rivers in Dandeli, Coorg and Goa, white water rafting specialist John Pollard and his wife Sylvia, a pottery artist, chose a quiet nook in the hills close to the rafting action. Not too far from Castle Rock near Doodhsagar waterfalls on the Goa-Karnataka border, their 5-acre patch at Poppalwadi can be summed up as ‘extreme farming’. In a place too remote for mobile networks, tar roads or even electricity, solar powered LED lights, well-ventilated rooms and freshly prepared food requiring no refrigeration do the trick.
Off The Grid employs organic farming and composting to grow its own rice. Besides fruit trees like mango, chikkoo, guava, banana and jackfruit, the kitchen garden supplies enough corn, brinjal, spinach, beans, pumpkin and rocket leaves to be self-sufficient. The food is eclectic with a fusion of European, Asian and Anglo-Indian dishes – oriental noodles, Thai curry, salads, smoked meats, tandoori, tuna and as per John ‘wood-fired anything’.
With just two cabins, two rooftop rooms and a tent, the set-up is eco-friendly, small, rustic and ultra low impact. Guests are welcome to lend a hand in farm work, weeding and picking vegetables. Choose from 2 hr trails to full day treks with picnic hampers to explore hidden waterfalls, swim in empty pools and village walks through Kunbi tribal hamlets.
Contiguous to the Anshi-Dandeli tiger reserve, this is a wild tract inhabited by sambhar, deer, bear, porcupines, gaur (Indian bison) and leopards. Birding is rich though forest birds are not easy to sight. Noisy dogs don’t last very long here and may get picked up by leopards along with livestock, but Kukri the smart mongrel seems to be holding out.
Getting there: Drive 85km from Panjim on NH-4A via Velha Goa, Ponda, Mollem and Anmod Ghat to Castle Rock on the Karnataka border, from where it’s a 10 km/30 min offroad drive to the farm
Tariff: 3,500/person, all meals included
Maachli Farmstay, Parule (Maharashtra)
Tucked away in the lush hinterland off Maharashtra’s Malvan Coast, Maachli is aptly named after the temporary machaans constructed in fields where farmers camp overnight to protect the crops during harvest season. Run by Pravin and Priya Samant and their son Prathamesh, the 10-acre farm is bordered by a perennial stream, which doubles up as a natural fish spa! The five rustic themed cottages have sit-outs overlooking the plantation and acute conical thatched roofs to prevent monkey menace.
Take a plantation tour to see how coconut, betelnut, spices, banana and mangoes are grown. For a more hands-on experience, milk a cow, draw water from the well, visit a potters’ village or learn to use a laath, the traditional way of tapping water from the stream for irrigation. Catch a cooking demo at the interactive kitchen Randhap (Konkani for ‘cooking’) where farm-fresh organic vegetables are chopped on traditional cutters called adalho and food is prepared on a chool (mud stove). Meals are served in earthen pots and patravali (leaf plates) or areca fronds.
The Morning Nature Trail to the Bandheshvaray temple of the gurakhi (shepherd) community takes visitors to the local avath (village society) and offers glimpses into rural life. The 2½-hour Sunset Trek to the coast meanders through coconut groves, mango orchards, small jungles, plateaus and an ancient devrai (sacred grove).
Getting there: 494 km from Mumbai, Parule is 21km south of Malvan and a 22km drive via SH-119 from Kudal (20km north of Sawantwadi) on the Mumbai-Goa highway.
Tariff: Rs.5,400, including all meals, nature trail & plantation tour, activities extra
Dwarka Farms Homestay, Talavade (Maharashtra)
Lush with mango, cashew, timber, coconut, banana and pineapple, Dwarka Farms is an organic farmstay managed by Dilip Aklekar on his 15-acre property near Sawantwadi. With a vermi-compost plant, biogas for cooking, milk from the farm’s cows and fresh fruits, pulses and vegetables grown on campus, Dwarka follows a ‘plant to plate’ philosophy. A wide range of vegetables, fruits and spices are grown organically, contributing to nearly 80% of ingredients used in the kitchen.
The rambling farmhouse has rooftop dorms and 9 rooms with large balconies opening into the mango orchard with 230 alphonso trees. Dilip’s affable nature allows guests to enjoy free access to his lounge and kitchen where one can learn to cook typical Malvani fare, sip sweet chikoo shira or savour fresh seafood delicacies. Besides excursions to beaches and local sights, he’ll happily accompany you to a potter’s village, bamboo workshops and mat weaving at George Joel’s Greenearth Culture and KONBAC (Konkan Bamboo and Cane Development Centre) in Kudal.
Getting there: Talavade is 14km from Sawantwadi and 11km from Vengurla on the Vengurla-Sawantwadi Road.
Tariff: Rs.2,800-3,600, meals extra Rs.250-300/person
Acres Wild, Coonoor (Tamil Nadu)
Located on a quiet hillside of Coonoor in the Nilgiris is Mansoor Khan’s 22-acre organic cheese making farmstay. After writing and directing iconic movies like Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak (1986), Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikander (1991), Akele Hum Akele Tum (1995) and Josh (2000), he abandoned Mumbai’s glitz in dramatic filmy style and moved to the Nilgiris in 2004, a stunning region where he had shot some of his films. Mansoor and his wife Tina found their calling in organic gourmet cheese.
Sitting pretty at 6000 ft, the farm grows vegetables, fruits and herbs like fennel, rosemary, thyme, parsley, sage, oregano and chives, used to flavour their cheese in delectable flavours – soft cheese like Herb & Garlic, Pepper Top, Celery, Caraway Seed and the garlic-infused Indian Summer. Guests can opt for a basic 2-day cheese-making course for Rs.8000 and learn to make hard cheese like Gouda, Cheddar, Gruyere and Parmesan or Advanced Cheese like Mozarella, Camembert and Haloumi. The 14 beehives in the garden produce honey, which is sold in local markets as well. The three farmstay cottages with five rooms are named Haloumi, Cheddar and Colby – cheesy, eh?
Besides hens, ducks, geese, turkey, guinea fowl and Rhea the doggy, the farm has two main breeds of cows – Jersey hybrid and Holstein-Friesian hybrid. You might find yourself petting Lazy, the jersey calf or Elizabeth.
Getting there: Coonoor is 21 km south of Ooty in the Nilgiris, 36 km from the nearest railhead Mettupalayam, 70 km from the nearest airport Coimbatore and 300 km from Bangalore. The farm is in Upper Meanjee Estate in Coonoor, reachable via Kannimariamman Kovil Street.
Tariff: Rs.3,500-4,500, plus taxes
Destiny Farmstay, Avalanche (Tamil Nadu)
As the mist slowly rises above the lake and forested slopes of Avalanche, you get a wispy image of how beautiful the Nilgiris would have been nearly a century ago. Cut off from the mass tourism of Ooty, Destiny Farmstay is a throwback to colonial times when the hills were not overrun with human habitation. Spread over 180-acres and surrounded by the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve, Destiny was started nearly a decade ago by Vijay and Neeta Prabhu.
There’s no TV or mobile connectivity and an old army pick-up truck ferries guests across the last 3 km off-road stretch. The organic farm grows radish, cabbage and other vegetables, besides herbs, strawberries, plums and carnations. A private garden supplies the kitchen with farm fresh produce served at the Wishbone Restaurant. 35 rooms furnished with parquetry, country furniture and fireplaces, open to a stupendous view. Wake up to the neigh of horses or take a ride around the track after an introductory riding lesson.
Visit a cattle farm to catch the dairy in action, get the lowdown on farming practises in an educational agri-tour or plant farm herbs and vegetables. Stroll down to the lake, hike to a nearby Toda village, try your hand at fishing in a little pond or go overnight camping on a nearby hill.
A stable of 20 horses, a dairy full of 60 cows, 6 sheep, rabbits, geese, a couple of dogs and Jimmy the cat.
Getting there: Avalanche is 25 km from Ooty via Good Shepherd International School and Emerald Dam.
Tariff: Rs.7,500-10,000/couple, including breakfast, meals
Organic Farms, Auroville (Pondicherry)
Long before ‘organic farming’ became a buzzword, the Auroville community has been involved in sustainable farming practices and holistic living since the 60s. Grappling with poor soil, difficult climate and a short growing season from December to March, Auroville today has nearly 320 acres of farmland and over two dozen farms, each unique in activity and character. Employing eco-friendly technologies such as windmills, solar energy, micro-sprinklers, biogas, permaculture and biodynamics, they blend modern agriculture with traditional farming techniques. Many of these farms with orchards, fields, vegetable gardens and dairies are open to serious volunteers.
The 35-acre Aurogreen, started in 1975, is one of the oldest farms in Auroville while the 135-acre Annapurna the largest. A ‘Certified Organic’ farm, Annapurna grows 30 acres of food crops like rice, millets and oilseeds, with the remainder dedicated to firewood trees, fodder and forest. Pebble Garden, home to 100 endangered traditional vegetable varieties, runs the outreach initiative ‘A Garden for Everyone’ and is open to visitors for a guided walk every Fri 4 pm.
The 6-acre Solitude Farm with an in-house rock band Emergence and an organic restaurant, grows indigenous millets, rice, oil seeds, grams, pulses, vegetables and 16 varieties of fruits. They aim to create a dynamic integrated lifestyle, leaving space for music and arts with farming as the foundation of the community.
TerraSoul, a holistic farm project on a 4.5 acre patch in the 22-acre Windarra Farm, employs Permadynamics and has a mushroom and spirulina farming unit, besides workshops and classes on Thai yoga massage, martial arts and tango. Most farms have acco for volunteers, who are expected to stay at least a month and take part in farming and community activities.
Getting there: Auroville is 10 km north of Pondicherry and about 150 km south of Chennai
Tariff: TerraSoul charges volunteers Rs.4,000-7,000 per month
Oyster Opera, Padanna (Kerala)
Surrounded by fish farming ponds and coconut-fringed backwaters, Oyster Opera in Kerala’s Kasaragod district is an unusual farm. Its treasures are not found in the soil, but in water. One of the few farmstays devoted to green mussel and oyster farming, it was conceived by Gul Mohammed in 2007, who cultured kallumakai (green mussels) on locally available coir. Recipient of the Karshaka Shiromani, a national award from the Agriculture Ministry for his innovative farming technique, he shared his knowhow with poor coastal folk, transforming the lives of nearly 6000 farmers.
In this community-run enterprise, local women handle cooking and housekeeping at the rustic themed resort. Spread over 6-acres, Oyster Opera has traditional huts built on land, water and treetop using locally available materials. The eco-friendly laterite stone cottages with open air baths are named Mussel, Oyster, Clam, Shrimp, Crab, Pearl Oyster, Lobster and Snail with a houseboat called Sara’s Float.
Besides picking oysters and fishing, enjoy swimming, canoeing, coracle jaunts, houseboat rides in the pristine Valiyaparamba backwaters and island hopping to uninhabited islets, estuaries, mangroves and beaches nearby.
Getting there: Oyster Opera is located at Padanna, 7km from the nearest bus and railway station at Cheruvathur in Kasaragod district. It is 120km from Mangalore Airport and 180km from Kozhikode Airport.
Tariff: Rs.3,800-5,500, includes breakfast
Spice Village, Thekkady (Kerala)
CGH Earth’s Spice Village is a farm disguised as a plush Kerala resort. Poised on a 2,000ft high ridge near Periyar around a ranger’s forested home, the 12-acre resort is built like a mountain village based on the ancient tribal wisdom of the Cardamom Hills. Spice Village won Wild Asia’s annual Responsible Tourism Awards in the ‘boutique hotel’ category in 2007 and it’s easy to see why.
A tea counter dispensing herbal brews of your choice supplants a formal reception. The nature-cooled cottages wear thatched roofs made of locally sourced elephant grass and stone floors with coir mats. The whole campus is a chemical-free zone – the sprayer uses biodegradable pesticides like neem and lemon grass oils, little clay pots provide natural mosquito control and the incenser burns Black Damur, an insect-repelling tree resin. Strings of aloe vera plants suspended in the verandah ward off pesky flying pests around the dining areas. Over 200 kg of daily organic waste is recycled in the vermicompost plant to fertilize the farm.
Every tree is neatly labeled and the Pepper Vine Tour, an hour-long walk through the property, is a good introduction to spices. Nearly 140 species of native plants have been conserved. Organic vegetables and spices are grown in-house at the 1.75-acre organic farm, the fish comes fresh from the river and a specialty outdoor restaurant called the ‘50 mile diet’ sources all the ingredients with a 50 mile radius to reduce carbon footprint and benefit local communities! Get an Introduction to Spices every evening and learn how to use them during the Kerala Cuisine cookery classes at The Tiffin Room.
Besides guinea fowl and numerous squirrels, birds and butterflies on the property, neighbouring Periyar Tiger Reserve is ideal for jungle walks and boat rides to spot elephants, gaur, deer, otters, foxes and other wildlife.
Getting there: Spice Village is on Kumily Road at Thekkady, 190 km from Cochin International Airport and 145 km from Madurai Airport
Punjabiyat, Saidowal-Gunopur (Punjab)
Perhaps no place in India captures the imagination of a farming holiday the way Punjab does with visions of mustard fields, tractors tilling the fields and robust cuisine. Punjabiyat, an hour’s drive from Amritsar, provides all that and more. Built amidst green fields of wheat and mustard crisscrossed by canals, with pathways lit hurricane lamps, its four mud-plastered cottages downplay the luxuries within.
High ceilings, four-poster beds, tasteful interiors, a covered front deck and private terrace with meals served in different settings as per your convenience. Enjoy parathas, aloo sabzi fresh from the potato fields, local curd, fruit platters and mango-mint smoothies, with a light continental lunch and open-air tandoori barbecues for dinner. The hosts insist you cannot have two Punjabi meals a day!
Burn off calories with a 20-min cycle ride to a dairy farm where you can milk cows and learn about rural dairy farming. The famous Sikh temple, Ghallughara Saheb, is a 20 min walk away. Drive a tractor, go on a tonga (traditional horse carriage) ride and take an invigorating dip in the tube-well tank.
Getting there: Saidowal-Gunopur is 70 km and an hour’s drive northwest of Amritsar via NH-15 towards Gurdaspur. It is 100 km from Jalandhar via the diversion from Beas.
Tariff: Rs.7,600, includes breakfast, meals Rs.610/head
Jor ki Dhani Godham, Katrathal (Rajasthan)
Set in the historic village of Katrathal that dates back to Mahabharata times, this unassuming farm will blow you away with its simplicity and charm. Located near Nawalgarh in Rajasthan’s Shekhawati region, the 15-acre farmstay is run by the gracious Kan Singh Nirwan. Recognizing the science hidden in old practices linked with faith, the farmstay is a wonderful way to reconnect with nature.
Stay in rustic air-cooled huts made of mud bricks with a wash of cowdung and walls lined with medicinal plants. Rotis made of bajra (pearl millet), jau (barley) and genhu (wheat) are served with pulses, vegetables and jaggery on a bajot (low stool). The focal point is the country cow, which provides farm-fresh milk, curd, buttermilk, makkhan (white butter) and ghee (clarified butter). The farm uses jivamrit (organic nectar), a concoction of cow dung and urine, known for its germicidal properties. Instead of fertilizers, seeds washed in jivamrit mixed with chuna (lime) sprout easily, are disease-resistant and require less irrigation.
In the small garden patch, rose bushes, papaya and musambi prosper without being watered! Scoffing at drip irrigation and the obsession with watering plants, Kan Singh counters that plants derive 98.5% nourishment from the atmosphere, not the roots. Moisture is provided by a small pit of organic waste nearby. Guests on a short stay often linger for weeks and go back with a deep sense of gratitude. Visit lac bangle workshops and pottery kilns nearby as you explore the charming village known as India’s largest producer of clay chillums, besides Harsh Pahadi, the historic site of Lohargal and ruins of Buddhist temples.
The farm has 25 country cows belonging to three main breeds – Tharparkar, Rathi and Sahiwal, besides Marwari horses – Badshah, Roopal and Momal and the three dogs Tommy, Tiger and Sheru.
Getting there: Located on the Katrathal-Hardyalpura Road, the farm is 24km from Nawalgarh and 15km from Sikar
Tariff: 1,200/person, food included
Contact: Ph +91 9875039977, Email email@example.com
Spiti Ecosphere (Himachal Pradesh)
Run by Ishita Khanna, Spiti Ecosphere’s community-based eco-tourism initiative helps visitors gain an insight into local agricultural practices, the intricacies of water management and farming feats at 4400 m. Being a high altitude cold desert, agriculture in Spiti is solely dependent on winter snow melt, which is transported over long distances through small channels called kuhls. Stay in some of the highest homestays in the Trans-Himalayan region at Langza, Demul and Komic, Asia’s highest inhabited village, as you learn to farm sweet pea, kala matar (black pea), sattu (barley) and the wild tsirku (seabuckthorn).
Hailed as a ‘Wonder Berry’, seabuckthorn (Hippophae Rhammonides) is packed with Vitamin C and also contains trace elements, mineral compounds, amino acids, proteins and omega oils. Be a farmhand, help in voluntourism projects and take home an array of wild herbs and agro products sold under the brand name Tsering (literally ‘blessings for a long life’) – seabuckthorn jam, tea and fruit drink concentrate to wild garlic, onion, mint, black peas, thyme and oregano.
Yak safaris give a chance to interact with these sturdy mountain beasts. The wild tracts of Spiti are also home to Shan (snow leopard) and Tibetan wolf.
Getting there: Kaza is 213 km from Manali. Take the Leh-Manali highway and take the diversion at Gramphoo onto SH-505 via Chhatru and Losar to Kaza. The villages of Langza, Demul and Komic come on the Spiti Left Bank trek.
Tariff: Rs.700/head, including meals
Emerald Trail, Jangaliya Gaon, Bhimtal (Uttarakhand)
Started six years ago by Sumith Dutta, who chucked his corporate job to move to the quiet hills of Bhimtal, the 3-acre patch was mostly barren, until planted with pomegranate, grapes, lime and assorted fruit trees. A 1000 sq ft greenhouse and open fields grow tomato, brinjal, potato, capsicum and other vegetables.
Sumith’s philosophy is simple – ‘What you see is what you eat’ with excellent home cooked Indian and Pahari meals. Guests are welcome to help out with the farm activities. The cows produce enough milk to meet the daily needs and the manure goes straight into the fields. It’s a neat self-sustaining habitat.
One large bungalow with four rooms and the garden lights are powered by solar energy. A wood and brick cottage and two cottages built of local stone and mud flooring are ideal for independent travellers. A great base to cover the lakes of Nainital, Naukuchiatal, Bhimtal and Sat Tal with lovely walks and Himalayan views, the biggest plus is that it is pet friendly.
Four Bhotiya dogs Rusi, Ringo, Piya and Mini, besides the cows Bachhri and Bela.
Getting there: 9 km uphill from Bhimtal off Naukuchiatal Road, it is just 20 km from Kathgodam railway station
Tariff: Rs.4,000-5,000, includes breakfast, meals 250-350
Contact: Sumith Dutta Ph + 91 9833949954, 7830025532 Email firstname.lastname@example.org www.emeraldtrail.in
Makaibari Tea Estates, Kurseong (West Bengal)
Despite the universal popularity of tea, the environmental impact of growing it as a monocrop, the use of pesticides and soil degradation have always been contentious issues. So it is quite amazing for a tea estate to show the way in conservation. Makaibari, a corn field that evolved into a tea estate, was started by GC Banerjee in 1859 and is run by fourth-gen owner Rajah Banerjee.
Touted as the first tea factory in the world, it follows an integrated forest management approach where the tea bush is part of a multi-tier system of trees typical of a sub tropical rainforest. Nearly 70% of the estate is under tree cover and employs an advanced mulching system through a six-tier permaculture. Its guiding philosophy is to maintain a harmonious co-existence between soil, microorganisms, plants, animals and man. The estate nurtures local communities in seven adjoining villages of Makaibari (Corn Fields), Kodobari (Millet Fields), Fulbari (Flower Garden), Koilapani (Black Water), Thapathali (Thapa Village), Cheptey and Chungey.
As part of the Homestay Program, 17 homes of local tea pickers have been identified where guests can stay, take part in voluntourism projects or live out a farmer’s life. Go tea plucking, learn how tea is made, understand the nuances of tea tasting with the Tea Master or participate in the magical harvesting of Silver Tips on full moon nights. Makaibari is the most expensive tea in India and sold last year at USD 1,850 (around Rs 1.2 lakh) per kg. Thankfully, its signature Tea Treasures are a lot more affordable.
The area harbours tigers, leopards, deer, boar, monkeys, reptiles, over 300 bird species and the mimetic insect Tea Deva that looks like a tea leaf, first sighted on the estate in 1990.
Getting there: Located at Kurseong, 40 km from Bagdogra Airport, 38 km from New Jalpaiguri station and 37 km from Darjeeling
Tariff: Rs.800/person, including meals
Sikkim Bon Farmhouse, Kewzing (Sikkim)
Surrounded by lush green cardamom fields and forested tracts teeming with birds, Bon Farmhouse is the ideal base for birdwatchers and nature lovers. Placed at 1700m overlooking snow capped peaks of the Eastern Himalayas, the 6-acre family-run farm at Kewzing is helmed by brothers Chewang and Sonam R Bonpo. Guests can help on the farm depending on the seasonality. Most of the produce like maize, buckwheat, finger millet, green peas, rice, wheat, potato, pumpkin, beans and lettuce is stirred up into delicious home-cooked meals.
Farm-fresh eggs and milk, butter, cottage cheese, curd and butter milk from the resident Jersey cows also end up at the table. The forest abounds with wild edible foods and the monsoon adds seasonal delights like tusa (bamboo shoots), ningro (wild ferns) and kew (mushrooms). Discover local flora-fauna and learn how to cook Sikkimese cuisine with local delicacies like gundruk (fermented spinach), kinama (fermented soyabean) and fisnu (stinking nettles).
Enjoy a hot stone herbal steam bath in a dotho, infused with wild medicinal plants collected from the forest. Hike to the three hot water springs in the area or head on walking trails to Doling, Barfung, Bakhim and Mambru villages, besides birdwatching trips to Maenam and the monastery trail to Kewzing and Ravangla.
Four Jersey cows, 4 goats and 50 poultry keep you company, while the altitudinal variation of the adjoining area between the Rangit river valleys at 350m and the highest hill Maenam at 3500m harbours nearly 200 bird species. Maenam Wildlife Sanctuary is famous for the Satyr Tragopan and Fire-tailed Myzornis.
Getting there: Located at Kewzing, 127 km from Bagdogra Airport
Tariff: Rs.4,200-5,250, including all meals
Yangsum Heritage Farm, Rinchenpong (Sikkim)
Run by Thendup Tashi and his wife Pema, the beautiful heritage farmhouse was built in 1833 and remodeled in 1966. Five rustic Tibetan style wood-paneled rooms with spacious verandahs present a stunning view of the Singalila Range and the Khangchendzonga peak. Set at 1500 m in the foothills of the Eastern Himalayas, the 44-acre mountain farm is fully organic and grows cardamom, avocados, oranges, bananas, pears, apricots and mangoes, besides crops like maize, paddy, millet, potatoes, ginger, turmeric and sweet potatoes.
Seasonal vegetables such as cauliflower, cabbage, tomatoes and peas are also grown. Go on gentle nature walks in groves of bamboo and a mixed forest of pine, alder, chestnut, magnolia, cherry and rhododendrons. Take cooking lessons in Sikkimese cuisine and gain an insight into local Buddhist culture.
Getting there: Located in West Sikkim, the farm is 2 km from the small bazaar village of Rinchenpong, 40 km west of Gangtok, 66 km from Darjeeling (3 hrs), 92 km (3½ hrs) from Kalimpong and 153 km (5 hrs) from the nearest airport at Bagdogra.
Tariff: Rs.6,250, including all meals
Abasa Homestay, Siiro (Arunachal Pradesh)
Run by Kago Kampu and Kago Habung, Abasa is an organic farmstay near Ziro in Arunachal Pradesh. Staying with an Apatani family gives visitors the perfect opportunity to learn about centuries-old techniques of paddy cultivation of the fascinating tribe, discernible from their facial tattoos and cane nose plugs. Spread over a patchwork of agricultural lands, the 10-hectare farm grows kiwi, tomato, cabbage, seasonable vegetables, cash crops and emo, the traditional rice.
Visit nearby fields for a crash course on the paddy-cum-fish farming and water management skills of the Apatanis. Paddy fields are maintained at various split levels separated by bunds where excess water drains off through channels to adjoining terraces. A 2 ft deep nala (drain) running through the fields is replete with fish. Fish and rice form the staple with a plethora of unique dishes stirred up by Kago Kampu – suddu yo, a mixture of chicken mince and egg yolk cooked on fire in tender bamboo stems, dani apu komoh or kormo pila, a chutney made of roasted sunflower seeds, yokhung chutney made of Xanthallum berries, peeke, a dish of bamboo shoots and pork.
Try tapiyo (local vegetarian salt made from charred lai or maize leaf) and apong, a local brew made of fermented millet and rice. Help out in the kitchen garden where lettuce, chilli, tomato and baby corn are grown or work on the farm – preparing seedlings in Jan-Feb, planting in April-May and paddy harvest in October.
Getting there: Siiro is 3 km from the old town of Hapoli near Ziro, district headquarters of Lower Subansiri, 118 km from the capital Itanagar via NH-229.
Tariff: Rs.1,000/person, including breakfast and dinner
Contact: Ph 03788-225561, 94024 60483 Email email@example.com
The Konyak Tea Retreat, Shiyong (Nagaland)
Ever dreamed of feasting on fruits straight off the trees? At Konyak Tea Retreat near Mon in Nagaland, guests can pick oranges (and eat to their heart’s content) during picking season from mid-November to December. Last year’s harvest yielded 5 lakh oranges! Set in a 250-hectare private tea plantation, Phejin Konyak’s family-run orchard and farm grows tea, ginger, pumpkin, squash, chilis, guava, lime and seasonal vegetables.
A stone walled farmhouse with two bedrooms, an open kitchen, living and dining space, and its own flower and vegetable garden has just been opened to guests. Pick tea at the family owned tea estate, milk cows and goats at the dairy farm, work with locals in their paddy fields, hike to waterfalls and forests or plant trees, flowers and vegetables at the farm. Learn how to smoke meat in the time-honoured traditions of the Konyak tribe and visit traditional villages nearby.
Hostess Phejin is researching and documenting the vanishing tattoo traditions of her tribe for her book ‘The Last of the Tattooed Headhunters’ with Dutch photographer Peter Bos.
80 cows, 20 goats, free range country hens, Pete the dog and a cat named Kali.
Getting there: Shiyong nearest town Mon is 32 km away and is a 1½ hours drive.
Tariff: Rs.2500 per night, includes meals and tour of the tea estate
Contact: Email firstname.lastname@example.org
Heritage tea estates (Assam)
Relive the life of a colonial tea planter at Heritage North East’s century-old bungalows near Jorhat (doubles from Rs6,500). Banyan Grove, the renovated bungalow of the Estate Manager or Mistry Sahib, serves as the perfect base to explore Gatoonga Tea Factory nearby (pictured). Trace the journey of the famed Assam tea from bush to brew as you help local women pick tea leaves and learn the subtle art of tea-tasting. Burra Sahib’s Bungalow at Sangsua, 5km away, has a private lake and golf course and has been recently revamped into the Kaziranga Golf Resort.
The luxurious Thengal Manor at Jalukonibari, is a great countryside retreat. Across the Brahmaputra, in Balipara, is the Wild Mahseer Lodge (pictured; doubles from Rs8,500), part of the Addabarrie Tea Estate. The gorgeous 1853 angling lodge consists of tea-themed bungalows such as Golden Tips, Silver Tips and Second Flush. An elephant ride transports you to a tea party, complete with tasting sessions at the First Flush dining pavilion and a visit to the organic experimental cultivation station.
The tea plantations are great for birdwatching with wildlife trips to Kaziranga National Park to spot rhinos, elephants and water buffalo. At Hoollongapar Gibbon Sanctuary near Jorhat, see India’s only ape, the Hoolock Gibbon.
Getting there: There are airports at Jorhat and Guwahati. Banyan Grove is 16 km west of Jorhat and Thengal Manor is 15 km from Jorhat towards Titabor. Balipara is 26 km north of Tezpur.
Heritage North East
Ph 033-22657389, 94355 14177 Email email@example.com
Wild Mahseer Lodge
Ph 02267 060881, 91670 38491 Email firstname.lastname@example.org
Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This is the unabridged version of the article that appeared in the Feb-Mar 2016 issue of Conde Nast Traveller magazine and on 2 March, 2016 in Conde Nast Traveller online. Here’s the link on CNT: http://www.cntraveller.in/story/indias-top-farmstays/