Pepper Trail: Treehouse luxury

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Tree-houses, colonial charm, Kerala cuisine and jeep rides around the estate and a wildlife sanctuary, ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY enjoy their plantation stay in Wayanad

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We trudged up the wooden ramp that snaked 40ft above the coffee bushes in a gentle ascent to the Woodpecker Treehouse. Inspired by local Wayanad tribal styles and built on a sturdy jackfruit tree, our lavish perch came with wood-panelled walls, fine décor, luxurious bathroom, a wide balcony with easy chairs besides a country style four-poster bed next to a tree jutting through the floor. While we’re no strangers to Kerala or treehouses, Pepper Trail was definitely the most luxurious perch we had been to. Its twin, the Hornbill Treehouse was a little further away.

Every morning and evening, we’d sip coffee, watching barbets and sunbirds flit about while Racket tailed drongos and Malabar Grey hornbills competed with their vocal calisthenics. Lost in the cacophonic din of urban living, even silence in the rainforest sits on an underlay of crooning cicadas. We sat watching the constant rain beat down on the heart-shaped pepper leaves that quivered in the cool wind.

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Apparently, when the British were taking the pepper plant back to England, the Zamorin of Calicut had scoffed, “They may take our pepper vine, but they cannot steal our Thiruvathira Njattuvela” (the 15-day assault of the monsoon that triggers the fruiting of the pepper)!

Our arboreal existence drew the attention of a boisterous troop of macaques, who would peer through our windows in the hope of biscuits or bananas and romp on the railings in wild tantrum displays. Snootily, we became the burra sahib and memsahib who would descend from their lair only to feed.

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Pepper Trail is a good place to know your poriyal (dry fry) from your ulithiyal (roasted shallots in spicy tamarind coconut gravy). The genuine warmth of our host Anand Jayan was apparent as he patiently explained how farm fresh fruits, vegetables and herbs from the 200-acre coffee, tea and spice plantation was used to make irresistible home-style delicacies.

Meals were served under the tiled roof Pavilion, its deck hovering over a swathe of coffee shrubs broken by the shade of tall silver oak shade and jackfruit. From cheruvayur pindi toran (tempered green gram) to chena mizhaku pereti (yam fry), nendra pazham curry made of ripe bananas to kayi toran, stir fried with unripe ones; each meal was a culinary journey.

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A common local produce like coconut had been reinterpreted into a chapati
 and coconut milk chicken curry. Sometimes, the chicken came in a varatherecha curry with roasted ground masalas or as Chicken kizhi (bundled in a leaf pouch, Ayurveda style) with mint chutney. The diversity of the repertoire can be gauged from the fact that when a Japanese couple came here for three weeks, no dish was repeated! The lean staff toiled away like genies, speaking in hushed tones ready to take care of every need, appearing and disappearing magically to make the holiday experience, a private indulgence. With a maximum occupancy of ten guests, it’s truly personalized service.

After two days of trudging up and down from the treehouse, we moved to the 140-year-old Pazhey Bungalow the ‘old’ plantation bungalow. Set in a manicured garden, the upstairs houses the Mackenzie Suite, in honour of the estate’s original owner Colin Auley Mackenzie who founded the Mangalam Carp Estate in the late 1800s. Mackenzie was a Scottish pioneer planter who was part of the first wave of colonial planters in India.

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After he died in 1920, Anand’s maternal grandfather PB Kurup came from Africa and bought the colonial estate in 1932. Long before biotechnology had taken off in India, this biotech pioneer got into the manufacture of distilled water and extraction of oil from eucalyptus, patchouli and bergamot… People called him Techno Kurup.

The ground floor, with its offices and red oxide floors was renovated into the Malabar Suite, with a hall, bedroom, sit out and the old chemical storeroom converted into a large ensuite bathroom! The philosophy of the place is rooted in Anand’s vision of creating special places to stay – a dream he nurtured even as a child. Taking up his father’s challenge, he renovated it with utmost care. Each Basel Mission roof tile and anjali (wild jack) wooden board on the wall was removed, numbered and put back.

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The old glass swivel windows on its façade have watched history unfold. With heirloom and colonial furniture collected from antique shops, this wood-scented hideaway is ideal for solitude or romance. Lounge in wicker plantation chairs or in reading nooks where speckled piculets peck at windows indignant at their own reflections, or relax in the secluded balcony overlooking a backyard garden with bamboo thickets and trees frequented by scarlet minivets.

The sprawling estate is great for birding besides leisurely walks to understand how coffee and tea are cultivated. Guests can participate in farm work, as experienced hands harvest coffee, tea and spice, using centuries old methods. In the heart of the estate, fed by natural springs, the acre-wide natural reservoir forms the focal point for local flora and fauna. Perfect for fishing or a leisurely canoe or coracle ride, this is one spot where you’d like to linger. Or laze in the pool and get an Ayurvedic spa therapy.

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We decided to head out on an open jeep ride around the plantation. Lined by cheery orange and red heliconia, the driveway cut through the expansive estate with tea bushes on one side and coffee on the other. Driving through the buffer zones of Muthanga and Bandipur wildlife parks, we spotted seven elephants, wild boar and numerous chital (spotted deer).

It was time for dinner by the time we returned. The piece de resistance was the mola ari payasam or sweet porridge made of bamboo rice, jaggery and coconut milk. Each time the bamboo flowers – once every hundred years – the entire bamboo forest dies. It’s a fascinating natural phenomenon that’s as tragic as it’s beautiful. After blossoming, the flowers produce a fruit called ‘bamboo rice’, which is collected and stored for future use. Last year was a bumper harvest in Wayanad. Who knows it would be decades before the flowers would bloom again, but we wouldn’t wait that long to return…

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FACT FILE

Getting There
Located at Chulliyode, 10 km from Sulthan Bathery in Wayanad, Pepper Trail is 100 km from Calicut International Airport, 130 km from Mysore, 250 km from Bangalore and 280 km from Cochin.

What to See/Do
Visit the old Jain shrine converted into an ammunition dump by Tipu Sultan (hence the name Sultan Battery), hike to Edakkal Caves in the Ambukuthi hills to see the Neolithic cave drawings dating to 6000 BC and go on wildlife safaris in Muthanga and Bandipur.

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Pepper Trail
Mangalam Carp Estate, Chulliyode
Sulthan Bathery, Wayanad
Ph: +91 9562 277 000 www.peppertrail.in

Tariff
Malabar Suite Rs.11,750
McKenzie Suite/treehouse Rs.14,750
Inclusive of breakfast, Meals Rs.600 lunch, Rs.750 dinner

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the August, 2016 issue of Outlook Traveller magazine.

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