Ooty-Coonoor tends to be uttered as a hyphenated word, with Coonoor inevitably bringing up the rear. Ooty, we all know. The Queen of the Nilgiris may have lost her mightiness to over-popularity and its attendant noises, but the affection in which she is held remains undisputed. Coonoor, a good 18km away on the other side of the mountain, grew more quietly, rain-shadowed into year-long visitability, its attitude as temperate as its altitude, not that anybody noticed.
But that’s not why Coonoor has been on my mind so much. It’s the combination of classy stay options and an erosion-proof identity that leads to something more interesting: not a stampede but a steady flow of better-informed tourists. Coonoor, I’m guessing, has five things going for it: the new buzz around Nilgiri fine teas (growers expect to hold the second Nilgiri Tea Fest in Coonoor in September), the arrival of more than one high-end property for a place its size (a Taj Gateway, a Neemrana, the Kurumba Village Resort and La Maison in Kotagiri), benchmark homestay options (Tranquilitea Holidays, Acres Wild), non-profits that are quietly working towards sustainable tourism (One Nilgiris, Keystone, Atree), and its ability to remain non-competitive (there is genuine friendship among homestay owners here) and grow without changing.
Up hill and down dale, Coonoor keeps this other-worldliness. Even the famous Sims Park manages to separate its soulful tree-lined avenues from ornamental gardens thick with regional tourists. People come to Coonoor, fall in love and never leave: the late Sam Maneckshaw, Nandan Nilekani, Gopalakrishna Gandhi, writer Ramachandra Guha and filmmaker Mansoor Khan among them. Khan arrived five years ago bought a stretch of tea plantation, turned it into a grassland in which to graze cows, learnt farming and cheese-making, and now offers farmstays (www.acres-wild.com). For Mansoor and his wife Tina’s down-to-earth company alone, Coonoor is worth a trip.
No, actually, it’s a toss-up between them and Sandeep Subramani, the quiet force behind Tranquilitea (www.tranquilitea.in), fine teas as well as great holidays. The tea lounge at Strathearn on the main road leading to Upper Coonoor may have closed some three months back, but you can call ahead for charmingly hosted tea-tasting sessions at the Subramani family home, Tenerife, which opened its doors to house guests from April this year. Tranquilitea will soon offer luxury tents.
These are names to watch. Together with their commitment to responsible tourism, if my trip last fortnight is anything to go by, Coonoor could be the next Pondicherry.