"My dear Colonel,” wrote John Sullivan on January 8, 1819, in his first letter on the ‘Neilgherry Hills’ to Sir Thomas Monroe, from his camp at the Dimbatty Valley in Coonoor, “I have been in the Highlands for the last week. It resembles, I suppose, Switzerland more than any other part of Europe. It is a large province of itself — the hills beautifully wooded and fine strong springs with running water in every Valley…”.
Nearly 200 years later, I struggled to find better words as I looked out of a cottage I had entirely to myself, if you would disregard the squirrels that ran across its sloping roof with drumming feet. I caught a wild hare and a porcupine darting across the path upfront, and mongooses are nearly as common as the red whiskered bulbuls and tiny sunbirds that claim this world as their own. I was at Tranquilitea’s Rosery Cottage in Coonoor, hatching plots to run away to it at least once a year just for the birdsong, wondering if I should really tell everyone about the near-sacred beauty of Sullivan’s paradise, so unsullied even now. I’m still not convinced I’m doing the right thing.
The 18km that separate Coonoor from the continuing fame of Ooty has to be the most effective topography to ever leave a place alone. Another milestone on a dizzying, richly green mountain road, Coonoor prospers quietly, the darling of a select handful of caring resort and property owners who are high on hospitality and low on television.
In its quietude, Coonoor has evolved in magical ways. The bonhomie among residents is palpable and, even more remarkably, all holiday property owners are good friends who share recommendations willingly. The One Nilgiris Foundation, an organisation started by two friends over a game of badminton, goes on clean-up expeditions and is working with local authorities and businesses to keep Coonoor tidy, green and plastic-free. The effects are showing.
I was here this May as part of the annual summer exodus that drives Indians to the hills in such frightening numbers and I went back from that trip singing off-key paeans. Now, I have revised my opinion. It’s the monsoon (as we know it elsewhere) that must not be missed in Coonoor. Rain-shadowed, and on the other side of the hill from Ooty, it’s only the brief, intense northeast monsoon that makes its way here in November.
Now, and how words fail me again, the hills and valleys cloud over in a divine canvas of light and shade. The bluish haze around the Nilgiris, therefore the Blue Mountains, deepens. The wind picks up gustily and in places dense with trees, it sounds like a waterfall. By the time I had finished picking up some provisions for my dinner, the shops opposite the market road were shrouded in a nippy grey mist. But it didn’t rain. When it did, raindrops fell so lightly that I was glad I went without an umbrella: please don’t miss a walk in one of these caress-gentle showers. At Acres Wild, opposite the four gazebos of Mansoor Khan’s lovely farm-stay resort, pearly-white clouds sink into a fold in the thickly forested mountains, unable to flow out. “I call it my cloud catcher,” he says.
At Coonoor, I learnt something else I’m never likely to forget. Nilgiri teas are among the finest in the world, grown at altitudes higher than Darjeeling, a fact that is not as well known as it should be. You see, altitude imparts the best flavour to teas—what’s grown at lower altitudes is more robust, which is nature’s way of compensating. It’s only in recent years that Nilgiri tea owners have begun giving an identity to their fine teas. Look out for the second annual Nilgiris Tea Festival in Coonoor, likely in September. While in Coonoor, pick up teas from the estates of Chamraj and Glendale, the best reputed in circles that know and, of course, Tranquilitea’s select sourced Nilgiri teas, while you are here. To get a real understanding of teas in general and Nilgiri teas in particular, enjoy one of Sandeep Subramani’s truly delightful tea-tasting sessions (call ahead on 9443841572). It’s guaranteed to be transformative. Finally, names like Winter Frost and Silver Tips are more than poetry to me.
Strangely, or perhaps not so strangely, since Coonoor is not your standard hill station given to Gujarati thalis and Pizza Huts, there are barely a clutch of places to eat out at and none of them is really worth writing about. Hotel Vivek (0423-2230658, www.hotelvivek.com), not far from the All Saints Church, has the standard tourist staple: gobhi manchurian and kadhai paneer. The fare at the Quality Restaurant (9842236420, www.qualityrestaurant.net) at Bedford is best experienced as a takeaway and the self-proclaimed “most happening hangout in Coonoor”, Orchid Square (2238306) is, well, loud. A centrally located Café Coffee Day in Bedford is the default option, unless you are able to splurge on ‘international cuisine’ at the Gateway Hotel.
There are three exceptionally good ways out of this humdrum: enjoy a totally delicious Badaga meal at Tranquilitea. The Badagas, a warrior community that shares its lineage with the Kodagas of Coorg, sought refuge in the Nilgiris during the reign of Tipu Sultan. Traditional dishes include avarai udhka (lightly flavoured country beans), soppu (a tasty curry made of local greens), batthal (yummy sun-dried potato wafers), koi udhka (a chicken gravy) and ottukudi (the incomparable tender bamboo shoots, so seasonal that they are unique to the ‘first thunder’ of the monsoon).
Second, although the Tranquilitea Tea Lounge had to move away after five years at the atmospheric Strathearn bungalow on Porter’s Avenue, Sandeep arranges the exquisite quiches-crêpes-brownies-tea experience at Tenerife if you call ahead.
Third, stop by at Baker’s Junction (2222223) at Bedford to stock up on a range of locally made goodies: Grey Hill’s plum preserve and bitter grapefruit jam; Nana’s mango and tomato chutney, walnut toffee and ginger ale; Anita’s choco walnut brownies and banana walnut bread; the homemade brinjal pickle and salt fish in brinjal. When in doubt, ask Cedric and his affable staff.
Keep plenty of room handy in your luggage for shopping from the Green Shop (2238412), also at Bedford. A Keystone Foundation initiative and a result of their many tribal self-reliance efforts, this is a great place to pick up hand-crafted metal jewellery, unrefined Last Forest honeys that come with nutritious pollen forming a thin layer on top (available as sweet, bitter or spiced), gooseberry mouth freshener, beeswax and coconut balms and soaps, essential oils, organic spices, herbs and powdered jaggery, and no-preservatives cookies and biscuits. The Green Shop is also the only place I could find in Coonoor that retails authentic Toda embroidered or painted baskets, bags and pouches. There’s an organic bazaar of seasonal fruits and vegetables every Saturday too.
How can I not remember? Most conveniently connected to the Blue Mountain Express from Chennai, the Nilgiri Mountain Railway leaves the Mettupalayam station in the foothills, an hour outside Coimbatore, at 7:10am. The Unesco World Heritage-notified train is an engineering marvel that chugs through 16 tunnels, 250 girder bridges and 208 curves. The steepest mountain railway in India has a toy-like, blue-and-white, four-coach train of wood compartments powered by a puff-and-hoot steam engine, the valiant sound of which carries in the hills as it journeys up and down. The effect is more cute than magnificent, until we remind ourselves that Malaika Arora swayed to ‘Chhaiya Chhaiya’ on its roof. Taking a little over three hours to travel the 28km to Coonoor and, therefore, quite the liveliest way (given the chattering company) to have a sense of the Western Ghats, the train is the pride of the local railway staff, who are entirely patient with inquisitive tourists, especially children. The stretch between Kallar and Hill Groove (which falls roughly 3-4km uphill from Mettupalayam; signage is handy), up a steep gradient, is widely accepted as among the most scenic. Shorter, one-hour services between Coonoor and Ooty (departures at 7.30am, 10.30am, 1.30pm and 4.30pm) run on a diesel engine.
Some day, I want to hole up at Rosery Cottage and write a book but, for now, here’s what I'd do when I visit again: I would stroll down Porter’s Avenue, surely the most peaceful main road I have ever seen, lined with elegant colonial bungalows that have names like Still Brook and Canowie. Go around the cemetery-garden of the All Saints Church, opened 1854 and still in good condition, where enormously tall trees whoosh in the wind like something out of a Harry Potter book (the perfectly preserved stained glass can be seen only when the church opens for the Sunday morning service at 9am). There’s the wooded walk to Droogs Hill that also goes through a tea plantation and reaches a totally ruined fort of Tipu Sultan’s. If you turn right at the Bandi Shola bus stop, you can walk endlessly down the scenic road (fortify yourself with tea at the blue-painted roadside tea shop here; it’s nearly as famous as the one in Kotagiri called Adengappa, which loosely translates as ‘oh, wow!’). Walk across the slice-of-Eden Ralliah Dam, tramp its arounds or picnic by its grassy banks (make sure you have a local guide like Sandeep for this). Some of these walks are also terrific mountain biking trails. Walk clockwise down Sims Park, utterly captivating despite its popularity with day-tripping tourists.
If you would rather, take horse-riding lessons at the High Field Horse Riding School (call 9095567811; they have nine retired race horses and charge Rs 150/half-hour for lessons from a trainer). Or play a spot of golf at the 18-hole breathtakingly super-scenic golf course in Willington (green fees for non-members Rs 400 per round; caddies and gear can be hired at the club). Visit the impeccably kept home and share a cup of tea with artist Deepa Kern and let her show you around her studio (call her at 9894232413 for an appointment). Simply spend hours reading from the rare library of colonial records and photographs at the Nilgiris Documentation Centre (www.thenilgiris.org), also known as the Sullivan Memorial, located in the historic, painstakingly renovated Pethakal House in Dimbatty, Kannerimukku. And then unwind with one of Kayo D’Rozario’s universally recommended and reasonably priced massages, at the Holistic K (just down the road from Hotel Vivek; 9840208735).
Don’t be surprised if you lose track of time after a day of city-lag. I did. I’m back home now, hoping the window at the apartment across mine will catch, if not a cloud, at least a ray or two of sunshine.
Coonoor is about 300km from Bangalore and 575km from Chennai.
By air: The closest airport is at Coimbatore, about 100-odd km away. There are flights that connect all major metros to Coimbatore (Delhi-Coimbatore, from Rs 4,000; Bangalore, from Rs 2,600; Chennai, from Rs 2,100; Mumbai, from Rs 3,500; and Kolkata, from Rs 4,800).
By rail: The closest railhead to Coonoor is Mettupalayam, about 45km away. From Delhi or Mumbai, you’d need to travel to Coimbatore and take a train to Mettupalayam from there (Rs 309 on 2A). Then take the Niligiri Mountain Railway (Rs 127 on FC) up to Coonoor. Worry not if your e-ticket (www.irctc.co.in) gets waitlisted: of the 170 seats available, only 84 are issued in advance. Anybody on the waitlist of up to 100 can expect to be accommodated routinely. The train leaves in the morning (7.10am, arrives 10.40am), though, and if you’re coming in later, you can hire a taxi or take a bus instead.
Feel at home
Acres Wild Coonoor is so accessible and protected at the same time in great part because of residents like Mansoor Khan. The filmmaker, who says a life in the country was all he has ever wanted, opened his 22-acre property, just a five-min drive from the heart of Upper Connoor, in April this year. Mansoor and his charming wife Tina also provide their guests with two-hour guided tours (at a nominal Rs 100 per person above 16 years) or two-day hands-on make-and-take your own gourmet cheese-making classes for house guests. With only three rooms on offer, the tidy and comfy first cottage (from Rs 1,500 per night with breakfast for two) is perched independently on top of the windswept property. The new two-room cottage that’s a bit further away from the main homestead has splendid woodwork, lovely bay windows, a spacious common area and a sit-out with fantastic views (from Rs 3,000 per room). All cottages come with fully equipped kitchens; meals are also delivered to the rooms. Dedicated to organic living, Mansoor and Tina make their own adobe bricks and power the kitchens and the cheese-making unit with gobar gas. Don’t leave without sampling their delicious herb-spiced soft cheeses and signature Camembert. See www.acres-wild.com.
Wallwood Garden: This sterling addition (from Rs 2,250 this season) to Neemrana’s list of non-hotels is surrounded by a many-splendoured flower garden and graces a heritage bungalow. This has to be the homiest Neemrana I have ever been to and I am gladder for it. Though it does not have a formal restaurant, the food at Wallwood Garden is quite delicious, made to order at a little notice. What adds to its particularly warm welcome is its staff, every one of whom is genuinely helpful and friendly, especially the effervescent Geetha and the efficient Senthil. Call 0423-2230584 or visit www.neemranahotels.com.
Tranquilitea holidays: My own personal favourite is Tranquilitea’s Rosery Cottage (Rs 2,500 per night), a cosy two-level home with spacious sitting rooms and a fully equipped kitchen below, and one bedroom and a small children’s room up a straight flight of wooden stairs. Meanwhile, Tranquilitea’s Tenerife (Rs 4,000 per room per night) has two rooms with independent entrances in the thoroughly pretty family bungalow — the living room uses glass to great effect and overlooks beautiful views on two sides. Luxury tents are coming up soon. At Tranquilitea, thanks to Sandeep Subramani, you see Coonoor like nowhere else. Sandeep ensures every one of his guests has a perfectly lovely time, suggesting places to see and things to do. The Tranquilitea Experience (guided walks around Coonoor; Rs 2,000 per couple) and drives to Kotagiri and Ooty (Rs 2,500 per couple), which end with the much-loved Tranquilitea high tea, are not to be missed. Sandeep is equally happy to leave you entirely alone, if that’s what you prefer. See www.tranquilitea.in.
The Gateway Hotel: (from Rs 3,500), and I do wish they had continued to call it the Taj Garden Retreat, has everything going for it except the business-like signage, quite out of place in the gorgeous old Hampton Manor. The hotel has expanded to the adjacent building, which now houses an all-new Ayurvedic spa. Rooms and service are of the expected Taj standard. Enjoy a drink at the only bar outside Coonoor Club and a leisurely meal at their glass-fronted restaurant overlooking three expansive lawns and a profusely flowering garden. Call 2230021 or visit www.thegatewayhotels.com.
La Maison: Possibly Coonoor’s priciest place (from Rs 5,900). Set upon eight acres of a lovingly kept garden on the Hadathorai Hill, La Maison has rooms done up with quirky, artistic touches, serves freshly harvested ‘bio food’, harvests rainwater in aesthetically done water channels and will soon have a huge, solar-cum-wood-fired, open-air jacuzzi overlooking a valley. French couple Anne Helene Despois and Benoit Sait are exceedingly friendly hosts and Anne’s passion for organic living is contagious. Their second Hadathorai Musical Night is slated for August 15 and, like last year, will feature a distinguished international musician (in March, pianist B. Marouan played to an intimate audience), cocktails and a candle-lit buffet. Proceeds are donated to local charities. Call 9944305397 or visit www.lamaison.in.