Founded in 1845 by Yankee missionaries drawn from a generation that produced Thoreau and Emerson, Kodaikanal was not your typical imperialist summer retreat. Alas, the days in which it was a well-kept secret are now long gone. Despite this, Kodi still offers something unusual not highlighted in tourist brochures. The lakes, vistas and viewpoints are well known. Less recognised are the unique shola forests, and their endemic plants and bird life.
Shola forests are montane evergreen forests unique to the high-altitude regions (above 1,800m) of the Western Ghats. Stunted by fierce winds, Sholas contain a wealth of plant, animal and bird species. Together with native grasslands, this ecosystem plays a key role in absorbing monsoon rains. Sholas are most often found in the protected folds of hills. They are the most enduring image of Kodaikanal, and also the most fragile element of this magical place.
If you are at all with it, you won’t dream of a weekend break in Kodaikanal or Ooty—blah, been there, strictly for Gujjus with timeshares or honeymooning provincials from Namakkal. But the secret of travelling, I have found, is not just in the place, but also as much in you and what you choose to do there. The most absurdly clichéd places have the ability to spring surprises. Like Kodi.
First, try and ignore the colour co-ordinated newly-weds.They’re just part of the scenery and usually harmless. Next, find out where all the big buses and Sumos are heading, and head the other way. The alternative has plenty to offer.
If you’re trying to get to Kodi from Chennai, you can take the Nagercoil Express (runs Thursdays and Sundays; leaves Egmore station at 8.30pm and arrives at Kodi Road at 5.50am; 2A costs Rs 840) or the Pandian Express (runs every day; leaves Egmore at 9.30pm and reaches Kodi Road at 5.30am; 2A costs Rs 870.)
Taxis from Kodi: Road to Kodaikanal (80km; 2hrs30min) cost between Rs 500 (shared) and Rs 800 while the bus costs Rs 25 and takes 3hrs30min. The direct bus from Chennai (12hrs) costs Rs 300-500.
Kodi has the advantage of smallness—most hotels are around the heart of the city (Seven Roads) and most places within walking distance, or at best a brisk hike away. You could hire a bicycle (approx. Rs 50 per day). Taxis are aplenty but expensive—they charge a minimum of Rs 50 for 3km. If you want to quickly check out the mandatory views, waterfalls and suicide points, hire a small car for about Rs 800 a day. There are tourist buses as well, for about Rs 25 a head: if you can cope with the day-trippers, why not.
Where to stay
Regular: Kodi has plenty of hotels, so take your pick (all rates for double rooms). Hotel
RR Residency (04542-244300/31) has no views but is right on Seven Roads, the city centre. It’s comfortable and pleasantly appointed. Hotel Garden Manor (240461/242176) has terrace gardens and views. Hotel Carlton (240056/71) is perched right on the lake with fabulous views. Luxurious rooms, very good service and food.
Different: Elephant Valley (230399; www.elephantvalley.com), a 100-acre eco-resort and organic farm about 15km outside Kodaikanal, is on an ancient elephant migration route. You can sight elephants and other wildlife. Cinnabar (240220, www.geocities.com/cinnabarfarm) is a homestay run by a charming couple. Lovely rooms and garden; everything is home-produced—from the bread and jam at breakfast to the cheese and coffee. Bison Wells (240566) is a rugged log cabin in a forest, very far from the madding crowd, with no modern trappings like TV or music. Plenty of wildlife and birds. A great escape.
Where to eat
The place is littered with Tibetan eateries and the usual indeterminate restaurants serving Tandoori or Chinese. Try Swad, a basement place on PT Road that looks like nothing but has homey North Indian food at reasonable rates. But Daily Bread near the bus stop is an absolute must: try their bread, cinnamon rolls and brownies. And the fresh fruit ice cream (plum, banana and peach) is simply superb. Prices are ridiculously low—. Fruit in Kodi is a meal in itself—pig out on plums, peaches and avocados in season. Practically every shop sells eucalyptus oil as well as homemade chocolates, so splurge. Do visit Eco Nut on PT Road for health foods like organic muesli, cheeses, grains and flour, plus great jams and juices.
What to see & do
The usual suspects (all distances from Seven Roads):
Coaker’s Walk (1km): Built in 1872 by Lt. Coaker, it’s a winding walk around Mt Nebo, with great views.
Berijam Lake (20km): Great for picnics/camps, with wildlife sightings. You need a permit, so prepare in advance.
Silver Cascade Waterfall (7km): A 80ft-high waterfall.
Suicide Point (10km): A spectacular view of Periyakulam town from 7,000ft up.
Astrophysical Observatory (3km): Built in 1898, it has an array of spectroscopic instruments.
Shembaganur Museum (5km): Displays flowers, butterflies, birds, etc and 300 orchids.
Kurinji Andavar Temple (3km): A small Murugan shrine, supposedly centuries old and with great views.
And the not-so-usual:
St John’s Convent, known locally as the Belgian Convent. At Munjikal (3km; 04542-240726). An old-fashioned convent, where you can buy exquisite hand-embroidered linen and lace. You’ll pay a fortune but won’t find such stuff easily. If you want real Venetian lace, be prepared to pay upwards of Rs 50,000 for one tablecloth.
Jaysh Quilts (5.5km; 240921) is where you can learn quiltmaking from charming Jayashree. Just watch or buy some very lovely handmade quilts. There’s a story in every piece, and she’ll create a special one around whatever theme you choose, including your life story!
Potter’s Shed Trust (243968) has a retail outlet on PT Road, where you can pick up Pondicherry-style glazed stoneware. Or you can spend some time at the wheel at their workshop (10km). For a little extra, they fire and ship your masterpiece across to you.
Bodhi Zendo (www.bodhizendo.org) is strictly for people who have already tried Vipassana or Yogic meditation and want to try Zen. Set in a coffee estate about 12km from Kodi near Perumal Malai, it is run by India’s only Zen master, who is, strangely enough, a Catholic priest.
Sheep in a Jeep, off Seven Roads, has some nice appliqué cushions and bags. They make great gifts, especially for kids.
Pillavali Coffee Estate. (62km). For a tour through a coffee estate, call the Nagarajans at 224271 to book in advance.
The Lake. Just carry a picnic basket and a book to one of the benches around Kodaikanal Lake: you could happily spend the whole day there. I did.
(text by Vaishna Roy)