Half past five on a winter morning is an ungodly hour anywhere, but at 7,350 feet in Ooty, it wraps you in a fiendish embrace. Shivering, despite being accoutred in sweater and monkey cap, I steadied my entranced gaze on a circle of curdled light. Blinking rheumy eyes, I craved what the sahibs did when they first set foot here. As if in answer, steam billowed from a samovar effervescing on a hissing stove and the air was invitingly redolent of creamy milk and broken orange pekoe.
A steaming, frothing glass of tea in the Nilgiris — or the Neilgherris, as John Sullivan called it — is comfort beyond compare. Arriving here in 1819 after an arduous climb over formidable forested slopes, the Collector of Coimbatore found nobody to offer him a cup of tea. Ergo, he did what good Scots do: he planted it.
Nilgiri tea — strong and aromatic with a distinctive fresh taste — wasn’t brewed until 1835, when the first experimental nursery was started in Ketti Valley, near Coonoor. The drive, just shy of twenty kilometres, descended 1,500 feet from Ooty and consumed an hour. But I couldn’t complain, for it swerved past cliffs and vales cloaked with a latticework of tea gardens, their green acres dusted with a shimmer of morning sun, enrobed with diaphanous curls of mist and specked with gangly silver oaks casting miserly shade. I took in these sights cosily from the warmth of a car that descended swiftly from groves of eucalyptus, pine, cypress and wattle — invading foreigners now rooted firmly in Nilgiri soil, much like those who founded these hill stations.
Something paradisiacal awaits you at the end of a long, winding road like this. I was impatient to know where this one would take me. When we pulled up at the porch of the Tea Nest, I knew I wasn’t mistaken for thinking so. All of three acres, this sun-glazed nineteenth-century mansion converted tastefully into a unique ‘tea resort’ hugs the fringe of a glen. Its manner and décor are themed elegantly after the brew. Bulbuls trill in the bushes and rose-ringed parakeets gossip in the waxen foliage of jackfruit trees. Warblers, having fled the Himalayan winter, feed with the frenzy of habitual vacationers.
Manager Vinod welcomed me with hot, aromatic rosemary tea — the herb plucked fresh from the garden — which refreshed my mood as much as it sent urgent synaptic commands to my bowels. Gratefully, I checked into a dinky fairytale room named Golden Tips, its fireplace fragrant with wood char. All six rooms have fireplaces and names that evoke various teas — among them Silver Tips, Chamomile and Jasmine. They line a narrow corridor that gives Tea Nest the atmosphere of a hostel, making it perfect for vacationing with the extended family.Interestingly, the mansion first served as a tea institute and the rooms were student dormitories. Some are more spacious; one room offers the luxury of a bathtub while others are fitted with shower cubicles. At the end of the corridor is a warm, intimate dining area with three cane tables.
After breakfast, Vinod invited me to a tea-tasting session where I sampled freshly brewed teas of every variety produced in the Nilgiris. In flavour and quality, Nilgiri tea arguably rivals the more popular Darjeeling and Assam strains, but paucity of labour and inferior marketing have cost it the position it deserves.
Walking the quiet, picturesque roads winding through Singara Estate worked up a grand appetite. I skipped the toast and eggs and made room for pooris, vadas, dosas and idlis, which were authentic and delicious. Lunch, from the home-style tomato rice and electrifying pepper chicken to the zingy coriander-infused rasam, was sheer sensory sumptuousness. I was glad I went easy on the tea-time cookies, because the seven-course concept dinner was worth the indulgence. I started with the organic smoked tea salad with tea-smoked chicken and jasmine tea consommé with free-range chicken. A lemon-rind green-tea sorbet cleansed my palate. Next, I tucked into the grilled cottage cheese wrapped in tea leaves and served with a tea salsa. The seerfish variant, encrusted with cracked peppercorns, was delicious. For the main course, I had the dark, tea-braised spaghetti with pickled tea leaves and followed it with a dessert of refreshing chamomile tea soufflé. Sated, I settled my happily bloated belly with homemade organic spiced tea.
To erase the guilt of unabashed gourmandising, I stepped into the courtyard. A half-moon had barely silvered the tea-scented landscape when hordes of clouds dragged it away, leaving a trail of smouldering stars. Until five years ago, I was as smitten with tea gardens as are most visitors. Bumping through one in the remote southern Western Ghats, I ran into a conservationist couple who made me coffee in their charming rustic home, set against a lush forest overlooking a plateau verdant with tea gardens. When we had warmed to each other, they apprised me of a sobering fact: prime rainforest had been felled to make way for tea in the Western Ghats, cutting off ancient elephant migration paths and altering the soil composition irrevocably. The scars of those misdeeds, though centuries old, haunt Coonoor’s tea gardens too. Behind the mansion, foraging gaur have left deep hoof prints in the mulchy earth. Relations between man and beast have soured after a gaur accidentally killed a man recently. I had my own encounter with the beasts after sundown. As I lounged lethargically, Vinod rushed in to fetch a flashlight. He pointed to three hummocks of inky black against the murky backdrop of dark tea bushes. He trained the weakening beam on the shapes and the glowering embers of their eyes glared back at us.
Earlier that evening, my hiker’s eyes had travelled longingly to the crest of a towering hill across the valley. Reading my mind, Vinod introduced me to Jyothish Vasu, manager of Tea Nest’s parent property, Kurumba Village Resort. Fifteen kilometres downhill, at Kurumbadi on the highway to Mettupalayam, this ‘spice sanctuary’ of cinnamon, nutmeg, pepper and clove adjoins dense forest. The village and the resort are named after the Kurumba, the honey-gatherers of the Nilgiris and one of five tribes that traditionally occupied various altitudes in the hills. If I was up to it, Jyothish offered, he would arrange for me to go on a half-day trip to the summit of the hill, known locally as Pakkasuran Malai. I agreed unconditionally.
From Kurumba, the drive to Pakkasuran Malai took nearly an hour over rutted roads that climbed through the tea plantations of Glendale, Nonsuch and Tantea. Srini, my guide, led me to a cliff from where he pointed through the rolling mist at a distant huddle of red roofs that was the resort. Fighting vertigo, I crept to the cliff’s edge, steadied my feet and waited for the mist to clear. The peak was still half an hour away. Belching diesel fumes, the cranky four-wheel drive lurched through roads that would challenge most hikers and came to a shuddering halt beside a dense, dark shola forest. Steps cut into the hillside took us to the top, from where we gazed into the borders of three states — Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Karnataka.
On my return to Kurumbadi, I stopped by the infinity pool for one last look at Pakkasuran Malai before the darkness effaced it. The poolside restaurant tempted with tribal delicacies like lamb-bone soup and banana fritters. But all I wanted was one last glass of sweet, milky, frothy, fragrant, un-English Nilgiri tea.
Where: Tea Nest, Singara Estate, Coonoor, is 3km from town/74km from Coimbatore airport/8hrs by rail from Bengaluru to Coimbatore, then 2hrs by road; KSRTC runs overnight luxury buses to Ooty (22km), from where a taxi costs Rs 600–800.
Accommodation: 6 rooms
Tariff: 1N/2D packages: Rs 3,050 weekday/Rs 3,300 weekend (Lemon), Rs 3,300/Rs3,550 (Green, Silver Tips, Golden Tips), Rs 3,550/Rs 3,800 (Chamomile) and Rs 3,800/ Rs 4,050 (Jasmine), including breakfast
Contact: 0423-2237222; natureresorts.in