Of the hill stations, Munnar is perhaps the best preserved. Most of it has been owned by Tata for ages, and the town remains small and clean. Partly thanks to the shrinking tea economy, many of the tea estate managers’ bungalows are now open to tourists who want to see those marvels of Munnar that remain closed to the public gaze.
The houses are invariably sited on the best lookout points. The rooms are vast, with terracotta tile underfoot, plenty of windows, and deep verandahs. The grounds are a dialogue of lush lawns, nodding blooms, trellised vines and soaring trees. Beyond all that is a heart-stopping drop before the rise of the next hill.
Tea Meadows has taken over 14 such bungalows, some a century old and some newer, that are perfect for the seeker of solitude. A butler and his staff make a welcome fuss over the traveller who has come a long way, with crackling fires in each room, fluffy duvets on the beds, piping hot water for a bath, and, naturally, a perfectly brewed cuppa whenever you like.
The newer, two-bedroom bungalows are best suited for small families and honeymooners. In the sprawling older ones, with three bedrooms, even large groups will have all the space they want. For those who demand even more lebensraum, there is the vast outdoors. The garden of the Kalaar bungalow has a swing and even a minute tree-house to tempt children out to play. The Mattupatty bungalow has exquisite views of the river that winds to the dam and slopes rising behind, and many guests like to eat their meals outdoors so as to make the most of them. Views everywhere are spectacular. In every direction, the swell of the systematically planted hills is combed into miraculous smoothness, and the crevices are thick with trees.
Tennis courts are attached to most of the larger bungalows. Sporty guests can play basketball, squash and billiards at the High Range Club and Kundale Club. At an extra cost, they can golf at either of two nine-hole courses, or fish for rainbow trout in the Rajamalai National Park. Guests have access to the park even during the Nilgiri tahr’s breeding season, when it is closed to the public.
Soaking in the peace was my agenda. My walk from the Kadalaar bungalow was deeply satisfying. No grumbling buses or yowling day-trippers, since all these houses are deep inside the private estates. The near-bald rise of granite behind marked the border of the Rajamalai National Park, and the green-gold grass on its crest glowed in the early light. A black monkey in a tree splayed his legs for my benefit. I kept my eyes studiously on the vegetation, where the whistlers and warblers were in full throat. The air was so clear I saw a scarlet minivet and its yellow mate flit into the distant trees. Wild elephant dung lay on the road, and the Nilgiri tahr had left tracks in the mud. Streams, a waterfall over boulders, and a mossy bridge brought me back, to another perfectly brewed cup.