Reading Jane Austen or Georgette Heyer, I always marvel at the number of walks the heroines take, the endless letters they write and the hours they spend in morning rooms just waiting for Darcy to ride up. What a luxury of time! At Sinna Dorai’s Bungalow in Valparai, I find myself with just this feeling of time standing still. The low, cool colonial building with the balcony running around, the huge bedrooms with old-fashioned furniture and bay windows framing perfect views, the strategically placed benches overlooking the curving roads... I realise I can sit for hours doing very little.
The renovated colonial heritage villa is not a new phenomenon, but that does nothing to diminish the place’s charm. And in a country where preserving heritage is more a matter of accident than deliberation, these little pockets are hugely heartening.
Valparai itself is a sprawling, extended tea garden in the lap of the Annamalai range of the Western Ghats, a mosaic of dark green handkerchiefs lace-edged with the bright red of poinsettia. Strict forest and zoning laws have protected it from the ghastly constructions that make Ooty and its ilk such eyesores. The drive from Coimbatore is fairly commonplace until you reach the first of the famous 40 hairpin bends, and then it gets spectacular. A modest 3,500 feet above sea level, this is one of the younger planting districts of South India, with the first factory having come up as late as 1910. However, it is the South’s largest tea district today, with several business conglomerates owning the various gardens.
This estate belongs to Parry Agro, and I am staying at the erstwhile assistant manager’s bungalow. In fact, ‘sinna dorai’ (or ‘chhota saab’) was the term used for assistant manager. And this particular Dorai was the assistant manager of the Paralai estate, a significant landmark. This is the place in the Annamalai range where two Englishmen, Congreve and Marsh, first came in 1857 to try and start a coffee plantation. An experiment that didn’t work very well, of course, leading over time to the hills being taken over by tea. The lovely building Sinna Dorai lived in dates back to 1930 and has me wistfully wishing I could own it — furniture, views and all, including the little game tables on the balcony (each with Ludo, Scrabble or chessboards carved into them) and that sinfully comfortable armchair that’s aptly called the Bombay Fornicator. Oh yes, throw in the staff too. They are gracious, receptive and touchingly worried about you, something that makes the stay almost like visiting a friend.
The formal sitting room is a large airy room decorated much in the style of those Georgian homes that Austen heroines always lived in — suites arranged formally, carved chairs along the walls, occasional tables scattered about and, of course, those large windows with a fabulous view. In one corner is an antique record player, complete with the dog from His Master’s Voice looking lovingly at you. If it actually worked, it would be quite fabulous. Not all of this originally belonged here; a lot has been effectively acquired to bring to life a certain era. And it works. One can almost imagine the furniture being pushed back to host a small, impromptu ball.
There’s a smaller morning room that opens out onto the balcony, and it’s supplied with some ancient farming periodicals, the old tea factory registers, coffee table books, and the best, a really old typewriter. The dining room is long, all gleaming wood and sunlight, an extension of the balcony. One wall is all windows, framing the Annamalai hills, quite the perfect way to eat a meal. There is also a large formal indoor dining space, with a huge table for sit-down meals. These rooms again are furnished with a sure hand — old ceramic water filter in one corner, blue and white pottery scattered on mantelpiece and walls, beautiful carved sideboard — stuff that might have been picked up later but which looks as if it’s been here for decades.
And then there are the benches placed at points outside that promise the best views. The staff offers to serve you tea right here, as you drink in the peace and quiet. It might not be so quiet if you come here with your colleagues for a conference, but Sinna Dorai seems ready to chance that. A garage has been converted into a conference room, and the management thoughtfully provides an internet connection as well, although the staff is understandably shocked when they see me spend unreasonable amounts of time working indoors with so much richness beckoning just outside.
The sense of sunlight and air, of vast gracious spaces, of a style of living now long gone, has been recreated evocatively, and extends to the meals. These are elegant affairs, with soups, salads, desserts (including a fabulous orange mousse) and cakes for tea. They also make the world’s softest idlis. Every Chennaite who swears by Murugan or Ratna Café needs to come and eat these.
And in case you, gentle reader, imagine that I spent all my time eating and coveting, fret not. I also did something equally dear to my heart. I spotted birds. And wildlife. The Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF) has an office nearby and Sinna Dorai kindly arranges for them to meet guests. Early next morning, I am woken by the lifelike trilling of the ‘whistling schoolboy’ (Malabar thrush), something I have been told to expect, but there’s much more in store. From barbets and doves to woodpeckers and magpie robins, NCF’s Ganesh helps me spot a dozen winged varieties. But the real treat is getting to see the giant Malabar squirrel and the small grey hornbill.
That evening, NCF’s Anand takes me to a little patch of forest where we spot a whole family of lion-tailed macaques. Quite a stroke of luck, given that there are only 3,000-odd of this endangered species of primate surviving in the wild, but this little piece of forest is their haunt and the NCF is doing its best to see that they can continue here undisturbed. What I miss seeing, though, is the great hornbill, one of the most fabulous sights of this area. Although I make do with paintings and pictures at the NCF’s Information Centre, I feel the omission as deeply as being unable to spot the big cat at a tiger reserve. As if to make up, on the drive downhill back home, a solitary Nilgiri tahr displays himself majestically right on the kerbside, and I manage with shaking hands to take some very bad pictures.
But honestly, imagine gaur grazing casually among tea bushes as you drive past, a langur playing catch just overhead and quite raucous birdsong to wake you each morning. Nature is really close here, just behind the civilised green-chequered hillsides. And Sinna Dorai is quite happy to allow you a glimpse.
The informationLocation Coimbatore and Kochi are the nearest airports. Drive to Valparai via Pollachi from Coimbatore (2hr 30min); or via Chalakudi from Kochi (4hr). The nearest railhead is Coimbatore (100km).
Accommodation Main bungalow with two double bedrooms; two smaller bungalows, each with two double rooms
Tariff Rs 8,000, inclusive of meals and taxes
Contact 04253-222362, 7598689987