Wayanad...?” It is in this pause, this hesitation, this nearly realised doubt, that Wayanad lies, somewhere deliciously between a guess and a certainty. Other than the isn’t-it-in-Kerala-question-mark, I found that, like myself, not many could place Wayanad in the Western Ghats that tower over northern Kerala, even though it never comes entirely as a surprise. Increasingly sought after but far from swamped, there are some really nice places to stay here but tourism is hardly an industry in Wayanad, bless it. A densely forested hill district, it’s mostly intra-state day-trippers who pile into buses and ‘do’ conventional sightseeing hereabouts, at some dozen spots scattered over hour-long drives each way. Discerning visitors looking for a peaceful Wayanad will find it in remotely located resorts and homestays that demand complete surrender to the experience. Here, I could get drunk on the mountain air and wilderness that waited outside my window. In Wayanad, errors and omissions are nearly unavoidable. Choose carefully and it could be the fling of a lifetime. But choose carefully.
Banasura Island Retreat For its setting alone this new resort makes the grade. Overlooking the 64 sq km Banasura Sagar Dam catchment area and unusually (for Wayanad) set upon a sparse grassland shola forest with the hills for a backdrop, every room catches the breeze coming off the expansive waters. Elephant sightings, we were assured, are commonplace. The ambience is a mix of contemporary kitsch and Kerala-style architecture, but not unbearable. Trekking, jeep safaris and speedboat rides are arranged.
Location: 21km from Kalpetta, straight ahead from the dam’s ticket counter, 5km to the left of the T-junction (no signages whatsoever); not to be confused with the nearby Banasura Hill Resort, which does not overlook the dam waters. Accommodation: 1 honeymoon cottage, one 2-room cottage (also given out individually), 5 rooms in a nallukettu (central courtyard)-style building, another 6 in the main block, where the reception and restaurant are located Best rooms: All rooms have a view of the reservoir but the honeymoon cottage is best placed and entirely independent. Service: Good Food: Multi-cuisine fixed menu, no à la carte Tariff: Rs 4,000-5,000 on double occupancy plus 15 per cent luxury tax Contact: 04936-277120, 9447133531, 9946487776, [email protected], www.banasuraisland.com
Edakkal Hermitage Simple, clean rooms, some with cave outcroppings providing natural alcoves, the Edakkal Hermitage resort is unfortunately cleaved by the tourist-traffic-infested road leading to the prehistoric Edakkal Caves. The views are lovely. Calm prevails at nightfall. A modest Ayurvedic massage facility is available. A day-long trek up to the Chembra Peak is among the activity options.
Location: 25km from Kalpetta, in Ambalavayal, near the Edakkal Caves Accommodation: 7 independent cottages and 1 tree house Best rooms: Edakkal Cottage is the largest. Service: Efficient and courteous Food: Mixed fare; dinner by candlelight is served in their famous cave restaurant Tariff: Rs 3,950, inclusive of taxes and full board Contact: 9847001491, [email protected], www.edakkal.com
Fringe Ford Estate How does one begin to describe the rustic aesthesis of a charming bungalow, set very high and deep inside a 520-acre plantation that has 17 streams (27 after the monsoon) and two waterfalls (one of which has recently been notified as an EFL or eco-fragile zone)? Fringe Ford is breathtaking territory: treks with Shaji, the naturalist Man Friday, are hugely rewarding, and it’s possible to sit out with a glass of something nice to drink and claim a sunset as your own.
Location: Locally known as the Sarojha Estate, at Thallapuzha, 55km from Kalpetta/20km from Mananthavady. Ask for pick-up: two estate gates en route may be locked, the off-road drive takes 45min and a four-wheel drive is a must. Accommodation: 5 rooms Best rooms: Hornbill and Eagle have the valley and sunset views; Dodo and Drongo are inter-connected and good for families; Barbett has no view. Service: Very friendly, well-informed, helpful and non-intrusive Food: Only Kerala cuisine, home-style Tariff: Rs 3,600 per person, all inclusive (meals, tea, snacks, treks) Contact: 9845442224 (Bangalore), 9347333122 (Hyderabad), 9892239422 (Mumbai), [email protected], www.fringeford.com
Green Gates Hotel Most places in Wayanad did not even have a fan till recently but some rooms in Green Gates come with air-conditioning, which is a fair indication of its devotion to keeping guests happy. The reception and the main block are quite unremarkable but, with the bright lights of Kalpetta close at hand, this conveniently located standard ‘city’ hotel is a smart option for more than one reason: pretty cottages come with lovely sit-outs and inviting rocking chairs, gardened pathways wind their way to a decent open-air café (the main restaurant is in the basement), and sundry distractions such as a gym, swimming pool and home theatre.
Location: In Kalpetta Accommodation: 4 standard rooms, 8 deluxe rooms, 6 luxury rooms, 2 non-AC cottages, 4 AC cottages and 1 tree house Best rooms: Avoid the charmless three-storey main block and ask for the atmospheric if very rustic tree house with a sit-out under branches, or the spacious, nicely turned out cottages overlooking the swimming pool. The deluxe rooms in the main building are not half bad and the ones to the right have the better view. Service: Efficient and courteous Food: Mostly South Indian but guest requests are entertained happily. Tariff: Rs 2,000-5,500, including breakfast, one meal and taxes Contact: 04936-202001-4, 94476-40559, [email protected], www.greengateshotel.com
Kambamala Ecotourism One of the eco-tourism programmes of the KeralaForest Development Corporation, set in an enormous 600-acre estate, the enthusiastic manager of the Kambamala Ecotourism ‘resort’ disarmingly confesses that the government enterprise cannot offer what luxury private enterprises do, but can provide things they cannot. The only operator to have permission to lead treks into the Begur range reserve forest, the accommodation at Kambamala is a tidy, common-sense structure with little imagination. A tented campsite is arranged at the edge of the tea plantation and there are viewpoints aplenty. There is no electricity but a generator runs 6.30-9.30pm.
Location: Estate adjoining Fringe Ford Accommodation: 2 identical 3-bedroom units Best rooms: Identical options; there is a bathtub in the room to the right. Service: Eager Food: Unlimited set meals, only vegetarian for lunch Tariff: Rs 1,500 per person, inclusive of full board and taxes, maximum three people per room; Rs 600 per person for day packages (includes breakfast, lunch, refreshments and activities) Contact: 04981-2581204/205/338, 04935-246841, 9847549957, [email protected], kambamalaeco [email protected]
Rain Country Resort Lavishly recreated all-wood Kerala illams (homes), a luxury because of the great effort it must have taken to transplant them to this mountainous terrain, stand lonesome and proud upon this 23-acre property high up a hill. There is a stark minimalism that is more austerity than understatement at the Rain Country Resort, and it feels unintended. Like all plantation stays, it’s far away from any lights but its own, but the odd desolation here magnifies birdsong into a cacophony. For a true sense of the intense beauty in this extraordinary setting, wake early to iridescent skies and dew-laden foliage: I found that what looks unsettlingly mysterious at nightfall becomes Eden in soft focus. Short treks are organised, there is a small freshwater lake where guests may swim (lifejackets are provided), indoor games are available, in-room full body massages can be arranged at a day’s notice, there are no phones or TVs but room service is available, campfires and candlelit dinners can be had on request.
Location: 21km from Kalpetta, 11km from Vythiri, at Lakkidi, 3.5km/40min uphill to the left of the Oriental School of Hotel Management. Accommodation: (partly brick-and-mortar unless stated otherwise) 9 cottages, 4 all-wood cottages, 3 all-wood deluxe cottages, 4 independent cottages, 1 all-wood honeymoon cottage Best rooms: Accommodation is so dispersed that privacy is automatic. The deluxe all-wood cottages are especially lovely, with large, private verandas and open-air bathrooms with tubs. Service: Friendly, prompt and helpful Food: Very limited choice, just about palatable Tariff: Rs 3,000-4,800 on double occupancy plus 15 per cent luxury tax Contact: 0495-2511997-9, 9946487771/4, [email protected], www.raincountryresort.com
Tranquil: Positioned as a resort but essentially a homestay, Tranquil is undoubtedly several notches above the rest in the latter category. The rooms are homely, the décor in the standard rooms a mixed bag of uninspired woodwork, polyester curtains and utilitarian bathrooms, and the experience altogether too convivial. Nevertheless, the result is an impeccably maintained family country home in a functioning plantation. The Deys are seasoned hosts, entirely committed to treating their guests to sophisticated hospitality with the ‘right kind of crowd’, which makes for cocktails and meals over long-winded conversations. Superb trails arrayed over the 400-acre property are mapped and graded, quite perfect for a getaway. High teas are arranged at a magnificent look-out point and Ayurvedic massages are available.
Location: Known locally as the Kuppamudi Coffee Estate at Kolagappara on the Bangalore Road, 28km from Kalpetta Accommodation: 8 standard rooms, 1 deluxe room, 1 suite, 1 tree house (adults only) and 1 tree villa (larger, kids inclusive, two bathrooms) Best rooms: The 1,080 sq ft, two-bathroom villa with a tree trunk sharing the bathroom, or the spacious colonial-woodsy deluxe room Service: None in the room, colonial bonhomie outside Food: Home-cooked, varied and delicious Tariff: Rs 8,500-13,500 plus 12.5 per cent taxes for full board on double occupancy Contact: 04936-220244, 9947588507, [email protected], www.tranquilresort.com
Vythiri Resort Vythiri would win acclaim as a great resort no matter where it is situated but, given that it is in Wayanad, I will have to try not to gush too much. Ranged steeply in a linear cluster dense with forestation, the rooms are connected to the communal area (reception, coffee shop, restaurant, swimming pool, basketball court, souvenir shop) by a swaying suspension bridge. Accommodation is generously spacious and comes with pleasing ethnic touches, mud-washed walls, elegant interiors and dedicated views for all rooms. Treks with a naturalist guide are on the house. The spa is terrific: it is in fact the only full-fledged spa in all of Wayanad, with an entire floor dedicated to aromatherapy, body scrubs and shines, beauty treatments. There’s also a Vaidyasala with its resident physician belowstairs. The rooms offer an interesting mix of experiences. The tree houses provide rustic thrills with every comfort: a water-weighed winch pulls guests to one house 65ft above the ground, jeeps ferry them to the main resort complex, and service can be called with a good old bell. The Vythiri is a 150-acre property more than 15 years old and deservedly popular: book in advance. This is Wayanad mod-conned, and is the first example of why you must choose what you want before you get here.
Location: 14km from Kalpetta, 1.5km after Vythiri town, 3.5km/20min uphill off the main road Accommodation: 8 Vythiri Haven suites (2 more under renovation), 18 Serenity Cottages, 16 Planters’ Retreat cottages, 4-room Vythiri Habitat bungalows (rooms are also given out individually), 2 tree houses (2 more coming up) Best rooms: The Vythiri Haven suites are gloriously large with a lounge, a huge jacuzzi in an open alcove, and a private balcony with exceptional views (ask for 405 or 406). The Planters’ Retreat cottages have intimate open-to-sky plunge pools. Service: Exceptionally good; anticipates what a guest needs even before it is articulated. Food: Tasty and varied fare with approximately a third of Kerala dishes. Tariff: Rs 6,000-12,000 on double occupancy, inclusive of taxes, on full board or breakfast plus one meal basis Contact: 0484-4055250, 9388555250, 9387555250, [email protected], [email protected], www.vythiriresort.com
Buried deep inside the countryside, Wayanad’s homestays profit from Kerala’s status as ultimate tourist destination by charging too much for too little. The spectacular settings and warm hospitality, however, are priceless. Activities include trekking and farm tourism. Here are three picks out of a possible 200:
Glenora Homestay’s cottages are spacious, super-clean and modern-smart with private balconies that have fantastic plantation views. The family grows some 20 fruits (including avocadoes) and vegetables organically; guests may also have unlimited freshly ground coffee. They have a tie-up with Club Mahindra Resorts. Location 22km from Kalpetta at Ripon via Meppady, en route to the Sunrise Valley; lovely drive on a national highway bordered with tea plantations. Accommodation 1 classic, 1 premium, 1 economy cottage Best room The classic room has the best sunrise view. Service Warm and homespun Food Kerala-style, home-cooked Tariff Rs 3,250-5,500 plus 0.5 per cent tax, including breakfast and one meal Contact 04936-217550, [email protected], www.glenorahomestay.com, www.mahindrahomestays.com
Pranavam Homestay is a quiet, mud-washed block of four rooms that have private sit-outs, a lounging area with steps leading down to the bedroom, and a skylit bathroom, all of this impeccably clean. Food is served in the grand house nearby. When Raviettan, a distinguished landowner, is in town, his wife cooks rare dishes from old family recipes; guests from the Vythiri Resort are advised to head here for this authentic experience. Location 15km from Kalpetta at Pozhuthana (locally, Pranavam is known as Pozhuthana Yedam, and Mr Raveendran, the owner, is well-known: important because there are no signages to Pranavam). Accommodation 4 rooms Best room All rooms are identical. Service Warm, efficient, available round-the-clock Food Vegetarian Kerala-style, with occasional exciting additions Tariff Rs 4,000, including taxes and full board Contact 9544201245, [email protected], www.pranavamhomestays.com
Mountain Dew Homestay’s association with Club Mahindra will end in a few months but the owner is already willing to offer more modest rates. Though set in a 65-acre family plantation, it feels more like a small village than a remote, dense plantation. Location 18km from Kalpetta, past Kainatty, Kambalakkadu and Pallikunnu, just before Vilambukandam Accommodation 2 premium rooms, 2 classic rooms Best room The premium room to the left overlooks the village and is larger. Service Friendly but disorganised Food Basic Tariff Rs 2,000-2,500, including taxes and breakfast Contact 9495338008, [email protected], www.mountaindewhomestay.com
Wayanad district in North Kerala borders Karnataka on its northeast front, making it accessible from Bangalore as well as Kozhikode, the closest city in Kerala.
By air & rail Kozhikode has both the nearest airport and railway station. There are direct flights from Delhi (fares begin from approx. Rs 5,000), Mumbai (from Rs 4,000), Chennai (from Rs 1,500) and Bangalore (from Rs 4,000). The city is also well-connected by train. BY ROAD Wayanad is less than six hours on great roads from Bangalore. From Kozhikode, the drive is an hour and a half.
Tips Wayanad is a land of winding hill roads, where you may expect to average 35-40km per hour — and less than half that if you are trying to reach a remotely located estate over dirt tracks careening up and down the mountainside. Caution: do not attempt this after dark — fog swoops in unpredictably and reduces visibility to near zero. To reach the more off-tar-road sites, a four-wheel drive, or at least a vehicle with a higher ground clearance (a Sumo or Qualis, not an Indica), is necessary. Asking for a pick-up is wise. Signboards are used economically, if at all, and there is no hope of seeing them after dark. Milestones are rare and resolutely in Malayalam, except on the infrequent national highways. Distances are not measured in kilometres or minutes but encouraging and optimistic estimates that inevitably get revised further down the road: a helpfully stated 7km is likely to turn out to be 11. Finally, mobile phones frequently don’t work!