We turned off at Paningode but missed the discreet green gate that had neither name nor purpose emblazoned across or above. Enquiries at a school yielded no knowledge of a luxury resort in the vicinity. On the contrary, they were sure I was way off the mark. But we were, in fact, just around the corner from Grassroots.
Not so very long ago, guesthouses and resorts were few and far between in the Wayanad region of northern Kerala. There are several more of them now, and a mushrooming number of hopeful Homestay signs stick out from the thresholds of houses on the main road, but they don’t yet seem alarmingly frequent. This part of Kerala is also —understandably — gaining favour with tourists looking for not-so-trodden paths.
Grassroots is not hidden away in some remote hinterland but it has masked itself in semi-obscurity in a fairly deliberate attempt to keep a low profile. It blends into the countryside unostentatiously, tucked into the side of a hill, camouflaged under panoply of palm and areca trees, coffee plants and pepper vines. The sounds of daily life still float and drift up and around you, though in an indecipherable, steady murmur punctuated by a lowing cow or a child sharply summoning a parent. Several muezzins simultaneously broadcast their call to prayer, drowning out the distant drone of the generator, the chatter of the men in the kitchen below, and the clatter of kitchenware as dinner simmers.
The land itself is verdant and lush against the Banasura range. Sprawling tea plantations undulate opposite the resort. They are neat, trim…and in prim contrast to the wilder, maverick coffee plants, and the trails of pepper winding around trees. Deep fires suffuse the sky at sunset, casting an additional shade of crimson on the bright red of the coffee berry at its last flush before it is plucked and the bean extracted for that morning brew to which I am so very addicted.
Each of the large and luxurious Swiss tents at Grassroots has a sheltered sit-out. Mine puts me at conversational height with coconuts, the fronds of the palm stroking the thatched roof over the tent. There was little within the tent to remind me that it was indeed a tent — at least the kind where I could even remotely pretend I was roughing it out. Once past the zipped flaps, I was in a spacious room on a firm foundation, furnished with large wrought-iron beds, and a leather chair behind a desk of solid wood. Long, elegant draperies hung down the sides of the walls and the ceiling was covered in billowing fabric. Attached to the room was its very spacious and plush bathroom. One of the problems with arriving in a place that instantly promises charm and plenitude is the worry that there might be too little time, that it would pass too quickly, that not enough would get done, or worse, that I would end up doing too much in too little time and come out of it feeling cross. Since I was spending only two nights and (less than) two days at Grassroots, after a very brief internal struggle, I succumbed to semi-indolence, opulent consumption and guiltless sleep.
Aditya, owner and manager of the property, showed me to my room up the winding stone path and left me to gather my bearings over a cold beer bubbling with sunshine before I headed out for lunch — he had pointed down to the roof of the dining hall below and suggested I follow the strains of jazz music to find my way.
Since there are only five tents, I did not apprehend any crowding at the resort. Only one of them was occupied on the first night of my stay — by Jack and Ellen, an insightful and gregarious Canadian pair on an extended trip to India. On the second, there was another couple but they appeared happiest left to their own devices. Nobody seemed to feel cornered, though we broke bread at the same table.
A variety of breads, actually. The victuals varied from meal to meal: Continental, North Indian, and Kerala meals typical to the region. Lunch and dinner were plated with several courses and I swiftly learnt to ask the kitchen to give me half portions of everything each time. Not that the fare had the least of shortcomings — on the contrary — but because the helpings were so generous. I suspect this request was a disappointment to the enthusiastic and excellent chefs at Grassroots, and to Aditya, who is himself a mean hand in the kitchen and oversees every meal.
On the first night, there was some desultory talk of setting out on an early trek the next day but the plan was abandoned after a large meal over music and conversation. I retired instead to the largesse of my tent’s comforts, book in hand, before sinking into a deep and unbroken slumber. Come morning and breakfast, I was driven through little villages and past the Karkada Lake, a beautiful, pristine expanse of water fed by the Banasura Dam.
There wasn’t a soul in sight except for Gopi, the boatman, waiting with his bamboo raft moored down the path that led from his home on the riverbank. It was my lucky day — the indigo of the mountains, the aquamarine of the waters, the blue of the skies, the call of birds and the slapping of the oars in the water.
There weren’t any noisy holidaymakers about, nothing to interrupt this long stretch of serenity, even if the day was somewhat warm. We rowed across to an outcrop of land where I stretched my legs for a bit. Real life carried on mid-distance — timber was being felled. Entire villages and roads apparently lay below us in the water, flooded by the dam waters.
The forests further away were pointed out to me. There was talk of an elephant that had been found dead the previous day. Poisoned, or electrocuted by the locals? An elephant gone rogue? Or was it one that had strayed too close to the livelihoods of farmers? Uncertain rumours. Wayanad’s wild elephants, I was told, are still unused to human interactions, skittish around jeeps and people, and therefore likely to respond with more aggression than elephants in parks that are familiar with gawking tourists.
Over lunch, I exchanged notes (vicarious tourism!) with Jack and Ellen, who had opted to visit a worthy NGO that works for the promotion of bamboo products like the raft on which I had spent my morning. A siesta was obviously in order after another expansive meal but soon enough, I set out exploring across the road. I wound my way past boys busy on a makeshift football field and took the little paths cutting through the dense tea estate. I followed the direction of a stream on the banks of which women were exchanging the evening’s gossip over laundry. I had a specific destination in mind — an old metal suspension bridge that Jack had recommended. I reached, I looked, I crossed. I had no idea to which era the bridge was dated but it had clearly seen better times. I returned over it for a lark. It sounds like a simple enough feat now but it carried with it a frisson of adventure. Solid though it looked, the bridge was layered with rust, the railing cables had snapped, and every lumbering step I took on the struts rattled and swung it, setting forth a rather noisy account of my passage. And when someone decided to cross from the opposite direction, I wondered over the din if we would both make it to the other side. But of course we did.
The resort offers a variety of jungle visits and treks on easy to tough trails of differing lengths of time. There was a flash of impatience in Aditya when he talked about urbanites who overestimated their fitness levels, stamina or staying power. As a city-dweller myself, I sensed that I had been tarred with the same brush but I had no occasion to disprove the notion that I might not be up to a middling challenge. In any case, having comprehended that I was not in the least averse to sitting around and just soaking in the sights and smells of nature, Aditya very kindly urged me to return during the monsoon, a favourite season of his, when the abundant rains sweep with splendour through the hills.
Young Aditya is but a lad of twenty-one. Nevertheless, he is bursting with pluck and determination and he handles all the operations with a quiet and capable deference. His family has grown coffee in Wayanad for generations and he has also lived on plantations in Papua New Guinea with his parents for a number of years. When they returned to India, he says, he turned his hand to many things. He trained with an organization that supported Adivasi tribals, did a stint in a tented holiday camp in Rajasthan and worked through the ranks in a restaurant kitchen in Bangalore before plunging into Grassroots. His parents, too, have opened a resort called Red Earth, across the border in Karnataka’s Kabini, but Aditya says he prefers the intimacy and quiet wild of Grassroots, close to the family home in a coffee plantation here. He has expansion plans, perhaps the addition of a pool, but they are low-key and he is hopeful that the resort will only attract a certain kind of clientele — the kind that is looking for a peaceful getaway rather than a loud and raucous weekend, the kind that would like gentle rambles, tranquil boat rides or quiet cycling trips. That would prefer to go on easy or hard treks before settling down to a good meal. That prefers jazz over Bollywood numbers belted out at high decibels. The kind of client who appreciates the setting of a resort in dense vegetation rather than proffering him unsolicited advice on razing the trees and levelling the land to lay a lawn for an uninterrupted view of the neat tea plantation! I understand he civilly but firmly rejected this suggestion from one of his urban guests. I cheered in agreement.
The informationGetting there
Grassroots is 1.5km from Pinangode, which is 8km from Kalpetta, the district headquarters of Wayanad in Kerala. Kozhikode is the nearest airport and railway station, reached by car in about 2hrs (Rs 2,200 each way). There are buses to Kalpetta from Kozhikode every half hour and they take about 3hrs to cover the same distance (Rs 300 AC; Rs 100 non-AC). Grassroots does pick-ups from Kalpetta for Rs 350; local autos charge Rs 150.
Where to stay
Grassroots offers 5 luxury Swiss tents with air-conditioning and hot water, open all through the year. Tariff for single or double occupancy with one child below eight and all meals is Rs 7,500 per night per tent from Monday to Thursday (Rs 6,000 from June to September) and Rs 8,250 per night Friday to Sunday (Rs 7,250 in the monsoon). Also, extra adult: Rs 2500; extra child: Rs 2,000 (9845891013; grassrootswayanad.in)
What to see & do
There are several pleasant and long walks to be had over tea estates, paddy fields or villages near the resort. Grassroots provides complimentary bicycles for the enjoyment of its guests. The resort also arranges bamboo-raft rides (Rs 300 per person) and picnics (only transport cost, depending on where you are going), birdwatching with naturalists (Rs 1,250 per person for a day-long programme), and lunch in a village home (Rs 300 per person). They also help with appointments to an Ayurvedic hospital nearby that offers authentic treatments and massages (Rs 1,000 for a full body massage with a 20-min steam bath). A collection of CDs on nature and wildlife, as well as classical and contemporary movies is available at the resort — there are TVs in the room; guests may bring their own DVD players, or laptops, to play them. A no-charge guided tour to the village of Thrikepetta is offered by Uravu, an NGO working with bamboo products. Half-day sightseeing trips are also arranged to the Jain shrines in Panamaram, Pulliyarmala and Batherry; the temples in Thirunelly, Thrikepetta, Pazhur, Maniangode and Kottiyur; the churches in Kavumanampalli, Thariyodepalli, Pallikunnu and Vythiri; and the mosques in Varambetta, Kalpetta and Kaatichirakal. Serious plant-lovers may wish to visit the Gurukulam Botanical Sanctuary, rated by the International Union for Conservation of Nature as one of the top 25 biodiversity centres of the world (it’s a day trip with a transport cost of Rs 1,200). A jungle safari with a 28km jeep ride through spectacular forests costs Rs 1,200. Safaris to the Wayanad, Tholpetty or Arlem wildlife sanctuaries are also offered (Rs 1,800 for the jeep plus Rs 250 entry fees per person; Arlem is open only in the summer, from February to May). The resort is open year-round but activities are not possible during the monsoon.