If I look back on all the birthdays I’ve celebrated in my life so far, my 35th was definitely the best. Why? You may ask. Well, picture yourself walking through a primeval forest, lush jungle all round. The call of strange birds punctuate the silence of an otherwise quiet sanctuary. What’s more exciting is that you’re in the domain of the majestic tiger. Although I didn’t see one – thank goodness since I couldn’t possibly outrun it – I did pass a massive pugmark in wet mud, no more than a week old according to the forest guide who accompanied us. Somewhere in the thick foliage, the king of the Periyar Tiger Reserve may very well have been following our every move.
The CGH Earth Group’s Spice Village is located in Thekkady in Kerala’s Idukki district. And lying, quite literally, a stone’s throw away is the Periyar National Park. I am not joking when I say that. The entrance to the buffer zone is a five-minute walk away from the property. Spice Village gives you no inkling of its sprawling 14- acres that lie beyond the large reception area where guests are greeted by members of staff and given a quick rundown of what they could expect to do and see during their stay. Weary travellers can choose from a selection of green teas (fresh herbs from the organic farm on the property infused in hot water) which are on offer here.
I was met by Pratheesh, a naturalist who has been with Spice Village for over a decade. He took me for a tour of the property soon after I arrived. Numerous tall trees of varying kinds form a loose canopy across the resort, allowing sunlight to filter through. Pepper vines snake their way up the trunks of quite a few. Two types of coffee trees – Arabica and Robusta – are commonly seen around the grounds. Flowering plants including the peculiar Dutchman’s pipe lend a splash of colour to an otherwise green canvas. Each plant and tree has been labelled with its scientific and common name making them easy to identify. Neat pathways criss-cross the premises, leading to the accommodation and recreational areas. At night these paths are illuminated by lamps run on solar power. In fact, Spice Village relies on solar power for most of its electrical requirements.
At the beginning of the walk you’ll pass the Woodhouse Bar, which overlooks the swimming pool. Originally the house of Periyar’s first ranger, AA Woods, it was restored and converted into a space where guests can unwind with a drink, and enjoy a game of billiards or read a book from the well-stocked library here. Or simply walk around to look at the old-fashioned tripod camera, gramophone, the many black and white photos from Mr Woods’ life adorning the walls of this elegant building and several other knick-knacks. It’s almost like a museum dedicated to a bygone era.
Just past the bar lies 50 Mile Diet, a specialty restaurant that prepares food native to the region. What’s unique is that all the ingredients used in the dishes are sourced within a 50 mile radius of Spice Village thereby supporting local farmers and vendors along with reducing the carbon footprint that’s inevitabe during the transportation of goods. I had the good fortune of eating at this restaurant and sampling dishes, I highly doubt I’d get elsewhere, such as muringaela coconut soup, which is made from the leaves of the drumstick plant and tapioca. Meat lovers will enjoy the mouth-watering pot roasted pork chops and mutton curry. If you have a sweet tooth you’ll be delighted with the honey baked yogurt and chakka varatti, which is made from jackfruit, ghee and jaggery.
Along the way I noticed earthen bowls filled with water sitting atop cylindrical stands every few yards. These, Pratheesh informed us, were their way of controlling the mosquito population in the village. Since mosquito larvae need water to survive mosqitoes breed in the water, which is then emptied every couple of days into the stands that are filled with sand. While it’s not a hundred per cent successful, it does help curb the number of mosquitoes that would otherwise thrive in this space.
Parents need not worry about their children ever getting bored here. Aside from the pool, there are basketball, badminton as well as tennis courts here. There’s even a cool game they can play which involves identifying various trees across the property. Close to the courts is the circular yogashala called Thapasya, where guests can attend yoga and pranayama classes every morning. The Ayurveda centre here offers a variety of treatments and is sure to ease aches and pains caused by city life.
All the paper used at Spice Village is handmade. And much to my surprise it is all made in-house at the paper making centre. We were shown a bucket of pulp, which was basically shredded waste paper that had been left to soften in water for a few hours and then blended to a pulp. The pulp is transferred to a container to which water is added. The thickness of the paper depends on the amount of water added at this stage. Then comes the exciting part – making a sheet of paper. Two frames (one with a screen) of the same size are placed one on top of the other. These are either placed directly in the container of pulp and lifted out, or a certain amount of the pulp is poured over the frames. The frames are then quickly but gently moved to allow the pulp to settle evenly across the screen before the water drains away. The wet sheet of paper is then tranferred from the mould to a more absorbent surface before being pressed. Once that is done, all that’s left is to let the sheet dry. And voila! You have hand-made paper. Best of all, guests can try their hand at making their own sheets of paper.
Not far from the paper making centre is the organic farm where much of the fruit, salad leaves and vegetables served in everyday meals come from. The manure used on the farm is also made on the property by way of vermi composting. Several large containers are layered with organic waste material from around the property such as fruit and vegetable waste, barring those with high acid content, egg shells, leaves and grass, etc. Earthworms are introduced into these containers to feed on the waste. The resultant faeces of the worms is the highly valuable manure, which should have an earthy smell or none at all once ready. Waste from the kitchens and bathrooms is sent to the effluent treatment plant. There is also a biogas plant nearby.
During the tour we heard the calls of several animals that live in the trees on the property. One such delightful creature was a Malabar giant squirrel. It was close to sunset when we spotted her high up in one tree. I had to squint to distinguish her largely dark coat amongst the leaves and branches but when I did, I couldn’t look away. Aptly named giant, this species of squirrel can grow up to 14 inches not including the tail, which can be 2ft long. Two of these fascinating creatures live in Spice Village, so if you do visit, remember to keep a sharp eye out for them. We also passed by a few Nilgiri langurs who didn’t seem too bothered by our presence. Unlike its larger, grey counterpart, the Nilgiri langur has a glossy black coat and smaller, more compact body. Suddenly Pratheesh let out a couple of “whoops”, which much to our delight, were answered by one of the males in the troop.
Back in my Spice Garden Cottage after the tour, I took a closer look around. The roof thatched with elephant grass, which is collected from the surrounding forests, keeps the interiors at a comfortable temperature all year round. The local tribes in these parts have used it for centuries to cover their dwellings and their expertise are employed by Spice Village to make the roofs of all the cottages. If left unused in the forests, elephant grass is burned by the forest department since it’s a fire hazard. There’s no need for air-conditoning here. Ceiling fans and the cool breeze from open windows work better than any man-made cooler.
A couple of simple locally-made rugs adorn the cool stone floor. The pinewood furniture has been made from recycled crates. Unlike other hotels that constantly stock rooms with plastic bottles of drinking water, Spice Village decided to do things differently, keeping in tune with their eco-friendly practices. Every day two glass bottles of drinking water are placed in each cottage. The water comes from the drinking water bottling plant on the property. The house-keeping staff collect empty bottles every day and send them to the plant where they’re washed and sterilised before being refilled. In this way the amount of plastic being used and disposed off by the resort has drastically reduced.
In case you’ve forgotten to bring your own toiletries you need not worry. Small ceramic jars of shampoo, conditioner and body wash sit in a small alcove in the bathing area, while fresh soaps are kept near the sink. All these are natural and hand-made products. If you use them, I guarantee you’ll emerge from a shower with a lovely, natural aroma surrounding you.
Fine mist swirled around the tops of the hills my first morning at the resort. I could hardly contain my excitement at the prospect of walking through Periyar Tiger Reserve. I’d been told to wear dark or khaki coloured clothes and a sturdy pair of hiking shoes, for we were to walk a good 80–90 minutes till we reached Lake Periyar. The landscape is a mix of tropical evergreen trees, moist deciduous trees and grasslands. We set off with two forest guides and one ranger. The former belong to the local tribe that has lived in harmony with the forest for generations. As we went further into the buffer zone, different emotions roiled within me – awe at the ancient jungle all around, fear of the unknown, happiness at the chance to experience a landscape untouched by man.
On the way we saw a Malabar giant squirrel resting on a branch close to her nest, a giant wood spider sitting in the centre of its huge web, a hornets’ nest (thankfully empty), and a great Indian hornbill. At one point we were told to stop and stand absolutely still, for we’d chanced upon a lone great Indian bison a mere 50 feet away, partially hidden by the dense underbrush. These large bovines move in herds, so we knew its companions wouldn’t be far away. They’re known to charge at moving bright objects but this magnificent beast was more intent on grazing. Only once it moved away did we carry on. Elephants also inhabit this jungle, but we didn’t come across a herd although our guide did direct our attention to two at the top of a hill in the distance. I was lucky enough to spot a blue mormon butterfly as well. This large swallowtail butterfly has black wings with a network of light blue streaks on the forewings.
We arrived at Lake Periyar, hot and sweaty but the breeze from the lake cooled us off. Formed by the construction of the Mullaperiyar Dam, this reservoir measures 26sq km and attracts several animals to its shores. The trunks of submerged trees stick out of the water and act as convenient perches for several birds that fish in these waters. During our ride on the bamboo raft across the lake we spotted a few birds, amongst them the kingfisher, cormorant and heron. Tip Remember to wear a hat while out on the water and plenty of sunscreen since the sun beats down on you mercilessly.
The same afternoon I visited a few local businesses from where Spice Village buys most of its supplies, thereby boosting the local economy. I found the papad-making unit run, by husband and wife duo Rajeev and Priya, to be the most interesting. Initially they used to make papads by hand, which was time consuming and restricting in terms of the amount they could produce on a daily basis. But a loan from the tourism department enabled them to buy a papad making machine, which rolls out the dough and cuts the papads from it. Rajeev and Priya only need to collect the papads in stacks, dry them and then finally package them for sale.
The male staff across CGH Earth properties wear crisp white dhotis with green borders. These traditional uniforms are bought from a small cottage industry. Similarly the candles in the lanterns on tables in the restaurant and in the cottages are made by a member of staff in his house. On any given day Spice Village requires at least 75 litres of milk, which is supplied by an award-winning local dairy farmer.
One of the activities on offer is a visit to a spice plantation. For some reason I’d always envsioned a spice plantation to be open fields. Instead what I saw was a lush mini jungle, aptly named Abraham’s Spice Garden. Abraham, the owner, took us on a walk around his garden showing us striking flowers such as the bright red bird of paradise and handing sweet cinnamon leaves to us to taste. Cardamom grew close to the ground in several patches, coffee plants with their red coffee beans were ever present and pepper vines snaked their way up tree trunks. Cacao pods hung from a few trees, a giant lemon from another. Various kinds of banana plants, including one whose leaves can grow to a span of 15ft, dotted the property. All through the walk Abraham kept us entertained with his own brand of humour. There is a spice shop on the property from where visitors can buy cocoa powder, cinnamon sticks, peppercorns, packets of tea and coffee, chai masala, tumeric, dried kokum, cardamom and several other spices and Ayurvedic herbs.
You can also opt for a bullock cart ride through the farms in neighbouring Tamil Nadu just across the border. This is a pleasant activity that can be undertaken in the morning before breakfast while it’s still cool. If you’re a birdwatching enthusiast, this is a good opportunity to spot local birdlife. During the evenings guests can attend the the cooking demonstration conducted by one of the in-house chefs. After the demo guests get to taste the dish, which in my case was tangy Kerala fish curry. Yummy!
Boredom is not an option here for those who want to immerse themselves in nature, culture and the local way of life. The resort has much to offer and even the minutest details are attended to. For instance the staff surprised me with a cake, a handpicked bouquet and card on my birthday. That thoughtful touch really made my day since it was the first time I was spending it away from family and friends. So if you’re looking for a wonderful escape that is the perfect blend of luxury and regional attractions, look no further. Pack your bags and head to Spice Village.
- Organic farm
- Solar power
- Effluent treatment plant
- Buys produce from local vendors
- Drinking water bottling plant
When to go Anytime of the year
Thekkady-Kumily Road, Thekkady, Idukki - 685509, Kerala
- Trek through Periyar Tiger Reserve
- Cooking demonstration
- Make your own paper
- Naturalist-led walk
- Visit a spice plantation
- Nature on wheels (cycling)
- Yoga and pranayama
Air Nearest airport: Cochin International Airport, Nedumbassery (190km/ 4hrs). Pre-paid taxis (Tel: 0484-2610115, extn. 2107) to Thekkady will cost between ₹4,915–5,580
Rail Nearest railhead: Kottayam (110km/ 3hrs). Taxis to Thekkady will cost between ₹1,800–2,500
Road Thekkady (5km from Kumily) falls on NH183 (Kottayam-Kumily highway) Bus The KSRTC Bus Stand at Kumily (Tel: 04869-224242) is connected with Kottayam, Alleppey, Thiruvananthapuram, Kochi and Munnar, amongst other places in Kerala
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