"And this is the coffee flower.” Yesudas, the resident naturalist, points to white blossoms on a bush. “What do you think it smells of?”
“Coffee,” we chorus back.
“Wrong!” grins Yesudas with the air of a conjuror who has pulled off a clever trick.
The coffee flower, we discover, has a strong jasmine-like fragrance—the first of many botany lessons at Evolve Back’s Chikkana Halli Estate Resort in Coorg.
I had arrived the evening before, greeted by a spectacular evening sky of violet, orange and pink that gradually deepened into inky-blue darkness. The lush landscape and serene ambience of the resort, sitting in 300 acres of coffee and pepper plantations, revealed itself the next morning. Sandwiched between the Kaveri river and the Dubare Reserve Forest, the estate comprises two large lakes, paddy fields, an organic vegetable farm and a forest of ancient mahogany, giant rosewood, various ficuses, teak, bamboo and some rare plant species. I’m intrigued by the mathi (Terminalia tomentosa) with its scaly crocodile-skin trunk that stores rainwater (another botany lesson). Within the resort, cobbled pathways wind through the undulating terrain, lined with flowering shrubs and trees, most of them indigenous—kokum, tamarind, jackfruit, coconut, allspice and wild fig. Placards inform us that visiting celebrities—among them Aishwarya Rai, Rajnikanth and L.K. Advani—have planted some of them.
There are 63 cottages and villas of different sizes in the resort, blending into the surroundings. They have thatched or Mangalore-tile roofs, terracotta flooring and façades made of local reddish laterite stone. The interior carries the same aesthetic, combining local materials and traditions, with discreet luxury and care for the environment.
I revel in my gorgeous Heritage Pool Villa, built in traditional Kodagu (Coorg) style. It has beautiful mahogany furniture, the kind found in a colonial planter’s bungalow—19th-century dressing table, desk and four-poster bed (complete with 21st-century pillow menu and 800-thread count sheets). Planter’s chairs in the verandah overlook the private pool and jacuzzi in the enclosed garden. In the airy, high-ceilinged living room are paintings of local plant species on the walls. As part of the resort’s responsible tourism initiatives, there are no mineral water bottles—the villa has its own reverse osmosis water supply. Toiletries are in refillable ceramic bottles, and bath water is recycled for watering the grounds.
Evolve Back, earlier known as Orange County, is a family-run resort with a nearly century-long association with the Chikkana Halli Estate. The estate chairman’s grandfather, Emmanuel Ramapuram from Kottayam district in Kerala, bought the estate, its coffee plantations, bungalows and other buildings from a British coffee planter, Percy Glover Tipping, in 1926. In 1994, his grandson, also called Emmanuel, ventured into the hospitality business, starting with 10 cottages. He named the resort Orange County, as Coorg was then renowned for its oranges. The orange plantations are gone now, destroyed by disease. The family has two other resorts, in Kabini and Hampi, so Orange County as a brand name for all its resorts no longer seemed appropriate. ‘Evolve Back’ conveys a return to a way of life when the environment was pure, humans lived in harmony with nature, and hospitality was straight from the heart.
Waste management gets high priority in the Evolve Back resorts. In Chikkana Halli, kitchen waste is turned into biogas; biogas sludge used as organic manure; plastic bottles sent on to a plant in Bengaluru where they are used in making road tarmac; and there is a large sewage treatment plant. Emmanuel Ramapuram is a chemical engineer, and supervises the efficient working of all these systems.
Employing locals, using local produce, and educating children of employees are part of Evolve Back Resorts’ mission to be true to what the Ramapurams call the ‘spirit of the land’. So are the half-hour evening shows that give guests a glimpse of the region’s culture. I went to the shows reluctantly, expecting the usual touristy clichés, but was enthralled by the acrobatics of the Haalu Kuruba tribals’ Kamsale dance, and the Puja Kunitha ritual where the dancer carries a 27-kg altar to Chamundeshwari on his head.
I discover much of the history of Chikkana Halli and the Ramapuram family in the Reading Lounge, a long room perched high on stilts, overlooking paddy fields and forest, with deep armchairs and shelves stacked with books and magazines. I lose track of time here, enjoying the view and the estate’s excellent Sidapur coffee. It makes me late for my appointment at the Vaidyasala for an Ayurvedic oil massage.
To the accompaniment of a Sanskrit prayer and soothing music, I first get a head, neck and shoulder massage, then four hands ease all the kinks and aches out of my limbs. I finish with a steam bath inside in a wooden box, with my head sticking out. Despite the four cups of coffee before the massage, I can barely make it back to my room.
Early next morning, I explore the nearest village, Karadi Godu (literally ‘Bear’s Nest’). It stretches along the banks of the clear and tranquil Kaveri. I do a slow circuit on the water in a coracle—a shallow round vessel made of metal—and, thanks to the eagle-eyed Murthy, another naturalist at the resort, spot an amazing variety of birds: Malabar hornbill, white-throated kingfisher, brahminy kite, golden-backed kingfisher, racquet-tailed drongo, coucal and coppersmith barbet.
Back at the village, women are setting out for their day’s work in the plantation. They wear thick long-sleeved jackets, knee-high socks and sturdy shoes to protect themselves from the pit vipers and scorpions abundant in the coffee bushes. They carry thermos flasks of strong black coffee to sip through the day. The robusta coffee bean, for which this estate is famous, has a much higher caffeine content than the more aromatic arabica bean with which it is blended. The women laugh as they urge me to try their robusta brew—“Madam, you will want to dance all day!”
I do, and chase it with a ‘downer’ of milky chai at Mohamad Ali’s tea shop in the village before heading back to the resort for breakfast. Like all meals here, it is lavish and delicious: a south Indian vegetarian spread as well as the ham, bacon and sausages that the colonial planter might have started his day with. Lunch is similarly sumptuous, and then high tea with cakes, cookies and sandwiches. As a memorable finale to my stay, dinner is at the most romantic spot in the resort: the candle-lit Peppercorn restaurant by the lake, where I feast on a Coorgi speciality, pork pandi curry. Bursting with the flavours of the estate’s own pepper, ginger and tamarind, it most deliciously captures the spirit of the land.
LOCATION Karadigodu Post, Siddapur, Coorg; 271km/5.5hr from Kempegowda International Airport, Bengaluru
ACCOMMODATION 63 cottages and villas
TARIFF From `36,000 per night (for County Cottages); tariffs are considerably reduced for a 3N/4D package)
CONTACT +91-8274258481; evolveback.com