One of the first things I noticed after setting foot in Ooty, or Udhagamandalam, is how dreamlike it looks, the crisp mountain air and striking blue skies a welcome change to my city-worn senses. I was also curious about the tribal communities and indigenous culture in the area and my arrival at Sterling Ooty Fern Hill–Resorts and Hotels did not disappoint. I was greeted by a welcoming band from the Badaga community, the most well-known among the Nilgiri tribes. Dressed in their signature white, their warm welcome was continued by the general manager and Sterling staff. I was whisked off to one of the 180-odd rooms at the property. This was followed by a scrumptious lunch that incorporated local cuisine in unusual ways. What stood out? Dandelion muffins, koozh (pearl millet porridge), spinach millet momos and spicy fish (meen varuval).
We set out to explore the main market: a sea of vegetables, handicrafts, tea, chocolates and essential oils. As we entered the 55-hectare Government Botanical Garden, I was surrounded by hundreds of flowers in every direction. Night brought with it an indigenous gala back at the resort, where the Toda (another tribe, known for their connection with the buffalo) and Badaga people performed group dances around a bonfire. The Badagas, I learned, are known for their hospitality and progressive views regarding marriage, while the Todas build unique huts and have a special pre-wedding ritual where the groom needs to display his masculinity by lifting a heavy stone.
Be it the mystical blue hills or the supremely spicy cuisine, Ooty will surprise you at every turn. What often goes unnoticed beyond the chocolates, oils and tea is the fascinating history and local culture. This is exactly what Sterling hopes to showcase with Sterling Discoveries & Experiences Impressions. An initiative to change experiences into unique memories, it’s an immersion venture steeped in food, heritage, art and culture. With a warm drink in hand, we embarked on a mini-trail of Sterling’s custom-made art installations. First, the guide led us to an interactive Animal Footpath game, which elicits animal cries when stepping on certain tiles, and is meant to sensitise children to wildlife. We then moved to the huge 3D representation of a dandelion, and took a peek at the life-sized Toda tribal hut, complete with a low-door and spice table. Other interesting installations included a mini Nilgiri Railway track, and a glorious ‘Wheel of Nostalgia’ which bore glimpses of the Nilgiris’s past. All these attractions are a collaboration by NIFT Chennai and local artisans, and supported by Sterling. “Through these (installations), guests get an authentic feel of the destination as part of their holiday and take everlasting memories back home,” said Ramesh Ramanathan, CMD Sterling Holidays. He also confirmed that guests will soon be able to experience more curated local activities at Sterling’s other properties around the country.
I, for one, cannot wait to see what is in store.
The nearest airport to Ooty is Coimbatore (96km). You can either do a scenic drive-in, or take the train from Mettupalayam (46km/5hrs). The hotel can be contacted for transfers.