Biking Across Kerala, Tamil Nadu & Karnataka

South of India is an absolute treasure-trove for those who like a little bit of a two-wheeled adventure

Sweeping tea gardens greet riders in Munnar
Biking Across Kerala, Tamil Nadu & Karnataka

There is no denying that those of the motorised two-wheel persuasion like to live life on the edge, especially here in India. While riding in this country, we’re completely exposed to the elements – from the sweltering inferno of certain parts of west and south India, to the biting cold that seeps into your bones in the north and the relentless monsoon where water creeps into the most uncomfortable places. Besides that, of course, there’s the inherent danger of landing on the cold, hard asphalt if things get hairy. Everything on the bike feels so much more real, so much more visceral – there are no safety nets to protect you here. Biking definitely isn’t made for the weak-willed and the faint-hearted.

In India, that feeling of real and present danger is amplified even more by the presence of jaywalkers, who sometimes choose to run across the roads without warning. There’s also the risk of running into a big pothole at the apex of a corner, which could make your bike shudder and buck you off like an untamed stallion. Sometimes an animal will choose to cross the national highway when you’re racing through the area. Biking in India is fraught with danger, but that danger is precisely what makes the adrenaline flow, the blood pump, and the body tingle with excitement every time you swing a leg over and settle down in the saddle for a nice long ride.

India has some great biking roads to boast of, and while at first glance it may seem that all those roads begin and end up in the Himalayas, this is far from the case. The south of India is an absolute treasure-trove for those who like a little bit of a two-wheeled adventure. There are lots of amazing stretches of tarmac to ride on and intriguing places to scope out. One in particular is what I like to call the hill-station trium-virate that spans across Kerala and Tamil Nadu and onwards into Karnataka. This route begins at the small hill-station town of Thekkady in Kerala.

Sweeping tea gardens greet riders in Munnar
Sweeping tea gardens greet riders in Munnar
Saumyabrata Saha

Thekkady sits at the top of a hill in the depths of the Periyar National Park. It is a breath-taking little hamlet full of charming cafés and cozy hotel options to suit all budgets. When I visited, I chose to stay at the Coffee Inn (Tel: 04869-222763, Cell: 08281658763; Tariff: ₹1,350–2,700). As the sun’s first rays filtered through the sparse clouds dotting the skyline, I looked out from my room’s balcony and a small swathe of the park revealed itself through a curtain of early morning mist. The entry to the reserve is just down the road from the hotel and it is a fascinating place to visit. You can take a tiger safari and try your luck at spotting the big cat in its natural habitat. No wildlife reserve in the south is worth its salt if it doesn’t play hosts to elephants and Periyar definitely lives up to the billing as it has a dedicated section devoted to these gentle giants.

The plan that I had charted out ended in Mysuru, some 450-odd kilometres from Thekkady. It is an easy ride and one that can be executed on everything from a conservative 150-cc commuter to a litre-class crotch-rocket with dark alchemy brewing to keep its 100+ horsepower engines ticking over. It was time to get going, so I grabbed my helmet, strapped up my riding boots, donned my gauntlets and zipped up my armoured jacket, ready to pursue what Albus Dumbledore from the Harry Potter series so eloquently described as “that flighty temptress, adventure.”

The road leading out of Thekkady is a little state highway with trees spread out on either side and as soon as you exit the town, you will notice a line of bungalows with the most curious gate designs you will ever see. The most memorable one that I saw was adorned with two little rockets pointing skyward. The tarmac here is smooth and the road is winding making for an absolute joy of a ride all the way to my first stop – Munnar.

The distance to Munnar is scarcely a hundred kilometres from Thekkady, and as you make your way closer to this famous hill station, the forests suddenly give way to vast expanses of tea plantations. At one point, as you traverse down the highway cut into the hillside, there are tea gardens all the way to the crest of the hill to your left and spread out across the valley to your right. A view that spectacular, with the beautiful tarmac spreading out in front of you, is a rider’s dream.



Riding involves the thrill of conquering harsh terrains and extreme weather conditions
Riding involves the thrill of conquering harsh terrains and extreme weather conditions

If you think Munnar is a sleepy little hill station though, you would be wrong. The heart of the town is full of the kind of hustle and bustle you would typically find at a tourist hotspot, which this place certainly is. This also means that there are many food joints and hotels here. You can spend the day here and enjoy a visit to the town’s famous tea plantations. If you do decide to stay back and explore a plantation without supervision, especially one of the many that you cross en route, you should watch out for snakes. “This is the land of the king cobra,” a plantation worker warned me while I was doing just that. Thankfully, the warning came before I crossed paths with one. From Munnar, there is an amazingly scenic route via the Chinnar Wildlife Reserve and Mayanoor, via Coimbatore and onwards to Ooty.

The first bit of road leading out of Munnar isn’t the best, but more views of the valley opening up before me definitely made up for this little disappointment. By the time I had arrived at the section that passes through Chinnar, the roads had gotten wider with more straights and better paving. This allowed me to open up the throttle and let loose a little. I made sure not to go overboard, and you should too, as the signs on either side of the road remind you that animals often cross this road. Inexperienced riders in particular should exercise utmost caution on this part of the journey.

On exiting the reserve and crossing state borders into Tamil Nadu, you can either choose to take the SH83 to Coimbatore or continue on the SH81 and bypass it. I’d recommend taking the diversion to Coimbatore. With the Gass Forest Museum, Amaravathi Dam, the modern, multi-faith Dhyanalinga Temple and the ancient 12th century hill-top Subramaniya-swami Temple in Marudamalai, amongst other interesting places to see, the route is worth it. Besides, the ride from Munnar to Ooty is one of the longer stretches on this route, spanning approximately 250km, so why not take a break and visit Coimbatore?

St. Stephen Church
St. Stephen Church
Saibal Das

From Coimbatore and the plains, it’s back to the hills when you’re making your way towards Ooty. The roads begin to wind as they climb and there is more fun to be had on tight corners and hairpin bends. The higher you climb, the cooler the temperature gets, all the way till Ooty. Nestled in the Nilgiri range, Ooty is an extremely historical town, whose existence can be traced as far back as the 2nd century CE. It was a stronghold of Tipu Sultan and a former bastion of the British Raj. In fact, some of the architecture of the slightly older buildings in the town, Adam’s Fountain for example, are a remnant of Ooty’s tryst with the East India Company. There is a lot to see and do here as well, and finding a place to rest for the day is no problem either. The lakes in the area are a must-visit. The Botanical Garden and Rose Garden, which were built in 1848 and 1995 respectively, are both immaculately maintained and packed to the hilt with fauna which is indigenous to the area. There is another vestige of the town’s British rule in the form of the Stone House, which was built in 1822 by the former chairman and director of the East India Company, John Sullivan. St Stephen’s Church is a 19th-century structure and the oldest church in the region. Another place you can head to is the nearby Tribal Museum, which is informative and interesting in equal measure.

There are more tea estates to be found here and what, in my humble opinion, is the crown jewel of biking roads along this whole route that leads out of Ooty. Although there are a number of routes that connect to Mysuru, my personal favourite is the Kalhatty Ghat Road that goes through Kalhatty and past Bandipur. This is the road with the famous 36 hairpins, a godsend for those of who live life on two wheels and like to stick a knee out and lean their machines into corners. The road is narrow and mostly well-maintained, but can catch the novice rider out – you have been warned! There are strategically placed mirrors at every sharp bend, but it would still be wise to leave your headlamps on to provide greater visibility to on-coming traffic. Due to the challenging layout of this route, buses eschew it and car drivers think twice before attempting it as well, so traffic is mercifully scarce and you can definitely have a bit of fun in the corners.

This route also offers amazing vistas of the valley as you ride along it. There’s enough room on the grassy shoulders of the road to pull over and click a few pictures, despite the tightness of the tarmac itself. In a quirky twist of fate, these 36 hairpins are spread across 36 kilometres, however, don’t let the short distance fool you, they will take at least an hour to traverse.

This route needs to be traversed with utmost caution. Riding fast here can be extremely dangerous. The road is closed at night.

Kalyana mandapam, Mysore Palace
Kalyana mandapam, Mysore Palace
Saibal Das

On the other side of these dangerous hairpins is the last 100-odd kilometre jaunt to Mysuru. This is another road that passes through verdant forests leading past the Mudumalai and Bandipur national parks, which spills into more opportunities to take safaris and catch glimpses of the indigenous wildlife. There are many tales of commuters on this route spotting families of India’s famed pachyderms by the wayside. These tales may seem like fanciful flights of imagination but are not at all far-fetched as sightings aren’t unusual, especially if you keep your eyes peeled and are conservative on the throttle. The roads are pretty straight-forward once you are out of the reserve and make for quick going all the way to Mysuru.

The final destination on this trip, Mysuru too has a lot to offer in terms of history and heritage. As the former capital city of the state of Karnataka, Mysuru abounds in spots of significance starting with the legendary Mysore Palace. You can take a tour of this massive, intricately-built palace and learn of its history. Other places of tourist interest include the 12th-century Chamundeshwari Temple and the 200-year-old St Philomena’s Cathedral. The Lalitha Mahal is worth a visit too, as is the famed Railway Museum. Karanji Lake plays host to a variety of migratory birds and is a peaceful little spot in the city. The Jaganmohan Palace was built in the 1800s and houses an extensive art gallery with over 2,000 paintings from India’s rich art heritage. Lastly, Tipu Sultan’s Palace at Srirangapatna, about 20km away from the city, is another destination that you have to visit if you’re a history buff.

For the intrepid bike enthusiast, this ride offers everything from modern cities and glimpses into the region’s cultural past, to nature’s bounty and an insight into the sheer environmental beauty of the south of India. Throw in more than a fair share of delectable curvy roads and snaking highways, and you have got yourself a pretty great road trip that can be accomplished in as little as a day if you’re rushing, and four or five days if you want to take things at a sedate pace and enjoy every little thing that this route has to offer.

Things to carry on the ride

  1. Hydration pack
  2. Puncture repair kit
  3. Saddlebags and tank bags

Where to Stay & Eat

In Periyar Tiger Reserve

There is a wide range of stay options from luxury to the basic. Thekkady also has a few resorts set inside the sanctuary. There aren’t many stand-alone eateries but all the hotels offer meals and non-guests can eat at most without advance notice. KTDC’s Aranya Nivas (Tel: 04869-222023, 222283, Cell: 09400008588; Tariff: ₹4,000–9,000) is a great option for birdwatchers, right inside the forest. KTDC’s Lake Palace (Tel: 223887-88, 222014, Cell: 09400008588/ 89; Tariff: ₹10,000–25,000, with meals) has six suites, with restaurants and Internet. The Lake Palace can only be approached by a boat. KTDC’s Periyar House (Tel: 222026/ 546; Tariff: ₹1,250–3,400) is located midway between the main entrance and the boat house.

Aranya Nivas
Aranya Nivas
Courtesy Kerala Tourism

You will get a feel of the jungle if you stay here, plus there’s a restaurant and beer bar, boating, trekking and plantation visits. The Forest Depart-ment also has Bamboo Grove (Tariff: ₹1,500) in Anavachal, with 15 cottages; Periyar Tiger Trail (Tariff: ₹5,000) inside the forest, with three tents and the Tented Camp (Tariff: ₹1,500–5,000) in Vallakkadavu. Meals are arranged. For bookings, contact Eco-tourism Centre, Periyar Tiger Reserve (Tel: 04869-224571, Cell: 0847603066).

Good mid-range options include Chithrala Homestay (Tel: 222866, Cell: 09447615579; Tariff: ₹1,200–2,000) located on the Kumily-Munnar Road; High Range Resi-dency (Tel: 224654, 223343, Cell: 09249123898; Tariff: ₹1,350–2,200) at Thekkady Junction; Hotel Ambadi (Tel: 222192-95; Tariff: ₹1,600–3,000) at Ambady Junction; Hotel Kumily Gate (Tel: 222179, 222279, Cell: 09446432079; Tariff: ₹1,000–2,500) in Kumily; and Mickey Homestay (Tel: 223196, Cell: 09447284160); Tariff: ₹750–1,250) at Thekkady Bypass.

In Munnar

Munnar has good hotels for all budgets. 6km from Munnar, Windermere Resort (Tel: 04865-230512, 230978; Tariff: ₹10,100–21,200) offers charming cottages, some planters’ villas, as well as complete privacy, and is amongst the best hotels in Munnar. Located just a kilometre from town, KTDC’s Tea County (Tel: 230969, 230460; Tariff: ₹4,200–12,500, with meals) offers a restaurant, health club and Ayurveda and is one of the top-rung resorts in Munnar.

Abad Copper Castle (Tel: 231201-02, Cell: 09746411622; Tariff: ₹5,000–6,000) provides a serene ambience for relaxation. Its multi-cuisine restaurant offers magnificent views. The hotel also houses an Ayurvedic rejuvenation centre. Blackberry Hills Retreat & Spa (Tel: 232978-79; Tariff: ₹6,800–15,500) has 16 cottages spread across a slope, on Bison Valley Road. West Wood Riverside (Tel: 230884-86; Tariff: ₹3,750–5,600) offers well-furnished accommodation and a good multi-cuisine restaurant. The planters’ High Range Club (Tel: 230253, 230724; Tariff: ₹2,800–4,500) with its colonial ambience and old-world charm is ensconced in sylvan surroundings.

Munnar is dotted with a host of small eateries which serve whole-some, cheap fare: vadas, bondas and bhajis. The thattukadas (fast food stalls) on the main road serve piping hot chappatis, puris and dosas. Rapsy Restaurant and Hotel Hazrath, two popular eateries in the middle of town, serve excellent chicken and mutton biryanis. For those seeking authentic Keralite food, the SN Lodge is perhaps the best bet.

Sarvana Bhavan, known for its palatable and satisfying vegetarian fare, is located on MG Road. It offers the entire gamut of south Indian fare and the tiffin, in particular, is quite popular. SN Annexe is also a good option for vegetarians. Silver-spoon has a good buffet spread. Birds’ Café offers a great choice of Indian, Chinese, Continental and Kerala cuisine. The High Range Club, with its colonial aura, offers typical English food. However, note that a minimum notice of four hours is required to eat here.

Vivanta by Taj Surya
Vivanta by Taj Surya
Courtesy Taj Hotels, Resorts & Palaces

In Coimbatore

Hotels are aplenty to suit all budgets. Top-end options include Vivanta By Taj Surya (Tel: 0422-6681000; Tariff: ₹9,000–50,000) and The Residency Towers (Tel: 2241414; Tariff: ₹5,900–30,000).

Hotel Prince Gardens (Tel: 4000900, Cell: 07373797941; Tariff: ₹2,000–4,000), Hotel Sriram International (Tel: 4295566, Cell: 09626663331; Tariff: ₹2,400–4,000), and Sri Krishna Vilas (Tel: 2301980- 82, Cell: 09786006937; Tariff: ₹990– 1,300) are decent. All of these hotels have restaurants.

In Mysuru

The advantage of location goes to The Viceroy (Tel: 0821-2428001; Tariff: ₹2,295–6,895), which faces the Mysore Palace. At the upper end of the scale is Hotel Southern Star (Tel: 2426426, 2427427; Tariff: ₹4,000–7,000). Windflower Resort (Tel: 2522500; Tariff: ₹5,850–16,200) fills the vacuum in contemporary luxury at Mysuru – it’s popular for its tranquil yet easily accessible location, understated aesthetics, spacious rooms, friendly service, good food and spa.

Karnataka Tourism’s Mayura Hoysala (Tel: 2425349; Tariff: ₹1,400–3,500) is a good option but book well in advance. Kings Kourt Hotel (Tel: 2421142; Tariff: ₹3,500– 4,800) is nearby. Hotel Dasapra-kash (Tel: 2444455, 2442444; Tariff: ₹826–2,200) at Gandhi Square and Ginger Mysore (Tel: 6633333; Tariff: ₹3,999) in Nazarabad are other good options in the city.

Mysuru offers terrific ‘set’ dosas (fluffy, soft pancakes made of beaten rice, served in sets of three), masala dosas, uppittu (or upma), rava idli and rasam. Tasty savouries like churmuris and peanut masala are also worth trying. Most outstanding feature of the city is the web of bakeries set up by Mysuru’s Vaishnavite commun-ity, the Iyengars. Try out the vegetarian bun cakes and nipattus at the Iyengar Bakeries on Devaraj Urs Road and Sayyaji Rao Road.

While in Mysuru, do try the sublime Mysuru rasam made with freshly ground coriander seeds, dry red chilli and desiccated coconut. The crisp Mysuru dosa is also worth trying, and no trip is complete without a taste of the famed Mysore Pak. The restaurant at Hotel Dasaprakash serves excellent thalis. Mylari Hotel has a melt-in-the-mouth sagu dosa and superb filter coffee. Bombay Tiffany’s high teas are great. The Nalpak restaurants in Ittigegudu, Kuvempu Nagar and VV Mohalla are the places to head for delicacies like akki and ragi roti, and the spicy bisi-beli-huli-anna (hot-lentil tamarind-rice).

Getting There

Air Madurai airport (140km/ 3–3.5hrs) by NH220 which is a more picturesque route, with less traffic and is less hilly as compared to the route from the Kochi airport. Taxi costs about 2,600–3,500. Cochin International Airport, Nedum­bassery (170km/ 5.5hrs). Taxi to Thek­kady costs about 4,000–6,500

Rail Nearest railhead: Kottayam (110km/ 3.5hrs) Taxi charges are around 2,600–3,500

Road Thekkady is 5km from Kumily which falls on NH183. It also offers connections to Kottyam railhead. Thek­kady is linked to Munnar by NH185 and NH85 from Kumily Bus The KSRTC Bus Stand at Kumily offers services to Kottyam, Munnar, Kochi, Thiruvana­thapuram and other cities in Kerala