The Western Ghats And Tamil Nadu
The WESTERN GHATS
The lush Western Ghats run down the western edge of south India, through the states of Goa, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala. A biodiversity hotspot with a huge number of plant, animal and bird species that can be found in both wildlife sanctuaries and well managed coffee plantations. There’s an abundance of wonderful, out of the way places to stay in this part of India, one could easily spend several weeks exploring here.
Tamil Nadu occupies the drier eastern side of southern peninsula India, less visited than the more renowned tourist destination Kerala. It is famous for its temples, which are fabulous, but we prefer its countryside and quiet hills and jungles: home to elephants and bison, birds and frogs. On the east coast lies our favourite city stop Pondicherry, with its old French mansions, sleepy coastal feel and rather wonderful shops. The mangrove swamps at Pichavaram are almost as rich as the more famous Bengal Sundarbans but without the crowds.
What to See and Do
You can divide your time nicely in South India (distances are not as troublesome as in Central India) between countryside and small city.
Wayanad in the northern hills of Kerala, is one of the most biodiverse areas of India. Home to the Nilgiri langur and many endemic bird species, as well as tigers, leopards, bison and various deer.
The Edakkal Caves in Wayanad contain the most extraordinary 8,000 year old petroglyphs, some with similar motifs to those found in Harappan sites indicating probable Dravidian cultural links with the Indus Valley civilistations. Although a popular domestic tourist site (the steep walk up is great fun) this seems, strangely, to be missing from most foreigners’ itineraries.
Mudumalai and Bandipur Wildlife Sanctuaries are fun for elephant watching and the areas around offer good scope for walking and birding. Jutted up against the Nilgiri hills the lodge we use here is particularly beautifully situated.
The Nilgiri Hills, home to Ooty and its toy train as well as some beautiful Toda villages and great walking.
Mysore is a charming small town, with a fabulously kitsch palace and a quaint Malgudi feel to its smaller streets. The RK Narayan Museum is small, spare and enchanting. Mysore also obviates the need for an overnight stay in a big city as it is a three hour drive from Bangalore airport.
Coffee Estates allow for far more biodiversity than tea plantations and generally share their space with good forest and a variety of spices such as pepper and vanilla, we have two lovely places to stay that are in working coffee plantations, in Wayanad and the Palani Hills in Tamil Nadu.
Inland Goa is a great place to end a holiday, at the home of our friends Savio and Pirkko, far from the crazy beach crowds, with a river running along the bottom of their property, grab a canoe and paddle downstream watching birds and otters and leaping fish.
The coastal town of Pondicherry was a French colony and is home to the Sri Aurobindu ashram and nearby Auroville, all of which contribute to its tranquil and tidy feel. The old French houses have been beautifully restored and many are hotels and restaurants (more fun than the slightly forbidding grey ashram buildings). The town still feels properly Tamil though and the Sita Cultural Centre has a great range of tours and experiences on offer from cycle rides round the town to cookery and Bollywood dance classes.
Where to Stay
Just outside Mysore Yamuna Achaiah runs the family home as Gitanjali Homestay. Four rooms all with their own verandas looking over a prettily planted garden with the hills behind and Mysore city below, this is the most lovely start to a South Indian holiday. Food is traditional Coorg style and evening company warm and refined.
In Wayanad, northern Kerala, is one of our gems, Fringeford, a former coffee estate which has been allowed to return to thick jungle, already surrounded by deep primary forest. Ahmed Chamanwalla, its inspired owner, has turned his five hundred and twenty acres into a private nature reserve. Breathtaking views, stunning walks with the engaging and highly informed in-house naturalist, delicious local food; your time here will be a mix of energetic treks and delightful inactivity. There are just four rooms, all simply and beautifully furnished. The atmosphere here is relaxed and friendly. The bird and animal life is truly remarkable: many endemic bird species including the Wayanad Laughing Thrush and Malabar Trogon as well as much larger creatures including tigers and elephants. Also in Wayanad, nicely planted between Fringeford and Jungle Hut, is Tranquil Plantation, a thriving coffee plantation and homestay with swimming pool and lovely food and just a twenty minute drive from the remarkable Eddakkal Caves.
Jungle Hut, Masinagudi, Tamil Nadu, is right in Mudumalai wildlife sanctuary. Spotted deer will wander past your cottage door, elephants too sometimes, not always to the delight of Vikram and Anushree the owners. The in house naturalist is a great birder and walks round the area are truly lovely. Jeep safaris at Bandipur are fun, generally in a small bus with a host of domestic wild-lifers, it’s all less intense than the central Indian jungle experience. Don’t have high expectations for tigers but you’ll see elephants for sure and the landscape is lovely.
18 Elephants, Conoor is the inspired creation of Anglo-Indian Kevin Oakley. Smart tents perched on the hillside with marvellous views. Kevin and his wife Finella are entertaining hosts. It’s all wonderfully eccentric and well worth the bumpy drive into the absolute middle of nowhere.
In the Palani Hills in Tamil Nadu are two fabulous places. High up in a coffee plantation you will find a relocated and beautifully restored Keralan palace Rajakkad Estate home of the Fry (of the chocolate) family and perfectly managed by Keralan Robesh. The rooms are chic and airy, all opening onto garden on one side and inner courtyard on the other. Just down the mountain by the large seasonal lake lies Cardamom House the home of retired British doctor Chris Lucas and his relaxed and friendly team. Swim in the pool, walk around the lake, this is a place worthy of a good few nights downtime.
Pondicherry has numerous beautiful mansion hotels but we love Gratitude Homestay, stylishly and sensitively restored and with a homely rather than hotel feel, it’s a three minute stroll from the front but on a quiet stretch of street. Rooms surround a central courtyard and wonderful breakfasts are served around a long table overlooking the greenery. Every single part of Gratitude is beautiful.
Our favourite Goan retreat is Olaulim Backyards in north Goa. PIrkko and Savio Fernandes have planted their four individually designed and nicely spaced out cottages in large lush gardens on the edge of a beautiful stretch of river, with canoes and kayaks to borrow. All the cottages face out to the river: some right on the bank; two higher up with tree top and bird's eye views. Pirkko and Savio are the kindest of hosts and Olaulim is a perfect place to finish an Indian adventure.
Just over the border into Karnataka is another wonderful bolt-hole. Sylvia Kerkar (a renowned potter) and her husband John Pollard (who runs a white water rafting school) have an organic farm Off the Grid where they host guests either in stream side cottages, spacious teepees or a rooftop room in the main house. Food is largely homegrown, with fantastic pizzas emerging from the pizza oven and fresh salads from the farm. There is swimming in both the waterfall fed natural pool minutes from the house, and in the wide river a short and beautiful trek away.
Sample Itineraries And Costs
A twenty day tour of South India starting in Bangalore and ending in Pondicherry with two nights in Mysore at Gitanjali Homestay; three at Fringeford; a night at Tranquil Plantation, three at Jungle Hut, Masinagudi; two at 18 Elephants, Coonoor; four nights at Cardamom House and a final three in Pondicherry at Gratitude, with transport by train and car (no domestic flights needed) would cost approximately £3000 per person based on two sharing with a mix of half board and bed and breakfast, all guiding and all domestic transport.
Olaulim Backyards and Off the Grid can be easily slotted in at the end of a trip to another part of India (there being good connections form Bombay). An eight day tour with four nights each at Off the Grid and Olaulim, flights to and from Bombay, one trek included at Off the Grid, full board at Off the Grid, bed and breakfast at Olaulim and all transfers would cost approximately £1250 per person based on two sharing.