HOLIDAY IN THE HILLS
A day trip to the hills of Ooty
I awoke from deep slumber in the wee hours and peered through the car window, only to realise that we were high up in the Blue Hills of Tamil Nadu — about 2,240 metres above sea level. All I could see below were yellow, green, red and maroon coloured roofs of houses built on elevated pieces of land, surrounded by dark green pastures.
The aroma of tea creeped into my nostrils as we drove by the rows of plantations within which was a tea processing factory. I spotted women carefully plucking tea leaves and placing them in large jute baskets mounted on their backs — a sizeable population from the region depends on tea related businesses for employment. As we approached Savoy Hotel
(gateway.tajhotels.com) located at a higher altitude, there seemed to be a soothing silence in the air. We were welcomed with hot and fragrant honey tea — rich in flavour — and vermilion paste placed between our eyebrows.
This property under Taj Hotels Resorts Safari was built between 1834 and 1865. To date its cottages exude an old colonial charm with a fireplace in the wall opposite the bed, lit in the evenings. We decided to grab a quick bite from the lunch buffet at Dining Hall, the property’s only restaurant, before heading out. Our driver and tour guide, a resident of Ooty, happily drove us around the hill station as per an itinerary drafted by him.
Our first stop, was Government Botanical Garden (open daily 6:30am-6:30pm; entrance fee `30; tel: +91 423 2442545; Vannarapettai) where we were left to explore the sight by ourselves. It is a lot like a maze with sharp twists and turns through greenery, leading you further into the garden. Despite that, it had an extremely relaxing and calming effect on me. Deeper into the “maze” is a greenhouse with an exotic collection of flowers, herbs and plants from the world over. No wonder the air was redolent with wafts of floral fragrances.
This piece of land was once upon a time used to cultivate vegetables and fruits, primarily for the Caucasian settlers in the region. This was around the 1840s when Ooty or Ootacamund, as it was known as pre-Independence, was under the British Raj. In fact, Ooty is still known for its produce nation-wide, which are often referred to as “English” vegetables and fruits, and are sold daily at Ooty Municipal Market.
Today, the garden is a tourist spot, chaotically abuzz with holidaying families, playful toddlers and selfie-taking young couples. The entire garden is split into si[ sections: lower garden, new garden, Italian garden (plants from the country), conservatory, water fountain terrace and nurseries. The highlight for me, however, was the Indian map made out of tiny ferns. It immediately aroused feelings of pride and patriotism within me. A clever creation, each state is marked out with ferns that originated from there.
The next stop was within close proximity to the garden. Doddabetta Peak or “big mountain” is known to be the highest in the Nilgiri Hills (Blue Hills). It is a long walk from the parking lot to the observatory or viewing point atop the peak. A good start to this would be to follow your nose to the row of vendors roasting fresh groundnuts with spices. Sure enough, my tongue salivated at the sight and minutes later I found myself gorging on the warm snack in this market of sorts.
A gush of cold wind blew in my direction as I pulled my pashmina tighter around myself. The air was getting chillier, as it must have been about 15 degrees Celsius at the time. Local women, accustomed to the temperatures, waved their handmade coloured scarves, monkey caps and sweaters at us, hoping to make a sale too many. Giving them small business, we followed huge crowds of tourists jostling their way up a tiled pathway, through conifers, eucalyptus, pine and wattle trees, to Doddabetta Peak (open daily 7am-6pm; entrance fee `10; Ooty-Kotagiri
Road) and the glass observatory. I couldn’t stop staring down at the breathtaking view of Ooty from here. The mistiness in the air had a dreamy charm to it.
Tiny colourful houses in the distance had an uncanny resemblance to Lego toy pieces. They seemed to be disappearing into the fog. This scenery before me was absolutely picturesque, such that even a camera lens couldn’t capture the rawness of the surreal view. Inside, the glass observatory was swarming with people. Each one impatiently waited their turn to capture the telescopic shot in their memories. It wasn’t long before I manoeuvred my way to the telescope. Those distant houses were now in clear focus, revealing the lifestyle of the locals in their modest surroundings. On closer look, the mountain slopes seemed to blend into each other, defining the uneven terrain of this verdant hill station.
Our final excursion for the day, was Tea Museum and Dodabetta Tea Factory (open daily 9am-6pm; entrance fee `10; tel: +91 094434 18000; teamuseumindia.com). This is a good source to learn about tea, how to drink it, and its journey from the plantation to packaging. While tourism is one of its key sources of income, the museum and factory also exports tea to all parts of the globe.
After we purchased our tickets, we read about the history of tea at the literature-heavy museum. Next, we gathered outside the factory where we were split into small groups, each with an assigned tour guide.
The 30-minute tour took us through the different stages of tea leaf processing. On the first level there were large vessels where a collection of tea leaves were stored before being cut, twisted and curled. After this, the leaves are aired on a flat surface.
At one point of the tour, our guide picked up one of the drying leaves in one hand and a green tea leaf in the other. He explained how contact with oxygen changed the leaf’s original colour from green to copper. When he passed them around for us to have a closer look, I took in a whiff of both leaves. The green leaf had a pungent smell to it, whereas the copper leaf had a sweet scent with fruity notes. Next, we made our way up to the second level. Here we were shown how different flavours are infused in tea. As for chocolate lovers like myself, I was pleased to be introduced to chocolate-flavoured tea.
The tea store marked the end of our tour. From the many brews laid out for sampling, I grabbed the cup of chocolate tea. The chocolate flavour overpowered that of the leaves and left a good aftertaste in my mouth. As I queued up to pay for my tea boxes, an advertisement for a homemade chocolate shop next door caught my eye.
This quaint little store had all forms of chocolate on sale — bars, powder, rocks, and so on. My face lit up as I embraced my inner child. An old lady, presumably the chef and owner of the shop, offered me a piece of chocolate. As she and I faced a language barrier, our brief interaction turned into a fun game of guessing the flavours I sampled. It wasn’t long before I packed a bag of roasted almond-flavoured chocolate rocks to take home.
As the sun bid us goodbye, it was time to head back to Savoy Hotel. I drew a hot bath that was enough to wash away the day’s fatigue before making my way to Dining Hall. I pulled up a chair by the lit hearth with a plate of hot and spicy traditional Indian food that instantly satisfied my ravenous hunger.
Post dinner, the hotel had organised an evening with South India’s famous filter coffee by a bonfire. I pushed this experience off to the second night because an early morning paddle boat excursion awaited us the next day.
It’s best to visit before the crowds arrive, for manoeuvring around the manmade Ooty Lake (open daily 9:30am-5:30pm; entrance fee `10 for Indians and `560 for foreigners; tel: +91 423 2443977) is easier then. It was dug in 1824 by John Sullivan, the Collector of Coimbatore, a city situated 100km downhill from Ooty. Back then it was popular for fishing, which isn’t the case anymore. An easy couple of hours can be spent here, doing nothing but paddling around the lake, waving at curious monkeys peeping through branches of the dense surrounding forests. If you’re lucky, you may even spot a deer gone astray on the banks of Ooty Lake.
The rest of the day entailed Ayurvedic massages back at Savoy Hotel’s spa, and lazing in the lush gardens, a part of this once colonial lodge.
This piece of land was once upon a time used to cultivate vegetables and fruits, primarily for the Caucasian settlers in the region. This was around the 1840 when Ooty was under the British Raj.