HOL­I­DAY IN THE HILLS

A day trip to the hills of Ooty

Business Traveller (India) - - CONTENTS -

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.

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