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Nourished in the Nilgiris - Coonoor and Ooty

It's not everyday you get a complimentary stay at a room atop a tea plantation. So when I got the chance to stay at Tea Nest Annexe in Coonoor, I grabbed it. Even though I just returned from a two week trip in Ladakh, I was roaring to explore Coonoor - it's not much heard of, visited or spoken of.

When we landed at Coimbatore, a humid yet cool weather greeted us. There were hordes of taxi drivers offering us their service, and we asked one to take us to Mettupalayam bus stand from where we could catch the local bus to Coonoor. The ticket for this 3 hour road trip by bus cost us Rs.40 versus a door-to-door cab ride that was Rs.1600 (post haggling). While driving us to Mettupulayam, our taxi driver tried relentlessly to convince us to take up his Rs. 1500 offer seeing that we had settled in so comfortably in the back seat. But we rejected. We hopped into the local bus - it wasn't promising by any standard, the usual rickety exterior and a houseful interior. The bus conductor issued us tickets after confirming our destination with us only thrice with an are-you-sure-you-want-to-go-there-look. 

Our journey began as we left Coimbatore behind and darted into the looping roads through the verdant Nilgiri mountains. This ride can be a challenging one especially for those who suffer from motion sickness, just like the lady sitting beside us who thankfully moved to another seat next to the window to puke out from. As we went higher and higher up, the beauty of Coonoor made itself visible. Tea plantations and fog made the drive all to picturesque. The weather was so very pleasant too. With only some cup-a-soup in-flight and a delicious mirchi bhajiya from a local stall midway during our bus ride, we were starving and eager to nestle ourselves in Tea Nest. When our bus arrived in Coonoor, we learnt that there was an auto strike that day as a local auto driver had just passed away. Why, when, how, we did not think it wise to probe further and began haggling with a cab who was charging us Rs.400 to cover a distance of 4kms. In case you are wondering, we settled at an agreeable Rs. 250.
Verdant tea plantations
Not before long, we made our way into Singara estate towards Tea Nest Annexe - it was a gorgeous brick red British era bungalow built in 1910. It was converted into a guest house only last October, prior to which the owner of Nature Resort (the company that runs Tea Nest) used to call it home. Tea Nest has several rooms, all spread out in different bungalows, some of their most luxurious in their Kurumba property. At Tea Nest Annexe where we were staying, there were only two rooms - we occupied Rosemary (each of their rooms are named after tea types that are grown on the estate). 

Rosemary was a very spacious room with the usual suspects - a flat TV, a king size bed, a bathroom with tea-based toiletries, etc. The only companions we had were Augustine, the property manager and Chef Bhagdur, a Nepalese man who has over 30 years of cooking experience, 15 of which he has spent in Tamil Nadu. Augustine served us some fresh hot organic rosemary tea that we downed in seconds albeit after taking some pictures of course! The property had nothing else for us beside our room and a small dining area; there was no network on our phones and their WiFi was not working. But with our lovely room and the view from the window of lush green tea plantations and clouds we could touch, we felt the tranquility and silence around us and just felt privileged to be where we were. 
The picturesque entry to Tea Nest
Tea Nest Annexe - the British bungalow built in 1910

Our welcome drink - organic rosemary tea
The kind Augustine did not rest until he was convinced we were comfortable and in his way assured us that it was absolutely safe for us two girls to be living there. Really, his attempt to explain in his almost-there English was quite humorous but he was great. We asked them what was available to eat and Chef Bhagdur who only understood and spoke in Hindi told us he could make us some hot onion bhajjiyas and a veggie sandwich - both were so flavourful, we gobbled 'em up! When asked what we would have for dinner, we requested for a fish curry made local style and rice. TV helped us kill time as the smells from the kitchen heightened our anticipation for dinner. It was here that we tasted probably the BEST fish curry we have ever eaten - spicy and coconut-ty curry intensified with green chilly, curry leaves and fenugreek seeds, drenched our steamed long grain rice. 

The best ever fish curry cooked by Chef Bhagdur
During the meal, the chef cutely popped his head out of his kitchen to ask us if he enjoyed our meal. As we ate, Augustine helped us chalk out our plan for the next few days. Conversation also veered towards local politics, money laundering and corruption. He also shared some local trivia - Coonoor is home to the biggest tea auctions in South Asia, tea from the Nilgiris is of very high quality and best consumed without milk and sugar. Another sad bit of information he told us was that Coonoor previously was 80% forest area, 20% of which were tea plantations. However now, more than 40% of the forest area has been erased courtesy commercialization and 80% of the forest area were tea plantations. Amidst the long chat, we realized we certainly overate and the next morning we woke up regretting that little gravy that we could not finish up. 

We left to explore Ooty and Coonoor beginning with the Nilgiri Mountain Railway's Coonoor-Ooty train. This train is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Tea plantations, colorfully painted little houses, towering trees, rivers and green mountains became familiar sightings through the journey. We passed by some heritage stations - Wellington (built in 1908), Lovedale (built in 1907) and Udagamandalam, until we finally reached Ooty. 
The heritage train from Coonoor to Ooty
Our first stop was Boat House by the Ooty Lake - surrounded by trees, the lake was picturesque but a closer look implied water pollution. The flea markets, boat rides, food stalls were crowded with local school kids probably out on a field trip. 
Ooty Lake - once pure, now polluted
With little else to explore there, we made our way to the Government Rose Garden - one of the largest in South Asia nursing over 3000 rose varieties. However, since it had been raining in the days prior, there were no roses in sight! With the promise of sighting many flowers, we visited the Botanical Garden where flora like petunias, daisies, marigolds, primulas, dianthus and lots more were on boastful display. A short stroll around the expansive park later, we walked across the road to explore the local market. I bought myself an enticing looking custard apple that I would later ask Chef Bhagdur to cut open for me. We also bought some locally made soaps (the likes of lemongrass and turmeric), and medicinal oils like almond, gaultheria and citriodora, all promising unique health benefits. 
Rose bunny at the botanical garden

The spendid flora display
Following the park, we went uphill to Doodapetta Peak - the highest point to view Ooty in one direction and Coonoor in the other. 
View from Doodapetta Peak
In close proximity to the Peak, is the Tea Factory and Museum where we learnt of the different stages in tea-production right from green leaf to black granules. At the end of the production line, there was piping hot tea cups handed to everyone and a chance to buy some freshly packed tea powder. Other famous local produce such as different spices (nutmeg, cloves, star anise, bay leaf, etc.), home-made chocolates and coffee were also available for sale. These are all a must-buy when you visit Ooty.
Canvases shedding light on history and origin of tea

Tea leaves going through production
Slabs of home-made chocolate
At Planter's Paradise, we breaked for a lunch of chicken biryani - probably what the place made best because we spotted a bowl of one on almost every single table in the restaurant. We then asked our driver to take us to St. Stephen's Church, a heritage building that commenced for service in the Easter of 1831. It's interiors were marvelous - its walls had marble plaques commemorating church-goers who lived, and were interjected with stained glass windows through which the sunlight swam through. You could feel the heavy silence inside and we chose to sit and take in the calmness for a few minutes before leaving. 
St. Stephen's Church, commenced in 1831
Our last stop for the day was Sim's Park - with natural gardens and trees from different parts of the world that were planted in the 1800s, there was something new to see every turn your head made. We saw the widest tree trunk ever, some naturally stained roses and other flowers we had never seen before and the world map made of colorful shrubs. 
Flawed, imperfect and unique is this beautiful flower
Flowers basking in sunlight at Sim's Park
We drove back to Tea Nest's bigger property built in the 1800s housing six rooms, very close to Tea Nest Annexe where we were staying. There in the majestic drawing room reeking of old world charm, Vinod Tea Nest's tea sommelier was waiting for us to conduct our tea tasting session. He had six varieties of tea to show us - white (made from the bud between two tea leaves, healthiest and most expensive form of tea, brewed at 65 degree Celsius and great to cure cancer), green (bitter, rich in antioxidants and healthy), golden tip (named after its color, similar in taste to green tea), black (commercial tea, most consumed form of tea), frost (tea picked during winter when the leaves bear frost) and chamomile (flowers or floral essence added to the tea for additional taste and other health benefits). Tea, the most consumed beverage in the world is best had without milk and sugar to be able to derive its maximum health benefits. Tea gets its name from its color - orange pekoe, golden tip, green tea - you get the drift. Vinod explained to us many challenges most importantly labour that keep Nilgiri teas a level below those produced in Assam and Darjeeling. Currently, Sri Lanka is the highest producing tea nation in the world, followed by Kenya and then India. 
Six varieties of tea for our tasting session by Vinod
The golden tip tea
An engaging session and a lot of tea tasting later, we walked back to Tea Next Annexe. It was getting dark, foggy and chilly and there was not a soul in sight. The scene could easily have been out of a scary movie. Surprising us out of nowhere was a byson - its heavy body did not stop it from jumping onto the road from the slanted tea plantations below. Byson became bysons as around five of them followed suit. Our heart was in our mouth and we allowed them to cross the road as we stood there quietly. Augustine later told us that it was really dangerous walking on the roads after dark as though the byson was harmless, that road was even frequented by some scary bears.
Glimmering lights indicating city life...walking by this dark solitary road, we were confronted by some bysons
Conversation then moved from scary animals to options for dinner. We once again left it upon Augustine and Chef to recommend us a dish. On our table arrived pepper chicken gravy, rasam, rice and chapattis. A hearty meal! The pepper chicken was needless to say, spicy and bold in flavour. 
Pepper chicken, rice, rasam and chapati
Accompanying our meal once again was some spicy information Augustine shared with us. He spoke of the Bakasura (demon who features in the Mahabharata) mountain where after obtaining local permit, for a price of Rs.5000, only one jeep is allowed to ride up as there are no roads. He also mentioned a two hour trek to Kurumba where local tribals must be informed before tourists venture on the trek, this is because the trek involves going deep into the forest ridden with animals, and the tribals are the only ones who can handle the animals. Alas, we did not have time for either of the two adventures as we were leaving for Mudumalai the following morning. 

After a breakfast of fruits, (the best ever) wadas, idli and sambhar, and tea custard (yes! Tea Nest has a unique seven course tea tasting menu), we bid our farewell to Augustine and Chef Bhagdur. Thanking them for their splendid hospitality, we left with a (really) heavy heart. It's a place we felt home at all too quickly and I personally would not think twice to revisit. 

Custard apple from the local market
Steaming hot wadas made by Chef
Tea custard - it had a sweet toffee, caramel flavour to it
We commenced our road journey with our skilled driver Sangeet from Coonoor to Mudumulai. This route had 36 hair pin turns and again, is a tough one. The further you go, you leave behind the easy-on-the-eyes bright green mountains with tea plantations and start crossing narrow roads through the forest. The Mudumalai Tiger Reserve is a wildlife sanctuary that has around 700 tigers and bears, deer, leopard, elephants and other animals in its fauna count. Just 16km outside Mudumalai is a small town called Gudalur where we booked a room to spend the night in. The town, the room and just the general set up was all a far cry from the pretty Tea Nest and Coonoor we got so used to! With the help of WiFi that was only available in their reception and endless game of cards, we managed to sail through the day there. And we really missed Chef Bhagdur's food. 

At 5AM next morning, we left for a jungle safari at Mudumalai National Park. On the way we spotted so many beautiful deer and an elephant or two. The safari booking process and the facilities in general are dismal. India has 50% of the world's tiger population, so Mudumalai Tiger Reserve then becomes very significant. But the way the facilities are built and maintained, the sad little museum building that no one cares to enter, the way the safari is conducted, the loud buses used, it is just a pity we have not done justice in treating and showcasing this rich jewel of nature like it deserves to be. And no surprise, apart from a few peacocks, lots of deer, a byson, an elephant and some monkeys, we did not spot any other animal! As the (really loud) bus took us into the forest, it was evident how many trees had been cut to broaden the path for vehicles. We have clearly not been conscious in encroaching their home - the forest. This unimpressive safari brought our trip to a bittersweet end. With a hand bag and lots of stories to tell, we left for Coimbatore soon after to board our flight back home. 

At the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve
Beautiful spotted deer 
The best time to visit Coonoor is April-May.


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