A retreat tucked away in Palani Hills, Kodaikanal is ideal for nemophilists who find happiness in adopting the pace of nature
When I last visited Kodaikanal – a little hill town in Tamil Nadu, I was merely ten. With faint memories of enjoying a boat ride with my family, I am ready to head here again.
This time around, I wish to explore its lesser-known, hidden gems in the company of my partner. The idea is to stay away from the tourist trap and take in the serenity of Kodai’s dense forests, lakes and high mountains.
After a three-hour drive on the ziggzagging route from Madurai to Kodai, all I want to do is put my feet up and relax. We are staying at The Tamara Kodai, a resort housed in a building dating back to the 1840s. In fact, the building was originally known as Baynes Bungalow, named after a British District Judge who owned it. When sold in 1860, it was renovated and reopened as La Providence. The beautiful colonial building was once used as a rest house for the priests of Nagapattinam.
The monastic retreat boasts of suites with charming white exteriors and French colonial decor that oozes warmth. Moreover, for chilly nights, there are romantic fireplaces to keep you toasty and comfortable over a cup of home-brewed coffee.
A short walk away from the resort is a small iron gate, serving as an entrance to a hauntingly beautiful old cemetery complete with marble epitaphs that narrate tales of the arduous journey braved by many a man, woman and child in the mid 1800s.
The following morning, we wake up to the emerald hill station enveloped in thick sheets of mist. With our local friend and naturalist Rabendran, we are traversing the narrow paths in the deep forests of Vattakanal, the lesser known cousin of Kodai. “Vatta” means circle and “Kanal” means forest which when put together roughly translates into “forest in circles”. Locals often refer to it as “Little Israel” since the place attracts a large number of Israelis as well as backpackers and hippies from across the globe. Israelis typically love the place for they believe in its spiritual energy.
Rich in flora and fauna, the Vattakanal forest is home to more than 3,800 varieties of trees, shrubs and herbs and more than 600 varieties of ferns. We learn to identify the healing herbs of South India, smell the rejuvenating aromas of eucalyptus and lemongrass and track the footprints of leopards and wild boars.
Amidst rare single fern trees, cinnamon and shenbagam flower trees and Himalayan cherry trees, we see butterflies and birds such as the black and orange flycatcher, flameback woodpecker, red-whiskered bulbul, hoopoe, scaly breasted muniya and Eurasian blackbird.
Throughout the trek, we revel in the stunning valley views while breathing fresh forest air. Yearning for a break to enjoy the surroundings, we halt at the Vattakanal falls. Sitting at the foot of the waterfall, we are enjoying a cup of coffee and trying to grasp the varied sounds of the forest; chirping of birds, buzzing of insects and the therapeutic gushing of water. We close our eyes and let these natural sounds permeate our minds. Once in a while, it’s essential to feel the peaceful emptiness of life!
We are among travellers who consciously avoid overcrowded destinations and pick simple experiences that promise serenity and proximity to nature. To fill up the afternoon, we fasten our bikes to a utility vehicle and drive towards Kookal village. On way, we get the bird’s eye view of the Poombarai village which looks like a hamlet straight out of a novel.
The terraced cultivations of vegetables like cabbage, beans, potatoes, carrots, cauliflowers, and garlic give the landscape a certain pattern and clusters of tiny, colourful houses with tiled roofs only add to its marvellous beauty.
We see men diligently washing freshly-harvested, bright orange carrots, cleaning them and packing them off in huge sacks. After sampling one, we realise they are a lot sweeter than the carrots we find in big cities. The beautiful surroundings induce us to park the car midway only to be able to enjoy the bike ride to the scenic Kookal lake that brings together four types of ecosystems — swamp, grassland, freshwater lake and shola.
With no tourists around, we have the calmness of the still water to ourselves. Occasionally, there is a car passing by or a group of three to four women carrying bundles of wooden sticks up the village. We decide to sit on the bank of the lake and relish some sandwiches while our eyes feast on the verdant hills in the distance.
Among other must-visit places near Kodaikanal is the Mannavanur sheep farm, located at a distance of 40 km from Kodaikanal. Here, the endless stretches of green manicured meadows are peppered with grazing cattle and sheep while mist continues playing hide and seek.
Completely untouched by commercialisation, Mannavannur is no place for loud groups and picnickers. It is reserved for the biophilics who feel the urge to connect with nature in its raw, unbridled form and find depth in its silence. The meadows also serve as a delightful camping site.
If you’re visiting only for a few hours, devour a simple homemade lunch at Mannavanur canteen, run by two local women named Kala and Chitra. We are happy to spot a small wooden bench under a tree and transform it into our dining table for the day. The simple, South Indian fare consisting puli kulambu, rice, rasam, sambar, koli chicken and appalam is extremely satisfying. After a long time, we are experiencing the real joy of squishing food between our fingers and eating it with our hands. Appreciating every mouthful, we feel blessed and liberated at the same time.
If you’re visiting only for a few hours, devour a simple homemade lunch at Mannavanur canteen, run by two local women named Kala and Chitra. We are happy to spot a small wooden bench under a tree and transform it into our dining table for the day. The simple, South Indian fare consisting puli kulambu, rice, rasam, sambar, koli chicken and appalam is extremely satisfying.
After a long time, we are experiencing the real joy of squishing food between our fingers and eating it with our hands. Appreciating every mouthful, we feel blessed and liberated at the same time.
HOW TO GET THERE
Kodaikanal is about 520 kms from Chennai and 135 kms from Madurai and it is also well connected by air, road and rail. There are daily direct flights from most Indian cities to Madurai. The uphill journey from Madurai to Kodaikanal takes about three hours.
While the weather in this hilly heaven is pleasant throughout the year, it’s best to carry a few woolens to keep yourself warm on chilly nights.
If you’re walking around Kodai town, don’t forget to pick up delicious coffee as well as oven-fresh croissants, pastries and pizza slices from the popular bakery named Pastry Corner, one of the oldest joints in Kodai.