Rolling out the green carpet

When plantations become tourism hotspots, hill stations come alive, writes Susheela Nair

Tea county of Munnar. PHOTOS BY AUTHOR

With the fascinating world of plantation tourism opening up in the Southern states of Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, intrepid travellers are making a beeline to the lush green estates to savour the unique pleasure of gracious living in the lap of nature. The genesis of plantation tourism can be traced back to a multitude of problems plaguing the industry like vagaries of weather and labour unrest resulting in shrinking economy. Realising the tremendous potential of plantation tourism, many heritage and plantation bungalows, quaint homestays and high-end resorts have opened up with plantation tours being the biggest attraction.

Besides being a revenue-earning drive in South India, it has generated local employment earning foreign currency and improved the existing scenario of the place.  It has also created a general awareness among the people about good tea, coffee, rubber and spices. 

Cardamom Hills Reserve, Kerala

Straddling Tamil Nadu and Kerala, Thekkady and the plantation town of Kumily are convenient bases to explore the picturesque Cardamom Hills with rolling estates of tea, coffee, vanilla, cardamom and pepper, interspersed with forests and game reserves. As you stroll the streets of the plantation town of Kumily, you will find the air heady with the scent of cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon and cardamom.

From a spice heartland, Kumily has metamorphosed to a bustling tourist centre and the tourist industry has replaced the spice trade as the main source of income for the local populace. One unmissable experience in Cardamom Hill Reserve is the weekly cardamom auctions at centres like Kumily and Vandamedu. Of the 20 cardamom auction centres in the world, 12 are in the Cardamom Hill Reserve area and at one time, Vandanmedu used to be the world’s largest cardamom auction centre. After the wildlife viewing, plantation visit and sightseeing in Kumily, you can discover an array of walks, drives, views and adventure, before you head to Munnar.

As one enters the tea town of Munnar, the rolling greens of manicured tea bushes herald a green carpet welcome and the fragrance of the tea rules the senses. Munnar has other claims to fame apart from its ubiquitous tea plantations, craggy peaks, sprightly waterfalls, placid lakes, picture postcard views and undulating valleys of verdant greenery. It is in close proximity to a host of attractions like Kolukkumalai, world’s highest tea estate, Marayoor, world’s best sandalwood forest, Anaimudi, the highest peak south of the Himalayas and India’s first Tea Museum. For a walk on the wild side, visit Chinnar Wildlife Sanctuary and the Eravikulam National Park sheltering the endangered Nilgiri Tahr and the exotic ‘Neelakurinji’ plant which covers the hills in a blue mantle once in 12 years.

From a plantation town, Munnar has currently metamorphosed to a flamboyant hill station, a booming centre of business and tourism. A stay in a heritage or tea bungalow combined with a visit to the tea garden in Munnar, is an enriching experience. One can observe tea leaves being plucked, talk to the local people and learn about the fascinating bush to cup story, i.e., the whole process of how a tea leaf makes it to a tea cup - from bush to factory and then to the cup. The visit can culminate in witnessing tea tasting sessions, which can be a unique experience.

If you want to delve into the history of tea tradition in the High Ranges, stop by India’s first Tea Museum which provides a glimpse of the history of tea plantation in Kerala’s High Ranges from ancient tea-making machinery to the technological sophistry of today to tales of the people of Munnar’s famed tea plantations. Have a peek into the memorabilia preserved inside which includes curios, photographs photos, curios and other paraphernalia relating to tea.

Kolukkumalai, Tamil Nadu

In Theni district close to the Kerala border, at an elevation of 7,900 ft above sea level, Kolukkumalai Tea Factory is acclaimed to be the highest tea plantation in the world churning the most flavoursome tea in the market. What gives Kolukkumalai tea a special flavour is presumably the high altitude. From Munnar, Kolukkumalai estate is a two-hour jeep drive up to the top past the plantations through a narrow treacherous track. There is also a bridal path which was once used by estate workers to ferry tea chests to the plains and provision back to the top.

What makes Kolukkumalai Tea Factory quaint is that they still use machinery which was made in Ireland and firewood is used to dry the leaves, not electricity. The orthodox method of tea processing is used and not the crush-tear-curl method which is an automated process of making tea. The orthodox tea making is a seven-step process- withering, rolling, sieving, fermenting, drying, fibre extraction and grading. The two-storeyed factory which was built in 1930 by the British still retains its original wooden panelling, staircases, flooring, rafters and machinery. After a guided tour of the tea factory, ensure to taste the piping hot tea.

A perennial stream in a tea plantation
A perennial stream in a tea plantation

Tea county of Valparai

The British planters stomped their colonial footprints in the tea district of Valparai in the early 1900s. Though it is one of the younger planting districts of South India, it is claimed to be South’s largest tea district today. Several business conglomerates like Parry Agro, Tata Tea and Wood Briar owning tea gardens here are currently promoting plantation tourism. Here, one can observe the workings of an orthodox tea factory, visit a church, temple, waterfalls or simply enjoy the views of the thick rolling hills, the nippy environs, and the early morning walks

You can picnic by a perennial stream in a plantation, or visit a little patch of forest where you are sure to see the endangered lion-tailed macaque on this less trodden route. As you drive through the sprawling tea gardens in the lap of the Anamalai range of the Western Ghats, or on the scenic road trip along the backwaters of the Sholayar Dam and Malakkapara you’ll be treated to herds of elephants and massive gaurs grazing casually among the tea bushes.

The best way to chill out is in the stately Sinna Dorai Bungalow, a refurbished heritage bungalow, perched atop the Iyerpadi Hill, surrounded by tea fields commanding a stupendous view of the Valparai landscape and the rain forests, in the Anammali Tiger Reserve. This is a place to slow down, drink tea on the veranda, watch the mists rise above the hills, enjoy delicious food, read novels and relive the lifestyle that the aristocratic planters had.

Coffee berries and  sparkling coffee  blossoms
Coffee berries and sparkling coffee blossoms
 

Chikmagalur, Karnataka

Tucked away in the Sahyadri hills of mid-Western Karnataka, Chikmagalur is at the very heart of coffee country. The genesis of coffee can be traced back to the famous Muslim saint who first introduced coffee cultivation to these parts. In 1650 he picked up a few berries of coffee from the famous port of Mocha, on his way back from Mecca. He planted them on the high ridges of the mountains that rise above Chikmagalur town, giving India her first coffee plantations. Ensure to visit the Coffee Board’s Coffee Museum, to trace the entire lifecycle of the red berry, from farming, harvesting, drying, blending, and roasting before it reaches millions in steaming cups of fresh brew.

Sakleshpur

For a tea break head to Kadamane, Karnataka’s only tea estate in the coffee country of Sakleshpur in the neighbouring district of Hassan. Sinna Dorai Bungalow, perched steeply on a hillock in the verdant tea plantation of Kadamane, is an enticing getaway in Sakleshpur taluk. The impeccably restored vintage British era bungalows and cottages served as the erstwhile residence of the British managers of the Kadamane tea estate.  True to its name at Sinna Dorai, one can have an exclusive experience of a homestay in a tea manager’s bungalow with all its attendant hospitality. Watch women plucking the two leaves and a bud, also observe tea pickers at the weighing stations, accounting for their day’s pickings, visit the factory, take a jeep ride to the 5 acres viewpoint or picnic by a gurgling stream amidst a dense forest.

For some coffee in Coorg

As you enter Coorg, the largest coffee-growing district in India, you will be greeted by rows of coffee bushes covered with sparkling white blossoms and the whole area heavenly with their exquisite fragrance.

For a dash of Kodagu flavour, stay in an impeccably refurbished homestay scattered around the coffee plantations and savour the traditional hospitality of the Kodavas. One of the USP of Coorg homestays is the home-cooked Kodava food, made in the traditional way with authentic spices and locally grown food items. Living with a family, observing their culture and traditions up close, eating and relaxing with them makes for an ideal vacation. During monsoon, if you do not wish to venture out of your room, you can watch the rain drumming on the green canopy from the comforts of an old colonial estate bungalow. Walk through a waterfall, count vanilla beans, and interact with planters, colonels, and charming women.

The Evolve Back Group offers guests a true experience of the coffee plantations and the life of a coffee planter. “You can nurture the earth by getting into the shoes of a plantation worker, join hands in picking coffee and pepper or ride in a farm tractor, join the tribal dance, forest safaris, bullock rides, and interact with the ethnic communities. All these locally inspired activities, are life-enriching in keeping with the spirit of the land in luxury philosophy. At the end of the day, even a casual visitor will be converted into a sustainable tourism practitioner,” says Jos Ramapuram, Director, Evolve Back group. 

The latest initiative is the Siddapur Coffee and Culture Museum in the resort’s premises which showcases the history of coffee cultivation and its journey from seed to cup, the culture of Coorg and its close association with coffee cultivation and plays host to Coffeeology, a daily session on the art and science of gourmet and coffee. Another programme is Morning Glory – a state-of-art pre-school for the village children completely sponsored by the resort.

At the Tamara Coorg, guests can go on Plantation Walks in the 180-acre coffee plantation in the Kabbinakad Estate of Coorg, explore the process of coffee cultivation, learn about the different kinds of coffee beans, and the various methods of harvesting, drying, and roasting in Tamara Coorg. This walk culminates in a coffee brewing experience, where guests can roast, crush, and brew their own perfect cup of coffee. One of the highlights of the resort is that it conducts a coffee festival every year that celebrates this local crop in many ways - coffee cocktails, special coffee-based desserts, spa experiences, etc.

At Tamara Coorg there is a shift towards sustainable tourism.“This project was an important one, to our minds, because of the insistence of our company on using sustainable business practices. We conduct our business by striving to reduce our overall ecological and carbon footprint, without compromising on our guests' experiences and satisfaction. We do this by using thoughtful working practices and building sustainable properties,” explained Shruti Shibulal, CEO, The Tamara Leisure Experiences Pvt. Ltd.

Ama Trails & Stays, the first branded product in the homestay market in India are a group of heritage bungalows, guesthouses and homestays at unique locations across the country. The company signed a management contract with Tata Coffee for nine heritage bungalows in and around the idyllic coffee estate of Pollibetta in Coorg set amidst 20,000 lush acres Coorg and scenic Chikmagalur and is adding two of its own bungalows in Goa under the AMA umbrella. Secluded in close communion with nature with stunning views, they are original plantation bungalows with contemporary conveniences. Guests have a choice of taking a tour of the plantation, go birding with the region’s 300 bird species or play golf.  

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