Story and photos by Dave Stamboulis
Traveling across India one becomes quite fond of the endless cups of chai, sweet servings of tea to be found in every rail and bus terminal, street corner, and just about anywhere a vendor can set up a stove. Chai is the national drink of India and pulse of the country, something that unites every local and visitor. It is one thing to partake in a cup of chai or two, but even more satisfying is to make a journey to the origin of all that tea, to the lush green plantations that drape the Western Ghat Mountains of southern India, where the hill station of Munnar offers charms aplenty.
Munnar, a city in Kerala, India was once the summer capital of the British in southern India, and it is easy to see why. The small hill station sits on a plateau in the Kannan Devan Hills up at 1500 meters, where the temperature is always comfortable, there is abundant rainfall, and the entire area is composed of an artist’s palette of every shade of green imaginable, covered in endless tea and cardamom spice plantations. The British started plantations here in the late 1800’s, finding the mix of cool weather, rainfall, and quality soil making for perfect growing conditions. Later on, Tata, the world’s largest tea company took control of much of the area, and these days Munnar has become a tourist paradise due to its cool weather, misty mountain panoramas and rapturous seas of green.
There is plenty to do in Munnar, ranging from the obligatory visit to the Tata Tea Museum at the Nallathani Estate (which gives excellent displays of the entire history of tea growing in the region), to hiring a tuk tuk and heading up to Top Station, a viewpoint up at 1700 meters taking in magnificent panoramas of the Western Ghats and the adjacent Tamil Nadu State, along with the never ending verdant tea views. There are pristine wildlife sanctuaries at nearby Eravikulam, Parambikulam, and further afield, the Periyar Tiger Reserve, where one can see local fauna like Nilgiri tahr, gaur, and sloth bears, and for more nature, the Matupetty dam and lake area is particularly scenic.
Additionally, there are many spice gardens open for visitation around Munnar, as the area is the source of an array of spices used both in Indian cuisine as well as in Kerala’s famed Ayurvedic medicine. Cardamom is the biggest crop here, with paths crisscrossing dense forests of the tall plant.
And of course there is the tea, miles and miles of it, in every shade of green, changing colors throughout the day, often bathed in mist in the early morning, and then glowing with the day’s first sunlight. While most of the tea plantations here are off limits in terms of visiting or wandering through, there are plenty of spots along the roads that give dramatic panoramas and vistas, and actually one can do even better that a visit with a stay at one of the many boutique colonial plantation bungalow resorts that have sprung up in the area.
The Windermere Estate Plantation and Retreat (http://www.windermeremunnar.com) is a perfect place to relax and base oneself in Munnar, located just a ten minute drive from town
and yet completely secluded, quiet, and surrounded by plantations and beautiful views. The plantation perches on the edge of a cardamom and pepper estate that is also home to plentiful bird life, and if running around in the hills is not one’s forte, it is just as easy to lounge around on the hammocks that dot the peaceful gardens here and completely forget that one is in India.
The green hills of Munnar were recently featured in the Academy Award winning film The Life of Pi, and the gorgeous setting has become quite popular in the Indian film industry as well, and it doesn’t take more than a short visit to convince anyone why it should be otherwise. Cool, wet green is far more evocative of England’s Lake District than it is of India, and yet here it is, only 100 kilometers from the international airport at Kochi, and a highly worthwhile stop on anyone’s southern Indian itinerary.
Go: For more information, visit http://www.munnar.com/
Stay: Windermere Estate
Munnar-Bison Valley Road
T:+914865230512 / 693 / 978
Eat: Rapsy Restaurant Main Bazaar Munnar T:+914865230456