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En Route to Kerala's Highlands

With 4 to 6 hours of endlessly enchanting scenery between Kerala's coast and the Western Ghats which form a natural border with Tamil Nadu, there's nothing to stop you from simply racing to your destination at the entrance to the Periyar Reserve or in the highlands tea country around Munnar. But that would be a complete shame, since there are a handful of utterly captivating places to bed down along the way -- more than that, these are may very well be the highlight of your trip, and very relaxing spots, indeed.

The Periyar Tiger Reserve

With the exception of the atmospheric KTDC Lake Palace, which is inside the park, visitors to Periyar are limited to accommodations that lie within a few minutes of each other along Thekkady Road (which links nearby Kumily with the park gate). Of these, we like the more intimate, unkempt, and jungly atmosphere of Shalimar Spice Garden, but the eco-pioneering chain, CGH Earth, has done fantastic things with Spice Village, and is a great option if you prefer things superneat and tidy, efficient service, and an array of facilities. If you're just passing through and looking for a cheap, excellent Indian meal, the restaurant at Hotel Ambadi (www.hotelambadi.com) is the place. Packed to capacity with domestic tourists, it offers superb value (the most expensive items are half a chicken for around Rs 100 and prawns for Rs 125), delicious (very spicy) food, and surly service. Alternatively, if you just want to snack on croissants and tea or coffee, make your way to the pleasant little cafe at Wildernest, where breakfast should cost you around Rs 100.

Finding Serenity Between the Backwaters & the Hills -- If you're traveling between Kochi (or the backwaters) and Periyar, another great spot to stop off for a few days is the aptly named Serenity (Payikad, Kanam PO, Vazhoor; tel. 0481/245-6353), which is an excellent place to remove yourself entirely from the beaten track and get a look at Kerala-style country life in a setting that really does feel far away from the tourist bandwagon. Like both Vanilla County and Paradisa, it's a gorgeous destination in its own right, and definitely worth investigating if you're taking a more leisurely approach to travel, and prefer to get off the beaten path a bit. A converted 1920s bungalow in the heart of a rubber plantation, Kanam Estate, it offers six guest rooms, high wood-beam ceilings, polished floors, cane chairs, four-poster beds, traditional masks mounted on display stands, and a gorgeously located pool. You can arrange for Lakshmi, the tame 30-year-old in-house elephant, to come in and play for the day -- it costs a whopping 100€ and you only get about 4 full hours of interaction (which includes riding, feeding, and even washing her), but she's a great hit with kids (and grown-ups, too). Make sure it's not ceremony or harvest season, when elephants throughout the state are in huge demand and kept busy. If she's not available, you'll need to settle for one of the other diversions available here -- there are bikes for an independent tour of the nearby villages; guided plantation tours; bullock cart rides (50€); cooking classes; and revitalizing Ayurvedic treatments. And while it's a great place for families to spend time together, Serenity, as the name suggests, is also a superbly romantic hideaway, or one where you can simply put your feet up and forget about the rest of the world. Reservations are made through The Malabar House (tel. 0484/221-6666; www.malabarescapes.com; doubles 150€-220[eu) in Kochi.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.