Most visitors to India cleave to the "Golden Triangle" of tourist hotspots -- the capital city of Delhi, Agra for the Taj Mahal, and Jaipur for its palaces and gems. Lately, many find themselves flying to Bangalore, especially if they're in the consulting or outsourcing business, to check on their offices. But there's a much better reason to head to the Silicon City.
Just five hours' drive west of the IT metropolis is the region of Coorg, known for its lush coffee and tea estates, wildlife, and unique culture. You won't find traffic jams or exhaust fumes here -- just miles of green fields, stunning scenery, and really good coffee. The area's major city, Madikeri, is a decent-enough hub for exploration, but the best way to get the plantation experience is to stay at one. About two or three days is enough for a quick sightseeing trip, but you could easily spend a week or more just relaxing, marveling at the panoramas, and breathing the fresh air.
Unplug yourself. Spend a day or two getting your gadget fix in Bangalore if you must, but get out of town by dawn when you're ready for some R&R. Hire a car and driver from a tour operator; most offer advance reservations on the Internet. Skyway International Travels (www.skywaytour.com) offers several customizable itineraries on its website. Opt for a Toyota Qualis or other rugged ride, since the drive gets bumpy once you leave the well-paved highway and enter the countryside.
Grab a snack. Just after the town of Channapatna on the Mysore Road is an excellent pit stop with three eateries -- Shivalli MTR cafe, Caf? Coffee Day, and Indra Dhanush. There may be a wait for a table at Shivalli, but you'll be rewarded with cheap, good breakfast fare: dosas, khara bhath, sambhar, chutney, and the like. Starbucks-like Caf? Coffee Day has clean western-style toilets, as well as an assortment of muffins, pastries and java.
Shop for silks.The road to Coorg passes through the lovely city of Mysore, so if you haven't already checked out the famous palace and gardens on a prior excursion, by all means have your driver stop there for a bit. Stock up on silk sarees and wood carvings, and buy a bar or two of Mysore Sandal Soap to perfume your showers. Stare up at the twin spires of St. Philomena's Church, the beautiful neo-Gothic-style cathedral that is one of the city's landmarks.
Smell the coffee.Spend the night in a traditional Coorg homestay on a coffee estate. Many offer accommodations in elegant colonial-era bungalows. The Plantation Trails resort (www.tata.com/0_products_services/homes_individuals/holiday_homes.htm), in nearby Polibetta, is owned by Tata, the Indian conglomerate whose brands include Tetley and Eight O'Clock. Some bungalows are nestled right in the midst of the plantation, while others command beautiful views of the valleys.
Spice it up. Weather permitting, you can take an SUV ride through the winding trails of the plantations. The coffee plants (both Arabica and Robusta) are grown in the shade of silver oak trees, upon which black pepper vines are trained. Harvest season goes from about November until March. Other spices grown among the coffee include cardamom and vanilla. Keep an eye out for areas of unusually flattened vegetation -- a sign of elephants' after-hours jaunts.
Breathe.Don't forget just to sit out on the verandah of your bungalow drinking in the fresh country air. Read a good book, play a board game, or just relax and take in the lush flowers and foliage. Your Bangalore-scarred lungs will thank you.
Tickle your tastebuds.Curried pork is a common treat in this area; the cook at your homestay will likely offer this delicacy along with a veritable smorgasbord of other meat and vegetable dishes. On the menu might be spicy chicken, jackfruit curry, and freshly made chapathis (flat bread). Wash it all down with several cups of the rich, locally grown coffee. If you'd like to take the experience with you, roadside stands all over the region offer ground Coorg coffee (often flavored with chicory), black pepper, and honey.
See where the river runs.On your way back to Bangalore, drive up to Bhagamandala, at the confluence of the three rivers Cauvery, Kannike and Sujyoti, and proceed to Talacauvery, where the Cauvery is said to originate. Climb up the 300-odd steps and check out the vista from the Brahmagiri hill.
Make it last.If you have more time, take a detour to Bylakuppe, home to a large settlement of Tibetans, and Nagarhole National Park, where you might spot elephants, deer, jackals, and other animals on a guided tour.
If You GoA two-day tour including private car and driver, roundtrip travel from Bangalore, tours of the major area sights, one-night accommodation, plantation tour, and breakfast at a homestay in Coorg is around $175 per person. Expect to pay about $10 per person per meal for a home-cooked lunch and dinner. Some well-known resorts are Orange County (www.trailsindia.com) and Club Mahindra (www.clubmahindra.com/res_coorg_home.asp). Do look closely at the rates -- room tariffs are often higher for foreign nationals.
Tour operators, who can arrange transportation, accommodation, and activities at your request, can be found quite easily online (just Google "Coorg tour" and you'll see how many results pop up) but prices and amenities vary widely. Check out whatever option you're considering on a message board (www.indiamike.com is a popular forum) to see what other travelers' experiences have been. The government-run Karnataka State Tourism Development Corporation (www.kstdc.net) is also helpful -- a list of their Bangalore offices and branch locations with contact information is at http://kstdc.net/html/ContactUs.htm.
Tour operators and the locals all know some English, but having a few key Kannada phrases under your belt is always helpful. Most big bookstores in Bangalore carry Kannada phrasebooks and language-learning books (if you're in the city center, try Gangarams Book Bureau, at 72 M.G. Road -- it has a wide selection of both language books and maps). Before you go, you can pick up a few Kannada phrases at http://wikitravel.org/en/Kannada_phrasebook or www.languageshome.com/English-Kannada.htm. The University of Pennsylvania has some online Kannada grammar lessons (be sure to download the font) if you're interested in learning the language a bit further. It's available at http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/plc/kannada/.
Don't forget to bring the usual essentials: Toilet paper, hand sanitizer, insect repellant and sunscreen all come in handy.
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