Munnar: Home of Tea & Tahrs
Munnar town itself is rather unpleasant and increasingly clogged by impulsive development; thankfully, the region's real attractions lie on its outskirts where it is still possible to find solitude in hidden away spots that have so far withstood the onslaught of tourist exploitation -- especially if you pick a small, quiet place to lodge.
With tea-covered slopes spread out as far as the eye can see, watching the mists creep over the valleys and come to rest like a blanket on the jade-colored hills is almost as refreshing as luxuriating in the cool climate -- a welcome relief before you descend to the tropical Kerala coast or to sultry Madurai in neighboring Tamil Nadu. There are moments when the region draws comparisons with the Scottish Highlands, dotted with enormous boulder outcrops and souring rocky peaks.
Almost all the plantations are owned by the powerful Tata company, the same mighty conglomerate that produces India's buses, Sumo four-by-fours, the world's most affordable car (launched 2009), and the Taj hotel chain. Tea factory visits can be arranged either through your hotel or by contacting Tata's regional office (tel. 04865/23-0561 through -0565), through which you can also visit the Tea Museum and the tea factory's processing unit (Tues-Sun 10am-4pm). To get up close to some of the world's last Nilgiri tahr (a variety of mountain goat or ibex), arrange a visit to nearby Eravikulam National Park. Existing only in the mountain grasslands of the Western Ghats at altitudes above 2,000m (6,560 ft.), the tahr is as endangered as the tiger, with fewer than 2,000 left. The park has been a great success, with dedicated tea planters, once the primary hunters of the tahr, now doubling as voluntary wildlife wardens. The 2007 census shows a healthy population of 800, almost double what it was 30 years ago. Note that you can participate in the annual census, which will ensure up-close encounters with both the tahr and the planters and rangers who protect it. It is held for a week in April; for more information call the park office. Of course, sighting what is basically a goat, no matter how rare, may not be as exhilarating as spotting a tiger, but your chances are far higher -- in fact the tahrs have grown so used to visitors that you can get within a few yards of them. Enter the park at the Rajamala entrance, 15km (9 1/3 miles) from Munnar, where you can buy tickets at the park office (tel. 04865/23-1587; entry Rs 50, light vehicles Rs 10; daily 8am-5pm). Avoid the usual noisy crowds by arriving early.
Once in a Blue Bloom -- Visitors to India's southern highlands in 2006 were lucky enough to witness the blooming of the rare and exotic Neelakurunji plant. Its violet blossoms transform the hillsides around Munnar for 1 month -- but only every 12 years. A pleasant 34km (21-mile) trip from Munnar, Top Station (the highest point on the Munnar-Kodaikanal road, from where you enjoy panoramic views of the surrounding plains and hills) is the place to witness this natural spectacle, but it won't happen again until 2018.
Where to Stay & Dine
If you can't get in to Windermere or Casa Montagna (both reviewed), you might want to look at The Siena Village. With 28 units and a long list of facilities (including a conference hall), it's very much a resort with a dull ambience, but the location, a lovely half-hour drive from Munnar in what feels like genuine hill country (although the area is feeling the steady encroachment of neighboring properties), is really lovely. Accommodations are comfortable enough but without any flair (a single framed print, hung too high, is the only wall decoration) and despite being spread around a wide expanse of neatly trimmed lawns and a central open-air pavilion can feel a little cluttered. Our biggest objection is that views from many of the rooms are obscured; ask for one with an upstairs bedroom (tel. 04868/24-9261; www.thesienavillage.com; Rs 4,600 deluxe double, including breakfast). Before booking with a resort that isn't recommended here, it's worth knowing that the Kerala authorities are taking a very hard line against resorts erected illegally on reserve land, so when developers take chances, authorities respond by razing the offending properties to the ground -- it can mean that your choice will be nothing but a pile of rubble by the time you get here (although the places we've listed are all legit).
It's a Planter's Life
For a time trip back to the days when lily-white Raj-era plantation bosses would gather to discuss the grade of their latest tea leaf harvest, and extol upon the virtues of life in the hills, stop by the old-world-style High Range Club (www.highrangeclubmunnar.com) -- founded in 1905 as The Gymkhana Club. Do so if only to see where retired planters have literally hung up their hats (in the Men's Lounge), or to shoot the breeze (or a few rounds of snooker) with the gentrified folk who still drift through these sanctified, but now slightly worn, rooms straight out of another era. You could even end up staying the night -- there are decent rooms and cottages (built in 1935 and modified back in the '70s with enclosed verandas, glazed windows, and mosaic tiles) for Rs 1,000 to Rs 2,000 per night, and meals are very well priced, too.
However, if you really want to get out and stay amid the verdant tea-covered hills, nothing could be more authentic than a night in one of the five former planter's bungalows constituting The Tea Sanctuary. With panoramic views of the vast tea and eucalyptus plantations, these sturdy (and, for a change, rather intelligently restored) cottages don't offer a heck of a lot to do indoors (except lounge by the fireplace) but you have access to a sprawling terrain, with tennis, golf, fishing, sightseeing, and trekking easily arranged. A private staff of two (including a personal chef) do much to make your stay pleasurable, and because they're owned by one of the major tea companies hereabouts -- Kanan Devan Hills Plantations (KDHP House, Munnar; tel. 04865/23-0141; www.theteasanctuary.com; firstname.lastname@example.org) -- you'll have hassle-free access to huge areas of tea country. Count on spending Rs 4,000 to Rs 5,500 double, with breakfast and dinner and all taxes included.
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.