Check In To Nirvana

Whrere: Cardamom Hills, India

Paradise, indeed.

The word "retreat" in the title couldn't be more apt, either. Guests stay in individual teak villas, built in traditional Kerala-style architecture and adorned with antique columns and intricate rosewood carvings. Each roomy villa has its own private setting and a stupendous view of the dense green hills overlooking a maharajah's former hunting grounds. You can swim in a footprint-shaped pool on a mountainside terrace, take yoga classes and ayurvedic treatments, play golf at a historic planter's club nearby, spot wild elephants and perhaps even tigers at the Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary just over the hills. Or just stroll around the lush plantation grounds, where orchids bloom, monkeys chatter, and the scent of wild spices hangs alluringly in the air (they don't call these the Cardamom Hills for nothing).

Watch the harvesting of coffee, cloves, and pepper, visit the nearby plant where cardamom is processed, or swing up to Munnar to see the Tata tea factory and museum. Breakfast is served on a lovely terrace, and even if you're not a regular coffee drinker, the smell of fresh-brewed coffee -- organically grown right here -- can be intoxicating. On the open-air stone pavilion of the central dining area, host Simon Paulose makes every meal into a social occasion; with only 12 units on the property, the number of guests at any one time is equivalent to a gracious dinner party. And the meals are unbelievably delicious, superb examples of refined Keralan cuisine, which some say is the best in south India: crispy-thin dosa pancakes, abundant seafood, the pervasive richness of coconut milk, and deeply spiced stews and curries.

Seeing where the spices grow and then tasting them in your dinner is its own sort of farm-to-table experience, of the most exotic and luxurious variety. If you're intrigued by this extraordinary combination of flavors, you can arrange a cooking class with the chef, who will teach you how to re-create any dish on the menu. It's one way to take home a little piece of paradise.

Off the Kottayam-Kumily Rd., Murinjapuzha; tel. 91/469/270-1311 for reservations, 91/4869/288-119, or 0944/7088-119;

Nearest Airport:
Kochi International Airport (140km/87 miles). Kottayam (70km/43 miles).