A mere whimper away from Ooty, the quaint hill station untouched
by the ravages of mass tourism could be your most preferred getaway this holiday
season says Deepika Belapurkar
All pics: Deepika Belapurkar
The charming outpost called Coonoor has always been the Nilgiri
district's best kept secret. In the 19th century Englishmen set up a slew of
summer cottages and bestowed upon Coonoor a most restorative character that
any Indian hill station could possibly have. They pioneered a grand new way
of relaxation, in the blue hills of 'Neilgherries'in Tamil Nadu. Cut to 2004,
I am about to see Coonoor after a long spell of 27 years.
Exhilarated by the nip in the wintry air and the chance to rediscover my past,
I hardly feel the hairpin bends of the Sigur Ghat to be perilous as we climb
to a cool 1,839 meters to Coonoor, an area of just 15.5 square kilometers. While
we missed out on the thrilling and breathtakingly scenic Blue Mountain Express
(narrow gauge toy train) ride from Mettupalayam, opting for an eight-hour road
journey from Bangalore, I was in high spirits. Reaching Coonoor was like a homecoming.
The chance to reconnoiter the Nilgiri forest area, all of
2,549 square kilometers, is much too appealing. A fantastical 56.2 per cent
of the total district area only for nature pursuits-that ought to inspire even
the most seasoned animal lover and botanist, I should think. Its no wonder that
Countess Canning, the wife of the viceroy of 1858, chose Coonoor specifically
for a prolonged spell of sketching and study of botany. In the bargain she earned
herself a memorial, called Lady Canning's Seat.
The Old And The New
By Air: The nearest
airport is at Coimbatore, (100.kilometers), which has daily flights to
and from Madras, Bangalore, Kochi and Trivandrum.
By Rail: The narrow gauge Blue
Mountain Express from Mettupalayam (27 kilometers away) takes three hours.
The station is connected by trains from Chennai and Coimbatore.
By Road: There is regular bus
service from Coimbatore and the journey takes about three hours.
Weather: The maximum temperature
in Coonoor rises to 25 degree Celsius in summer and dips to as low as
one degree Celsius in winter. Coonoor gets the south west monsoon during
June-September and the north east monsoon from October to December with
Best time to Visit: Between October
On that late balmy afternoon, we sweep past All Saints' Church
in Bedford, Coonoor's oldest church. This particular 1854 edifice in Upper Coonoor
has always evoked the greatest appreciation in believers and tourists, for its
turreted belfry and red Mangalore-tiled roof and weeping cypress trees shadowing
a cemetery with the oldest plaque revealing an 1852 burial. We check in next
door at the Taj Garden Retreat, a 1990 makeover of erstwhile Hampton Court.
The resort provides us blessed reprieve, for on its premises we receive our
very first flavour of the famed local hospitality.
The staff we notice has yet not succumbed to the pressures from media raves
and the property continues to impart, in old traditional ways, soul therapy
- by way of graciously attentive staff. Our stay infuses us with a warm cared-for
feeling, giving us reason to believe that Coonoor's tranquility and clime have
a big role to play in keeping everyone in a jolly good mood all the time. The
British legacy goes only as far as the punctilious English spoken by practically
everyone; the rest of what we experience is plain old Indian hospitality.
Fresh after a wash and comforting stomach fill, we are ready
to behold in the gathering sunset, my Coonoor of old. It is much too evolved;
the slopes of this meadow-filled town at the head of ravine Halikul has inherited
the pains of endemic construction, when once it had been much envied for its
sprawling unhindered tea and coffee estates. Mist-veiled Lower Coonoor shrugs
off, every now and then, smoke that emanates from large vehicles that regularly
lumber up from its bus terminal, while, pristine Upper Coonoor continues to
elicit disbelief in tourists jaded with the worn-out charms of Ooty just 19
If Coonoor's undulating hills seem fraught with a watertight
juxtaposition of newer edifices over former open spaces, its clime continues
to be life affirming as much as the melodic peals of church bells perforating
the fragrance of roses and marigolds. An invigoratingly sharp blue eucalyptus
scent tails us wherever wanderlust takes us. After a few morning walks along
the dirt track circumnavigating Tiger Hill we drum up courage to befriend the
lonely watchman guarding its 20th century cemetery. He in turn brings out the
dog-eared visitors' book. It discloses messages of joy and discovery from people
from around the world for their dear departed ones...uncles, cousins, grand-parents,
all buried here since 1873.
The slopes around are a stirring deep green from enlacing
tea gardens that are resonant with prolific bird activity. Daytim is the best
for picnicking, in quiet glens and clearings, though sadly we see little of
that happening today. We are cheerfully warned about venturing out there in
the dark lest a wild animal show up for evening supper. But, not to worry, tigers
are residents of the distant past and locals have perhaps forgotten how they
Upper Coonoor's topography is eminently pretty interspersed with Tudor-style
English cottages sporting latticed window frames and red-tiled roofs. Not even
J.D Sim, a council member in the 19th century, had been averse to the charms
of the cornucopia of bougainvillea and marigold and brambles of rose bushes
that continue to fringe the homes. Even the hedges of heliotropes and fuchsias
are still very much in style.
In 1874, Sim went on to create Sim's Park on the slopes of
a ravine, a park that's still as riveting and not just for its botanical import
- Araucaria, Camellia, Magnolia, Pine, Phoenix, Turpentine, and Quercus. On
those 12 hectares, you can do much to distance yourself from the pressures of
city life. Lie supine beneath ancient mammoths, stroll between the 1,000 odd
species of plants, play botanist with the tree ferns that pepper the park, watch
wagtails and munias antic about; or row in the lake below. Naturally, there
is nothing to beat the fruit and vegetable show held here in May, an event that's
as exclusive as it is frequented.
Bedford is the place to buy almost every essential, it's also the launching
post for roads that shoot off to Lower Coonoor, Wellington, Kotagiri and the
interiors of Upper Coonoor. One such winsome road, a purposeful shortcut really,
climbs from Bedford, past Stanes High School, against the wall of the Coonoor
Club to come to rest at the Sim's Park Junction, the start of the road to Kotagiri.
The road to Wellington now has a brambly and wilder appearance with even greener,
if that is possible, foliage fanning its sides. It graces one of the numerous
spurs of the Dodabetta Range (8,640 feet), is 6,100 feet above sea level and
about one and half miles north of Coonoor. In Wellington reside the famous Defense
Services Staff College and Madras Regimental Centre. Aside from these cordoned
off establishments, civilians are free to roam in most areas.
The Golf Links area and the racecourse in Wellington with its enjoining wooded
hills sport a great sense of prevailing adventure: here, Enid Blyton's enchanting
brooks babble away perennially across its breadth, merry with song and clear
in their guise. The simple English-style meadow will always have grazing cows
and the occasional greasy-haired cowherds loafing in the shade somewhere, and
golfers and their accompanying caddies marring this picture-postcard scene.
But, that doesn't stop us from spreading a hamper of goodies to tuck into.
At the base of this deep ravine, separating Wellington from Coonoor begins the
Hidden Valley veiled from the eye of the casual observer by soaring trees. The
forest has given to Coonoor the kind of respectability Nagarhole's bamboo forest
has given Karnataka. But, most tourists bypass this three-kilometer trudge through
this forest and drive on straight to Ooty. Sightseeing points, hill-stations
over, seldom alter with time; their popularity it seems only intensifying in
the intervening years. Coonoor, however, is worlds apart and remains to this
day a non-touristy outpost. Be it neighbouring Ooty's mesmeric hold over honeymooners,
filmmakers and the average middle class sightseer or Coonoor's evident lack
of nightlife, the latter has benefited in a big way.
There is no dearth of coursing waterfalls, awe-inspiring cliffs and canyons,
deep chasms, lookouts named after British discoverers and, gasp-inducing views
all within a manageable distance of 10 kilometers. Twenty odd kilometers from
Coonoor one gets unique mountain views from the old fortress ruins called the
Droog. All of Coonoor's sights are trek worthy, for the gentle slopes of India's
oldest mountain range offer manageable trekking routes. Not unlike the British,
who fled the scorching plains in the summers, there is the occasional tourist,
an oddity really, who gives Coonoor precedence over Ooty. Ex-school boarders,
who have preserved their ties with Coonoor or rekindled them, keep coming back
and then there are those whom a small chocolate box cottage on the for blue
green hills is not an impossible dream after all.
If Coonoor's spell ever ends, there's always the serendipity
of straying into Kotagiri's fragile Shola forest where the flying squirrel forms
the reception committee.