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Coonoor Calling

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

Fact File
Getting There

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 heavier showers.
Best time to Visit: Between October and March.

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 kilometers away.

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 look.

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.

Former Loves

Whilst 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.