The sight of “big mountain,” on the 20-kilometre stretch from Coonoor to Ooty, is my favourite bit of the journey home to the Nilgiris. Black-and-white revetments ribbon endlessly along the road, like breadcrumbs to my destination. The sun glints through the trees, illuminating the flame-of-the-forest, which washes the hills in burnt orange.
The beloved rock face emerges from the ground like a gigantic slice of cake. Some days, its stony peak is shrouded in mist, its lower half wrapped in a scarf of green forest. Today the sky is clear, and I picture the view from its top—of the undulating Bhavani River, the Nilgiri valley, and the plains of Mettupalayam. I have no idea what the big rock face is called, but the sight of it is imperative to my sense of belonging.
I ache to share this with the friends I am bringing home, but worry that the place, almost mythically beautiful to me, will fall short of their expectations. On this trip, our party of 13 comprises my husband, who has made the journey numerous times; our 11-month-old, who had just started walking; her nanny; my best friend, her husband, and their two older children; and a 15-month-old with his parents. And my parents, who are hosting us at the family tea plantation in Gudalur. Almost everybody has visited the Nilgiris before, but I’m taking them home. I want to show them why this area is the most beautiful place south of the Vindhyas.
The 137-kilometre journey from Coimbatore to Gudalur shouldn’t take more than four hours, but does, with the many stops we make to take in favourite views. After breaking a coconut at a small Ganesh Temple in Mathampalayam, about an hour into our journey, we enter Mettupalayam, a potato-trading town, via the Bhavani Bridge. The sight of the Bhavani River, the second longest in Tamil Nadu and a major tributary of the Kaveri, inspires an animated discussion about the never-ending water wars between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu.
Turning left after the bridge, we continue up the NH181 to Coonoor. The road on the right goes to Kotagiri, a panchayat town known for its perfect climate and beautiful tea estates due to an ideal elevation (5,800 feet). This original route into the Nilgiris was once frequented by traders, their bullock carts filled to the brim with vegetables and tea.
Chewing on sweet, white coconut meat, we pass Black Thunder theme park on our right, a well-known landmark that is popular for school excursions and with young truant college students. Our road cuts through thickets of bamboo and banana fields, and we greet the Nilgiris. The name is Sanskrit for “blue mountains,” and on a clear day, the sun’s rays reflect a smoky teal as they dance on eucalyptus leaves. There is also the iridescent blue of the kurinji shrub, which blooms every twelve years. Having never witnessed this myself, I insist it is a rural legend: 2018 is when it flowers next.
Before we know it we are negotiating sharp hairpin bends. Over the 28 kilometres from Mettupalayam to Coonoor, the road ascends about 4,000 feet in 40 minutes. The eight-year-old was soon bestowing his breakfast upon the wild bluebells. This ascent gives the Nilgiri Mountain Railway the steepest slope of any rail system in Asia. The rare sight of the blue-and-white locomotive traversing a bridge always lifts my spirits, especially if it’s the old steam engine. The tiny puffs of smoke transport me to scenes from A Passage to India, a part of which was shot in Coonoor in 1984. Arriving into the hill station alongside train tracks, we reach a busy junction that splits NH181 into two. We take the scenic route to Upper Coonoor, called the 1081 or Ooty–Mettupalayam Road. The other road extends from Coonoor Road to Lower Coonoor.
While Ooty is the mainstay for blushing honeymooners from out-of-state, Coonoor, its more reserved cousin, is the local favourite. There’s almost no frost in its sub-tropical highland climate, which nurtures azaleas, and more importantly, tea. Small lanes lead into the forest, wrought-iron gates open to gravelled driveways, and large bungalows are still home to retired colonels who love serving visitors their home-made fruit wine.
Wellington’s army cantonment area, which lies three kilometres northwest, made such an impression on me as a child that it is still my model for how all of India should look. Between the war memorial and the Madras Regimental Centre, is an almost Narnia-esque landscape, complete with a historic bridge called Waterloo, Black Bridge, or Manekshaw, depending on whom you speak to.
But peel back the manicured tea gardens, and you still see traces of the old Badaga village of Jakkatalla, which is what Wellington was called before it became home first to the British, and then to affluent farmers. The divide between Lower and Upper Coonoor is clearly reflected in the sudden transition of names, from Gandhipuram to Bedford Circle, Cornwall Road, and Forest Dale. I prop the tyke up and point out familiar red-tiled roofs, but she’s far more mesmerized by the rhesus monkeys by the road that are picking ants out of each other’s teeth.
Several movies have been filmed on one particular scenic stretch, and to everyone’s delight, we stop and admire 180° McIver, a bungalow enjoying its 15 minutes of fame thanks to the recent Kapoor & Sons. The perfectly maintained picture-postcard homestay was built in the early 1900s and has sprawling lawns with a panoramic view of Coonoor.
The 1081 merges back into Coonoor Road at Black Bridge, but before we cross, we stop at the Madras Regimental Centre, home to one of India’s oldest regiments—formed in the 1750s. Visitors can’t go in, but I’ve often peeked in when the doors are ajar, sneaking a look at the large square framed by postbox red-and-white buildings. Someone comments on the familiarity of it, and I remember that the film Roja was filmed primarily in Wellington.
In about 20 minutes we pull into Culinarium, my favourite pit stop, where I promise the slightly bedraggled and nauseous travellers crusty chicken pot pie, and the cleanest loos outside a five-star hotel. The girls take a table by the bay window and sip from glasses of white wine, while our spouses change diapers. It’s around Christmas, and a gingerbread house rests temptingly at the centre of the table, against the backdrop of terraced gardens.
After a meal of chicken liver pâté, melba toast, lamb pot pie, and beer, topped off with airy éclairs and espresso, we walk down to the Pony Craft Store, where I always buy too much wool for sweaters that lie half-made. Their cross-stitch by numbers kits have rescued many a parent during summer holidays; every household in the hills is bound to have one of these crafts framed in a bathroom.
TIP If you’ve left early in the morning, skip lunch and pick up delicious fried bread vegetable rolls and hot Nilgiri tea from Ooty Iyengar Bakery. Adjacent to this is a roadside vendor who sells the most perfectly formed oyster mushrooms. Dosa and thali lovers can head to Nahar Nilgiris Hotel which is purely vegetarian.
Before driving into Gudalur, we make a diversion to Ooty, the summer capital of the Madras Presidency. Past Hotel Blue Bird, we head towards Upper Bazaar, entering the town through Charring Cross Junction. At a fork, we take the right road, away from the bus station and the commercial heart of Ooty, towards its beautiful face. Behind the commercialization and concrete there’s a surprising wealth of architecture, history, and urban mythology to uncover. Ooty is home to Tamil Nadu’s oldest and most prestigious library, and its Government Botanical Garden is among the oldest in India.
As we continue down Garden Road towards them, an elderly Toda woman walks slowly past our car. Her stooping shoulders are covered in a traditional shawl embroidered with black and red leaves, her hair is slicked back with buffalo butter into a tight bun, and an intricate silver necklace shines at her throat. Ooty, or rather Udhagamandalam, was Toda land before being ceded to the British in May 1819; we spare some time at the Botanical Gardens for Toda Mund, a hill dedicated to the tribe, which along with the Irulas, Badagas, Kotas, and Kurumbas comprise the five indigenous inhabitants of the Nilgiris.
There’s plenty more to see in the 22 acres of landscaped terraced gardens, which lie on the lower part of Doddabetta Peak, the highest point of the Nilgiris (8,650 feet). Its six sections make for a great, stroller-friendly walk. There is also a 20-million-year-old fossilized tree that can make even the most jaded of teenagers perk up. Then there’s the Rose Garden with over 300 varieties, and the Italian garden, with its beds of colourful perennials and trimmed topiaries, designed by Italian POWs interred here during World War I. A flower show, with an exhibition of rare plant species, is held every May.
We make our way back towards Upper Bazaar, the heritage quarter, with its neat red buildings and white windowpanes. This triangle houses the Collector’s Office—where I spent many an afternoon waiting for my father—the District Court and the Head Post Office, all built in a similar Victorian style. Opposite the Collector’s Office is the old Nilgiri library. St. Stephen’s Church, built in 1829, stands to the right. Its plain cream facade is enhanced by minimal colonial flourishes, as if John James Underwood, the architect and Captain of the Madras Regiment, thought the surrounding beauty was distraction enough from the lord. There is a hint of opulence in the hefty teak wooden doors, which were pilfered from Tipu Sultan’s palace after the British victory at Srirangapatna.
I tell the kids how I used to sit in the graveyard behind the church, scaring other children with ghost stories. My husband, who’s heard this umpteen times, nods approvingly.
I can’t drive past Modern Stores without making a stop. This treasure house, with everything from Pringles to dust mops, has kept posh boarding school tuck boxes full since 1951. We stock up on sausages and bacon for barbecues, and the kid’s eyes widen at the sight of Moddy’s chocolates. Ooty is famous for its home-made chocolate fudge. While King Star confectionery is the pioneer, I prefer Moddy’s sugar-free dark.
TIP Those interested in tribal history, may also like to visit the Ooty Tribal Museum in Muthorai Palada (10 km southwest).
The kids are getting restless and we are eager to reach home before twilight. My parents are worried we might find ourselves stranded outside our estate, conversing with the elephants that frequently visit it; though our guests find this prospect delicious. The breeze gets some teeth as the sun disappears behind the pine forests, and we make our way up Old Pykara road, passing the Ootacamund Gymkhana Golf Club located on the rolling Wenlock Downs.
One of the highest courses in the world (7,000 feet), it’s also one of the most difficult, with wooded tree lines of eucalyptus, oak, rhododendron, and fir as well as uphill and downhill slopes. As a child, I preferred munching on finger sandwiches on the club’s veranda, looking out towards the Avalanchi range, imaginatively named after an avalanche in the 1800s.
But everyone’s “hills are alive” moment comes a little ahead, when we cross the Hindustan Photo Films factory and take a sharp left to gaze towards Lake Sandynulla, a calm tourmaline pool surrounded by fantastic green. Leaving the bulk of civilization behind, we wind our way towards Naduvattam, stopping only once, to let a bunch of tourists board their bus after visiting the spot where I once saw Aamir Khan roll down a hill with Raveena Tandon for a film shooting.
Leaving the tourists behind, we drive deeper into part of the 5,000-square-kilometre Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve. This evergreen pine, deciduous oak, and shola forest ecosystem, with patches of stunted tropical montane forests between rolling grassland and tea plantation, is home to panthers and bison, giant squirrels and tigers, and endemic species like the Nilgiri tahr.
After this, we reach Naduvattam, a nondescript one-horse panchayat village famous for its eternal fog, fresh vegetables, and the fact that Chinese convicts were imprisoned here during the Opium Wars. An ancient jail, now a museum, marks their presence.
The estate is now 15 minutes away, and my husband holds our daughter by the window to show her the beloved home stretch. We roll down our windows to breathe in the fragrance of Wilson Gardens, a forest of eucalyptus that renders even the sceptical eight-year-old speechless. Sunrays break through the shade of young green trees with peeling, blushing bark, creating a fairyland of dense growth where giant Malabar squirrels frolic. My father often mumbles about the ecological damage caused by eucalyptus, the almost parasitical impact they have on the land, but he’s shushed this time by collective awe.
After passing the hairpin bend under Frog Hill, we are home, and have beaten the elephants to it. We are a mere 20 minutes away from Mudumalai Wildlife Sanctuary, which means we enjoy—and fear—visits from elephants that my family named things like Rowdy Ranga and Monstra; as well as from the occasional leopard and bear, too scary to name. Our tamer resident wildlife, the barking deer and endangered Nilgiri langurs, provide us company over the next three days of eating, drinking, walking, birding, and sitting by the bonfire.
Updated in November 2017.
Because of the relative proximity of Coonoor and Ooty, you can stay at either place and still explore the area with relative ease.
Choose from six rooms with wood-panelled windows and wide porches. The multi-cuisine restaurant has a cosy fireplace (1-4, Orange Grove Road, Coonoor; 97150 33066; doubles from Rs 3,999; more here).
Perfect for a family holiday, with space for kids to run around, and cheesemaking courses for adults (571, Upper Meanjee Estate, Kannimariamman Kovil Street, Coonoor; 94432 32621; doubles from Rs 3,000; more here).
A charming, four-bedroom bungalow that’s perfect for a group. Have breakfast on the lawn overlooking the valley; they also make a killer chicken curry (23, Brooklands, Coonoor; 97150 33066; doubles from Rs 4,500; more here).
This imposing former ancestral mansion offers nine rooms named after Shakespeare’s plays, and an excellent restaurant (King’s Cliff, Havelock Road; 0423-2244000; doubles from Rs 3,775; more here).
The historical palace of the Mysore Wadiyar kings has 19 large rooms filled with art and antiques (Fernhills Post Nilgiris, Ooty; 0423-244 3910; doubles from Rs9,500; more here).
Victorian-style row houses feature old writing desks and intricately carved working fireplaces with modern bathrooms and amenities (77, Sylks Road, Ooty; 0423-2225500; doubles from Rs 5,750; more here).