When one is weary of the bustle and smog of the city, the idea of heading out for a mini vacation is pretty appealing, at least until you find yourself marooned at a crowded spot, along with a million other souls who have had exactly the same notion. This scenario is highly unlikely though, if you happen to wander into the tranquil green hills of Valparai in Tamil Nadu, India.
Located in the Anamalai region of the Western Ghats, Valparai is a short and pleasant drive of about 100 kms from Coimbatore city, with about 40 hairpin bends thrown in to appease the adventure seeker. There’s so much to look at all around, as the sweeping views of the plains are replaced with softly rolling hills, and then the lush expanses of tea plantations.
Much of what Valparai is today was shaped by the British. They planted miles of tea bushes in the rich soil of the hills, and setup factories to process the harvest. Sprawling estates, bungalows nestled in picturesque spots, tiny hamlets with neat rows of huts, and colourful temples is what meets the eyes all around. Every inch of the landscape is carpeted in the verdant green of tea bushes in bloom, with evergreen forests nestled at the fringes. There’s plenty of water to be found, at least in the rainy season, and you would encounter tiny ponds, rivulets and quite a few sparkling waterfalls as you drive through the area.
Many of the British-era bungalows have been re-engineered into hotels, and staying at one of these is highly recommended for that ultimate tea estate experience. We just couldn’t get enough of the Sirukundra Bungalow (managed by Briar Tree Bungalows) where we spent the night. Set in manicured gardens blooming with lilies and roses, complete with a porch at the entrance and verandahs running through the front and sides, this immaculate property makes you smile even as you drive in.
The Sirukundra Bungalow was constructed in 1917, and is beautifully maintained and elegantly furnished with period furniture and antique objects d’art. There is a spacious living room with lots of comfortable seating that opens up to the front of the house, and a bright and airy dining room, with an old-fashioned pantry area and powder room attached to it.
The three generously-sized bedrooms, furnished in pretty blues and greens, each have a large attached bath, and a inviting sit-out area with comfortable chairs.
Wooden and tiled floors, working fireplaces and botanical prints on the walls..all bring that old world charm alive. There are so many little touches that make the decor special.. coffee table books, antique knickknacks, a set of flowered plates on the sideboard and warm rugs placed underfoot.
Other options for stay here at Sirukundra include wooden chalets and well-equipped tents. They’ve even put in a swimming pool on the property!
If you’re wondering what there is to do in Valparai, the best answer would be to just let the peace, fresh air and greenery soak restfully into your mind and body. You can do this from the depths of a recliner on the front porch, while sipping on ginger tea and munching on crunchy onion pakoras. Or, you could take a long rambling walk around the plantation, through the paths worn into the dirt by decades of tea pickers, stepping over muddy streams and knotted roots, perhaps stopping every few minutes to admire the endless emerald vistas of the rolling hills. Do remember to get back to the gates before dark, since the area is prone to visits by wildlife, including leopards and herds of elephants.
And yes, we’re happy to report that the kitchens at the Sirukundra bungalow turn out some pretty delicious and elaborate meals. The cooking is home-style and the taste finger-licking good. A special word for the lovely desserts which are too often overlooked – a rich, caramel-tinged butterscotch pudding at lunch and creamy, not-too-sweet tender-coconut souffle at dinner. Yum!
Visiting Valparai is like stepping back into another era, and you may never want to head back to modernity. The quiet calm of the hills cleanses the spirits, and whether you like to laze around or trek energetically, take photographs or paint pictures, tour factories or explore local markets, spot wildlife or go bird watching, this is one of those perfect nooks of the world where there’s really something for everyone to love.