A perfect long weekend among the hills and tea plantations of Coonoor

Surrounded by the Nilgiri mountains, the hill stations of Coonoor and Wellington make for the perfect long weekend, with spectacular views, rolling tea plantations and misty winding roads.

 

It was August 2017, and we were itching for a much-needed dose of getting-out-of-town and doing-nothing-much. It had been eight months since our trip to the Lakshadweep islands in January, and we had already missed one long weekend in August, so we couldn’t let this one go. Our final plan: to spend the 24th to the 27th of August in Coonoor.

We had heard so much about Coonoor and its sister-town of Wellington in the Nilgiri hills—not least from my in-laws who had been stationed at the military cantonment there—that we wanted to visit at some point. So visit we did, and spent a great few days among the hills and tea estates.

Also read: A getaway in the clouds

The plan was to fly to Coimbatore, and then drive the 70-odd kilometres to our homestay in Coonoor. We landed in Coimbatore with our heads filled with images of the cool, verdant Nilgiris, and got a bit of a shock: Coimbatore was hot and humid, and smelled of exhaust fumes. In retrospect, we shouldn’t have been surprised, since it’s in the plains. Anyway, we hopped into the car that our homestay hosts had organized to pick us up, and set off on the three-hour drive.

Along the way, we had the novel experience of getting stuck in a traffic jam in the town of Mettupalayam caused by hordes of movie-goers who had turned out to watch the latest blockbuster by a popular local action movie star. Incidentally, Mettupalayam—the last major town in the plains before one enters the hills—is the railhead for the famous mountain train to the popular hill-station of Ooty, and which passes through Coonoor as well.

Coonoor - Mettupalayam
The Nilgiris rise beyond Mettupalayam
Coonoor - Driving up.jpg
Driving through the clouds

Once the road started climbing, it immediately became cooler, and we didn’t mind having to turn the car’s air-conditioner off to help it up the inclines. In fact, keeping the windows down and watching Mettupalayam recede into the valley through the trees was great fun. It also helped that we didn’t take the main highway to Ooty, but the narrower but less crowded Kotagiri road. Despite being longer, the route had almost no traffic and was scenic and peaceful, and took the same amount of time. Plus, we also got to have lunch at the lovely Silvertip Café for lunch, where we partook in some nice vegetable sandwiches, some passable chow mein, and a massive serving of the local ‘variety rice’—a bowl each of tomato rice, tamarind rice and curd rice.

Coonoor - Silvertip cafe
The view from our table at the Silvertip Cafe
Coonoor - Silvertip cafe - Plantation worker
A plantation worker picks tea across the road
Coonoor - Silvertip cafe - House next door
A house next door

We got to our homestay—the wonderful Great Escape—at around three in the afternoon, and were greeted by our host, the friendly and smiling Colonel Joe Philip, a retired officer of the Indian army. Col. Philip and his wife Kamal (who was out of town at the time) run this nice little homestay built onto a hillside, with the main house at the top and a small cottage at the bottom, functional and private. The cottage is where we stayed during our visit, making the little trek up through the garden to the main house for breakfast.

After our customary afternoon nap, we set out to explore the surroundings a bit, starting with a walk up the hill opposite. The little church at the top looked very nice against the afternoon sky, so that was our destination. Sadly, the little winding road up the hill had lots of litter on either side, but we tried to ignore that. Instead, we focused on the wonderful views of Coonoor town and the tea plantations that stretched down the valley to it. We got to the church, explored the tea plantations on its grounds a bit, and then carried on up the road past it, strolling through small hamlets that were coming alive with light in the gathering darkness. At last, when we couldn’t really see the road in front of us anymore, we turned back. Luckily, my mobile phone has a torch feature, and I could light us back.

Coonoor - Great escape - Full shot
Our homestay, with the main house at top left and cottage at bottom right
Coonoor - Great escape - Cottage
Our cottage, with a patch of garden in front
Coonoor - Great escape - Well and stairs
An old well in front of the cottage, and the daunting staircase leading up through the garden
Coonoor - Great escape - Garden lamp
A view of the main house from the bottom
Coonoor - Great escape - Wall leaves
Creepers along the staircase
Coonoor - Great escape - Church hill
The hill opposite our homestay, with the church perched on top
Coonoor - Great escape - Church close-up
The hilltop church in close-up
Coonoor - Great escape - View of Coonoor
Coonoor in the evening
Coonoor - Great escape - Church flowers and stump
An old tree stump and flowers in the churchyard
Coonoor - Great escape - Church plantation
The church’s tea plantation
Coonoor - Great escape - Morning conference
A morning conference of people…
Coonoor - Great escape - Two birds
…and birds

The next day, our plan was to take the mountain train to Ooty, where we had hired ourselves a motorcycle with an India-wide rental agency called Royal Brothers (we didn’t actually get the bike that wanted, but we made do). Being bike-riders otherwise too, we had figured that this would be the best way for us to explore the hills, combining unrestricted views with mobility and affordability.

A helpful tip by Col. Philip sent us to the quaint and deserted Wellington station to catch the 11 o’clock train instead of the Coonoor station next door. Usually, the Coonoor station is where everyone boards, so it has long queues for tickets, while Wellington station has almost no one about (in fact, we saw no other passengers while we were there). In this instance, this move backfired a bit, because the train developed a glitch at Coonoor before it could get to Wellington, which made it almost an hour and a half late. This, in itself, wasn’t a big problem because it gave us lots of time to explore the cute little station and its surroundings. Because it was late, though, people waiting for the 12:30 train boarded this one instead, and we found there was standing room only for the hour-long journey to Ooty.

We had taken the train because we had heard so much about the great views from the windows and the steep meandering tracks the train climbs up. We realized, to our slight disappointment, that the best views are actually on the segment between Mettupalayam and Coonoor, and that the bit between Wellington and Ooty isn’t as good. But we enjoyed the journey anyway.

Coonoor - Wellington station
The 109 year-old Wellington station
Coonoor - Wellington station bench and door
Door, bench and plackard
Coonoor - Wellington station emergency phone
The ancient emergency signalling system in the chatty station master’s office
Coonoor - Wellington station cow
A cow at rest near the station, accompanied by crows
Coonoor - Wellington station hill houses
Houses on the hillside opposite the station
Coonoor - Wellington station houses
The colours of Coonoor, down the hill from the station
Coonoor - Wellington station tracks
The tracks leading towards Ooty
Coonoor - Wellington station monkey
A bonnet macaque chills on the track
Coonoor - Wellington station approaching train
The train finally chugs up from Coonoor station
Coonoor - View from the train - Valley
The view from the window
Coonoor - View from the train - picket fence
Bright picket fence at a station along the way
Coonoor - View from the train - Valley houses
One of the valleys en route to Ooty

When we got to Ooty, it was already lunchtime, so with growling stomachs, we set out to pick up our bike. Luckily, we had done some research on places to eat in Ooty, so having taken possession of the bike, we made our way up the winding roads to the King’s Cliff hotel. Our objective: their restaurant, Earl’s Secret, set up in an old glasshouse. A repurposed old colonial mansion on the side of a hill, the cosy little hotel—with its elaborate woodwork and fireplace in every room—was the very essence of colonial plantation luxury, worth a visit just for the atmosphere! And while the food was decent enough but not really top-class, the setting and the views more than made up for it.

Coonoor - Doggie at Royal Brothers
A doggie makes himself comfortable in a tyre outside the Royal Brothers outlet
Coonoor - Earl's secret glasshouse 2
The glasshouse restaurant with the mansion in the background

Duly fortified, we set out to take a look at the Doddabetta Peak view point, a few kilometres off the road back to Coonoor. We didn’t really expect much, so we weren’t disappointed. A nice enough view of the surrounding valleys, but marred by lots of little stalls on the approach path, lots of noisy visitors aside from us, and the feel of the typical run-of-the-mill public park in India. We had a bit of a look around, and then went on our way. The ride back to Coonoor was much nicer, with lots of spots to stop and admire the scenery. During one of our stops, as we sat on the edge of the valley sipping tea from a nearby shop, we were treated to the sight of a troop of monkeys clambering around a construction site not far from us. One even decided to come and investigate if we had dropped some of the spicy potato chips we were eating, so we quickly cleared off before the rest decided to follow.

Coonoor - View from Doddabetta peak.JPG
The cloud-shrouded hills as seen from Doddabetta peak
Coonoor - Investigating monkey.jpg
The hungry bonnet macaque approaches, his mane blowing in the wind
Coonoor - Plantation workers.jpg
Plantation workers pick tea leaves while sprinklers sprinkle

That evening, we rode through the forest towards Coonoor town, and headed to the La Belle Vie restaurant. Perched on the edge of a hill overlooking the town, this restaurant again had very nice atmosphere and decent food. It was getting ready to host a wedding the next day, though, and the extra lighting they had put up wasn’t really to our taste. Still, we had a nice time eating on their outdoor verandah and strolling around the grounds will looking at the town below.

The next day, it being our last full day in Coonoor, our schedule was quite packed. First on the agenda was a visit to Sim’s Park, a sort of botanical garden with all sorts of interesting non-native trees and plants, with many massive trees that were over a century old! One pine tree was so tall that I had to take a video of it instead of a photo because I couldn’t for the life of me get the entire thing in the frame. After an hour or so there, we took a narrow, winding road past the park to the High Field Tea Estate, where we got a free tour of the estate and a quick lesson in tea manufacturing, as well as a look into a eucalyptus oil extraction unit that gave me some interesting ideas for my cocktail infusions. On the way out, we stopped by their on-site shop to sample some of their own tea blends and smile at a dog and cat lounging around.

Coonoor - Sims Park - Turpentine tree.jpg
A massive, 117 year-old turpentine tree at Sim’s Park, it’s limbs worn smooth by countless bottoms
Coonoor - Tea plantation - Leaves
The plantation in the sun
Coonoor - Tea plantation - valley house
A house on the edge of the plantation
Coonoor - Tea plantation - Drying leaves
Tea leaves drying in the factory
Coonoor - Tea plantation - Staircase
The staircase down to the dungeon-like leaf crushing floor
Coonoor - Tea plantation - Eucalyptus hut 1
The eucalyptus hut
Coonoor - Tea plantation - Doggie
Sweet doggie in the plantation store

To wrap up our sight-seeing for the day, we thought we’d take a look at the nearby Dolphin’s Nose viewpoint, so we turned on our trusty GPS and headed out. It turned out to be a little more difficult to find—and a little further away—than we thought, but find it we did. Or at least the approach road, because the last few hundred meters to the viewpoint were choked with tourist buses, taxis and cars parked all over the place. Rather than plunging into the chaos, we decided to stop where we were and spend some time admiring the view—which was still pretty spectacular—before heading back. On the way, we stopped at the Oasis tea shop, a nice little place with lovely views of the plains, and the best tea I’ve ever tasted!

Coonoor - Dolphins nose waterfall
A waterfall seen from our spot before Dolphin’s Nose
Coonoor - Dolphins nose Mettupalayam view
The view of Mettupalayam from the Oasis tea shop

When we got back to Coonoor, it was time for lunch. We decided that we would eat like the locals this time, and headed into the crowded heart of town to the popular Shri Lakshmi restaurant. After some frustrating minutes of trying to find a parking space, we entered and found that this restaurant was really very modest, and served everything from local South Indian to various approximations of North Indian and Chinese food. The typical South Indian thali we ordered was simple and satisfying, though not as good as at some other places we’ve been to in larger towns.

Lunch done, we headed back to Ooty to give the bike back. After a few harrowing minutes trying to navigate the main highway and its horrendous truck traffic, we gave up and took the Kotagiri road again. This time, though the views were as nice as before, it had started drizzling a bit, and the wind was cold enough for us to pull our windcheaters over our jackets and sweaters. Close to Ooty, chilled to the bone and desperate for some restoration, we stopped at the strangely-named Government Tea Park, and while the park didn’t look much like a tea plantation, it did have a little shop that served life-saving hot tea. Suitably restored, we carried on to Ooty, dropped out bike off, and caught the mountain train back to Coonoor. This time, we bought first class tickets and found seats in one of the little wooden cars at the end of the train. Strangely enough, when we looked into the second class cars while boarding, it seemed that they were better furnished and had bigger windows than ours did! Maybe we were mistaken…

Coonoor - View from the train - Long exposure.jpg
A shaky long-exposure shot on the train back to Coonoor

Back in Coonoor, we spent a pleasant evening with the family (Mrs. Philip had driven up from Bengaluru the previous evening, with her daughter, a friend and—to our delight—their four dogs). The next morning, it was time to hop into Martin’s car again for the drive down the winding roads back to Coimbatore, and from there to catch our flight to Hyderabad.

Top tips

  • In case you’re ever in the area and need a car and driver, call Martin (+91 999 431 4192), a very nice man with a clean and well-maintained car, who speaks good English and drives decently.
  • If you plan on using Google Maps to get around, you should consider downloading the map beforehand. Data connectivity is sketchy here.
  • It might be a good idea to check the serving size if you ever order this, because the amount we were served would easily have fed all three of us, even without the rest of the food!
  • While walking up the garden path, take it slow. The air is a bit thin for plains-dwellers, and we were left totally out of breath at the top.
  • When booking with Royal Brothers, call ahead and make sure you get what you booked.
  • The reserved tickets—first and second class—on the mountain train from Mettupalayam to Ooty get sold out online months in advance. But you should be able to buy tickets for the unreserved seats right at the station if you get there an hour or so early. These seats are a little cramped, but still give you a nice view.
  • When visiting Doddabetta Peak, dress warmly. The wind there is strong, chilly and penetrating.
  • If you need an auto rickshaw to get around in Coonoor and Wellington, call Das (+91 97515 94148). His English is a bit broken, but he’s reliable.
  • We heard good things about Café Diem from our hosts, but didn’t have the time to try it. It might be worth checking out.

Also read: A getaway in the clouds

Coonoor - Great escape - Xena
Xena waits for her brothers Gami (a husky) and Karma (a St. Bernard mix) to get back from their morning walk
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