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Perched in the rolling hills of the Western Ghats in South India, the district of Coorg (or Kodagu) may seem like the perfect getaway. We found, though, that without a little planning, it could actually be a bit disappointing. These pointers should save you some bother.
1. It takes a bit of travelling to get there
Madikeri, the main town in Coorg district, isn’t a really hop, skip and jump from anywhere. In fact, it’s about three hours’ drive from the nearest airport—either Mangalore or Mysore, depending on which side of the Ghats you are. A local assured us that, though the road from Mysore is shorter, the drive from Mangalore is prettier. We had also been through Mysore on our visit to the O’Land plantation near Ooty. That settled it. this time, we flew into Mangalore, on the coast. When we got there, though, the heat and humidity caught us a little off balance. But once we started climbing into the hills, it got much more comfortable.
2. The Depot Estate homestay gives you the plantation experience right next to town
When we got to Madikeri, we were delighted to find that the plantation homestay that we had booked—the unassumingly-named Depot Estate—was right on the edge of town. We later found out that it’s the only plantation homestay that’s close to town. All the others are at least a few kilometres away. Lucky us!
Not only was it close to town, it also felt like a real home and not a sort of guesthouse. It turned out to be the childhood home of our hostess Mrs. Appanna. She and her husband now live in town, but still own and run the plantation. While we were there, we felt just like guests of the family, down to being taken complete care of by Ishwari, their friendly and efficient housekeeper.
The homestay is inside a functional coffee plantation, in a valley across the highway from Madikeri. The plantation looks like something out of The Jungle Book, and has a large pond—complete with geese—at one end. The large house has a nice sit-out on the first floor, some sitting rooms and a communal dining room. We were the only guests there for most of our stay. But we were kept company by Ishwari and her family, a roly-poly Labrador retriever, and a tomcat. We got the impression that the place was mainly used for guests of the family. Maybe they only let out it to tourists to keep it in shape!
3. Walking through Madikeri takes a bit of leg power
Being on the edge of town, we naturally wanted to explore it a bit on the day we got there. We had booked ourselves a motorbike with Royal Brothers from the next day onwards, so that evening we had no choice but to walk.
Madikeri is built into a little bowl-shaped valley with hills around and in it. So we quickly realized that our evening stroll would involve some huffing and puffing. To make things more complicated, the breeze was chilly. We couldn’t figure out whether to keep our jackets on and sweat, or take them off and risk catching cold. In fact, I did catch a cold the next day. So if you’re planning on taking an evening stroll through Madikeri, don’t say I didn’t warn you. And remember that what goes down, must come up!
4. The Taj resort has great views, but beware the GPS!
Our hosts at Depot Estate had recommended that we visit the Taj resort for their nice views, so that was our first destination. Once we picked up our bike from the rental place, we turned on our trusty Google Map and GPS and set off. The route took us through a few narrow roads and into the hills. At first, we were quite happy with the view and the experience of riding through the forest. But soon the road started getting narrower and bumpier. And just as we were getting worried, it turned into an unpaved track winding through thick brush and trees!
After a quick discussion, we decided to keep going and see where the track led. It just got narrower and bumpier, though. And just when we were about to give up hope, we emerged onto a nice paved road. It turned out that the actual road takes a more roundabout route. The GPS, in all its wisdom, sent us along the shortest path—through the forest! A word to the wise: if you’re in Madikeri and are using GPS to get to the Taj, select the route that goes past the golf club. Don’t take the shortest one through the hills.
Good food and great views
Once we got to the resort, though, all our troubles were forgotten. Built onto the hillside, its traditional-looking buildings and cottages looked right at home among the trees. And the open reception lobby at the top of the hill had some spectacular views of the valley. After half an hour mandatory photography, we were driven down to their restaurant by electric golf cart. The restaurant had some lovely views, too. The alcove we were seated in even had picture windows on three sides.
By that time, we were hungry and itching to try some local food. So we ordered some local specialities, along with a large local thali. The food was great and the views were great. The only dampener was a large, noisy family at the table next to us. This included a cranky baby whose mother tried to keep her distracted by playing nursery rhyme videos on her tablet at high volume! Once our meal was done, we quickly beat a retreat.
5. The tourist spots are crammed with (other) tourists
We checked a few guidebooks and websites for advice on what to do, and figured that we would visit Abbey Falls and the Dubare elephant camp. When we got to Abbey Falls, it was packed with noisy tourists intent on taking the best selfies. The falls themselves were beautiful. But the other visitors, and the fact that everything—including the viewing bridge—was fenced off, made us wish we had never been there. It took some fence-climbing and a lot of work with the zoom lens to avoid getting the hordes in the photographs.
After a disappointing and surprisingly hot hour, we hopped back on the bike and set off in search of a quiet riverbank on which to relax. The closest seemed to be the Cauvery river on which the elephant camp is. We decided to check it out, even though we knew we had missed the morning slot. The camp has accommodation, but non-resident visitors are allowed in from 9:00 to 11:00 AM, for a fee. When we got there, though, we found the riverbank as crowded and noisy as the falls! It was all we could do was find a far corner away from the crowd and gaze at the river a while. That night, after reading some online horror stories of animal abuse at the camp, we decided that it would be better for our sanity if we didn’t go there again.
Though we only tried these two touristy sights, we heard from other travellers that the others weren’t really any better. We decided a change of plans was in order.
6. Driving through the hills lets you see all the sights you need
When we realized that all the recommended places would be equally crowded, we figured that our best bet would be to hop on the bike and just ride. Someone had mentioned that the Kabbe hills had some nice trekking prospects, so we opened our map, figured out the route, and rode off. That day was by far our most enjoyable in Coorg, just riding through the forested hills, over rivers, past plantations and through rice fields.
A beautiful stream beyond Chelevara falls
On the way, we stopped off at the Chelevara waterfalls for a bit. Though the falls were nice, the trail leading to them was narrow, and there was really no place to sit and admire them from on the steep ledge at the end of the trail. What’s more, the falls were fenced off again, and we were soon joined by another small group of visitors, all of us trying to find space on the cramped ledge. We quickly left.
Continuing up the road past the falls further into the hills, we finally discovered what we had been searching for all this time: a lovely little rocky stream flowing past the road, hidden by trees and bushes. Though another couple was already there, they soon left, and we had the place completely to ourselves for a blissful hour or so.
7. The Tamara Coorg resort lets you experience the hills in style
Though we could have spent hours sitting on the rocks in the middle of the stream, our rumbling tummies soon forced us back onto the bike to search for a place to eat. Luckily, we had spotted some signboards on the main road that pointed to The Tamara Coorg, a resort that had come highly recommended, both for the food as well as for the way it had been built. Half an hour of riding up a narrow, winding road later, we found that it was everything that had been promised, and more.
At the tastefully built standalone reception, we were ushered into an electric golf cart that ferried us past cosy wooden cottages overlooking the valley to the restaurant. The restaurant was built across an artificial stream, with the sides open to the hillside and the valley, and—most impressively—a transparent dance floor!
The food was just as good, with the set menu offering both North Indian and local Coorgi options, and we spent an enjoyable couple of hours enjoying the meal and luxuriating in the atmosphere. We reluctantly left only when the weather started threatening rain, but luckily held off until just after we got back home.
8. Abeo’s Kitchen is a culinary oasis in Madikeri
Because we were in Coorg for a week, we had the opportunity to try all sorts of restaurants in Madikeri (usually for dinner). We tried most of the recommended spots, including the modest but highly-recommended Coorg Cuisinette for local Kodava-style food, and the even more modest Atithi for its full South Indian meal served on a banana leaf. We learned a few things. First, there is only so much vegetarian Kodava food to be had, the Kodavas being very fond of meat—especially pork. Second, the overall standard of the other kinds of food on offer—mainly South and North Indian—is quite modest.
Trendy and unusual for Madikeri
So, towards the end of our stay, we were pleasantly surprised to discover Abeo’s Kitchen, a trendy little café that—as far as we could tell—was the only place in town that served western food. It turned out that the proprietors Nishanth and his wife—who was also the chef—ran a restaurant in Bangalore before opening Abeo’s Kitchen. This definitely shone through in the food, because this was the only restaurant in Madikeri we visited more than once! If you’re ever there, I recommend the mushroom jaffle—a toasted sandwich—to vegetarians (Nishanth speaks highly of their pulled-pork burger, so I guess meat eaters will have to take his word for it).
Another thing that we found out was that many restaurants were only open for dinner between 8:00 and 9:00 PM, so if you’re in Madikeri, you might want to plan your evening around that.
9. The undergrowth has leeches
Being in the lush green hills, we wanted to take as many long walks through the plantations and forests as possible. We quickly found out, though, that there were leeches lurking in the undergrowth. We were reasonably prepared—we had encountered leeches before during our hike in Kalimpong—and kept our trousers tucked into our socks to keep them from crawling up our legs. But the speed at which they latched on to our shoes and the difficulty we had in getting them off unnerved us a bit. The funny thing was that the locals didn’t seem to be bothered by them, most of them walking around in slippers as they were!
But, I suppose if you keep your trousers tucked in and your sleeves long, and check yourself every once in a while, you should be OK. And in case one does attach itself to you, they say a pinch of salt will get it off. Best do some research and be prepared, though—unlike us. We were lucky that our encounters with them were limited to scraping them off our shoes with twigs.
Bonus: The highway between Mangalore and Udupi has some amazing beaches
On the way home to Hyderabad, we decided to spend a day in Mangalore instead of flying out immediately. This was so I could visit Udupi and Manipal, about 60 kilometers away. I had studied there for a few years almost 20 years ago, so I was curious to see how much they had changed.
Just like in Madikeri, we had booked a bike with Royal Brothers in Mangalore too, so we picked it up and rode down to Manipal (Udupi and Manipal have grown into each other, so they’re effectively the same town now). I had forgotten how humid the weather could be on the coastal highway, and how scorching hot the sun, and this ride brought it all back! Luckily, it also brought back memories of the amazing beaches along the highway, so we made a quick stop at Kapu to see its rocky beach and little lighthouse.
Once we got to Manipal, I realized that it had changed beyond recognition, so after a quick lunch and look-around, we headed right back. On the way back to Mangalore, we discovered that the beach at Padubidri had acquired a new-found elegance, with the government having built a promenade with very nice benches, a little snack shop and lots of parking. The beach, though not as rocky as that at Kapu, was just as pristine. Sadly, like all the beaches along this stretch, swimming wasn’t allowed because of the underwater rocks and the strong current.
IQ’s top things to know when visiting Coorg
- If you’re visiting Coorg, it’s a three-hour drive from either Mangalore or Mysore.
- The Depot Estate is a great place to stay in Madikeri.
- Walking around the town itself will test your legs.
- Remember not to take the default GPS route to the Taj resort.
- The tourist spots might be too crowded for your liking.
- Driving through the hills is a great alternative way in which to experience Coorg.
- The Tamara resort has great ambience and great food.
- Try Abeo’s Kitchen in Madikeri if you’re tired of Kodava, South Indian and North Indian food.
- Watch out for leeches in the undergrowth.
- Lastly, if you find yourself spending a day or two in or near Mangalore, the highway to Udipi/Manipal has some great beaches (Kapu and Padubidri being two examples).
Kodava cuisine isn’t big on vegetarian food. But there are a few South Indian and North Indian restaurants in Madikeri that serve decent vegetarian food. And if you’re looking for other cuisines, try Abeo’s Kitchen in Madikeri, or the bigger resorts scattered around Coorg.
Also read: A getaway in the clouds