For those not in the know, the Nilgiri hills are part of the Western ghats of India, where the states of Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala meet, and whose most famous tourist trap is Ooty (AKA Ootacamund or Udhagamandalam).
Most visitors to the Nilgiris only take in the sights and sounds of Ooty and its populated environs. The seemingly-infinite tea plantations on the hills offer a completely different experience; far from the madding crowd and closer to the wild. This is what we were aiming for when we left Hyderabad for Bangalore to join my brother (a dedicated conservationist) and his family and head into the hills. Our itinerary was Hyderabad-Bangalore-Mysore-Ooty-O’Land, and our destination was the O’Land Plantation stay, an organic tea plantation near Coonoor, about two hours’ drive beyond Ooty.
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IQ’s top tips for a stay at O’Land Plantation, Coonoor
- When taking the Kachiguda-Yesvantpur express, brace yourself for disappointing food and the odd rat.
- The twice-daily Shatabdi Express is a great way to travel between Bangalore and Mysore, and beats taking the highway (unless you need the car to drive further on). Use the rear entrance at Bangalore central station for easier access to the right platform.
- O’Land does not serve alcohol, but allows you to bring your own. However, the sale of alcohol is strictly regulated in Tamil Nadu, and police check your car when you cross the border at Bandipur/Mudumalai. Either hide your alcohol well, or buy it at higher rates across the border in Masinagudi or Ooty.
- Getting to O’Land is difficult without GPS. But make sure you get to Lovedale beyond Ooty before turning it on. If you turn on your GPS in Ooty or before, it’ll lead you a merry dance.
- If you’re looking for a simple, comfortable and homely tea estate stay, with good food (both vegetarian and non-vegetarian) and friendly people, you can’t go wrong with O’Land.
- Expecting more in such an out-of-the-way place for Rs. 2,000 per person per day—including all meals and tea in the evenings—might be unrealistic.
- Take along a pair of binoculars and a good camera to make the most of the wildlife around.
- The quieter you are, the more wildlife you will see.
- If you have a hankering for Italian food while you are in Mysore, Mezzaluna is a good place to try.
The journey: Hyderabad, Mysore and Bandipur
The journey began at the Kachiguda railway station in Hyderabad, where we caught the Kachiguda-Yesvantpur express at 9:00 PM. This was our train of choice because it stops for a few minutes at Yelahanka station on the outskirts of Bangalore, close to Sahakara Nagar, where my brother stays. So we caught the train on time, and after an indifferent railway dinner, settled down to sleep. What we didn’t know that the train is known for its resident population of rats—even in the two-tier air-conditioned coach! The one that decided to visit our section settled under my bunk and kept me up half the night with its squeaking. Ah well…
We arrived at Yelahanka at 10:30 the next morning, after a half-hour delay at the Chikmagalur station. Before this, I had never heard of a train stopping at a junction for road traffic to pass, instead of the other way around!
Onward to Mysore
After two days in Bangalore, half of the family piled into my brother’s family car for the drive to Mysore, while the remaining four of us caught the Shatabdi Express train. I am now convinced that this train is the perfect way to get to Mysore from Bangalore. It’s two hours long, clean and comfortable, and with decent refreshments, all for a grand total of around Rs. 400. Much better than crawling along the Bangalore-Mysore highway for three hours alongside other bad-tempered drivers!
Mysore was a welcome change from Bangalore—smaller, quieter, less polluted and with nice architecture courtesy the Wadiyars, the erstwhile ruling family of pre-independence India’s Mysore state, and still the apex of Mysore’s social pyramid today. We didn’t have time to visit the palace or the famous Brindavan gardens, though, as we caught up with some of my brother’s friends who were accompanying us to the Nilgiris the next day. We overnighted in a friend’s empty flat with a brilliant view of what looked like a forgotten bit of forest with a maroon-and-white (!) temple gopuram—the tall, ornate gate to the typical south Indian temple complex—sticking up through the trees. I have never seen the like of that gopuram, nor will I again anytime soon…
The last leg. Destination: O’Land Plantation, Coonoor
The next morning, we piled into two cars for the six-hour drive to O’Land, half of which was through the famous Bandipur and Mudumalai tiger sanctuaries (respectively on the Karnataka and Tamil Nadu sides of the border between the two states). On the way: a quick, packed breakfast of incredible idlis near Nanjangud; some nice filter coffee at the Bandipur Safari Lodge just before Bandipur; a nice, quiet drive through the sanctuaries; the 36 hairpin (and hair-raising!) bends in the road up the mountain to Ooty; winding roads through the endless Craigmore tea estates; and finally, getting to O’Land through wisps of cloud.
Cozy plantation comfort
The estate itself was a sight to behold, sitting on the hillside with the valley sloping steeply away to one side. The main estate house was rebuilt on the century-old foundation of the first O’Land building. The little building is furnished with lots of wood and ethnic-chic knickknacks like brass washbasins and a traditional wooden mortar for pounding rice. All meals—costs included in the room tariff of around Rs. 2,000 per person—were served here at a long wooden buffet table. One eats them in the adjacent dining room or in the courtyard, with the breathtaking view of the valley and the hills for company.
Excellent home-style meals, and very comfortable digs
A note on the meals: excellent home-style food, with a nice mix of south- and north-Indian cuisine made fresh and served hot. A good thing too, because finding another place to eat would probably have entailed at least a half hour’s drive. Luckily, we had absolutely no complaints, and overate during practically every meal!
On to the accommodation. There were a grand total of three buildings on O’Land, including the estate house, each with different styles of accommodation. The estate house had two double rooms, one of which we had booked. The majority of our group was put in ‘pepper house’, a nice cottage a little down the valley, with one double room, one family room (with a double bed and two children’s beds in a loft under the sloping roof), and a living room with a kitchenette.
The highlight of both rooms was a wonderful view of the little waterfall close by. Pepper house also had a separate double room cottage annexe, but with a separate entrance. The third building was a larger cottage called ‘hornbill house’ with three double bedrooms, a large kitchen, a spacious living room and whatnot (we were allowed a peek the evening before we left). All the accommodation was very comfortable and by no means basic.
Leisurely morning treks and cloud-wreathed afternoons
Our days in O’Land were all spent in pretty much the same way. After a nice breakfast, we would choose one of the numerous paths leading away from the estate house. We would then trek through the trees and plantations for a few hours. Along the way, we would admire the odd giant squirrel and any one of 61 species of birds (my brother and his friends are conservationists, after all). The small waterfalls made by the streams flowing through the estate were favourite spots to stop and relax. Then we would head back for a hearty lunch, a leisurely snooze, and then do a bit more walking about. Though the mornings were generally clear and hot, the afternoons would usually become chilly, with clouds rolling over us from lower in the valley.
After dark, everyone got together for a glass of wine or hot rum (our own—O’Land does not serve alcohol) before heading up to dinner. The time between dinner and bed was spent discussing what species of wildlife had been spotted during the day. The skies were usually clear by then, so we would gaze up at the stars a lot, too. At night, monkeys and flying squirrels would wake us by dropping half-eaten mangoes on the roof from the tree above.
The same daily routine, but never boring
Even though each day followed the same routine, it never got boring. There was always a new animal or bird to be gazed at, a new waterfall to be discovered and new stories of nocturnal visits by bears and elephants to be listened to. Living well while still being able to see a pair of crested serpent eagles flying just overhead, spotting a giant squirrel in the trees, waking up to a herd of bison outside your bedroom window or seeing a pile of dung and knowing a wild elephant passed that way a day ago is a luxury very few experience.
After a few lazy days at O’Land, we reluctantly set off back to Mysore. Our trip home was uneventful, except for some excitement caused by seeing a wild elephant and a herd of 36 wild pigs while driving through Bandipur/Mudumalai. We also discovered some nice continental food in Mysore, home-delivered from a restaurant called Mezzaluna.
All in all, a nice trip, with lots of interesting and special experiences. Definitely one of the more interesting tea estate stays around Coonoor and Ooty. Our only regret was that we couldn’t spend another day or two exploring the Nilgiris beyond O’Land. If a tiny tea estate could be home to such amazing sights and sounds, imagine what adventures the rest of the hills hold.