One sunny afternoon, I was sitting at my desk, loaded with work, feeling the full might of the brimming Indian summer with beads of sweat slowly making its way down my skin. It’s time to take a little break, I told myself, and indulged in some cool ice tea. In that moment, the glass on my desk had my full attention and looking at the frosty condensation of the ice cubes, my mind started to wander. It brought to mind the chilly winter weather, huddling around bonfires, guitars, winter wear, my hands and feet freezing, and I found myself dwelling on many a winter holidays I have enjoyed. One particular destination instantly sprung to mind, as did its wonderful memories. I was thinking about Kodaikanal.
The memory was from my time in Pondicherry, where I worked for a couple of months. Late night plans with friends were made and next morning, we found ourselves as convinced to go on a trip as we were the previous night. We were finally going to Kodaikanal! Now it is true that Pondicherry is an absolutely delightful place to be, and more so to live, what with the wonders of the sea, the French and Tamil confluence, the amazing people and diverse culture, but it is also a sweltering coastal oven of heat and humidity for the most part of the year. Kodaikanal, as described by friends seemed like a heavenly retreat and they were right.
Bags hastily packed, the four of us took an overnight bus from Pondicherry to Kodaikanal town. Somewhere around dawn, the bus made a stop, the only one since the journey started, at a small roadside restaurant, where we got off to stretch our legs and have a refreshing cup of tea. The hot weather had followed us until this point and the palm trees were still around. I couldn’t sleep when we boarded the bus after that, so I was the first to see the landscape change. We went up along the eastern-most hills of the Western Ghats, and entered a range called the Palani Hills.
My heart skipped a beat at the first glimpse of the hilly topography. It reminded me of hilly Assam. Having been away from home for months, I was ecstatic to be in familiar territory again. It was 8:30 am when we entered Kodaikanal town, and I was in for another little shock. As I stepped off the bus and looked around, I was amazed at the similarity with Meghalaya! The small tea shops lining the uphill roads, cheerful local people, the smell of breakfast and the weather! It was the weather that forged the instant connection. Then, I thought to myself that most hill stations do seem to have a similar atmosphere and a general merry disposition of people.
After a quick breakfast of puris and hot tea, we went for a walk towards Vattakanal, a small hilly village, further uphill from Kodai, where we were going to stay. It took us little over an hour to reach Vattakanal and all along the walk, the scenery was exhilarating with hillside meadows and forests of large coniferous tress, interspersed with beautiful houses, fences and gardens and a brief glimpse of the Kodai lake. We even had to walk through a forest to reach our cottage in Vattakanal.
Vattakanal is fast emerging as a hotspot for travellers to stay in, because it offers more pristine sights, biodiversity and solitude than the commercially-growing Kodaikanal. Its higher elevation works its magic to give you hill peaks and plateaus, mist and clouds swirling in from afar, small roads, often un-motorable, green valleys and tall trees that instil pure joy in your heart.
We finally reached Edward’s Cottage, our home-away-from-home for the next few days. A small fireplace, twin beds, dining table, a balcony, the intriguing and somewhat psychedelic decor, the pricing and amenities made us feel just right about it. Edward’s cottage is located almost at the cliff of a hillside, and I remember the best part about this was the moment I opened the glass windows of the cottage, the mist came rolling into the room.
We spent the rest of the morning exploring the area around Edward’s cottage and met our friendly host who even gifted me a book from his collection. For lunch, we decided to try Israeli cuisine at Altaf’s cafe, which is a ten-minute walk from the cottage. It is here that we also met a very beautiful dog of an Indian breed that is recognised for its pedigree (the Rajapalyam hound).
There are many forests in Vattakanal that you can explore and we went for a short walk to explore one. The large trees of the forest, mostly eucalyptus, the sounds of the insects, birds and plants, and the dead silence of civilisation has a way of inciting a very humbling yet bountiful feeling in your heart. Around dusk, after walking around to our heart’s content, we returned to a merry night at the cottage.
I was the first to wake up the next morning. I walked out of the cottage to witness a beautiful sight. For moments I stood there, just taking it all in. The blue sky, a bed of clouds as far as the eye could see, the mist galloping towards me, the green forest below, Edward’s plants and shrubs in full bloom around me. I could have stayed there for hours but we had made plans to explore Kodaikanal town so after a quick breakfast, we made our way into town. We took the same route we had taken the day before. Somewhere in the middle of our walk, a beautiful brown long-haired hill dog appeared from the mist, walked alongside us for a while and disappeared again in a cold haze.
We reached Kodai town and headed first towards the lake. Kodaikanal lake is a popular tourist attraction, where you can go for walks, rowing and even cycling. We spent some time lounging by the lake and then made our way to one of the main roads in Kodai, the Club road, where we found a cute little restaurant called Potluck Cafe, attached to a pottery shop. This is where we indulged in a sumptuous meal before exploring the town some more.
We visited the well-known Kodaikanal International school, the golf club, the Kodai Museum of natural history, the Lutheran church, and a large football field where we spent some time watching a few local children play a friendly match. Finally, we made our way back towards the lake and the market area close-by. We found a small shop selling homemade chocolates and helped ourselves before heading back to Vattakanal.
Mid-way towards our cottages, it started to rain and we got stuck in the downpour for half an hour, taking shelter under the shutters of a small shop. The rain came down heavy but it was quite enjoyable as we were all huddled under the roof. My friend meekly suggested that she was hungry, and in minutes we were enjoying four hot bowls of Maggi noodles, I remember this was one of the most satisfying meals of the trip.
Back at our cottages an hour later, we were joined at the outdoor bonfire by some visitors from Spain and Germany and spent the evening exchanging stories and listening to music. It was the quintessential perfect ending to a wonderful day.
Our last day came too soon and we spent it lazily. After a hearty lunch at Altaf’s, we went to check out Dolphin’s Nose, a view point located about half an hour away. It was a scary trek downhill, and we reached a point where the cliff juts out in a narrow ledge from the mountain (hence the Dolphin’s Nose). It was beautiful and haunting as the same time, the feeling of seclusion weighing in on us. Slowly, we trudged back up the hill and made our way back to the cottage. Soon, it was time to leave and Edward’s staff called a taxi to take us to the bus station.
To say the trip was rejuvenating is one thing but there’s a special aura about Kodaikanal and Vattakanal. Both are unique in their own ways, providing travellers with the right balance of activities and peaceful withdrawal from the rushing world outside. Thinking about it, while writing this, has made me ache to go back to explore those forests once more, meet all those friendly people again, and be in awe of the resplendence of nature. I highly recommend a trip down south, particularly to Kodai, which will welcome you with open arms and a bountiful heart.
Important Info for Travellers
- The best time to visit Kodai is between October to February. You can take a bus to Kodai town from any nearby city/town.
- There are taxis that ferry passengers up and around Vattakanal.
- Stay options are plenty and can be easily booked online.
- There are many places to explore and hike. Boating, zip-lining and cycling tours are extra bonuses for the adventurous kind.
By Ruella Rahman Khound
This article was first published in Eclectic NorthEast September 2017 issue