South India Road Trip Day 20-24: Chennai to Kochi and back via Pondy, Kumbakonam, Tanjavur, Karaikudi, Madurai, Periyar, Gavi, Vagamon, Kumarakom, Wayanad, Coorg, Mysore and Yelagiri.
Got up late, and only when the landlady knocked on the door at 9:30 AM. We asked for coffee and breakfast after 30 minutes and then rushed to get ready. Wife took Antibiotics for the throat infection and also Panadol for fever and was feeling low.
The breakfast was excellent, the landlady served us Kadambattu (egg like steamed rice balls), Paputtu (rice and coconut rectangles in milk as the cereal), Egg Curry and Pandi Curry (dry pork in black masala). Wife had her fill and then packed the rest of the Pandi curry and lots of Kadambattu and Paputtu. I finished all the Egg Curry and Kadambattu served to me, while she had little. Later she had the Pandi curry and Kadambattu for lunch (part 1) when we stopped under a tree at 12:30 and the balance in Mysore at 3:15 PM (lunch part 2). I concentrated on driving without any stops except for a 10 minute break under a tree. We started around 10:30 and headed for Mysore without GPS asking directions and staying on the highway NH-275 all the way. Once you leave the hills of Madikeri the highway becomes quite wide and the speed limit increases. Just short of Mysore I filled petrol and discovered that Brindavan Gardens were 12 Km away and the turn off was round the corner from the petrol pump! The town was 12 Km straight on NH-275. We had the choice of visiting the Gardens or Mysore Palace and we decided that the ‘bird in hand’ was the Gardens…
At the entrance to Brindavan Gardens we were told by the guards that there was one 5 star hotel on the premises. However one couldn’t drive into the hotel called ‘Royal Orchid’ without a prior booking, printout in hand and registered with the guards at the entrance by the hotel. This was now not possible so we went to a hotel 100 yards away called ‘Mayuri’, which we had looked into on our way in and negotiated a price of Rs.1,500/- for the night. We checked in and wife had her balance lunch while I had guava and cheeku and a few balance Kadambattu, I may have had enough at breakfast to last till dinner. Later we slept from 4:00 until 5:15 and then headed to the Gardens.
A truly grand and well-built garden but unfortunately not maintained as I remembered, I had visited the gardens maybe 25 years ago. Many of the flower bushes had been replaced by Bougainvillea plants, there were dirty washrooms, broken down arches, Chhatris (dome shaped pavilions or canopies) in disrepair, tiles broken… Still a very nice garden to take a stroll in. We took photos from our mobiles. Later at 7:30 until 7:45 we saw the light and sound dancing fountain show. 3 songs were played and then the national anthem. After the dancing fountains at the Dubai Burj Khalifa and the Sharjah Buhairah Corniche (played for 10 minutes every half hour in both cases), this was much smaller. A lot of crowd participation and appreciation were the highlight of the show. Returned to our hotel immediately after the show and had dinner. We recommend this hotel for its proximity to the Gardens and price, cleanliness and comfort. It has an excellent large and clean pool too. Tomorrow off to Yelagiri for our last stop on the tour before returning to Chennai.
Looking at the invoice of the hotel, it is called ‘Stay Simple’ Brindavan Resort, no mention of the name Mayuri signposted outside. There is a second KTDC Resort inside the gardens, also requiring a prior booking to take the car inside, is called ‘Caveri Mayuri’, and is the cheaper of the two resorts. The high end one being the ‘Royal Orchid’, also belonging to KTDC (Karnataka Tourism). ‘Stay Simple’ group have some 20 hotels across the country.
Day 21: Mysuru to Yelagiri
Weekend Trips Chennai
Brindavan Gardens, Mysuru to Yelagiri Hill Station
Yelagiri Hill Station
Kuzhipaniyaram (rice and lentil balls)
Places to see Yelagiri, Weekend in Yelagiri,
Weekend Trips Chennai
Yelagiri is 295 Km from Mysuru and a high speed 6 hour drive, our longest drive so far, though the 250 Km from Fort Kochi to Kalpetta takes 8 hours driving straight through as per google maps due to slower speeds. We woke at 7:00 AM by the alarm and saw the sunrise from the room at 7:15. However by the time we finally departed it was 9:30 AM. The village road, off-road drive of about 10 Km led us to the Bangalore highway NH-275, the same highway which starts from Madikeri and ends at Bangalore. This highway is good for an average speed of 70 Km/Hr. and goes all the way until you hit the Bangalore Bypass 20 Km from town, also called the ‘Nice Ring Road’ or NH-8. There we hit toll roads, we paid Rs.90/- at the first toll and were soon flying at 100 Km/Hr. alongside huge cargo trucks, until we got to another toll for ‘Hosur’. However the GPS immediately took us off this highway and onto the Chennai highway, NH-44, on which we again did 90 Km/Hr. Later we checked that the Hosur highway merges into the Chennai highway which continues to be NH-8 (also labelled NH-44, AH43 and AH45), both roads being the same, the GPS shortcut saves 1 Km but adds 20 minutes due to traffic and a single narrow lane under the flyover for 200 meters, the need to go wrong way to cross over to the correct side of the road, and this immediately leads to a toll booth (Rs.25/- toll)! After a bit we hit another toll booth where we paid Rs.60/-, at this stage it was 1:00 PM and suddenly the traffic thinned and trucks disappeared, or greatly reduced. Now we were averaging 110 Km/Hr. We stopped for lunch at 1:30 PM at Adyar Ananda Bhavan. Here the thali was ‘awesome’ with 8 vegetables/sambar etc., plus rice, chapathy, papad, all excellent and easily fed both of us @Rs.115/- followed by an equally good filter coffee @Rs.30/-. We bought coffee, 80/20 coffee/chicory mix the same that they use, 200 grams for Rs.95/-. Then we were back on the highway and sprinted 120 Km/Hr. all the way on the Chennai highway NH-8 almost traffic free for 1 hour till we turned off for Yelagiri.
The Yelagiri climb is a mere 14 Km but done entirely on 2nd gear on the turns and 2nd or 3rd gear on the straight roads depending upon how steep the climb is. Extraordinary valley views all the way but I couldn’t look due to the steep climb and narrow road, so all concentration on the driving and gear changing, a few times in 1st gear as well. It is a sheer fall and so cannot look while driving. Need to go back to the view from the top view point as there were no valley views from Yelagiri itself. Once we reached the Yelagiri town we looked for a place to stay from 4-5 PM and saw many places, all without a good view, and finally had to settle for Hotel ‘Rhythms’ Lake View Resort, which is the only place on the lake itself. The whole place all to ourselves, apparently it fills up and is sold out on weekends Friday till Sunday, with crowds of men of all ages coming up from Chennai and Bangalore looking for a drinking hole, sans family. Many bring their own liquor and our hotel has a bonfire in the courtyard overlooking the lake, to draw in the crowd. We got the best rate in Yelagiri at ‘Rhythms’, Rs. 1,755/- per night including taxes but without breakfast. We were getting Rs. 2,000/- per night on a 3 night stay at ‘Peter’s Cottages’ where we were shown a good room on the 2nd floor of a 3 bedroom cottage with balcony, with a pick of any one bedroom since other rooms were not taken. It had good upkeep, but the view was of the central courtyard and not of hills, valley or lake, and they did not allow the use of the kitchen which would have clinched the issue for us. We decided to take a look around before deciding and this would be our last resort if we couldn’t get better. We had reached after a long drive and were prepared to do some sightseeing without unloading our bags. We saw the Sterling Resorts place but it is a regular cardboard box 4 story building on the noisy main road and the best they could do was Rs. 3,800/-, we didn’t see the rooms. We saw a good place ‘Emerald Dove’ and their ‘corner’ room with a view was available but the best rate she offered was Rs. 2,500/-. This hotel has a restaurant about 100 meters away called ‘Hotel Nigress’, a very popular place and probably the only place serving freshly cooked food in Yelagiri, most other places closed especially during weekdays.
Later we had dinner at Nigress, excellent Mutton Pepper fry (Rs. 200/-), rice (Rs. 90/-) and chapathy (Rs. 20/-), and a good ‘Karak Malabari Chai’ (Rs. 15/-). Then it was time to get back to our hotel at 8:15 PM, early to rest as we had completed a long and tiring drive. Earlier we had Chai (tea boiled in milk) at our hotel on the courtyard overlooking the lake, on a lone bench facing the lake at sunset.
Yelagiri is a very small place and we went to-and-fro on the single 1 Km winding street looking at hotels and then for dinner several times. There is little traffic as the place is empty during weekdays, all hotels were empty except maybe a couple of cars in Peter’s Cottage and a couple in Sterling Resorts. They all claimed to be sold out most weekends. We will explore the viewpoints tomorrow.
Day 22: Yelagiri Hill Station
Weekend Trips Chennai
Weekend in Yelagiri
Weekend Trips Chennai
Kuzhipaniyaram (rice and lentil balls)
Woke up late and had tea in the room, the hotel did not have any provision for breakfast on weekdays. By the time we got ready it was 11:30, and we got meals and mutton pepper fry at Nigress Restaurant in the market. After lunch we drove to the first (from the top) view point on the hairpin bends on the Yelagiri approach road, as we had planned while getting here. We got a few photos but it was scorching hot so we returned to the hotel about 1:30 PM and then relaxed and then slept for an hour until 5 PM. Wife’s throat infection is much improved but the coughing still intense all night.
In the evening we drove onwards beyond the town and came to Mangalam Village, and a privately owned temple overlooking the valley and opposite hill, but locked up. Near Mangalam Village we followed signs to the YMCA, which we didn’t know existed else we would surely have checked it out the previous day. This was a very big and well maintained compound and canteen. They serve food only to resident guests. The double rooms are Rs. 935/- and they have dorms too. This is our recommendation ahead of any of the shabby resorts in town, all drinking holes for weekend revelers most drunkards. We got one such group of 10 men last night, came in late and drank themselves silly, then puked all over the property and left in the night. The staff refused to clean so they got in outside cleaners in the afternoon today. Wife had a good mind to shift to YMCA immediately but we were comfortably settled and had the corner room with a view over the lake, so too much effort and decided to stay put. At the corner shop, on a fork in the road (junction between Mangalam, Yelagiri and Nilavoor), we got very nice Kuzhipaniyaram (rice and black lentil balls, steamed and lightly fried) for Rs. 10/- for 8 pieces, very crisp and tasty. We headed into town at nearly 7 PM in pitch darkness. I got two aloo parathas (potato stuffed roti), very well made and tasty and wife got a Seekh Kabab (minced meat barbequed on skewers), not good, dry, too much batter, crumbling and excessively spicy, maybe the chicken tikkas are popular as the chicken is more succulent. Later we got their excellent tea, without sugar this time.
After dinner we got Vicks cough drops at the market and then returned to the hotel for an early turn-in. Luckily, no revelers tonight, they are day trippers and we were well rid of the lot from yesterday, the place restored to peace. The learning from our exploration is: Stay at YMCA or The Travelers Bungalow or even the CSI Retreat Centre which do not allow drinking on the premises. The Nigress Restaurant we learned also does not allow drinking or drunks to sit down, and thus it is the one operational restaurant in town with a tandoor and tandoori food prepared by North Indian cooks. They see a lot of take-away, probably for the drinking set, and a lot of families with children coming in, basically all of Yelagiri.
We hadn’t managed much sightseeing but had a restful day after many days of travelling across the country and hectic sightseeing in many places.
Palm Fruit or Nungu in Chennai
Brindavan Gardens, Mysuru
Nature Park, Yelagiri
Jackfruit all over Yelagiri
Sunset at Yelagiri Temple
Bee Hives all over Yelagir
Day 23: More Yelagiri
Weekend in Yelagiri
Kuzhipaniyaram (rice and lentil balls)
We decided that we must see the chief attractions of Yelagiri, and among them Punganoor Lake Park, Nature Park, Government Herbal Farm and Fruit Farm, Velavan (Murugan) Temple, and maybe Swamimalai Hills, a 1 Hour trek from Mangalam Village, or Sunset Trail from Murugan Temple, and Government Silk Farm…
I woke at 8:00 AM, sleeping thru the alarm which went off at 7:00 AM, then walked thru the lake park to its entrance around the lake on the other side. All the shops at the entrance and outside it were closed at 9:00 AM including the tea stalls. One restaurant was open but cleaning was underway and did not start tea at this time. On the way back I was howled at by a dog at the Park entrance and then forced to avoid the guard when he demanded a ticket to return back thru the Park, especially as he was unable to control the pet dogs, one of which was luckily chained to a post. Most shops are closed thru the day until evening, the same was the case for shops in the main market when we went there at 10:30 AM, when some visitors come in around 5:30 PM. We had omelets at Nigress Restaurant as that was the only food available at 11:00 AM there, they hadn’t started lunch and other breakfast items had run out.
Hunger pangs satiated, we went for a drive thru town, turned off at the fork to Nilavoor Village instead of Mangalam and got some petrol at the bunk about 100 meters on that road. Short of the fork saw the Panchayat Fruit Farm. Lots of mango trees and one or two trees of many other fruit, but a small farm. Then kept driving along Nilavoor Road till we reached the bus stand, where we got a huge jack fruit for Rs. 150/-. We chatted with the fruit sellers for a bit and then continued on a narrower road passing many resorts. Some of these resorts have a view of the flat land, farms on the plateau or valley between the hills, and surrounding hillocks, but not a commanding view of the plains and there are no hills of note. Finally the road ended at a development on a hill top where plots have been cut (marked) and sold but land not developed and nothing built as yet. On our way back we bought ‘Yelagiri Honey’ brand of honey from a Balwadi (Pre-school) teacher from her home 10 yards short of YMCA campus in Mangalam Village, one liter bottle for Rs. 390/-, after tasting the honey. So no need to get YMCA honey, which we couldn’t taste and verify.
On the way back saw the lady making the Kuzhipaniyaram (rice and lentil balls). It is fermented rice batter with onions, green chillies, fresh dhania leaves (coriander) and seasoned with cumin and mustard seeds. She was at work making these right then and there. So we stopped and ordered and waited patiently for two rounds of 8, the batter placed in the Patram (cooking vessel), steamed then oiled and lightly roasted/fried in the oil in the same vessel, and then eaten straight out while hot and crisp. We had two rounds 8 x 2 = 16 pieces for Rs. 20/- in total, an excellent lunch. We sat there a long time as the rice balls crisped, quickly ate them when done, and then ordered the next round, repeat. Wife collected all the local gossip and the life and times of the ladies making the stuff.
Sometime later, we drove on back and thru town and reached Kumararaja Palace Hotel on a street behind the market. It is a nice hotel with a pool in the central courtyard. I had a filter coffee with extra decoction for Rs. 35/-, but still not completely satisfactory. It was quite hot in the afternoon now, and not a good time for the Nature Park, so we returned to our hotel around 2:30. We had a lot of cheeku fruit, and then slept from 3:00 till 4:30 PM. At 4:30 we headed to the Nature Park, entrance opposite the street leading to the lake. It has lots of fruit trees and a fountain, which operates only on weekends. It was a pleasant walk from 5:00 until 5:30 PM. After this we headed to the Murugan Temple for Darshan and sunset. We got to see a lovely sunset here as the Temple is on a hill top. The temple was lovely at this time of the evening, cool and with a breeze. Soon after sunset and before dark the temple gates are locked, so we made a hasty departure after sunset, even though we could have spent another half hour sitting on the steps as the light faded and darkness fell. As we drove to Nigress Restaurant for dinner it was already dark at 7:00 PM. We convinced the cook to make tandoori stuffed parathas (in the clay oven), instead of the tava (pan fried) ones with onion and green chillies, even when he refused the potato filling. He made these really well. We ordered the Mutton Pepper fry, his specialty, with reduced pepper. This was now excellent without the pepper over-dose. We could now taste the mutton better and enjoy the other spices as well. Before and after dinner had a good tea at the tea stall in the market on the opposite side of the street leading to the lake. She made tea better than Nigress Restaurant. Back at the hotel at 8:30 PM we slowly unwound, relaxed and drifted in to sleep. The plan is to visit the ‘Friday Weekly Market’ at Atanavoor Village, the main town in Yelagiri Hills (which I have been referring as the Yelagiri main market, opposite the street leading to the lake). This gets underway at about 10 AM. The market is called ‘Sandaii’ (translated as ‘Market’ in English) in Tamil. After that we head back to Chennai, home (home of BIL or Brother-in-Law, whose car we have borrowed and been driving for the last month).
Day 24: Return to Chennai
Weekend in Yelagiri
Weekend Trips Chennai
Kuzhipaniyaram (rice and lentil balls)
Palm Fruit or Nungu in Chennai
We woke at 7:00 AM as planned but as wife was not getting up I went for my walk around town and then we got out of the hotel by about 9:30 AM. We went in search of the meat shop, mutton (goat meat) in Yelagiri is Rs. 400/- per Kg while in Chennai it is double that, and the quality is top notch as well. Downhill from Yelagiri in the town Tirupatur, which is the source of this excellent mutton, it is available for Rs. 300/- per Kg and another 50 Km away the Ambur Biriyani (mutton cooked in special spices within the rice) is famous. All restaurants on the highway at Ambur offer Ambur Biriyani, it is on the NH-8 on the way to Chennai, but cannot say who on the highway sells the ‘real thing’ for which Ambur is famous or you need to head into town.
The Sandaii (market) was just being set-up, small tempos were unloading their tenting equipment and their first bit of vegetables and provisions, all coming in from the plains. We were directed to a mutton seller, selling on the roadside with no shop, just a few hooks on a wire stung across a tree trunk by the road. He was almost finished at 10:00 AM when we got there, we got one of only 3 hind legs he had left with him. We got 2 Kilos but should have got more as the mutton was excellent, one Kg for each of the two BIL in Chennai. This purchase completed we headed off to Chennai, we couldn’t wait for the Sandaii to get fully underway, and had a long way to go, 250 Km and 5 hours’ drive even on NH-8 due to traffic on the last 50 Km as you approach, enter and navigate Chennai. We set the GPS for Pallikaranai IIT Colony (BIL’s house) and off we went.
We came down back the same way, the only approach by Yelagiri Road, down 14 hairpin bends. Going down is easier as you do not need to go up to 1st gear, and 2nd gear is also optional as you do not need the power and just let the slope propel you down on 3rd gear, with the brakes doing the rest. At the base of the hill and just as we hit the highway NH-8, we saw a ‘Bhavan’ and promptly stopped for breakfast, it was past 11:00 AM and we were famished, and good time for a quick break. Very soon afterwards we were on the highway NH-8 and zipping at 100 Km/Hr. and already restaurants selling Ambur Biriyani were flashing by. We could easily have waited 15 minutes and had the biriyani instead of the breakfast at the Bhavan, maybe next time when we have researched the place to have the Ambur Biriyani so we can head there directly.
We went full pep all the way until 1 PM, we made good progress the first hour at 100 Km/Hr. but soon hit a toll booth and from then on the ‘Toll’ road was a shambles all the way to Chennai. So the last 100 Km to Chennai is a badly broken toll road and you can average about 70 Km/Hr. if you are aggressive, and still need to navigate past many rogue trucks heading for Chennai, terrible. At 1:00 PM we got a Special Thali, which was good for both of us and my customary filter coffee, always good at a Bhavan near Chennai. After lunch we made slow but sure progress and were home about 3:30 PM at Velachery junction and by 4:30 PM in IIT Colony Pallikaranai. We offloaded the maybe 8-10 Kg Jackfruit for SIL to have a go at cutting up later on. So we beat the office rush and were home in good time in spite of starting late and having 250 Km to go, thanks primarily to the 3 hours on the highway where the bulk of the distance was covered…
Places to see Coorg, Weekend in Coorg, Weekend Trips Kochi
Akki Roti (rice roti), Pandi Curry (pork black masala), Kadambattu (rice balls)
South India Road Trip Day 18-19: Chennai to Kochi and back via Pondy, Kumbakonam, Tanjavur, Karaikudi, Madurai, Periyar, Gavi, Vagamon, Kumarakom, Wayanad, Coorg, Mysore and Yelagiri.
Got up to the extraordinary view and then a repeat of the sunrise from the roof and the walk down into town for tea and then back for the surprising and tasty breakfast. We started at a relaxed 10:15 AM and headed off for Madikeri, the largest town with the highest altitude in Kodagu and so expected to be cool. It was the best drive in all our travels so far, thru coffee plantations and other farms, and forest till you hit a long stretch when you are driving within a National Forest Reserve, starting with the Begur Reserve Forest all the way to the gates of the Tholpetty Forest Reserve (on the outskirts of the Nagarhole National Park). It was great driving thru the Reserve Forest. Just after the Tholpetty Forest you enter Karnataka and Kodagu District. Similar to Wayanad, Kodagu is a district with no town of the same name. The capital town is Madikeri, which is at an altitude of 3,300 feet or 1,100 meters, significantly higher than about 700 meters for Kalpetta. However first you go down and it was a hot day’s drive for most of the way in the plains from the Tholpetty forest reserve till Virajpet (the second largest town in Kodagu) and a little beyond before you hit the hills again. We had lunch at 12:30 at the Tholpetty Forest Check post and there we were 88 Km from Madikeri. From then on it was Karnataka and we were taken in by the prosperity of Coorg. Huge coffee estates all the way, once we crossed the border. The road was extraordinary, maybe the best roads in all of India and here, even though it is hilly terrain and a single lane highway. The road was being maintained in one patch, and top notch all the way, much better than the Kerala roads we had been admiring all along, once we crossed over from Tamil Nadu and the sorrowful state of those roads. We will not discuss UP (Uttar Pradesh) roads which are worse than Tamil Nadu (we had driven from Delhi to Moradabad and the road was well and truly a mess and that also leading to and away from the National Capital).
The drive from the Wayanad border to Madikeri is all along coffee plantations, the coffee flowers were in full bloom and we had the jasmine smelling coffee flowers for many hours all along the journey, a true joy. A couple hours later we had a ‘coffee break’, the Karnataka coffee. An hour later about 3:30 PM we saw a sign for ‘Estate Stay’ and on a whim just turned off to check it out. We had driven past a few ‘Cottage Stay’ and numerous ‘Home Stays’ and had kept postponing the turn off. So we went up ‘Cool Cache – Estate Stay’ and drove thru a narrow gravel path with dense coffee plantation on either side for about 200 meters, actually driving past another ‘Cottage for Rent’ with an inviting open gate! We landed actually driving our car onto a driveway with coffee beans laid one inch thick below our wheels. The beans had been laid out on the paved courtyard for drying. We got this incredible room with balcony, on the first floor over a coffee godown (warehouse) below, surrounded by coffee plantation with coffee flowers in full bloom, and with coffee drying in the sun on a courtyard in front and to the side, and crushed under the wheels of our car. The smell of the drying beans on one side and the flowers on the other filled us with joy. We negotiated a price of Rs. 1,500/- a night with breakfast and took the place for 2 nights. Their usual price is Rs. 2,500/- for a couple with breakfast and dinner. We cancelled the dinner and got the discount instead, the benefits of off-season travel. Quickly settled in, we departed for Madikeri, 14 Km away, around 4:00 PM and were at the Kings Seat (Garden) in Madikeri around 4:30 PM, as we headed straight there. The garden has an excellent view of the valley and is a famous sunset point with the sun setting into the horizon over and past the valley. I had a coffee and wife had a ‘Kheera’ (cucumber) and then we entered the park. We enjoyed the views till well after sunset and left at 7 PM. At 7:30 we had dinner at ‘Coorg Cuisine’, a highly recommended place for local specialties. Order the ‘Akki Roti’ (roasted roti of rice batter), and ‘Pandi Curry’ (tender pork in Coorgi spicy black masala). We had two plates of each, a great meal. At 8:15 PM we drove back in pitch darkness, with no street lights, on the narrow highway on full beam with Anari (inexperienced) drivers not dipping their beams while passing head-on, blinding. Luckily the road itself is great, if narrow, and not much traffic was heading into town on this road. We made it back safely though slowly by about 8:45 or so and ‘Cool Cache’ signboard was large and clear coming from either direction. Then caught up on my diary and then crashed, in the midst of the coffee estate, the stars and moon bright overhead, no street lights, no lights at all except the stars and the moon, lovely. On the way just short of Virajpet, 35 Km away from Madikeri we visited the Ambatty Greens Resort, a beautiful resort overlooking the ‘Coorg Golf Links’ greens and with a superb infinity pool literally yards above the gold course greens, the course in front and then behind the resort. The rooms are huge and beautifully furnished with balconies facing the golf course and wow views. However the discounted price of Rs. 9,000/- was still above our budget. Usual tariff is 11,500/- and 13,500/- for two types of rooms. Who would have expected a resort in the midst of a golf course in Coorg countryside, but then the tea estate owners can enjoy a game of golf, especially as they are wealthy and many in the family have been generals in the Indian Army, General Kariappa among them.
Day 19: Coorg (Kodagu) at the Coffee Estate ‘Cool Cache’
Coffee Estate Stay
Places to see Coorg, Weekend in Coorg, Weekend Trips Kochi
Woke up late relaxed and got ready by 9 AM. Wife had a severe throat infection and a little fever and after breakfast needed to rest. I took photos and took a tour of the estate and then slept on the lounge chair on the balcony in the shade. It was hot in the sun and cool in the shade. The estate is beautiful at this time with flowering coffee plants and coffee seeds on the plants fully ripe. The harvest is drying on the driveway, sacksful of coffee being emptied and spread out to dry, then collected and filled into sacks and more taken out and dried and collected a few hours later and the previously filled sack emptied and so on repeatedly.
The estate also has spices such as pepper plants and many fruit trees growing between the coffee plants. The smell of the coffee beans drying on the driveway on the one hand and the perfume of the coffee flowers in full bloom on the other fills the air.
The landlady made ‘Kadala Curry’, curry of Kabuli Chana and Aloo (potato) in local spices, Akki Roti, which tastes like Makki Roti with the same sticky consistency, and Neer Dosa (rice batter dosa), all very good.
Wife took Panadol for fever at 12:00 Noon and then at 1:00 PM we left the estate for Madikeri for lunch to be followed by sightseeing. We went to the same ‘Coorg Cuisine’ restaurant and repeated the ‘Pandi Curry’ (dry pork in black masala) and the Akki Rotis. They no longer serve coffee even though it is on the menu because “people do not order it”. Coffee is popular during the monsoon season, rains in July and August, or for breakfast. However they do not make coffee anymore. After lunch we got wife some medicine (antibiotics) for sore throat at a chemist, one shop was open on Sunday afternoon and all others were closed. She took the first of 3 pills, one each day for 3 days, a very strong antibiotic.
Then we headed to the waterfalls which are 8.5 Km away. The Cauvery temple, the top attraction in a list of places to visit in Kodagu similar to the list in Wayanad, was 47 Km and deemed too far for us today so we abandoned that plan. We drove down to the falls, a nice shady place in the forest with the falls. Visitors are not allowed to go down and a bridge across the falls has fallen into misuse, disrepair and closed off. This is a similar story to the fountains at the Kings Seat in Madikeri, which have been ‘under repair’ for many months. The government is not interested in promoting tourism.
We spent a relaxed time at the ‘Abbey Falls’ and then returned to town once it was cool at about 4:30 PM to explore the town and get a ‘high tea’. We had a filter coffee at ‘Udupi the Veg’ restaurant and wife had a ‘Badam Milk’ (almond milk). There is a great coffee shop in the same complex as Udupi restaurant called ‘Coffee n Brews’. They have great smelling Arabica coffee beans and can grind and pack as well. Rs.200/- for 250 grams (or Rs.80/- for 100 grams). This was roughly double the cost of coffee elsewhere, but really worth it for good expresso roast coffee. I didn’t buy though it was the best smelling coffee anywhere in South India. We browsed 3 or 4 shops selling local spices and other produce including coffee and honey for an hour or so until 6:30 PM when it got dark. We had Dosa and Idlis at another Udupi restaurant next door and then headed back for the estate by 7:00 PM, reaching by 7:45 PM. A relaxed evening under the stars, and off to bed, an early night required for the patient.
South India Road Trip Day 16-17: Chennai to Kochi and back via Pondy, Kumbakonam, Tanjavur, Karaikudi, Madurai, Periyar, Gavi, Vagamon, Kumarakom, Wayanad, Coorg, Mysore and Yelagiri.
It was at least a 6:30 Hr. drive and the plan was to start early, and maybe stop somewhere on the way for the night if required. As it happened we started late, by about 8:00 AM after breakfast. We may have also taken the longer route as we headed on NH-66 and went all the way till Calicut on NH-66 and then NH-766 from Calicut to Wayanad. We didn’t realize that Wayanad is not a town (we thought it to be a town in the district by the same name), luckily we went all the way till Kalpetta, actually half way across and away on Kalpetta Bypass, when we stopped for a tea break at 5:00 PM close to sunset. We had driven without any breaks except for a quick lunch at 12:30 just ahead of Guruvayur (temple town) and just past the very attractive beach and backwaters and Lake Town of Chettuva with Chavakkad Beach next to it. The road crosses a bridge on the Chettuva Lake and Karuvannur River with a picturesque Mangrove Forest on an island on the lake, and then the lake running along the road for a few miles. As you leave the lake behind the exit to Chavakkad Beach comes up and you get a glimpse of the sea. Next time we must stop there and explore, it was a beautiful place but we were determined to make it to Wayanad as I had made good progress and driving well. The tea shop on our break directed us to a guest house just 100 meters up the slope with great views promised, Green Peace seemed a good name. We had been halted just in time at the largest town in Wayanad, Kalpetta. We drove up and were surprised by the extraordinary build quality of the guest house, high roof, maybe 14 feet with one full wall of glass with lovely valley views, Scandinavian architecture. However we were disappointed with the poor furniture, furnishing and upkeep, and for that reason we got it @Rs.2,000/- per night x 2 nights. A good deal for the place. It was 340 meters walk down to the middle of the Kalpetta market walking opposite to the Bypass road, with many restaurant options there. Recommend this place for the build quality of the building and the views, if not for the poor maintenance, a value deal. We checked in, and then after an hour of rest went down into town, had dinner, and came back and crashed.
Day 17: Wayanad
Horticulture Research Center (HRC) Ambalavayal
Places to see Wayanad
It was a joy getting up early to extraordinary views over the valley and tea estates. I went up to the roof of the hotel to see the sunrise, a great view point. Then walked down to the town for a short walk and get a cup of tea. Once back we got breakfast from the owner’s home. Interesting stew of vegetables and Appams. Something different and tasty. Next day they gave the same stew with Pooris this time and also a banana and coconut sweet (Mithai), interesting new food, and fresh pineapple juice and tea. Excellent breakfast on both days.
In Kalpetta we got a list of things to do, and places to visit with a map from a travel agent. We had met a couple of Scots who had recommended the ‘flower show’ about 15 Km away near the caves in Ambalavayal, at the Kerala Agricultural University, Horticulture Research Center (HRC). So we headed to the caves and bought forest honey and then coffee at the shop there, the honey tasted real good and the coffee smelled heavenly. Later we discovered that Wayanad coffee is entirely Robusta but the smell was so good and strong that we did not regret the purchase. We decided not to climb all the way up to the caves, and went only about half way, as the wife had swollen feet. We pressed on to the flower show. On the way and already in Ambalavayal town we visited the Tribal Museum which has a great collection. Next, the flower show and the range and variety of plants including fruit trees was amazing. The Dahlias were just breathtaking as were the plants on offer for sale at the festival (Mela) at the center. We were there all the way from 12:00 noon until 4:30 PM. We took a lot of photos, quite a few shots of the stunning flowers.
Finally out of the Horticulture Center we had a good late lunch in town and then headed back to our hotel. We left behind a long list of attractions with no time left to see them, maybe 3 ticks on a map with 40 points to visit! Next time we stay for at least 5 days. Once home we were in the hotel a couple of hours till we built up an appetite and headed for dinner at 9 PM. We got an excellent vegetarian meal at Udupi restaurant in town, a really clean and neat place, and filter coffee available once more, though not quite as good as the Kumbakonam Degree Coffee. Nothing is a patch on the degree coffee! Then walked back up to the hotel and crashed.
South India Road Trip Day 14-15: Chennai to Kochi and back via Pondy, Kumbakonam, Tanjavur, Karaikudi, Madurai, Periyar, Gavi, Vagamon, Kumarakom, Wayanad, Coorg, Mysore and Yelagiri.
Most Beautiful Dancer at Kerala Kathakali Center
After breakfast and check-out at 9:30 AM we drove to Fort Kochi and were there about 11:30 AM. We asked around and an auto driver suggested Arches Hotel, on the way two homestays were sold out and none of them provided kitchen (shared or otherwise). Arches usual list price is in the 5-6K range but offered a room for 3K. We nevertheless bargained as the Auto driver had mentioned a price of 2.5K. We were offered an upgrade but we settled and agreed at 5K for 2 nights on their standard room. It is a beautifully furnished and maintained property, air-conditioning, and full marble tiled including marble walls in the bath, of 5 star boutique quality. Breakfast the next two days was excellent, with lots of fruit, choice of eggs made to order, the most tasty masala dosa of the trip, excellent Indian and western breakfast choices (apart from those mentioned like pancakes) and so on. We had a great stay, the best hotel on our one month in South India and one month in Rajasthan, including places we paid 6K and above.
By 12:30 we were well established and refreshed and by 1:30 we headed out, first to lunch at a nearby restaurant. Good fish curry and rice which we shared. It was Rs.280/-, clean home-made style and good. Then we headed to the beach a few steps away and took photos at St Frances Church just short of the beach walk. We walked the sea front walkway, it is about 500 meters of sea front and a couple of little beaches on either side and in the middle. You get excellent roasted peanuts all across Kochi for Rs.10/- for a cone, a must-have hot off the coals at all times morning till evening. From the beach we walked to the Dutch Cemetery (which is closed but you can climb a wall and look in) and then one Kilometer away till the ‘Marine (Navy) Museum’. It was hot and we took refuge in the Museum, an interesting museum and then they showed us a film on the history of the Indian Navy (from the British times). It was 5 PM when we finished and now pleasant weather, so we walked back to the beach, had ice cream and more peanuts and sat on a bench and enjoyed the sunset and travelers and visitors walking by and children playing. I got a tea @Rs.10/- and another, and more peanuts… greedy.
Afterwards we saw the many fish stalls selling fish by the beach in the evening and restaurant reps offering to cook and serve the fish @Rs.150/- per Kg. We also watched fish catch-of-the-day being auctioned and boat loads of fish being brought in boats, sold and carried away on tempos a bit further down. Finally we headed back to Arches for a bit of a freshen-up and then headed to dinner at a nearby restaurant. Restaurants in this most (foreign) touristy part of Fort Kochi sell a standard fare of tomato paste fish with little or no local flavors or spices, customized to the western palate (taste) and no good for us. The restaurant took more than an hour to serve the bland food but still clean fish curry and rice and not really objectionable. Cost was about Rs.680/- for two fish curries, rice and a nimbu (lemon) soda, not quite worth it. Returned home late and crashed.
Day 15: Fort Kochi
Fort Kochi Cultural Center, Kerala Cultural Center, Greenix Village Theatre, Kerala Kathakali Center, Most Beautiful Dancer
Got up leisurely and had breakfast at 9:30, excellent breakfast at Arches, highly recommend it. It was hot in Kochi so decided to take out the car for local sightseeing, not attempting to walk like the previous afternoon. Headed out at about 10:30. First stop was Dutch Palace about 15 minutes away in Mattancherry area of Fort Kochi. It is one of the top attractions in Kochi. Of note, the two temples on the palace ground are open 7-8 AM (and 7-8 PM) for early risers, but the Place opens 9:45 AM till 4:45 PM with a lunch break from 1-2 PM.
Leaving our car parked at the Palace we walked to the nearby Paradesi (Jewish) Synagogue and the numerous antique shops in Mattancherry. We also saw a new hotel opening, the fantastic ‘Ginger Museum Hotel’, it has an Art Gallery with a full size catamaran (long boat) right thru the middle maybe 50 feet. Each suite of the hotel is filled with fantastic furniture collected by the owner including the roof with mirrors and carved wood (like the ‘Sheesh Mahal and Hawa Mahal rolled into one’ from Rajasthan). We took photos.
It was 1 PM when we finished from the Synagogue and found ourselves outside the ferry station. On impulse we went aboard the ferry and were off to Ernakulum, via Vypin Island. It is a 40 minute boat ride across the bay to Vypin Island, then across and back to Fort Kochi and finally to Ernakulum. Cost is Rs.7/- per head! When we got off at Ernakulum we spotted Federal Bank, took an auto to it Rs.20/- as it was hot. After the bank was sorted we had lunch nearby, went to Sea Lord Hotel instead of the recommended (by the bank guard) Sea Shell Restaurant and as a result got an expensive but disappointing meal, still in air-conditioned comfort. When we exited we saw the crowd at Sea Shell…
The spice market is behind the main road, so we visited a few spice shops. Then took an auto back to the ferry station. The lady at the Tourist Info Booth at the ferry terminal told us that there was a festival starting this evening till 08Feb. Lots of elephants from 5-10 PM daily. We planned to return, collect our car, secure it at the hotel and then return by another ferry, but that was a tall order. Anyways we got the 3:15 ferry back, collected our car about 4:30 and drove to the Cathedral St. Cruz, elevated to Basilica. It is a wonderful building.
From the Basilica at about 5:15 we headed to the Fort Kochi Cultural Center (called Kerala Cultural Center) got tickets at 5:45 PM for a 6 PM performance at the Greenix Village Theatre which is nearby. The guy rushed us outside flagged an auto, paid him Rs.20, and sent us on our way to the theatre so we do not miss the performance. We made it on time, though missed the 5-6 PM dress up show where the Kathakali Dancer is painted, face painted and prepared. From 6-7 PM is the Kathakali performance followed by 7-8 PM Mohiniyattam and Kutchipudi by the same dancer and then the martial arts performance of Kalarippayatu. I loved the Mohiniyattam and Kutchipudi the most as the dancer was really good and a beauty. I managed to take a video of the Mohiniyattam, though the Kutchipudi was better. The martial arts and Kathakali were the first time for me and very interesting. We could see the difference between the professionals and amateurs (at Periyar House). It was a wonderful evening, if in Fort Kochi this cannot be missed. Later after a wash-up at home we walked to dinner at a small unassuming corner cafeteria where we got our best meal of Kochi, a fish curry once again. Later we returned to the hotel and crashed. It had been a hectic day of sightseeing in Kochi and yet a lot more to see and do, something for next time. The dance performance was the highlight by far.
Houseboat on Vembanad Lake from Kumarakom, 2 nights stay and cruise
South India Road Trip: The Journey: Chennai to Pondy, Kumbakonam, Tanjavur, Karaikudi, Madurai, Periyar, Gavi, Vagaman, Vembanad, Kochi, Wayanad, Coorg, Mysore, Yelagiri, and back to Chennai.
Kumarakom Houseboats on Vembanad Lake
We left early as we learned the house boat cruises start around 12:30 and serve lunch on the boat at 1:30 PM soon after departure. We left at 7 AM and calculated 4 hour driving time, time for food and another short break en-route. For once I drove with a mission and did not stop until about 9:30 for breakfast. We went back the way we had come (into Vagaman) via the tea estates, till the crossing on the National Highway. Got a quick breakfast and continued onwards. As it happened we were in Kumarakom at 12:00, then headed towards the boat jetty road as indicated on the GPS. We missed the first few exits to boat jetties (perpendicular to the highway) and crossed the main government boat house as well, and then were on the second last exit when we enquired. We were lost so followed an agent (or tout) who took us to a house boat literally on the last marina, a boat which claimed to have had a cancellation and thus was available. He was asking Rs. 8,000/- per night, first 9K and then final offer 8K. It was a 2 bedroom houseboat and we need only one bedroom, so I offered 7K, and he came down to 7.5K but the agent suggested that he drive us to the next street, leaving the car in the parking (very narrow one way street). We went along. In the next jetty street, under the bridge, boats yet to find customers park, and there we did not find a boat available for 2 nights. One was available for that night but was asking 7K. Finally at 12:45 PM we realized that we would have to take the first boat we had seen as none others were available. However, when we back tracked to the first boat, we found that it was now booked. One boatman gave us the phone number of the owner, who then took us to his brother’s boat, a one bedroom boat which had returned to the jetty at 1:00 PM. We managed to negotiate with this guy and agreed @Rs.6,500/- per night = 13K for the two nights, an excellent outcome but we had lost some precious cruising time! He had a booking for the next night but was able to make arrangements to switch boats for the other booking.
Payment made, the boat cleaned, car parked, we were off at about 1:30 PM. Exiting the backwaters we berthed at 2:30 PM for lunch. It was well-made 3 vegetables and fried fish, an excellent cook, the best food we had had since our departure from Chennai. After lunch we set off at 3:45 PM and cruised the main Vembanad Lake until 5:00 PM and then slowly returned to berth at about 5:30 PM. We cruised only about 2 hours. In a usual one day cruise this would mean that in the morning you would be served breakfast at 8:30 AM, and then the boat would simply move 10 minutes up the same channel and check you out under the bridge at 9:30 AM. Even though cruising is permitted from 7:30 AM until 5:30 PM, a typical one day cruise thus involved only 2 hours of cruising and 30 minutes of very slowly moving up and down the one channel to the lake, disappointing. However for the two day cruise they set off at 9:45 AM on day 2 (very late… but nevertheless…), along the backwaters until 11 AM going up thru the farms and villages on the banks of the channel, and back on the same channel before hitting the big lake at about 12:00 Noon. Along the lake till lunch at 2:00 PM, anchoring the boat next to an island in the middle of the lake. After lunch we went all round the lake from 3:30 until 5:30 and then returned to berth.
It was a full day in the boat, and very satisfactory, but somehow we were left with the feeling that it may be better to buy a few hours cruise with lunch on board and spend the night on shore in a good resort. In any case we berthed both nights at the same spot and spent time on the same channel up and down passing our berth spot at least 6 times. We could have bought cruises @Rs. 1,500/- an hour and had the flexibility of seeing different locations. On shore we would have the freedom drive by the lake, go to the bird sanctuary and places during the evening, apart from living in a much more comfortable room.
We got great photos on the boat and saw life around the water channels. Food was excellent, the second day we had a new cook better than the first. He served fish steamed in a banana leaf for lunch and duck fry for dinner, both excellent. The first day we bought fish at a fish stall on the lake, wife cooked it in the kitchen of the boat, quite an experience. However, this was unnecessary as we couldn’t eat the chicken made by the cook. Most of our fish was left for the cook and boatman. The fish was available for half the price on shore, maybe 200 meters up the road in a number of fish stalls. So the take away from this experience is that the overnight boat can be avoided as boats can move during daylight hours, but they actually cruise at best 9:30-12:30 and 3:30-5:00 PM and the 3 hour cruise in the morning is lost on the first day as check-in is at 12:30 PM and check-out at 9:30 AM. A one day cruise is a wash out, the two day affair effectively 7 hours in total (2 hours on the first day, 5 hours on the second and none on the last). One could buy a 7:30 AM till 5:30 PM ride with self-packed breakfast and lunch, no berthing for meals… a 10 hour cruise… if that is possible?
Gavi Eco Tourism in Periyar Forest, Periyar Wildlife Reserve
The Journey: Chennai to Pondy, Kumbakonam, Tanjavur, Karaikudi, Madurai, Periyar, Gavi, Vagaman, Vembanad, Kochi, Wayanad, Coorg, Mysore, Yelagiri, and back to Chennai
We got up with no rush as Gavi was not too far off, 40 Km, finally departing at 9:45 AM. Made it quickly to the KFDC office in Vandi Periyar town, but it took 30 minutes getting entry permits, completing registration etc. At the gate we had to repeat registration, another 15 minutes. It was a beautiful drive into the dense protected forest, on 2nd gear, and at 20 Km/Hr. The first 5-7 Km were Ok, but the next 15 Km or so were on a severely broken and battered road. We made very labored and slow progress, zigzagging between breaks and pot holes in the road, and finally reached about 1:00 PM. Had lunch on arrival after another lengthy registration. Got room after lunch around 2:30 PM. Then from 3:30 until 5:00 PM we went on a row boat ride, with our guide rowing.
It was a beautiful afternoon and another 2 hours by the lake chasing and photographing birds. Dinner was at 7:30 PM followed by bonfire. It started to rain heavily soon after the bonfire was lit, and this delayed our departure from the dining area. Finally we braved it using our umbrellas and torch (none were provided but luckily we were equipped), through driving rain, to get to our tent 100 meters away. We slept early about 10:30 PM, with really nothing to do marooned in our tent, raining and pitch dark outside.
Day11: Gavi Eco Tourism to Vagamon
Vagamon Tea Estates, Paragliding at Vagamon Meadows, Kurisumala Hill, Church and Ashram
Since our departure was to be delayed, the mini bus tour being in the morning, we decided that we couldn’t make it to Kumarakom. We decided to go to Vagamon among the tea estates not too far away but outside the forest reserve (which itself would take a couple of hours to exit).
First from 6-9 AM we were driven in a mini bus up and down the battered forest road leading from Gavi to KFDC secondary resort (no visitors were staying here) about 30 minutes away in the direction away from the gate, and a visit to a dam, where sometimes wildlife can be seen near the water. After breakfast we were taken for a walk up the ridge leading to a view point for Sabari Malai Temple. That took us till 10:30 AM. We checked out and departed at 11:00. We were out of the forest reserve and at Vandi Periyar for lunch at 1:00 PM. Just short of Vandi Periyar we bought honey at a honey keeper farm and shop, and then coffee at a 100 year old roaster. 3 x 100 gram packs, one with spices (cardamom ++). After lunch it took us from 1:30 till 4:30 PM to get to Vagamon, all thru tea estates and excellent vistas and views. Once there we could not get a place, all the decent properties were booked, so finally we stayed at a church guest house which we accidentally came across. Budget rooms for Rs.500/- for the night. Tomorrow we head off early to Kumarakom, to try and get in before 12 Noon and onto a houseboat for a 2 day house boat stay, directly. Again hoping for the best as we had no booking and no knowledge of where or how to go about getting a boat.
Madurai to Periyar Wildlife Reserve, boat ride on Periyar Lake
Periyar Wildlife Reserve, boat ride on Periyar Lake, Kumily, Thekkady
The Journey: Chennai to Pondy, Kumbakonam, Tanjavur, Karaikudi, Madurai, Periyar, Gavi, Vagaman, Vembanad, Kochi, Wayanad, Coorg, Mysore, Yelagiri, and back to Chennai
We had slept late and got up late but saved time by getting hot Idlis from a street vendor in front of the hotel. Finally we were on our way at 9:45 AM. We drove straight through, with one break at 12:30 for samosas and coffee at a wayside place. Thus we made it to ‘Periyar House’ by about 1:30 PM. First visitors must get a car entry permit (Rs.75/-) and adults entry (Rs.33 x 2) at the tourism office in Kumily (the permits are not available at the gate of the reserve) to enter the forest reserve. Periyar House, the boat house, and the other two KTDC places are about 2 Km inside the forest and visitors can drive in their own vehicles from 7 AM until 5 PM, after which no private vehicles can move from the gate till the Boat House, the only stretch of road available. Safaris are not available in the reserve. The first of two excursions available is the boat ride, trips every two hours from 7:30 AM until the last departure at 3:30 PM, 1.5 Hour boat ride costing Rs.225 per head. The second is trekking trips, on which a number of forest guards accompany the group. These are 3 hour day or night trips or full day trips, and overnight trips with stay at tented accommodation, to be booked well in advance.
We booked for 2 nights at Periyar House in their budget room @Rs.2,600/- per night on MAP (breakfast and dinner included for 2). You can walk the 500 yards from the hotel to the boat house (or drive) through the forest. We carried some ‘Murku’ (a South Indian snack) and walked to the boat house at 3:00 PM and enjoyed the views, watched the last boat ride depart and stayed till it returned. A lot of visitors come to the viewing platform to see the lake and just be inside the forest and stroll around.
Later the hotel had a Bharatanatyam performance 6:45 till 7:30 PM by two students from the local dance school. They put up a pro performance, 6th and 10th standard students. Many of the students had made it to state level dance champions and surely these two were at a very high level. Very confident, never missed a step, great skill, facial expression, footwork and rhythm.
Dinner had fish and chicken curry, both excellent preparations. We retired to our room early. Tomorrow we have booked the boat ride at 9:30 AM, so need to have an early breakfast and reach with time to spare as they assemble the visitors and sell off vacant seats (or no shows) 15 minutes prior to departure.
Day9: At Periyar House, Thekkady, on the Periyar Lake
Periyar Wildlife Reserve, boat ride on Periyar Lake, Kumily, Thekkady, Bharatnatyam Dance
Woke early, had breakfast and took the 9:30 till 11:00 AM boat ride on the lake. Saw plenty of Bison, deer and birds (and not much else), and had a lovely boat ride. It is really peaceful and lovely being in the open boat and with a cool breeze blowing. It was cloudy with the sun peeking out a bit at times. On our return to the guest house we booked another boat trip for 3:30 – 5:00 PM. We did some shopping, 3 t-shirts from the Boat House shop for Rs.205 x 2, and Rs.170 = Rs.580 and we got the wife’s favorite sandalwood soap Rs.29 x 4 = Rs.116/-.
Back in the room we decided to go to Gavi Eco Tourism KFDC (Kerala Forest Development as opposed to KTDC, Kerala Tourism) place for a one night stay. We booked online the Swiss Cottage Tents @Rs.6,300/- including taxes for the night, the accommodation still available. The price includes 3 meals and activities, being an evening boat ride and a morning tour of a spice plantation, a viewpoint of Sabari Malai Hill (Temple is on the hill but not visible) and a ride thru the forest road (in a rickety mini bus) for an unlikely wildlife viewing. It is a 2 hour 40 Km drive from Kumily to Gavi, 20 Km inside the forest reserve on a battered and broken road, let’s hope it works out!
Later we spoke to family (Skype) and then had fish curry and rice at the restaurant of the hotel, and a guava, mango and bananas, and then it was time for the boat ride. The afternoon ride was quite a repeat as it was still overcast and the weather was identical in many respects. We saw some sea otters, missed the abundant elephants once again, the Gaur and deer were there on both rides, as were the numerous birds.
In the evening the Bharatanatyam performance was even better than the previous day. The girls, two of them, performed together and were really in sync, a rousing rhythmic performance. A movie on Periyar, dinner and then a surprise Republic Day cake and laddus sponsored by a guest from Mumbai. We chatted with the couple afterwards, 76 and 77 years old, retired, they go for a tour for a month each year, stay in their own apartment in Mumbai, close to but independently from their son, and holidaying separately as well. Theirs is also a love match, she volunteers as a teacher and he as a civil engineer offering services to charitable causes wherever they get the opportunity.
Madurai Meenakshi Amman and Sundereshwarar Shivan Temples, museum of 1000 pillars
The Journey: Chennai to Pondy, Kumbakonam, Tanjavur, Karaikudi, Madurai, Periyar, Gavi, Vagaman, Vembanad, Kochi, Wayanad, Coorg, Mysore, Yelagiri, and back to Chennai
We decided to check out ‘Chettinad Palace’ but made it instead to ‘The Bangala’ Hotel, the google maps location! The ‘Palace’ is in another town. Then we headed off to Madurai. Earlier a quick breakfast at the Annalakshmi vegetarian restaurant around the corner, and opposite the Friends Restaurant. On the way to Madurai, we spotted a sign to the village which has the most famous Ganesh Temple and a large Ganesh statue, Puliarpatti. That was a 4 Km detour to the village and another 1 Km to the temple. We visited and did Darshan of the Ganesh, the trunk is golden and a very beautiful idol. Then we set the GPS and continued on to Madurai. We had started at 9:00 AM and reached Madurai about 1:30 PM, and headed into one of the parking lots of the Meenakshi Temple, on an extremely narrow one way street. There the attendant suggested MR International Hotel with parking included and nearby. So we drove there and got a good room for Rs.1,880/-, no mosquitos, marble flooring, underground parking and 25 yards walk to the temple. It was good for the visit to the temple. We had lunch at 2:30 PM at Chettinad Mess which gave us good Mutton Sukka and mutton fry, fried Surmai (King Fish) with meals. It was marginally more expensive (@Rs.150 x 4 for the dishes and Rs.90 x 2 for the thalis), concept of fish, mutton and chicken curry (gravy) was the same as in Karaikudi and the taste was similarly good traditional Chettinad fare.
After lunch we did one external round of the Meenakshi temple, it has 4 majestic gates and then an outer wall in which are housed two temples, Madurai Meenakshi Amman and Sundereshwarar Shivan Temples. There is a museum of 1000 pillars within. The temple opens for Darshan 4:00 to 8:30 PM after the afternoon break from 12:00 till 4:00 PM. So we went back to the hotel and slept till about 5:00 PM and then refreshed returned for the Darshan. Later, we went around the temple, many stone carvings on the pillars and many stone statues to see, until about 9:00 PM and then after a quick wash went for dinner. This was at ‘Student House Coffee Shop’ which served us excellent Dosas. Later we returned and were up until 1:00 AM researching where to stay at the Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary and Forest, or the nearby town of Kumily in Thekkady District. In the end we decided not to pre-book at Periyar House Forest Lodge, which was our first choice, but to take our chances as it was available, even though there was a 10% online booking discount. This is a KTDC (Kerala Tourism) Rest House, the cheapest among the 3 KTDC lodges inside the Reserve Forest, all private hotels being outside, in or around Kumily. The next up is Aranya Niwas and the most upmarket being ‘The Palace’ on an Island in the middle of the Periyar Lake. The last has only 6 rooms and is reached by boat from the KTDC boat house, and you get to use the regular boat ride, every two hours, for free (including getting there and back).
South India Road Trip Day 6: Chennai to Kochi via Pondy, Kumbakonam, Tanjavur, Karaikudi, Madurai, Periyar, Gavi, Vagaman and Vembanad, and back via Wayanad, Coorg, Mysore and Yelagiri.
We had a good breakfast and were on the road to Karaikudi at 9:30. We made good progress on an excellent highway except for a town where probably the bypass was under construction so the detour led into town. I got a coffee but we were held up for 15 minutes due to a ‘Jallikattu’ procession. Nevertheless we made it to Chettinadu Court Hotel, Kanadukathan by about noon. It is a wonderful old haveli restored and repainted and additional buildings added in the same style. The town in which it is located is similarly interesting with many old and some re-painted havelis. We were tempted to stay but decided to press on and made our way to Elangadu Shrine (Ayyanar shrine in Ellangudipatti). During the festival and in the lead up to it, the village people and devotees make and place terra cotta statues of animals and birds for a kilometer all along and lining the road from the gate of the village to the shrine. Like many Ayyanar temples the temple is located at the border of the village, as a means of securing and assuring wealth and health for all. Unfortunately the festival season, in and around Pongal mid-January, was over so there were no statues remaining when we visited.
After a short puja at the temple, we headed into Karaikudi. In our search for a hotel we made a full round of the town and didn’t find anything. Then we were ready for lunch and made our way to ‘Friend’s Restaurant’. He served authentic Chettinad food. We had Thalis (@100 x 2) and 2 Mutton Sukka (@100 x 2) and one Natticoli fry (desi chicken @160) plus Rs.40 air-conditioning charge. They serve two vegetables with rice and fish, mutton and chicken curries (in 3 separate bowls) on unlimited basis as part of the Thali, these were all very good. I would recommend the Mutton Sukka, very lightly spiced, tender and dry (no curry). Later for dinner the mutton fry was sold out but we got Mutton Sukka again. The chicken was good too and I expect the fish would be good as well. The fish gravy was excellent, the best of the three gravies. The restaurant directed us to a hotel ‘Ambigai Residence’ one block away, where we stayed in a clean large room (without air-conditioning) for Rs.1000/-. We recommend it as it is near the 80 feet road (next to the new bus station) and set back, so you have views of the palms, a quiet town colony and yet can get in and out quickly.
We slept until 5:30 PM and then headed to the antique market, flea market famous for getting furniture and collectibles from old Chettiar mansions. The owners have abandoned their mansions to caretakers and moved to Chennai for business. It is a flea market, or second hand junk market, with some good furniture and some Tanjore Paintings. The goods are sold as antiques and thus heavily priced and would need a great deal of negotiation and local assistance to get a bargain. A visit to a downtown temple nearby and then we headed back for dinner at Friends, our hotel and lights out.
Brihadeeswarar Temple (also called Tanjavur Chola Big Temple – it is really big) in downtown Tanjavur. It is a magnificent old temple with a very big Nandi (the sacred bull) and many Nandis on the rampart walls.
This was day 5 of our South India Road Trip from Chennai to Kochi and back, via Pondy Kumbakonam Tanjavur Karaikudi Madurai Periyar Gavi Vagaman Vembanad Wayanad Coorg Mysore and Yelagiri.
We had breakfast and were away, reached Papanasam 15 Km from Kumbakonam on the route to Tanjavur. It has 108 Lingams Temple which is a wonder. Then onward to Brihadeeswarar Chola Temple (also called Big Temple – it is really big) in downtown Tanjavur just next to the bus station (old). It is the biggest of the 3 Chola Temples. We reached at Noon so had enough time to go to the inner sanctum which is open 6:00 – 12:30 and then 4:30 – 8:30 PM. It is a magnificent old temple with a very big Nandi (the sacred bull) and many Nandis on the rampart walls. We took many photos and then proceeded to find our hotel. An hour later we almost gave up the search as all autos and hotels in the vicinity of the bus stand, the location of the hotel on google maps, had never heard of Fast Track hotel or 14 Cachery Street, the address given on the hotels website. Finally a travel agent at one of the bigger hotels directed us to Pandyar Hotel as she had heard that the owner has a travel agency called Fast Track. The location, phone number and address on hotels.com were all incorrect. We found Pandyar Hotel and they honored the booking even though they had no intimation of it. They took our confirmation number and the hotels.com voucher and had me email these to them. The data plan on my phone was very useful.
We got lunch thalis at Pandyar and slept till 5 PM, then took the short drive (quicker to walk across the road!) to the ‘Big Temple’ and spent another couple of hours in the evening and dusk light, wonderful. After dark we drove across to the market and had a dosa at Vasanta Bhavan and a ‘degree’ coffee for Rs.10/- at a degree coffee place, he also uses Padma Coffee from Trichy. Then late evening we saw a fair nearby with a giant wheel, walked back to the car, returned to the hotel and crashed.
Road Trip Chennai Pondy Madurai Vembanad Kochi Wayanad Coorg
Road Trip Chennai Pondy Madurai Vembanad Kochi Wayanad Coorg via Kumbakonam Tanjavur Karaikudi Periyar Gavi Vagaman Mysore Yelagiri
We were supposed to stop at Brihadeeswarar Temple Gangaikondacholapuram but we decided to head straight to Kumbakonam and see the Chola Temple and other temples there, Kumbakonam being a temple town with literally scores of temples. Thus we drove right thru and reached at about 1:30 PM, tried a few hotels and then settled for Vinayaga opposite the railway station. They served good homely lunch thali, everything in the thali was tasty. At 4 PM we headed to the temples, which have an afternoon break from 12:00 till 4:30 PM. First stop was the town center main temple with its customary elephant. It is a great temple with many stone pillars to hold up the carved stone top, Adi Kumbeswarar Koil (Temple). Then we proceeded to the Chola Temple, Airavatesvarar Koil at Darasuram. This was quite another thing. The magnitude of the temple is stunning with hundreds of carved stone pillars and statues. Later when we checked on google we discovered that this is the smallest of the 3 Chola temples! Still majestic and magnificent.
Once back at the hotel we left the car and walked into town in search of coffee roasters. We got to ‘Shakti Coffee’ roaster but were told that ‘Padma Coffee’ supplies to many coffee shops, both are excellent. We had snacks at ‘Aryas’, highly recommend this place for the tastes and flavors of this town. I had Adai and wife tried the Kuzhipaniyaram (3 salty and 2 sweet balls) and Idlis. Then the coffee. On the way to Aryas we had stopped at a shop selling excellent coffee at Rs.10/- a shot, and so on our way back I had two more coffees.
Later it started to rain so we negotiated with an auto to take us to Padma Coffee en-route to the Vinayaga Hotel (Rs.80/-). So we got the best Padma Coffee at Rs.38.50 / 100 grams and got two packets of 100 grams of roasted and ground coffee. Leo coffee in Chennai was Rs.50/- for 100 grams, and Shakti’s top coffee was Rs.40/-, the most popular is also the cheapest!
Later in the night I booked a hotel on hotels.com, my favorite hotel booking site, Fast Track Tanjavur.
We woke late and walked to Indian Coffee House in the market for breakfast, good dosa and coffee. We planned breakfast at Ananda Bhavan, maybe next time. It is self-service, a sweets shop and serves all kinds of vegetarian meals, dosa and other snacks and filter coffee. Later we visited the temple nearby, Arulmigu Manakula Vinayagar Devasthanam, the #1 place to visit in Pondy. The elephant comes out at 4 PM so we needed to return for this. A pujari specializes in blessing new vehicles, two and four wheelers are lined up for the service and I duly got a few photos. The temple was built in 1980 but gets hordes of devotees, always full. Then we went to the Pondy Museum next door to the temple, it has excellent bronzes. On our way back to the guesthouse we got an excellent lemon tart (which was really ‘tart’ as promised) at the ‘Eat My Cake’ Café and Bakery next to the theatre, highly recommended. Using free Wi-Fi here we found that the #3 place to visit was Paradise Beach. So later we took out the car and drove to Paradise Beach, it is about a half hour drive out of Pondy. It is a fishing village with at least 2 superb resorts on the beach. Not many visitors at the public beach on a weekday at 5 PM. Drove back to avoid driving in the dark and to catch the last of the daylight on the Promenade, which we did. After sunset we had dinner at La Terrace restaurant, the second restaurant next to the Park Guesthouse with a bar in-between. Excellent Pizza and the other dish we ordered was good too, highly recommended. The ‘Eat My Cake’ bakery is run by a Frenchwoman who is training the local women to bake, so the local women do the baking at their factory and all the servers also have gone thru the training and can alternate as bakers.
Later from 8 till 9:30 PM we watched dances by school children at the stage next to the Gandhi Mandapam Statue on the Promenade by the sea side. This was sponsored by the Auroville Ashram.
20Jan, Day3: Pondy Cont’d
We had planned a trip to Pichavaram Swamps for a boat ride but it was a statewide bandh (strike/closure) and holiday called by supporters of ‘Jallikattu’, the bull taming sport popular in Tamilnadu, which had been banned by the Supreme Court a couple of years earlier and then upheld the ban a few months ago. The cases had been filed (and brought up repeatedly) in the Supreme Court by Animal Welfare Board of India and PETA India. The WYO, World Youth Organization, was protesting against this ruling and also demanded a ban on PETA in India. It is very much like bull sports in other parts of the world where a fighter either avoids, runs in front of, agitates, or climbs and holds-on to the hump of a bull and escapes being thrown off or gored… in this instance a bull is released into a channel or open space and fighters can jump in front, on top and hold on to its hump, the object being to hold on for the maximum time, capture flags tied to the horns, or even tame the bull altogether (a tall order). Film personalities like the music composer AR Rahman in Chennai went on a day fast in support of Jallikattu on 19Jan. As a result our trip was cancelled and movement within Pondy severely restricted for the day.
We had breakfast at the guesthouse and then took a nap until noon or 1 PM. Then hungry once more, walked to the French Quarters getting a fresh orange juice (Rs.40/-) at a stall near the temple and some tea and coffee at chai wallahs (fellas) who had braved it to stay open. It was peaceful, but completely shut down in Pondy, with a handful of about 20 motorcycles of party workers doing the round of the beach road and other streets in the French Quarters. After a long walk and return by the sea side we had another nap from 4-5 PM. Finally we headed back via the beach road (Goubert Ave.) and JL Road to the market where we got dinner at 6 PM at Wang’s Kitchen, air-conditioned, bright, Chinese specialty restaurant. Rates were upmarket but food to match, highly recommended. Large helpings and a chicken dish was Rs.300/-, so not very expensive overall. ‘La Terrace’ gave half the helping for Rs.220/-, but the Pizza at La Terrace was in a league of its own. Later we got our phones recharged and got a data plan so that we could continue our road trip with a GPS via Google Maps. It started to rain, and after a wait, we had to take an auto (3 wheeler) for Rs.70/- to make the 10:30 deadline at the guest house.
We left Chennai at 9:45 armed with mosquito repellant ‘MOSQ’ but without the mosquito bat which electrocutes mosquitoes and flies quite efficiently. We got excellent instructions from BIL (Brother in Law) and were in Pondy (Pondicherry) at the Park Guesthouse of the Aurobindo Ashram at 1:30 PM after a short stop at Mahabs (Mahabalipuram), where we decided not to leave the car and luggage unattended and proceeded after a washroom break and purchase of some drinking water. One stop to have a ‘Degree’ coffee (Kumbakonam style filter coffee) and that was it. Excellent coffee at all these degree coffee places is assured. The Ashram gave us a room after turning away a family in a big vehicle, and many were turned away on the telephone as we approached the reception. They had a sign at the gate proclaiming ‘No Rooms Available’ and the guard was turning people away. Yet the same guard allowed us to approach the reception and the lady there invited us to stay as long as we wished. We got an AC room on the ground floor for Rs.1400/- a day and decided to stay for 2 nights.
We had the lunch packed by SIL (Sister in Law) in the room before heading out to town at about 3:30 PM. First stop was coffee at the restaurant in the guesthouse itself. All windows facing the sea wall just a few meters away with the sound of crashing waves. Then a walk on the beach road promenade, this is about 1 Km with Gandhi statue at the half way point. The sun was still hot, but there was cool and strong sea breeze. Later when the sun went down it was difficult to tear ourselves away from the cool sea breeze, the sound of the waves and the peace of the sea on one side and the sleepy town on the other. Later after we completed our tour of the town and returned at 8 PM we found that the street is ‘pedestrian only’ after dark and vehicular traffic is not allowed thru this 1 Km stretch. 5:30 until 8 PM we walked into town, visited a church and went to the fish, vegetable and fruit market where we got sour bananas (Rs.60/Kg), black grapes, guavas (Rs.50/Kg) and cheeku (also called suppata or mud-apple, no English name known to me Rs.30/Kg). All are favorites of my wife, who also loves pomegranate but we already had enough fruit for the moment. On our way back we had dosa and coffee at the Indian Coffee House, always a good choice for a filter coffee and South Indian snacks.
Once we were back on the Beach Road (also called Goubert Avenue Promenade) we found that a Bharatanatyam performance was going on a stage next to the Gandhi Statue, so we found chairs and were enthralled by the performance for about an hour and a half. There was a performance of ‘Das Avataram (10 incarnations) of Lord Vishnu’. It was an open air theatre by the sea, the water not ten meters away, with waves crashing on the sea wall. There was a big contingent of devotees of Male Marvattur Palayam Temple, who need to dress in red sarees when they visit the temple, they were at Pondicherry and we got photos, very colorful. We were back at the Ashram well before the 10:30 PM deadline. Smoking (tobacco) and drinking (alcohol) is not permitted there and the gates remain closed 10:30 PM until 5 AM. The restaurant serves vegetarian fare. Ideal for us, we neither smoke nor drink, and the deadline enforces that we go to bed early. We can enjoy our fish and mutton outside. Some of the lemon rice, prawn curry and fried fish was remaining, we had a second late dinner and followed it up with grapes and then it was time for bed.