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.
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.
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.