Renewal in Kotagiri

Kotagiri Green

My India trip was one of those unplanned vacations…when a thought enters your head and you pursue it regardless of economic efficiencies.   Of course once a thought germinates, little sub plans start appearing like satellites.  Our primary destination was Chennai to meet my parents but the city was a humid oven and we needed to get out in search of cooler climes.

So much of Tamilnadu was relatively unexplored along with her hill stations.  Ooty and Kodai were considered but both had become too popular for their own good.  My father had a college friend living in Kotagiri whom I hadn’t seen since childhood. So Kotagiri it was.

Now Kotagiri is that naturally beautiful lass who unlike her sister Ooty, is very shy and has been content to stay out of the limelight.

We took the Duronto Express from Chennai and I must say I was very impressed by the hospitality and the service on the train.  I was traveling by Indian train after a couple of decades and I would recommend the AC Chairs.  Comfortable reclining seats and lots of leg space.   Not for the finicky or the germophobes though.  I was less impressed by the state of the restrooms and tried to use that as little as possible which was difficult considering how often we were fed during the entire journey which was about 7 hours.

Maybe we were over ambitious but after 7 hours by train and landing in Coimbatore, we had to take a car and drive to Kotagiri for another 3 hours as it can only be reached by road.  Now if you were a tea baron or the Chief Minister of Tamilnadu, you could helicopter it.

My first impression landing in Coimbatore was “Dang, another crowded city but less heat. Would Kotagiri really be different?”  The driver shook his head and said “Give me an hour as we move out of Mettupalayam and you will not believe your eyes.”

I was still a little skeptical as the car waded past traffic, honking, noise, clutter, bright sunshine till we started the climbing the hills and in an instant the terrain was transformed from brown to green, from cement and tar to lush foliage, from people to silence and a noticeable drop in temperatures.  We were on our way and it was what was promised and more.

Kotagiri is situated at an elevation of around 1793m above sea level and is one of the three popular hill stations located in the Nilgiri and it is believed to have one of the world’s best climates.  This gorgeous hill station is surrounded by acres of tea estates where the locals eke out a living gathering tea leaves.   Britisher John Sullivan is credited in bringing tea to the these hills.  Some say the cash crop has also destroyed the natural vegetation of the area.

A haven for trekkers, Kotagiri natives are used to walking.  The local tribes still follow their adhered customs and while you travel it is not uncommon to see them walking long distances up and down the hills.

There is much to do if you are up for an adventure.  The Mudumalai National Park is a day trip cutting across Ooty.  Or a trip to Kodanad View Point and you are rewarded by an incredible view of blue hills, gentle slopes, a view of the Moyar river and the Tamilnadu Karnataka border.    The Doddabetta Range is 22 km away.  At Kodanad View Point, there is wonderment at the beauty of our earth, at what we take for granted, at petty irritations and the failure of man to understand the gifts that have been so gracefully given.

I fell in love with Kotagiri.  With her lush beauty,  with her gentle people, her serene demeanor and her sense of fragile balance.  Where no two mornings were alike.

As I get older, I know one thing for sure.  The most memorable vacations are those where the core is about renewal not sight seeing.   We become so used to the concept of getting the most bang from our buck, that we believe that the best use of time is when it is fully utilized.  Where every second has that ROI.  The best times I have had, were those spent without urgency and a clock bound schedule.  There is a reason why nature spends a portion of it’s life in hibernation.  The act of renewal requires deactivation for awhile.


Somewhere between earth and heaven
Exist scalloped hills of tea gardens
Circled by spiraling narrow pathways
Eucalyptus sharply clears the air
Blooms of color brighten the fringes
Light shines only softly here
Rain mists the land throughout the year
Indecisive fog plays hide and seek
Rising slowly, then drifting without warning
Covering every mountain peak
A changeling knowing not what she seeks

Somewhere between silence and sound
The bison wanders slowly in no hurry to get around
Birds want to gently intrude
Even the harsh crow tries to fit in here
A panther, a tiger may be spotted at night
As boundaries merge into the wild unknown

Somewhere between cool and cold
The Sun disappears and reappears like a whimsical child
Tea pickers glide silently through rows of leaves
Unfazed by the rain, the chill, they have bags to fill
No highways can be seen over here
Narrow single lane roads snake up every mountainside
Cars honk to announce presence not impatience
School children walk home together

Somewhere between retreat and reprieve
Sore eyes and heart tired by the frenzied city
Time is measured by cups of tea
Through these verdant ancient hills
A fragile partnership exists
Man may eke his livelihood on natural terrain
But supremacy is not an option

Sun. Sea. Serenity.

Sea facing cottage at Fisherman's Cove

This post is very late.  A month late actually.  It was supposed to be written by that sea but I couldn’t…I wanted to walk by the sea, soak up that time, spend every minute like a miser hoarding gold.  Strange why we clutch frantically to every minute of our vacation but spend the remaining 11 months squandering minutes.

Let me start at the beginning.  We were supposed to spend this summer in Chennai and during a conversation with my dad, I said I want some sea.   Then I added I want some good clean sand to go along with the sea.  He said how about the Andaman Islands.  Unfortunately for us, July was not a good time with the rains etc.  Plan B was Fisherman’s Cove.

From the Vivanta by Taj group, this retreat is about 40 km from the Chennai airport and built on the ramparts of an old Dutch fort on the edge of the Bay of Bengal.  A conversation with the genial general manager, BC Kumar, provided me with some more history .

Back in time:

In the 18th century, the Dutch had founded a trading settlement here and named it Goblon.  Like the British at Madras, the French at Pondicherry and the Danes at Tranqubar, all originally trading settlements on the Coromandel Coast, the Dutch erected a fort at Covelong.  Men and their forts!  But the Dutch settlement did not survive the ravages of time.

Moving on, somewhere between 1744 and 49, the Nawab of Arcot builds a Fort at Covelong and named it Saadt Bandar.  In 1750, a year after the fort was built, it changed hands.  A French ship anchored off Covelong sends signals of distress which the Indians investigate only to be told that the sailors had died of scurvy and a request is made for the survivors to land.  This was a ruse aka Trojan horse and thirty Frenchmen who had carried their arms ashore overpower their benefactors.

In 1752, the Fort then faced an English siege led by a clerk turned soldier…none other than Robert Clive who later plays a big role in the history of the Indian subcontinent.  Despite two setbacks, Clive rallies and takes control of the Fort.

Today not much of the Fort remains, only a small building, possibly an armoury indicates that Covelong was a player when European powers jockeyed for the influence, power and a trading interest on the Coramandel Coast.

Back to the present:

Pathway to the cottages

The resort is hidden and it is quite easy to miss as you are driving on that Chennai IT highway.  You almost start wondering whether it was just a product of crafty advertising but the minute you take that interior road and hear the soft whoosh of the waves, you start relaxing.  The first impression is foliage.  Well maintained grounds boast incredible ferns, flowers, trees…an artfully appointed tropical haven.  I have great respect for any place that can reclaim land and enhance it.  Kumar also told me that Fisherman’s Cove employs the local fishermen so the catch of the day is actually caught that day.  Many of the families have been employed to maintain the grounds.  Taj also supports an education program for the local children.  The place has been given a facelift…the cottages, villas, restaurants, spa etc and there are plans to launch a new block with additional conference facilities.

So we check into our sea facing cottage which is spacious, has a wraparound verandah with a plank swing, a hammock outside and boasts of an outdoor fenced shower.  The kids go in, check everything out, turn on the TV to make sure that Plan B (watch TV if everything else fails)  is operational and then run outside to the beach.  And that was the magic.  I had the beach and the sea for a front yard.  Clean, soft sand.  Blue and white sea.  Sound of the waves every morning, noon and night.

We are pleasantly surprised by the hospitality extended by everyone at the hotel.  The executive management make it a point to greet us and ask us for feedback.  I must congratulate Brij Rajpali, the F&B head and Samir Mulaokar, the Executive Chef for the delicious cuisine.  The breakfast buffet at the Seagull is something I would highly recommend.  Even if you are not staying at the hotel, this restaurant has a great spread of south indian and continental dishes.  I opted for the semiya upma, pongal, uthappam, dosa, idli, different vadais and the chutneys.  My girls asked for waffles and pancakes.  I did roll my eyes and said “now girls we eat that everyday”.  But they ignored me and I then ignored them as I was busy stuffing my face.

Now what’s a good breakfast if you don’t have that famous south indian coffee with a touch of chicory in it.  I had plenty of that.

Dinner at the BayView, an outdoor restaurant at the edge of the sea was equally memorable.

There is a lot you can do at the resort.  There are day trips that can be arranged to different tourist attractions including one to Mamallapuram, a 7th century port city with the ancient temples portraying scenes from the Mahabharata.

The girls wanted to go looking for snakes instead.  Yes, I know.  I gasped as well at first.  Then I acquiesced not so gracefully.  Patrick the Event Director convinced me it was all perfectly safe.  This half day expedition was led by the Irulas, a tribe mostly from the Thiruvallur district of Tamilnadu who specialize in snake and rat catching.  It was the highlight of the trip for my girls.  They would talk for days after about the cobras, the vipers, tree snakes, rat snakes that they got to catch and actually touch.  I have pictures of my youngest with a snake draped on her neck.  She is the one who plans to be an entrepreneur/adventurer/ninja when she grows up.

My parents weren’t interested in running around trees or snakes or hanging by the beautiful blue pool with a drink in hand.  They wanted the peace.

Jiva Spa

Me.  I walked that beach and let the sea wash my feet. I used that hammock.  I checked out the spa.  I added calories. I woke early to catch the sunrise.  I went to sleep listening to the waves.  A good retreat and a change of scenery always provides fodder for life review and options for reset.

I believe that you can spend a lot of money, bathe in gold and milk like Cleo but the difference lies in your ability to actually enjoy what has been placed in front of you.  The grandeur of the earth, the infinity of the sea, the expanse of the sky. Magic is never proportionate to the money spent.  Magic lies in the heart and the head.  Having said all that, that trip was money well spent.

The Bay

As you ebb and flow, my love
Bringing memories to the shore
Sometimes taking what was not yours
Of lost and found and yin and yang
I see specks of the fishermen’s catamaran
On your horizon at breaking dawn
Praying to your God for the catch of the day
So families don’t go hungry today
When you rage we cower in fright
Against your undulating eternal might
As I sit here by your side
I hope the Blue Lord is still on his throne
With Prosperity sitting at his feet
And the White Horse stays tethered
In my dream

—-© 2011 Shaku Selvakumar