The hills are alive ... in Munnar

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Updated 06 January 2016
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The hills are alive ... in Munnar

Emerald-green tea gardens, breathtaking hills and mountains that can even rival the majestic scenery of Salzburg showcased in the 1965 classic Sound of Music (no kidding), pristine lakes, exotic wildlife and a cool, breezy, and sometimes wet weather that can evoke your innermost Romeo or Juliet (sans the tragedy of course).
My first stop in Kerala was Munnar, South India’s most sought after hill station. About 1,600 m above sea level, this picturesque town was once the summer resort of the erstwhile British government in India.
To best enjoy the different views Munnar offers, we booked three hotels, ranging from small cottages to luxurious properties, for our 11-day stay.
[email protected], a lesser-known resort cottage is situated in the lush of greenery and offers possibly the best panoramic view of the hills from the comfort and privacy of your cottage. It is a quiet place, away from the crowds, almost like a hermit house, perfect for ‘taking a break’ in its absolute sense.
Waking up every day to the gorgeous sunrises, sipping on warm coffee while reading a book, was an experience that was to become one of my most cherished memories from the stay.
Going around the town is easy when you hire a driver either from the hotel or one recommended by the staff there.
Drivers here are not only well-versed in their jobs but can also double up as guides and photographers.
Our driver in Munnar spoke decent English and was extremely affable. He would stop on the way every now and then to show us freshly plucked samples of tea leaves, coffee seeds, cardamom, black pepper, oranges, cocoa, etc., never mind the fact that he kept referring to cocoa trees as cadbury trees.
Most drivers have pre-prepared itineraries for the day. However, it is better to do some research of your own so that you don’t miss out on the less-frequented, nevertheless interesting places.
Blossom Hydel Park is a popular tourist site situated at a distance of about 3 km from Munnar town. Spread over a sprawling 16 acres of land, the park features a vast stretch of landscaped hills, gardens, artificial waterfalls and lush lawns.
It is best explored by taking a stroll of the garden and the riverside, taking in the myriad colors of the exotic flora found here.
Another attraction, the Rose Garden, features a well-maintained nursery with a variety of flowers with their botanical names on display. Apart from being pleasant to the eyes and offering splendid photos for your Instagram page, there’s not much to do here.
As you drive through the valleys of Munnar, your driver will stop at popular film shooting points that offer excellent views of tea plantations and rolling hills. You can also avail the services of photographers at these spots who will provide you with a traditional tea plucker’s gear to put on, shoot and instantly print some 8 photographs for a mere Rs. 200 (SR11 approx.).
Next, we enjoyed a 20-minute ride on the back of an elephant through the rugged terrain of the Carmelagiri Elephant Park. You can also feed the elephants baskets of pineapple and other fruits that the mahout will give you for an added price. The elephants are trained to raise their trunks at the end of the journey asking to be fed.
Another tourist attraction is the Honey Bee Tree, a huge tree that houses dozens of honeybee nests.
Sweet carrots, pineapple and ‘munjal’ (fruit of the palm tree) are cultivated in Munnar throughout the year and locals can be seen selling the fresh produce near tourist attractions. A word about Munnar’s pineapple: Refreshing and delicious, pineapples have never tasted this good before.
Nestled inside the hills of Munnar is the hill station of Mattupetty. The main attraction of Mattupetty is the dam and the lake. Water sports activities like speedboating is a must do, it makes for a superlative experience. The serene ambience of the lake will take you to a world of peace, as you fill your lungs with crisp mountain air.
A trip to Dream Land Spice Park means a fun-filled day spent amid heart-pounding activities and adventure sports. There are 25 ‘rides’ that you can enjoy once you pay the entry fee of Rs. 600 (Approx. SR 34) per person. Children’s rides include bungee trampoline, bull ride, water walking ball, suspension bridge, tire climbing, while those for adults include archery, gun shooting, ladder climbing, spider net, sling shot, camel ride, off road cycling, a thrilling horror show and many more. By the end of it all, you feel the money spent was totally worth it.
Echo point, situated on the way to the Top Station, gets its name from the natural echo phenomenon there. The scenic place is popular with tourists and has boating facilities. Rare purple-colored flowers Neelakurinji (Strobilanthus), which bloom once in twelve years can be found here.
The Eravikulam National Park is any adventure lover’s dream come true. Spread over an extensive area of 97 sq km along the crest of Western Ghats in the high ranges of Idukki district, the park is an excellent opportunity for trekking along the high rolling slopes, as you go deep into the forest, taking in the magnificent view of the tea plantations and hills blanketed with mist.
Make sure to wear strong and comfortable footwear for the trip as most of the areas are consistent hilly plateau. As you climb up the hills, you will locate small streams of ice cold water, a variety or orchids, and the star attraction, the rare Nilgiri Tahr (ibex).
The national park’s main motive is to protect the endangered ibex. Apart from that, around 26 different species of animals including elephants, langur, small-clawed otter, tigers and leopards, and 120 species of birds are said to be found here. We of course were content just to have spotted the Nilgiri Tahr more than once during the trip. The highest peak in South India, Anamudi, at 2690m, stands tall in the Eravikulum park.
The cascading waterfalls of Lakkom, which are part of the Eravikulum stream, are small but lovely. There are rocks to rest on as you dip your toes in the pool. While it is not too deep, the rocks are slippery and so all tourists were warned to remove their shoes and socks.
Next on our itinerary was a trip to Kolukkumalai Hills, which is home to the highest organic tea factory in the world.
Situated at a height of 7900 ft above sea level, the place is popular for the old factory, built around the 1930s by a Scottish planter. Visitors are offered tours of the outlet where they can view the traditional techniques used in tea production. We hired a jeep and a driver to take us through the coarse road, an extremely bumpy ride that left me with severe back pain the next day. But on the brighter side, I visited the unique tea estate, sipped fresh tea at the factory while relishing the spectacular views of the hills and the unbelievably symmetrical tea gardens.
The steep and winding road makes it a scary ride, nevertheless one hell of an adventure. The tea estate per se is a small factory, where hand-picked tea leaves are rolled, cooled, fermented, dried and then packaged by hand for distribution. The machinery is traditional and no computers are in sight. Fresh tea is sold at the outlet.
On the way back , we stopped at the Lake View Point, which to my eyes was the most charming sight. Serene, blissful sky blue waters surrounded by green hills, no tourists in sight, this was the highlight of the day. Perhaps not many people know about the scenic spot, where I am told herds of elephants come in the night to drink water.

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Hello Helsinki: 48 hours in the Finnish capital

The Finnish Capital, Helsinki, shot from above. (Shutterstock)
Updated 19 November 2018
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Hello Helsinki: 48 hours in the Finnish capital

  • The best way to explore the city center is on foot, walking around beautiful, clean streets and taking in the fresh air
  • The best-known landmark is Senate Square and its surroundings, which make up the oldest part of central Helsinki

DUBAI: Access to Helsinki has just become easier for Gulf travelers thanks to the introduction of a new route from the UAE to the Finnish capital. Last month, budget carrier flydubai launched its Dubai-to-Helsinki flights, offering the best connection from Saudi Arabia as well.
Our first port of call after the six-hour trip was the utterly enchanting Hotel Kämp, arguably the best-known hotel in Helsinki — after all, it has been around for over 130 years. The classy, comfortable five-star property is known as a place to see and be seen.
While there, do check out Kämp Spa, where saunas are, of course, available. (There are almost as many saunas as there are people in Finland.) Kämp Spa offers two options: the eucalyptus-fragrance grotto steam sauna and a traditional Finnish one.
The best way to explore the city center is on foot, walking around beautiful, clean streets and taking in the fresh air. The best-known landmark is Senate Square and its surroundings, which make up the oldest part of central Helsinki. You can take in the glorious architecture of Helsinki Cathedral, while also viewing the Government Palace, the main building of Helsinki University, and Sederholm House, Helsinki’s oldest building, dating back to 1757.

For shoppers, Helsinki is home to one of the world’s most exciting and influential design scenes, and a treasure trove for unique pieces. Try TRE, which stocks over 300 brands of well-known classics as well as mostly homegrown products — including fashion, jewelry and furniture — from new designers.
Be warned, though: Helsinki is expensive. Very expensive. So you’re probably better off investing in a cool design piece for the home rather than the usual gifts and gadgets. You’ll leave with something memorable that’s high-quality and, of course, unique.
For something on the quirkier (and cheaper) side, second-hand clothes store UFF has chains across the city, where you’ll find some gems that are as good as new.
Dining out in the city also doesn’t come cheap, but it is an experience to savor. For casual snacking, The Old Market Hall sells cheese, beautifully fresh fish (we’d recommend the salmon), fruit and veg, and has cute little cafés.

For dinner, it’s worth treating yourself. Garden by Olo is an official ‘spin-off’ of the Michelin starred Olo and serves Nordic ingredients fused with Asian elements.
One of the newer eateries on the block is Restaurant Andrea at the newly opened Hotel St. George. Here, Nordic and Anatolian kitchens come together to offer a variety of sharing plates, inspired by both cuisines.
If you fancy taking in some of Finland’s stunning scenery, head to one of the national forests close to Helsinki. Nuuksio National Park — forests and lakes spread over Espoo, Kirkkonummi and Vihti — is easy to get to by public transport, and features eight marked trails for hiking in the freshest of air.

If you are visiting for more than a couple of days, then it is well worth exploring Lapland, the official home of Santa Claus. You’ll need to take a one-hour flight from Helsinki to Rovaniemi.
If time is tight, try a reindeer sleigh and husky sled experience, where you can interact with the animals on farms and enjoy rides through the snowy forests.
There’s so much more to see and do than is mentioned here, of course. We’re sure we’ll return to Finland one day, it’s definitely a trip worth making. Just don’t forget to pack your thermals.