For as long as I can recall, Coorg has been on the top of my wishlist. Any photograph that you see of the place is beautiful — with immense greenery that only the Western Ghats can afford, misty hills and gushing waterfalls and of course, picturesque coffee plantations. What’s not to love? But visiting Coorg requires a certain mindset. If you are the kind who needs to do five things before lunchtime, then this is not the place for you. The Coorg way of life is meant to slow you down: take relaxing walks, watch birds, eat local food and sit back and soak in the beautiful vistas. That’s just my cup of, shall we say, coffee.
For a first-time visitor, especially from the North, the destination can be quite confusing. There is no actual city called Coorg. It is, in fact, the name of the district with three main towns — Virajpet, Somwarpet and the most popular one, Madikeri. Having heard of Madikeri quite a lot, I was a little disappointed by the district headquarters. I had imagined a hill station surrounded by mountains, but you can barely see any hills from the main town. Apart from a couple of quite ordinary tourist spots, there is nothing to do in Madikeri, which looks like any other small town in India. To explore the beauty of Coorg, you need to travel away from the towns and into a plantation estate. Unless you have a friend who owns one, the best bet is to pick a good plantation property.
The choice you make here dictates how the rest of your trip goes, so choose carefully. I lucked out with mine. About an hour from Madikeri is the small village of Siddapura, home to the sprawling 300-acre plantation resort Evolve Back Chikkana Halli Estate. Only 35 acres of this plantation estate is built up, and the rest is trees and birdsong. Staying at the resort, I didn’t have to go out looking for things to do — you can do all the quintessential activities in the resort.
All but one, I should add. Being a huge lover of food, I had planned to go out looking for a traditional Kodava meal. The Kodavas are the original inhabitants of the land and make up the majority of the population even today. There is no consensus on the tribe’s origin, but literature dates their existence to as far back as the second century AD. While they are Hindu, the Kodavas have different customs and practices — they don’t believe in the traditional Hindu gods and worship nature instead. They don’t have idols or deities and instead pray to the sun, moon, trees, fire and most of all, the River Cauvery. They think of themselves as the children of the Cauvery; and Talacauvery, the source of the river, is a holy site for the locals. At home, the family elders, not priests, perform all the main ritualistic ceremonies. Their ancestral homes, called ain-manés, are similar to Chettinad houses with a big central courtyard and rooms in surrounding corridors.
As I drove to the Madiah household in Virajpet, where Divya, the lady of the house, invites guests home for freshly-cooked Kodava meals, I passed several plantations owned by locals. Mr Madiah himself goes to his plantation every day. He drove me across to his 400-year-old ain-mané, which is now reserved for big family functions. The ain-mané was empty when I visited, but it was exciting to walk through the tiny rooms and imagine it full of people. The rooms were hardly as big as modern-day store rooms, and yet the attic was large and spacious. I imagined the Madiah children running riot there when not out in the fields.
Divya, who trains chefs in Kodava cuisine, dished out a typical meal. First up was pandi (pork) curry. Many versions of it exist across the district, but a good one has to be dark caramel in colour with a robust cumin flavour. It is eaten with akki roti, or rotis made with rice flour. There was also a delicious, mildly spiced chicken curry with string hoppers, which were slightly softer and lighter than the idiyappam of Kerala. This was accompanied by a dry jackfruit vegetable, ghee rice and a superb mint, coconut and yogurt chutney spiced with chilli. The memorable meal was finished with poppy-seed kheer in dainty china cups. This was definitely the best meal I had during my stay in Coorg, matched only by the crisp dosas at the hotel’s Plantain Leaf restaurant.
On the second morning, I decided to go birdwatching. I stepped out of my Heritage Pool Villa at 7 am to an astounding sight. Gossamer mist rose out of the resort’s lake, located in front of my villa, like little clouds rising from the ground. Murthy, the naturalist at Evolve Back, later told me that this happens when humidity meets the morning cool.
I was surprised to learn that our bird-spotting walk was within the resort premises itself. Over two hours, we saw at least 20 types of birds, including species endemic to the region, such as the Malabar parakeet and Malabar grey hornbill. The loveliest bird I saw was Loten’s sunbird, which has a metallic blue colour that glimmers in the sunlight. You don’t need a guided tour to watch birds in Coorg, though. All you need is a good pair of binoculars and some leisurely time. About 25 per cent of all bird species found in India can be seen in Coorg, making this a birdwatcher’s paradise. Apart from a coffee lover’s paradise, of course.
The coffee theme runs through your stay at Coorg. Whichever plantation you stay at will have its own single-origin coffee. At the newly opened Coffee Museum at Evolve Back, I learned about the history of coffee in the region, and also more about the Kodava community and their traditional tribal jewellery, which is displayed in one of the sections. This museum also served up a fabulous coffee tasting session, where I had six types of preparations: espresso, cappuccino, the Moroccan nus nus, French press, South Indian filter kaapi and Vietnamese cold coffee. At my villa, instead of the usual instant-coffee packets, there was a French press with instructions on how to brew the perfect cup of single-origin coffee.
Coffee plantation walks make up one of the main activities in Coorg, where you can, quite literally, smell the coffee. Walking in the quietude of the forest-like plantation — with no sound but the occasional chirp from a bird nearby — can heal the city-weary soul.
Coorg is meant to be a holiday to recharge. It is both, meditative and energetic, as it gives you time to reflect and restart. After this complete break from routine, I was ready to face the world again. As I drove out of Siddapura, I passed the beautiful forest of Dubare, full of stunning trees like rosewood, teak and silk cotton. It’s no wonder the Kodavas pray to the nature gods — their blessing keeps everything in Coorg serene.
From Bengaluru, a six- hour drive takes you to Coorg. Mysuru is a good halfway stop, where you can find several four-star hotels for a snack break. Coorg is about one hour from the new airport at Kannur in Kerala.
Evolve Back is a relaxing resort in a lush green coffee estate. Doubles from INR 22,000.
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