Wake up and smell the coffee

Spend a few days in rural bliss watching coffee beans ripen and silk cotton pods burst in Palani hills
Room Kattaikadu, which overlooks the rose garden
Room Kattaikadu, which overlooks the rose garden

We have been driving for three hours from Coimbatore airport, resigned to the flat, dry landscape, to the vegetation consisting largely of thorny bushes, relieved by brief glimpses of windmills standing tall in clumps of coconut palms. Pannaikudi in Dindigul district, Tamil Nadu, seems just another signpost but after we pass it the landscape begins to change. In the last hour of our journey, we start ascending the Palani Hills and the forest begins&mdashhesitantly at first and then it starts to grow thicker. The road grows very quiet and we don&rsquot encounter another vehicle or even a passer-by as we climb bend after bend, except for a very old man cleaning out the dried flowers in the roadside temple with large idols of Ganesha and Kartikeya.

Occasionally, we pass clusters of houses that make up the villages, till a rusty board announces that we&rsquove reached Manjalparpu. We fork off to the left and rattle uphill on a stony path through coffee plantations and, when we reach, I am quite unprepared for the unostentatious beauty of the house that sits lightly on top of the hill. A column of wooden pillars supports the sloping Mangalore-tiled roof. The building itself is low-rising and the roof is punctuated with small turrets, supported by carved wooden brackets. The effect is created by the elevation and the elegant proportions of the building and, for the eye that has grown accustomed to polish, the natural, unvarnished texture of the wooden walls. This is the Rajakkad Garden hotel, an eighteenth-century Kerala-style house that was transported from its original location in Kottayam and rebuilt painstakingly in the middle of a fifty-acre coffee plantation. This is the hotel&rsquos first season, the first year that it has been opened officially to guests.

Robesh George, Rajakkad&rsquos youthful on-site manager, is my host and guide. Dressed in a traditional white mundu and bush shirt, and courteous of manner, he is reverential towards the house and enthusiastic about his plans for the estate. The house began its life as Pallam Palace, the summer residence of the erstwhile Travancore royal family&mdasha padinaru kattu house or a house with sixteen courtyards. It was brought to Rajakkad Estate and reassembled back in 2003, and after much consideration and a facelift from a team of workers from Pondicherry and the local villages, it was opened as a hotel this year. The original wooden construction, with interlocking beams and wooden runners intersecting the framework and holding up the structure&mdashno nails have been used&mdashhas been retained as much as possible or reproduced, right down to the hatches in the wooden walls through which the royal ladies in seclusion could watch special events or even the world go by. The trick to the unvarnished look, Robesh informs me, is linseed oil which retains the light colour of the wood, while cashew oil is used for the inside of the structure for it produces a darker hue.

The eight guest rooms, almost identically appointed, are grouped round the main courtyard. Side by side with the traditional architecture, the simple black oxide floors and the terracotta-tiled passageways, there is a stylised aesthetic at work, and a practical and informed eye to the facilities. The eye for detail is there everywhere&mdashin the dining chair that fits comfortably in the small of your back, in the earthen-hued carpets from Samarkand, the glass carafe with the perfectly ground stopper or the paintings in the rooms, whether it is the scene from Krishna&rsquos Braj in my room or the potentate from Karaikudi in the next. But it is the bathroom that merits a special mention. The lighting is clever and energy-saving &mdashfairy lights that hang on the silver-edged mirror and LED strip lights stuck discreetly on the wooden frame. The bathing area is separated from the rest of the bathroom by a raised threshold&mdashno fussy bath curtains, glass cubicles or ceramic tiles and the taps, thankfully, turn only in two directions, either left or right with arrows clearly pointing out hot from cold.

The pods of the silk cotton have burst and the pathways through the coffee plants are strewn with soft white down. Robesh is giving me a conducted tour of the plantation. At 3,500 feet, the elevation of Rajakkad is perfect, Robesh says, the air is pure and healthy, not as rarefied as in the higher reaches, so you can breathe easily and you don&rsquot feel tired. Which is why, he adds, the Kenyans, who live in similar highlands, win the marathon. The estate grows Arabica and some Robusta and their coffee is completely organic, with goat droppings and cow dung as manure. It is not easy to sustain an organic plantation, Robesh explains, the crop takes time to yield and you need a buffer zone to shield it from the pesticides used by the uphill plantations. But they want to persist. Already, the plantation has extended into a farm with vegetable plots, goats, cows, chicken and even turkeys, which are a big draw with children who visit. Robesh looks forward to meeting all the needs of the hotel with the fresh organic produce from his farm and of marketing his own boutique cheese and lemon marmalade, which would mean greater employment opportunities for the local community. We walk past and duly note the check dams, the rainwater tanks and the natural wells, and arrive at the coffee-drying yard. A couple of turkeys are strutting about. The male, his feathers all fanned out, his red-and-blue wattle displayed to beady perfection, is trying to impress the plain female. Do you breed them for your table, I ask Robesh. He looks at me with gentle dispproval. We do not eat our pets, he replies.

In the evening, I watch Arul, &lsquoKing of Soups&rsquo, cooking our dinner. There are pieces of pumpkin and slivers of garlic simmering in a pot&mdashby sleight of hand, and a little cream, he will transform it into an unbelievably tasty soup in a few minutes. The next day I sample his carrot-apple soup, again very simple and very good. Arul&rsquos speciality is South Indian and Continental food.  Over the next two days he lays out his wares&mdashthe perfectly cooked drumstick sambar, bowtie pasta in basil and tomato, beetroot-apple salad and fruit mousse stand out. Arul has computer courses under his belt but he likes cooking best. By experimenting on his own, and with some ingenuity and imagination, he has developed quite a repertoire. He runs the kitchen with Panneer, his assistant. Both are light of step and perfect of timing. Just as you&rsquove finished one course, they appear at your elbow with the next. The service at the hotel is much like that&mdashthey anticipate your needs and so there&rsquos little you want, and are helpful without getting in your way. All of them, including Robesh, have no formal training, picking up their skills on the job. The hotel has a permanent staff of eight and other than Arul, they are all from Manjalparpu, the village at the bottom of the estate, or the villages around, as are the workers on the farm.  The oldest is Meenakshi, bent but quite spry, whom I will see first thing in the morning, sweeping up the leaves. It makes her happy to come here, Robesh says, and we give her work that is light enough for her to do.

I wake up in the morning to birdsong&mdasha full-fledged concert, and have my coffee in a terrace at the edge of the garden, watching a couple of giant squirrels chasing each other on a silver FIR.  The garden around the hotel, which has the minimally-interfered-with look, as if its natural features have been embellished to show them to advantage, has been crafted by a specialist from Auroville and forms a very effective setting for the wooden walls and columns of the house.

A three-hour walk through the plantations and the forest, up to a dramatic view point, is promised for the morning and we set off with a machete and a bottle of water. Panneer, Arul&rsquos assistant in the kitchen, and Pandian are my guides. The machete is not to defend ourselves against wild animals or hack our way through the forest but to cut down a ripe jackfruit if we can find one. As for wild animals, the wild boar and the gaur (Indian bison) can be quite a nuisance, Pandian explains, and the multicoloured saris that we find stretched across bushes and fences are a means of deterring them. The sari flapping in the dusk is meant to bamboozle the bison into thinking that resourceful humans are at large, but the bison seem to have seen through the trick.

The hill slopes here have no leeches, Pandian assures me, even though it has rained, you find them further uphill. We walk through other plantations&mdashTrichy man estate 600 acres, Chennai man estate 100 acres, local man estate 10 acres, through coffee-drying yards and sheds. It takes us an hour to reach the view point, where we encounter what Pandian calls &lsquothe mist problem&rsquo. The valley is completely covered and the mist is rushing up to meet us. So we head to Elephant Point lower down to a sheer drop and there we get a sweeping view of Dindigul and other towns in the plains, and the hills stretched out like an elephant with its trunk raised.

The machete comes in handy on the way down, to clear the lantana bushes that block our path and finally, Panneer finds the jackfruit he is looking for &mdashripe and low-hanging. With one stroke he slices it in the middle and the segments are just the right golden colour. After we have had our fill, we leave the fruit on the side for the monkeys and bison to finish.

As the only guest in the hotel I have the run of its sixteen courtyards and I make the most of it. Nothing can induce a sense of calm, a feeling of all being well with the world, as the symmetry of evenly paced columns and still water in a pebble-lined pool. I laze in the many cosy nooks so thoughtfully set up round the courtyard I watch the fish swimming in the water and the wooden parrots preening themselves on their stoop  I sit on the planter&rsquos chair with my feet up on the rests (with a mental apology to my mother for having succumbed to sloth). I browse through the books in the library, which again has a hand-picked collection of fiction, art and natural history&mdashand a touch of the Raj, in the souvenirs from Fry&rsquos Chocolates, dating back to the pre-war times&mdashand it occurs to me that this would be a perfect place for a writers&rsquo or artists&rsquo retreat. I stroll through the pathways in the estate  and see that the white silk-cotton has been mulched into the mud after the night&rsquos rain. All too soon the day has ended and it is time for another of Arul&rsquos excellent meals.

When I retire to my room and close the door, I notice the fat, circular wooden hinges on the top. I draw the latticed screen that separates the veranda, the garden and pretty much the whole estate from my room. I switch off the lights and listen to the sounds from the darkening garden. I can hear a lone motorcycle making its laborious way uphill. A firefly has found its way inside and is blundering about, a point of flickering light in the darkness. There is a distant growl of thunder and soon it begins to rain.

The information

Getting there

Rajakkad Estate is located in the Palani Hills, of the Western Ghats, in the Dindigul district of Tamil Nadu. The nearest town is Dindigul (50km 1hr), well connected by bus and rail from Bangalore (402km 6hr50min) and Chennai (438km 7hr30min). The estate arranges pick-ups from Dindigul railway station and all airports.

By air The nearest airports are Madurai (80km 2hr), Tiruchirapally (120km 3hr) and Coimbatore (200km and 4hr30min). There are flights from most Indian metros.

By Train The nearest railway station is Dindigul. The trains from Chennai include Ms Guruvayur Exp., Vaigai Exp., Tiruchendur Exp., Kanyakumari Exp. and Nagercoil Exp. Check hours of departure and arrival as some trains arrive really early in the morning at Dindigul. Trains departing from Bangalore include Nagarcoil Exp. and Tuticorin Exp. There are regular trains from Coimbatore, Madurai, and Trichy to Dindigul

By road You could drive down from Bangalore and Chennai. Alternately, there are buses from Dindigul to Manjalparpu, the village closest to Rajakkad Estate, and from other places, such as Chitharevu, in the foothills. From Madurai you could make your way to Vathalagundu and take a bus from there to Manjalparpu.

The property

Rajakkad Garden Hotel (9487444333 rajakkadestate.com) has eight bedrooms (Rs 7,500 or Rs 8,500 per head per day, depending on the room. Inclusive of breakfast, dinner, tea/coffee and guided walks. There are special summer offers and the house can also be rented by small groups). The best time to visit is from October to April but it is pleasant all year round. Set menus are offered at the hotel, with the cuisine largely being South Indian and Continental.

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