Legend has it that Jesus Christ spent three years of his life travelling across the coasts and mountains of Kerala learning about medicine, healing and astrology. I spent the last three years surrounded by Mallu friends and learning about actor Nivin Pauly. While the comparison may be a little far-fetched, it certainly accelerated my excitement of visiting the proverbial Promised Land.
Armed with an elaborate imagery of lush green forests, mesmerising backwaters and coconut trees, I arrived at Kochi airport. The extent of my Malayalam was limited to one line of a folk song about Chikku bhaiyya's rabid dog, which made any conversation seem like a distant dream. I soon resigned myself to taking in the scenery of God's own country through the window of the cab during the 4 hr drive to Thekkady.
It isn't hyperbole when the poets speak of Kerala's beauty being capable of leaving you in a trance so much so that the narrow roads snaking along the mountains were often dotted with signboards that said "Toddy" and nothing else, leaving their sobriety in a questionable disposition. Once out of the city, there were more trees than there were people more varieties of flowers than I could remember.
Nestled in the heart of the cardamom country lay my destination, at least for the next two days. Half expecting a generic hotel building, the quaint design of the Niraamaya Retreat nearly camouflaged it into the hills around. With blue roofs mirroring the sky, each of the 12 luxurious wooden cottages paid homage to a spice of the bountiful land. Mine was called Pepper, and was decorated with peppercorns, paintings of spices, fresh flowers and petals, and a little surprise towel origami that would be left on the bed every day by magical elves.
A long, warm shower in the semi-open, stone-walled shower area later, I was ready for the walk around the beautiful property under the moonlit sky. The evening ended with a wholesome traditional Kerala dinner.
As I made my way back to Pepper, my Instagram chirped. A friend was messaging me about the superior quality of the pillows at Cardamom County, which he had visited eight years ago. Laughing, my head hit the coveted feather cushions only to rise with the first rays of the sun the next morning.
Kerala being the land of spices, it was only natural that I took a walk along the spice gardens of Thekkady after breakfast. Walking down a narrow path with my guide who went on about the different spices they grew, I noticed, almost every variety under the sun could be found in the plantation, each in symbiosis with the others.
There was clove, allspice, vanilla, tulsi, different varieties of coffee, chillies, pepper, lemons the size of my forearm, nutmeg and so much more. Around 75 per cent of the worlds cardamom is grown in Idukki district. I felt like a child in an amusement park as I broke open a pod of cardamom and tasted the seeds, squeezed the petals of various flowers and licked the nectar. I walked around the entire plantation nibbling on stevia leaves.
In the afternoon, I made my way to the Periyar elephant reserve. The last time I rode on an elephant had been in Rajasthan. Here, my trusty companion Mira took me up and down the mountain trails, even being kind enough to lend her trunk for selfies. I thought we had really bonded over the course of the hour when suddenly she decided to roll around in her bathing pool with me on her. Needless to say, we had a special connection there, her and me.
The drive back to the retreat was dotted with simple little huts, almost camouflaged with natures abundance. You don't get to see these things much in the bustling cities.
Niraamaya is known for its signature Spice Spa treatment and I was more than happy to experience it. A quick steam later, I was ready to feel the out-of-body experience that the spa claimed to offer. I walked out an hour later with a silly smile on my face, only to be greeted by the most wonderful Kerala-style thaali for lunch.
Bathed, fed and ready to experience the art and culture that the place had to offer, I made my way into the town to watch a performance of the Navrasa Kathakali. Almost a lecture-cum-demonstration, the artists explained each of the navrasas in the hour-long performance while paying homage to the ancient art of storytelling through drama, dance, mime and music.
I also had the opportunity to experience the oldest and mother of all martial art forms - Kalaripayattu. Legend has it that the 3,000-year-old art form can be traced back to the mythic father of martial arts, Sage Parasurama, who reclaimed Kerala from the Arabian sea. The young artists were fast and agile, pulling off stunts that left the audience awestruck. The grand finale was full of fire, quite literally, as the artist jumped through flaming hoops.
After a hearty breakfast overlooking the infinity pool the next morning, it was time to embark on my 4hr journey to Munnar. Infamous for being a honeymoon destination, I was curious to see what it had to offer to the solo traveller.
The views of Kerala seem like something right out of the holiday postcards I used to collect as a child. On the way to Munnar was the Anayirangkal Lake. Although commercialised with stalls and gift shops and couples holding hands, it was easy to forget about the civilisation around and get mesmerised by the beauty of the changing colours. Painted against the backdrop of the hills, flowing through the valley below, it is moments like these that remind you of the transience of human existence.
The Devonshire Greens property was hidden away on the side of a mountain. A rustic, cabin-like structure, it was what one would call the perfect family getaway. My room was a cosy little space with a roomy balcony overlooking the valleyI felt right at home while at the same time, far away.
After a quick lunch, I headed out to see the local attractions with my chauffeur and guide Anil, and the jeep I would be referring to as Chikku from now on. Tea being one of the largest cultivation crops in Munnar, I visited a tea factory. Other than the quirky signs detailing how to make tea, the museum seemed like any other, that is, until I stepped into the actual tea factory. An ageing man stood atop a giant tub of fresh tea leaves waving a flask of green tea at anyone who made eye contact. Once he had our attention, he went off on a monologue about the benefits of tea and how the average Indian couldn't master the art to save his life, which would put any stand-up comedian to shame.
Thoroughly amused, I made my way through the rest of the tea-processing units, stopping to smell the various cuts, pretending to know what its supposed to smell like.
Just as it was time for sunset, I headed to the Pothemedu viewpoint. Except, of course, the cloudy day guaranteed no sun and I stared into the magnificent valley overlooking Munnar in its entirety as the daylight started dimming. About 2km from the property, hidden away in a forest of Eucalyptus trees were the Attukad waterfalls. While global warming resulted in the falls being more of a trickle, a phenomenon I would encounter repeatedly on this trip, the natural rock formations and the river made a sight nothing short of stunning.
A lavish buffet at the restaurant made me feel right at home as I sat listening to the chitter-chatter of a large north Indian family on vacation. The rest of the evening was spent in my balcony, looking out, into the valley below.
The next morning shone bright and sunny, perfect for a little rendezvous around Munnar. In the company of Chikku and Anil, I headed towards the Matupetty dam. The snaking road towards the dam was filled with lush tea plantations, flower gardens, and one lone tree with over seven enormous beehives they called the Jungle Honey Bee Nest. The Matupetty dam in itself was rather underwhelming owing to the lack of water, overcrowding and the exposed concrete construction around. The lake, however, extended far and wide, flowing past a local tribal village. Past the dam and driving along the lake up the mountain, I suddenly noticed a sign that read "Welcome to Tamil Nadu".
A film student at heart, I insisted on standing in the middle of the road with one foot in Kerala and one in Tamil Nadu as Anil stood, laughing and hoping I didn't get hit by a bus. A short distance away was the path that led up to the Top Station viewing point. Walking the narrow lane full of local fruitsellers, I glanced at a lighthouse-like structure where people were taking pictures. The Top Station, as they call it, looked down on a spectacular view of the mountains and the valleys, enclosed in clouds.
On the way back, we stopped at the Kundala Lake, where the changing hues of blue reflecting the suns rays could just as easily have been something out of a fairytale.
After a quick walk around the flower garden, we headed back to Devonshire Greens. I was taken around the property and shown the fitness centre, spa, business centre and the lovely little lawn. Looking out of the balcony, I was, to my pleasant surprise, greeted by a rainbow that may have originated from the proverbial pot of gold.
The next morning marked the end of my little getaway to Kerala it was time to get back to the real world. The 4hr drive to the airport was largely uneventful except nature decided to give me one last treatthe Valara waterfalls.
Tall and roaring in the middle of 25 km of dense forest, the Valara falls almost stood as a metaphor for the world outside. Beauty and hope can never be lost.
Thekkady and Munnar are located in Idukki. The nearest airport is Cochin International Airport, which is about 140 km from Thekkady and 110 km from Munnar. The Ernakulam railway station is located about 160 km from Thekkady and 130 km from Munnar. Cab services are available from the airport.
Where to Stay
The Niraamaya Retreats Cardamom Club in Thekkady is a member hotel of Privya selection of boutique hotels around India. It offers 13 cottages, both garden-and mountain-view (from INR 7,900, 080 4510 4510, niraamaya.com/cardamom-club-thekkady/).
The Devonshire Greens in Munnar has 40 rooms in various categories from standard and premium to suites. You can choose between the valley-view and sunrise-view (from INR 7,900, Phone +91 9656 3777 44 / +91 8592001011, devonshiregreens.com).
What to See & Do
Visit the Periyar National Park and take a walk around the spice plantations in Thekkady.
Soak in the arts and culture by experiencing the cultural programmes in Kumily.
Stop at the Anayirangal, Matupetty and Kundala dams to witness the breathtaking lakes.
Head to the tea museum, echo point, tribal village, and Top Station viewing point in Munnar.
Make your way through the multiple waterfalls like Attukad, Nyamakad, Luckom, Thoovanam, Power House, Valara and Cheeyappara.
Visit the tea gardens and coffee plantations in Munnar.
Discover the Chinnar Wildlife Sanctuary when it isnt breeding season to catch a glimpse of the Nilgiri tahr.