Weekend traffic from Bangalore is never something to look forward to, and here we were on the cusp of the long Holi weekend. It's barely daybreak when we exit Bangalore and head onto the four-lane Mysore Road trying to make our way to Ooty. Rather than dodge early tourist traffic, we join the queue heading out of Bangalore.
Frequent travellers to Ooty will tell you that it takes barely five hours to reach the hill station from Bangalore. However, in the tourist season-or on long weekends in our case-it takes much longer. We spent almost seven hours driving and arrived famished for a late lunch at the Taj Savoy, one of the oldest properties in the region. Lunch turned out to be a mixed affair-a decent sandwich and a terrible burger-and we decided to put our legs up for a bit before heading out. Set up back in 1834-35, The Savoy is all old school English elegance, with a wood-panelled lounge, conventional wood-fired fireplace and quaint bathrooms.
However, most people use The Savoy-and other hotels in Ooty-just as a base before they head out for a spot of sightseeing. If you arrived in the afternoon like us, the best option is to head into town and go to Charing Cross and take a look at the market.
Besides being a hill station, Ooty is also known for its home-made chocolates, everlasting flowers, tea from the nearby estates, eucalyptus and other medicated oils and farm fresh carrots. In season, Charing Cross can be hell-packed with bus loads of packaged tourists, honeymooners and hordes of noisy school students on education tours.
We seemed to have dodged much of this ruckus as only small groups of locals and the occasional bewildered foreign backpacker were around. Unfortunately for Ooty, there are few memorable eating joints in town (try Kings Cross near Holiday Inn if you can), so we decided to do the next best thing and headed back to the hotel. Part of the charm in checking into a hotel like Savoy is sitting in front of a crackling fire and reading, eating or even watching TV. It's an immensely relaxing experience.
The next day, we decided to head out early and go to the Botanical Gardens, spread across some 55 acres, with over 600 types of plants and flowers, right in the middle of town. May is the best time to visit- the annual flower show is held then-and the flowers are in full bloom. The garden also has a nursery where you can buy seeds, saplings and potted plants. We bought ourselves a handful of assorted seeds for flowering plants from a fairly lackadaisical horticulture department employee, who seemed more intent on lunch than on selling anything.
Besides the Garden, Ooty's also a great place to reconnect with nature. One of the preferred places to do this is Pykara Lake, some 30 km from town. Take a slow boat ride around the lake and relax, ideally early in the morning or late in the evening, when the sun is relatively mild. Also do try to make it to Dodabetta Peak, a 20-minute drive from Ooty. As the highest peak in the Nilgiris range, it gives you an unparalleled view of the surrounding region. It's a fair climb up from Ooty and significantly colder, so do wrap up.
If you're a first timer to the region, you could also visit a tea garden-your hotel can help with logistics-to see how leaves are processed. Ooty also has a Tea Museum, open to the general public, which showcases the history of tea-both globally and in India and specifically the history of the beverage in the Nilgiris. After pottering in and around Ooty for a day, we decided to down a few brandies and headed to the nearby town of Coonor. We caught the Toy Train, which leaves four times a day. Resisting a strong urge to slum it out, we bought first class tickets for the train-a princely sum of just a little over Rs 100 each-and 30 minutes later our decision was vindicated. Not only do first class passengers get to go early onto the platform, the compartments are cushioned (second class is hard seats) and are far less crowded.
An hour's slow train ride takes you down the hill, past quaint stations like Lovedale and Wellington and some brilliant scenery to Coonor. Tragically, this train no longer runs from the foothills of Mettupalayam like it used to, so you can only do the shuttle between Ooty and Coonor.
A short two-kilometre drive from the station, past the noisy bus terminus, is Taj Gateway Coonor, a 150-year-old hotel that once used to be the priory of the neighbouring church. Once called Hampton Manor, the hotel has been taken over by the Taj Group and converted into a luxury hotel along the way. No two rooms are alike at the hotel and the main dining room has heads of animals shot as far back as 1922 in neighbouring Masinagudi. It's all old world charm, with dark wood panelling, tea (or a drink later in the evening) outdoors, with a serene view of the area for company.
If you do make it to Conoor, try to take in Sims Park, a sprawling botanical garden with an assortment of flaura and fauna. We managed to spend about an hour, taking a slow stroll up to the green house and back all the way around and left munching some locallygrown orange carrots. In season- ideally post monsoon-visit Dolphin's Nose, a sharply falling waterfall beside a fantastic cliff of that name.
The working week was beckoning though, and much as we'd have liked to stay, it was time to get back to reality. Rather than take the same road out, we took a different route, retracing our steps to Ooty and then taking 36 hairpin bends down from Kalhatti to the Mudumalai forests. If you have a strong stomach and a good driver, this route is a great way of ending your vacation. Stop by at one of the viewing points en route to get one last glimpse of the Nilgiris before literally descending to your urban chaos.
Where to Stay
Savoy Hotel, Ooty 77, Sylk's Road, Ooty Tel: 91 423 2444142-147
The Gateway Hotel, Coonor Church Road, Coonor-643101 Tel: 91 423 2230021, 2230042
What to See
The Charing Cross Market, Botanical Gardens, the Tea Museum, Dodabetta Peak. Also ride the Toy train to nearby Coonor.