Thekkady (Periyar) is 190km (118 miles) from Kochi and 145km (90 miles) from Madurai
Each year, around half a million travelers make their way up into the Cardamom Hills, where the crisp, cool air is redolent with the scents of spices, and soaring mountains give way to tea plantations and dense jungle. Most people intent on seeing the best of Kerala head from the backwaters to the village of Thekaddy, gateway to Periyar Tiger Reserve, the stomping grounds for large herds of wild elephants and apparently where as many as 22 to 40 tigers avoid being spotted.
Although it's true that Periyar is one of India's largest and most popular elephant reserves, this is not a wilderness experience in the true sense. Unless you opt for an overnight trek or one of the full-day hikes, the popular boat trip on the lake feels much like being processed like sheep by regimented nature rangers, and the intense tourist activity around the roads leading to the gates is quite disheartening.
However, with a couple of lovely places to stay, it is well worth overnighting here if you are traveling by car from Kerala to Tamil Nadu (or vice versa), though the most direct route (if you're driving between Madurai and Kochi) is via Munnar, which lies 4 hours due north of Thekkady. At a much greater altitude than Periyar, Munnar is a collection of vast green-tea estates first established by a Scotsman in the late 19th century -- it's hardly surprising, then, that the area is sometimes referred to as Kerala's Scottish highlands. In the days of the Raj, it became a popular "hill station" -- a place to escape from the summer heat in the plains.
Today the landscape -- for the most part -- retains a classic hill station atmosphere. Watched over by Mount Anamudi, South India's highest peak (2,695m/8,840 ft.), Munnar's primary attractions are its gorgeous views of rolling hills covered with tea and cardamom plantations, and the cool climate -- great, if you intend to stay more than 1 night, for leisurely walks and cycle-tours (not to mention a close encounter with the endangered Nilgiri tahr, a variety of mountain goat).
The word "retreat" in the title couldn't be more apt, either. Guests stay in individual teak villas, built in traditional Kerala-style architecture and adorned with antique columns and intricate rosewood carvings. Each roomy villa has its own private setting and a stupendous view of the dense green hills overlooking a maharajah's former hunting grounds. You can swim in a footprint-shaped pool on a mountainside terrace, take yoga classes and ayurvedic treatments, play golf at a historic planter's club nearby, spot wild elephants and perhaps even tigers at the Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary just over the hills. Or just stroll around the lush plantation grounds, where orchids bloom, monkeys chatter, and the scent of wild spices hangs alluringly in the air (they don't call these the Cardamom Hills for nothing).
Watch the harvesting of coffee, cloves, and pepper, visit the nearby plant where cardamom is processed, or swing up to Munnar to see the Tata tea factory and museum. Breakfast is served on a lovely terrace, and even if you're not a regular coffee drinker, the smell of fresh-brewed coffee -- organically grown right here -- can be intoxicating. On the open-air stone pavilion of the central dining area, host Simon Paulose makes every meal into a social occasion; with only 12 units on the property, the number of guests at any one time is equivalent to a gracious dinner party. And the meals are unbelievably delicious, superb examples of refined Keralan cuisine, which some say is the best in south India: crispy-thin dosa pancakes, abundant seafood, the pervasive richness of coconut milk, and deeply spiced stews and curries.Seeing where the spices grow and then tasting them in your dinner is its own sort of farm-to-table experience, of the most exotic and luxurious variety. If you're intrigued by this extraordinary combination of flavors, you can arrange a cooking class with the chef, who will teach you how to re-create any dish on the menu. It's one way to take home a little piece of paradise.
Off the Kottayam-Kumily Rd., Murinjapuzha; tel. 91/469/270-1311 for reservations, 91/4869/288-119, or 0944/7088-119; www.paradisaretreat.com .
Kochi International Airport (140km/87 miles). Kottayam (70km/43 miles).
Set on terraces carved into the precipitous Cardamom Hills
Peaceful hillside resort, with traditional Keralan cottages and a gorgeous pool, set amid a 40-acre coffee estate ”
Set on terraces carved into the precipitous Cardamom Hills and reached by a private track, this nature resort is a haven of peace, where city souls and tourists come to rest their overheated brains and bodies. The founders, Simon and Maria, bought the neglected coffee plantation with the intention of building a personal retreat, using a salvaged traditional wooden house with carved windows and doors. Pleased with the result, they thought: ‘Why stop...?’ .Now there's a clutch of cottages, dotted amid organic Robusta coffee plants and banana palms and connected by a network of stone pathways and steps. The round dining room is open to the elements, with a panorama across the valley; the wonderful swimming pool - endearingly built in the shape of Maria’s foot - shares the same plunging views. In 2018 the plantation changed hands, but it remains charmingly eccentric. And that’s why you come here rather than to a clinical 5-star hotel.
1. The spectacular setting in the tree-clad hills means sweeping forest views and no traffic noise - only birds and insects
2. Lots to see and do, from on-site yoga and plantation tours to wildlife treks and Ayurvedic treatments in the surrounding area
3.The smiley staff are very friendly, creating a more authentic sense of Kerala than you'd get staying at an impersonal hotel
4.The fresh air and cool breezes are a wonderful contrast with the sweaty, polluted lowlands - great for families wanting space to spread out and relax.
Best time to go
October to April is the optimum time to visit, with temperatures ranging between 15C and 30C. It's quieter (and cheaper) outside these months, especially during the monsoon season from June to September. April to June can be very humid, though not as unbearable as in the lowlands. If you plan to do any hiking, avoid November and December because of the post-monsoon leeches.
Our top tips :
Discover your inner child: there are kites for guests to borrow and you can take advantage of the hill country breezes (and the whipping winds at the top of the higher peaks).
Paradisa Plantation is set near Thekkady in the Kerala Hill Country in southern India.
By Air :
Cochin (Kochi) International (140km away) is the closest airport, although Trivandrum (176km away) is easily accessible and has more flights. Click on the links below for a list of airlines serving these airports.
Breakfast at Paradisa Plantation Retreat is a royal affair
The perfect place for moments when you feel like getting away from it all - located in the middle of nowhere. You take a turn from the main road and after twenty minutes of negotiating a winding mountain road the width of a largish footpath you are starting to wonder if it was the right turn after all. Not so long ago there was no electricity in the vicinity and the power supply is still erratic from time to time. On the other hand - the place is surrounded by a mountainous landscape to die for. All 13 cottages - authentic Keralan wood buildings - are strategically placed to offer a fabulous view and create an illusion of solitude. The owner (his name is Simon) happens to be one of the most charming Indian gentlemen you will have ever met; he loves to knock back a glass of whiskey at night and share some stories of his adventures.
Paradisa Plantation Retreat is the result of a happy coincidence: Simon was previously in the pharmaceutical business but at some point decided to change his lifestyle: he bought a plot in the Keralan mountains, three cows and a coffee plantation. The cows were leading a quite life in their alpine pastures until one day during the monsoon one of them disappeared. The poor animal was found on top of a hill with a broken leg. Simon dispatched his assistants to find something to bandage the leg or at least for some help to get the miserable cow down from the hill. There was no road at the time, so the process had been long and painful. The cow died and Simon decided then and there to build a road - which he did, and gave it the proud name of Paradisa Avenue. He also built a house on top of the hill, and the fantastic view attracted the interest of his friends.
That's the way it all started; Simon also has plans to build two more hotels, an Ayurvedic island resort near Cochin and another in Tamil Nadu. Simon is a passionate antiques collector; some of his finds are now part of the décor of Paradisa Plantation Retreat cottages. The pool has been modelled on the silhouette of his wife's foot. Simon is the proud owner of his own drill hole that provides water for the local village. The source of the water is a nearby spring; Simon says it is much better than the bottled sort but most visitors do not believe him anyway.
Breakfast at Paradisa Plantation Retreat is a royal affair - the table is literally groaning with abundance of fruit - but dinner is an elaborate ritual since the chef insists on telling you about each and every ingredient. A word of caution: don't go for a massage in the evening. Mountains will be mountains: it does get quite chilly after 5 pm, and the massage room is rustically ascetic.
Murinjapuzha P.O., Idukki District (nearest city is Kumily)
Special Places to Stay
Cicadas and calling birds, peace and tranquility in the Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary – and at this remote village guest house on the point of a tree-rich valley...
The Independent, February 2007
Paradisa, in the Idukki district of Kerala, is a stylish retreat set on an organic plantation where guests can book in for Ayurvedic treatments and yoga classes as well as tour the coffee and spice crops.
Tatler Travel Guide 2004-101 Best Hotels in the World
Kerala has lifestyle karma. This is the India where the done-Rajasthan crowd wants to be, as do the yoga girlies and those seeking AAA: ayurveda, astrology and acupuncture. How cool is this: a divine retreat on organic coffee and spice plantation, lit by antique lanterns? Paradisa's cottages have been designed as traditional Keralan wooden houses, with swanky columns and a tree house constructed by local tribal people using age- old jungle techniques.
For ayurveda freaks, the Sahyadri Ayurvedic Hospital is four miles away. Serious stuff. Swamy Jagadeeswaranada rocks up as a yoga master - just saying his name is a verbal asana. The swimming- pool is in the shape of a giant foot-print; you can also trek to a beautiful lake in the jungle, paraglide or visit the Periyar tiger reserve.
British Airways' High Life 2004-52 Best Hideaways
High in the hills south-east of Cochin lies this organic coffee and spice plantation dotted with wooden cottage suites in classic old Kerala style. Where the Maharajas of Travancore used to cool their addled brains, so latter-day lowlanders go to rejuvenate, practising yoga on an outdoor platform, breathing in the pure air and wraparound views.