Cold Comforts: Winter adventures in the hills of South India

The hill stations of South India make for a perfect winter retreat, says David Stott, author of Footprint's South India Handbook.

(c) David Stott
The Edakkal Caves in Wayanad are home to pictoral writings believed to date from 5000 BC. Photo: David Stott.

In the heyday of the Raj, the British used the hill stations of South India as a salubrious escape from the devastating heat of summer on the plains. However, my favourite time to head for the hills is in the crisp blue light of winter. The morning air hits your nose like a draught of eucalyptus. The nights, unsullied by the dust haze that rises from the arid plains in summer, come in clear and riddled with stars; perfect for huddling under a blanket or cosying up round a roaring fire.

In between are long, unbroken hours of sunshine, which you can fill with all the activities that go hand in hand with hill stations: trekking to bald peaks, mooching around tea estates, and visiting spice plantations where growers still pollinate vanilla by the painstaking manual method; if you’re so inclined, you can sometimes persuade the farmers to sell you a bundle of the wrinkly, sweet smelling pods, which even at twice the market rate, will cost a fraction of what you’d pay for just one back home.

The following is a hand-picked, estate-grown selection of my favourite South Indian hill stations:

Wayanad, North Kerala

The forest-shrouded shoulders of Chembra Peak stand guard over Wayanad, “land of paddy fields”, a beguiling highland district of spice farms, tea plantations, waterfalls and weird upwellings of volcanic rock. An easy weekend break from either city, Wayanad so far remains delightfully unspoiled, and its cool misty mornings make a refreshing contrast with the sultry coastal plains. It’s also prime wildlife spotting territory: elephants patrol the woodlands of Muthanga and Tholpetty sanctuaries, while the dense shola forests around Vythiri are home to whistling thrushes, leaping frogs and giant squirrels. Many of the plantation bungalows have thrown open their doors as luxurious, atmospheric homestays, and the vogue for building treehouses makes this the best place in India if you want to wake up among the branches of a fig tree looking out over virgin forest.

(c) David Stott
Coffee flowers on a plantation in Wayanad district. Photo: David Stott.

Chikmagalur, Karnataka

Set in the Baba Budangiri hills, named after the Sufi saint who smuggled the first coffee beans from Mocha to India in the 17th century, life in Chikmagalur still revolves around the bean. You can sample the local crop, served hot and frothy and almost stiff with sugar, alongside one of the legendary masala dosas at the Town Canteen: a fine prelude to a day of trekking or mooching around the local plantations. The exquisitely carved Hoysala temples of Belur and Halebid are an easy day trip away.

(c) David Stott
Peppercorns in varying stages of ripeness in Wayanad district. Photo: David Stott.

Kodaikkanal, Tamil Nadu

There may not be tigers in the woods surrounding Kodaikkanal’s all-biodynamic golf course, but if you’re playing a round, be prepared for some unusual hazards – free-range bison roaming across the path of your tee shot, and pink-faced macaques waiting to heckle wayward putts. India’s first biodynamic course - a pesticide-free zone where weeds are hand-plucked from the greens by a team of groundswomen – sits among dramatic granite outcrops, high on a ridge of the Palani Hills dominated by the sawn-off pyramid of Perumal Malai.

An hour from town down a winding mountain road lies Elephant Valley, a fantastic low-key eco resort set on the banks of a chuckling stream. Herds of the eponymous pachyderms migrate through between April and June, while gaur (the aforementioned bison), deer and junglefowl are year-round residents. The resort grows all its own veggies on a small organic plot, and also grows and sells some of the most piquant and delicious pepper you’ll ever taste.

(c) David Stott
A treehouse retreat in Wayanad district. Photo: David Stott.

Ooty and the Blue Mountain Railway

The former “Queen of the Hills”, overgrown by drab concrete buildings and overrun with cars, has shed much of her lustre, but it’s still worth heading to the pine-shrouded hills around Ooty if only for the schoolboy joy of riding the steam-powered Blue Mountain Railway – a five-hour ramble through banana palms, eucalyptus forests and tea plantations, with any number of harrowing ravines to cross on bridges made of matchsticks. This is one where the journey really is the destination.


The quintessential tea village, Munnar is rich in views across plunging valleys and ridges contoured with glossy green tea bushes. There’s nowhere better to sample the local crop than Kolukkumalai Estate, claimed locally to be the highest tea-growing property in India; a pre-dawn start can see you blowing the steam from a fresh cup of the Nilgiris’ finest as the sun illuminates range after range of peaks stretching away into hazy blue infinity.

(c) David Stott
One of Munnar's many vistas looking out to the plunging valleys and ridges. Photo: David Stott.

Kumily and Periyar National Park

Touristy Kumily is the gateway to one of South India’s most innovative tourism experiments. The Ex-Vayana Bark Collectors Eco Development Committee, a team of poachers-turned-gamekeepers, leads small groups of trekkers into the grasslands and forests of Periyar National Park, in search of elephants, sloth bear and the ever-elusive tiger. Travelling on foot and by bamboo raft under the protection of a man with a stick and another with a Second World War rifle, the Tiger Trails program offers a rare taste of how life in the jungle might have looked in the days of the Rajas and their hunting parties, long before the existence of jeep safaris, mass tourism and any concept of public liability.

David Stott is author of Footprint's South India Handbook and co-author of the India Handbook and Northeast India Handbook.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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