Increasingly, I’m doubling down on a travel strategy that involves staying in a single place for at least five days, or a week if possible, rather than moving on to a new destination every day or two. I’m a restless person for sure, but I believe it takes time to discover the unique qualities of a new place, and it’s worth it. Also, I want to minimize time spent on transportation. I’m unhappiest when stuck in a car for hours, or rushing to an airport.
Another part of the strategy is to stay at a comfortable but rustic hotel, preferably set in nature, so that every minute truly feels like vacation. In Munnar (in Kerala, in the south of India) my choice fell on Windermere Estate—a beautiful resort perched on a hilltop inside a tea plantation. The place, according to its boastful owner, is coveted by the prestigious Taj hotel group.
Five days at a tea plantation might not sound exciting, but it afforded us the most elusive of things: true rest and relaxtion. I went with my mom and we both have demanding, fulltime jobs, so this was just what the doctor ordered—literally, in her case.
I had a lot to learn about tea. For instance, I had no idea that different teas come from the same plant: camellia sinensis. The baby leaf at the tip is white tea; the three fresh leaves surrounding it is green tea, and the leaves immediately below that are black tea. The plant can become a tall tree but is cut down to about four feet, to make pruning easier. Pruning is done all year long, by hand.
I’d heard that most tea sold in teabags, and particularly flavored tea, is “no good,” but I didn’t know it’s because this tea powder comes from the bitter stems and is only used for color—and for being able to call it tea, I suppose. Tea dust has little flavor or anti-oxidants. Brand-name tea often has added sugar and makes tea aficionados shudder.
Kerala has several large tea plantations but is only the fourth largest tea producer in India. It was planted by the British in 1880 after they’d already ramped up production in Assam and elsewhere to rival China’s tea supremacy. Until then Kerala was known as Malabar and served as a hub for the spice trade. It was dominated by Arabs and the Portuguese (think: Vasco de Gama), until the French, Dutch, and ultimately the Brits took it over.
Compared to Mumbai, Kerala is a complete change of pace and scenery. I was even amazed by the airport —not that there’s anything wrong with the Mumbai airport—because it’s built in the style of a traditional house. I immediately felt that this part of India is a lot more serene.
Driving through Cochin, on our 3+ hour drive to Munnar, I didn’t find the outskirts of the city particularly beautiful, but at some point the haphazard little shops and shacks changed to nice houses and more and more greenery, and finally I could see how stunning it is; the rolling hills, the lush green forests, and the wide rivers dotted with large, round rocks.
On the way we made a quick stop to learn about aryuvedic medicine and admire a wide variety of aryvefic plants, like hibiscus, ginger, and aloe vera. Kerala is the center of this type of alternative medicine and more generally appears rather health conscious. No drinking or smoking allowed, for the most part.
Wherever we went in the days that followed, everything seemed clean and well regulated. No shenanigans with prices or harassment of any kind. People still wanted to take selfies with me, but I didn’t mind because they seemed genuinely happy with a quick pic. Munnar is quite touristy—really popular with local tourists. We met a few Europeans, too.
I originally planned to visit a wildlife park with big game animals but settled for Erivikulam, which houses an endangered ibex—a mountain goat, basically. We also completed a 4-hour hike in the hills, up to about 1800 meters (almost 6,000 ft) for some spectacular views over the tea and cardamom plantations. We saw Kingfishers, black eagles, and other birds I can’t recall by name. I almost stepped on a chameleon, too!
Looking at the tea plantations from up high, it reminded me a little of the Netherlands—the country I grew up in—when viewed from the air. All the land is neatly divided into small plots, many for agricultural use. The tea fields are much more curvy and radiantly green, but it looks equally organized and manicured. And they are manicured, actually, because a band of (mostly) women prunes the trees year round.
It would have been nice to see wild elephants, but, ultimately, I’m not willing to get up at four in the morning to drive a long distance to MAYBE see them cross the road. Our hiking guide didn’t recommend it, either. During the trek he pointed out fresh bison tracks, elephant dung, and bamboo ravished by elephants. Apparently these animals are always around somewhere, even at our resort and occasionally in town—it’s just hard to predict.
India for beginners
My mom arrived in Mumbai a day before I whisked her off to Kerala, and I’m glad I did. It’s so pretty and relaxing that it gave her time to settle into the novelty of being in India—the many local languages as well as the Indian English accent, the spicy curry dishes, the cows that wonder down the street, and most of all: the hustle and bustle of people you encounter wherever you go.
I think there are probably lots of places you can go in India to “ease” into the culture. Mumbai, Delhi and major tourist hubs like Agra or Jaipur are not those places. I’d recommend something quieter, like Kerala, (South) Goa, Udaipur or even the Andaman Islands—all places I’ve had a perfectly relaxing time without a care in the world!
Something everyone will agree on is that India is extremely affordable, which makes travel attractive. For many of our trips, including this one, we hired a private driver, which means tons of flexibility. Domestic flights are dirt cheap—particularly when booked well in advance. Indigo and Vistara are excellent airlines. Souvenir shopping is quite entertaining: my mom was enamored with the local gift shop, buying a solid wooden pestle and mortar, two wooden puzzles, a three-piece engraved bowl set and two carved containers with lids for all of thirty dollars!