Down south in Tamil Nadu lies the hilly paradise of Ooty with quieter, greener areas and tall pines to escape to. This ‘Queen of Hill Stations’, mixes a typical bustle and temples with beautiful gardens and charming Raj-era bungalows. Ooty is a welcome relief from the chilly north in winters. The place offers its tourists a lot to experience.
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Established in 1848, these pretty 22-hectare gardens are a living gallery of the Nilgiris’ natural flora. Keep an eye out for a typical Toda mund (village), a fossilised tree trunk believed to be 20 million years old.
St Stephen’s Church
Perched above Ooty’s centre, immaculate pale-yellow St Stephen’s is the Nilgiris’ oldest church. It has lovely stained glass, huge wooden beams hauled by elephant from the palace of Tipu Sultan, and slabs and plaques donated by colonial-era churchgoers. In the overgrown cemetery you’ll find headstones commemorating many an Ooty Brit, including Ooty founder John Sullivan’s wife and daughter.
This quaint little haven inside a crumbling, earthy-red building, is home to more than 30,000 books, including rare titles on the Nilgiris and hill tribes. Visitors can consult books in the reading room with a temporary one-month membership. Move upstairs to see the portrait of Queen Victoria, presented to Ooty on her 1887 Golden Jubilee.
About 7km east of Ooty, Doddabetta is the highest point in the Nilgiris. On clear days, it’s one of the best viewpoints around; go early for better chances of mist-free views. Its beautiful views also invite countless shutterbugs.
The serene, protected Avalanche Valley – which extends towards Kerala from around 20km southwest of Ooty – provides the perfect antidote to Ooty’s crowds. Rolling farmlands and twinkling tea plantations give way to hushed hills thick with orchids and native shola. Access is restricted, so the only way to explore this blissfully peaceful area is by official two-hour forest department minibus ‘ecotours’ or private-hire jeep trips.
Hiking & Trekking
The best of Ooty is out in the beautiful Nilgiri Hills. Most hotels can put you in touch with local guides who do half-day and full-day hikes. So, drive out of town and walk through hills, tribal villages and tea plantations. More serious treks in the best forest areas with plenty of wildlife – such as beyond Avalanche, in Mukurthi National Park, or down to Walakkad and Sairandhri in Kerala’s Silent Valley National Park – require special permits.
Take the Toy Train
The miniature (‘toy’) train from Mettupalayam to Ooty – one of the Mountain Railways of India given World Heritage status by UNESCO – is the best experience. The Nilgiri Mountain Railway requires special cog wheels on the locomotive, meshing with a third, ‘toothed’ rail on the ground, to manage the exceptionally steep gradients. There are wonderful forests, waterfalls, and mountainside & tea-plantation views along the way which make you sink in nature’s lap.