Running parallel to India’s coastline for 1600km from Gujarat to deep-south Tamil Nadu, the lush, forest-cloaked, Unesco-listed Western Ghats make up some of the most biodiverse territory on the globe. Though the Ghats on average reach 915m, in Tamil Nadu they tower over 2500m high in the Nilgiri Hills – where you’ll meet Ooty, ‘Queen of Hill Stations’ – and the Palani Hills near Kodaikanal. Across the border in Kerala, some of the world’s highest-altitude tea plantations sprawl around Munnar.
Ooty is one of the favourite hill stations for tourists seeking respite from the hot sweltering northern plains. With beautiful lakes, botanical gardens and a wide expanse of tea plantations, Ooty is rightly recognised as the ‘Queen of Hill Stations’. The journey up here on the celebrated miniature train is romantic and the scenery stunning. Even the road up is impressive.
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Bustling Coonoor sits 20km southeast of Ooty, encircled by an emerald-green sea of tea plantations. Upper Coonoor makes a more peaceful alternative Nilgiri base to Ooty, with easy access to superb viewpoints, the 50-year-old Highfield Tea Estate, and such gorgeous heritage accommodation as 1900s British bungalow 180° McIver. Meanwhile, quiet Kotagiri, 30km east of Ooty, is the Nilgiris’ original hill station: its earthy-red Sullivan Memorial is the 1819 house of Ooty founder John Sullivan.
Just over the border in serene Kerala, Munnar is the hustle-bustle hub of South India’s major tea growing area. Much like Ooty, Munnar’s commercial, traffic-choked centre fades fast as you venture out into its mellow, enticingly green valleys and hills, where cottages hide amid the glinting leaves of manicured tea plantations. You can join guided treks to high-altitude mountain outlooks and tea estates and tour the model Tea Museum.
Centred on a beautiful star-shaped lake, Kodai rambles up and down hillsides with patches of shola (virgin forest), unique to South India’s Western Ghats, and evergreen broadleaf trees like magnolia, mahogany, myrtle and rhododendron. Another plant speciality is the kurinji shrubs, whose lilac-blue blossoms are ready from August this year, and appear every 12 years.