As a tourist destination, Coonoor in Tamil Nadu is overshadowed by the popular hill station of Ooty, which sits above it. However, it's starting to realize its potential, while still remaining a quieter retreat away from the crowds. Tea is the big draw there. This Coonoor travel guide will help plan your trip.
Prior to being developed by the British in the 19th century, Coonoor was a sparsely populated hilly area inhabited mostly by local tribes. It formed part of the kingdom of Mysore, until the British defeated ruler Tipu Sultan in the fourth Anglo-Mysore war in 1799 and gained control of it. They decided Ooty was an ideal place to send their sick soldiers to recuperate, due to its cool European climate. A large number of British relocated there as well. Some of them began experimenting with tea growing in Coonoor, and finally succeeded after much trial and error.
In 1856, the tea from Coonoor Tea Estate received favorable reviews at a London auction. However, unfortunately, the size of land under cultivation wasn't enough to make the venture profitable. The lives of the early planters were difficult. Finding enough suitable and available land was a challenge, plus they had to contend with malaria and wild animals in the forests.
Nevertheless, by the end of the 19th century, viable tea plantations had been established on about 3,000 acres of land around Coonoor. A social club for the planters, the Coonoor Club had also been built and still functions as such today.
Although it took a while for Indians to like drinking tea (which is hard to believe, given their current widespread addiction to it!), the planters were able to sell enough tea in London to make substantial amounts of money. Their lifestyles became lavish and they swanned around in elegant bungalows with dance floors, manicured gardens, and tennis courts.
These days, Indians have replaced the British planters. Yet, Coonoor remains the place where the world-class Nilgiri tea originated.
Coonoor is situated about 1,850 meters (6,070 feet) above sea level in the mountainous Nilgiri district of Tamil Nadu, in the far western corner of the state. It's not far from the borders of Kerala and Karnataka. The closest major cities are Bangalore in Karnataka (about 300 kilometers/185 miles north), and Kochi in Kerala (about 280 kilometers/170 miles south). Coimbatore, a large city in Tamil Nadu, is 68 kilometers/42miles south of Coonoor and also has an airport that receives flights from all over India.
How to Get There
The most picturesque and memorable way of reaching Coonoor is to take the UNESCO World Heritage Nilgiri Mountain Railway Toy Train. It runs all the way from the foothills at Mettupalayam, where the nearest major railway station is, up to Ooty. However, the best scenery is along the stretch from Mettupalayam to Coonoor. Make sure you book well in advance.
Alternatively, Coonoor can be reached via National Highway 181. Taking this road, the travel time is about two and a half hours from Coimbatore, or four hours from Mysore in Karnataka. The route from Coimbatore passes through dense forest is undoubtedly spectacular. However, if you suffer from motion sickness, you may want to avoid it or take precautions. The sharp ascent and frequent hairpin turns can be torturous, especially if you get a driver who speeds up and brakes suddenly.
When to Go
Coonoor is a refreshing destination to escape the summer heat, from March to May. Keep in mind that May is peak season, due to summer school holidays. If you're not fond of rain, avoid October and November, as the northeast monsoon brings heavy downpours and may trigger landslides along the road. Coonoor also receives rain from the southwest monsoon, from June to September, but not quite as much. December to February is the dry winter season. Temperatures during this time range from around 10 degrees Celsius (50 degrees Fahrenheit) at night to 15 degrees Celsius (59 degrees Fahrenheit) in the day. The overnight temperature has been known to drop as low as zero on occasion in January, though!
What to Do There
Not surprisingly, Coonoor is one of the top places to visit tea plantations in India. Tranquilitea, a local tea industry pioneer, offers 90-minute gourmet tea tasting experiences twice-daily at their tea estate on the slopes of Tenerife Hill in Coonoor. You'll be able to sample the teas and gain insight into how they're made. (What's not well known is that Nilgiri teas are grown at altitudes higher than Darjeeling teas, giving them their intense aroma). Follow it up with a delicious High Tea there. You can also see how tea is processed at Highfield Tea Factory, Brooklands Tea Factory, and Homedale Tea Factory.
Coonoor town is characterized by the usual rampant concrete construction and chaos that's common in India, and has very little of the colonial appeal you may expect. Hence, it's best to head to Upper Coonoor, where a more refined and peaceful atmosphere prevails.
The Green Shop in Upper Coonoor's Bedford is worth visiting for its range of natural, fair-trade products such as honey, beeswax items, spices, herbs, grains, coffee, chocolates, essential oils, and garments. It's run by the Last Forest, an initiative of the Keystone Foundation, which works to improve the livelihoods of indigenous communities. There's another branch in Ooty that serves food and has an interesting bee museum.
If cheese is your thing, you'll be pleased to know that cheese-making is a tradition in the Nilgiri mountains. Acres Wild combines it with organic farming. To find out how to make your own gourmet artisan cheeses, stay at their farm on the outskirts of Upper Coonoor and take their compact 2-day cheese-making course. It's possible to extend the course if you want to learn the techniques for extra types of cheese. Otherwise, stop by Baker's Junction in Bedford to buy their cheeses (try the Colby, Gruyere and signature Camembert).
Upper Coonoor is an enjoyable neighborhood to stroll around. 12-hectare Sim's Park sprawls down a hillside and is the main attraction. It was established in 1874 by J. D. Sim, who was the secretary of the Madras Club, and is said to have as many as 1,000 types of plants from all over the world. The park is open daily from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. and costs 30 rupees per person to enter. The annual fruit and vegetable show, in May, is renowned. Even though a lot of day-tripping tourists visit the park, it remains much less crowded than the botanical gardens in Ooty. From Sim's Park, wander along Kotagiri Road, past old colonial bungalows and tea gardens (you can do a loop and end up back at Sim's Park via Walker's Hill Road).
Dolphin's Nose Road will take you east of Upper Coonoor to a viewpoint of the same name. It provides an arresting vista of the Nilgiri mountains and Catherine Falls. You can stop off at another viewpoint, Lamb's Rock, on the way. It overlooks the Coimbatore plains. If you're feeling energetic, it's possible to trek to Dolphin's Nose from lesser-known Lady Canning's Seat nearby. Trekking from Catherine Falls to the small hill station of Kotagiri is recommended as well. Wandertrails offers this guided trek.
The ruins of 18th century Droog Fort, used by Tipu Sultan, is another great destination to trek to. The scenic but somewhat strenuous trail goes through Nonsuch Tea Estate.
The lush vegetation around Coonoor is also home to many species of birds. Avid birdwatchers can join this four-hour birdwatching experience.
Those who are interested in Coonoor's heritage should include isolated (and rather haunting) Tiger Hill Cemetery on their itineraries too. This largely overgrown British Gothic cemetery, set up in 1905, is where the British tea planters are buried. There's another older cemetery next to All Saints' Church, with graves of British soldiers dating back to 1852.
Where to Stay
For a complete tea experience, stay amid the tea gardens. Top options include Tranquiltea's Tenerife Hill (authentic Badaga indigenous cuisine is served, which is a bonus), the Tea Nest on Singara Tea Estate, Storyteller, or Sunvalley Homestay. Glendale Tea Estate's Runnymede and Adderley guesthouses are budget options.
Many of the accommodations in Upper Coonoor are British planter's bungalows that have been converted into hotels, and they have fascinating histories. The Gateway Taj hotel on Church Road, which was originally the famous Hampton Manor, is the grandest option. Second is Neemrana's Wallwood Garden.
SerentipityO's 180° McIver has a 180 degree view of Coonoor town and six rooms in an ancestral bungalow built in the early 1900s. The delightful Strathearn Bed and Breakfast provides intimate boutique accommodations in a 120 year-old Scottish bungalow.
Tranquilitea offers an interesting option in Upper Coonoor for visitors who'd prefer to stay in self-contained accommodations. The Club House is housed in the shell of a converted tea warehouse and has two luxurious suites with their own kitchenettes. A personal chef can be provided if you don't want to cook.
The YWCA Wyoming guesthouse is the best budget choice in a heritage property. Or, check out Kumar's Mountain View Cottage.
Where to Eat and Drink
You'll find the best vegetarian south Indian food in Coonoor town at inexpensive Hotel Sri Lakshmi, opposite the bus stand. Another decent option for a non-vegetarian south Indian meal in town is Hotel Ramachandra, about five minutes walk from the bus stand. The signature Wellington Paratha is a delicacy there.
If you like sweets, drop into historic Crown Bakery in the heart of Coonoor town and pick up some iconic varkey biscuits.
La Belle Vie, the classy restaurant at 180° McIver, has an eclectic Indian and European menu. You'll also get delicious pizzas at the cozy Open Kitchen in Bedford.
For fabulous coffee and cakes, Ababa Cafe in Bedford is the place! Or, for Indian-style tea and snacks, hit up The Chaiwala. It's a tiny, family-run place in Upper Coonoor.
Hopscotch, at the Vivek Hotel, is fun retro-style pub with live music and a pool table.