It was a cloudy night and there wasn’t a single star visible on sky. But down in the valley thousand stars sparkled through the chilly night air. I sat at a bench near the edge of the hotel and soaked in this view with the silence and darkness all around me. I could see what a beautiful place it had once been. And it still was, somewhere within all the cacophony of people...
Kodaikanal had been a magical place for me for a long time. As a kid I watched Amir Khan dancing along those beautiful streets in “Jo jeeta wohi sikander’ and fell in love with the fictional town. During college days someone told me it was Kodaikanal and told me wonderful stories about the place. By the time I started job and had the means to travel, I had heard too much about it which only meant that the place had become popular and all the magical stories had been demolished somewhere along the way. So I gave up on Kodaikanal and moved on. It was only this year, when a craving for a cold hilly night led me back to the thought of Kodaikanal. And so I decided to give it a try after all.
I planned my trip in June end. Rain had barely started in the Nilgiris, but the harsh summer had retreated to give way for a pleasant weather. We landed in Madurai airport by mid-day and to avoid any further delay headed for the pre-paid cab for Kodaikanal. It was a around 130 KM and we were charged 3,000 for an Indica. It wasn’t unreasonable, but it felt on the higher side.
After a drive through some small lanes and taking multiple left and right turns, we reached the highway. From there on it was a smooth ride through the countryside of Tamil Nadu. We passed through villages, towns and markets, we saw Jasmine flowers being sold everywhere and was offered more than once, we saw people riding scooter wearing dhoti and little kids with teeka on their foreheads, we stopped for tea at a small stall and for non-veg thali at a bigger hotel. And all these while we drove through only plain lands with little to no hint of hills in the distance. After crossing about 80 KM road we started seeing prominent hills in the western corner with clouds around their heads. Somewhere behind those hills laid Kodaikanal and it would be soon time to ascend.
As the road started to go upwards, trees got denser and soon we were driving through a thick green forest. Despite lack of rain, there were a few waterfalls visible at distance and the rocks were glossy with water. Here and there people were sitting by the roads and selling delicious looking Jackfruits. And the weather was slowly starting to get cooler. As we approached the town it started to drizzle. I rolled down the window and felt the tiny drops of water on my face while some Tamil romantic song played on the car radio.
It took us about an hour just to climb the 50 km distance and overall 4 hours to reach Kodaikanal. Once inside the town, we consulted the map to navigate to our hotel “Villa Retreat”. Most roads were busy with cars and passerbys, which was expected. But still I was disappointed to find that our hotel was also on a similar street. The hotel was right next to the view point called “Coaker’s walk” and the street was packed with tourist cars. However a nice surprize waited for me inside.
The hotel, true to its name, was a proper villa with rocky grey wall, glass windows, wooden fixtures and green vines creepers on parts of wall. It looked beautiful. And yet the best part was the view from there. Parts of hotel including the backyard and some rooms looked over the stretched out valley with distant hills scattered across. It was the same view as the one people come to Coaker’s walk for. As I entered my room, I saw through the glass window, a group of big white clouds coming up like dense white smoke from the bottom of the valley while the blue hills poked their heads through it at places. I felt I could spend the whole trip by just sitting by the window, sipping on a cup of coffee and enjoying this view. But another part of me wanted to explore this beautiful town.
So this is what I did - I freshened up, put on my raincoat and set off for a walk about. We paid for entry and walked the Coaker’s walk, enjoying the view with rest of the crowd; ate snacks from road side stall; walked till the lake where colourful boats floated under the cloudy evening sky; went around the lake through those roads where once cyclists enjoyed a peaceful ride and now everything was disturbed by the honking vehicles stuck in traffic; checked shops with fancy wooden toys and jewelleries and souvenirs targeted for tourists; came across a cute little café called “Tredi’s Tea Room”, which claimed to be laid back and proved to be so; and finally walked back to the hotel where the valley and the hills and the clouds waited for us. There I sat at a bench near the edge, slipping into the silence and darkness, watching the valley shining like a starlit sky.
Next morning I woke to a window completely blurred by fog and birds sound mixed with an underlying widespread silence. I walked to the window, wiped a part with my hand and peeped out to stare at a beautiful day outside. We had one full day and we had to choose how best to enjoy it. We decided to choose one place out of all the sightseeing options and indulge in it. We picked Vattakanal.
After breakfast we started from hotel and followed the route suggested by google maps. It was 4.5 km distance, mostly motorable. But we chose to walk since it gives more freedom to explore and a drive to reach the destination. We took the road in front of Bryant Park and following it reached a road called Upper Shola Road. The road ran through a forest again. As we walked enjoying the cloudy weather and the view of white hanging flowers by the side of road, many vehicles drove past us. After a while we took a smaller road which took us through some residential area and ended at bridge on a small water stream. On the other side we met many other tourists, some stayed there enjoying the water and snacks from nearby stalls and some went ahead on this road like us.
After some more walk on this road and a bit of halt on the way to take pictures of cloudy valleys, we reached Vattakanal. It was a very small place with a handful of hotels and restaurants. Restaurants served Maggie and tea/coffee. Except for a place called Altaf’s where they served middle-eastern food and played nice English music. The place was obviously crammed with people, mostly young crowd, and we didn’t get a chance to try their food.
Like the rest of the crowd we decided to go to Dolphin’s nose and experience the 360 degree view that they talk about. But instead we took a small road on the right side which went steeply upwards. Initially there were few homestays or guest houses on this road, but slowly they thinned up and the road ran through only wilderness. We walked further ahead and soon were alone on this path. Keeping the valley on our left, we reached a place where the road vanished into some scattered rocks with a thin stream of water flowing across. Crossing the stretch we found ourselves walking through a forest again and finally reached a dead end with a cloth wall and a sign saying “No entry”. We had to turn back and return back to Vattakanal through same way. Once returned, we ate some Maggie and decided it was time to head back so that we could be in Kodaikanal for lunch.
We didn’t return the same way. At one point we found a part of the road went downward which was also called Lower Shola road. We took that road because it had less vehicle. But turned out, it was also a longer road. We went through a less travelled road with many locals and bungalows of probably rich influential people. We reached the lake and had to go around it 180 degree before reaching our side of the town. We ate tasty south Indian meal at a restaurant called “Hilltop Tower” and finally retired to the resort for some rest.
At night I sat in the hotel backyard again and felt the chillness in air. It was end of the trip and I felt content with my time there. Yeah, it was crowded and noisy with too many vehicles. And yes, I wished government would make the town vehicle free. But regardless of everything, it was a pretty hill station which often gave a nostalgic essence from old time movies. And it was definitely worth a visit.
So this is what I learned about enjoying a place when it’s too popular:
- Travel on weekday – I know it’s hard for anyone with a job to travel on weekdays. But that is also the reason why it’s also less crowded during weekdays. You will get your space and you can enjoy with complete freedom.
- Take a different route – Take a route that no one is taking. It may not lead to the most beautiful spot, but you will always have good memories of it.
- Don’t go for a list – All tourist places have a list of sightseeing point. Don’t make it a mandate to complete a list. Do what your heart tells, go where your feet takes and you will always find a place of your own.
- Choose a slower mode of commute – when you travel slow, you see it all, you hear it all and you find more on the way than the destination. Try a public transport option or try walking. You might be surprized on what you are able to discover.
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