Ooty- The Queen of Hill Stations

Misty mountains with drifting clouds, valleys with pines and sholas, myriad flowers blooming, and the gentle breeze caressing you as you tuck your woollen scarf tighter is what Ooty is all about. Nestled in the Western Ghats, 2240 meters above sea level this quaint town is the preferred holiday destination for honeymooners, families, trekkers and nature lovers. Call it by any of its monikers Udhagamandalam, Udhagai or Ootacamund which is then shortened to Ooty it is described as the ‘Queen of Hill Stations’. Tamil Nadu is home to the Nilgiris or the Blue Mountains which get their name from the ‘Kurinji’ flowers that bloom once every 12 years enveloping the mountain in a blue haze. The pride of these mountain ranges is Ooty which is home to a mountain railway, botanical gardens, waterfalls and lakes.

In the summer vacations when the temperatures were soaring, we decided to visit Bandipur, Ooty and Coonoor. A flight from Mumbai took us to Coimbatore. After landing in Coimbatore, we checked into a hotel since it was late in the evening and we didn’t want to travel in the dark by road. The next morning, we hired a car which drove us to Bandipur. We spent two days in Bandipur (more of that in another travelogue) and then drove from Bandipur to Ooty. The 1 ½ hour scenic drive over mountains with hairpin bends and through dense forests was pleasing for us city dwellers living in concrete jungles. We checked into the Fern Hill Sterling Resort and were pleased to find our family suite overlooking the vistas of hills, terraced farms and pine trees.

The next couple of days were spent exploring the various local attractions. The first on our list were the gardens. The Government Rose Garden has exquisitely landscaped terraces with diverse kinds of roses. A board even educates visitors about the ‘Language of Rose’ and what emotion and message each colour and variety of rose conveys. A colourful butterfly-shaped bed of flowers on the green lawns drew our attention. Walkways meandered through the gardens as pergolas and gazebos were covered with rose shrubs.

The Government Botanical Garden is frequented by tourists as it houses thousands of shrubs, ferns, trees and medicinal plants. The centre of attraction here is a fossilized tree trunk that is more than 20 million years old. An enclosure had a map of India with succulents, pebbles and miniature plants. Bands of flowers in all colours and hues, shapes and sizes greeted us. There was also a Toda hut which providesd a glimpse of the lifestyle of the tribals or original inhabitants of Ooty. The garden hosts an annual flower and vegetable show.

After exiting the gardens, we then headed to St. Stephen’s Church which dates back to the 19th Century. This colonial British era church had beautiful stained-glass windows and a painting of the last supper. Visiting a church almost always transports me to my childhood when I studied at a convent school. The morning assemblies when we sang hymns, the nuns who ensured we learnt to be disciplined and well mannered -all those memories flashed before me. My husband and kids knew that although I was physically present in the church mentally, I had drifted to my convent school and couldn’t help but smile.   

 The Doddabetta Peak, which when translated in Kannada, means the ‘Big Hill’ is the highest peak in the Nilgiri Hills. An observatory with two telescopes provides panoramic views of not just the entire hill station but also the Bandipur National Park as well as Mysore highlands. There was a long queue as we patiently waited for our turn to the observatory. The view from the observatory was indeed well worth the wait. The slopes and various treks are a favourite with trekkers and nature lovers wanting some adventure and high adrenaline rush.

 In the evening we set off to the Wax World Museum, which is Ooty’s version of Madam Tussaud’s. Christ with a cross over his shoulders, Mother Teresa taking care of the sick, APJ Abdul Kalam in his trademark hairstyle and safari suit, Jawaharlal Nehru in his khadi kurta with a red rose in his pocket, Tilak in his trademark pagdi were some of the famous wax figures. There was also a wax figure of a Toda tribal with the clothes like jackets, shawls, kurta and bag in the Toda weave in characteristic red, black and white colours displayed.  

The Thread Garden of Ooty has a collection of artificial flowers and plants made with thread. Over twelve years, some 50 artisans have painstakingly used embroidery thread to create more than 150 varieties of artificial flowers which are on display here. The exhibits were covered in dust and were no match for the original and natural flowers that Ooty is so famous for.

Thread Garden @Rafiq Somani

 After visiting the Wax Museum and the Thread Garden, we next headed to the Tamil Nadu Tourism Ooty Boat House which has boating facilities. Numerous shops sold souvenirs and knickknacks near the Boat House. After purchasing tickets, we set off on a motor-boat ride on Ooty Lake. The gentle breeze blew on us as our boat rode on the serene lake. On the periphery of the lake were eucalyptus trees and a track on which a toy train ran. Dense forests lined the other edge of the lake.

The verdant hills with stretches of thick forests and lots of gardens make Ooty a good place for bird watching. Since the resort we stayed in was located on a hill a number of birds were sighted by my husband- an avid bird watcher. Amongst some of the birds, he was able to capture in his lens were the Common Hoopoe with its characteristic striped body and orange and black crown.  A pair of Oriental White-eyes snuggled on a tree. Grey-headed Canary, Black-and- Orange Flycatcher, Pied Bush Chat, Blue Rock Thrush, Black Redstart, Indian spotted Creeper, Red-whiskered Bulbul, Spotted Dove were some of the other birds that he spotted.

One of the must-do things in Ooty is to take a train ride on the Nilgiri Mountain Railway which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The bookings for the train ride need to be made at least 2-3 months in advance, especially during the holiday season. The metre gauge railway line was constructed in 1908. Till today the trains run daily from Mettupalayam to Ooty via Coonoor and back. My excitement was palpable as this train ride would be a new addition to my list of UNESCO World Heritage sites.

Ooty Railway Station, Nilgiri Mountain Railway @Rafiq Somani

Since my husband Rafiq knew the legendary Wing Commander Rakesh Sharma, the first Indian to be in space, he tried to fix a meeting with him on short notice since he now resides in Coonoor. Unfortunately, the meeting couldn’t be set as he had some guests over and our request was last moment. I was disappointed at missing the opportunity of meeting the stalwart.  

We boarded the train from Ooty and planned to get off at Coonoor. Our driver was to then pick us from Coonoor for the return journey. The train ride through picturesque hills and valleys in the trademark blue and cream carriages has been a subject of many movies. The Malaika Arora and Shah Rukh Khan song ‘Chaiya Chaiya’ from the movie Dil Se has been picturized on the Nilgiri Mountain Railways.  Each time the train passed through a tunnel, the passengers would clap and whistle. We could see tea plantations, terraced farms and dense forests of eucalyptus trees as the train rode halting briefly at a couple of stations in between.

Coonoor Railway Station @Rafiq Somani

On alighting at Coonoor, we grabbed some lunch at a restaurant close to the station. We then went to Dolphins’ Nose- a vantage point from where one can see the Catherine Waterfalls cascading down the distant mountains. Next, we visited the High Field Tea Factory as we wanted the children to see the tea manufacturing process. The different stages of tea processing from the time the tea leaves are picked, to their cutting, rolling, fermentation, drying and finally, packaging was an educational experience for the children.

Dolphin’s Nose Catherin Waterfalls @Rafiq Somani

We then headed to Sim’s Park which is a landscaped garden with flowers, ponds and some ancient trees. Just like in the Ooty Botanical Garden here too was an enclosure with a world map made with succulents, pebbles and plants.

Sim’s Park @Rafiq Somani

In terms of shopping do pick some essential oils and aromatic oils like eucalyptus, lemongrass, spices and of course tea. I even picked a Toda handwoven shawl since I like to support local art and handicrafts. There are a lot of other things that you can do in Ooty like trekking, camping, picnics to the waterfalls or visit the neighbouring Madhumalai and Mukurthi National Parks.

The next day our bags were packed, and we were all set to drive from Ooty to Coimbatore via Coonoor. We had fond memories of our visit to this queen of hill stations and its neighbour Coonoor. Just then my husband received a message from Wing Commander Rakesh Sharma saying we could drop in and visit his home on our way to Coimbatore. My joy knew no bounds but my children couldn’t fathom why their mother was so excited about meeting this person.

With Wing Commander Rakesh Sharma and his wife Madhu

I explained to them how, as children, we had watched on television this superhero go to space and be interviewed by the then Prime Minister Mrs. Indira Gandhi. When she had quizzed him how India looked from space, he had proudly said, “Sare Jahan Se Achcha!” That witty reply had bowled us over. An entire generation of kids and teens wanted to become not Superman, Batman or Spiderman but cosmonauts thanks to Rakesh Sharma. Meeting Wing Commander Rakesh Sharma and his graceful wife Madhu in their tastefully decorated home was indeed like the cherry on the cake of our trip to the Nilgiris. It couldn’t have got better. And no, I am not going to tell you what we spoke as that requires a separate post in itself.

Note: This trip was made several years ago when we had a basic camera, so the photographs are not high resolution. Thanks for your understanding.

GETTING THERE-
Nearest Airport: Coimbatore, which is 80 km away, is the nearest airport. You can then take a train, bus or hire a car to Ooty. 
Where to Stay: You can do a net search for an array of staying options depending on comfort and budget.  We stayed at the Fern Hill Sterling Resort.
Travel Trip: It is a good idea to make bookings at least 2-3 months in advance for the train ride. 

2 thoughts on “Ooty- The Queen of Hill Stations”

  1. Nishi Walavalkar

    Shameera… that was wonderful! and wrapping the article with everyone’s childhood hero Mr Rakesh Sharma was indeed icing on the cake. Just when I was enjoying Ooty and Coonor (after you described it beautifully) and making my own plans to visit the place, the last para completely bowled me over.
    The last para probably sums up everyone’s excitement when he went into space. He’s been an idol to many. Lucky you.
    The pictures do complete justice to your write up and I loved the way you said, you bought the Toda shawl because you support local artisans. Will remember this each time. Keep writing…

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