Kerala is often pitched as the peaceful, less tourist-drenched alternative to Goa. But just as Goa is sold short with clichéd accounts of full English breakfasts and poi-fests, so is its southern Indian cousin two states down the coast. Most preconceptions of Kerala are still moored to Kerala houseboat Packages and Chinese fishing nets, but perhaps it’s time visitors looked beyond the backwaters of Cochin and headed north for a totally different experience.
Wayanad is Kerala’s 14th and least-known district, one of India’s undiscovered lush green gems, a taxi-ride from Kozhikode (Calicut) airport up through the Western Ghats mountain range. It’s the kind of place where you can explore Neolithic caves, observe the inner workings of a coffee estate, or simply sit on a tree stump watching drongos pass by. But be warned, if its stage-managed Kathakali performances you’re after (classical Indian dance drama, frequently aimed at tourists in Kerala), this may not be the place for you.
Wayanad lies snugly on the border of Kerala and the neighbouring state of Karnataka at a range of 700-2,100 metres. With 23,000 hectares of paddy cultivated in the district – a fact to which its name pays homage, roughly translating as “village of paddy fields” – it is one of the greenest areas of India.
I chose to park myself at Fringe Ford, a hundred-year-old estate house. “Estate” sounds overly grand, and whilst not grandiose in an architectural sense, the setting is nothing short. Set on 520 acres of land raked with 27 natural streams, Fringe Ford shares borders with two wildlife sanctuaries, making it one of the largest remaining bastions of Malabar rainforest. The bungalow in which we stay is modest, but each room (there are three) has its own veranda with floor-to-ceiling glass, giving uninterrupted views of the jungle and ample protection from the mad hara-kiri bugs that come out at dusk. The beds are comfy, the bathrooms spacious, but the overall feel is a bit like you’ve been given the keys to a kindly relative’s house for the weekend.
Fringe Ford is run by Mamooty, a spry, moustachioed man who could easily pass as a villain in a Malayalam film. He tells me that most of his clientele come from the once-Garden-now-IT city of Bangalore. “They come for the fresh air,” he says. If you’ve ever inhabited an Indian city, you’ll understand the need for escape. And there can be few better places to escape than here.
Fringe Ford’s unique selling point, according to Mamooty, is the fact that they have no cell-phone towers in the vicinity, they use no generators, and subscribe to no newspapers. In other words, they keep the noise of the outside world at bay. But he’s still selling the place short. For birdwatchers and walkers, this place is a paradise. With 16 endemic species of birds and multitudes of butterflies, you can spend all day tramping along forest paths with the aid of a trusty guide. Treks are categorized into easy, medium and hard, and if you change your mind halfway through, your guide will always find a shortcut loop back to the house. And to give yourself a treat at the end of the trail, the estate’s staff can arrange lunch at a nearby waterfall – one of the few indulgences they offer, but my, it’s a good one.
When not making the most of the surrounds, eating is something you’ll do a great deal of here. This certainly has something to do with the rarefied air and long walks, but, to be honest, it’s mostly because the food is so good. 65% of the produce is grown organically on the property and the rest is bought fresh from a nearby market. But don’t expect menus: there’s one set meal plan for the day, and it’s usually hearty, local Kerala fare – curries with coconut milk and fish, and local ferns foraged from the grounds. Operations are fairly laissez-faire, and guests are often found helping out on the old-fashioned smoke-free charcoal stove.
It is at Fringe Ford that I became a champion of Scrabble by candlelight and spent hours swinging in hammocks eating banana fritters; where I learned to tell the difference between the sound of a lion-tailed macaque and a red-cheeked bulbul; and where one morning I saw a herd of bison move like a dark cloud against a faraway hillside. These were pleasures enough for me.
Other, more urban types with itchy feet, might feel the need to explore farther a field, which Mamooty would only be too happy to arrange for you. You could hike up to the Eddakal caves or book a massage at a spa somewhere, or you could go to the nearby town of Mananthavadi, which specializes in fluffy birthday cake dresses and kitchen sinks. Whatever you do though, remember to put your leech socks on before heading out. It’s a jungle out there.
This is an article that was posted at Guardian UK
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