Munnar, a hill-station in the Western Ghats, ranked high in our list of must-visit places for our first summer vacation back in Kerala. Located at 1600 meters above sea level, it is considered among the most beautiful hill-resort towns in Southern India. Munnar is less than 120 km east of Kakkanad but the trip can take upwards of three hours – it will be lot longer for first timers, as stopping by the many vista points along the way is a given. Our visit was during the first week of May – August to May is considered high-season as the monsoons are light or non-existent during those times. A minimum of three days is required to relax and enjoy everything Munnar has to offer.
Munnar boasts a large array of hotels and resorts that vary in pricing from below Rs 1000 for budget cottages like JJ Cottage in Old Munnar to those as high as Rs 15K for a 1000 square foot villa at Windemere Estate. We chose to stay at the Marthoma Retreat Home (Rs 2200 regular, Rs 1800 with discount), a mid-priced place run by the Marthoma church group who manage a number of charities for the locals including a nursery school – as service levels are slightly below par it cannot be strictly classified as a resort hotel. Nevertheless, the location is perfect – nice view and only a kilometer away from Munnar city area on Mattupetty Road.
Our first stop on the way there was Cheeyappara Falls located between Neriamangalam and Adimali on NH49 (about 75 km from Kakkanad). The falls feature seven steps and there is a short-hike up to a vantage location behind the falls. Facilities are very limited and a certain amount of garbage dumping affects the beauty of the place, but overall it is a good stopover option. Bathing is prohibited as falling rocks pose a danger. Around 10KM from Munnar town is the detour to Pallivasal Hydroelectric Project. On both sides of the road are giant pipes that run down to the power station area and tagging the pipes are a hiking option. Tea estates blanket the area surrounding Chithirapuram. Eateries catering to all budgets are aplenty in and around Munnar. At the low-end of the spectrum are places such as Saravana Bhavan (meals on leaves for around Rs 50) and the smaller, less crowded and a slight step-up alternative Annapoorna Restaurant. Several lunch buffet options in the Rs 200 vicinity are also available as mid-range options. At the high end are major resorts with exclusive restaurants that feature fancy buffet fare.
The first of our two road-trips in Munnar was on the Mattupetty Road to the Dam and Top Station. Top Station, located 37 km away on the Kerala-Tamilnadu border with panoramic views of the Western Ghats, is a good hiking spot. About 10 km into the road-trip is Mattupetti Dam with street vendors hawking their ware on either side of the road past the bridge. Speed boat rides are on offer here at about Rs 300/- for a 15minutes use (4-5 people max). Nearby is an Indo-Swiss farm where the Kerala Livestock Development Board (KLDB) rears more than 100 varieties of high-yielding cattle. Tourists hoping to see the place should avail special permission beforehand from KLDB. Further on this route a few kilometers apart are Echo Point and Elephant Arrival Spot – two attractions worth a stopover. The former is a scenic spot beside a small lake – any sound produced is echoed back from the surrounding hills and hence the name. The latter is a spot from which wild elephants can be viewed occasionally – an elephant ride is offered sometimes for around Rs 350/- pp. The best spot in the entire road-trip is Kundala Lake, whose access is via an unassuming approach road in dire need of maintenance. This stunningly beautiful lake is a great picnic spot. Boating on the lake is a major tourist activity and all kinds of boats are available for rent including the Kashmiri Shikara – pedal boats are the easiest to handle.
A few yards from our retreat on Mattupetty Road is KFDC Floriculture center, an exquisitely maintained botanical garden. Entrance Fee is very nominal (Rs 10) and is open from 9AM to 5:45PM – as with many government run properties in Kerala, pricing is bizarre for certain things – professional camera use is an exorbitant Rs 500/- while regular or mobile cameras are just Rs 20. The facility houses a huge display of regional flowers and other exotic items. Local spices are also available at the counter also for reasonable prices – the star attraction is sandalwood from the famous Marayoor area, the only place in Kerala where sandalwood trees grow naturally.
Our second road-trip was on the Marayoor road. Marayoor is 40 km away. Major attractions en route include Tata Tea Museum and Eravikulam National Park (2 km and 15 km from Munnar). Eravikulam National Park has the reputation of being the cleanest park in India and is the site of Nilgiri Tahr, an endangered species of mountain goat. By Indian standards, Eravikulam National Park is a great facility with a well-organized setup. The place is however very popular and so it is best to try and reach there by around 7:30 AM – technically the place opens at 8 AM, but the ticket counter is functional only by 8:15 AM. A mini-bus transports the ticket holders (Rs 45 Indians and Rs 230 foreigners) to the park entrance (~2 miles up). The main entrance area has a nice building with a curio shop (stocked with themed T-shirts, caps, books (such as The Book of Indian Birds by Dr. Salim Ali), local honey and chocolate, and a snack bar. The best place to see the Nilgiri Tahr (Varayad) is a mile away and is a good hike. Plenty of Neelakurunji (a plant species that blooms every twelve years turning the entire Rajamalai blue) can be seen here – a park ranger can effortlessly point out this pretty unassuming plant species. Anamudi Peak, the highest peak south of the Himalayas is inside Eravikulam National Park – trekking in the area is possible, but advance planning is of the essence. The natural sandalwood forest in Marayoor (25 km from Eravikulam National Park) is well worth a visit, which unlike most places in Munnar is not at all commercialized – a children’s park extending 2.5 acres under the canopy of a single banyan tree is a prime tourist spot.