The tourism “off season” is now on, but it is a good time to visit high ground — these destinations are green, cool, wildlife-rich, even a little adventurous
It’s time to pay the rains your close attention. Take out the car, turn off the car AC, and try these hill getaways, all driveable from Chennai.
If you have a weekend to spare, go to Yelagiri, one of the cheapest hill stations in the country. Off the Chennai-Bangalore road, it is 260 km from Chennai along good roads. The climb takes as many as 14 hairpin bends (each one named after a Tamil poet). Fill up on the plains before the climb — there is no petrol station in Yelagiri.
Yelagiri lies between forests and fields, almost a kilometre above sea level. The hilly forests make it an ideal place for trekking and climbing, in the breaks between the rain. Swami Malai hill (4,338 ft) is a trek of about an hour. A tougher trek of 5 km takes you to the Jalagamparai Waterfalls — do check whether the rains have activated the falls first.
Worth seeing in town is Punganur Lake, surrounded by hills. It is good for boating and bird-watchers.
Staying without booking ahead on the weekend is not easy. Rooms cost up to Rs 3,000 a night. Choose carefully so as to avoid a long walk into town.
Yercaud is 22 km from Salem, 5,000 ft up in the Eastern Ghats, 360 km from Chennai. This hill station, known for coffee plantations and orange groves, is also called, unfairly, “Ooty for the poor”. It is a good place to trek and to see, among other things, rare birds.
Yercaud is not dull. There are many places to see, including the lake, which has excellent boating, the 3,000 ft Killiyur Falls, scenic points, an orchidarium, silk farms, colonial buildings and historic temples. Best-located is the Shevarayan Temple, on a flat-top hill with spectacular views.
Food is cheap and tasty, and there are many places to stay — including resthouses run by Christian missions.
Masinagudi is in the foothills of the Nilgiris between Bandipur National Park in Karnataka and Mudumalai National Park in Tamil Nadu. The best way to get there is to drive from Ooty via Kalhatty. The drive offers 30-35 hairpin bends and dense forest.
If you are interested in wildlife, drive at night. You may see bison, elephants and deer. The jungle teems with wildlife, from gaur to sambar, the Indian giant squirrel, mouse deer, wild dogs and more. Birdwatchers will be happy with 320 species of birds.
Try the view from Gopalswami Betta (hill). It has a temple to Lord Muruga which, the locals say, is visited by leopards. Visitors cannot enter the reserved forests, but there are van and elephant safaris and a forest department elephant camp.
Naturally, Masinagudi has a wide range of forest and wildlife lodges and campsites.
Valparai, 100 km from Coimbatore (and after some 40 hairpin bends) is carpeted with plantations. All the major tea companies have a presence here. The people are mainly plantation workers who live on the tea, coffee and cinchona plantations.
Next to Valparai is Indira Gandhi Wildlife Sanctuary, where you can sight elephants, gaur, leopards, tigers and more, and dozens of bird species.
There are also scenic sites and waterfalls, and such attractions as the Aliyar, Sholaiyar and Nirar dams.
Book ahead. Land belongs to the plantations, so there is just a handful of hotels, though rates are quite low.
A kilometre and a half up in the Western Ghats, misty Meghamalai too is rich in tea estates, forests and wildlife. In Theni district, 130 km from Madurai, it is a lesser-known destination. Tourism infrastructure is weak, so you may have to stay in a nearby town if you do not get access to a forest lodge or panchayat rest house.
The 628 sq km Meghamalai range area has seven villages with picturesque names like Cloudlands, Highwavy, Manalaar and Upper Manalaar. Visitors can trek through some of the forests and tea estates, savour the scenic points, and visit some of the dams and waterfalls.
Not far from Meghamalai is Periyar Tiger Reserve, which opened to the public just three years ago and is worth a visit.