Exploring the South of India with Café Coffee Day

Road trips became a regular part of my life after I moved to Bangalore. In a distant relationship at that time and very broke most of the time, KSRTC buses became my favoured mode of travel. My first experience with bus travel was when we moved to Pune. Even though I moved with family, Pune was never home. Home for the longest time was Bombay and I yearned for the city and its (in)famous pace of life. Constantly home-sick, I went back every month, hopping on to the MSRTC bus or one of the private operators. It used to be a 2.5 hour journey, which I did in 2.5 hours as opposed to most people who would get stuck in traffic or be held up due to accidents on the expressway and spend as much as 6 hours in the bus. I was lucky with the buses. And so, I came to accept buses as a cost-effective and rather convenient way to travel, especially since it allowed me to travel so frequently to Bombay.

Bangalore-Pune, of course is a much longer journey and I soon realized that private operators weren’t very professional on this route. And thus ksrtc.in was added to my bookmarks. Why? Let’s start with punctuality. Private operators almost never left on time, leading to delays in reaching Pune, which after a 14 hour journey in a bus can be rather annoying. Cleanliness of the buses was another big factor. Most of the buses run by Neeta et compagnie were more often than not, filthy. The buses weren’t cleaned, the seats carried reminders of the previous passengers, the air-conditioning mal-functioned and the blankets provided were fit only for dogs. But the biggest and most important reason: the en-route shops. While KSRTC stops only at the Kamat Utsav points, which meant decent food and usable washrooms, private bus operators stop at any random shack that offers them a cut.

KSRTC_Kamath

Three years of KSRTC bus trips made Kamat Utsav my best friend. I looked forward to stopping at a Kamat for a quick coffee, before getting back into the bus for the next leg of the journey…till 2012, when we made our first road trip to Balur and I discovered that there aren’t that many Kamat Utsav points on the other highways. Kamat got replaced by Café Coffee Day on our first trip to Chikmanglur. A CCD that has become part of our Balur experience, since we always stop there for a coffee and more.

Exploring the South by road has been a revelation of sorts…well-laid out roads and efficient highways cutting through picturesque landscapes and quaint towns and villages with regular pit stops at Café Coffee Days! As long as we are in Karnataka, we know we are never far from good coffee and a clean washroom! The CCD stops to and from Balur are a welcome break, but the CCD we spotted on our way on our way back home from a disastrous experience in Wayanad, after a particularly bad stretch of road felt like a gift from the heavens.  We were so relieved when we saw that (now) familiar board announcing a CCD coming up in 1 km, it seemed like the best thing we’d seen all day. Needless to say, we swung into the parking lot and trooped into the café for a much needed shot of espresso. Mass urbanisation of the Indian countryside does have its advantages!

Then there was that time when Google decided that the national highway wasn’t the fastest way back to Bangalore (even though that was the way we’d reached our destination). Adventure and breaking away from the beaten path are a part of road trips, so though the route seemed slightly longer and took us away from the national highway through villages and state highways, we followed Google. In Tamil Nadu on our way back to Karnataka, you can imagine our surprise when we started spotting number plates with AH! It struck us then that we seemed to be skirting the Andhra Pradesh border! We drove on through the plateau, delighting at the change in landscape, till the caffeine pang hit us.

CCDDrooping, we had just started wondering if we should stop at one of the coffee stalls when…hallelujah! A CCD was coming up in 11 kms! A smile lit up our faces and even Phryne perked up, racing toward the café! We were back in Karnataka – home didn’t seem so far with an espresso in our hands!

Our road trips have been thrilling, but CCD has made them so much more fun by ensuring we get refuelled just when we were starting to droop. While some CCD stops were planned, others appeared like oasis in deserts. Driving through Karnataka has been a pleasure, not just because of the wonderful roads and the beautiful landscape, but also because of the CCD stops! Now if only the chain could take over the highways of the entire country, I think Phryne is quite ready to take us across the country!

Road Trip to Wayanad (Bootcamp Version)

PhryneWe were craving to do a road trip ever since we got Phryne. We’d already driven down to Pune, but that didn’t count since we were on NH4 throughout the journey and there wasn’t even a grain of adventure involved. Balur? But we knew that route so well. We wanted to go off the beaten track. We decided to explore the Wayanaad district. We looked up a dog-friendly resort close to the river, booked a room and before we knew it, we were on the road.

A smooth drive up to Mysore, we left the national highway soon after and started meandering though the state highways, crossing quaint industrial towns and villages, chattering and exclaiming at the good condition of the roads till we reached the entry to Nagarhole National Park. That’s when the ride started getting bumpy…

Nagarhole1

At the fork, we hesitated, then took the right leading to the park – after all, the resort owners did tell us we could drive through the park, even though we had a dog with us. Phryne ploughed through the road washed away by the rain, attracting many curious looks from the villagers. We put it down to her bright colour, but when we reached the gate, we realized it was not Phryne but Arya that was the object of their curiosity. Stopped at the gate (“No domestic animals inside the national park, sir”), we were made to turn around and head back to the fork. Youpie – what a wonderful start to our holiday.

Nagarhole2

Bangalore_Kalindi

Furious with the resort owner, we retraced our way to the entrance of the park and took the other road – a longer route that took us through the fields, bypassing the many resorts on the banks of river Kabini, back to another gate announcing the entrance of the national park.

Kalindi1

Our hearts beating a wild rhythm inside our chest, we paused for a second, before driving in. There were no check posts on this route since it didn’t cut through the forest – we were circling around the park! It was raining, we were surrounded by a verdant forest and finally on our way to our destination. Delighted, we took in the sights and smells of the forest – and were even lucky enough to spot a mother elephant and her infant and several herds of deer! We emerged from the park into the heart of Kerala and snaked our way towards the resort, making our way through dense forests and picturesque villages.

WindingRoads

“We’ve had our share of adventure – it’s time to put up our feet now.”

Or so we thought – the last kilometre to the resort proved to be rather arduous for we had to go down a rather steep and narrow ravine-like path, bushes scratching Phryne’s flanks to a parking lot which was basically a plot of land which had disintegrated to slush after the recent rains. This wasn’t the idyllic parking spot described on the website and the many reviews online. Steeling ourselves, we scolded ourselves for being cynical and followed the rather reticent resort manager down the trail to the resort – a bunch of ramshackle cottages by the river. The room, damp from the rain looked like it hadn’t been cleaned since summer; the floors were dirty, the bed sheets were stained and the room had a horrid dank odour.

“Chin up, let’s explore the outside and get some coffee shall we?”

An hour later, after flinging away the worst coffee we’ve had and a plate of soggy banana chips, we realized we’d made a horrible mistake. The resort had seen better days, but this was definitely not one of them. We’d paid for one night and it was too late to head back, so we steeled ourselves for a night in the horrid room.

“We’ll leave early tomorrow and head back home…”

That was the longest night of my life – the sound of the river roaring right outside our room kept me awake and I welcomed the first rays of light with much joy. We set off at the crack of dawn, glad that Phryne was strong enough to pull us out of the hell-hole in minutes. Back on the road and on our way to our favourite holiday refuge with Linger, we were told to head in the opposite direction. More adventure?

WindingRoads1

The road meandered through the heart of plantations – roads traversed only by the locals – past acres of lush green spice plants towards the river basin and paddy fields.

Kalindi2

We took a few wrong turns and crossed some bumpy stretches but on the whole, this was much better than what we’d endured the previous night. The windows down, we were beginning to feel rather upbeat about the escapade when we were stopped in our tracks by…. the river!

Kabini had overflowed and submerged a section of the road. It looked like we’d have to drive through it!

Just before we had to cross the river.
Just before we had to cross the river.

“Well, the Ford Ecosport is supposed to be able to do this, isn’t it?”

Taking a deep breath, we plunged in, the water splashing up to Phryne’s roof and drove through what felt like a flooded field. On the other side, we looked back, our hearts still beating wildly, a little bemused at our moment of panic a few minutes ago! We wanted an adventure and we got it….except it wasn’t over!

A few kilometres down the road, we hit the next roadblock: an electricity pole had been uprooted by the monsoon wind and live wires stretched across the road. We couldn’t turn back, so we braced ourselves for electrocution and accelerated…hallelujah! We survived! But of course we did! There was no electricity in the entire district since over 24 hours! Feeling a bit sheepish (and very hungry), we dipped into our stock of juice and cake, glad we always traveled with so much food and started discussing the possibility of returning to Bangalore. But before we had to get back to the highway…

Such a long journey!

We finally had mobile network and GPS was functioning for the first time since we reached the resort, so we looked up routes and turned Phryne towards the national highway. Driving past the last of the plantations, we reached another fork and we took the left towards SH21 (which Google no longer recommends!). Remember what happened when we took the road on the right at the last fork? The road this time was much worse than the kuccha countryside road in Nagarhole.

Potholes the size of craters, wild bush on either sides of the road and no sign of civilisation, we navigated the 10 kms with timorous hearts. We were driving so slow, anybody would be able to ambush us…neither of us dared voice our fears. In the last 3 kms, just as we were about to give in to the frustration (and hunger – the cake didn’t last long) we suddenly found ourselves behind a car – a bright pink, Alto! Well if she could do it, Phryne was definitely more than capable of taking us out of this stretch of Lucifer’s property! We hit the highway a few minutes later at Periyapatna. 🙂

We didn’t need to discuss anything – a holiday would have to wait. What we needed then was a shower in our own bathroom and a night in our own bedroom. Bangalore was … kms away, but before there was a CCD!

P.S We fixed our broken bodies a few days later with a lovely Linger vacation at Harley Estates, Sakleshpur.

Coffee, Fireflies And More…

Back from a very adventurous and exhausting road trip, we were yearning for a do-nothing vacation. A vacation where we would be pampered, eat like royalty and just put up our feet and do…nothing. But not the luxury hotel, spa kind of vacation. We had been through some rather dangerous terrain, but were still hankering for a few days out in the countryside. Once bitten twice shy: we had just walked away from a disastrous experience, so we went to the experts, Linger Leisure. A quick call to Sameer about our favourite holiday destination, Balur, revealed that the estate was battling crazy rains, but their new property, Golden Wood at Harley Estate in Sakleshpur was doing better.

Sameer promised us an idyllic stay in a brick cottage in the middle of a plantation. Sure enough, the Linger property at Harley Estate is deep inside the plantation. A leisurely four hour drive from Bangalore (we don’t believe in racing on our vacations), we reached the Estate around lunch time, guided by the excellent directions provided by the wonderful folks at Linger Leisure.

Harley Estate

A short wait outside the Estate manager’s house, we climbed into a jeep and were driven deep into the plantation to our accommodation, a charming brick cottage!

The Estate Jeep and our car, Harley Estate

The cottage, furnished to accommodate 4 people was enveloped in the divine smell of a wood fire. A curious glance into the bathroom revealed that our bath water was being heated just behind the cottage on a wood fire! The pièce de résistance? The bathroom was constructed around a tree! I could already feel the stress evaporating!

Brick Cottage, Harley Estate

Main bungalow, Harley Estate

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After dumping our stuff and a quick wash, we walked out to see a lavish spread set up outside the room. Meal times with Linger Leisure are a delight for the gourmand! Simple, home cooked meals packed with local flavours, I’ve had some of my most memorable meals at Linger properties.

Meals at Linger

Eat like royalty. Check.

The Harley Estate experience was just what we were craving. Rustic and simple, but in no way impoverished or inadequate. The caretaker Ravi and Vijay, one of the staff members, ensured our stay was perfect, with their courteous service. Having walked through the estate at Balur several times, we thought we knew what to expect from a plantation. Boy, were we in for a surprise! I am as urban as it gets, so walking through the dense plantation was akin to a randonnée in the jungle!

Flora at Harley Estate

Vijay led us through the plantation, pointing out the coffee plants and various trees. We walked under the tall towering trees providing shade to the lush green coffee plants…jumped over and ducked under trees felled by lightning till we reached the river.

Trampling through Harley Estate

River, Harley Estate

A delightful picnic spot, we spent a few quiet moments there soaking in the serenity of the place. And then Vijay said waterfall! Off we went, crossing the river beyond the pretty little cottage which houses the electricity generating pump house to the cascade.

Pump house, Harley Estate

Crossing the bridge, Harley Estate

Waterfall, Harley EstateFlora, Harley EstateSoak in the countryside. Check.

Back at the cottage, we lounged on the easy chairs outside the room sipping coffee and catching up on reading, fanned by a gentle breeze and enveloped by the sounds and smells of the plantation, till sun down when Vijay and Ravi set up the bonfire for us!

Moonlit night, Harley Estate

Yes, we were lucky enough to get a clear evening and got to stretch out our legs in front of the crackling fire and watch fireflies darting amidst the plants, despite it being the monsoon season!

Relax, do nothing. Check.

Needless to say, we left Golden Wood with that now familiar feeling of rested content that accompanies a Linger Leisure holiday, rejuvenated and ready to take on the big bad world. Thank you Linger Leisure for being the most wonderful hosts!

Brick Cottage, Harley Estate

Encore Balur

ClearSkies_Balur
 
Where the tracks are beaten well,
yet no one is seen.
Where the sky is always clear,
yet many colours gleam.
Where there is silence all around,
yet whippoorwills scream.
Where nature runs a riot,
yet peace reigns supreme.
– Ami Titash, Balur. October 2014.

 

It took us over a year to go back to Balur and the experience this time was no less enchanting. If the first time was about discovering the estate, eclectic conversations with the other guests at the bonfire and indulging in the mouth-watering meals prepared by the in-house cook, this time was about letting the estate heal our frayed nerves.

We drove up one fine day after a gruelling six months, seeking the magic of Balur Estate. Off-season and mid-week with no other guests on the property, the two days we spent at the Estate were the most wonderful days ever. The drive up seemed so familiar and it was with great joy that we re-discovered the many turns, coffee-stops and village homes that had been our guide on the way up in 2012. We drove in to the Estate, revelling in the tranquillity that had enchanted us last time and from that moment onwards, it was perfection.

What could be better than dining in a room that overlooks clear skies and the mountains surrounding the Estate, with nothing but the sound of the breeze and the birds to break the sound of our munching? The staff has changed since our first visit, but is no less warm or courteous. The rest is just as charming…the serene beauty of the plantation, the endless supplies of coffee, the delightfully fresh onion bhajiyas in the evening and of course the bonfire as soon as the sun set.

All alone on the Estate, to enjoy all of this, it was easy to forget that deadlines awaited us back home. Of course, the fact that we were in the newly renovated Coffee Cottage, a large suite with an amazing bathroom and its very own reading room, just made it so much easier to do as W.H. Davies suggested in 1911. We stood and stared…and we let ourselves soak in the beauty of plantation with nothing to do but linger in leisure.

Linger_Balur

This time, we will go back soon. Just as promised. Within a couple of months.

Lingering at Balur Estate

Imagine walking up a winding path, surrounded by towering trees, hundreds of hectares of coffee, pepper, cardamom and betel nut plantations, the gurgling of the mountain stream and chirping of the birds the only other sound apart from that of the dead leaves under your feet. Top this with the experience of sitting around a bonfire under a canopy of stars, with a bottle of wine, campfire songs and eclectic conversation. Balur Estate, nestled in the hills of Chikmanglur district of Karnataka, a coffee estate that dates to 1853 offers exactly this experience and much more.

Lingering at Balur  - exploring the estate with Amza and Rakesh.
Lingering at Balur – exploring the estate with Amza, the caretaker.

The drive up from Bangalore, via the Mangalore highway past the town of Hassan, through Belur and finally Balur village was perhaps the most scenic drive of my life -the roads in good condition (despite being, for the most part, state highways and internal village roads, snaking up hilly terrain), the people we passed friendly and eager to offer help and tips even though we spoke no Kannada and they spoke no Hindi and very little English and most importantly, several coffee stops (even a couple of Café Coffee Days)!

One of the last winding curves on the way to Balur Estate.

We spotted Balur Estate as we turned around one of the hairpin curves going up to Kalasa – a small board at the gate invited us up the driveway to the estate, which houses two bungalows.

Balur Estate - a 400 acre coffee plantation since the 1800s.
Balur Estate – a 400 acre coffee plantation since the 1800s.

You can book any of the six rooms on the estate, managed by Linger Leisure, for an idyllic get away from the madding crowds of Bangalore. I would recommend the Planter’s Room – attached to the living room, it has huge bay-windows from which you can hop out into the courtyard and soak in the sun during the day.

The view from the Planters Room
The view from the Planter’s Room

Much like the Neemrana hotels, the spacious, high ceilinged rooms in Balur have an old-world charm. There are no television sets on the property nor any telephones in the room and obviously no room service. Cut off from most networks, we were encouraged to linger over cups of coffee and spend hours soaking in the tranquil surroundings, reading, talking or simply staring out at the verdant hills surrounding the estate.

Balur Estate - Planters Bungalow
Balur Estate – Planter’s Bungalow
Guests soaking in the winter sun.
Guests soaking in the winter sun.

The estate staff welcomed us with friendly warmth and ensured that our short stay on the estate was memorable. I must live up to my newly acquired status of a gourmand, so I will start with the food served by Ratnamma, the in-house cook – simple, home-made and heart-warming Coorgi meals that leave the palate delighted and the stomach satiated. Our first meal on the estate shall remain etched in my memory forever –  dry pepper chicken, an interesting curry with beans and potatoes, sambar and pepper rasam served twice-cooked rice flour chapatis. For me, the icing on the cake was dessert – puranpolis!  The coffee, brewed fresh from the plantation beans completed the culinary experience.

Freshly brewed coffee from the Estate.
Freshly brewed coffee from the Estate.

The caretaker Amza, a jovial young man showed us around the estate and walking us through the process of making coffee beans, right from the picking of the Arabica berries on the plantation and the washing process which releases the most intoxicating aroma to how the beans are dried in the sun and processed before being sent to the Coffee Board.

Coffee berries - picked, weighed and washed.
Coffee berries – picked, weighed and washed.
Coffee beans - washed and laid out to dry in the sun.
Coffee beans – washed and laid out to dry in the sun.

I don’t think I will ever forget that heady perfume of the wet coffee berries or the fascinating array of colours of the beans laid out to dry in the sun and I must admit that for the first time in my life, I understood how estate owners must feel when they looked out at their property. Can I also confess that I almost wished I could buy the estate? 😉

Surrounded by unspoilt nature at Balur.
Surrounded by unspoilt nature at Balur.

Balur was a magical experience, one we will be happy to repeat (hopefully for a longer stay next time) and mark as a yearly tradition. 🙂