The Hill Stations of Southern India
The Western Ghats, a mountain range in southern India, are regarded as one of the most biologically diverse places on earth.
The mountains stretch from the southern tip of India for about 1,600 km, running roughly parallel to the country’s western coast through five states: Maharashtra, Goa, Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu.
The UN's cultural agency, Unesco, includes 39 sites in the Western Ghats on its list of World Heritage Sites in 2012. These include national parks, wildlife sanctuaries and forest reserves.
Unesco says the forests are home to at least 325 globally-threatened plant, bird, fish, reptile and amphibian species.
When people planning to visit India think of mountains, their thoughts surely turn first to the mighty Himalayas in the north. But for senior travellers who want to experience a green India and a little peace and quiet, the Western Ghats have a lot to offer.
The range – the tallest in South India – is home to a number of hill stations that offer mountain scenery, wildlife and an escape from the heat of the plains below.
While some of the hill stations in northern India are justly famous – Shimla, Darjeeling – those in the south are well worth considering too.
Perhaps the best known, Munnar, is set among huge tea plantations in Kerala and can be reached by road from the port of Kochi (also known as Cochin). Once a resort for British colonials, Munnar is now popular with locals and foreign visitors alike.
The town itself is crowded and unkempt, like most Indian hill stations. But don’t be put off by this. The appeal lies in the surrounding countryside. While there are several hotels in town to choose from, a good option might be a homestay nearby – a private home, often set among beautiful surroundings and offering a tranquil stay.
Do a bit of homework online and select one that takes your fancy, preferably well in advance to ensure the dates you want are available.
Among the top attractions is Eravikulam National Park in the mountains above the town. The journey on the narrow, winding road can be hair-raising, particularly if traffic is heavy. But the views are exceptional.
You’ll see the nilgiri tahr, an endangered wild goat that’s plentiful in the park but rare outside it. The park area includes Anamudi, at 2,695 metres India’s highest mountain south of the Himalayas.
Many senior travellers will also want to visit a tea factory and plantation. Tea has been grown in Munnar since the late 19th century and the plantations are considered among the finest in southern India. There’s a tea museum too. And you can also simply stop along the road and watch tea pickers at work.
If you’re planning to spend several days in Kerala, consider combining a visit to Munnar with a day or two in Kochi – a noisy, bustling port with a long history as a spice trading centre. You can also spend time on the Kerala backwaters, a stretch of lagoons and lakes lying parallel to the coast, where you can rent a traditional houseboat to escape from it all in comfort, with excellent accommodation and meals.
Ooty in the neighbouring state of Tamil Nadu is another popular hill station. Its full name is Ootacamund or Udhagamandalam but everyone calls it Ooty. Nestled in the Nilgiri Hills, it boasts forests, lakes, rivers, tea estates and botanical gardens. Like most Indian hill stations, it’s overcrowded, particularly from March to May, and you’ll need to get out of town to enjoy it most.
Other hill stations in the Western Ghats include Matheran and Amboli in Maharashtra, Coorg and Kudremukh in Karnataka, Ponmudi in Kerala and Coonoor in Tamil Nadu.
The range is also home to wildlife reserves. The Mudumalai Tiger Reserve in Tamil Nadu and the Anamalai Tiger Reserve on the Tamil Nadu/Kerala border are two of the best known.
Population pressure is putting growing pressure on the rich ecosystems of the Western Ghats. But they remain a treasure house of biodiversity and an exciting destination for travellers.
Header image: Vasudevan Kumar