India is a country whose mention triggers images of pulsing megacities and colossal crowds. But Ooty, a eucalyptus-scented town in the Nilgiri mountains of the southernmost state, Tamil Nadu, is an unexpected escape. Ideal for tourists who have crossed the nation’s palaces, temples and beaches off their to-do lists, this eccentric “hill station”—the name given to a locale carved from rocky mountainsides and high plateaus—once served as a welcome respite for British colonists eager to retreat from southern cities (the nearest, Coimbatore, is roughly 55 miles away) during parched summer months. These days visitors flock to this windswept haven, a lofty 7,349 feet above sea level, for its rolling tea plantations, pine-framed views, charming parks and remnants of colonial heritage.
For more than a century, a miniature ivory-and-blue steam locomotive affectionately dubbed the Toy Train has chugged along the Nilgiri Mountain Railway, a succession of picturesque curves, valleys and tunnels that earned UNESCO World Heritage status in 2005. The Nilgiris, or Blue Mountains, are named for the kurunji flowers that dot their summits. You can get on board at Mettupalayam (an hour’s drive from Coimbatore) and take in an incredible array of waterfalls and rice fields and the occasional cluster of rowdy macaques on this otherwise peaceful 5-hour journey. It’s best to book your train tickets several weeks in advance (indiarailinfo.com). Note: Ooty is usually listed as Udagamandalam on train timetables. Once you arrive in Ooty, you can explore on foot or shuttle around in auto rickshaws and taxis, available throughout town.
Though mid-19th-century European settlers grew and harvested reasonably priced produce there, Ooty’s Botanical Gardens, a 10-minute walk from Charing Cross, now teem with ferns, orchids, herbs and lily-studded ponds. Spanning an impressive 55 acres, the gardens also have a rare and curious centerpiece: a gnarled fossilized tree trunk that’s rumored to be about 20 million years old. Each May there’s a buzzed-about flower show that lures crowds for events such as bonsai competitions and vegetable-carving contests.
For sweeping hilltop views, stroll through the town’s Rose Garden, complete with curvy terraced lawns and more than 20,000 bushes crammed with miniatures, ramblers and hybrid teas, to name just a few varieties. And the Thread Garden (threadgarden.com), at the opposite end of town, is a staggering collection of faux flowers, plants and lawns crafted entirely from thread, canvas and wire. It’s the vision of Keralite artist Anthony Joseph, who assembled a team of 50 craftsmen and took nearly 12 years to finish this kitschy but lovable Ooty mainstay.
Commercial Road, Ooty’s main drag, is packed with stores carrying everything from bottled eucalyptus oil to Tibetan woolen shawls. Jai’s King Star is a 72-year-old “bean to bar” establishment that specializes in slabs of handmade chocolate. The minuscule confectionery stocks more than 40 melt-in-your-mouth varieties, including fig-and-honey, praline and butterscotch. At the quirky antique emporium Mohan’s, the goods are displayed in ancient wood-framed cases. You’ll also find chunky silver jewelry crafted by artisans from the region’s indigenous Toda community. Round off your excursion at Higginbothams, an English-language bookstore where you can browse through tomes on Hindu mythology alongside the latest best sellers.
REMNANTS OF THE RAJ
No trip to Ooty is complete without a photo op at St. Stephen’s Church, the town’s most famous landmark. Around 1820 its massive wooden beams were dragged by elephants from a palace nearly 75 miles away. The shrubby neighboring cemetery contains headstones honoring colonial-era bigwigs, like Ooty’s founder, John Sullivan. Across the street, the cherry-red Gothic Nilgiri Library, home to 25,000 books, including some very rare volumes on the region’s hill tribes, has a charming reading room that’s open to the public Thursdays through Saturdays.
VISTAS AND PEAKS
You can rent a paddleboat or rowboat and glide across Ooty Lake, an L-shaped artificial body of water created by the aforementioned Sullivan, who dammed a mountain stream in 1824. If you’re after something a little more strenuous, you can hike up to Doddabetta Peak, about 5 miles north of Ooty. At about 8,600 feet, the mist-encased summit provides unrivaled views of the lush Nilgiri mountains. Resort concierges can typically arrange for a local guide to accompany you on a range of treks, including one to Pykara Falls, about 10 miles northwest of Ooty.
There may be no better place to catch a behind-the-scenes glimpse of tea production than in the Nilgiris—the sprawling mountains are famous for their intensely aromatic leaves. The Doddabetta Tea Factory, which produces nearly 30 tons a month, treats visitors to a crash course that includes a peek at the Rotorvane, a ferocious machine that crushes and juices, and ends with a complimentary cup of brew. For an even closer look at the process, venture to the neighboring hill station of Coonoor (smaller and quieter than Ooty, it’s a 45-minute ride away), where you can tour Tranquilitea (tranquilitea.in; reservations required), an expansive estate that relies on the crisp mountain air to nourish rare types, like silver tips, delicate and floral, and the more full-bodied Crush, Tear, Curl.
WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE
An hour northwest of Ooty is Mudumalai National Park, one of India’s first wildlife sanctuaries. Because hiking is not allowed on the 124-square-mile reserve, it’s best to opt for a 45-minute minibus tour ($.50), on which you’ll spy wild elephants—on an evening excursion you can see them having dinner—deer, peacocks, bison and long-limbed langur monkeys. The luckiest visitors may spot one of the reserve’s 50 tigers—Mudumalai has the most tigers per area in the country. You may see one slinking among tall stalks of bamboo and hear it let out a chuff before it vanishes back into the blue mist of the forest. Much like Ooty and its striking surrounds, it’ll leave you spellbound.
NOTE: Information may have changed since publication. Please confirm key details before planning your trip.