We trudged up the wooden ramp that gently snaked 40ft above the coffee bushes to the Woodpecker Treehouse, on the Pepper Trail plantation retreat. Inspired by Wayanad tribal styles and built on a sturdy jackfruit tree, our lavish perch came with wood-panelled walls, a luxurious bathroom, a wide balcony with easy chairs, besides a country-style four-poster bed next to a tree jutting through the floor. While we’re no strangers to Kerala or treehouses, this was by far the most luxurious perch we had been to. Woodpecker’s win, the Hornbill Treehouse, was a little further away. Every morning and evening, we’d sip coffee, watching barbets and sunbirds flit about while racket-tailed drongoes and Malabar grey hornbills competed in vocal calisthenics.
We sat watching the rain beat down on the heart-shaped leaves of the pepper plant that quivered in the cool wind. Apparently, when the British were taking the pepper plant back to England, the Zamorin of Calicut had scoffed, “They may take our pepper vine, but they cannot steal our Thiruvathira Njattuvela (the 15-day assault of the monsoon that triggers the fruitingofthe pepper).” Pepper Trail is a good place to tell your poriyal (dry vegetable) from your ulli thiyal (roasted shallots in spicy tamarind coconut gravy). The genuine warmth of our host Anand Javan was apparent as he patiently explained how farm-fresh fruits, vegetables and herbs from the 200-acre coffee, tea and spice plantation were used to make home-style delicacies.
All served under the tiled-roof Pavilion, its deck hovering over a swathe of coffee shrubs broken by the shade of tall silver oak and jackfruit. From cheruvayur pindi toran (tempered green gram) to chena mizhaku pereti (yam fry), nendra pazham curry made of ripe bananas to kayi toran, stir-fried with unripe ones, each meal was a culinary journey. Sometimes, our chicken came in a varatherecha curry with roasted ground masalas or as chicken kizhi (bundled in a leaf pouch) with mint chutney. The lean staff toiled away, ready to take care of every need, appearing and disappearing magically to make the holiday experience a private indulgence. With a maximum occupancy of ten guests, Pepper Trail offers truly personalised service. After two days of trudging up and down from the treehouse, we moved to the 140-year-old Pazhey Bungalow, the ‘old’ plantation bungalow.
Set in a manicured garden, the first floor houses the Mackenzie Suite, in honour of the estate’s original owner Colin Auley Mackenzie, a pioneering Scottish planter who founded the Mangalam Carp Estate in the late 1800s. After he died in 1920, Anand’s maternal grandfather P.B. Kurup returned from Africa and bought the colonial estate in 1932. Long before biotechnology’ took off in India, this pioneer got into the manufacture of distilled water and extraction of oil from eucalyptus, patchouli and bergamot… People called him Techno Kurup. The ground floor, with its offices and red oxide floors, was renovated into the Malabar Suite, with a hall, bedroom, sit-out, and the old chemical storeroom converted into a large bathroom. The philosophy of the place is rooted in Anand’s vision of creating special places to stay’.
Taking up his father’s challenge, he renovated it with great care. Each Basel Mission roof tile and anjali (wild jack) wooden board on the wall was removed, numbered and put back. The old glass swivel windows on its fa-fade have watched history’ unfold. With heirlooms and furniture collected from antique shops, this wood-scented hideaway is ideal for solitude or romance. Lounge in wicker plantation chairs or in reading nooks where speckled piculets peck at windows, indignant at their own reflections, or relax in the secluded balcony overlooking a backyard garden with bamboo thickets and trees frequented by scarlet minivets.
The sprawling estate is great for birding besides leisurely walks to understand how coffee and tea are cultivated. Guests can participate in farm work, as experienced hands harvest coffee, tea and spice, using centuries-old methods. In the heart of the estate, fed by natural springs, the acre-wide natural reservoir forms the focal point for local flora and fauna. Perfect for fishing or a leisurely canoe or coracle ride, this is one spot where you’d like to linger. Or laze in the pool. Or get an Ayurvedic massage. We decided to head out on an open jeep ride around the plantation.
Lined by cheery’ orange and red heliconia, the driveway cut through the estate with tea bushes on one side and coffee on the other. Drivingthrough the buffer zones of the Muthanga and Bandipur wildlife parks, we spotted seven elephants, wild boar and numerous chital. It was time for dinner by the time we returned. The highlight was the mola aripayasam, or sweet porridge made of bamboo rice, jaggery’ and coconut milk. Each time the bamboo flowers—once a century’!—the entire bamboo forest dies. It’s a fascinating natural phenomenon that’s as tragic as it’s beautiful. After blossoming, the flowers produce a fruit called ‘bamboo rice’, which is collected and stored for future use. It will be decades before the flowers bloom again, but we won’t wait that long to return.