TRIP METER: Eco-tourism finally comes of age in India as resorts and hotels pull all stops to woo the responsible traveler, says Deepesh Das --WAYFARER: The Himalayas, in all their pristine glory, come alive in the serene town of Kausani, says Deepesh Das --
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Take a green break
Going green has never been easier: even when you’re on a chilled-out holiday. As eco-tourism becomes the buzzword, hoteliers and resort owners are working overtime to offer you a fancy green holiday.
Go green and you’ll be digging into meals cooked with fresh organic vegetables and you can forget about conventional sources of electricity. The resorts are saying a big no to power from diesel generators and using a combination of solar energy, gobar gas (from cow dung) and kitchen waste to light up their lives.
Post a green holiday you might come home armed with many tricks for growing vegetables the organic way, right there in your backyard. For, many eco-resorts are giving their guests not just tours of their organic farms, but also lessons in organic farming. What’s more, you might come back home equipped with other skills and know-how – like how to pluck coffee and tips on grinding the beans.
You could stay in a tree house, and if you’re more adventurous you can even check out a cave-house. By the way, please leave your gadgetry (laptops and in extreme cases phones) back at home. A green holiday at a green resort has no room for them.
Anurag and his wife Sujata Goel, both scientists, dumped their regular jobs to start their own green resort about nine years ago. “There was no better way to show our commitment to the green cause,” says Anurag who opened the Rainforest Resort in the Madikeri town in the Kodagu district of southern Karnataka. Here are some of the resorts you can checkout as you hit the green trail.
Vythiri Resort is a plastic-free zone
The USP of most green resorts is location, location, and location. And you’d better believe the owners when they say that their resorts offer experiences out of the ordinary.
Babu Varghese, architect, has built his Green Magic Nature Resort 2 in the last belt of Asia’s tropical rainforests in north Kerela’s Wayanad district. Once an abandoned cardamom plantation, the eco-resort spreads across 30 acres at an elevation of 4000 ft above sea level.
If you book, you’ll be picked up from a decided point as only guests are allowed inside the resort. “We prefer guests who are nature lovers and discourage walk-in visitors,” Varghese says.
The resort uses non-polluting renewable energy to generate its electricity. “We produce our own electricity with the help of a water source that comes down from the mountains,” he says.
Another man looking out for the niche traveler is Ajoy Thipaiah. Six years ago, this coffee planter opened the doors of his four-cottage Kerehaklu Eco Retreat in Aldur, a tiny village 275km from Bangalore. “We welcome travelers with ecological sensibilities,” says Thipaiah. He’s quite capable of turning you down if you don’t conform to the resort’s guest profile.
Madhya Pradesh State Tourism Development Corporation Ltd’s tents in Dilwari offer a back-to-nature experience
Thipaiah is determined to keep the 248-acre resort 100% eco-friendly. So don’t carry gadgets and don’t expect room service. Even building material like pillars and flooring are scraped out from the coffee bush and bamboo that grows in abundance here. The cottages (each can house eight adults and four children) cost Rs.1950 per night.
The Goels of Rainforest Resort, a 20-acre eco-friendly boutique resort, are also hard at spreading the eco-tourism word. It has three cottages with two double rooms each and last year the couple added two tents. The cottages are powered by solar energy while the food is cooked on biogas. The room rent is Rs.2000 to 4000 per night per couple.
You can also head for Vythiri Resort in north Kerala’s Wayanad district, 65km from Calicut. Owned by a group of six hoteliers, the resort was unveiled in 1992 with just six rooms. As it adopted the green philosophy, it began discouraging the use of plastic bottles, making an exception for mineral water bottles. But even these will be disallowed once the resort’s mineral water plant gets operational and the water is bottled in glass bottles.
Rainforest Resort uses solar energy for most of its power requirements
Dune Eco Beach Hotel in Pondicherry too has gone green aggressively. The resort’s 26 villas and 15 rooms are built from old building material collected from Kerala and Pondicherry. It runs on solar energy and the seven-acre organic farm grows vegetables and wheat.
If you like tree houses, head for Babu Varghese’s Green Magic Nature Resort 2. The resort’s highpoints (as it were) are three tree houses and a cave-house. Says Varghese: “Tree-houses and cave-houses allow guests to go back to the basics”. The cave-house and the tree houses cost anything between Rs.9500 and Rs.12000 per night while the rooms are Rs.6000 per night.
the Dune Eco Beach Hotel serves organic fusion fare
These tree houses are built at an altitude of 50ft to 60ft and designed with bamboo poles, coir, grass and Palmyra leaves. They can be accessed with a lift that works with the counter-weight of a water bag and a slanting rope ladder.
Some other eco-resorts are also rooting for tree houses. Last year Vythiri Resort added three tree houses and constructed them with recycled wood at a height of 45ft and 60ft. You can access the tree houses via a metal ladder and a manually operated lift. Apart from the tree houses there are 18 cottages and four deluxe rooms.
The stay in any of the cottages comes at Rs.6500 per night, per couple, while the tree house is priced at Rs.12000 per night, per couple.
even the building material at the Kerehaklu Eco Retreat came from the coffee bushes and bamboos growing on the farm
Compared to other resorts, Krishna Kumar’s one year-old Ella Eco Land in Kerala’s Munnar is pretty tiny. The four-acre resort is proud of its king-size treetop cottage perched 30ft high and can be reached by a wooden staircase.
Three other tree houses come with double beds, attached baths and even sit-out areas. All the tree houses are built using coir mats, bamboo poles and hay while the tree-trunks are used as pillars to support the structures. The resort also offers whom cottages.
A tree house here costs Rs.2500 per night per head, the cottages Rs.1750 per night, per head and a room at the farmhouse comes at Rs.1000 per night (taxes extra).
And if climbing trees isn’t your idea of a holiday, check into eco-friendly tents in Madhya Pradesh. Two months ago, Ashwini Lohani, managing director, Madhya Pradesh State Tourism Development Corporation Ltd, introduced tented accommodation in Dilwari, 50km from Bhopal.
The eight tents ensure a back-to-nature experience, offering you a taste of village life. The use of gadgets is discouraged and local cuisine is served. A tent is yours for Rs.1500 per couple, per night.
The natural way
The lodges at Elephant Valley are set in the middle of a 100-acre estate that was once an abandoned coffee plantation
It was a natural corollary for Thipaiah of Kerehaklu Eco Retreat to reserve 10 acres of land for his organic farm. “Organic gardening is an intensive process and maintenance of an organic farm is a huge challenge,” says Thipaiah who has included a tour of the garden as a part of his guest’s itinerary. Cut from the Kerehaklu Eco Retreat in Aldur village to Elephant Valley in Tamil Nadu’s Palni Hills, 20km from Kodaikanal. Sunil Varghese took an abandoned coffee estate and some existing bungalows over six years ago. He turned this into an eco-friendly 12-lodge resort and went full-steam ahead with organic farming.
“Organic farming is a value-addition and most guests like to try their hand at it,” says Sunil, director and owner of the farm. Of the sprawling 100 acres, 10 acres is dedicated to organic farming (lots of exotic vegetables and herbs) and another 30 acres is for the coffee plantation. While the lodges get two acres, the rest of the land is left untouched so that a natural forest surrounds the resort.
“Everything that’s grown here goes to the kitchen and the surplus is sold in the local market,” says Deepesh.
Foodies can look forward to sumptuous local fare at these resorts. One of the many things that guests love at Kerehaklu Eco Retreat is feasting on local cuisine like spicy coconut-based dishes with homemade bread. All vegetables for the kitchen come from the resort’s organic garden.
But if you are a guest at Vythiri Resort, you can prepare a typical Kerala meal with the help of an in-house chef. Dinner is usually multi-cuisine or even Continental.
Chaitali and Deepesh Das of Rainforest Resort maintain that their menu is “quite varied”. Two local women run the kitchen and the menu is usually authentic local fare unless guests place special orders for Continental dishes.
Expect to sample local treats like kadamba puttu (rice balls), pandi (pork) and dishes prepared from organic plantain, jackfruit and mango.
If you stop at Dune Eco Beach Hotel, more organic dishes lie in store for you. The 30-acre eco-friendly resort that opened in Pondicherry in 2007, offers healthy gourmet – but organic – fusion cuisine in its two restaurants.
a hanging bridge is one of the highlights at Vythiri Resort
And while you are there you can’t but help get involved with some green activities. At Rainforest Resort, the Goels take turns to walk their guests through their certified organic spice plantation. They take the guests through the space of how coffee, cardamom, pepper and vanilla are cultivated. “We host specialized groups whose interest lie in learning something new,” says Deepesh.
Sujata Goel often conducts informal classes at her organic garden in Rainforest Resort
And at Elephant Valley near Kodaikanal, you’ll go through the entire process of producing coffee – from pruning, weeding feeding organic manure to the coffee bushes to plucking, de-skinning, sun-drying, roasting and grinding the beans.
Those with an interest in organic gardening can take back a tip or two. “We explain everything from using the right seeds to the intricacies of organic farming,” says Sunil.
the Dune Eco Beach Hotel has its own organic farm that grows wheat and vegetables
The Dune Eco Beach Hotel boasts of an interesting activity called the Artists in Residence. This is a programme where the resort provides work studios for artists from all around the world. Besides, guests are given bicycles during their stay to navigate the area.
You can go organic in more than one way at these resorts. The spa junkie can revel in total organic treatments. Here’s how: at The Vythiri Spa at Vythiri Resort, an array of classic and new treatments and massages are administered with organic products.
The Dune Eco Beach Hotel promises rejuvenation of a different kind. The resort’s Veda Spa is run by Dr Raganad’s Indigenous Medical Laboratories that focuses on Ayurvedic and natural treatments and offers more than 50 therapies on its spa menu.
On the cards at these eco-resorts are tours of organic farms, sumptuous local fare, spa treatment and even lessons in organic farming
In Gandhi’s footsteps
‘Why do people have to go to Switzerland when we have Kausani and the Kumaon hills here?’ pondered Mahatma Gandhi in 1929 when the happened to visit Kausani, a tiny hill station in the Kumaon hills. He was recovering in Kausani from the rigours of his British imprisonment.
He stayed here for 12 days, mesmerized by the beauty of the mountains and penned Anashakti Yoga, his famous commentary on the Gita, during his sojourn. It was Gandhi’s disciple, Sarlaben (Katherine Heileman), who set up the Anshakti Ashram, a memorial to his Kausani stay. The ashram still stands here – its doors wide open to travelers who seek peace and serenity.
As I stood spellbound, surrounded by the panoramic view of the snow-covered peaks of Nilkanth, Trisul and Nanda Devi, I couldn’t but agree with the Mahatma. This was as good as – if not better than – the snow-covered peaks of Alps, which I’ve visited thrice.
It’s the snow-capped mountains and soul-stirring scenic beauty that have earned this hill station in Uttarakhand the moniker, ‘Switzerland of India’. On a clear day, the unimpeded view of a 320km stretch of the Himalayan peaks is simply stunning. And we were in luck. After a hazy and cloud-laden spell of two days, the sun gods deigned to smile. The speaks in their pristine glory were clearly visible for us to admire.
With chilled winds blowing in from the Himalayas, our eyes soaked in the green bliss, as we stood spellbound by the beauty around us. The rolling green meadows, the meandering river below and the tall pine forest rising above made for a blissful holiday for city-weary people like us.
A road passing through the beautiful forests of the Garud Valley
Kausani is one of these remote hill stations, which attract only the most determined travelers. The trappings of shopping arcades, the ubiquitous Mall Road and pestering guides are not to be found here. Surrounded by thick, dense pine forests, this place provides a fantastic view of the towering Himalayas. The snow-covered peaks are so clearly visible that we almost felt we could reach out and touch the snow.
Checking into a small hotel across the Anashakti Ashram, we made our way towards the heart of Kausani. A group of old men who sat sipping tea directed us towards the house where the famous Hindi writer Sumitranandan Pant was born. We climbed down the step and wound our way through the narrow street to reach the unimposing wooden door of the poet’s house. An old chowkidar sat outside smoking a beedi as we entered the hall, which displayed books, photographs and some personal effects of the poet.
The famous Baijnath Temple
“Go to Baijnath. It’s just 19km from here and certainly worth the trouble,” a helpful Bengali gentleman told us. “I’ve just returned from there and the drive is enchanting”.
As we drove through the verdant forests of the Garud Valley, we were treated to the symphony of chirruping birds. But the drive ended all too soon as we reached the banks of the Gomti River where a group of temples stood reflecting the sun’s rays.
The Anashakti Ashram, set up to commemorate Gandhi’s visit to Kausani in 1929
These ancient temples with idols of Shiva, Ganesh, and Parvati, date back to an era between 10th and 12th century. Known as Baijnath, these temples were erected by the Katyuri kings who ruled the area.
Sadly they are in danger of being lost to encroachment. We found houses being constructed within meters of the temples. Inhabitants from the nearby areas squatted around, using the precincts to cook and gossip.
The river near the temples is home to scores of huge fish. A boy of about 10 years suddenly appeared before us and began peddling little packets of chana to feed the fish, which seemed to swim towards us in anticipation of the treat. The chana that we threw into the water vanished quickly as the fish rushed and snapped at them.
As we fed the fish by the riverbank and later treaded over crumbling leaves shed by the trees, we felt that we had stepped into a different time zone and era – a place where no one was rushed or stressed.
The tea gardens by the main road enticed us on our drive back through the Garud Valley. We were not aware that Uttarakhand has its own brand of tea called Girias. The tiny open-air café on the rooftop has a menu for tea tasting but it doesn’t come free. A cup of premium quality tea cost us a stupendous Rs.85 but it was worth every paise. Sipping the hot brew with the sight of the towering Himalayas before us is an unforgettable experience. I’d recommend it to every traveler.
Kausani offers some picture postcard views
The journey back to Kausani was a silent one with each of us falling into a trance. It was only the hunger pangs that brought us back to the present. There are two restaurants that serve Bengali fare, one near the Anashakti Ashram and the other on the main road called Mouchak. The place was reverberating with loud Kumaoni music as we feasted on hot ghugni and luchi.
Watching the sun streak the sky with vibrant colours as it made its last lap of the journey for the day, we realized this was the closest we would ever get to nirvana.
Kausani is not about seeing a museum, a monument or some historical structure. It is about experiencing the serenity and beauty of the place; of being humbled by the sight of the lofty Himalayas. And above all, it’s about connecting with the glories of nature. Visiting the place is not about the destination alone, it’s about the journey that is as beautiful as the destination itself.
Trisul is the name of a group of three Himalayan mountain peaks in Uttarakhand that is viewed best from Kausani. The peaks, better known as Trisul I, Trisul II and Trisul III are named after Lord Shiva’s trident. A Yugoslav team was the first to traverse from Trisul I to Trisul III in 1987 and Para jump into the valley.
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