Ooty, a hill town with the right mix of heritage, culture and scenic viewpoints, never once failed to amaze me. On a whim, I chose Ooty and took off from Bangalore on a Friday night. My earliest memory of the trip is waking up in the bus at 05:30 am to see a bunch of foreigners clicking pictures and recording videos frantically as if the stunning landscapes seen outside the window would melt into the mist and never come again. The bus was majorly filled with tourists and I felt the excitement cutting through the air.
I reached my beloved Ooty at 08:00 am, ready to take in whatever the ‘Blue Mountains’ town had to offer. After a hearty breakfast prepared by mom, my first stop was at St. Stephen’s Church.
Built-in 1830’s the church stands tall amidst the vast expanse of land filled with blooming flowers of various colors. The building painted yellow and green is perfectly in tune with the refreshing pale green vegetation that surrounds the church. Some of the structures were once looted and brought from Tipu’s Mysore palace by the Britishers. The church also houses many beautiful paintings. ‘The Lord at the gate of Heaven’ is one among those.
Having made the right choice by starting off at St. Stephen’s church, with bundles of energy and curiosity, I set out on the streets to explore Ooty.
As I strolled past the houses of different sizes perched on top of hills called munds, half covered by mist, I was suddenly struck by the fragrance that emerged from wildflowers growing on either side of the road. This was accompanied by a tinge of Eucalyptus. By then, I was trying hard only to inhale so that I can take-in the scent as much as I possibly can. This divinity in fragrance is something that I had never experienced before!
I realized, one of the must-experience in Ooty is ‘Nilgiris tea’ prepared at small stalls on every street. Sold for Rs. 5 per cup, made from indigenous tea powder, it stirs your senses which otherwise would be made numb by the bone-biting chilliness of this hilly town.
The townhouses a number of colonial buildings with their typical colors red and white, all built between the periods 1834 to 1900s. The best example is The Nilgiris library built-in 1859 that has about 10,000 books just on travel. On probing a little, I was told, members of this library are from all parts of India, some from outside India too! Credit goes to the rarest collection of books that are still duly preserved. Other charming colonial buildings are the Breeks School, Higginbothams Library, District court complex to name a few.
The teeny-weeny tea shops, historical British buildings, city municipal market that bustles with activity selling fresh vegetables and fruits throughout the day, wildflowers in bold colors all around, to top it, the weather – all these make Ooty a refreshing break. Seeing groups of students and tourists stroll the market with hi-tech cameras to freeze the beauty was also an engaging sight in itself.
On day two, I followed what was next in my itinerary: A ride in the World Heritage Nilgiri mountain rail. It owes its uniqueness to the oldest and steepest ‘rack and pinion technology’ operated with special steam locomotives (except the Coonoor-Ooty stretch which uses diesel engine now because of the gradient.)
According to the UNESCO website, ‘These railways are outstanding examples of innovative transportation systems built through difficult terrain, which had great influence on the social and economic development of their respective regions. Over a century of operation, they have always managed to restore the integrity of the line’. It was one of the most spectacular train rides I had ever taken. The train passed through multiple tunnels, across waterfalls, and within dense vegetation. It was a thrilling ride with unparalleled views.
All said and done, I am still aware that experiences in Ooty do not end here. Cycling around Ooty Lake, shopping plants of an indigenous variety, visit the Bee museum, a day with the earliest tribal settlers of Ooty: Todas, all these remind me that yet another visit to the ‘Queen of hills’ is due soon.
Tickets for the Nilgiri Mountain train can be booked online through the irctc website. During tourist season it might be full, so plan and book in advance. There are plenty of stay options within Ooty and on the outskirts (resorts mainly – Club Mahindra, Sterling holidays, and so on). Most of them can be booked in advance through the internet or temporarily rooms can be blocked over a phone call. If you have a day more to spare, Coonoor, another town closer to Ooty can be visited as a day’s trip.