While not as dramatic as the Himalayan landscapes in the north, the best hill stations in South India whip up their own charm – pleasant temperatures all year round, road trips up the Ghats and the Blue mountains, and hiking through green valleys and undulating plantations of tea and coffee. These hills and forests are also home to several indigenous tribes of India. Here is a list of best hill stations across the states of Kerala, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, and Andhra Pradesh.
Visiting the Best Hill Stations in South India
Munnar: For tea tales and more
Altitude: 5026 feet above sea level
Munnar is among the many hill stations of India that owe their origin to the British. Towards the second half of the 19th century, tea plantations had begun to be established here. Visit the Tata Tea Museum in the Nallathanni Estate that traces the history through a showcase of old tea processing machinery, photographs and other displays.
About 13 kilometres away from Munnar lies the Eravikulam National Park. It is home to the Nilgiri Tahr an endangered species of mountain goat. Here, the blue coloured variety of the native Kurinji flower blooms once in twelve years, the next bloom is due in 2018!
You can also go trekking at Anamudi, the highest peak in south India (with permission from the Eravikulam National Park authorities).
From Munnar, I drove down for about 85 kilometres to the Periyar Tiger Reserve. This national park in India is home to elephants tigers, lion-tailed macaques, deer, leopards, and bisons.
Transportation: Fly to Kochi and drive down to Munnar. The distance is about 110 kilometres.
Coonoor: Travel back in time
State: Tamil Nadu
Altitude: 6070 feet above sea level
Walking down the narrow roads of Coonoor, I came across old stone houses with tall chimneys, stores smelling of freshly baked bread, old churches, slopes of the tea gardens, and classic vintage cars.
Sim’s Park is a botanical garden spread over about 12 acres. Located in the town centre, it houses more than a thousand species of plants. The High Field Tea Estate is another tourist place you must visit — it offers great views of the Wellington golf course. You can opt for a short guided tour here.
Coonoor has had a sprinkle of Bollywood stardust – the acclaimed movie ‘Kapoor and Sons’ was filmed here. You can also learn organic cheesemaking at a farm managed by a former Bollywood filmmaker! They offer a two-day long compact course, provided you stay at the property.
The Pony store at Bicketty (about 10 km away from Coonoor) is a must visit for any handicraft enthusiast.
Transportation: Fly to Coimbatore and drive uphill to Coonoor. The distance is about 71 kilometres.
Coorg: Coffee country
Altitude: 3839 feet above sea level
Tourist attractions in Coorg include the Madikeri Fort, a hilltop fort built by Tipu Sultan in the 16th century and Raja’s Seat, a vantage point to view sunsets over the valley. The 21.3 metre high Abbey Falls are vociferous after a spell of monsoons. It was great fun getting soaked in the spray as I walked across the hanging bridge.
Bylakuppe town located near Madikeri is the second largest Tibetan settlement in India after Dharamsala, where the Namdroling and Sera Je monasteries sit.
Somwarpet, located in the northeast of Coorg, is about 39 kilometres away from Madikeri, the district headquarters. I chose to stay at a homestay set amidst spice and coffee plantations.
Sakleshpur: Detox in the midst of floating clouds
Altitude: 3110 feet above sea level
Sakleshpur is a great weekend get-away, if you enjoy with a book and a tumbler of steaming filter coffee. Located in the Western Ghats – among world’s 18 biodiversity spots, Sakleshpur is a destination for birdwatchers. Wake up to the chirping of hornbills, bulbuls and barbets amongst other bird calls.
The Sakleshpur valleys and rolling meadows are great for day long hiking, runs or even a short nap under a tree.
About an hour away from Church lie the surreal ruins of the Shettihalli Church. This Gothic architecture church in the 1860s was abandoned about 60 years ago when it got submerged in the reservoir of the Gorur Dam. The best time to visit is after monsoons when the ruins are half under water.
Where to stay: I stayed at Mugilu, an excellent family run homestay with independent cottages.
Transportation: Fly to Bengaluru and then drive down to Sakleshpur for about 260 kilometres, the roads are fantastic!
Kotagiri: Hike through the sacred forests
State: Tamil Nadu
Altitude: 5883 feet above sea level
The picturesque hill station of Kotagiri Tamil Nadu is named after its indigenous people, the Kota tribes. John Sullivan, appointed the collector of Coimbatore in 1817, embarked on a mission to explore the Blue Mountains (the ‘Nilgiris’). Drawn to their beauty, Sullivan made Kotagiri his home, becoming the first European resident to reside here. Today, you can visit the ‘Pethakal Bungalow’ he built in 1819 – now a museum filled with interesting photos and artefacts.
Keystone Foundation, a local NGO, offers a day-long tour focusing on local communities and conservation efforts.
Hiking through the sacred Benagudi forest, I was fascinated by the dolmens – ancient burial sites marked by megalithic stones. Our guide asked us to sit on the ground, close our eyes and immerse ourselves in the silence of the forest. I kept squinting to check if the guide had abandoned us, leaving us alone in the middle of the forest for an Indian Blairwitch Project.
Transportation: Fly to Coimbatore and drive uphill to Kotagiri. The distance is about 66 kilometres.
Yercaud: The Jewel of the South
State: Tamil Nadu
Altitude: 5325 feet above sea level
The 20 hairpin bends on the uphill drive from Salem were making me giddy! Night had fallen, the town with twinkling lights in the valley below seemed to mirror the sky above. Located in the Eastern Ghats, Yercaud was founded in 1827 by the British governor of the Madras Presidency. The British started cultivating coffee, pears and apples and later introduced tea plantations and cinnamon trees as well.
In Yercaud for a weekend, I strolled past old European estates, Gothic architecture churches and forgotten graveyards. The facade and grounds of the Montford School for Boys are especially impressive. I later found out why the campus looked so familiar — it was the setting for the Bollywood movie – ‘Rockford’. I also visited Lady’s seat – a tourist place where you can admire the panoramic views through a mounted telescope.
Transportation: Fly to Bengaluru and drive down 145 kilometers to Yercaud.
State: Andhra Pradesh
Altitude: 4970 feet above sea level
The four-hour long train ride from Visakhapatnam city to Araku valley can be counted among the most scenic journeys in incredible India. Much like the Hogwarts Express, the passenger train transports you across magical valleys and hillocks through a series of 52 tunnels and 84 bridges.
The valley is home to the Araku tribes. Visit the Tribal Museum to understand their culture and handicrafts.
Araku coffee is fast gaining global popularity. You can taste the fruity, caramel flavoured coffee at the Araku Valley Coffee Museum. A gallery of dioramas here traces the journey of coffee across the world.
If stalactites and stalagmites interest you, do travel to the Borra caves (about an hour away from Araku). These limestone caves are considered the deepest in India.
Where to stay: APTDC Haritha Mayuri Resort is well located and provides necessary facilities. Or you can head back to Visakhapatnam for more choices (3 hours away by road). Novotel is a good option.
Transportation: Fly to Visakhapatnam, you can go by road or take a train to Araku valley.
Winter is coming! Start planning your next travel to these amazing hill stations in South India.