None of the guidebooks told us that the best way to reach Thekkady from Goa is to take the express highway through TN, Karnataka. It’s about 200 kms more, but driving on the smaller roads has its own picturesque charm. It is a picturesque drive - you cross bridges as verdant paddy fields and giant coconut palms.

September 30 – October 6, 2013
Lionel Messias and Pushpa Iyengar

A driving holiday comes with several surprises and several uncertainties particularly if you are driving on Indian roads after the monsoons. And if the monsoon decides to give its parting kick, then one can add rain and slush into the mix too.

On our holiday to Thekkady (971 kms), which is on the edge of Kerala’s border with Tamil Nadu, we decided to have two stopovers.  Mangalore (372 kms) on the first night and then at Kozhikode (249 kms). None of the guidebooks we read up to prepare for the trip told us that the best way to reach Thekkady from Goa is to do in reverse what we did on the way back –  which is to drive to Theni, Dindigul, Salem, Krishnagiri, Hosur (all in Tamil Nadu), Bangalore, Tumkur (halt for the night), Chitradurga, Hubli, Karwar, Goa. It’s about 200 kms more and your wallet is lighter by about Rs 883 thanks to the toll you have to pay to use the express highway, but you get into Goa, fresh and raring to go.  Unlike the time we got into Thekkady after the nearly 10 hour journey from Kozhikode (350 kms) driving on ghat roads which could be better maintained and through rain.

A view to a kill

The road to Mangalore is a picturesque drive - you cross bridges as you take in the breathtaking view of verdant paddy fields and giant coconut palms. The piece de resistance is when you drive on the road that ribbons along the Arabian sea during a few stretches in Karwar and when you turn a curve about 50 km from Udupi and see the spectacular Maravanthe beach. They call it the Sapphire coast or route. It even makes you forget the nightmare of a potholed crawl for almost 5 km with honking private buses overtaking recklessly.

Maravanthe, both the village and beach, is a pictographic stretch near Kundapura where the Sauparnika river rides along with you on one side and the Arabian sea on the other on NH-66 (old NH-17). The river which almost touches the sea here makes a U turn and goes westward to join the sea only after a journey of more than 10 km, but you don't get to see all of it. It is a one of its kind in India, so STOP and eyeball it.

Mangalore is a driver-friendly city with many concretised roads and locals happy to give you directions. Hotel Saffron (GHS Rd, Hampankatta), a bed and breakfast boutique hotel in the heart of the city is not as good as Lonely Planet makes it out to be and at Rs 2,999 (without taxes) a bit steep for the facilities offered is well located though. There is the Central mall and the Hypermarket minutes away and there's even a temple there for you to duck into.  Breakfast on the terrace includes a panoramic view of the city.

Consumerist culture

Mangalore is virtually on the border with Kerala so within an hour you are in God's Own country. Now begins the single-lane road, in Kannur district. Soon we leave the old world charm of Kannur behind and malls and shopping areas, and most of all jewellery shops (there are hoardings of Maradona endorsing a jewellery brand!), loom in almost every town we pass through. The drive sometimes is through potholed, congested areas. Then we reach Kozhikode and hit our hotel: Metro Manor (opposite Baby Memorial Hospital, Mini Bypass Rd, Calicut). The seriously huge hospital is a good to know landmark. The clean no-frills hotel costs Rs 1,050 (taxes included) for a double.

Food for the Gods

We discovered Pure South ( on the ground floor adjacent to the hotel. It gets 10 on 10 for cleanliness and value for money. It's fast south Indian food for as little as Rs 30 (called tiffin 1 - has 1 idli, 1 vada and 1 mini upma), Rs 10 more gets you tiffin 2 - 1 vada, 1 mini masala dosa, and Rs 10 more, that is, Rs 50 gets you tiffin 3 which includes a ghee roast, 1 idli and 1 mini upma. Something a bit heavier like chapatti with veg kurma costs Rs 40. Eat there.

Last leg

We were raring to go on this last leg between Kozhikode and Thekkady, most of the drive is in towns where the roads are good, but are not express highways, and road discipline is at a premium. But there's a pleasant interlude when we find a place where the dosas are the softest, the coffee hottest, and the young owner nicest.  He even drew us a map of how to get to Thekkady, which is still about seven hours away. Vayaloram Veg Restaurant (Kolikkara, SH-69, Thrissur Kozhikkode Rd, Malappuram District, was the place and Prashant Babu was the helpful owner. The payasam sweet (basically a payasam flavoured candy) at this nondescript eatery is hard to resist. An excellent stop for good south Indian fast food, directions and clean loo.

We drive and drive

The guide books tell you Kochi is five hours away, so we think since we are bypassing it, Thekkady should be closer. Think again. The drive up the ghat where we encountered reckless drivers, some bad roads, went on and on. We discovered around 3 pm that Kumily, our destination was still 100 plus kms away. But by now at least the boards for Thekkady are visible unlike earlier. Finally at 6 pm we get to our resort (Woods and Spice, Sterling) at Kumily, exhausted by the nearly ten hour drive from Kozhikode. We decide to change track on the way back only express highways for us even if we have to do a couple of hundred extra kilometers.

Cardamom country

Cardamom countryAlthough we thought we would never drive again, we were back on the road, this time in a jeep driven by Shahul to take us to Idukki dam, which is about 62 km away. The drive was through cardamom plantation, a well maintained road because it heads to Munnar and several spice gardens  Hindusthan Spice/Spice Dream/Plantation Spice which all promise a tour. We leave the Munnar road and turn left towards Idukki and tea gardens, pepper groves, coffee plantations sprawl on either side. It's a two hour drive both ways through some of the best hilly roads in Kerala with the wind whipping up a scented breeze.

Country roads take me home

Except these were not country roads but broad national highway through Tamil Nadu. In fact Kumily is right on the border between Kerala and TN. This is the first ghat road that we have seen whose shoulders are made of concrete.

Driving through water fed areas is a feast for the eyes as we encounter fields of vegetables, a grape garden, mango groves, acres of lush green paddy, etc on either side as we relax further when we get to Dindigul from where the express highways takes us all the way to the outskirts of Hubli the next day. No one hassles you to overtake you, no potholes either.  Dindigul, Salem, Krishnagiri, Hosur, one just drives on.

Sweet tooth

If you have a sweet tooth, this is the highway to be on. After driving 360 km from Thekkady we decided to stop for lunch 47 km from Salem at Adyar Ananda Bhavan (the Chennai biggie) at Thombarakam patti Village, Thoppur, Dharmapuri District (TN) where there is also an ATM, convenience store and fuel bunk. The food range here caters to diverse tastes -there's the idli/dosa; sambar/curd/lemon rice; chaat items- dahi samosa/dahi wada/sev batata puri; Chinese haaka noodles/gobi Manchurian. And for dessert, a tempting array of sweets on display for your sugar rush. We opted to carry Mysurpa (TN's version of Karnataka's famous Mysore Pak) the normal variety, the 'Horlicks' variety and the cashew variety home in a box.

Exactly 85 kms head on the Chennai side AAB has another outlet - a u-turn takes you to the other side. Also, 11 km ahead of the Thoppur AAB is Brewberry, a coffee shop and fuel bunk and close to it Kamat Upachar/Reliance petrol pump. There is a sister outlet 6 km ahead but on the opposite Bangalore-Chennai side again. Twenty kilometers ahead is Karnataka. Tumkur our pre-planned night halt is 246 km from the border. In fact, you won't go hungry on the Chennai-Bangalore highway in either direction - there are from humble idli/dosa to branded idli/dosa eateries, a McDonald's, a Cafe Coffee Day.

A really 'NICE' road

We hit NICE (Nandi Infrastructure Corridor Enterprises (NICE) Road just as we enter Karnataka,which helps us bypass the traffic chaos of Bangalore and takes us on the road to Tumkur. Remember to fuel up before hitting this corridor because there are no petrol pumps here. The Naveen Regency, Tumkur is about 731 km from Thekkady and we have driven nearly 11 hours. It's a clean no-frills hotel right on the highway and clearly visible from the expressway (Mahalakshmi Nagar, opp. APMC Yard NH 4, Tumkur; Rs 1,712 (taxes included) non-AC double). A good night's rest and we are on our way at 7 am the next day. Our breakfast halt is at the sister hotel in Chitradurga 140 km away (NH-4 Bypass Rd., Nr. RTO, Chitradurga).

Home stretch

The minute Hubli appears on the board we know we are nearing Goa. At noon, we turn off into the Hubli-Karwar road which has several treats for the eyes  its verdant, has small water bodies and babbling brooks, a forest; you could turn right (later on) to go to the Dandeli Wildlife Reserve. By 3 pm we are in Karwar, by 5 pm in Velsao. Nine days, 2135 km!