And don't be disappointed if you don't spot the animals either in Periyar Tiger Reserve, think highly of the real forest Kerala has gifted the country. In the cold of Thekkady homemade chocolates are a priority in your survival kit and every nook and cranny in your luggage space for the months ahead when you reminisce about Thekkady.

October 7-October 13, 2013
Lionel Messias

The best thing about Thekkady in Kerala is that the base town of Kumily has one liquor store (government run) and one bar so you seriously don’t get those turned around baseball cap wearing machos or the bandana boys whose machoism is directly proportional to the number of pegs they down and worse.  That means no beer cans, coke cans and broken bottles either.  You get instead handsome looking Sedan-driving Malayali couples in their mid-40’s max two kids in tow, no tantrums either, with a sprinkling of Tamilians, equally well behaved, cash to spend and all things nice.

Kung Fu fighting

There's no time for the intoxicated revelry really. You have to be out and about at the crack of dawn for the 20 km-long, often winding, drive in a jeep from Kumily town to the Periyar Tiger Reserve (PTR), Thekkady, and 25 km long journey inside taking in the lush green forest and animal sightings. The very last recommended departure from your hotel is 5.30 am if you don't want to miss the animals. But let's get to that later. And don't be disappointed if you don't spot the animals either, think highly of the real forest Kerala has gifted the country.

At 6 pm there is the masterly performance called Kalaripayattu, the traditional martial art of Kerala at the centrally located Kadathanadan Kalari Centre in Kumily. Kalari means school or gymnasium and Payattumeans to fight or to exercise. This hour-long show in a sunken look-down arena has strikes, kicks, grappling, choreographed martial art sequences, and weaponry, as well as healing techniques.

Everyone has a price, mine is chocolate!

The other striking thing about Kumily is its traders have resisted the temptation to sell munchies packed in equally offending aluminum packs that make you obese. Hence no garbage either. It's uncanny but shop after shop sells only spices and home-made chocolates (no preservatives used) at outstandingly cheap prices. The 100 gm packs of nut milk, plain chocolate, butterscotch, fruit and nut chocolate sell at Rs 50 each. A more sophisticated version of assorted chocolates costs Rs 120 for a 250 gm box. In the cold of Thekkady these are a priority in your survival kit and every nook and cranny in your luggage space for the months ahead when you reminisce about Thekkady. As they say, put the chocolate in the bag and nobody gets hurt.

If plum cake is your take, try it at The Wildernest Cafe which is part of the hotel. At Rs 50 for a thickish slice, its a tad expensive, but worth it if had along with a huge mug of good coffee at Rs 50, with possibly the cleanest loo in Kumily (in an eatery) thrown in. The unfussy ambience and surroundings are worth the cake and the coffee.

Idukki, third time lucky

We were doubly blessed because the Idukki dam, 62 kms from Kumily reached an all time high of 2401.3ft on Saturday September 21(the day before we were there), which is 98 per cent of the dam's total capacity. The full reservoir level (FRL) is 2,403 ft. The dam's shutters were opened only twice in the past, in 1981 and 1992 (during October). It is opened to visitors only for Onam and Christmas when speedboat rides are also organized by the Kerala Hydel Tourism Centre. For a miserly Rs 10 per person entry fee, the Rs 2,500 we paid to jeep down was worth every penny and then some. The 3.5 km walk from the smaller Cheruthoni dam (453 ft) to the majestically arched 555 ft high Idukki dam on the Periyar river ensconced between two granite hills Kuravanmala (839 m) and Kurathimala (925 m) and vast captive water body in between was worth more than all the tigers in the Periyar Tiger Reserve.

The water impounded by the Idukki, Cheruthoni (1 km west of big brother Idukki) dams and a third, Kulamavu dam (328 ft), has formed a single reservoir spread over 60km on a height of 2,300 ft above Mean Sea Level.

Adrenalin rush -PTR

As we said the trip to the Periyar Tiger Reserve was bountiful in more ways than one. Be careful you don't overdo the exhausting schedule if you are physically not up to it and also not appropriately clothed for a cold and rainy day. But the programme organized by the Kerala Forest Department Corporation's Gavi Eco Tourism is flexible. It runs like this: 08.30-09.30 breakfast, 12.30-02.00 pm lunch, 04.00-04.30 pm tea. In between you have 3 hours of trekking, 30 minutes of boating, 30 minutes of plantation visit/Sabarimala view point. The events and duration are interchangeable and you are free to roam around till 5 pm. The uninspiring grub (south Indian vegetarian-avoid both if you are not hungry) is included in the package deal that hotels have on offer which staying at the Sterling Holiday Resorts Woods n Spice cost us a total of Rs 3,850 (Rs 1,025 pp for the trip (food included), Rs 1,800 jeep hire charge). There is an entrance fee of Rs 50 pp for driving the jeep in which is not included in the package.

Beyond expectations

Sterling Holiday Resorts Woods n Spice was definitely beyond our expectations though there have been criticisms of the lack of luxury at the resort. Whoa, stop right there, who needs luxury in Thekkady where you seriously want to avoid the swimming pool and spa both of which the hotel has or play golf, in cold weather! If there is one criticism of the hotel tucked into the boundary of an unaccomplished part of the PTR, it is the lack of a walking track to exercise out the cold from your body. But who cares, do your workout at home. The service and organisational skills in this Kerala style wooden resort are brilliant, so is Chef Vilayath Hussain whose Avial might make want you take some home on your flight back. His buffets are simply sumptuous and cheap. This is one hotel you don't want to eat outside.

Bruce Lee once said, I'm not in this world to live up to your expectations and you're not in this world to live up to mine. This could also be true of another hotel Chrissie's owned by Adel, an Egyptian and his English wife Chrissie. They call theirs a hotel, cafe and yoga studio. Though both resorts truly lived up to our expectations we appreciated Chrissie's no TV rule and unsaid no noise rule for which they offer you bliss and views to die for both at the front and rear of their rooms. The views get better at each floor level. Chrissie's serves Middle Eastern and Italian food. Try their Middle Eastern platter (hummus, baba ganoush, tuboula, falafels, lentil pate, pitta bread) and their wrap with roasted vegetables and mozzarella.

Mine of information

Kerala is far ahead of other states on tourist information and the District Tourism Promotion Council enroute to Kumily is no less than its counterparts within the state of Kerala. It is easiest to access if you are driving in your own vehicle. A map we bought for Rs 20 is the ultimate for a district-only map we have ever seen outside Kerala. The Ecotourism Centre at the Ambadi junction in town also has an abundance of printed information on events and things to do.

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The Eco tourism Centre, Ambadi Junction, Thekkady
Gavi Eco Tourism (inside PTR), (under construction presently),
However, we can tell you that it has the Day Package (see Adrenalin rush PTR for details) and a Green Mansion Jungle Lodge stay for Rs 2,200 pp per day (full board) which includes a trained guide throughout the package, trekking, boating in Gavi lake, visit to a cardamom plantation and curing store and an early morning 2 hr jungle jeep safari. And, a permanently pitched electrified cottage tent with attached bathroom for Rs 2,500 pp per day (full board) with the same events offered as above.