This blog could be all about how amazing homestays are since that is what I will remember most about Munnar. Munnar is spectacular with its rolling hills covered in tea bushes. It is India’s #1 tea growing region and a major tourist destination (mostly domestic tourists, but increasingly foreigners). We spent our longest time in Munnar (4 nights) and what makes it especially memorable is the wonderful hosts, Anil and Jeeva at our homestay – Royal Mist. As I write this and we are about to leave India, you naturally reflect on the trip – the highs and the lows. We only stayed in hotels 8 nights (out of 25) and the rest of our nights were in homestays. I don’t think I would have enjoyed our trip nearly as much if we had just stayed in hotels. It was the homestays that gave us the interaction to local people that allowed us to connect, learn more about the culture here and best of all – feel at home. It was homestays where I learned about the schooling system, the water dispute between neighboring Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, and the regional differences in language and culture . It is where the hosts shared intimate details about their lives. Like the older stoic father who showed me his son’s wedding album and explained how they did not accept the marriage at first because it was a love marriage and the girl was from a lower caste. Or in broken English, the maid, shares her family’s health struggles and the look of despair on her face will stay with me for a long time.
Homestays operate like bed and breakfasts and generally have 2-5 rooms that are separate from the main house. Since we were traveling in low season, we were usually the only ones staying. You always get breakfast included and since a lot of the homestays are in rural locations, you also eat your other meals there as well. When confronted with menus here, Paul and I always end up ordering the same things – aloo gobi and some other veg curry (which generally are North Indian anyway). Staying in a homestay forces you to eat Southern India food (which is delicious) and I really feel like we have tried most of the staple foods here. The down side of course is the kids and food at homestays. We always explain that they won’t eat spicy food. Our hosts have been super sweet about trying to tame the food down, but in the end, their idea of not spicy is very different than the kids.
Not to mention our kids don’t love curries on the best of days. Another benefit of a homestay is you get great honest, local recommendations.
Our days at Royal Mist were spent fighting the Onam crowds to actually do some sight seeing and returning to our little oasis out of town each afternoon. We were always greeted back with chai and biscuits and a nice sit down discussion of our day with Anil and Jeeva. When we arrived the first day, Anil gave us a tour of the neighboring area. He showed us various fruit and spice trees and we walked through the tea fields. Each morning we were treated to different local breakfasts always with a different fresh fruit juice. The boys have become quite the chai drinkers and look forward to their morning cuppa.
In the evening, we had wonderful dinners sitting out on the balcony always finished off with a different local fruit. The kids loved the jackfruit.
I could go on and on about this gem of a place, which our kids talk about returning to when they are older, but I will save some of the specific details for the travel info section below.
We have been to some wonderful tea growing regions on our travels. The Cameron Highlands, near where we lived in Malaysia and the beautiful tea fields in Sri Lanka. There is just something about the beautiful tea carpeting the hillsides and the lower temperatures are always a nice respite. One of the best things to do in Munnar is just to drive around and enjoy the breathtaking views. Unfortunately because of the Holidays it was hard to do this as traffic was extremely congested. Sometimes it was faster to get out of the vehicle and just walk along the cars. The first day we tried to visit a nearby National Park, but once we spent an hour in traffic, we were told that it was a 5 hour wait to get into the Park (you need to take the Park’s bus). No thanks!
Tea workers have a very hard life and although their wages and working conditions have improved, they are still very dismal. The tea workers were brought in when the plantations started from Tamil Nadu and still retain their culture and language. We visited the Tea Museum, where the kids enjoyed watching a video about the history of the region and the tea plantations (they seriously were into it!). They also got to see the tea manufacturing process.
The next day we got an early start to beat the crowds and headed up to Top Station for lovely views over the Western Ghats. The views were great, but I think what is even more interesting is the opportunity to observe local tourists. Paul particularly loved watching the effort to get the perfect selfie and has documented many of these (he promises a whole blog about it at some point). Another popular stop is Matupetty Dam and the lake above. What caught our kids attention was the newly opened Cowboy Park set on the lake, a mini amusement park for kids. The kids had a blast on the playground, climbing wall, zip line and arcade games. It was also a lesson in cultural understanding and patience as we got to experience the no queue, push and shove to the front style popular here. Ella had a bit of a meltdown as she waited for her turn rock climbing and kept getting passed over. We tried to explain the cultural differences but even for us it, it can be trying.
We posed for lots more photos with random strangers including a police inspector from Kannur, our next destination. He insisted on giving Paul his mobile number and told him to call if we need any help at all in Kannur.
On our last day in Munnar, Anil had organized for us to do a trek up a nearby mountain. When we arrived at Royal Mist and I told them we wanted to do the trek, I could tell they weren’t so sure about it with the kids. Our kids also weren’t too into it and Ella especially was quite vocal in telling us so. We tried to explain that we need to do things that each person wants to do, but we also set off prepared with candies to bribe them up the hill. Our guide was great at going slower with the kids and taking a less steep route. We started walking through the tea fields, then a ridge between two mountains. It really felt like we were walking on top of the world as we could see in miniature the winding roads and buildings. The kids did great and there really was minimal complaining (surely the candies helped!). The day wrapped up with some school work and a cooking class with Jeeva in her kitchen. The kids stuck around for the first 20 minutes but then retreated to the lure of the Disney channel. Jeeva has sent me the recipes and hopefully I can try to recreate the chicken curry and chapattis we made.
- Royal Mist Homestay – this place is #1 on Tripadvisor for a reason! My Tripadvisor review: “Anil and Jeeva are wonderful hosts – the friendliest, sweetest, most helpful. They are always smiling and genuinely love hosting and interacting with their guests. In Royal Mist they have thought of everything and are extremely organized. The rooms are modern, clean and have so many extras – adapters, mosquito electric repellent, mints beside your bed, water in the room, TV with many international channels, screens on the windows and on and on. We were traveling with our 3 young kids and Jeeva went out of her way to cook meals that they would enjoy. The food was wonderful and we loved sitting out on the deck to eat. We were always greeted with tea and cookies when we returned each day. The maid that serves the food is lovely too. Anil showed us around the area when we arrived. He organized a hike with guide for us one morning and ensured that it would be suitable for the kids. We enjoyed doing the cooking class with Jeeva. Most of all we enjoyed spending time with this lovely family – it truly felt like we were staying with friends. Already my 7 year old son talks about returning to Royal Mist.”. We paid 4500 rupees/night ($95 CAD) for 2 attached rooms including breakfast. This was a splurge for us, but so worth it. Dinners cost 300 rupees/person ($6 CAD) and we got by on 3 orders (Jeeva was very generous in her portions). We also had laundry done here at an extremely reasonable rate.
- We ate lunch once at Rapsy Restaurant, a local place, with good Indian food and french fries and fried rice for the kids.
- Top Station – 37 km from Munnar along winding roads. Start early in the morning. You can pay 50 rupees extra to go to a viewpoint with unobstructed views.
- Cowboy Park (Matuputty Dam) – we paid 10 rupees to park and 30 rupees/person entry. You then load a card with money for the attractions (minimum 200 rupees ($4 CAD)/person)). Some things are free (playground, carnival style games).
- Trek – 4 hours organized through Royal Mist. 500 rupees/person ($10 CAD). We paid 1500 for our family.
- Cooking Class with Jeeva – 800 rupees/total ($16 CAD). She showed us how to make chicken curry, lemon rice and chapattis and put us to work trying our hand at rolling chapattis. She then has you taste the food and serves it for dinner.