The hilly haven of Munnar has long been favoured for family vacations, for its misty views, colonial bungalows, and tea plantations extending in every direction. But around 38km from Munnar, across the border in Tamil Nadu, lies a lesser-known plantation heaven: the glorious tea estate of Kolukkumalai, perched at 8,100ft above sea level and arguably the highest tea plantation in the world.
The Kolukkumalai tea estate was set up by the British back in the 1930s. Its tea factory still uses the original equipment, and processes its tea the old-fashioned way. So instead of the mechanised crush-tear-curl (CTC) method, tea gets the orthodox treatment here: it is handpicked, and then put through controlled drying processes of withering and fermenting before it is graded. Tea brewed from these granules is more flavourful and light in colour. Visitors at the factory can pick and process their own cuppa in the “Make Your Tea” programme.
The mountain getaway is a haven for nature lovers: spot birds like the Oriental white-eye (top left) on guided walks around the plantation or sit back with a book and a cup of tea (bottom left). The views are breathtaking, especially around dusk, when the sky lights up like it’s on fire (right). Photos courtesy Rithu DMC
The higher the altitude, the better the quality of tea, says Sinna P.J., who runs the two properties on the estate. The plantation has the basic Kolukkumalai Mountain Hut which is a good option for trekkers, and the larger, family-friendly and more comfortable Kolukkumalai Guesthouse. Guests can explore the plantations and hike up to Kolukkumalai Peak. The estate affords views of Tamil Nadu’s rolling plains alongside Kerala’s hills. Those looking for a more relaxed stay, can explore the tea factory, have tea-tasting sessions, and go birdwatching with a naturalist—visibility is low between August and October, though the properties are open all year round.
In Kolukkumalai, tea is made the orthodox way: slowly and by hand. After the tea leaves are picked (top left), they are weighed (top centre), graded, and then dried indoors (bottom left) to ensure the leaves don’t crumble. The tea is then rolled, oxidised, dried some more, and finally packaged for sale (bottom centre). Sample the plantation’s flavourful brew at a tea-tasting session (right). Photos courtesy Rithu DMC
To amp up your trip, consider three-day trek from Kolukkumalai up to Meesapulimala, the second-highest peak in south India, and down the other side to Munnar. En route, hikers have to halt at either Silent Valley or Rhodo Valley for the night. The KFDC (Kerala Forest Development Corporation) has tents for hire at Silent Valley and basic, but clean rooms in Rhodo Mansion in Rhodo Valley. The trek can also be done the other way—from Munnar to Kolukkumalai—but guides from KFDC don’t go beyond Meesapulimala. Hiring one from Kolukkumalai is a better bet.
Hiking in the region affords magnificent views of landscaped plantations, mist-draped mountains, and the sun peeking out of the horizon. Photo courtesy Rithu DMC
Kolukkumalai is a tea plantation in Tamil Nadu, near the state’s border with Kerala. The most convenient way to reach the plantation is to hire a jeep from Suryanelli, a town about 25km/1hr out of Munnar, in Kerala. The bumpy 14km-ride should take about 1hr 15min. Don’t miss the signboard that announces “The World’s Highest Grown Orthodox Tea” as the car winds its way up the cloud-shrouded mountain.
was formerly a member of National Geographic Traveller India's digital team. Since then, her words have featured in The Hindu, Mint Lounge, Roads & Kingdoms, The Goya Journal, and Condé Nast Traveller India. She tweets as @thefabmonteiro and is on Instagram @fabiolamonteiro.
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