| “I am basically a finance professional,” said Arun Nanda, founder of Club Mahindra Holidays, a collection of family-oriented properties throughout India. We had met Arun, (who is also one of the principals of Mahindra and Mahindra, the automobile manufacturing and tractor sales company), in Israel the year before when he was delivering a series of lectures at Tel Aviv University. And now, in the manner in which way leads on to way, we were seated in a bright streamlined office in Mumbai, guests of the hospitality executive who, as a result of that chance encounter, had invited us to visit and “experience India.”
“In the mid 1990’s, the economy was opening up,” Arun told us by way of introduction to what lay in store, “and my board suggested we look into some service businesses. So I began researching business hotels and that is how I came across some articles about timesharing. ‘Times Share or Times Scare – Fun Filled Holidays or Hassles’ was one of the headlines. There was the implication that timeshare operators were taking people for a ride.
“As this was before Google, I asked my communications person to find whatever articles he could about timesharing. They all seemed to tell the same story. Nobody said the product was bad; it was the operators who were bad. They were interested in the quick buck.
“I spoke to our chairman about this phenomenon, and compared it the way we did business. ‘Our strength is our reputation because it’s a promise to deliver,’ I told him. Soon afterwards, we sold our four business hotels which had made a lot of money for us, and we started Mahindra Holidays with $4 million and a million dollar market cap.
“It took us five years to break even,” he went on. “But today we have 43 properties, one in Innsbruck, two in Thailand, one in Dubai, and the rest throughout India. Goa was the first; it remains one of the most popular. We are still expanding. But we are not doing timesharing.”
What Club Mahindra does is provide a kind of vacation ownership, largely for an Indian clientel of pre-bought one-week stays for 25 years (!) at a range of extraordinary resorts with an emphasis on family activities. Although we are not Indian, had not purchased any kind of “ownership,” and were traveling without any other family members, Arun had arranged for us to “experience India” (as he put it) first hand beginning with a flight out of Mumbai to the ancient coastal city of Cochin in the state of Kerala, a narrow sliver of land at the southwest tip of India bordering on the Indian Ocean and the Malabar Coast.
A taxi was waiting for us as we exited the Cochin terminal, and off we went to our first Mahindra Holiday Resort in a place called Munnar. The journey along largely unpaved roads proved long and arduous. At one point when the road ran over a deep gorge, our driver stopped for a break. We decided we could use one too and followed him to a narrow, unstable walkway with a single rope along the edge. Before us, roaring streams were rushing down the sides of steep inclines yet somehow they were avoiding massive bursts of hydrangeas and lilies that forced their way through crevices between the rocks. We wondered if the scene were a harbinger of things to come.
By the time we arrived at Club Mahindra Lakeview Resort, it was in the depth of night. All was silent and dark save for starlight and the glow of lamplights fronting guesthouses spread out around the hilly property. The next morning we would see the buildings’ smooth stone exteriors, their peaked shingled roofs and tall French doors that opened to small terraces painted leaf green. But for the moment, our attention was fixed on the single guesthouse before us. Interior lights had been turned on, and a pair of women in silk saris were descending a stairway towards us. Then they were beside us with garlands of flowers. They draped strings of fragrant cardamom beads around our necks and drew a dot between our eyes. Such was our welcome, our first impression of Munnar.
We were then escorted to a second guesthouse and up a flight of stairs into a spacious apartment with huge windows that framed breathtaking views when seen in the light of day. But for the moment, it seemed enough to walk from room to room on gleaming wood floors, and take in the décor, contemporary furnishings accented by exquisite Indian accessories. One could move right in, we thought.
Our reverie was soon broken by a loud knock on the door. Opening it, we came face-to-face with a chef, resplendent in his whites, beaming in friendship, and accompanied by several uniformed servers carrying a variety of bags and packages which they set on the kitchen table. Then, with great efficiency, they proceeded to prepare an elaborate dinner containing some of the exotic delicacies we had begun to appreciate during our stay in Mumbai. It was nearly midnight, the end of a long day. But whatever fatigue we had felt moments before evaporated as we enjoyed a splendid repast in the private setting of our very own dining room at a table set with fine china, crystal and silver. It was the proverbial dinner “fit for a king.”
||The sun had already risen when we awoke the next morning and stepped out onto the terrace where, literally, our hearts stood still as we looked out to a view of tea plantations and mist-clouded hills. Situated at the confluence of three mountain streams, Munnar is a “hill town,” the term coined by the English colonialists for the high altitude towns that they repaired to in order to escape the summer’s heat. The altitude in Munnar ranges from 4,760 to 8,842-feet above sea level, the latter being the height of Anamudi, the highest peak in South India. And that morning, it seemed as if all of it were spread out before us in glorious welcome.
Through our days at the Munnar Lakeview Resort, we explored the countryside with engaging staff members, hiked winding trails that led to ever new perspectives, tried our hands at the potter’s wheel, had intense discussions about the Bahagavad Gita with the resident yogi who seemed possessed of a mystical aura, and took in the scenes of multi generational family members delighting in activities offered by the resort. We also enjoyed Indian cuisine in the vast, light-filled dining hall of the main house where great buffets held an array of dishes enhanced by the exotic vegetables, grains and spices arranged in a myriad of combinations that we sampled hesitantly at first but before long grew to love.
We visited the Eravikulam National Park in Munnar, a huge, green paradise, home to distinctive flora, fauna and wildlife including several species of rare butterflies But it is most famously known for the habitat of an endangered species of mountain goat called Nilgiri Tahr, beautiful, shy creatures with the delicacy of a doe. Supposedly they are rarely visible, but we spotted more than one grazing on grasses or emerging from behind a thicket, sometimes very close to the park’s walkways.
||“Munnar is my favorite place,” Arun had told us. “It was the first one. We had a local architect design it. When you look at it, everything blends.
“Before we arrived (in 1995-1996), there was no tourism in Munnar,” he said. “There were many tea plantations owned by Tatas (an Indian corporation with holdings in a range of industries). I had to scout around until I found a plot owned by local individuals. It was in the middle of a tea garden. We drove for hours and hours to get there. And then it was very rugged, marshy in places. But I loved it immediately.”
Before our trip to India, we’d never heard of Munnar. Now it is stamped in memory, permanently it would seem, along with the yearning to see it once more. The images from our first daylight vision repeated again and again throughout our stay: sweeping panoramas viewed from hilltop perspectives embracing rises and declines of grassy expanses like swaths of green velvet, glass-like lakes, meandering brooks, fulsome tea plantations, and in the far distance, a backdrop of mountains, ever present, maternal, sheltering, hard to leave. But our driver had arrived and was waiting to bring us to the next stop on our Indian itinerary. And so we headed southwards, from the mountains of Munnar down to the rain forests of Thekkady.
The broad, stone-fronted, multi-level guest house of Club Mahindra Thekkady is trimmed with teakwood; lush vines grow climb up its edifice. Much of the main floor is taken up with an expansive, light-flooded dining area with tables arranged according to group-size from banquets to the little corners for two. Directly outside, a spacious stone patio surrounds a free-form swimming pool continuously being refreshed by streams of water spilling out of a rocky wall. After the ride from Munnar, we could think of no better way to spend an afternoon than to sack out on one of the lounges overlooking the pool in a setting that could be a luxury resort in Palm Springs, California.
But such thoughts swiftly disappear in rain forest territory which is the actual heart of Club Mahindra Thekkady. Here open spaces give way to dense evergreen foliage, pine and palm trees stretch upwards for light, and a multitude of tropical plants crowd one against another in a perpetual battle for space.
Accommodations in the resort are primarily thatched-roof cottages planted throughout the forest, each one about ten feet off the ground and accessed through an iron stairway. Our cottage was charming and comfortable; we even enjoyed the nightly cacophony of sounds made by unknown creatures in the wild. But we did take heed of the warning to keep doors and windows closed lest one of the many curious monkeys in the vicinity might try to break in and pay us a call.
A major Thekkady attraction, we were told, is the Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary, especially its artificial lake formed by a dam that crosses the Periyar River. Our plan was to hang around the lake until the herds of elephants come down for a drink – a regular occurrence, we were told. But somehow our timing was off, and we never did get to see that remarkable sight. We did get to go on an elephant ride, a favorite pursuit of the many children at the resort, although it didn’t feel right to be sitting idly on the huge beast as he was being led around by a local caretaker.
||Thekkady region. What a pleasure it was to walk its trails and gardened areas in the company of a guide whose gentle and patient manner was matched by an encyclopedic knowledge of every tree, bush and plant along the trails as well as the multitude of herbs and spices they produced from ginger to garlic, cardamom, pepper, cinnamon, clove, vanilla, even tea and coffee. And lest we miss it, he called our attention to a great clump of bananas hanging from a branch, each one as green as the surrounding leaves.
We fared much better at the Spice Gardens, one of the many natural preserves in the Thekkady region. Our tour was nearly done when our steadfast guide led us to a rope ladder hanging from a tall tree. We followed his climb to the top and then gingerly stepped along the suspended walkway that linked one tree to another until we reached a tree house which, he explained as he opened the door to a luxuriously furnished room with a king-sized bed and plush fittings, was Thekkady’s honeymoon suite in the sky.
We were tempted to try it out for a night or two, but our itinerary beckoned once more, and so we set our sights yet further south to the last locale of our Indian adventure: Club Mahindra Ashtamudi Backwaters which stretches out along the shores of Ashtamudi Lake, part of the chain of lakes and lagoons linked by canals and fed by 38 rivers to form the alluring Backwaters of Kerala. In this dreamy setting, to be sitting on the terrace of the resort’s restaurant or the deck of a houseboat and watch sunrises and sunsets, small boats drifting by, waterfowl soaring and landing on docks, or fishermen casting their nets becomes a hypnotic occupation unless one is strolling along the stone-paved avenue that runs down the length of the property, dividing white guest houses with arched entries and red-tiled roofs from the restaurant and houseboats across the way while tall slender pines bend in the breezes, and houseboats gently bob in the waters.
Much as we enjoyed our days at the Backwaters, they were marked by a touch of melancholia as we realized our adventure down the coast of Kerala was soon to come to an end. We had had yet to digest all that we had seen and done over the past weeks, the sights, sounds, smells, essences of just one part of “Amazing India,” and all of it coming to us through the eyes of the courteous, warm and welcoming people we met. There is an image of a gesture that comes back to us from time to time: a bending of the head to meet a pair of folded hands. It seems so endemic of the Indian character.
“People here serve you from the heart,” Arun had told us. We cannot count the ways in which we witnessed as much. But here are three: the chefs at each of the resorts we visited. In Munnar, Mohan Doss Subbiah who surprised us so soon after our late-at-night arrival with a splendid custom-made banquet. In Thekkady, Murai N. who arranged a candle-lit private dinner for us in a secluded getaway and upon our departure the next morning presented us with a sizeable wicker picnic basket with leather straps filled with all the accoutrements suitable for a luxurious picnic on the road. And in Ashtamudi, Ratheesh, who unexpectedly ushered us to the resort’s swimming pool under a starry sky where to a background of melodies from the “Great American Songbook , he served up a memorable dinner for two.
There were others: Ramesh Mekkadu, the naturalist who showed us much of the Ashtamudi region from a small boat and even took us on a tour of the extraordinary Shiva Temple. And Rochelle, who first greeted us when we arrived at Munnar and went on to become our personal guide during our stay.
It was Rochelle who, during one of our many walks told us about Neelakurinji, a plant that is endemic to the region surrounding Munnar. “It has beautiful blue flowers, and when they blossom, all of the hills are covered like a carpet of blue. But,” she added, “the plant flowers only once every twelve years.”
We made a note promising each other that in a dozen years, we will return to India in time to see the next flowering of the Neelakurinji.
Photographs by Harvey Frommer