We resolved months before December that Christmas was going to be different. Instead of driving 200 miles up the A1 from London to Yorkshire on a dark, wet Christmas morning, we’d be being chauffeured on a warm, bright sunny day up through the tea plantations to Munnar in Southern India. We hoped to leave all the Christmas trappings behind in London. Did we succeed? Well partly . . .
Christmas Eve was spent in the Brunton Boatyard Hotel overlooking Cochin’s harbour. It was wonderful to have a bath and watch the boats out of the window at the same time.
A sunset cruise seemed the ideal way to finish the day but we didn’t anticipate the extra guest, Santa Claus, who boarded the boat with us. Although the day had been warm and sunny, it was an overcast evening and the sunset was somewhat disappointing.
Whilst changing for dinner, there was a knock on the door. I expected the housekeeper wanting to turn down the bed with a ‘pillow chocolate’, but no, it was a group of stanta hatted, hotel staff singing carols and delivering invitations to their Christmas Eve gala dinner which they’d been setting up in the garden grounds all day.
We declined politely as having read marvellous reviews of the Malabar House Hotel, reputed to be one of the best boutique hotels in India and its ‘classy, movie star cool’ restaurant, the Malabar Junction, I’d booked a table well in advance from England. I envisaged a small, luxurious, intimate restaurant and was therefore rather shocked to be led into a large, open-air courtyard set up with enough tables and chairs for 100 people. We were led through the gathering diners to a small table at the front beside the stage where three musicians were playing traditional Indian music.
As we waited for everyone to arrive, we looked at the menu on our table to discover a six course set dinner (veg or non veg) which included roast turkey in mushroom sauce with rosemary roast potatoes and ‘our special Xmas pudding with vanilla sauce’. As we settled down with a reasonably priced bottle of Grovers Estate wine (made in India in conjunction with the French), Santa Claus arrived and introduced the Anglo-Indian choir of Fort Cochin who sang traditional carols throughout the evening. Once I’d got over the shock, we thoroughly enjoyed our meal.
Following an early Christmas Day breakfast of dosa and sambal we left at 9am for the four-hour drive to Munnar. Although it was only 80 miles, the roads were narrow, steep, winding and rutted but the scenery was amazing.
For Christmas Lunch we squeezed into a small café recommended by our trusty guide book and chose potato curry (Rs 6) and beef fry (Rs 25). We sat surrounded by locals and soon realised that everyone was eating with their fingers. Fortunately we’d ordered a couple of chapattis which we used in the absence of cutlery, to scoop up the curry as we hadn’t managed to perfect the technique of rolling the rice into balls with fingers. With a couple of fresh lime sodas, our lunch came to less than a pound.
The traditional Christmas afternoon walk was through Eravikulam National Park with its spectacular views of the Western Ghats. We were also fortunate enough to see, albeit at a distance, a couple of Nilgiri tahr a rare, but almost tame type of mountain goat.
Our hotel for the evening was the Government run Tea County Hotel and although not as luxurious as the other hotels on our trip, it was perfectly comfortable and didn’t appear to recognise Christmas. We sat on our terrace to watch the sun go down over the hills in front of us and opened the duty free champagne we’d been carrying around with us since leaving London. As it got dark, all the shrubs and trees lining the long driveway were lit with small fairy lights, their only concession to Christmas and a truly spectacular sight.
A buffet dinner of various curries, followed by the lighting of a bonfire which toasted us in the cool, hill-top air was a marvellous end to a very different Christmas.
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