THE LAST time I visited Kerala, I did the mandatory tourist trail of Kochi-Munnar-Thekkady-Alleppey. Along the way, I was repeatedly told that there was more to the state, with a visit to its small quaint towns necessary to truly gauge its beauty and charm. Bekal, a beautiful small town in Kasaragod district of Kerala, was a name that cropped up frequently in these conversations with locals and guides, especially as a destination to relax and unwind.
While I couldn’t squeeze in a visit on that trip, I knew I would return one day.As luck would have it, that day arrived sooner rather than later and I found myself aboard a flight from New Delhi to Mangalore, the nearest airport to Bekal—what’s more, with a direct flight being launched by Jet Airways on this stretch, one ends up saving a lot of travel time now.
As my cab cruised along NH 66 towards Bekal—around 65 km from Mangalore—I leaned out of the window taking in the sights and the sounds. After the concrete jungle that is Delhi, the lush greenery was a sight for sore eyes. Thanks to the almost-empty roads, it took me less than two hours to reach Bekal.
For a small town, Bekal has many hotels, resorts and homestays to choose from. One of the options is Vivanta by Taj—Bekal and that’s where I decided to crash. Spread across 26 acres, the resort offers breathtaking views of the backwaters and the sea. Explaining Bekal’s new-found appeal as a tourist destination, Gaurav Miglani, general manager, Vivanta by Taj—Bekal, told me, “You come to Bekal if you want to have a relaxing vacation. Plus, the northern Kerala belt hasn’t been explored till now. People have been going to southern Kerala for a long time now. Those itineraries have been done innumerable times and people have gotten bored of that. North Kerala is the unexplored part and it starts with Bekal. From here, you can also connect to Coorg in Karnataka within three hours.”
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There sure is a lot to do and explore in Bekal. Those who prefer a quiet outing should head to Swami Nithyananda Ashram. Located on a hillock, the ashram is an engineering marvel, with around 43 caves built on a mountain slope. For history buffs, a trip to the 300-year-old Bekal Fort, the largest in Kerala, is a must. Built by Shivappa Nayaka of Bednore in 1650 AD, the fort offers spectacular views of the town and the sea. Those with a religious bent of mind can visit Ananthapura Lake Temple, the only lake temple in Kerala. An abode of Lord Vishnu, the 9th-century temple is surrounded by a lake symbolising the ocean.
Another option is to go for a plantation trek. I chose to go to the Thonikadavu Plantation farm, verdant with areca nut, pepper, coconut, etc. But first, it was time for lunch. Rathnakaran Thonikadavu, my host and guide for the day, welcomed me into his home near the plantation for a sumptuous Kerala sadya lunch cooked by his wife. Served on a banana leaf, the vegetarian feast consists of Kerala rice, sambhar, rasam, pachadi, curries like olan, avial and thoran, papadam, pickle and buttermilk. I rounded off the delicious meal with the mouth-watering banana payasam.
A short while later, Rathnakaran and I set off for the trek. For the next couple of hours, I was immersed in my beautiful natural surroundings, as Rathnakaran showed me around the plantation, pointing out cashew nut trees (I even ate fresh-off-the-tree cashew fruit—“It helps lose weight,” my guide informed me), wild orchids, rubber, betel nut trees, etc. “It’s mostly coconut that we grow here,” he told me. “And we sell it directly to factories, which make oil, chips, etc. We don’t process it here, as it’s very expensive.” Along the way, we also saw coriander, mango, cinnamon, vanilla, papaya, red chillies, etc.
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Soon, it was time to say goodbye to Rathnakaran and head back. Since I had decided to squeeze in a quick short visit to Coorg the next day, I had an early dinner—ulli theeyal (shallots simmered in tangy roast spice gravy), hot stew (vegetables cooked in coconut milk) and appam—and turned in for the day.
The next morning, I left for Coorg. Around 115 km from Bekal, Coorg is popularly known as the land of coffee. It was around noon that I checked into Vivanta by Taj—Madikeri, Coorg, which is set in the midst of a 180-acre rainforest. “A walk in the rainforest is necessary to familiarise yourself and understand the flora and the fauna of this region,” explained Parvinder Singh Bual, general manager, Vivanta by Taj—Madikeri.
Taking his word for it, that’s what I decided to do. Abhishek Jain, the in-house naturalist, who soon after took me for a walk through the rainforests, showed me organic gardens growing strawberry, basil, pineapple, brinjal, seven different types of mint, parsley, cherry tomato, mulberry, grape fruit, jackfruit, lavender, etc.
But the best part of the 3-km walk was what Coorg is famous for: coffee. The coffee estate we visited was growing Arabica and Robusta variants. The bean-picking process had just got finished, so unfortunately, I couldn’t witness that. However, some of the coffee plants had just started flowering and what I saw was a very beautiful coffee blossom instead. “Coorg is one of the few places in the world where you can grow the two main commercially-grown species of coffee, Arabica and Robusta, because the climate is just right,” Jain told me. “The way to tell them apart is that Robusta has broader leaves. Its plant, too, is generally bigger and taller than Arabica’s.”
Explaining how coffee is processed, Jain said, “Once the plants have bloomed, the bees pollinate and then it takes around 10 months for coffee beans to mature. Once deep red or maroon in colour, they are picked by hand unlike tea,” Jain said, adding, “There are two ways to process the beans: you can either take them to a mill, where pulping is done when the beans are still juicy and wet. After that, you dry them under the sun. The other way is to directly dry them under the sun after picking for at least four-five days, depending on how warm the sun is. It’s only when you roast the dried beans that the distinctive and characteristic aroma of coffee that we are so familiar with arises.”
As I checked out the next day, I wasn’t just taking back with me my two packets of locally-grown coffee. I was taking back a lifetime of experience.