Parts UNKNOWN
Outlook Traveller|May 2021
North Kerala often gets overshadowed by its popular southern sibling. And that’s actually a blessing in disguise.
AMIT DIXIT​​​​​​​

WOULD YOU BELIEVE IT IF I TOLD YOU THERE IS A PART OF KERALA that has it all: pristine, uncrowded beaches, looming mountains shrouded in mist, not to mention serene, unpolluted and traffic jam-free backwaters? I wouldn’t have believed it either, if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes.

For travellers, the far north of Kerala has always been a bit of an unchartered territory, although, of course, it is home to millions of people. I had been aching to visit for well over a decade but, somehow, plans kept fizzling out. Then, suddenly, it all fell into place. I flew into the brand-new Kannur airport with my friend Altaf Chapri, who runs one of the most exclusive beach resorts in this part of the country (his hospitality empire stretches, quite literally, from Kashmir to Kerala). But, before our bums hit the beach, we had a loftier rendezvous to make.

LIFE IN THE High lane

It was a wild and dreamy drive deep into the folds of Wayanad, past coffee bushes in heady, aromatic bloom, towering teak and rubber plantations, neatly manicured tea estates, bustling, little towns—and those legendary hairpin bends…

There were culinary temptations at every turn too. I finally gave in to a sublime Mutta (egg) curry and parotta combo at a clean, well-appointed teashop, which are ubiquitous in these parts (clean ones, I mean). The tea could be politely described as ‘strong’—that’s how they like it here. If I’d known what sumptuous fare awaited me at our destination, I would have held out, god’s-own-country promise.

The 200-acre estate where we were headed had a discreet entrance and our driver—who, in another lifetime, used to set his passengers’ hearts racing on wadi-bashing rounds in Dubai—would have missed it, had he not been familiar with it. But we were in safe hands (down to the state government-mandated speed regulator and panic button for tourist cabs).

As we stepped out and walked in—there was a nip in the air—it felt like entering another world, a world where old-growth trees and verdure held sway. The Mangalam Carp Estate was set up in the 1800s by Colin Auley Mackenzie, a pioneer planter of the era. He was also one of the founders of the Ooty Club, and his old bungalow at the estate is the centrepiece of Pepper Trail, as this boutique hospitality venture is called. In 1932, the estate was purchased by P. Balram Kurup, a pioneer in the cultivation of rare spices and aromatic plants as well as the extraction of essential oils. The area is a major producer of eucalyptus oil to this day. Thanks to his vision, the plantation has an impressive bio-diversity of plant species.

Pepper Trail is run by his grandson, Anand Jayan, ever the attentive, genial host (seeing my dusty, travel-fatigued visage, he promptly organised an al fresco massage session for me). A tad shy, get him talking and you will find he’s a mine of information on Wayanad. The package comes with a sardonic sense of humour, which makes him excellent dinner company.

Meals are multi-course affairs, and the food authentic, local fare. Pepper Trail will remain permanently etched in my memory as the place where I discovered baby mango pickle. Over dinner, Anand opened up. All he had ever wanted to do is travel the world— he still gets away whenever he can—but life had other plans for him clearly. Pepper Trail is his labour of love and he keeps chiselling away at it, being the perfectionist he is.

Theyyam

A ritual form of dance worship—featuring dramatic face painting and costumes—theyyam is popular in Kerala and Karnataka. In Kerala, it is performed in the northern districts of kasargod, kannur and parts of Wayanad and Kozhikode (basically, the area which used to be the kolathunadu kingdom). If you travel to north Kerala between october and April, don’t miss a performance. over the course of the dance, the performer slowly transforms into the particular deity the theyyam is for.

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