Our time at Cardamom County in Thekaddy, Kerala was way too short. After returning from a wonderful trip with River Escapes in the backwaters of Kerala we headed for the state’s iconic hill stations in the Western Ghats. I suggested to my husband Dave that we take a taxi, but being a former backpacker, he urged me to give the bus a chance. I stood my ground, insisting the trip would take several hours and I could bet the buses wouldn’t pass an inspection. But Dave was persistent and persuasive – I acquiesced and don’t regret that decision for one moment. It was a wild ride.
First, imagine a stripped down bus outfitted with the bare essentials, packed with people and barreling through dusty villages, bumpy roads and steep mountains. Add constant honking and shifting of gears to the mix and you get a sense of the cacophony and endless motion that we felt. It was unnerving at first, but once we settled in the buzz and activity merged and synchronized into a singular movement of sound and space. We soon realized that the nonstop honking was an announcement between drivers as each bus simultaneously approached curves from opposite directions – a stunning example of nonverbal communication that somehow seems to work.
Once in the mountains, quietness prevailed as we gazed at sun-soaked mountainsides covered with terraces of tea and coffee plantations while cultivated areas of rubber tree farms provided shade in the valleys. The rush and rhythm of daily life seemed to play out on that bus ride as we passed through villages sprinkled with shrines, shops and market places. It was a thrilling experience but probably not for everyone; although you can’t beat the price – $3.50 provided a 4 hour bus ride of a lifetime for the two of us.
That said, I was ready when the bus finally rolled into the Kumily station and we stumbled out, glad to be on flat ground again. It was comforting to immediately spot a smiling man with a Cardamom County resort polo shirt waving at us. Immediately, we transformed from dusty, weary travelers to pampered, welcomed guests. Minutes later when we arrived at the front desk, Anu the assistant manager and “Experience Director” greeted us. I’ve been in hospitality for over 30 years and it’s a delight to meet someone so suited to what they do. With charm, cheer and warmth, Anu made sure we got settled comfortably before explaining the various activities offered. Listening to our interests, she then made thoughtful suggestions and arranged our activities within moments. We only had one night and a day and Anu wanted to be sure we maximized our time.
The grounds of Cardamom County is a paradise to anyone loving food, but most especially to those of us who enjoy cooking. The property’s farm was a cornucopia of lush spice, herb and tropical fruit gardens with clearly identified plants and trees. Our staff guide enticed us to crush and smell whatever was in reach and the discovery of seeing spices in their natural conditions (who knew fresh peppercorns were so gorgeous) provided an almost giddy excitement. Lingering fragrances of an herb would stubbornly scent our fingertips until a new herb was crushed, creating layers of scents that caused my nostrils to twitch as they became enveloped with an onslaught of new aromas.
I was also the very lucky recipient of a private cooking class with the Executive Chef. Chef greeted us in the garden and began preparing an array of dishes, each more fragrant than the last including a Duck Roast with 13 spices, Appam and Puttu (aromatic coconut-based rice dishes). With a warm smile and deft skill, he prepared these foods in an outdoor open kitchen made even more atmospheric by the citronella candles and chirping cicadas But it was his dazzling dosas that took my breath away. Dosas (large crepe-like flat pancakes) are poured as a batter onto a hot griddle, and cooked to form a large round disc which is then either quickly rolled (traditionally) or, by the more skilled and artistic hand (aka Chef) shaped into an imposing cone or beautiful flower. Chef’s dosas were exquisite, elegant and delicious. Though well-fed with our tasty tidbits, Dave and I still managed to have an appetite (must have been that bus ride) and enjoyed an equally delicious dinner in a casual but lovely restaurant setting with the staff providing attentive and gracious service.
We slept like babes. Our bungalow, impeccably clean, comfortable and elegantly designed, made it difficult to leave in the morning. But early in the morning we rose in hopes of sighting a tiger or elephant during a guided trek into the forest of the Periyar Tiger Reserve. Our local guide, intent on providing a memorable hike, offered interesting commentary about the flora and fauna of his homeland throughout our walk. He would frequently stop to point out an unusual tree or bird; often we would pause, listening to monkeys’ chatter in the trees. We did come upon a wild beast – a rather passive but imposing bison amicably nibbling at the forest leaves. But that wasn’t the only wildlife we experienced. In the beginning of the trek, we were told to put on knee-high cloth gators, a precaution against leeches. It’s their forest too I suppose! Thankfully, the guide vigilantly dusted our gators with a tobacco powder that keeps the critters at bay.
My final excursion from Cardamom County was with elephants, though not in the wild. We were taken to an elephant park where visitors can interact with “retired” working elephants. I must confess, sitting on the elephant wasn’t my favorite activity, as the guide would command the pachyderm to perform tricks like grabbing or breaking a branch. I would have preferred a quiet ride, enjoying the unique sensation of riding bareback.
However, I totally enjoyed the next experience when moments later I had the opportunity to bathe and massage another elephant. With the animal on its side, I was given a huge brush and a bucket of water to do the honor of the daily bath. Though I’m no elephant whisperer, I think the elephant enjoyed being rubbed and scrubbed – I swear there was a twinkle in her eyes as I massaged her side and thighs. When I covered as much of her body as I could, it was then my turn to be “bathed”. With a mixture of glee and apprehension I sat on the elephant’s back and within seconds, she filled her trunk with water and SPLASH – I was the recipient of an authentic elephant shower. The photo taken at that instant best conveys the exhilaration of the moment and my wonderful time in India. I look forward to returning to Kerala – the experience at Cardamom County was extraordinary.