Coffee beans are far from ripe during monsoon. But the rain adds a dimension of graceful silence to the sprawling plantations that surround the Serai Chikmagalur. By Payal Dhar
A tea lover goes on a coffee retreat. Sounds like an oxymoron at best, the opening bars of a tired joke at worst. Coffee is no laughing matter in Chikmagalur, though. They take the beverage very seriously in these parts, nowhere more so than at The Serai. For starters, the resort is run by the Coffee Day group, a fact you are reminded of almost diffidently as you turn in at the gates. The bigger surprise is when you find yourself plunging into the heart of a coffee plantation.
India’s coffee capital, Chikmagalur, is located on the foothills of the Western Ghats, in Karnataka’s Malnad region. This is a lush and abundantly rain-fed belt, ideal for growing coffee. Not to belabour the point, but The Serai Chikmagalur is, in their own words, ‘inspired by coffee’, tucked into a 70-acre estate that grows spices and fruits as well. On arrival, you are welcomed with the local bellada coffee—filter coffee brewed with jaggery, taken black. The proper South Indian way to drink the beverage, I am told numerous times by different people over the next two days, is without milk. It is a first for me, and—spoiler alert—little do I know then that I would eventually leave town with two kinds of coffee and a filter to brew it in.
This grudging respect kindles on the estate walk through the plantation the next day, a complimentary add-on if you’re a guest here. It isn’t raining just then, but Mohan, our guide, insists we carry the long-stemmed umbrellas as walking sticks. Later, he narrates how, in the 17th century, Baba Budan, a local Sufi saint, sneaked in seven coffee beans from Yemen on his way back from the Haj, and planted them in these regions, thus introducing coffee to India. One legend has it that he smuggled the beans in his walking stick.
Monsoon has the region in a vice-like grip, and when there isn’t rain, there’s slush underfoot and moisture dripping from trees to contend with. But as Mohan starts to point out the differences between arabica and robusta—the two main types of coffee grown here—and the grading process that segregates the beans according to quality, one’s interest is piqued. Most coffee plantations, he tells us, grow a variety of cash crops too, like pepper and other spices, fruits, and more. Towering rosewoods, teaks, and silver oaks provide shade for the coffee plants. India is said to produce some of the finest shade-grown coffee in the world, most of it concentrated in the Karnataka–Tamil Nadu–Kerala belt. Apart from shading the coffee bushes, wood from these trees is used to make furniture for The Serai resorts and Café Coffee Day outlets around India.
Since it is neither flowering nor picking season, we have to be content with green coffee berries on bushes. But further mysteries of coffee’s journey from bean to cup are waiting to be revealed. Mohan holds forth on the various grades of coffee, the exact proportions of arabica to robusta (a closely held secret), and how much chicory is recommended (never more than 20 per cent). Later, we go into town to visit Coffee Day’s curing and roasting units.
The coffee estate that The Serai Chikmagalur is set in, is on the edge of the town, but there is no evidence of a seven-acre resort within even when you roll in through the gates. The driveway is long enough to give pause, and when you step into the lobby, you’re still flummoxed by the continuing wilderness. When the penny drops, the explanation is ridiculously simple. The resort is built along the slope of the rolling hillside, the lobby situated at the highest point of the built-up area. The open-air reception area looks down upon a courtyard with a lawn and infinity pool, and out on to the verdant coffee estate, the town of Chikmagalur, and the forests and valleys beyond.
The weather stays agreeable here all year round, but the monsoon adds a fresh coat of brilliance to the landscape, to the rolling hills, lush forests, sprawling plantations, peaks and valleys, and waterfalls. This year, the rains have been abundant and in the blink of an eye, a fine drizzle can turn into a downpour. The resort has raincoats and gumboots handy, there are umbrellas in wooden baskets outside the villas and common areas, and bicycles are available to borrow, so nothing stops you from getting out and about once you have set your mind to it.
But then, staying in is a very tempting alternative. Accommodation is provided in
29 villas, each with its own private pool or outdoor Jacuzzi. The basic villa—basic being a relative term—comes in double or twin options, whereas a terrace villa is a duplex accommodation where you enter from an upper level and walk down into a living space that opens out into the pool and sit-out. At the top of the range is the presidential suite, a generous two-bedroom space with a private dining hall, and both, Jacuzzi and pool.
The villas are uniformly comfortable, understated, and elegant. The wooden floors and all the furniture comes from Coffee Day’s Daffco factory, and the slanting ceilings are lined inside with locally-sourced chik-like panels. The poolside sit-out and room service could turn any well-intentioned visitor into an indolent couch potato. And should you not want to walk to and from your villa, electric buggies are available.
Food is another indulgence at The Serai Chikmagalur, especially the Malnad fare whipped up by Chef Mallesh. The multi-cuisine offerings at Odyssey, the resort’s restaurant, pale in comparison with the mutton pepper fry, neer dosa (a paper-thin dosa prepared from rice batter), and typical Malnad sambar. I cannot resist a second helping of holighe, a paratha-like preparation stuffed with lentils, sugar, and grated coconut, best had with a dollop of ghee and dipped in sweetened coconut milk. All of this is served in the traditional way—on banana leaves, and there is no cutlery provided. Malnad cuisine is known for its use of fresh ground spices and its preference for steaming over frying. It is distinct from its more illustrious counterparts in Coorg and Mangalore, but like most South Indian meals, some bellada coffee served in copper dabarah (traditional tumblers) at the end won’t go amiss.
Coffee, I discover, influences even The Serai’s wellness centre, Oma Spa. Here, I am relaxed into oblivion with a signature 90-minute massage, where two pairs of hands work a hot oil brewed with select coffee beans into my skin. It leaves me mellow enough to brave a coffee martini at the Blue Sky Lounge later that evening.
As a getaway, The Serai Chikmagalur certainly transports you to a parallel existence. For a city animal like me, the sound of silence is deafening here. Even the rain whispers, and my inelegant dogpaddling in the pool sends discordant echoes around the Western Ghats. There is a sense of being cut away from reality, but not in a way that leaves you feeling unmoored. And there is the coffee—calling myself a convert would be taking it too far, but we are nodding acquaintances now.
The nearest airports are Bengaluru (250 kms, 4 hrs), Mysuru (180 kms, 3 hrs), and Mangalore (170 kms, 3 hrs).
The Serai Chikmagalur has 20 pool villas, four jacuzzi villas, four terrace villas, and a presidential villa. It offers interesting activities, such as coffee walks and cycling, ideal for couples and families on a weekend getaway. Tariff starts from `29,440 for two, including taxes.
Walk the Bean-to-Cup trail: It starts with a guided plantation walk and gives
an insight into the journey that coffee makes from the plantation to our mugs. Visits to curing and roasting units, and the Coffee Museum in Chikmagalur, can be arranged.
Climb Mullayanagiri: Karnataka’s highest peak at 1,925 metres has spellbinding views of the Western Ghats.
Visit Belur and Halebid: These twin towns boast spectacular temple art from the Hoysala empire. Both Belur’s Chennakesava complex and Halebid’s Hoysaleswara are worth exploring in detail.
Buy coffee: Panduranga Coffee Works in Chikmagalur has a good selection of coffee (and local honey). Pick up a filter here to brew coffee the South Indian way.