A guide to the best hill stations in South India DT29487013

A guide to the best hill stations in South India

The top hill stations in South India for a luxury holiday

South India’s hill stations are a captivating contrast to the balmy backwaters of Kerala, or the magnific temples abundant throughout Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. Staying at a hill station on your South India holiday provides the opportunity to enjoy activities not possible elsewhere in South India – visiting a working tea, coffee or spice plantation, or riding on a dinky narrow-gauge steam train. There are also plenty of occasions to stretch the legs, be it on a hike up to a viewpoint overlooking magnificent scenery or an afternoon promenade stroll, an activity central to life during the time of the British Raj.

Most importantly, including a hill station on your South India itinerary offers a calming respite from the hecticness of the plains and the chance to recharge the batteries before moving on.

What’s in this post

A short history of hill stations in South India

Elevated beyond the humidity of the lowlands, the origins of the hill station in Southern India can be traced back to the 11th century when Nandi Hills, some 60kms from Bengaluru (Bangalore), was established by the Ganga Dynasty as a summer retreat. But, it wasn’t until the time of the British Raj (1858-1947) that the popularity of the hill station reached its zenith.

“Places to rest and recuperate from the arduous life on the plains”.

It wasn’t just relief from the searing heat that drew the British colonials to India’s elevated foothills during the summer months. It was generally believed among the Britishers of the Raj that hill stations were beyond the grasp of tropical diseases such as cholera and malaria which were commonplace across much of the subcontinent at the time. Although this speculation was later proven not to be the case, there were curative effects to be had by spending periods in the hills. Cleaner air, less pollution, and a smaller population meant the risk of affliction from serious disease was significantly reduced.

A slice of rural England in a faraway land …

Besides, nowhere was better than the hill station for the British to attempt to replicate life back in their native land. A central mall for strolling, a theatre for amateur dramatics, and a local church for attending service on a Sunday were all part of the makeup of Indian hill stations under the rule of the Raj. And with a climate conducive to English-country-style gardens, there was also the opportunity to grow flowers that would have been familiar such as roses and tulips, as well as fresh produce such as lettuce and strawberries, all of which would have helped ease the homesickness that many colonials invariably experienced.

In the north of the country, in the foothills of the Himalayas, places such as Shimla for Delhi and Darjeeling for Kolkata were chosen as suitable settlements to escape to in the summer months.

While in the south of India, hill stations were developed in the Western Ghats, which traverses the southern states of Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu, and the Eastern Ghats, which also pass through Tamil Nadu as well as parts of Karnataka. In particular, the Nilgiri Hills, which are situated at the trijunction of northwestern Tamil Nadu, south Karnataka, and eastern Kerala and connect the Western Ghats with the Eastern Ghats, developed rapidly during the time of the Raj and towns such as Ooty (officially Udhagamandalam), Coonoor and Kotagiri became popular summer and weekend getaways.

The popularity of the hill station in India didn’t wane after the British left. With hundreds dotted throughout the country, many of which are in the south, and many activities on offer to occupy your leisure time, India’s summer retreats still attract a lot of visitors and are the perfect addition to any luxury South Indian holiday.

Kerala tea plantations DT1283347
Tea pickers in Kerala

Reasons to include a hill station in your South India itinerary

Climate

In the past, the cool and pleasant climate was the attraction of hill stations, and the weather remains the primary draw for many visitors.

Flora and Fauna

The elevated regions of South India are blessed with an abundance of flora and fauna. From pine forests to thousands of species of flowering plants, and waterfalls to botanical gardens, there is much to discover on the doorstep of hill stations in South India.

Plantation visits

Be it tea, coffee or exotic spices, the undisputed highlight of visiting a hill station in South India is the opportunity to visit one of the many neatly kept plantations that dot the landscapes surrounding many hill stations.

Walking and mountain biking trails

Heading off with an experienced guide and walking or biking through wondrous scenery, tribal villages and local plantations is an engaging way to spend a day when staying in a hill station.

Raj-era architecture

Some buildings from the period, such as Fernhills Palace in Ooty (now a heritage hotel), are beautifully maintained, while others are best-described as displaying attributes of faded grandeur. Either way, they offer an absorbing glimpse into the past world of the British Raj.

Family activities

Travelling with children in South India can be a delight, as many activities are family-friendly. Walking and biking, riding steam trains and discovering thunderous waterfalls are but a few of the pursuits that are ideal for younger members of the family

There are numerous hill stations and elevated settlements in South India but, in our opinion, not all warrant a visit. This is either because there isn’t enough to do, or because the accommodation is not up to the high standard we wish to deliver to our clients. Bear in mind that most hill stations developed along the same lines and so, broadly speaking, offer the same activities and experiences. At Corinthian Travel, we wholeheartedly recommend incorporating a hill station in your South India itinerary but one, maybe two, is sufficient and will leave time for some of the other outstanding sights this part of the country has to offer.

Munnar, Kerala

Situated in the Western Ghats, positioned amidst the rolling green Cardamom Hills, the hill station of Munnar is often called the Kashmir of South India. Munnar provides outstanding vistas of valleys, streams and jagged rocks. At an altitude of around 1,600 metres, the air feels fresh, and it is easy to see why Munnar was once a favourite summer retreat of the British in India.

Munnar tea plantations DT64898552
Munnar tea plantations

Things to do in Munnar

  • Take a guided trek through low mountain scenery and pause at panoramic viewpoints
  • Visit local waterfalls
  • Drive up to Top Station for spectacular views of the Western Ghats
  • Mountain bike on well-defined trails
  • Enjoy a plantation walk and learn about the history of tea in India at the town’s Tea Museum
  • Take an excursion to nearby Eravikulam National Park, home to the Nilgiri tahr, an endangered mountain goat endemic to the Nilgiri Hills

Suggestions for including Munnar in a South India holiday

Munnar is best visited en route between Madurai and Kochi (Cochin), or as part of a dedicated Kerala-only itinerary.

Corinthian Travel suggested itineraries

Classic Kerala Holiday

Passage Through Coromandel & Malabar itinerary

Kerala & Andaman Islands

Best place to stay in Munnar

The Windermere Estate: A delightful retreat set amongst a 60-acre working cardamom estate.

Talayar Valley Bungalow: A restored planter’s residence dating from the 19th century, set amongst 2500 acres of a working tea estate.

Ooty (Udhagamandalam), Tamil Nadu

One of South India’s grandest hill stations, the Queen of Hill Stations served as the summer capital of the Madras Presidency (an administrative subdivision of British India) during the colonial era, and remained a popular hill resort after Independence. As with many hill stations in South India, part of the fun in visiting is the journey getting there. The UNESCO World Heritage-listed Nilgiri Mountain Railway Line, better known as the toy train, huffs and puffs its way up along a narrow-gauge track to Ooty from Mettupalayam crossing bridges and passing an array of glorious scenery, including waterfalls and tea plantations, along its 46km route.

Things to do in Ooty

  • Boating on Ooty Lake
  • Discover flora and fauna at Ooty Botanical Gardens
  • Explore British-era architecture such as Nilgiri Library and St Stephen’s Church
  • Take in the vista at Doddabetta, the highest viewpoint in the Nilgiri Hills
  • Hike through tea plantations and tribal villages in the surrounding countryside
  • Browse indigenous crafts and local produce at the eco-friendly Green Shop
  • Take a day trip to nearby Coonoor

Suggestions for including Ooty in a South India holiday

Ooty is best visited from Mysore or Nagarhole National Park. The hill station can also feature in an itinerary combining Tamil Nadu with Kerala.

Best place to stay in Ooty

Fernhills Palace: Heritage property that was once the summer residence of the Maharaja of Mysore.

Fernhills Palace, a heritage hotel in Ooty

Coorg (Kodagu), Karnataka

Located on the eastern slopes of the Western Ghats, Coorg, is a district rather than a single town. Officially named Kodagu but still commonly known by its former name, Coorg is an area of evergreen hills, thunderous waterfalls and plantations used for producing spices such as turmeric, nutmeg and cardamom, as well as coffee for which the region is best known.

In addition to the usual hill station activities, Coorg is also an excellent base for discovering Bylakuppe. This fascinating and welcoming area is home to South India’s largest Tibetan community and second only to Dharamshala in the north of the country.

Namdroling Monastery Golden Temple, Bylakuppe, India-2 c. Kathmandu & Beyond
Namdroling Monastery Golden Temple in Bylakuppe

Things to do in Coorg

  • Hike along scenic highland trails near the base of Thadiyendamol, Coorg’s highest peak
  • Enjoy the sunset from Raja’s Seat viewpoint
  • Explore Buddhism at Bylakuppe
  • Gaze at Abbey Falls, a picturesque 20-metre waterfall 
  • Relax and rejuvenate at the renowned Jiva Grande Spa, part of the Taj Madikeri Resort & Spa
Abbey Falls, Coorg DT33613433
Abbey Falls near Madikeri in Coorg

Suggestions for including Coorg in a South India holiday

Coorg is best visited from Mysore. The region is also an ideal base for exploring the Hoysala dynasty temples of Belur and Halebid.

Corinthian Travel suggested itineraries

Hampi & Historic Karnataka

Best place to stay in Coorg

Evolve Back Coorg: An upmarket, eco-friendly resort set amongst a 300-acre private working coffee estate.

Taj Madikeri Resort & Spa: A peaceful mountain retreat offering sweeping views of the surrounding hills. Renowned for its excellent Jiva Grande Spa.

The Serai Chikmagalur: An upmarket retreat located on a 70-acre coffee plantation.

Madikeri sunrise DT40578109
Madikeri sunrise

Coonoor, Tamil Nadu

The peaceful hill station of Coonoor offers a smaller and less-visited alternative to nearby Ooty, approximately 20kms to the northwest. The activities are similar in both towns: hiking, viewpoints, plantation visits and the botanical garden. But, because Coonoor is easily reached by travelling on the scenic toy train, it is an appealing day trip from Ooty.

Things to do in Coonoor

  • Visit the 12-hectare Sim’s Park, Coonoor’s botanical garden with more than 1,000 species of plants
  • Look out across tea and coffee plantations from Lamb’s Rock viewpoint
  • Marvel at the 75-metre-high Catherine Falls, which is best viewed from Dolphin’s Nose rock formation and viewpoint

Suggestions for including Coonoor in a South India holiday

We suggest visiting Coonoor as an excursion from Ooty where the accommodation is much more comfortable.

Best place to stay in Coonoor

The Fernhills Palace in nearby Ooty

Kodaikanal, South India (Pixabay free for commercial use india-tamilnadu-tamil-green-forest-6257329
Kodaikanal landscape (Image by Sathish kumar Periyasamy / Pixabay)

Kodaikanal (Kodai), Tamil Nadu

If Ooty is the Queen of the Hill Stations, the Princess of Hill Stations is Kodai. The town dates back to 1845 when it was established by Christian missionaries and bureaucrats as a refuge from the scorching heat of the plains and the tropical diseases that were widespread at lower elevations. Centred around the star-shaped Kodaikanal Lake, the town has been popular since its founding as a resort and continues to attract those seeking natural beauty and the tranquillity of the hills.

Things to do in Kodai

  • Rent a boat on Kodaikanal Lake
  • Choose from either Green Valley View, Pillar Rocks or Moir’s Point for magnificent vistas of the plains
  • Take a 5-kilometre stroll along the Kodaikanal Lake Circuit
  • Shop for jewellery, fabrics and more at Re Shop, an outlet for local village women to sell their wares at fair prices
  • Undertake guided walking trails and visit a working coffee plantation at Rajakkad Estate (see below)

Suggestions for including Kodai in a South India holiday

Kodai can be visited from either Madurai or Munnar and is a good place to break the journey between the two.

Best place to stay near Kodaikanal

Rajakkad Estate: A forested former royal palace set amongst 50 acres of coffee plantation, Rajakkad Estate is 54km, approximately 1½ hours drive, east of Kodaikanal.

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