Ooty like many hill stations has earned itself some criticism - a loss of identity due to tourism, over commercialization stealing its quaint simple soul, large thronging crowds eating away at the solitude and allure of the honeymoon hill station – but that’s only when it’s compared to an Ooty that once was, because what it still is, is nothing short of magical. It remains a place that imbibes peace in your system, invites a long stretch of the limbs and several walks that rejuvenate your body-mind-soul.
The essence of things cannot be bought, bartered and sold here. Visibly it is very much like what it was - a sleepy British colonial summer retreat. It is still Ooty and not Uthagamandalam - to you, me, and most people we know, no matter how many town criers proclaim its back-to -basics name from the hilltops. The surrounding hills are as blue as eternity in season and the green of the surrounding hill and valley forests as lush and dense with whispering flora and fauna. Ooty is still where couples honeymoon … Water falls, winding roads, the chugging Toy Train, the mysterious Sholas all breathe with the simple sacred uncompromising sameness that you have long since heard about.
So go … walk in the hills, trek in the woods, splash under water falls, breathe in the fragrance of the eucalyptus and unwind – it’s that simple!
How to get there
The nearest airport from Ooty is Coimbatore, located 100km away. Coimbatore is connected to most major cities by most of the major air carriers.
Ooty is 535 km from Chennai, 89 km from Coimbatore, 18 km from Coonoor, 155 km from Mysore, 187 km from Calicut, 290 km from Bangalore, 281 km from Kochi), 236 km from Kodaikanal. The roads are good and most part of the journey is scenic and pleasant. There are regular bus services from Bangalore, Mysore, Coimbatore, Calicut, Kanyakumari, Thanjavur, Tirupathi and Cochin. Hired taxis are another easy option that could be explored.
Travel by train to Ooty is destined to be memorable. At foothills of Ooty the charming ‘toy train’ (meter gauge) covers the 46 km to Metupallayam in less than four and a half hours.
Mettupalayam is where the nearest broad-gauge railway head from Ooty is at, with onward trains to Coimbatore the closest main railway junction.
Ooty is an abbreviation of the name Ootacamund, an anglicized version of the name Udhagamandalam meaning ‘abode or house in the mountains’ in Tamil. ‘ootaca’ could have been derived from ‘ota-cal’ which means ‘single stone’ in Tamil and a reference to the sacred stone the Toda people revere; ‘mund’ a possible reference to the local badaga word that means ‘village of huts’.
Ooty was referred to by Jawaharlal Nehru as the ‘Queen of the hill stations’ and ‘Scotland of the East’ by the British. It is the capital of the Nilgiri district of South India. Nilgiri or the ‘Blue Mountains’ refers to the mountain ranges that span Tamilnadu and Kerala, and is a part of the greater Western Ghats. Over 800 years ago the Nilgiris were called ‘nila’ meaning ‘blue’ by the then rulers of the Nilgiri Plateau region, the Hoysalas. ‘Nila’ is a name evocative of the lavender-blue flowers of Strobilanthes bloom in season that clothes the hills creating a misty surreal haze, compounded by altitude and slant of sun. In an earlier era, the kings of the Chera Dynasty and later the Ganga Dynasty had laid claim to and ruled the region only to be overrun by the Hoysalas. The Nilgiris after the Hoysalas were a part of the Kingdom of Mysore and in accordance of the Treaty of Srirangapatanam in 1799 Tipu Sultan relinquished lands held in his possession including the Nilgiri territory ceding them to the East India Company.
In 1603 Nilgiris, the place and its people, found mention in the notes of Rev Jacome Forico, the first European priest to visit the region. The first Britishers to explore the region after possession by the East India Company were the surveyors William Keys and Macmohan in 1812 who scaled the plateau and later in 1818 assistants to the collector of Coimbatore, Wish and Kindersley, made the trip to the valley as well. The Collector of Coimbatore then was Mr. John Sullivan, who having received a detailed report by his assistants decided to explore the region for its potential. In 1819 he set up camp at Dimbhatti north of Kotagiri. It is John Sullivan who is credited as the founding father of Ooty. Months after his first visit to the region Sullivan returned to construct his residential bungalow at Dimbhatti, the first residential European bungalow in the hills. Sullivan’s bungalow referred to as ‘kal bungla’ or Stone Bungalow is a building of historical importance today. Sullivan also laid the path from Sirumugai near Mattupalayam to Dimbhatti in 1829 which was followed by the construction of the Best route that led to Coonoor in 1832. Sullivan is also credited with the laying of the Ooty Lake.
When John Sullivan, reputed for his nomadic journeys in search of rare wild flowers, constructed his ‘Stone House’ he was convinced of the ideal climatic conditions in Ooty for the establishment of a sanatorium of sorts. Along with Gardener Johnstone he set up a flower and kitchen garden. Sullivan Acquired the land he built for the construction of his residence from the local tribes people the Todas for a sum of one rupee an acre! According to historical records Sullivan was very well disposed towards the native Todas, his very progressive ideas that the local tribes people must be entrusted with the governance of their own affairs led to very many disputes with the senior officials of the British Raj.
By 1829 Sullivan’s vision that Ooty would be established as a sanatorium was realised. There were about 17 European residences built and occupied, not to mention the other residences of the settlers from the plains as well as official buildings.
The Botanical Gardens, 2km from Ooty, were established in 1847 by the Marquis of Tweedale. It is very much a symbol of the British influence the hill station is characterized by. Covering 55 acres the gardens are situated on the lower slopes of Dodabetta peak which is the highest point of Ooty. The garden is landscaped in a style typical to English gardens yet what makes the place truly unique are its collection of rare trees, plants and floral species. The garden houses the Cork tree, the Monkey Puzzle tree, the Paper Bark tree, a 20 million year old fossilized tree trunk, exotic and ornamental plants, a fern house with many rare fern and plant species, orchids, and flowering bushes endowed with blooms in a profusion of colours. The garden is laid out with lily ponds, different types of roses, imported shrubs, over thirty different species of eucalyptus and ornamental bushes maintained in the curious shapes of elephants with raised trunks. The Garden is maintained by the Horticulture Department of the Government of Tamil Nadu.
Every May the gardens draw hordes of tourists eager to participate in the “Summer Festival” held there where ‘The Flower Show’ features prominently.
Another area of interest at the gardens is the Toda Mund or Toda hill where the native Toda tribe displays different aspects of their traditional culture.
When you make your way to the Botanical gardens from Charing Cross, look out for the Roman Catholic Church.
Valley View Lake or Ooty Lake
A lovely 1km walk away from the town centre is Ooty Lake, an artificial lake constructed by John Sullivan, collector of Coimbatore in 1824. Covering an area of 1 ½ sq miles it is a very popular spot offering tempting boat rides on Pedal Boats, Row Boats, Aqua Bikes etc. There are also the delightful Dancing Cars, and Toy Train rides. The Boat House is maintained by the Tamil Nadu Tourism Development Corporation who have for the purpose of tourism established Lake Park Jolly World.
The tallest memorial in Ooty, St. Thomas’ Church (and funeral grounds) built in 1870 overlooks the lake.
Ooty Horse Racing
The Ooty racecourse is one of the most famous of its kind in India and is located in the centre of Ooty. The circuit is 2.4 km long and a very popular spot during the summer months of April, May and June.
10 km away is the highest peak of the Nilgiris situated at 2623 metres where the Western and Eastern Ghats meet. Snow down hill, Club hill, and Elk hill along with Dodabetta Peak form the magnificent Udhagamandalam Valley. On a blue sky day the view is magnificent – you will be able to see Coonoor, Wellington, Mettupalayam, and Coimbatore and on a really clear cloudless day, even Mysore.
Picnic spots Cairn hill and Avalanche 15 km away replete with cypress trees; the undisturbed wild habitat of the Upper Bhavanis 10 km away; Mukurti now a National Park; and the sacred Pykara river and water falls are all places in and around Ooty that must be visited. Water angling is popular at the Avalanche reservoir and Upper Bhavani reservoir replete with rainbow trout. These areas are beautiful – dense forests, the shola grasslands which are like stunted evergreen forests, and hills layered by tea plantations.
16km East of Ooty town on the lower slopes of the Doddabetta peak is Tiger Hill where a 3km trek will find you at a spot where one of the town’s drinking water reservoirs are situated. A nearby cave is one known for its colourful religious legends.
2km away Wenlock Downs offers a wonderful walking track along silent sleepy roads. The Gymkhana Club, the government Sheep Farm and Hindustan Photo Films Company are situated here.
Law's falls, St Catherine Falls
7 km from in the Ghats of Coonoor forest range is the beautiful drop of Law’s Falls and the nearby St. Catherine Falls 1km from there.
17 km from the Ooty town bus stand is Glenmorgan, an ecologically diverse forest. Here there is a winch which carries passengers and staff of the Glenmorgan Electricity Board to power house at Singara. The 4km winch ride courses through the stunning sholas and vibrant wildlife habitat. The view of Mysore from Glenmorgan is fabulous on clear days.
Kathatty Water Falls
13 km from Ooty town, on the Ooty road through to the Kalhatty Ghats is one of the best places for trekking in the Ooty vicinity - the area round the Kathatty Falls. At its best the falls are 40m high and ideal to visit in September - November.
Ketti Valley View
On the Coonoor road is the second largest valley in the world, Ketti Valley. It comprises of a collection of small villages stretching into the plains of Coimbatore and Mysore plateau. It affords another beautiful view of Mysore.
Mudumalai Wildlife Sanctury
67 km away is the well known Mudumalai Wildlife Sanctuary in the Nilgiri District and is a wonderful way to spend a day, preferably few days. The wild life at the sanctuary is spectacular - elephant, gaur, tiger, panther, sambhar, spotted deer, barking deer, mouse, wild boar, monitor lizards, python and porcupine; and an array of birds such as the minivets, hornbills, fairy blue birds, jungle fowls etc. The sanctuary also offers an experience of the Moyar Waterfalls, Ombetta Swamp, Theppakad elephant camp etc.
Elephant rides and vehicle rides are at fixed rates and available to the tourist
Deserving a very special mention is the Toy Train, a Unesco World Heritage Site, that connects Ooty to Mettupalayam. Large windows, wooden coaches, blue and cream bodied it is truly charming, originally designed by the Swiss Locomotive Works. Though plans to first build it were made in 1854 it was only 45 years later in 1899 that the first of its kind wheezed and chugged along its tracks. The Toy Train covers 46km- passing ten stations- five between Mettupalayam and Coonoor and five between Coonoor and Ooty. Passing through the rice fields between Mettupalayam and Kallar and an intensely rocky terrain soon thereafter for 21km, the train passes over 26 viaducts and undulates through 13 tunnels. The toy Train ascends a steep hill to Coonoor known for its beautiful tea plantations and then on to Fern Hill the highest point on the track. Before reaching Ooty the track dips downhill suddenly. The thrum and clatter of the train through tunnels over hills and down valleys, its beautiful scenery and the awesome opportunities for photography are things that make this trip worth your time and holiday!
Where to Stay
Fortune Hotel Sullivan Court
Holiday Inn Gem Park Ooty
Welcom Heritage Regency Villas