Perched on top of the Palani range, around 120km northwest of Madurai, KODAIKANAL, also known as Kodai, owes its perennial popularity to its hilltop position which, at an altitude of more than 2000m, affords breathtaking views over the blue-green reaches of the Vaigai plain. Raj-era bungalows and flower-filled gardens add atmosphere, while short walks out of the centre lead to rocky outcrops, waterfalls and dense shola forest. With the more northerly wildlife sanctuaries and forest areas of the Ghats closed to visitors, Kodai’s outstandingly scenic hinterland also offers south India’s best trekking terrain.
After a while in the south Indian plains, a retreat to Kodai’s cool heights is more than welcome. However, in the height of summer (April–July), when temperatures compete with those in the lowlands, it’s not worth the trip – nor is it a good idea to come during the monsoon (Oct–Dec), when the town is shrouded in mists and drenched by heavy downpours. In late February and early March the nights are chilly; the peak tourist season, therefore, is from April to June, when prices soar.
Kodai’s focal point is its lake, sprawling like a giant amoeba over 60 acres just west of the town centre. This is a popular place for strolls or bike rides along the 5km path that fringes the water’s edge, while pedal- or rowing boats can be rented on the eastern shore. Horseriding is also an option here – it costs Rs50 to be led along the lakeside for 500m, or Rs200 for an hour’s ride. Shops, restaurants and hotels are concentrated in a rather congested area east of and downhill from the lake. The only monuments to Kodai’s colonial past are the neat British bungalows that overlook the lake, and Law’s Ghat Road on the eastern edge of town. The British first moved here in 1845, to be joined later by members of the American Mission, who set up schools for European children.
To the south is Bryant’s Park, with tiered flowerbeds on a backdrop of pine, eucalyptus, rhododendron and wattle which stretches southwards to Shola Road, less than 1km from the point where the hill drops abruptly to the plains. A flower show is held here in May. A path, known as Coaker’s Walk, skirts the hill, winding from the Villa Retreat to Greenland’s Youth Hostel (10min), offering remarkable views that stretch as far as Madurai on a clear day.
One of Kodai’s most popular natural attractions is the Pillar Rocks, 7km south of town, where a series of granite cliffs rise more than 100m above the hillside. To get here, follow the westbound Observatory Road from the northernmost point of the lake (a steep climb) until you come to a crossroads; the southbound road passes the gentle Fairy Falls on the way to Pillar Rocks. Some 2km west of the lake, the signposted Bear Shola Falls now sees barely a trickle of water but remains a popular picnic and photo-stop for local tourists.
Southeast of the town centre, about 3km down Law’s Ghat Road (towards the plains), the Shenbaganur Natural Science Museum has a very uninviting array of stuffed animals. However, the spectacular orchid house contains one of India’s best collections, which can be viewed by appointment only (ask at the tourist office). Head 2km further along Law’s Ghat Road to reach Silver Cascade waterfall, where the overflow from Kodai Lake has created a pleasant pool for bathing.
Chettiar Park, on the very northeast edge of town, around 3km from the lake at the end of a winding uphill road, flourishes with trees and flowers all year round, and every twelve years is flushed with a haze of pale-blue Kurinji blossoms (the next flowering will not be until 2018). These unusual flowers are associated with the god Murugan, the Tamil form of Karttikeya (Shiva’s second son), and god of Kurinji, one of five ancient divisions of the Tamil country. A temple in his honour stands just outside the park.