Down south, homestays in the coffee rich Coorg region have been popular holiday destinations for a while.
Reason? These palatial homestays offer a taste of royal living in century- old Kodagu homes with spectacular wood work, along with the regional Pandi curry and rich filter coffee.
With a few coffee shrubs growing around, these bungalows one can actually stretch out a hand from the breakfast table in the verandah and pluck some beans and savour the aroma or dig into their bitterness. In the Northeast, a similar homestay experience in heritage tea bungalows awaits tourists awestruck by the chai ke bagaan around. And the brew offered here " Tea Holiday" is going down very well with international and regional connoisseurs coming to experience all that is associated with their daily cuppa.
When East India Company introduced tea industry in Assam, little did they know that they would be bringing in yet another legacy that would go by the nomenclature of " tea tourism", providing a dekko into the tea world a century later.
It includes a visit to tea factory, tea plantation, a meal or a high tea amid the tea bushes, a visit to local villages and more. Today tea estates in Tinsukia, Jorhat, Dibrugarh and Sonitpur have converted their heritage properties as homestays, adding a dash of modern amenities.
A few tea estates in Kurseong and some others in the Dooars of north Bengal have also been dishing out this new flavour of niche tourism. Despite word- of- mouth publicity, these estates run packed, thanks to the aura that is associated with century- old buildings and the Raj hangover.
A case in point is Wild Mahseer, the British Assam heritage property owned by McLeod Russel India Limited and managed by River Journeys & Bungalows of India Pvt. Ltd.
Wild Mahseer has hosted many celebrities, including actor Aamir Khan, Nobel laureate and economist Joseph Stiglitz, ministers from Myanmar and more.
The homestay opened 10 years ago with the heritage bungalow and added a few more blocks across time. The bungalows that once housed the group accountant, doctor and visiting agent's office.
Originally the visiting agent's residence, the heritage bungalow, offers a slice of British planters' lifestyle. The lawn is big enough to double as a mini golf course. Three palatial suites, a living area with a log- fired hearth and leather upholstery in beige — these come for a premium.
The study holds an interesting collection of books and collectibles. Don't miss the photo gallery of angling buffs posing with their catch. The name of the resort comes from Mahseer, the prized fish found in the Jia Bharali river nearby.
The other bungalows in the homestay, spread over 22 acres, are named from the tea lexicon: First Flush Dining Pavilion, Two and Bud conference facility, Golden Tips, Second Flush, Ambrosia and Silver Tips.
For instance, a flush is when the tea bush produces leaves. Each bungalow has a dining area, a lawn and suites. An interesting suite in the property is the child- friendly Baba Kamra with no glass topped tables or rough edges. Having an idiot box around while on a tea holiday kills the purpose of the vacation when one can go around and look up places of interest nearby or visit the tea factory, eat fenugreek and cottage cheese dishes, lentils, chicken curry mildly spiced with herbs, pudding and the rest of the delectable fare offered or gather some knowledge at the tea sampling session held in the front office.
The front office that doubles as the dining area used to be a garage. The skylight in the roof filters the sun onto beige rose- printed upholstery while the bay windows open into an opening under the trees with a bonfire surrounded by a circle of rugged log stools.
The cabinets in the dining hall showcase a wide collection of tea, dating back to the 19th century, a few with French and Mandarin labels as well. " These were packed in France, China, the UK, Germany and Vietnam," says Hardev Singh, manager, Wild Mahseer.
For those who want to take some brew home are boxes of British Assam tea, tea from estates in Sonitpur, Dibrugarh, Dooars, leaf CTC, green tea, mint green tea, Darjeeling White 2002, Earl Grey, lemon tea and cardamom tea for sale here. F rom the one- by- two chai served in cafes in Hyderabad to the creamy brew served in kulhars at Satna railway station, tea has been sought after across the country. But it is at a tea- sampling session that one gets to know the subtle differences between a strong CTC and a fragrant Formosa Oolong.
Tea sampling is much like wine tasting. You imbibe the various flavours along the course of sampling.
" Tea tasting is an experience. You have different grades of tea. For instance CTC is what we call daanedar chai . The long leaf tea is the orthodox tea.
Pekoe dust is for people who like their tea strong. Leaf tea is slightly lighter but brighter in the cup," explains Singh.
After sipping the Hajua Half Leaf Monkey Pick, Egyptian Camomile and Makabari Golden Tips, one can differentiate between the flavours and strengths of the brew.
Pekoe Fenny dust and Broken Orange Pekoe are robust teas that are used in Indian homes.
The homestay also organises a visit to the tea plantation and factory. And a few words of caution while at the homestay.
Walk around but beware of teen mobs cycling around erratically on rented bicycles.
Loud families who probably landed here by fluke can steal your peace. Take a stroll during the day. The roads are serene lined by broomplants, bamboo and jackfruit, mulberry and litchi trees, the silence broken by occasional chatter of primate friends perched on some lamppost or fence with a fruit in hand.
Elephant herds are said to have wandered into the property. But what is a tusker between you and a cup of chai that is sweetened with some angrezon ke zamaney ka flavour ? Dining area Dining area in the bungalow WHAT TO DO? There are a lot of places to see around so it is a good idea to plan a four- day holiday keeping aside two days for Wild Mahseer. Visit a tea factory on one of the days. Kaziranga visit can be teamed up with the stay here so that you ensure a day's stay in the lodges there and take the safari ride. Nameri National Park is a short drive away. The Potasali Eco Camp there offers tented accommodation.
Choose a big car with high ground clearance as the road to the eco resort is uneven. Avoid white water rafting on the Jia Bharali river. Overcrowded rafts in a turbulent river are not a good idea.
Further with no fencing near parking area, the river is a sure no- no for a trip with children.
Nameri and Kaziranga are not recommended for a trip with children below seven. A safari in the latter with children is not a safe option. If you are going with infants, it is better to visit Wild Mahseer
A bungalow in the resort A resort staff gets set for a tea sampling session Souvenirs of art and history Log- fired hearth