A (blissful) week in South Karnataka
I would pay my partner, Anurag, to have him plan trips for me. He is very good at it. Instead, I get to go on beautifully laid out trips for free. I have spent the past week jouncing across South Karnataka following his itinerary assembled over a month. It was incredible. Since a ton of people think Kerala, Pondicherry or Ooty first when planning a trip in the southern peninsula, and even when they think of Karnataka, they’ll typically plan around Hampi or Gokarna (i.e. North) I figured I’d lay out why South Karnataka is an underrated place to head to when you can.
Stop 1: Mysore
So as always happens with plans that are too good to be true, this one had hiccups too. My partner couldn’t join me for the Mysore leg of the trip because of an emergency. I was nervous since I hadn’t planned for this to be a solo trip. Mysore ended up being my solo leg of the trip and exceeded all expectations. I flew in to Bangalore and had a cab drive me to Mysore (about 5 hours). I stayed at a charming but rundown heritage home in the heart of the Ashtanga Yoga neighborhood of Mysore (insanely cheap, incredible food).
As soon as I got in, I laced up my sneakers and ran to a bakery that was widely recommended — Sapa Bakery. The coffee and all the bakes were delicious, but the warmth of the people at the bakery is what I took away. At Sapa, I met many friendly local souls who gave me their Mysore must-dos. At Sapa, I also made a running friend.
I will add that I found Mysore very walkable and runnable as a town. I never felt unsafe after dark. The only worry running on the roads was the traffic. But on my second morning in Mysore, I was introduced to Kukarahalli Lake by my new running friend, Sindhu — who by the way is in the ultra-running league (i.e. way out of my league). We went on a lovely morning run around the lake, which is about a 2 mile loop and perfect for bird watching enthusiasts.
Post the run, we had excellent filter coffee at the Mysuru Kaapi cart. The coffee was so great that I came back there the day after and brought my partner there when he finally made it to Mysore for 3 hours before we moved on to our next destination.
In terms of dosa, the akka (elder sister) at my homestay fed me delicious ragi dosas till I couldn’t eat more.
I also had the fluffiest Benne (i.e. butter in Kannada) at this hole in the wall called Mylari Nazarbad. The place literally has six tables that are full throughout the day. It opens as early as 6:30 am and you need to get there early if you’re interested in some of the hot selling commodities such as thatte idli (a giant, soft and buttery idli). I was told this place is owned by an enterprising old woman.
I walked around the city, bought all the silk sarees for the ladies in my family, saw the usual sights — Mysore palace. I was too spooked by the thought of sighting leopards alone so I didn’t undertake the hike to Chamundi Hills but I’ve heard that’s a fantastic thing to do as well.
For my last night in Mysore, I moved myself and my luggage to Hotel Metropole which is an iconic stay in Mysore. It was originally a guest house built by the royal family of Mysore and has all the old-world charm of the British clubs in Calcutta. My partner made it to Mysore at 3 am on my last day there. We did a pit-stop at Mysuru kaapi by the lake, bought another silk saree, drove past the palace and set off for a 1.5 hour drive to stop #2: the dense jungles of Nagarhole for some wildlife exploration.
Stop 2: Nagarhole National Park
For our stay at Nagarhole, we went all out glamping and stayed at the Bison Resort. The waterfront tents are incredible. You look out to the Kabini river which mostly dries out in the summer and you can see elephants and other wildlife at the other end of the dried up water body. We reached at the heels of the monsoon and didn’t spot much from our tent except the beautiful horses at the Bison that graze in front of the river and are perpetually picture perfect.
Okay, huge shoutout to the food at the Bison. Anurag and I couldn’t quite pin down what it was that we loved so much about it — maybe fresh whole spices, could also be the immediate environment but it was just beyond satisfying. We couldn’t stop gorging on the home-style mango souffle post our afternoon safari. Also by the end of our stay at Bison, I’m pretty sure Anurag’s veins were less blood and more filter coffee — he just couldn’t stop.
Now, the wildlife: The black panther of the Nagarhole forest (Saya) became quite the celebrity post the Nat Geo documentary that was filmed by the owner of Bison (Shaaz Jung) and others recently. The forest has about 127 (?) tigers. Though the safari areas are less than 15% of the forest, there are about 30 tigers in the safari area alone, in addition to other big cats — leopards and of course, the famed black panther. The big cats thrive in this forest partly because this region has the largest concentration of prey (cheetal and sambar deer, the Indian bison (gaur), and so on) in all of Asia. The jungle itself is hauntingly beautiful. What I loved about Bison was how passionate everyone was about understanding, respecting, preserving and coexisting with wildlife. Also, do not miss the spider walk Shashank offers at night — my mind was blown by the incredible architects that spiders are and all the strategy that goes into their web spinning and hunting.
When you are planning Nagarhole, one benefit of staying at the government run Kabini lodge is that you always get preference for a jeep safari as opposed to a cantor (16 person open bus) safari but you trade off the glam offered by places like the Bison, the Serai and others. Bordering the Kabini jungle are the Bandipur forests, which apparently has an even greater concentration of big cats. This is the aspect that stunned us about South Karnataka. There was a wildlife reserve literally around every corner and casual jeep rides turned into safaris when we were least expecting it.
Stop 3: Chikmagalur
Did you know that Coorg and Chikmagalur account for 70% of the coffee produced by India? Our next stop was the coffee country of India. We picked Chikamagalur since we were hoping to go on some hikes and felt like it was the underdog destination compared to Coorg. The drive from Nagerhole to our coffee estate stay in Chikmagalur was about 5 and a half hours but you don’t feel the miles because of the stunning vistas. Because the landscape is all rolling hills, you see pretty far into the horizon and the views are almost always interspersed with the ghats and we couldn’t get enough of the post-monsoon greenery.
In Chikmagalur, we stayed at the Halle Berri coffee estate homestay. This homestay is a little far off from the town but close to some great hikes and is large enough to hike around within. The coffee estate is spread across about 200 acres and owned by Nalini Kariappa and her three daughters. Our walks and runs in the coffee estates were spectacular with coffee shrubs everywhere under rows of silver oak trees with pepper vines growing on them. Now be warned, this homestay is not for you if bugs freak you out and you’re looking for all out luxury. In that case, the Tipanhalli estate may be a better option. But if you’re hunting for not manicured wilderness, Halle Berri is the place to be.
They also offer a night safari. In fact, they don’t allow guests to walk around the estate post 5 pm since they border the Bhadra wildlife reserve. Leopards and panthers often saunter into the estate in the evening, so do wild boars. The boars of course get cooked and served up as the iconic pandi curry with traditional Akki roti (made of rice flour). Anurag and I are predominantly vegetarian and still had plenty to love in the local cuisine — i.e. the Malnad cuisine. This region is known as the Malnad region and has a distinctive sub-cuisine. Akki rotis, spicy meat curries, spiced pumpkin and, wait for it, rajma (beans) cooked with coconut and spices. Now Anurag is north Indian and a rajma purist and he loved this Malnad spin on the dish. The night safari was thrilling and not for the weak of heart. The jeep literally drove through the thicket on paths that were far from motorable. I was most worried about getting stuck in the forest at night knowing fully well that big cats are all over the area. We did spot civet cats and wild boars. If I were honest, by stomach was in knots throughout but it was adventure all right. Halle Berri also has a lovely café run by women. They spin up an excellent cheesecake that’s perfect to dive into after running around uphill in the estate.
While in Chikmagalur, we also attempted the Z point trek. It was insanely misty on the day of and we strayed and ended up on a different hike altogether. It’s not the best idea hiking in the region right now because it’s leeches galore. You need to make sure your socks are long and there are no entry points for these blood sucking little devils. While the blanket of mist made the hike difficult since you could barely see beyond 10 meters, we felt like we were walking through clouds the whole time.
The emerald hue of the western ghats against the bright red soil, all the more brighter because of the rains made it an incredible hike. The Z point hike is about 8 km long. Another spectacular hike in the region is the Mulayanagiri trek that takes the entire day to wrap up — it’s about 21 km long and the route is open only for hiking. No vehicles are allowed in the area. This hike was closed when we were around since hikers had gone missing on the trail recently. We also lucked out in that we had the Z point trail to ourselves since most people weren’t brave or foolish enough to go venturing out in the mist with leeches.
Close to the Z point/Kemungundi trail are the spectacular Hebbe waterfalls. These falls are within the Bhadra tiger reserve. So you can only get there on a forest department jeep. You have to wait till there are enough people to fill the jeep to set off for the ride. We didn’t have to wait long, people showed up despite the rapidly increasing mist. This jeep ride to the falls also turned into a safari — we spotted the rare sambar deer when we least expected it. Two days back, one of the jeeps witnessed a tiger crossing the trail. 45 minutes later, you get off the jeep and set off for about 700 meters surrounded by coffee shrubs once again till you reach this spectacular waterfall.
Post Chikmagalur, we set off for our final stop — Bangalore — but made a pit stop in Belur to check out a 12th century Hoysala temple complex. The architecture speaks for itself. This temple complex visit was very different — not crowded, no pestering God-men, and the melee of visitors was diverse in terms of religion.
Closing time: Bangalore
The drive from Chikmagalur to Bangalore (also 5.5 hours) flies because of the views and mostly great roads till you reach Bangalore. The nightmares we had heard about Bangalore traffic manifested in full form, partly because it was a Saturday evening and it rained. We tried to be smart and got a hotel not too far from the airport and not too deep in the city but ended up in a rather sub-par spot. If we had to do it again, ITC Windsor would be an ideal spot, not too far from places you’d be interested in seeing and not disastrous in terms of traffic time to the airport. Traffic woes aside, we started our last day with a lovely AM walk around Cubbon park, the Vidhan Sabha (legislative assembly) and High court buildings are as nice as the Mall area in Washington DC.
Post our walk, we packed in dosas and filter coffee to our heart’s content at MTR. Though we got there too late to catch the Rava dosa, which apparently was popularized by MTR. We visited the Bangalore palace, which to be honest, has nothing on Mysore palace but was pleasant regardless. Interesting fact — in the princely state of Mysore, women were granted the right to vote at about the same time franchise was granted to women in England and the United States. We ended our adventure in South Karnataka at the Arbor Brewing pub, couldn’t leave Bangalore without sampling it’s fabled beer scene which lived up to it’s reputation for sure.
I write this while on the flight back to Delhi, heart content, lungs full of clean air, and full of gratitude for the past 10 days in South Karnataka. Not looking forward to the pollution that will sting my eyes as soon as I land in Delhi, but the memories of this trip will get me through till the smog clears up. All of this to say, next time you plan a trip to Dakshin Bharat, South Karnataka is a hidden gem to consider.
Thank you for reading!