The first time I traveled to India in 2012, I did a pretty standard tourist loop through the country. Palaces in Rajasthan. An obligatory pilgrimage to the Taj Mahal. Delhi and Mumbai were givens. I only had a few weeks in country, so after hitting the major tourist spots, I downed one last cup of delicious chai and vowed to make it back to see more of the country.
South Indian Road Trip
Flash forward 4 years, and I was making my first trip back to the subcontinent that I had fallen in love with, this time with my boyfriend (who I’m also in love with) and who happens to be a native of Delhi. Rather than hitting up his hometown,we wanted to explore a new part of the country, a place where neither of us had been or had even heard much about. So, we set out to take an ambitious road trip through Southern India. I, being a New Yorker, don’t drive, and he, being a North Indian, doesn’t speak any of the local languages in the South. So, we hired a multi-lingual driver from Tamil Nadu and hit the road. Did I mention that his family was in the car too?
Loading into one van, with luggage strapped to the roof, we hit the road for what would could only be described as the best off-the-beaten-path drive through a country that I just can’t get enough of.
Our first destination was Chikmagalur (also called Chickmagaluru), a hill station located in Karnataka state. It’s reputation is more local, where it’s known for it’s stunning views from the lush, green mountain tops which are dotted with waterfalls and coffee plantations. None of us, including his entire family, had heard of Chikmagalur, so we decided to give it a try.
Why go to Chikmagulur?
The big selling point of Chikmagalur was the climate. We were traveling during the southwest monsoon season, and it was summer time in the rest of the Northern Hemisphere. Yet, thanks to it’s altitude and monsoon patterns, Chikmagalur was cool, and only rained for short bouts on most days. During evenings we needed a light jacket, and a warm blanket in bed, but when the sun was out during the day it warmed up nicely.
I also enjoyed the small town feel of the city, and the lack of crowds at the major sites. This was the perfect place to visit ancient temples, speak with the priests inside, and never feel the crush of people like in other places in India. It also helped that (from what I was told) many domestic tourists don’t travel during monsoon season, and, if they do, they typically stick to places like Bangalore which get the least amount of rain.
Homestays Are The Way to Go
For our first accommodation, we decided to try a homestay. We had heard positive reviews of one and was somewhat disappointed when it was entirely booked. However, the owner recommended a second location that was able to accommodate us. Though it didn’t look as nice in the pictures, it would certainly do the trick. It seems that homestays are quite the thing to do in this part of India and the best book up far in advance.
Most homestays in the area offer room and board packages, since quality restaurants are hard to come by. As we were the only vegetarians staying with them, they basically prepared us whatever vegetables we wanted every meal. All of the vegetables came from their organic garden, which was a plus.
So how was the food?
I’m certainly not an expert in Indian food, but since I was traveling with a few, I looked to their queues on what to try. For the most part, the food was well prepared, though very simple. Keeping true to the idea of a homestay, it was typical family food with no frills. Even the set up was very basic- a couple hired local boys set up crocks of the freshly prepared food outside and we all helped ourselves buffet style. Dishes were a mix of north and south Indian and a few dishes seemed to be the family’s own creations. Overall, it was alright though it didn’t win us over, but it was certainly much better than the options we saw when out exploring.
The room at the homestay surprised me, as it wasn’t actually within their home. It seems that most homestays in the area are either additions that have been built onto the main home, or separate cabins. Our cabin was comfortable, though certainly not luxurious. The shower head fell off as soon as we turned on the water and our showers were lukewarm. However, I’m sure that this is representative of what life is like for most of the families, so I appreciated the authentic experience.
Just keep in mind, if you’re looking for a bit more interaction with your hosts, you’ll want to make sure to ask about this before booking. The term homestay seem to be used almost interchangeably with what we might call a bed and breakfast in the US. The family was certainly available for chats and questions, but we didn’t all sit around the dinner table at night chatting about life. In fact, all our meals were taken outside in the garden area and we never actually ventured into their living quarters.
I was also surprised by the mealtimes. Lunch is served between 1-3 pm and dinner from 8-11 pm. Having lived in the Chinese countryside where dinner is at 6 pm sharp without exception I couldn’t believe that the other families staying at the same homestay were eating dinner at 10:30 pm. We followed their lead but with jetlag and exhaustion from exploring all day I could barely stay awake late enough to eat dinner.
One of the highlights of the homestay was the location. It was on a dirt road, far outside the city center. The neighbors were farmers and when out for a walk in the evening we were careful to avoid getting trampled as they brought their animals back after the day’s work ended. Don’t forget to pack a flashlight since there aren’t any street lamps in these parts.
Want to Travel to Chikmagulur?
We flew to Bangalore before setting off for our Chikmagalur adventure. It’s about 250 km or 150 miles, and on Indian roads that’s a full day’s drive. Alternately, their are trains that make the journey, or a public bus that takes about 6 hours. I suggest hiring a driver from a reputable company to avoid the hassle.
Communication with most individuals was best done in English as Hindi speakers are rare. Even our driver, who spoke several languages including Hindi and English, preferred to use English.
There are several English websites to help you find a homestay in the area. This one seems to have many options and clear pictures. Rates for a nice room run about $30 USD per person including breakfast.
Have you done a homestay in India? What was your experience like?