I sip freshly-brewed tea infused with lavendar and pepper mint leaves picked from the backyard garden, as I soak in the stunning view of the emerald blue waters ofAvalanche Lake amidst the green valley. Dusk unfolds at Destiny farm stay in Avalanche. It is at a 45-minute drive from Udhagamandalam, including a 20-minute bumpy ride on forest terrain to get to the property. The 130-acre farm stay resort set across two hills and a lake, amidst the wilderness of the Nilgiris Biosphere, has terraced slopes that display rows of cultivated seasonal vegetables, and picture postcard views. “It’s a working farm, we have horses, free range chicken, a dairy, and adventure activities like rock climbing, rappelling, valley crossing done under the supervision of instructors from the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute,” says Vijay Prabhu, founder and owner of Littlearth chain of boutique hotels in Udhagamandalam. Although a lawyer, his heart lies in offering holiday-experiences to people.
“It all started when he was looking for pre-loved British style furniture for a small farmhouse he had in Avalanche,” says Meeta Prabhu, his wife, an engineer, who also runs the group’s boutique hotels and is theinterior designer of the properties. “This search led him to a guest house called King’s Cliff in Udhagamandalam that was giving away old furniture. Vijay instantly decided to renovate and make it a bed and breakfast place. His hospitality career took off from that moment.”
Vijay adds that the King’s Cliff used to be run as a bed and breakfast even in the 1920s. “We have displayed the tariff card where the rooms were charged in annas. While renovating, we ensured we retained the old charm.” They added more boutique hotels to the portfolio, including Sherlock, another British style bungalow that has been remodelled, the Mangifera, set on the fringes of Bandipur Wildlife Sanctuary, Destiny farm stay and recently, Cintacor, an island resort in the Arabian sea off the Karwar coast.
While a 60-acre farm at Destiny nurtures English vegetables, seasonal produce, herbs, and greens, the backyard kitchen garden has kale, brussels sprout, fiery pink rhubarb, (fleshy, edible stalks) that go into the making of pickles and jams, varieties of Chinese and red cabbage, basil and thyme, and wild chow chow caters to the kitchen. “The concept is farm-to-fork at the in-house Wishbone restaurant,” says SK Shantha Kumar, GM of Littlearth group.
While families enjoy the outing with Nature with children and pets in tow, corporates choose the stay for leadership and team building exercises. They have also tied-up with schools to offer experiential learning. “Children are given a patch of barren land of about 400 square feet. They have to get their hands dirty, fork it, clean it, sow seeds, and add cow dung manure during the three-day or five-day programme. Eventually, they learn to appreciate efforts that go into farming. In the process, we also teach them to cut down food wastage. It’s a value-based learning approach and we have reached out to thousands of children,” says Vijay.
The couple strives to offer a memorable holiday experience to the discerning traveller. “We are constantly looking to offer new food experiences. The idea is to put together what we enjoy ourselves on a holiday. To start with, stay in a quaint place that has an interesting character and a story to it,” explains Meeta.
The group has opened Le Cafe, an outdoor cafe in the heart of Udhagamandalam that has a European style vibe to it, while at The Periodic Table at the same venue that offers contemporary European and French cuisine, Vijay’s vision is to offer molecular gastronomy. “We are working towards making The Periodic Table a gourmet destination,” says Arup Kakati, corporate chef, adding that they are also experimenting with local produce sourced from indigenous communities. “We get beans from the Badaga communities and make a French pureed soup and an Italian style ravioli stuffed with seasonable vegetables. We also have a chef tasting menu, a four-course and five-course menu as well as ala carte.” The Earl’s Secret restaurant at the old world King’s Cliff, a 130-year-old building in a lovely garden ambience, offers Chinese, Indian and continental cuisines. At Le Cafe, they have added a supermarket that also features a hydroponics bay where one can pick up fresh lettuce and greens, and a monthly farmer’s market.
The accidental hoteliers pride themselves on the fact that they don’t run their properties as ‘hotels’. “We have hired professionals from the industry but we thrive on the personal connect we share with our customers,” says Meeta adding that the group is particular about sustainable operations, and has cut down on plastics at source, segregates waste, and recycles. Vijay also dreams of setting up a vegetable auction mandi in the Nilgiris with a cold chain attached to it. “The locals can make use of it and this ensures farmers get a fair price. The Nilgiris is like the vegetable bowl. While the effective contribution to the economy comes from tourism, the thriving vegetables segment packs immense potential.”