Saturday, 25 March 2017

Magnificent magnolias for Mother's Day

High Beeches Gardens in West Sussex is a remarkable woodland garden
We're all getting ready for Mother's Day - buying flowers, arranging lunch or an outing, but why not take your mother somewhere really special this Sunday? Choose a garden, walk around and admire the magnificent magnolias in bloom - they are really special flowers that will leave a lasting impression! And there are some fantastic gardens in the South-East of England that are easily accessible.
High Beeches Gardens, south of London, have some of the best magnolias on display anywhere and offer the chance to take a woodland walk that takes in fantastic rhododendrons, swaying daffodils and views that will leave you astonished. Open from 13.00 this Sunday, specially for Mother's Day and it's well worth a visit.
You'll find more magnificent magnolias and rhododendrons at Borde Hill, with the former in flower and the latter beginning to bloom (and so early this year, that the garden has opened a week ahead of schedule to enable visitors to truly enjoy the visual delights on offer).
In Hampshire, there's the Sir Harold Hillier Gardens, with its extensive magnolia collection close to the main house at the heart of the garden. 
And of course, there's always Kew Gardens, on the fringes of London, with its own collection of these wonderful trees and magnificent glasshouses. And if you're visiting, don't forget to marvel at The Hive - an amazing artform in the middle of the garden.
And look out for other spring marvels at all these gardens, including carpets of flowers
But let's not forget, if it hadn't been for the formidable plant explorers who travelled far and wide in centuries gone by, we would not have any of these magnificent trees here in the UK.

Happy Mother's Day and let's hope the sun shines!

Wednesday, 22 February 2017

Wordless Wednesday - 8th wonder of the world - the mobile phone

It doesn't matter how far off the beaten track you are, you'll still find a mobile phone!

Thursday, 2 February 2017

"Garden of Eden" in Kerala - Amaryllis Homestay

Evening view from the veranda at Amaryllis, looking down into the valley below
If you're in search of the "Garden of Eden", look no further than Kerala, in the hills near Wayanad, where you'll find Amaryllis Homestay - another peaceful haven away from the frenetic pace of daily life in India. This is Victor and Ranjini Dey's home, in a prime location, overlooking a fertile, green valley, where they welcome guests from all over the world into their productive coffee plantation.
Victor has lived the plantation life since he was a young man, when he first arrived in Kerala from Calcutta, aged 20, and started working in a tea plantation near the well-known hill station, Ooty. His monthly stipend was a mere 250 Indian Rupees (a little over £3.00 at today's exchange rates) although he only brought home less than half of this to his new bride Ranjini, after other deductions. He still keeps a copy of his wages slip in the bar at Amaryllis to remind him of those days.
Victor has worked in the industry for 50 years now, managing tea, coffee and cardamom crops on different plantations, but most recently at the Kuppamudi Estate, which is also home to another popular Wayanad tourist property called Tranquil. But in 2006, they chanced upon the site that is now Amaryllis and when they saw the view (see below) from the plot they'd discovered, they knew this was the perfect place for their new home.
Building started in 2008 when they brought in the necessary equipment to level the top of the hill and four years later, construction was finished. But Victor continued to work as manager at the neighbouring Kuppamudi Estate and it was not until January 2016 that they opened to guests. What you see there today is a tribute to their combined efforts - a magnificently-run home, with far reaching views. But particularly noteworthy is Victor's clever use of local woods to decorate their home. 
On the day we arrived, I didn't recognise the coffee plants because they were all bearing white blossoms (above), rather than the familiar reddish pods (below). But Victor explained that the harvest doesn't normally finish until mid to late February and this year is unusual because there has been unseasonal regional rain, which has encouraged the plants to blossom early.
Once the blossom fully opens, it will remain open for three days and produce a jasmine-like smell before beginning to dry out in the sun, sticking to the small berry that's forming there and providing protection throughout the hot summer months and monsoon season.And so another coffee berry cycle begins, with the pod continuing to grow for a further 9-10 months and finally being harvested the following year when it has reached full size. 
Wander around the grounds at Amaryllis and you will find many other delights, including pepper creeping up the trees; Artocarpus heterophyllus - the "Jack" fruit tree, with its monumental green fruit blooms; and a plethora of tropical plant delights, as well as hundreds of potted plants that decorate the terraces.
But it's the homestay experience that makes Amaryllis so special. Both Victor and Janjini have many years of experience in the hospitality industry, after their long stint at nearby Tranquil. They are charming hosts and they run a wonderful home. Most of the bedrooms are in the main house, but for a really special experience, stay in one of the two tree houses on site (see below), both constructed of local bamboo. 
Amaryllis is one of the new-generation Indian homestays that promises to make travelling here easier for visitors seeking a combination of comfort and local interest. Beautifully furnished rooms, wonderful home cooking and efficient bathrooms. Victor and Jini take great pride in their home and extend their hospitality to all their guests. I for one, will be return ing next time I visit Kerala.

Monday, 30 January 2017

Windermere – a jewel in the Indian plantation crown

Munnar, one of Kerala’s most popular hill stations, is located high in the Western Ghats of southern India. It is home to tea, coffee and cardamom plantations; making for luxurious landscapes; verdant vistas; and, if you find the right place to stay, a welcome break from the frantic hustle and bustle of everyday life in India.
 Parts of Windermere are reminiscent of European gardens
One of Munnar’s best-kept secrets is the Windermere Estate – a long-established, 60-acre cardamom and coffee plantation owned by the Simon family since 1987. Today it is also run as a delightful, discreet 18-room plantation home, where guests are welcomed into a friendly environment, treated as part of the family and given delicious home-cooked food, astounding views, a carefully-tended garden filled with interesting plants, and an opportunity to explore the plantation on your doorstep, as well as the incredible tea fields around you.
Part of the charm of the garden at Windermere is the mix of sub-tropical plants and English flowers
The name is attributed to the well-known and much-visited place in England – Windermere – because a former houseguest of the previous owner, Mr I.C. Chacko, who was part of the Indian Civil Service under the British Raj – commented that the view from his window reminded him of our much-loved Lake District back home.
Visitors will see many birds here including the red-cheeked bulbul
Munnar is located in the Idukki district of Kerala and is listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. It was once the summer resort of the British Government in south India, but today is a popular visitor destination for both foreigners and domestic tourists. Any reader familiar with Charles Jencks’ work, would be forgiven for thinking that perhaps he gained inspiration for some of his incredible forms from the tea plantations here. 
   No visitor can fail to be impressed by the extra-ordinary landscape here, with tea plants covering every available inch of land in the region. The tea plant is actually part of the Camellia family (Camellia sinensis) and the top two inches of the shrub – known as flushes – grow every 15 days. And as Windermere owner, Dr John Simon, explains: “The most common types of tea available in the market are white, green and black tea. The only difference is how they are processed.”
   So a visit to the Lockhart Tea Museum is a must, to see just how the process works. It's a short 8-kilometre drive from the estate and your hosts will arrange it for you.
The visual experience of the tea plantations is quite extraordinary - was Charles Jencks inspired by them?
Cardamom doesn’t have the visual appeal of tea, with its unwieldy leaves and stringy appearance, but it is known as the “Queen of all spices” and is a labour-intensive crop, needing highly skilled management and well-trained workers to yield a good harvest. It is sensitive to moisture, light and temperature and is grown at an optimum altitude of 600-1500 metres, in regions with an average rainfall of 1500-4000mm.
You will see tea growing everywhere you look in Munnar ... and it's a wonderful sight
You can read more about the Windermere Estate here, but if you are travelling to this part of India, do consider this as one of your stopovers and for a couple of days, so you can fully appreciate the plantation life and the magnificent scenery. It is an easy destination to combine with both Cochin on the west coast and Kumbakonam further east.

Monday, 23 January 2017

Postcard from Kumbakonam, Tamil Nadu

A wonderful sojourn at the Mantra Veppathur, with its striking greenery, beautiful clean and simple rooms and gentle, helpful staff. Another magical property to add to your wishlist when in Southern India.

Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Wordless Wednesday - Postcard from Pondicherry

Weather is here, wish you were wonderful! Pondicherry is a charming city, overlooking the Bay of Bengal and I'm staying at a guesthouse called Coloniale Heritage. It's tiny garden is filled with tropical plants, small statues and masks. Definitely one for the Wishlist if you're visiting this part of India. For more pictures, visit Instagram here.

Saturday, 7 January 2017

New Year greetings from Rajasthan's real "Best Exotic Marigold Hotel"

If you've seen the movie "Best Exotic Marigold Hotel", imagine the excitement of visiting the location where it was filmed in Rajasthan. It's just a stone's throw from the tourist hub of Udaipur, known as the Lake City, and often referred to as "The Venice of India" - on the road north to Chittaurgarh in the district of Mavli. And it was here that both Exotic Marigold Hotel movies were filmed. It's actually a family home, run as a hotel called Ravla Khempur.
A major part of its charm is that the owners remain unaffected by their success in the movie world, although with some coaxing, they can be persuaded to show you pictures of the stars who featured - Dames Maggie Smith and Judi Dench, Celia Imrie, Bill Nighy, et al - but they are more interested in making sure your visit runs smoothly and talking about their personal passion - the exceptional horses stabled there - that visitors can ride.
You can stay at Ravla Khempur - regrettably, something I didn't have time to do - but I will definitely return to this peaceful oasis outside the bustle of Udaipur. It's a traditional Rajasthani family home and the home-cooked food is delicious. Sadly though, no garden here, although the owners say they're planning one in future. 
It's been a while since I posted, but I hope all readers have a wonderful 2017. I'll be back with more gardens soon.