At the 120-hectare Chikkenahally plantation, workers start their days at dawn, and by early afternoon the tending of the berry-laden coffee bushes is largely finished. That leaves plenty of time in the indolent hours before nightfall for a bit of recreational gardening or, if you are one of the local landowners, for a drink at the members-only Bamboo Club in the nearby town of Pollybetta. There are few other options for filling the time. "The children are away studying or working in the cities," says George Ramapuram, the fourth of seven brothers who own the Chikkenahally plantation, "so the only entertainment is meeting other people."
It's a lifestyle that is little changed since coffee was introduced to the country by a Muslim pilgrim in the 17th century. British-owned plantations flourished in the Coorg region's temperate climate and ideal soil. Today Coorg is the center of India's coffee industry, and the Ramapurams recount with pride the commercial successes of their grandfather Emmanuel, who bought the Chikkenahally plantation from the British in 1926. Some of its prize coffee bushes have been producing berries for 90 years.
Strict rules at Orange County forbid venturing into the fields and neighboring forests between 7 p.m. and 7 a.m. The nocturnal trumpeting of wild elephants foraging for food at a nearby lake helps explain the curfew. But once the danger has passed, the grounds offer rich rewards to nature lovers. The plantation is a bird-watcher's paradise. Ubiquitous wooden signposts display names and illustrations of the various species that are permanent or migratory residents, including the golden oriole (seen only in November), the cattle egret (spotted from January through September) and the black bittern (prevalent July through September). If you hear a gunshot, fear not—the birds aren't being hunted. More likely it's one of the local Kodavas—the region's indigenous people—signaling the birth of a son. Reputed to be descendants of an ancient warrior clan, the Kodavas are the only Indians allowed to carry unlicensed firearms, which they use to communicate momentous events to their neighbors.
Despite the marauding elephants and trigger-happy locals, the best way to explore the sights, sounds and smells of coffee country is to take a random stroll. You may spy wild boars or deer—or a villager hurrying to the forest to collect honey and herbs. Cardamom, pepper, ginger and cinnamon grow in abundance, in both cultivated and wild varieties. The coffee bushes blossom in March and April. Even during the busy November harvest season, when guests are invited to join in the berry picking, any visitor will feel a splendid isolation surrounded by the giant rosewood, fig and mahogany trees in the shade of which the coffee grows. It's an environment conducive to reverie, and meditation is encouraged—especially on the banks of the nearby Cauvery, one of the seven holy rivers of India. Most Indians worship rivers as givers of life, and local guides will gladly sing in praise of the river goddess to set you in the mood for some quiet contemplation. Providing, of course, you haven't had too many cups of coffee.