The stories behind what we eat and drink are often exciting, even violent. The spread of sugar was the impetus for African slavery, as West Africans were captured to work on sugar plantations in the Caribbean. The banana, usually associated with nothing more negative than bad innuendo and banana skin pratfalls, was at one point so important to American consumers that fruit corporations sponsored revolutions in Latin American countries to secure their supply chains—giving rise to the phrase banana republic.
Even tea and coffee have their origins in botanical espionage: The Chinese and the Yemenis held on to the secret of growing these plants jealously, and a Scottish gardener and an Indian Sufi mystic eventually smuggled them to India.
It’s a peculiarity of the modern world that it’s able to bring good out of evil. Coffee plantations, born in an act of espionage, are today laboratories for sustainable agriculture and have turned the imperialist planter’s lifestyle into a tourist experience. All over the world, coffee plantations are replanting indigenous trees to provide shade to their coffee bushes, multi-cropping coffee and spices, and turning the planter’s mansion into a homestay resort. For anyone who wants a lazy holiday under trees and birds, a coffee vacation has lots to offer. We look at some of the best destinations.
Coorg and Chikmagalur, India
This is where the Arab monopoly on coffee was first broken. According to legend, Baba Budan, a Sufi saint, stole coffee beans on the way back from Haj, hid them in his langot, and planted them in Chikmagalur when he returned. Today, the hills there are known as the Baba Budan Giri range. In the last few years, lots of plantations here have opened up to tourists. The options range from budget homestays to very posh resorts. If you’re a dedicated coffee connoisseur, try to head to one of the established plantations that will have had the time to perfect its coffee plants.
(From top) Coorg and Chikmagalur, India (Prashanth Vishwanathan/Bloomberg); Kenya (Brent Stirton/Getty Images); Blue Mountains, Jamiaca (Wolmadrian/Wikimedia Commons); Kona, Hawaii (Lukas Kurtz/Wikimedia Commons).
Kenyan tourism is associated with safaris in the Masai Mara; the highlands aren’t marketed with the same vigour. But for adventurous travellers willing to hunt for heritage hotels on their own, there are lots of coffee estates which have been converted into heritage hotels. Coffee mills don’t conduct guided tours, but if you ask, they’re happy to let you in, show you how the process works, and even let you join the coffee tasters.
If you’re still insistent on wildlife, don’t worry. The highlands are home to the endangered white rhinoceros, elephants and leopards.
Blue Mountains, Jamaica
Jamaican Blue Mountain is the most expensive coffee in the world, thanks to a combination of quality, scarcity and demand. The rain in Jamaica is ideal for coffee, but there’s only so much of Jamaican highland to turn over to coffee plantation. The result is a potent and delicious coffee that is extremely difficult to get—more than 80% of all production is exported directly to Japan. The Blue Mountains themselves are a lovely travel destination. They’re rich in biodiversity, with more than 200 species of birds nesting there, as well as some of the world’s largest—and most beautiful—butterflies. Plantation resorts in the Blue Mountains offer coffee-roasting tours, hikes up mountain trails and bird-spotting tours. But it’s Jamaica, so if all you want to do is lie back with a book and a cocktail with a base of Tia Marie (coffee liqueur) between meals and siestas, nobody will be able to find fault. Prices start at $700 (around Rs 32,900) for a cottage for a weekend, but it’s worth it.
According to popular culture, Hawaii has beaches, guitar players and beautiful, scantily clad girls. Popular culture completely misses out on Hawaii’s long coffee-growing tradition. The islands of Hawaii are actually volcanic mountains rising from the seabed, so steep that a single island will have beaches rising into hills, all in the space of a few kilometres. That sort of steep incline means that rainfall drains away quickly—which is just what coffee needs. It’s not surprising then that Kona coffee is prized and expensive—to ensure exclusivity, the Hawaii state government has come up with regulations that specify a minimum percentage of Kona coffee to allow the coffee to be labelled Kona.
Coffee farms in Hawaii are small, and don’t usually have hotels on the premises, but will happily offer guided tours. Once you’re done, you can head downhill to the beaches, or uphill for a tour of Mauna Loa, the world’s largest volcano. If you prefer the hills to the beaches, try to book a hillside cottage.
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