A gridlock of cars, trucks and autorickshaws is synonymous with Mumbai. On one such evening, when I had spent hours in a mind-numbing “clutch-break-accelerator” dance in the car, a text from a friend came both as a surprise and as relief.
It read, “Did you know that Matheran is Asia’s first and only automobile-free hill station?”
“Wow, no,” I caught myself answering aloud.
The next message had a booking confirmation to the Verandah Hotel in Matheran for the following weekend.
Even though the town is one of the top weekend destinations near Mumbai and was likely to be crammed with tourists, just getting away from the city’s traffic-clogged streets sounded like a reprieve. Plus, it was right in our backyard—an easy drive away.
The following Saturday, we timed our exit with the early morning nip in the air. As soon as we left the city, trees and bushes made an appearance—a lush carpet of green clung to both sides of the road. Despite ample photo and tea stops, we had reached Dasturi Naka, the base of Matheran, in less than 3 hours. Half an hour earlier, my friend had told me the hotel would be a “short hike” away from Dasturi. So we ditched our car and started climbing to the town’s main bazaar. Clearly, the “automobile-free” moniker had not been made up.
Once we had settled down in our heritage hotel, it was time to explore the town. A red-soil walking trail led us to the market area, where a mosque and a Hindu temple stand next to each other. The road is also home to a Jain temple and a Parsi market. The area had a colonial-esque charm. Not surprising, for the British set foot here in the mid-19th century, developing it as a summer retreat to escape Mumbai’s stifling heat.
The market was full of leather flip-flops—initially, we were a little surprised, it seemed out of sync with hilly terrain. But a chat with one of the shopkeepers revealed that the craft of making leather chappals had been dominant in this region ever since the British identified this idyllic spot, capping the Sahyadri range. Leather, sourced from Kolhapur, is fashioned into slippers, bags, wallets and the classic pint-sized curio, an imitation of a Kolhapuri chappal. So famous are the leather footwear products that they have found patrons among the Sri Lankan cricket team, as well as in actor Saif Ali Khan and a few Irish jockeys. I couldn’t resist buying a pair myself.
After trawling the market some more, we headed for the popular Porcupine Point to catch a glimpse of the deep orange skies at the end of the day.
A large part of the next morning was spent in a hammock, book in hand, enjoying the cool weather under a shady copse, savouring a gooey piece of chikki (a sweet made of nuts, dates, cashew and jaggery) from the highly recommended Nariman Chikki Mart. We had missed visiting this classic Matheran outlet and the hotel staff had insisted we couldn’t leave town without tasting the world-famous fudge.
Another recommendation, however, had us abandoning the hammock to visit the Olympia Race Course. Even though the race action can be seen only in May, visitors can see the elegant horses roaming the course. In this no-vehicle town, the animals may have been brought initially as a means of transport—today, the approximately 600 horses at the course and their keepers are a big attraction. We managed to spend an hour at the grounds and the stables, till it was time to return to our chaotic city lives.
In Mumbai, the sight of a horse carriage took us straight back to Matheran and our fascinating weekend.
Weekend Vacations offers suggestions on getaways that allow for short breaks from metros. The author tweets from @feetonthemap.