Photo: iStock
Photo: iStock

To the hills we go

Worried that your tranquil holidays in the hills are lost forever in the onslaught of crowds? Lounge has your back, with tips on secluded stays and secret spots

Craving comfort in Shimla

For me, Shimla has always been a place where I can disconnect from the world. Over time, that has become hard, but I found it once again on a recent visit, during a stay at Meena Bagh Shimla (Meenabaghresorts.com). Every understated detail, from the warm copper kettles, mud walls and waste-wood furniture to the delectable food and gracious hospitality, made me feel at home.

Photo: Sanjay Austa
Photo: Sanjay Austa

The property’s eco-friendly measures—harvesting and recycling water, using solar electricity, insulated walls—gave me a sense of its dedication to conserving a Shimla that is rapidly being lost.

I felt as though I was living in sync with the environment, enjoying modern comforts in a place that retains the character of a traditional Himachali home. It gave me courage to sally into Shimla’s crowds to revisit old favourites. I had ice cream at the Ridge, picnicked at Annadale (where the Army Heritage Museum is a must-see for any first-time visitor), and admired heritage buildings on a walk from Elysium Hill to Gaiety Theatre.

Local art: Artist Him Chatterjee runs the Sanat Art Foundation in memory of his father, Sanat Kumar Chatterjee, one of the last pioneers of the Bengal School of Art. Admire paintings of rugged mountainscapes and traditional local culture. Paintings and sculptures by his father are on display, including the blueprint of a 100x110ft watercolour on silk that is in the Guinness Book Of Records as the world’s longest painting.

—Geetika Khanna and Reem Khokhar.

Tracing Corbett’s legacy in Nainital

Nainital is where I grew up, so no matter how much it changes, it retains a special place in my heart. I steer clear of the centre, staying within the ambit of secret spots and quiet pockets where I can still time-travel to the Nainital that was.

Photo: iStock
Photo: iStock

Veering away from the central Mall road, I turn left on to the pedestrian-only Thandi Sadak, a cool lakeside, tree-lined stretch that leads to the base of Ayarpata hill. Nestled in a secluded spot on the hill is Clifton (Cliftonhomestay.com), built by Jim Corbett’s family in the early 1900s. In the 1950s, it was acquired by the current owners, who run it as a heritage home-stay with British-era décor. Its proximity to the forest means guests can see Himalayan birds like barbets, jays and minivets. Deer and leopards are occasional visitors.

Parked at Clifton, I occasionally make trips into the Nainital I still love. Ornithologist Salim Ali was a friend of the family and stayed here; hosts Kanika and Rudy take guests on birding walks to spot species from his list. Another favourite stroll is to Gurney House, Jim Corbett’s childhood home. From there, I continue to McDonell’s Circle, and a beautiful trail flanked by oak, rhododendron, and bamboo thickets. For a more strenuous hike, walk up the quiet Cheena Peak trail for a bird’s-eye view of the Naini lake. But, honestly, I’d say just stay in and sip a cup of something warm while sitting on the swing and watching the lights around the lake. In this cocoon of comfort and elegance, it’s easy for me to revisit the Nainital of my memories.

Sundowner: Established in 1890, the Boat House Club still retains the old-world charm that drew everyone from British officers to the Gandhis to Nainital during its heyday. Part of an exclusive sailing club that once saw members only sailing their yachts on the lake, it still holds a prestigious annual regatta. The lake-view deck is the best place in town for a sundowner. Non-members can enter after paying a fee.

—Shikha Tripathi

Log fires and vintage furniture in Ooty

Places, like people, go through a quarter-life crisis and Ooty is a prime example. Fifteen years ago, Roja gave the tired hill station one last song before the traffic and balding hills reduced it to a summer has-been; even the aromatic tea came to be known as “dust". Come 2018, and some excellent conservation measures have brought back the evergreen firs and feel. And planters, long averse to tourists, have opened up their fireplaces and precious chests of tea.

Photo: iStock
Photo: iStock

Tranquilitea (Tranquilitea.in) was among the first home-stays catering to travellers wanting a taste of plantation life. The three-bedroom, early 1900s bungalow comes complete with crochet doilies and gleaming rosewood tables that hold tiny quiches and delicate finger sandwiches. During an hour-long experience, guests learn to sip like tasters and figure out why hand-sorted Orange Pekoe fetches up to $600 (around Rs40,000) a kilogram at auctions.

I always like to sneak out to the Botanical Gardens for a morning excursion, followed by a trip to Mohan’s furniture store to get lost among vintage Cheval mirrors. I still manage to head back in time to sit by a bonfire, sip my tea, and watch the fog descend from the mountain-tops.

Boutique tea: Those serious about their brew should head to the Tea Studio, an ambitious project that hopes to change the way tea is made in the Nilgiris. Visits on Wednesdays and Fridays (Rs700 per person; 9442273616).

—Reshma Krishnan Barshikar

Sipping tea like a planter in Darjeeling

As a regular visitor to Darjeeling, I can vouch that the best way to enjoy its charms is to stay a short distance away, among the sprawling tea estates of north Bengal. As soon as I enter the rippling sea of green, just a 2-hour drive from Darjeeling, I feel as though I am in a time warp. Gently undulating tea bushes stretch to the point where the long, corrugated mountain ridges blend into the horizon. The planters’ bungalows perched in the middle of these estates were built around the mid-19th century. Impeccably refurbished to recreate the lavish and laid-back life of tea barons during colonial times, many of these bungalows now welcome guests.

Stay at the tea bungalows of Glenburn, Goomtee or Singtom (Glenburnteaestate.com; Goomteeresorts.com; Singtomresort.com) and live like an old-school planter, with lessons in tea plucking, tasting sessions, and guided tours of the century-old tea factories. Take whiling away time to an art form, snuggled up with a book on expansive verandas with sweeping valley views. Or take leisurely strolls on the narrow pathways meandering through the manicured slopes.

On occasional day trips to Darjeeling, go cycling on the 20km cycle-only path that runs through the Senchal Wildlife Sanctuary (bicycles available on rent). End your day with a glass of hot chocolate at Keventers, and the beautiful view of Kangchenjunga from its terrace.

Adventure: Add excitement with white-water rafting at Melli, one-and-a-half hours from Darjeeling, where the Teesta forms beautiful sandbanks. Or head right into Darjeeling, to climb Tenzing Rock. Named after the city’s most famous resident, the rock’s left face is used by professional rock climbers and trainees of the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute. The right face, with its easier route to the top, is popular with amateurs.

—Sugato Mukherjee

Heady coffee and epic meals in Coorg

There’s no denying that lovely little Madikeri in Kodagu—capital of the erstwhile kingdom of Coorg—has been tainted by unrestrained construction and noisy tourists in recent years. But I still go there for the splendid views of the Western Ghats and air that tastes of oxygen and freshly roasted coffee. The coffee is so potent that the smell of it is enough to make a cloudy day feel sunny. Besides, the small hill town still has enough photogenic bungalows to warrant a heritage label, though, truth be told, they are vanishing fast.

Among the quiet family-owned plantations surrounding the town is the heritage-conscious Old Kent Estates (Oldkentestate.com), with a delightful terrace on which to sip a freshly brewed latte after a stroll along the well-signposted nature trails laid out by an Italian seven-summit mountaineer, Lorenzo Gariano.

Memorable meals: When it comes to having a traditional Kodagu meal, there are three restaurants in Madikeri that I favour. Folksy Food (Temple Road; meal for two, Rs300) is a mom-and-pop-style place with no menu, just delicious food with four non-vegetarian options—pork, mutton, chicken or fish. Churchside (Tollgate; meal for two without alcohol, Rs400) looks like a drinking den but is an unexpectedly friendly all-day dining place offering superb rice-rotis and deadly pork options. Besides non-vegetarian, Coorg Cuisine (opposite the post office; meal for two, Rs700) cooks up heavenly Kodava vegetarian dishes, such as bamboo-shoot curry.

—Zac O’Yeah

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