The region of Garhwal may be special for Hindu devotees visiting sacred shrines. But an equally appealing circuit awaits nature worshippers, seekers of solitude, and the culturally inclined.
Mussoorie is what storybook childhood vacations are all about. Most Indians who grew up travelling during the long summer holidays would have visited it at least once if not more often. Haridwar and Rishikesh may make for beautiful memories, and Dehradun been a great place to spend a few days too. But walking up and down Mussoorie’s Mall Road is a familiar pursuit of every visiting tourist.
As you get to know Mussoorie better, you start to find your bearings and when someone suggests you try out a new café, you are now clued in enough to ask whether it’s at the Picture Palace end of the mall road or closer to Library Chowk! The once-plush cinema may now be rather down-at-heel and defunct, the gorgeous Mussoorie Library more visible for its architecture rather than its collection of books, but they remain the most prominent landmarks of this charming hill station with colonial roots.
Apparently, Captain Frederick Young from the British Army, accompanied by an official named FJ Shore, climbed up the hill from the Doon valley in 1827. They found this 15-kms-long horseshoe ridge at a height of 2,000 m above sea level, with cool climate and scenic views of the Himalayan peaks in Western Garhwal. Since then, it became a popular summer getaway.
These days, there’s more to do than shop for woollens, wooden, and brass artefacts in the traditional Tibetan Bazaar or wait for famous author Ruskin Bond to make his weekly Saturday afternoon appearance at the Cambridge Book Depot.
You could ride the cable car up to the touristy Gun Hill for a spectacular valley view and steaming hot Maggi and momos. Or you could indulge in one of the many cosy cafés (I loved Little Llama and Chick Chocolate) that line the mall and market areas. There’s even a cinema hall bang in the centre in case you want to catch the latest flick over over-priced popcorn like you do back home!
But for those who’ve been there, done that, and complained about the Queen of the Hills getting a tad boring, trust me, there’s a lot more to do in this part of Garhwal.
Twists of taste
Staying at a property like the JW Marriott Mussoorie Walnut Grove Resort & Spa can give you access to some experiences that are one of a kind. The team arranges for lavish meals using unique local ingredients (I had never tried eating nettles before!) and also, a chance to visit a typical Uttarkhandi home of a family that’s lived in their fragrant deodar-log house for five generations. They proudly served a festive breakfast of two types of steamed ‘ulua’ stuffed with lentils or coconut, gehat (horsegram)-stuffed puris, and lentil kachoris with a standout apricot chutney.
Post some sightseeing at Lakhamandal, the place where the Pandavas are said to have narrowly escaped the burning palace of illusions and where scores of Shivlings keep being unearthed even till today, it was on to another sumptuous home experience.
I survived bumping my head really hard on various rafters and low doorways to dance with the Garhwali folk, partake of another fantastic meal (homegrown rajma that simply melted in the mouth and a red pumpkin veg that had me salivating for more!) in another fascinating house filled with trap doors and carpeted floors and generally be charmed yet again by the warmth, generosity, artlessness and beauty of spirit that the pahadi people exhibit. Even the simplest fare gains great flavour when garnished with authenticity and enthusiasm.
Another memorable must-do with the hotel was a short morning trek in the hills to reach a lively stream where the team had set up a full breakfast spread in the midst of the running water. A guitarist strummed and sang sitting on a rock in the centre, while we were plied with dishes filled to bursting with Indian and western savouries and sweets. The luxury of a hot, crisp dosas, and freshly squeezed orange juice in such a sylvan setting on a cool Mussoorie morning is indescribable.
Living heritage in Landour
You could make Mussoorie your base and head to various spots in Garhwal nearby. Like Landour, which is on the outskirts of the hill station and yet relatively less commercial and full of character. Many celebrities have made this cantonment town their own and it’s not surprising to spot Ruskin Bond pottering about outside his idyllic home, or bump into veteran actor Victor Banerjee while buying chunky peanut butter (this was the first place in India where this American staple was first made back in the 1830s!) at the local grocery store A Prakash & Co in Sister’s Bazaar, as I did.
The late actor Tom Alter grew up in this area of Garhwal and he and I had many wonderful conversations about his memories from here. In one of his last emails to me just before he died, he had written, “Mussoorie — and especially Landour, which is my part of Mussoorie, is the very centre of my existence.”
His family cemetery, just a short walk from his home and Lal Tibba (a viewpoint where you can stop for a cup of creamy coffee), is where he spent a lot of his time, visiting the graves of his mother, father, and two uncles. As he said, “Memories are very, very beautiful and very, very powerful.” Close to his heart (and also that of his cousin brother Stephen, who wrote a book set in this forest and often leads nature walks inside) was Jabarkhet Nature Reserve. I spent the better part of a day trekking through this privately owned paradise that’s very rich in flora and fauna.
Conversely, a very touristy side to Landour is Char Dukan. This row of snack stalls facing a parking lot is rather over-rated in my books and totally avoidable, but if you want to grab a cheap bite or bump into someone you know, this is where you should head.
Landour Bakehouse at Sister’s Bazaar is also a hub for everyone passing through this town, but a much more charming one. Straight out of an Enid Blyton story, it sells everything from delicious hot chocolate and scones to bread-and-butter pudding and stick jaws.
A case full of books written by authors residing locally tempts the bibliophile to buy more than baked goods. I, of course, picked up many by Bond, including the fascinating Landour Cookbook: Over Hundred Years of Hillside Cooking, featuring secret recipes by families that made Landour their home.
I love to stop at Rokeby Manor, a gorgeous stone structure oozing oodles of history and atmosphere (they run the Bakehouse too). The restaurant named Emily’s is a delight, be it for the menu, the pine-tree view, or just to binge on the moreish sticky toffee pudding.
A stay at this lovely landmark brings Landour to life in a way few others can. They’ve updated with an open-air jacuzzi and an old-fashioned/new age ale house, but what I love most about the place is its luxurious old-world charm.
Less pricey but as atmospheric is Doma’s Inn, replete with Tibetan prayer flags and homey hospitality (after all, Tibet is only 110 kms away, and the 14th Dalai Lama escaped to Garhwal from Lhasa in 1959, after the Chinese occupation). The eco-friendly and quaint La Villa Bethany is another option if you want to stay in Landour.
Bewitchingly beautiful Benog
A short drive (about 12 kms or 40 mins) towards the Western end of Mussoorie brings you to Benog, where there are lovely trails to trek inside the wildlife sanctuary.
A great find for me after several hours in nature was the Cloud End Forest Resort that’s close by. One of the most beautiful houses in the region, this one was built by a British officer who fell in love and married a local Garhwali girl called Gulabo.
Their descendants lived here for many generations, something that the current owners celebrate through a heritage museum filled with vintage photographs. This is a heritage hotel that you can stay in. I didn’t but I would definitely go back for the spectacular sunsets from behind the bungalow, which are almost surreal in their scarlet-tinged spread.
A day trip to Dhanaulti
Somewhat further away (57 kms or 2.5 hours’ drive) lies the delightful Dhanaulti. This little place has all of two eco parks, developed by the Uttarakhand Forest Department. Named Amber and Dhara, they are walking distance from each other and rich in Himalayan Cedar (deodar) trees under which it is very pleasant to walk and spot exotic bird species.
There’s also a fledgling adventure sports complex with Burma bridges, a Flying Fox, and a few horses for rides. I loved the idea of their ‘memory plantation’, where you can plant a sapling in memory of someone you loved and lost.
For the religious or spiritually inclined, (or if you simply love to climb an inordinate number of steps to get a wonderful view!), the Surkanda Devi Temple is about eight kms from Dhanaulti.
Lost in nature in Kanatal
Go a few kms ahead from this temple (a total of almost eight kms from Dhanaulti), and you’ll reach the off-beat hill station known as Kanatal. I had first heard of this one from my Delhi-based friend who extolled its virtues and said it made for a great glamping spot in Garhwal. When I visited, I couldn’t help but agree, with its clean air, clear roads, and general air of opulence.
The Kaudia forest trail made for an interesting detour, winding through towering forests of evergreens and shiny ferns, passing by picturesque villages and some rather malignant monkeys (it’s all part of the adventure, right?!). After that, the jungle crossing and rappelling offered at another adventure sports centre seemed almost tame in comparison.
Sailing through the clouds
Uttarakhand (or the more elegant name of Uttaranchal that it was officially known by until 2007) is always full of surprises. On my way back from this eventful day, I thought it was time to just plug in my pods and lose myself to the music while the driver danced with the mountainous curves. The sun was readying itself to disappear over the horizon, the sky was ablush with warm hues.
Suddenly, the fog around us gathered into something more substantial and poured over the road ahead like a waterfall! Swirling clouds soon spread across the valley below us. Tall peaks and the tops of towers appeared like masts of ships being tossed around in a giant sea of white. This surreal, awe-inspiring experience was the perfect way to end this exploration of Garhwal.
Come on to Kumaon, called a friend. And I did. But that’s a whole other extraordinary journey!