ALL SEASONS DESTINATIONS

With Kashmir on the out, Himachal Pradesh is becoming a hot pick with tourists this year, says Deepesh Das --With its lofty blue hills, endless forests and misty lakes, Ooty still manages to retain a loyal fan base, says Deepesh Das-- Leave behind the chaos of the city and lose yourself in the soulful splendours of Kuchesar and the Kikar Lodge, says Deepesh Das --

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                             A STATE FOR ALL SEASONS

Whats the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Himachal Pradesh? Snowcapped mountains, breath-taking gorges, hospitable people and of course, apples. Its one place that never goes out of season.

         There are two reasons why more tourists are heading to Himachal Pradesh this year. For a start, the recent terrorist attacks on tourists in Kashmir have made domestic travelers look elsewhere. And where better than a state with picturesque locales high in the mountains? Cashing in on this trend are travel houses, which are out to lure tourists with special packages. Says Sunil Gupta, COO of SOTC, Himachal Pradesh has always been a hot favourite during summers. But now travelers want to experience it even in the monsoon and winter. Also, it offers different adventure activities for the younger lot too”.

Dharamsala is  very popular with the tourists set in Himachal

 A number of travel agencies like SOTC, TCI, Thomas Cook and Cox & Kings have attractive offer for tourists. Almost all are ex-Delhi, which means that you need to get there first and then the packages kick in.

         Himachal Pradesh has an extraordinary range of destinations for everyone from impecunious backpackers to luxury travelers. You could spend time in Shimla, though its not as lovely as it once was. Or, you could head deeper into the state to places like Kullu (famous for its shawls) and Manali. Alternatively, if youre game for some adventure, try skiing at Kufri and Narkanda.

         To begin with, SOTC has an eight-day and seven-night package called Exotic Himachal. Costing Rs.16900 per person, it includes accommodation with breakfast, transfers and sightseeing. The places covered are Parwanoo, Shimla, Manali and Chandigarh. However, it does not include rail or airfares.

         Thomas Cook has an eight-night, nine-day Himalayan Heights package that includes places like Parwanoo, Shimla, Manali and Panchkula. The offer is valid till September 30. The cost includes accommodation in deluxe hotels, breakfast and dinner, non air-conditioned car for round trip, transport starting from Delhi, airport or station pick-up and drop, sightseeing, excursions and applicable taxes.

         It excludes air/train fare, items of personal nature like porter charges, tips, laundry and telephone calls, service tax as applicable on the package cost and guides and entrance fee during sightseeing. The cost of this package is Rs.18895 per person on twin-sharing basis. Theres also another 10-night and 11-day package called Himachal Odyssey valid till September 30. Places include Shimla, Manali, Dharamshala, Dalhousie and Panchkula. In Manali, tourists can enjoy paragliding at the Solang Valley, which is not included in the package. The total cost of this package is Rs.21655 per person on twin-sharing basis.

         TCI has a seven-night and eight-day Himalayan Wonders package for Rs.16500 per person. Valid till September 30, this includes places like Parwanoo, Shimla, Manali and Chandigarh. TCI has tied up with several hotels like Timber Trail Heights at Parwanoo, East Bourne Resort, Shimla, Shingar Regency, Manali, K.C Cross Road and Chandigarh.

         The cost includes accommodation (twin sharing), breakfast and dinner and transport in non air-conditioned vehicle. It excludes air/rail fare to and from destination, personal expenses and entrance fees. Says Jai Mohan, executive, Indian Holidays, TCI, There are places in Himachal like the Solang Valley, Kullu Valley, Rothang Pass, which always holds great significance to tourists. One can visit these places at any time and experience their natural beauty. As far as bookings are concerned, its on the rise and during the festive season, we are hoping that tourists will be attracted to it”.

         If you are not just satisfied with the usual Shimla, Kulu and Manali packages, try the 10-day and 9-night Cox & Kings Scenic Himachal deal. It not only covers places like Shimla and Manali but also has Dalhousie and Dharamsala on the list. You can capture the majestic view of the Dhauladhar range from Dharamsala and the picturesque Kangra valley below. The package costs Rs.16980 per head on twin sharing basis and is valid till September 20. So, if you want a mountain holiday Himachal Pradesh might, for the time being, be the best bet.

 

With a variety of adventure sports on offer, Himachal Pradesh is also attracting younger travelers

 

                       SOUTHERN SEDUCTION

Remember Chhaiyya Chhaiyya from Mani Ratnams Dil Se? Yes, the number that had superhero Shah Rukh Khan and the curvilicious Malaika gyrating in tune to its peppy beats – all atop the roof of a train traversing through a precariously precipitous landscape. Well, guess where it was shot? No, not aboard the Darjeeling toy train in the Himalayas. Believe it or not, the scenery was right out of the heart of South India – in Tamil Nadu – and the train was on its way to Ootacamund or Ooty, which kisses the clouds at an altitude of 7400ft and nestled in the Nilgiris, is South Indias most popular hill station.

                                A view of the Ooty township

  Wellington Bridge (inset), which featured in the Chhaiyya Chhaiyya song from Dil Se

         All through my fight to Chennai, while peering down at the turquoise waters of the ocean below, and then on my one-hour flight to Coimbatore, I really did not know what to expect. Somehow, since Id never been there, it seemed tough to imagine a real hill station in hot, sweltering Tamil Nadu. But I started turning into a believe once the Maruti Omni I was in, zipped past the date and coconut palms, the sugarcane groves and plantains, and the slick pitch road lined with tamarind and curry leaf trees started twisting its way like a black snake into the dark, inky Nilgiris in the horizon.

         As we leave the plains behind and ascend the hilly road to Ooty, the going gets a bit rough. It starts drizzling and mist hangs over the hilltops in the distance. The air gets perceptibly cooler and tea plantations peppered with silver oak trees come into view. Umesh, my well-informed driver-cum-tour guide, halts at Coonoor, 21km ahead of Ooty. He drives me to Sims Park, a well-maintained park spread over a number of levels carved out of the hills. Our next stop is the quaint Coonoor Railway Station, which caters to the Nilgiri Mountain Railway or the Toy Train, that runs over a distance of 46km, from Mettupalayam, through Coonoor all the way up to Ooty.

                            the serene waters of Pykara Lake

         Its late evening by the time we arrive in Ooty. To my surprise, unlike other hill stations, Ooty is not at all cramped. Im staying at Hotel Sinclairs, which is located on top of one of the highest hills in the town. As I walk down the corridor leading to the hotels reception, the French windows on my left offer a breath-taking view of the Nilgiris and Ooty.

         I am given a short tour of the hotel, which has 88 rooms and suites with viewing galleries. It also offers 24-hour room service and car rentals. Its Ootys only centrally-heated hotel, with two conference halls,” says Swajib Chatterjee, manager of the property. In fact, we have recently introduced two exclusive villas at Ooty with a panoramic view. These 2-bedroom villas, with attached bathrooms, a kitchen, lounge, dining and living area are meant for families who wish to enjoy the comforts of home while on vacation,” he adds. Theres also High Point, the hotels well-stocked bar and Pine and Petals, the multi-cuisine restaurant.

         The next morning I wake up to a glorious sunrise witnessed from the glass windows in my comfortable room. All charged up thanks to the pleasant weather, I step out to explore. Umesh is my guide for the day and first takes me on the regulation Ooty sightseeing round. We start off with the Dodabetta Peak, which, at a height of 8640ft is the highest peak in South India. Our next stop is Ooty Botanical Garden. The main lawn takes in undulating lush green grounds with tall graceful trees and the Italian Formal Garden presents a pretty picture with a crescent lily pond framed by scarlet flowerbeds. The Ooty Boathouse is located at the edge of a big green lake surrounded by hills and here you can rent a paddleboat or motorboat and take a boat ride to enjoy the cool breeze from the lake.

         My eager guide informs me that another must-visit spot is the Tea Factory. Here one can browse through the Tea Museum that tells the tea story, before being breezed through the tea-making process. At the end of the demonstration, you will be treated to a cup of hot, milky, sweet Nilgri tea, flavoured with cardamom.

         Done with the local sightseeing, we head towards our next destination, Pykara. The road to Pykara will take you along what the locals call the Filmy Chakkar – scenic areas where Bollywood biggies and South Indian directors bring there film crews for shooting. The chakkar starts with the rolling green Golf Course and the adjacent Gymkhana Club.

         Further on there is a manmade pine forest along a slope where one of the songs from the Bipasha Basu starrier Raaz was filmed. A little ahead is the Kamaraj Sagar Dam where a part of Mani Ratnams Roja was shot. But the best spot in the Filmy Chakkar is 9th Mile, a grassy hillock with a view to die for.

         A short 10-minute walk uphill will take you to the top where you can feast your eyes on the endless surrounding hills with verdant green cover, the wind whipping across your face and whistling in your ears. You can jog down to the base of the hill and sip piping hot cups of tea and bite into delicious boiled corn on the cob to warm up.

         Just round the bend is Pykara Dam, and a little further on, Pykara Lake. The lake is a serene emerald-green body of water with a million silver ripples that reflect the beautiful landscape ensconcing it. Time stands still as you gaze at the lakes still waters, the scene looking like a painting with brushstrokes from the greatest artist of them all. It is difficult to tear oneself away from this un-spoilt beauty, but there are vistas yet to be discovered.

                   spotted deer at Mudumalai Wildlife Sanctuary

         We leave behind the cool climes of the hills and go down to the foothills of the Nilgiris towards the Mudualai Wildlife Sanctuary and National Park, at the trijunction of Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Karnataka. Spread over a mammoth 321sq km, Mudumalai sanctuary is home to many species of fauna including the elephant, tiger, panther, sambar, deer and bison. Part of the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve, its filled with evergreen and deciduous trees, swamps, grasslands and teak plantations. I answered the call of the wild by venturing into the sanctuary on board one of the buses reserved for this purpose.

         A 45-minute drive along a narrow paved road took us about 14km into the park. Out first sighting was a pack of spotted deer, which scampered into the safe cover of the forest as soon as it saw our vehicle. A little further on, the bus driver pointed out a herd of bison hunched around a pond in the forest. Deeper into the jungle, a common langur parked itself on our way, making a move only after its vanity had been served with the tourists capturing it on their cameras.

                                     Italian garden at ooty

Packages on offer: Sinclairs Ooty is currently offering a three-night four-day package for two adults for Rs.11040 (extendable on pro rata basis). The package includes room charges, morning tea, breakfast, dinner, unlimited snacks and tea/coffee from 3pm-7pm, Ooty and Coonoor sightseeing, complimentary use of games room, inclusive of taxes.

         For bookings contact: Pressman House, 10A Lee Road Calcutta 700020. Tel: (033) 2280 1317-20.

Time stands still as you gaze at Lake Pykara’s still waters – at once emerald-green, at once silver

 

                              THE GREAT ESCAPE

In change for all those disposable double-incomes, glitzy malls and EMI-enabled lifestyles, modern living extracts a heavy price. It takes us away from who we are. It reduces us to a functioning component – a faceless worker for an enterprise and cause that eludes us.

         So we like to run away for a little while, as frequently as we can. To places that restore us to ourselves. Places like Kuchesar and Kikar Lodge

Kuchesar

Its only 80km out of Delhi, down NH24. You drive deep into Jat country, past Bulandshehr and Hapur. Drive 7km off the highway and you reach the portals of an 18th centaury fortress. Kuchesar was once a jagir that encompassed 365 villages stretching from Meerut to Aligarh.

                                    a view of the Kuchesar Fort

         The country here is the copybook village idyll. Women churning out butter and chaach, children swinging from the boughs of a mango tree; tall, handsome Jat men atop their tractors – at least thats what they do when theyre not walking the ramp in Delhis fashion shows.

         Warm-hearted and rough speaking, theyll say rude things about your sister and mother as an expression of affection. Very quickly you begin to feel your city-self melt away, like ice under a bright sun. You discover a hitherto unsuspected appetite for thick, stuffed parathas slathered in butter. You remember how to laugh and how to climb a tree.

         The fort has absorbed the relaxed, easy-going air of the countryside that surrounds it. At down, peacocks cry out hysterically and flights of parrots swoop among the ruins in the un-restored part of the fortress. Breezy nights take you back to those old b/w Hindi movies where fluffy clouds scudded across the moon, while mellow songs played and the breeze stirred tendrils of hair around the incandescent face of Madhubala. Kuchesar has the power to make you believe in things you dont believe in anymore.

         The Kuchesar family has lived here for 13 generations, which is why this feels like the real thing. Vinokshi Singh, the matriarch of the family makes the most delicious pickles, and guests invariable go back with a bottle or two tucked into their bags.

         Food is a serious matter at the fort and for chef Mahesh; it is an article of faith. To partake is an act of worship. The dinner table is laid in a candle-lit pavilion atop the tower. And as you put away quantities of cold gazpacho, followed by roast chicken with potatoes, and spinach fettuccine – Mahesh hovers around directing the ceremony like a presiding priest.

         A morning is best spent taking a ride through the village just beyond the ramparts, in old Om Prakashs bullock-cart. Om Prakash used to be the groom when the family kept horses. Now he cares for the three buffaloes and one cow that keep the fort supplied with milk. As you trundle through the stone-paved pathways, shops on either side are starting to open.

         The local banias are sweeping the shop front, reading their newspaper or lighting agar betties. Over a huge glass of milky tea, punctuated by many imprecations regarding your sister, they will tell you that farmland costs Rs.2 lakh a bigha, sugarcane sells for Rs.500 a quintal, and that the sarpanch got into a scuffle with the daroga over a woman. You are as far as you can possibly be from the world of cell-phones and board-meetings.

Fact file: Access by road from Delhi, 80km down NH24. Turn right at Kuchesar Chowk Chopala and then another 80km down.

·   Tariffs: Rs.2000 for a Double; Rs.3000 for a Suite.

·   Meal rates per head: Rs.150 for breakfast; Rs.300 for lunch & dinner.

·   For reservations: 053736-273038, 273039 (M) 09837003084

Kikar Lodge

Kikar Lodge is a resort and spa hidden in a forested fold of the lower Shivaliks in eastern Punjab. It is set in 1800 acres of privately owned forest in a place called Nurpur Bedi, making it possibly Indias first private wildlife reserve. So dense is the deer population, that even a casual stroll in the vicinity of the resort is likely to bring you face to face with a started sambhar or two.

                        the poolside and cottages at Kikar Lodge

         There are no big cats, elephants or bears in these tracts, which makes it perfectly safe to walk deep into the forest or do a night safari in an open jeep. Safety is possibly the USP here.

         At Kikar Lodge it is possible to do a night jungle safari – an experience not permitted in most Indian sanctuaries. By starlight, the forest is a Kiplingesque landscape of low muddy cliffs, and eyes gleaming at you from out of the darkness as herd of sambhar crop quietly on the undergrowth. Wild boar and smaller animals move along the dry water channels that form during the monsoons.

         By day, theres bird watching aplenty besides two swimming pools and plenty of beer for serious unwinding.

         Kairali has been imported from far-off Cochin and grafted onto Nurpur Bedi. So there you are in the Punjab backwaters, lying on a wooden trestle slathered in oil, while two pairs of strong hands administer an authentic abhyangam. Pressure ok?” you will be asked with the sweetest Malayali smile. The spa runs full-fledged Ayurveda therapeutic treatments in conjunction with yoga, under the supervision of an in-house doctor. So for Chandigarh wallahs, Kerala is only two hours. By road.

         But just to ensure you dont miss out on the flavours of Punjab, the estate includes a dairy farm, where fat Holstein heifers keep you supplied with fresh milk, frothy lassi, and paneer.

         When they were boys, proprietor Amarinder Singh and his brothers went to Doon School. Vacations were spent here at Nurpur Bedi, exploring the jungle, cooling off in the tube-well, and fishing in the river. A simple, wholesome boyhood experience that they are now attempting to package.

         The jungle tracts are bordered by the village Kangar, the archetypal Punjabi village of a Yash Johar movie – green wheat fields against a backdrop of the slate blue Shivaliks; pretty girls with bright dupattas covering their head as they lead their cows; traveling merchants from Jammu & Kashmir opening out their bundles of shawls, walnuts and raisins while a gaggle of women gather around; tall sardars, draped in rough blankets roar by on motorcycles, their beards whipping back in the wind.

         More and more, Indian travelers are moving away from mainstream hotels and seeking out experiences that are a counterpoise to the soulless life of the city. Seeking out the offbeat or the nostalgic. Kikar Lodge is both of these. Here amidst the kikar and babul there are hidden pathways that may lead you back to yourself.

Fact file: By road from Delhi to Chandigarh (250km), driving time is four hours. Chandigarh to Kikar Lodge (70km) takes 2hrs.

·   For bookings contact: G-77, Sujan Singh Park, and N.Delhi – 3. Tell: 011-24618780, (M) 9810195002

·   Tariff: Cottages Rs.5500 for a couple including three meals; suites Rs.7500 per couple including three meals.

A morning in Kuchesar is best spent taking a ride through the village in old Om Prakash’s bullock-cart

 

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