Kumaon is an ideal location for a holiday in the hills and one can make the most of the sights and the sounds of nature. By Navneet Sahni
In North India there is another claimant to “God’s own country” – Kumaon. Where every peak is somehow connected to a Goddess or God, this is the Land of Lord Shiva and Shakti. Blessed with magnificent views of these majestic and revered mountains, Kumaon is the ideal place for soaking in solitude, green meadows with carpets of wild flowers and cool crisp air. When aunt Jogi and uncle Samar asked for recommendations to go for a 10-12 days holidays in the hills, I had no hesitation in recommending Kumaon.
A flight to Delhi and a Shatabdi journey to Kathgodam, we all were soon driving in the hills for two hours to reach Ramgarh. The drive took us to Bhimtal – a smaller and much less crowded version of Nainital.
The road from here on wards to Ramgarh was rewarding as you pass by thick forests of tall firs, and Rhododendron trees (the local name is Buransh – and while you are there you must have the tasty Buransh juice). Ramgarh is a sleepy small town and is famous for being the epicentre of the “peach valley” of Kumaon. Wherever you gaze you see lovely fruit orchards against the back drop of mesmerising mountain ranges. The first views of the mighty peaks you get from here is a sight to behold and takes your breath away – you pay respects to Nanda Devi and Nanda Ghunti, Nanda Kot, Trishul and the Panchchuli range. One can hear the birds chirping, see the flowers blooming and feel the gentle rustling of the pines. The bracing cold air is very refreshing and clears the lungs of the putrid air we inhale in the cities. The small boutique hotel had a beautiful garden and to sit in the garden for lunch, affording a 180-degree view of the peaks, is the stuff of dreams.
In the afternoon, we decided to take our first walk through the sleepy market, bought some juicy plums and peaches. Stopped at a dhaba for a cup of chai and delightful onion and potato pakoras – all this while soaking in the bracing mountain air.
The next morning we drove to the highest point in the area – Mukteswar, and walked to the vantage points of Chauli Ki Jali, the main temple and the old but beautiful forest rest house which Jim Corbett used for his visits. There can hardly be a better place anywhere else to view the mighty peaks than the gardens of the old inspection bungalow with a 360-degree view. However the pièce de résistance is a small herb garden run by a Mr Bisht. The sunset from the garden sipping herbal tea was one of the highlights of our trip. You can buy organically grown herbs like Oregano, Rosemary, Thyme, Peppermint, Lemon grass, Chives, and local red chillies from him. Because of its hilltop location, the views of the two sides of the valleys during sunrise and sunset are great.
Leaving early the next day, we drove for about three hours through valleys and lush forests, before we crossed Almora town to drive to Binsar.
This is a nature reserve and access is restricted. The old hilltop rest house run by the government gives you the best views but little else. However, the superb mountain views during sunrise and sunset are to die for. We stayed at an old British era estate complete with a fireplace, large flower-laden porticos, good vegetarian food and a very large hiking area. This is an ideal area for a day hike through the forests of Rhododendrons, Pine, Oak and Cedar. The hotel gave us a hamper for lunch and we found a delightful place with million-dollar views. We had a cup of tea at the local village and talked to the locals. Needless to say that this is a birders’ paradise and one is truly transported into another world. I guarantee that you will never want to leave this place.
Alas, we had to leave this paradise but were told that our next destination was equally awesome – Munsiyari. This was a longish day and we stopped at the Baijnath Temple – a short detour from Bageswar. Dedicated to the Lord Vaidyanath (Shiva as God of physicians). Stopped on the way back for a quick lunch at an excellent dhaba where we got our first taste of local Kumaoni dal. Finally we reached our destination, Munsiyari, and felt that this truly was the land of the Gods. Also known as mini Kashmir, it is nestled in the lap of the Panchachuli range. The peaks of Nanda Devi and Nanda Kot seem so close that it feels that you can reach out to touch them. The height of Munsiyari is nearly 2300 mts and is a perfect base for a lot of treks, but is also the place for day-long hikes.
Hotels here are small but comfortable and as they are open for about six months of the year only, they cannot be termed luxurious at all. They guarantee one thing which makes up for everything – and that is awesome views!
The next morning we set out to see the famous Birthi falls. The falls are spectacular and an ideal place for a hike around in the forests. Refreshed and exhilarated from our walk, on the return we stopped at the famous and highly revered Kalamuni temple. The Godess Kali, Lord Shiva and Ganesha idols here are said to be centuries old.
As per our plan, we had reserved this day to visit Khaliya top – this high ground is nearly 3500 mts and is a good day hike. Everyone told us that one should go only if the weather is absolutely clear so as to get good views. As luck would have it, it was clear and true to what everyone had said, the views of the many peaks were astonishing. We were told that earlier one could stay a night by pitching a tent in the meadow (Bugyal in local language) but is now not allowed any longer. What a pity, as I am sure that the sunrise and sunset would be nothing less than stunning.
The last day was kept open but on recommendation of the locals, we went to the Darkot village. This is a short drive away (just 5-6 kms) and one gets to see the old Kumaoni architecture and culture in the houses. We saw some local shops selling hand-woven shawls too – which some claimed to be made with Pashmina wool, though I am not so sure about that.
Finally, we could not leave without paying respects to the Nanda Devi Temple – a three kilometre walk from the main town. Needless to say the views of the mountain and temple of Nanda Devi together are awe-inspiring.
After a hearty breakfast we left for Ranikhet on our way back. The drive is about seven hours with a lunch stop at Bageshwar. Ranikhet is an old cantonment from the British times and an important city. Thankfully, the city has been able to control unplanned growth as most of the town is under the cantonment board. Some of the old hotels here are the legacy of the British era also, and have excellent food on offer – one such place is the West View Hotel. Even though Ranikhet is quite beautiful it seemed suffocating, especially after visiting the beautiful places in Kumaon – Ramgarh, Binsar and Munsiyari.
Our final stop was a place which had been recommended very highly to us. Located just a few kilometres from Bhowali, the small 8-room guest house was stunning, to say the least. Run by a family, the place, built in several acres, is known not so much for the beautiful accommodation, but for its gourmet food.
It was manna from heaven to get outstanding Mexican, Chinese, Continental and of course Indian cuisine. If I had my way, I would have given a Michelin star rating. The best is that during lunch you are not confined to dine at the dining room but in a beautiful open space overlooking the valley in thick forests. This was the perfect ending to our tour. We had planned a day’s visit to Nainital from here but frankly just did not to venture out from the “heaven”. Having visited it earlier, you can take a day tour to the crowded Nainital city. The lake itself is very picturesque as is the Governor’s mansion. The Scottish castle with its beautiful grounds is open to the public at times. The Natraj statute in the main foyer is worth a look. The adjoining golf course is one of its kind and one can often see enthusiasts catching a leisurely game.
The hotel estate is ideal for a hike down to the stream and the guests are given an option of carrying a nice hamper for a day-long picnic. This is precisely what we did, and had a really nice time.
It was with a heavy heart and a full satiated tummy that we left for Delhi by the afternoon Shatabdi Express. However, to console oneself some words of wisdom from Pat Conroy – “Once you have travelled, the voyage never ends. The mind can never break off from the journey.” So we can choose to relive our journeys at any point to get our highs!
When to go
The best time to travel to Kumaon is from March till mid-April, as well as from September till November as the skies are clear and perfect for photography. It’s an added bonus that the hordes of tourists are not travelling at this time so you can make the most of the sights and the sounds of nature.
Accommodation is of a high quality and ranges from luxurious to basic / comfortable at all places except at Munsiyari which is adequate. A must to carry are comfortable walking shoes, a camera, a couple of warm layers of clothes, a hat/ cap, an umbrella, a sturdy walking stick, a few good books and your favourite grog. Remember – this is a not just a sightseeing, but a very soul-satisfying driving cum walking holiday.