Strawberry Overdose

A Couple of Days in Mahabaleshwar

It was the summer of 2019. We had to visit Mumbai for a family obligation. But a long weekend lay just a few days later. We packed our bags for a week-long trip with a couple of days thrown in for sightseeing around Mumbai.

Now, it was May. Most of India sizzles this time of the year. If there was any scope for a cooler climate, it was in the Western Ghats. (Back in 2017, we cruised on these Ghats during monsoon. Read about our splendid experience here.)

Mahabaleshwar is a hill station tucked away in these Ghats. It is not too far from Mumbai either. So, we rented a self-drive Jeep Compass from MyChoize & left for the Strawberry Town.

Mahabaleshwar may be unknown to many in India but it is an oft-frequented paradise for Mumbai & Pune dwellers. We hoped the weather would be pleasant if not cool. Having visited Panchgani earlier, we knew the hill station would be enchanting – green hills, sunsets & juicy strawberries.

What we also sought was some quiet & peace with maybe a wee bit of hiking thrown in. This blog post is an attempt to see if Mahabaleshwar lived up to our expectations.

Affair with self-drive continued

Day 1

En route Mahabaleshwar, we halted at Pune for lunch at a restaurant called Dhonewada. A wada is a traditional mansion; the restaurants with the names ‘wada’ serve the local food in a setting reminding you of an old house. Here, despite the heat, we hogged on Malvani cuisine.

Food is such an integral part of travel. & it is a good teacher too. Now, we know, when traveling in Maharashtra, if we crave for Marathi cuisine, we need to look out for a ‘wada’.

As we entered Mahabaleshwar, we crossed the Venna Lake. The Lake is surrounded by hills & trees. It is dotted with boats called shikaras. We saw hordes of tourists taking boat tours & enjoying the breathtaking views.

There was an equal number of tourists thronging the eating joints lining up the lakeside. We did not stop here as the Sun had already begun its downward journey & we still had to locate our resort, Forest County Resort.

Our accommodation was inside a forest. By the time we reached, it was dark. Driving through the forest with no streetlights & without a soul in sight made delicious shivers run down our spines. Anyhow, we reached safe & sound (boring!) and called it a night.

The road to Forest County Resort

Day 2

The day of our Strawberry Overdose!

N had a few work calls but there was no cellular network in our resort. So, we made our way to the Mahableshwar main market after breakfast, parked in a designated spot, & while he attended his calls, P took in the daily humdrum of locals.

Strawberry OD begins!

Travel is possibly the only thing that teaches us that we are not so different from each other. We wake up, scramble to find roti, kapda & makaan (food, clothing & shelter), spend time with loved ones, & sleep.

All of us experience happiness & sadness, pleasure & pain, magnanimity & pettiness, kindness & cruelty etc. It is just that the degree varies & so does our audience.

N broke P’s reverie & we made our way to Mapro Garden.

Green gardens of Mapro Garden

Mapro Garden

This Garden is known for its strawberry produce. It was founded in 1959 & has grown manifold since then. One of the things we loved seeing there was the family – like feeling amongst the employees. Mapro also supports the education of their employees’ children.

Behind the visitor areas are large farms where one can do strawberry picking in season. It was not really the strawberry season when we visited. So, instead of picking strawberries, we roamed around & watched an AV on strawberries.

Fresh Strawberry Icecream

Strawberries are not the only berries produced in Mapro Garden. You can eat your way through blueberries, mulberries & raspberries too. The food park stocks delicious berry products – jams, marmalades, sauces etc.

All that talk about strawberries & seeing so many strawberry products & cutouts made us crave for something strawberry. We headed to the deli & picked a strawberry ice-cream. It was different from the ice cream we get usually – so creamy & fresh! What could be a better way to chill?!

That reminds us of the weather.

Braving oppressive heat

It was quite hot during the daytime. We had not expected this. We knew it would be warmer compared to monsoon, but this time of the year was oppressive! The nights remained pleasant though.

The Western Ghats are delightful in the rains. That is also the time when it sees the maximum influx of sightseers. If you do not mind the crowds (after 2020, this seems unlikely for some time to come), then visit during the rainy season. If you do mind, choose the winter months. & if you are crazy like us, anytime of the year is good!

Coming back to our trip, we wanted to capture a beautiful sunset. We left the strawberry paradise & headed to Lodwick Point.

Drama In The Sky

Lodwick Point

It is not far from the main Mahabaleshwar market. We drove to the Point, parked our car & started walking to the actual point & to the Elephant’s Head Point beyond. This is about a KM long but easy walk through a forested trail.

Domeshwar was rechristened Sydney Point & further renamed Lodwick Point. General Lodwick was the first British officer to climb the hill in 1824. The Sun had started its descent & there was literally a drama in the sky.

The Elephant’s Head Point gets its name from its resemblance to an elephant’s head. Here, we were at the end of the mountain range – a perfect spot to take in a 360-degree view. But the Sun soon captured our attention. It worked its magic as it set.

No Caption Needed

The mist began to rise too. In the valley below, we could spot terraced farms. The serenity of that moment & of the scenery was such that a nature lover could not help appreciating its charm. There were a handful of other sightseers here & they seemed to be in awe too!

We soon realized we should leave before it got dark as the hiking trail might become unsafe. It being a forested trail, there was always a chance of wild animals. & it went from romantic to eerie in minutes. On the hiking note, it is a little bit of an uphill climb. So, wear comfortable shoes & have a bottle of water handy.

The Forested Trail
Going from romantic to eerie in minutes…

Just before complete darkness, the sky turned magenta. Like it was in as much love with us as we were with it…

The Sky Was Magenta!

We then arrived at Le Meridien for our drinks & dinner fix.

Le Meridien

Strawberry Margarita

Longitude 73

We continued our strawberry fixation at Longitude 73 with a Strawberry Margarita which was delicious. We also opted for a Cucumber Wave Cocktail which was refreshing. The ambience was perfect for a sundowner while the decor was chic.

Our server ensured we never felt unattended to.

Chingari

A delicious prawn biryani dinner followed at Chingari, the Indian restaurant in Le Meridien. We loved the ambience. Nice music added to the dim lighting. Our server made us feel at home & was a pleasant fellow to chat with.

We left Le Meridien feeling impressed by it – quiet location, ample parking, lush green compound, the grand staircase, beautiful architecture, & dim lighting.

Last Day

The morning we left Mahabaleshwar, we sighed a last time at the hot but blue sky. We spent a little time admiring the flowers at our resort.

On our way out of Mahabaleshwar, we stopped at Wilson Chikki, Fudge and Baba Chana.

Wilson Chikki, Fudge and Baba Chana

While this shop is known for its chikki, we picked up Chocolate Walnut Fudge & Garlic Chana from here. Best decision ever! The Fudge was absolutely melt – in – mouth. & the Chana was tangy. We have become fans of the unbeatable fudge. The store is large & you will be spoilt for choice.

We then stopped at Bagicha Corner.

Bagicha Corner

We first bought Strawberry Crush & Strawberry No – Sugar Jam at the shop & then got a Mulberry with Ice – Cream made at the restaurant. The Ice – Cream was a perfect way to re-live childhood. Take a glass, layer the bottom with a large helping of fresh mulberries, add a scoop of mulberry ice-cream, repeat the mulberries & the ice-cream layers, & top it off with a 🍓 syrup. Yum!

Once home, we used the Strawberry Crush in our shakes & they tasted divine.

We stayed a night in Pune on our way back at JW Marriott Hotel. We had carried a bottle of Strawberry Wine from Mahabaleshwar & continued our strawberry fixation.

Strawberry Wine

In the evening, we went to Paasha for a round of drinks.

Paasha

We were mesmerized with the view the lounge offered. We sat inside but next to the windows & soaked in the city view. We drank Mojito & Pina Colada, both made well. The service was equally good. Perfect for a date night!

We then went to J1 for dinner.

J1

A small parking is available. The exterior itself made us feel we were in for a good time. We luckily got a table without hassle. The service was exemplary. We had Chicken Rassa, Ghadichi Poli & Mutton Sukka washed down with Kokam Sharbat.

It is difficult to decide which was the best dish. Everything was finger-licking good. The Rassa was quite aromatic while the Poli was a different take on the usual flatbread. We would love to dine here again.

& this brought our Mahabaleshwar trip to an end.

Accommodation

Upside Down Flowers

Mahabaleshwar

Forest County Resort

True to its name, the Resort was inside a forest. By the time we reached, it was night & the route had seemed a little scary. But the Resort itself was well – lit & seemed welcoming. The room was a cottage. It was sparsely furnished – just the basics. But the AC worked fine which was a relief.

For dinner, the first night, it seemed nothing was available except Dal Khichdi. The breakfast buffet was decent however – Chhole Bhature, Fried Egg, Omelet, Sabudana Khichdi, Uthapam. But the breakfast area was quite cramped.

The location may be a consideration for many, especially if you do not have your own vehicle. The resort is almost half an hour away from the Mahabaleshwar town & public conveyance may not be easily available.

Also, we did not get a cellular network in the resort.

View from our cottage

We give it

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Pune

JW Marriott Hotel

Breakfast Buffet Love

We stayed for one night, but the hospitality & luxury made us wish we were staying longer. The check in was smooth. Our room was superb with a panoramic city view. It was comfortable & had all the amenities we would need for our stay (& more).

The hotel had pleasing interiors. All the staff members greeted us with a smile. We absolutely loved the breakfast buffet at JW Marriott. It was a finger licking, substantial breakfast.

We give it –

Rating: 5 out of 5.
A short video of all the driving that we did!

Strawberry Overdose Let's Go Sightseeing!

How can you spend a couple of days in Mahabaleshwar? This episode tells you how. Also available as a blog post: https://letsgosightseeing.blog/2021/06/03/strawberry-overdose/
  1. Strawberry Overdose
  2. 10 Reasons Why We Love The Mountains

Mashobra

& Beyond To Chail, Fagu, Kufri & Theog

March is that time of the year when the bitter cold has ended but the merciless Delhi Sun is still at least a month away. Being the winter lovers that we are, we wanted to hold back a slice of the frost & this made us think of Himachal Pradesh over the 2019 Holi long weekend. Mashobra had been on our radar for ages. So, why not?

Not a marked trail. Finding our own path. Guessing which turns to take…

We took the Shatabdi to Chandigarh. After road, train is our preferred transport mode. From Delhi, places like Ajmer, Bhopal, Dehradun, Himachal Pradesh, & Uttarakhand get good connectivity.

It took us barely four hours to reach Chandigarh. We had booked a MyChoize self-drive from Chandigarh. Over the last couple of years, our best discovery & adoption have been of self-drive car rentals in India.

Rather than abandoning destinations because they are too far or because they do not have proper connectivity or rather than depending on local taxis, this is a much better alternative.

MyChoize self-drive car in magical, snowy Theog!

We have tried many self-drive service providers till now but MyChoize & Revv have come up tops among all. The company guy delivered the car to us at the Chandigarh railway station, checked our papers, completed the formalities & handed over the car to us. The entire process would have taken 15 minutes at most.

We then drove from Chandigarh from Mashobra halting at HPTDC The Pinewood, Barog for lunch. The hotel was on the highway with ample parking available. It had a nice garden. The building was reminiscent of the British Raj.

It was drizzling which added to the ambience. The Chicken Masala & Mutton Biryani were delectable & adequate in portion.

Step out for a walk through a forest trail…

We then continued to Mashobra. We had booked Khanabadosh for our stay; more on it later.

The First Evening

It was evening by the time we reached. As we were in a village called Purani Koti in Mashobra, there was not much to do once the Sun set. Moreover, we had had an early start to the day; so, we were happy to lounge in the cosy living room of our home-stay.

Our kind of place!

We had not expected the chill to hit us; so, we were happy to sit next to a blower & sip on warm tea. Geetika, the friendly owner of Khanabadosh had kept her home & hearth warm. Blankets, blowers & shawls strewn here & there helped us ward off the chill.

We scoured the well-stocked library to find something suitable to read. A house with books is a house we love! Geetika gave us company in the evening. We chatted away until the real owners turned up – Sultan & Gabbar. Being dog lovers, we were pleased as punch to greet the two Golden Retrievers.

The evening culminated in a dainty dinner served by the warm Kalam Singh, fondly called Pen Singh.

Fascinating bit about mountains – difference in temperature between Sun & shade

The First Full Day

The cold did not go away in the morning but became bearable. We stepped out of the warm cottage gingerly. The garden was full of colorful flowers, a Buddha statue & knickknacks. A wreath donned the front door. Christmas feels!

Geetika shared with us the concept of Khanabadosh. It is a wandering house. Every three years, she packs up her bags & moves to a new destination. Our dream life… Sigh!

Weeping Willows have been a part of our childhoods, thanks to them featuring in umpteen stories. We’d a vague image of a willow in our minds… Finally a chance to see it!

We basked in the Sun while cuddling with the two pooches but soon managed to tear ourselves away from them & stepped out for a walk. There are umpteen forest trails near Khanabadosh but be ready to huff & puff.

Those who know us know well that we’re dog people. These two gentle giants were absolutely cuddly…

We chose a trail that took us through an unforgettable pine forest. It was not really marked; more of finding our own paths & guessing which turns to take. Clearings in the forests brought spectacular vistas which made the huffing & puffing worthwhile.

We spotted a blue sky, a cat, birds, children playing cricket, lots of greenery, our first Weeping Willow, village folks at work, & wildflowers! We have heard people ask – “What’s there to do in the mountains?” We agree. The whole point of mountains is you do nothing; just surrender yourself to nature…

Happiness is… A blue sky!

On turning back, we opted for the road instead of the forest trail. Purani Koti was exactly our kind of place! Few people, more animals… But we are cognizant of the problems remote areas bring.

It is easy to get enchanted as a sightseer, but different to live there!

After the tiring walk, we recharged our batteries with an expedition to Fagu & Theog. We drove on till Theog, turned back & halted at Fagu for lunch. We were first surprised, then thrilled to see snow on the mountainsides in March – end!

Opt for roads through forests…

Charles Dickens has captured March well – “It was one of those March days when the sun shines hot and the wind blows cold: when it is summer in the light, and winter in the shade.” Anyhow, the snow transformed Fagu into a magical world.

The crisp spring air did us good. We stopped at HPTDC The Apple Blossom, Fagu for tea. It had an excellent location & ample parking. The hotel gave a ~360-degree view of the Himalayas.

An expedition to Fagu & Theog

While we waited for tea, we walked around taking in the snowy sights. The tea was good too! We chose to have lunch at a roadside kiosk & returned to Khanabadosh for more doggo love!

King of this jungle! It watched us curiously for a while & then stealthily moved away…

The Second Full Day

For a change, we woke up to see the sunrise. Purani Koti was yet to come to life but little birds were up & about. The feathered creatures were proving the saying ‘The early bird catches the worm’.

Sultan & Gabbar had stirred too & were off on their morning walk with Kalam Singh.

These little ones were up & about even before sunrise.

Later in the day, we headed to Chail. Kufri, as usual, was a mess. Dirty & overcrowded! We still do not understand what fun tourists derive from riding mules!

Once we crossed Kufri, we began to spot the snow-capped Himalayas. This mountain range has been our source of happiness for decades. Every time we visit the Himalayas, we understand better how people become spiritually enlightened here.

Our first stop was HPTDC The Chail Palace – a childhood favorite! The humble Palace holds its charm. The green lawn outside is a perfect spot for tea while sunbathing. The opulent interiors are full of artifacts of the bygone era. Time travel!

Time travel!

We had Hot Buttered Rum in the Royal Bar followed by lunch at the palace restaurant. The Fruit Cream & Saag Mutton were appetizing. The service was great. Lunch time is crowded as day visitors drop in. Plan your day/ time accordingly.

In the past, we have stayed in the Maharani Suite & in the log huts. The Maharani Suite, of course, was exceptional. We would love to return for another stay.

Our next stop was the Chail Cricket Ground. It is the highest cricket ground in the world, but we doubt regular matches are played here. It is inside a cantonment area; you’ve to fill in your details in a register to enter. & the moment you step inside the cantonment, smooth roads appear. The Cricket Ground, unfortunately, can be seen only from its gate.

Just so you know we’re not fibbing!
Rhododendron – synonymous with Himalayas…

On our way back to Mashobra, we spotted snowy peaks & rhododendrons. The Himalayas are our happy place! The drive to Theog & Chail had been appealing. Soulful music added to the allure!

The Last Morning

Morning scenes made our hearts grow fonder of Mashobra. Sultan came up to say a sad goodbye while Gabbar showed his anger by keeping his back towards us. I so miss these beautiful doggies… Sadly, Sultan died this February. Now, Bruce Lee gives company to Gabbar.

Wildflowers… Enid Blyton books would be full of their mention.

We drove back to Chandigarh stopping at Falcon Cafe Lounge, Panchkula for lunch. The lounge had a relaxed vibe. There was a birthday party going on but because it was a separate area, it did not trouble us.

The Arabic Hummus Chicken Sandwich, Juicy Chicken Burger, Paan Ice cream & The Great Chocolate Shake were good. The service was great too.

At the Chandigarh Railway Station, we returned our MyChoize vehicle & caught the Shatabdi to come back to Delhi NCR.

Maybe it was spring, maybe it was winter. If the weather hadn’t confused me enough already, the trees complicated the matter further…

Accommodation

When researching accommodation options for Mashobra, we were torn between Khanabadosh & Mahasu House. The latter was tried & tested by friends, & highly recommended, but the former had doggies! That clinched the deal for us.

Being frequent travelers, Khanabadosh was out of our budget, but Geetika was generous & gave us a discount; we adjusted some too. We knew then that we had made the right choice as things started falling in place.

Bird lovers, please help identify. Is it a Brown Thrasher?

All our interaction took place on email. Geetika was prompt & clear in her answers. She kept in touch with us till the day we traveled. On our actual travel day, we used Google Maps without any hassle to reach Khanabadosh.

Geetika’s home was a ground + 2 expansive yet cosy building made of stones, reminding you of the English countryside mansions you read about in childhood. A quick tour, a warm chai, & scores of conversations quickly made us feel at ease.

Of course, we were dying to meet the pooches – Gabbar & Sultan. What affectionate rascals they turned out to be! Gabbar, the naughty one, kept us regaled throughout with its antics. While Sultan taught us the meaning of love all over again.

Bird feeders! Geetika has made her home welcome not just for people, but for animals & birds too.

Over the next couple of days, Geetika gave us great ideas on where to go & what to eat.

Our post would be incomplete without a mention of Kalam Singh – the pocket-sized dynamite who fed us till we exploded, & still had a long face we did not eat enough. Isn’t that the feeling you’ve at home? Not for a moment we felt we were in a stranger’s house.

Nothing we say about Kalam Singh’s culinary skills (or managing skills) would do justice. We hogged on parathas, omelettes, chicken, fish, & myriad kinds of vegetables.

Sultan & Gabbar off on their morning walk with Kalam Singh.

If you like bird watching, you can keep an eye out in the garden of Khanabadosh around sunrise. We saw many little feathered creatures. The decor was outstanding. Geetika has painstakingly collected artifacts from her travels. These gave a richness to her home without ever seeming ‘too much’.

Shawls were kept here & there if you suddenly felt a chill. A bowl full of chocolates at the door ensured we gained a few pounds, as if Kalam Singh’s food were not enough.

Our room was comfortable with enough blankets & a heater. Khanabadosh is a home-stay in the truest sense. It is Geetika’s home & she has opened it to strangers. Moreover, Khanabadosh welcomes animals & birds too. Yes, it is pet-friendly!

Feathered things proving the saying – The early bird catches the worm.

We cannot wait to visit Khanabadosh again at its new location.

Tips For Visiting

  1. Chandigarh to Mashobra is 122 KMS & took us ~five hours with stopovers.
  2. Mashobra is barely 10 KMS away from Shimla yet has a completely different character. Instead of staying in the bustling Shimla city, make Mashobra your base. You can easily visit Chail, Fagu, Naldera, Shimla, Shoghi & Theog from here.
  3. Mashobra is a sleepy little town. Please do not expect ‘touristy’ activities here. Instead, expect a lot of calm & nature.
  4. If you like hiking/ walking & bird watching, then Mashobra is the place for you.
  5. Mashobra gets snowfall in winter. For the winter chill & snowy magic, go from October to March. But even during the rest of the year, the weather is pleasant.
  6. Mashobra can be reached via –
    1. Jubbarhatti airport, Shimla
    1. Kalka Railway Station
    1. Shimla bus stand
    1. Well connected by National Highway 5
  7. Please be prepared for patchy connectivity. Disconnect!
  8. Do not feed the wild animals & birds.
Linesmen at work!

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Beat the Heat!

Come April & the Sun starts its mercilessness on the hapless souls of the National Capital Region. Right till September, it becomes a matter of hot, very hot & unbearably hot. In these six months, at least one getaway is needed to cooler environs.

Aren’t we thankful that the Himalayas are a stone’s throw away? So, to help you tolerate the weather, we bring three relatively unknown, long weekend getaways from Delhi. All the three are in Uttarakhand, in the Nainital district, yet are as different from Nainital as chalk from cheese!

Jeolikot: It was a never-heard-of-before village for us till we made our way here. Jeolikot is located close to Nainital, & yet, is far removed from the chaos that Nainital can be during the tourist season. It is a great place for flower lovers & lepidopterists.

jeolikot, mist
Misty Jeolikot

Visit Jeolikot for a picturesque view of the Himalayas. It is not a place where you rush around to ‘see’ spots. Rather, grab a book, or put on your favorite music, or carry a board game, sit facing the mountains, grab a cup of ‘chai’ & life is sorted.

outside, cozy, morning tea, sitout
Outside our room, a cozy spot to sip the morning tea

Located a little down the hill from the main road, The Cottage is a cozy home stay reminiscent of the bygone colonial era. Its red roof exudes an old-world charm. The shimmery blue & white porcelain crockery make up a large part of the decor. A decor you will be tempted to take home!

To top it, Ms. Bhuvan Kumari’s impeccable hospitality & warmth. Over mugs of tea, she regaled us with stories ranging from leopards to winter soirees. The best part – dogs! When we visited, there were three adorable & friendly doggos.

greet, dog
Greeted by ‘Nanhi Bai’

We tried to get to Nainital but, being an extended weekend, we could not get past the traffic jam. Instead, we turned towards Bhimtal, had lunch at a dhaba from where the Bhimtal Lake was faintly visible, & returned to the calmness of Jeolikot.

bhimtal
Spot Bhimtal in the distance

We recommend – do not bother with Nainital & the like. Head out for a stroll in Jeolikot itself. You will come across giggling kids, grazing horses, plenty of flora, & wild berries. Try the Chicken Roast at The Cottage, and pick up souvenirs from Kilmora.

You can get from Delhi NCR to Jeolikot in about seven hours, nine if there is traffic.

Sattal, little known, picturesque
Sattal – So little known, & thus so picturesque!

Sattal: A village deriving its name from the lake it encircles, Sattal is near Bhimtal, but is less known. True to its name, the ‘lake’ is actually a combination of seven lakes, each quite pristine. Forests surround the lakes.

mind, reel, gorgeous
Our minds reeled with all the gorgeousness.

Given the ecosystem, birds thrive here, making Sattal a paradise for ornithophiles. We spent our time birding. Ask for directions to get to the bird watching spot, the Studio. It is a downhill walk, with no restrooms in the vicinity. As birding is a time-consuming activity, this is something you need to be aware of. Also, note that bird watching needs a lot of patience & silence. You make one movement/ sound, & the bird would have flown off.

It was our first birding experience; we were lucky to spot jungle myna, blue whistling thrush, grey wagtail, red-Wattled lapwing, oriental turtle dove, orange flanked bush robin, grey-headed canary flycatcher, black bulbul, verditer flycatcher, white throated laughing thrush, slaty-headed parakeet, ultramarine flycatcher, Himalayan bulbul, & black headed jay.

Located in a nearby village called Suriyagaon is Naveen’s Glen, an estate comprising apartments, cottages & villas. It is run by Ms. Nitya Budharaja & her family. The rooms have been done up warmly. A personal touch is evident in every aspect of Naveen’s Glen.

Naveen's Glen, garden, bloom
Naveen’s Glen garden in full bloom!

To top it, there is an absolutely stunning view of the sunset from the garden. We spent many minutes chatting with Ms. Budharaja, getting recommendations from her for bird watching & for food.

sunrise, sunset, Jo Walton
“There’s a sunrise & a sunset every single day, & they’re absolutely free. Don’t miss so many of them.” – Jo Walton

The best part – again dogs! When we visited, there were three adorable & friendly doggos.

It does not snow in Sattal; so, it is accessible throughout the year. You can get from Delhi NCR to Sattal in about six hours, eight in case of traffic. Naveen’s Glen is located off the main road, the last few kilometers are devoid of human habitation. But, do not worry – you are on the right track.

Nathuakhan, Dusk, changing colors, amaze
Nathuakhan Dusk – The changing colors amazed us.

Nathuakhan: Falling under the Ramgarh block, Nathuakhan is essentially a village. & therein lies its beauty. It offers appealing views of the sun caressed Himalayan ranges which are dotted with soaring trees of pine, birch & many others.

clear day, snow-capped mountain, entice
On clear days, the snow-capped mountains entice…

The mountainous terrains, fertile valley and dense cover of abundant forest make Nathuakhan a place to rest and enjoy solitude away from the city buzz. The mountains may get your creative juices flowing; so, whatever your artistic inclination, carry it along.

Summer, Flower, wilt
Summer had arrived. Flowers had started wilting.

If you like to work your limbs, there are a number of walking trails nearby. Keep a lookout for members of the feline family. For those who like their poison on-the-go, Nathuakhan has a country liquor store with few English brands available. So, if you have superior tastes or are fussy, we suggest you carry your alcohol.

Country wood cottages augment the beauty of Nathuakhan. Bob’s Place is one such. It is nestled away from crowds, provides comforting food, and does not compel one to do anything. Bob’s Place has standalone cottages erected in a multi-level manner. The highest ones command a view of snow-clad peaks of the Himalayas. The lower ones have sit-out areas but the view gets diminished by the foliage.

Our cottage had a fireplace, a blanket and a heater. The food we ate did not taste any different from what we eat at home. The ‘poha’ we had for breakfast was quite different though, and wonderfully so. It was made with ‘khada garam masala’. People who have eaten the Indian-style meat can identify how good this would taste. The ‘masala chai’ was free-flowing too. Special mention of the chicken fry we got as our finale dinner. Do ask for it when you head to Bob’s Place.

You can get from Delhi NCR to Nathuakhan in about nine hours, eleven in case of traffic. Do not forget to pick up shawls, stoles, herbs and pine needle decorations from Kilmora, and fruit spreads from Himjoli.

(You can read our full blog post on Nathuakhan here.)

So, go ahead & beat the heat!

Meet the Maharaja

For us, a holiday is not about rest and rejuvenation alone. At different points in time, it is about adventure, luxury, new experiences, new cultures, new food and discovering each other. One such place which gave a new experience was Kishangarh, Rajasthan, India.

Kishangarh is a big town divided into an old and a new segment. The new segment houses large marble companies with their factories, offices, and lots of small marble product retailers. This is the not-so-interesting side.

The real charm is in the old town of Kishangarh, which houses the Kishangarh fort and the Phool Mahal palace. It is about an hour before Pushkar when traveling from Delhi. Both Ajmer and Pushkar are at easy accessible distances.

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The old town that still owes allegiance to the maharaja of Kishangarh. The blue reminded of Jodhpur…

We came to know about Kishangarh from the 2012 edition of Outlook Traveler. But when we mentioned it to people, they either did not know about it or dismissed it saying it has nothing.

It left us skeptical but not disheartened; skeptical because we were taking our parents along too. Nonetheless, we were determined to find out for ourselves. And, we are glad we did.

We started from Delhi fairly late, at about 9 AM. We got all the city traffic possible. The road from Gurgaon to Jaipur was quite bad too; there was construction going on. Diversions marked our route, making the roads even more congested.

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It may be small. It may not be as glamorous as other heritage properties. But it had a soul…

Once we turned onto the Ajmer- Pushkar road, it was smooth sailing. Phool Mahal palace is available accurately on GPS. Within Kishangarh, we crossed the market to get to the palace. This added to our skepticism as the market was narrow, with a fair degree of hustle and bustle. One of the roads branched to take us to the palace.

Once we reached there, all our skepticism went flying out of the window. Located on one side of the Gond Talav (pond), made of yellow stone, and having the fort as its backdrop, the Phool Mahal is not your typical luxury heritage hotel. It is more of a budget heritage hotel, but with all the old-world charm intact.

Kishor, the caretaker, showed us our rooms, which were on the first floor and were pond-facing. Our parents’ room was in a theme of blue with large bay windows overlooking the lake. It had a bathroom the size of a flat in most metros.

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The prettily done-up rooms. Great lighting, great views!

Our room had a pastel shade, and was circular & small. But it got its beauty from the paintings done on the wall. These were the Kishangarh style of miniature paintings. We also had a small verandah which opened to the lake.

The fort and the palace are retained by the royal family of Kishangarh. The current king is His Highness Maharaja Brajraj Singh. He is the 20th king. Kishangarh was set up when the second son of the Jodhpur Maharaja came here and established his own kingdom. His name was Maharaja Kishen Singh, from which the town takes its name. And true to its name, the town follows Lord Krishna.

The Royal Kishangarh has two more heritage properties – Roopangarh about 25 kms away from Phool Mahal, and Kishangarh House in Mount Abu. The lounge on the ground floor had a wall full of portraits of the 20 kings to have ruled Kishangarh. The dining hall had the photographs of the current king and his family.

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The prettiest bits – the paintings on the walls, called the Kishangarh Style of Paintings

The staff was skeletal but hugely courteous. The Rajasthani hospitality was quite evident. Kishor was not just our go-to person; he was also our guide to the history of the palace and fort. He accommodated all our requests. Along with him, we had a server dedicated to us.

The palace grounds are quite big with a large parking, the main palace, gardens and smaller standalone structures. When we reached, the Gond Talav was covered with water hyacinths.

The story goes-the pond was used for water chestnut farming. Once, along with the seeds of the water chestnut plant, came a few branches and leaves of the water hyacinth plant. These took over the pond as Alexander had taken over the world. Efforts were made to remove these but given their stubbornness and parasitic nature, it had been futile.

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The water-hyacinth covered lake. Before, during and after the wind blew…

The hyacinths were killing the pond. The lack of oxygen made the fish come to the surface. The pond had a dirty brown-grey color. But, but, but, we got a pleasant surprise when a gentle current made all the hyacinths drift into a corner of the pond. The pond then got a  blue shimmer color. That was the sight that kept us company for almost a day and a half.

We hope the municipality took corrective action. It was just a matter of will, was it not? And not every pond would have catfish as large as an eagle’s wingspan.

Next in line for us was the visit to the fort. The entry fee was INR 200 per person. The tickets were available at the Phool Mahal reception. A guide escorted us and explained the doors, the spikes, the horse-drawn carriages, the treasury, the weapon storage area etc.

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The rampart, the defense arrangements, we could breathe the days of yore

He then handed us over to ‘Mukhiya ji’ who was the priest in the temple inside the fort. The temple was dedicated to an avatar of Lord Krishna, Sri Nath ji but it could not be accessed by the public.

Mukhiya ji took us on a tour of the fort interior, which included many palaces. We just managed to cover the queen’s chambers after which we were exhausted. There is quite of bit of climbing that one needs to do, and it being Rajasthan, the Sun can be pretty strong. So try to go during the evening hours and do carry water with you.

It was heartwarming to see an intact fort which gave a glimpse of how the royalty lived many years ago. The fort also housed Studio Kishangarh which was the art initiative by the princess of Kishangarh. The Studio was striving to revive the old Kishangarh painting style. Worth a dekko!

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Studio Kishangarh- an initiative by the princess to revive the lost art of Kishangarh painting

Maintaining the fort would not be easy on the wallet, especially without a private/ public funding; a fort without a regular tourist inflow, it must be the pride of the royal family, and their memories that have kept this going.

His Highness was doing a pretty good job. Our only regrets – (1) We could not explore the fort in full due to its size and our paucity of time; and (2) We could not pick up a souvenir from the Studio Kishangarh outlet.

As we completed the fort visit, we were greeted by the sight of His Highness sitting in the veranda of Phool Mahal. We struck a conversation where he told us about the history, the efforts to clean the pond, the privacy of the Srinathji temple, and his other properties in Roopangarh and Mount Abu.

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Within the massive fort, lots of palaces for kings, Queens, princes, princesses & all bhai- bhatijas! That’s why they didn’t need a TV those days 😉

His Highness came across as a learned man; we later came to know he was an author and a lecturer on the Kishangarh art. There is something royal about royalty, isn’t there?

This brought our trip to an end. The day we left was the day of Holi, the festival of colors. We found the roads and highways devoid of traffic. On our onward journey, we had taken almost eight hours to reach. While returning, it took us six hours.

We took away nuggets of learning from the trip: (1) Never write off a place without experiencing it; (2) Hit the roads on major festival days.

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Bravery awards, replicas, sun-lit verandas, open courtyards… Sigh! This is the era we should have been born in.

Lastly, for the ease of fellow travelers, we suggest the following itinerary ex-Delhi: Delhi – Kishangarh- Ajmer- Pushkar- Roopangarh- Delhi. Five days, four nights would be sufficient.

Day 1: Leave from Delhi in the morning. Reach Kishangarh by evening. Spend the night at Phool Mahal.

Day 2: Start early and explore the fort in the first half. Head to Ajmer after lunch and offer a ‘chaadar’ at the ‘dargah’. Return to Phool Mahal for the night.

Day 3: Start late and head to Pushkar. Visit the Brahma temple and others, if you wish. Or shop at the bazaar and eat delicacies at the German bakeries. Head to the lake towards evening and be a part of the ‘aarti’. Back to Phool Mahal for the night.

Day 4: Head to Roopangarh. Explore the fort by day and rest there at night

Day 5: Leave for Delhi

Recommended time to visit: October-March

Recommended eats: Laal Maas (a very spicy mutton dish)

Recommended buys: A souvenir from Studio Kishangarh, lac bangles

Ram-ram sa!

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