A Home Away From Home: The White Peaks

IMG_4976Just a one-hour drive from Kathgadom Station or eight-hour bakery from Delhi brings you to the sloping village of Gagar. Greeted by the mild-mannered housekeeper Mohan, who will grab your bags and whisk you away to your new home for the next few days. This two-bed cottage, with views of the foothills of the Himalayas, and on a clear morning the Nanda Devis. An idyllic home away from home. Owners, Aparupa and Abhijit have decorated it as though it were their own private home (and they do come and stay here as often as life allows)! Feature walls of framed Rajasthani artwork paired with old family photos create an eclectic and lived in feel. The living room, dominated by a large, stone, open-fireplace is the definition of homely. While away an evening with a good book (of which you’ll find plenty around the house) in front of the log fire.

IMG_4992Both of the bedrooms are cosy with soft white linens and proper feather down duvets. The beds might be regular doubles but you’ll sleep like a Queen. Colourful cushions and wool dhurries add a pop of colour whilst antique writing desks double as bedside tables. Bathrooms are simple (it’s a bucket shower affair) but the hot water flows. You’ll find an electric heater in your room for those chilly evenings (once you manage to tear yourself away from the fire). An all-inclusive property, this is a place where friends and family (and well-behaved dogs) are meant to come and congregate. There is no Wi-Fi, however, there is a television, but the whole point is about spending quality time over a heated game of Rummikub.

IMG_4972Meals are cooked by your housekeeper Mohan: daal, rice, steaming hot chapatis, as well as home-style butter chicken, and seasonal vegetable preparations. For breakfast eggs to order with brown toast with local jams. A constant flow of masala chai is on hand, just let them know what time you’d like your bed tea for the morning.

IMG_4977Great walking routes right from your front door, the forest trail will get your legs walking and the blood pumping or make the day trip to the Talla Ramgarh river. Bhimtal and Nainital are also just a short drive away, should you wish to explore further afield. A writer’s retreat, a dog-lover’s holiday, or an escape from the city, The White Peak’s is a breath of fresh air.

For direct bookings click here.

Rural Rajasthani Refinement at Shahpura Bagh

As reviewed for The Hotel Guru:

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Amidst sprawling gardens this historic estate oozes elegance and charm. Suites fit for a maharaja include four-posters, ornate textiles and large, airy windows. A feast of traditional Rajasthani dishes is served in the dining room or al-fresco whilst the heated outdoor pool is the place to relax.

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An oasis in unexplored Rajasthan. Dating back to the 19th century, Shahpura Bagh provides a stay amidst history with the family of this ancestral mansion house. As you take the turning off the main highway spluttering traffic and screeching truck horns are replaced by stubborn bullock carts driven by be-turbaned Rajasthani farmers in dusty dhotis. Wandering distance from colourful town centre the white gates of Shahpura Bagh are a portal to a bygone age of refined luxury and undisturbed tranquility.

3118049-shahpura-bagh-rajasthan-indiaAccommodation is spread across two colonial style bungalows, ensconced by 40 acres of verdant lawns and farmland, plus a heated pool. An intimate affair there are just nine rooms, all divine, packed with antiques and featuring lounge areas meant for lingering; bathtubs meant for soaking. Our favourites would have to be the Royal Suites for their capacious four posters and open fire places. Generous touches such as complimentary birdwatching and farm visits or sundowners at Dikhola Fort make one feel truly spoilt.

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Getting to know your fellow guests over drinks, canapés and an open fire make you feel right at home. Dine surrounded by family portraits and hunting trophies to the beat of a long unplayed rock n roll score. Another whiskey, sir? Why on earth not. A daily set menu of regional dishes (it is a veritable feast) is served, whilst a continental spread is provided each morning and lunch is set to order. Let’s just say you will not go hungry here! But what is most impressive about Shahpura Bagh is how committed Jai, Sat and their families are to their local community. From monetary donations, personal property converted into schools and employing a team of all local staff, Shahpura Bagh and its town are one. For an authentic yet luxurious, rural Rajasthan experience stay here: no questions asked.

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Great for: A bucolic break between Jaipur and Udaipur and is easily accessible from Jodhpur and Ranthambore.

Best time to go: Between October – March is the best time to visit Rajasthan, though it can be quite magical during the monsoon. Expect it to be chilly in the evening between December and January.

For direct bookings click here.

Almora: Photoblog and Guide from an Amateur

Almora: Photoblog and Guide from an Amateur

Morning has brokenThe stunning views along the drive from Kathogodam to Almora – worth staying awake for! 

Chai StopBread PakhorasFollowed by the mandatory chai stop and my first bread pakhora? I think that’s what these are called? Anyway they’re bloody delicious and basically hot morsels or crispy, carby goodness! 

The Beautiful Blue HouseThe beautiful “Blue House”

Sunny YellowAnd our “Happy Yellow” room 😀

The Butterfly!The butterfly(!) that made my lap it’s home for half hour or so. The juxtaposition of my horrible acrylic nails only makes it more beautiful; whilst simultaneously ruining the photo.

Billionaire Boys ClubThe Billionaire Boy’s Club of Crank’s RIdge: These guys have seen it all – Dylan? Ginsberg? Just another hippy passing through..  

HeavenA mountain “meadow”. If I died and went to Heaven, this would suffice. 

BellsTemple BellsBells at the sanctuary of Kasar Devi temple – it even has a meditation room. A more spectacular temple is the famous Chitai Temple which makes the Kasar Devi’s collection of bells look poultry! The temple is in honour of Lord Shiva and newly married couples in particular make offerings here. It is about 10km from Almora and a fantastic walk! 

Putting out feet up!Putting our feet up and enjoying the view at Mohan’s, the social epicentre of Crank’s Ridge. Pity about the annoying telephone wires.. If not renting a house I would certainly recommend staying here. 

Last Supper

Rhododendron JuiceOur last supper (mercifully not another curry) accompanied by the fruity elixir and bibendum of the gods: rhododendron juice! Warning: will cause tooth decay. 

Other activities in Almora include hiking, biking (pedal and motor) and fishing to name a few  – basically anything outdoorsy. All can be booked at Mahon’s. There is also a lovely little shop called Panchachuli where fabrics and clothing, made by local women using traditional methods are sold. The factory and associated NGO are located further down the road, closer to Almora town.

I hope you are inspired to visit Almora and love it as much as I do!!

Almora: Less is Mora

Almora: Less is Mora

Whilst I sit here writing, a butterfly sits on me, apparently bewildered by the flowery pyjama shorts she is trying to feed from! But I am glad of the company; especially so beautiful. “The Himalayas have come to greet you!” E told us upon our arrival in Almora, greeting us herself with a big hug. Apparently they’d been hiding under a thick blanket of mist and fog for the last few weeks, and sure enough there they stood: white, proud and defiant – but not at all like a band of English Defence League supporters!

Three hours ago we had stumbled out of our carriage and onto the platform at Kathogodam, our expectant driver all smiles. Ascending the mountains we left the twinkling lights of the tiny toy town down below. The stark outline of a mountain rose into the sky like the gnarled spine of some dormant beast; behind which the “rosy fingered dawn” (as Homer so aptly puts it!)  was playfully creeping up on. We wound our way through towns and villages stretching, blinking, coughing – slowly waking up for the day. The air tasted different to Delhi, the sounds were different too; car horns and the calls of street vendors replaced by bird calls and crickets. Somewhere in the distance a cockerel crows: morning has broken.

The tiny toy town down below

After a delicious breakfast of home-made muesli and other such yummies we were off again on the so often spoken about and ominous “Walk”. I was looking forward to it and dreading it all at once. The guides are Himalayan boys; their mole hills are our mountains. We set off across ‘Cranks Ridge’ an area known for its lush vegetation and abundance of flora and fauna, seldom found in India. Butterflies flirtatiously waltzed between our feet, courting one another, as we struggled up the mountain path. Animals enjoy a good life here. The cows, cats, dogs and goats are some of the happiest and healthy looking I have seen in India. When we finally rested to take in the panoramic vistas they truly were (for want of a better word) ‘breath-taking’; nothing to do with my embarrassing levels of aerobic fitness.

A Pensive Cow on the Ridge

Back at ‘The Blue House’ we made preparations for an impromptu fire pit-smoking-drinking sesh that went on into the early hours. Laying on our backs, staring into the abyss of stars we spoke of time, space and other things that we didn’t understand. Inevitably, as one does when a subject so much larger than ourselves is broached, we were struck by that all too familiar realisation of how transient man is – and how tiny our little brains are! The day’s physical struggles became mental ones and we strained to understand miracles that had transpired millennia before the first human ever decided to question them. The slowest of shooting stars dawdled across the sky – a firefly! I had never seen one before and it was magical! Like a real life fairy bouncing through the all-encompassing night. Elated, thoughts darted through my mind as I drew up non-existent parallels between my company and the Dylan’s, Ginsberg’s, George Harrisons et al, who had also once made “Hippie Hill” their home. The ridge gained the prefix, “Crank’s”, after Timothy Leary famously streaked across it in the 1960’s.

Apparently, and I use this word very heavily, the ridge lies between a gap in the Van Allen Belt, a “radiation zone of high energy particles trapped by the earth’s magnetic field”. This positioning may allow the creative mind to harness its powers to their optimum. Oh, plus there’s also a mountain full of freely available maal right on one’s doorstep. But never the less, I enjoyed re-living their imagined experiences myself, all be it fictitious. I can’t claim to have successfully harnessed my creative mind and reinvented myself as some sort of literary genius, but there is something very special about Crank’s Ridge. Whether it’s gaps in magnetic fields, the superlative variety of flora and fauna or simply because it’s that little bit off the tourist trail (not that far off!) it is a place where one can both relax and exert body and mind to the greatest extent.

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Relaxing in Rishikesh: Not What You’d Expect

Relaxing in Rishikesh: Not What You’d Expect

“Beatles ashram?” we asked hopefully to the two small village boys that stood idly across the overgrown forest trail. Our enquiry was met with vacant expressions. Apparently they weren’t fans. Yet despite the lack of guidance we found what we were looking for but a hundred feet or so further down the trail. And it was shut – fabulous. Our ‘relaxing weekend of yoga and meditation’ in Rishikesh had not exactly gone to plan. Arriving in the early hours of the morning after another crippling overnight bus journey we were met by a friendly four-legged centenary, christened Oedipus (owing to his funny apparently webbed feet)! Most of the time nothing makes sense in India, so whether Oedipus led us or followed, we found our way to a guest house – and passed out. Awakening, what felt like a week later and unbolting the door our gaze fell upon the best view of Laxman Jula. Well done Oedipus.

After gathering our thoughts and belongings we decided to do what one does in Rishikesh: yoga. We arrived to find our yogi either asleep or in a state of deep, impenetrable meditation. Probably the former. Not to worry, this is Rishikesh after all – we’ll go for a spot of Ayurvedic healing and get our doshas diagnosed. A long and uncomfortable motorbike journey later we arrived at “the absolute best clinic of Ayurveda in Rishikesh, madams” *said in thick and undulating Indian accent. The doctor was out: Fuck. This. “To the Beatles ashram!” we cried, which now, no longer a functioning ashram, seemed not be much of a tourist destination, judging by the fact that NO-ONE KNEW WHERE IT WAS. But it meant a scenic walk through some of the more rural parts of Rishikesh and, upon discovering it was closed, we decided to make our way back to town along the banks of the river Ganges, which the ashram sits right next to. Oh, the Mother Ganga, she always brings good things and this time she did not fail to deliver. Tired, hungry and a little pissed off we scrambled over sand banks, hopped over sewage pipes until we finally came to a bit of a clearing. Who should we find relaxing under the shade of a little bridge beside the Ganga – the babas of course; the best people in India!

Welcomed with the humble hospitality only a real baba can give we were ushered into the make shift tent of Baba G. I am always amazed at how easily conversation flows and how much one laughs when spending time with babas – nothing to do with the chillum pipe being passed round like a conveyer belt. They are such kind and open people. We spoke of the Kumbh Mela, which my friend and I had attended (along with hundreds of thousands of other babas and a hundred million other Hindus) earlier that year, Hindu philosophy and life. After sharing a tasty meal of daal, chapati (with the biggest mountain of sugar on it! Still don’t really understand that?) and chai it was getting late. We made our way back to Rishikesh stomachs, minds and hearts full of food, thoughts and love. The afternoon spent with Baba G had obviously caused our planets to align because on our way back to we stumbled across the evening Ganga Aarti at the Parmarth Niketan Ashram. Unfortunately the huge statue of Lord Shiva was not present to oversee the evening’s festivities, having been destroyed in the devastating floods that swept through Rishikesh earlier this year. The young boys from the ashram performed bhajans and offerings were made to Agni, the fire god. There is something really hypnotic about this performance and it is easy to get swept away by the beautiful voices and the ever audible roar of the Ganga.

So, Rishikesh, you weren’t what we’d planned but then when does a good plan go to plan anyway? However next time I come I would like to do at least one of things we’d set out to do! If you’ll permit it that is?

Dharamsala: It Went With a Bang

Dharamsala: It Went With a Bang

“Car crash?” I enquired to our bus driver. “No, no: shooting” he replied nonchalantly. “Ohhhh, a shooting” I thought “naturally”. As we made our way through the multiplying clusters of inquisitive onlookers I had quite forgotten that but two nights ago I was 30,000 feet high somewhere over Central Asia. I imagined that on my first weekend as a fully fledged Delhi local I would be writing about well, Delhi; however my friend Natasha had other plans. After a quick “freshen up” stop at her apartment en-route from airport to bus station, I found myself heading north to the Himalayas for a back-to-basics weekend in Rakkar, Dharamsala.

As our aptly named ‘semi-sleeper’ bus began to ascend the mountains we were rudely roused from our sleeping tablet induced slumbers. Nothing to do with involuntary ‘head-banging on window routine’ incurred by the pot-hole ridden mountain passes. Groggily we rubbed our eyes. We were met by a valley still tucked away under its thick blanket of mist, just about to be thrown off before rising for the day. Oh, and Nasma our host and her driver.

The latter turned out to be a budding mountaineer and the following morning after a scripture worthy picnic under the “people tree” he took us to his favourite secluded spot. Our only accompaniment along the hike was a mummy cow and her calf, which in India is saying something! We marched to the beat of the slate miners across the other side of the valley, for which Dharamsala is famous for. But as we ascended the top of the hill their reassuring rhythm was drowned out by the roar of the river below, fat from the recent monsoon. This was eagle territory. As we scrambled from rock to rock, clutching cameras, rucksacks and water bottles, they glided majestically between the peaks, effortlessly making their way across the valley we had just taken hours to climb.

After another biblical feast we made our way back down, mirroring the ant-like donkey trail descending the opposite mountain. Mummy cow and her calf were back. Three young girls came running up to us: “Name? Country?” they asked excitedly, all anyone wants to know in India apparently. N, who used to work for the Jagori Rural Charitable Trust in the local village asked them why they were not in school. “But it’s Sunday?” the eldest replied, confused. So it was – clever one she was.

After a quick yoga session with ‘Yogi Nani’, N’s beautiful 75 year old mother, we were back on the ‘semi-sleeper’ and Delhi bound once more. Not before the ‘shoot out’ extended pit stop including several chais, much local gossip and a fainting. Oh and bunch of stoned Israelis singing their national anthem. Dharamsala: it’s been emotional.