Tag Archives: Colonial bungalows

Landour: Writer’s Bloc

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Expansive view of the Himalayas, shaded wooded glens and quaint colonial bungalows have made Landour a writers’ getaway for ages, discovers ANURAG MALLICK

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As I set off from Rokeby Manor along the old bridle trail called the ‘Chukkar’ encircling the three summits of Landour ridge, the pre-dawn mountain air was crisp and invigorating. The pretty forested hillside was dotted with gabled bungalows with names like Kenilworth, Ivanhoe, Waverly and Woodstock, echoing themes from Sir Walter Scott’s novels.

Some of the colonial era cottages mirrored their Scottish and Irish heritage – Scottsburn, Wolfsburn, Redburn, Shamrock Cottage, Tipperary, Killarney. It was hard to understand why the British-era cantonment of Landour, 6km uphill from Mussoorie, was named after Llanddowror, a village thousands of miles away in southwest Wales!

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The story goes back to early 19th century, when the British halted the Gurkha conquest of Kumaon–Garhwal and moved from the plains of Dehradun to create a military sanatorium in the hills. In 1825, Captain Young, the ‘discoverer’ of Mussoorie and commandant of the first Gurkha battalion raised after the Gurkha War, built the first permanent home in Landour. His house, Mullingar, was named after his county town in Ireland. By early 20th century, Mullingar became a hotel, and during World War II, was leased to the army to accommodate the spillover of wounded soldiers from the sanatorium.

I followed the path to Lal Tibba or Depot Hill, referring to the convalescent ‘depot’ that stretched around Landour’s highest point Childer’s Lodge. It was the best spot in town to catch a glimpse of a 200km long stretch of the Himalayas. And I was just in time for the spectacle. As dawn broke, the first rays of the sun fell on Himalayan peaks like Swargarohini, Bandarpunch, Chaukhamba and Nanda Devi, turning them pink, red and then a dazzling golden yellow. The telescope on top of the double-storey viewing platform offered a closer look at the ranges.

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Though the Chukkar became motorable in the late 1950s, a leisurely stroll is the best way of enjoying Landour’s few sights strewn along the  circular route – Landour cemetery, Kellogg’s Memorial Church and St. Paul’s Church. I reached Char Dukan, a cluster of Indian-run establishments since colonial times at the site of the old parade ground. Being a Convalescent Depot, correspondence was critical for those recuperating here so Capt Young started the Landour Cantonment Post Office in 1827, which still stood at the chowk.

Locals and tourists flock to Anil’s Café for his chai, parathas, bun-omelette and Maggi. Sachin Tendulkar, who came on a holiday to Mussoorie, made a stopover here and his Twitter endorsement graces the wall. After a large glass of the famous Ginger Lemon Honey Tea, I walked back to Rokeby in time for a hearty breakfast of eggs, bacon and delicious Mustard Chicken.

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Rokeby Manor, a colonial bungalow painstakingly revamped into a boutique hotel, was built in 1840 by Captain GN Cauthy. Like many of the bungalows, it took its name from the writings of Sir Walter Scott, whose epic poem describes battles fought near Rokeby Castle in England. “I saw his melancholy smile, Where full opposed in front he knew, Where Rokeby’s kindred banner flew…” Rokeby’s restaurant Emily’s was named after British author Emily Eden who stayed in Landour and chronicled the highs and lows of colonial life. Literature runs deep in Landour…

If you turn back the pages of history, Landour’s literary affair is not new. The British cemetery on Camel Back Road is the resting place of John Lang, dubbed as the ‘first Australian novelist’, who lived in Landour between 1850–60s. His grave dating back to 1864 was rediscovered by Ruskin Bond. This quiet nook in the Himalayas is home to leading writers such as Ruskin Bond, Bill Aitken, Allan Sealy, travel writers Hugh and Colleen Gantzer, and film personalities Tom Alter, Victor Banerjee and Vishal Bhardwaj.

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Rokeby Manor changed hands from a British soldier to adventurer Pahari Wilson to Reverend Woodside, one of the founders of Woodstock School, set up in 1854 for American children. After it was acquired by the Methodist Episcopal Church, Rokeby was converted into a boarding house for missionary ladies studying Urdu and Hindi at the Landour Language School nearby. And that’s how its brush with hospitality began…

Away from the clamour of Mussoorie, Rokeby is a welcome patch of serenity. The lovingly renovated rooms with stone walls, quaint arches and parquet floors open out to a Tea Garden overlooking the Doon valley. After soaking in the scenery over a steaming cuppa, it was time to set out again.

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Strewn across the hillside are a cluster of 19th century colonial cottages called Rokeby Residences, each offering stand-alone experiences. Staying at Rokeby gave me a chance to pop by for a look. The three-bedroom Bothwell Bank was a stone-clad log cabin with pine wood décor, fireplaces, a well-stocked kitchen, barbecue area and an outdoor jacuzzi! Shamrock Cottage, built in the 1800’s, came with a spacious garden.

The two-storied Tabor Lodge had a private deck with a tree house sit out lined with herbs in outsized cups. Pine Tree Lodge was inspired by Scandinavian architecture, with colourful patchwork stools, vintage lamps and traditional Finnish artwork. Each residence was unique! The Stubli Café serves Swiss and European cuisine while Ale House was styled like an ‘Olde English Pub’. After a nice relaxing massage at Rokeby’s Little Salon & Spa Shed, I was ready to take on Landour again!

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It is a great base for nature walks to Jabarkhet nature reserve, Kulti village or a more rigorous trek to the nearby hills of Nag Tibba. I was happy to restrict myself to less strenuous perambulations like Sisters Bazaar. Nursing sisters had their barracks near the market and visited it often, hence the name. Since Landour became home to American missionaries as early as the 1830s, it was the first place in India where the peanut butter was made commercially!

When India gained freedom in 1946, most European settlers disposed their properties and left Landour. And that’s how the peanut butter and food-processing machines ended up in the hands of Anil Prakash’s family. Prakash’s Store is famous for its chunky or smooth peanut butter, home-made cheese, jams and preserves, though it stocks pretty much everything. There’s a local saying, “If they don’t have it, you don’t need it.”

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Emily’s sister establishment Clocktower Café in Landour Bazaar, stands at the exact spot of an old clock tower. With funky decor and music posters, it is a great place for pizzas, pastas, burgers and Chinese fare. Back in the day, while Landour largely remained a British preserve, Indians were restricted to Mussoorie. From the Nawabs of Oudh to the princely states of Katesar, Kuchesar, Rajpipla, Alwar, Jind and Baroda, the who’s who of Indian royalty built opulent summer homes and made Mussoorie their retreat.

Hotel Padmini Nivas, set up by a British colonel in the 1840s, became home to a queen from Gujarat. The Nabha Palace is run as a hotel by The Claridges. The Maharaja of Kapurthala’s chateau occupies a lofty perch above The Savoy. However, one of the oldest buildings in Mussoorie is Kasmanda Palace, built above The Mall in 1836, now a WelcomHeritage hotel.

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Since colonial times, the main hub of activity has been the 1.5km long pedestrian avenue The Mall. Once out of bound for natives, ironically, the same stretch is now overrun by Indian tourists who throng its cafes and shops. A ropeway from the Mall takes tourists up to the second highest peak Gun Hill, where a gun used to be fired at noon to tell locals the time. After a series of accidents, the practice was abandoned in 1919, but the name stuck… Camel Back Road, named after a distinctive camel-shaped rocky outcrop, is a loop trail leading off The Mall with an old British cemetery, where several local luminaries have been laid to rest.

Mussoorie was home to Sir George Everest, Surveyor General of India between 1830–43 and the man behind the Great Trigonometrical Survey of India. Tasked with measuring the world’s highest peaks, it was in his memory that Mount Everest was named. The ruins of Sir Everest’s whitewashed home stands at the edge of a cliff west of town beyond Hathipaon, whose three ridges resemble the foot of an elephant when seen from a vantage.

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Just 3km from Hathipaon overlooking Benog Wildlife Sanctuary, Cloud End is one of the four original houses in Mussoorie. As per legend, when Major Swetenham came hunting from Landour, he heard a Pahari woman singing in the forest. The officer fell in love with Gulabo and followed her home. Her father, a local landlord, presented the estate as dowry in 1838. The house was named Clouds End after a peak opposite Major Swetenham’s home in Edmontia in Wales. Home to four generations till 1965, it is now run as a heritage hotel and the restaurant is named Rose after Gulabo’s baptised name.

I slowly trudged back to the Mall, bowled over by Landour’s wealth of stories. When famous American writer and traveler Lowell Thomas visited Mussoorie in 1926, he wrote about The Savoy: “There is a hotel in Mussoorie where they ring a bell just before dawn so that the pious may say their prayers and the impious get back to their beds.” Today, Landour depends on more conventional ways of telling the time, though the pace is still languorous and time does stop once in a while to pause and enjoy the view.

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Discover This: Seven Years in Tibet, via Landour
Famous Austrian mountaineer, geographer and writer Heinrich Harrer, part of the four-member team that scaled the Swiss peak Eiger’s legendary ‘North Face’, is best known for his 1952 book Seven Years in Tibet (made into a movie). He was on an expedition to Nanga Parbat when World War II broke out and he was taken prisoner. Harrer was moved to the internment camp in Dehradun, where several failed attempts later, he and his associates finally broke out and escaped to Tibet via Landour.

At its closest point, Tibet is just 70 miles away. In 1959, when the Chinese forcibly occupied Tibet, the Dalai Lama made the epic crossing from Lhasa to Landour. He and his band of followers walked for 15 days and reached Mussoorie on 20 April 1959. Happy Valley, a scenic corner beyond the polo ground, became the first Tibetan settlement in India, before the seat was shifted to Dharamsala.

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NAVIGATOR

Getting there
Landour is 37.5 km from Dehradun by road (1 hr 30 min) and 7km from Mussoorie. The nearest airport is Jolly Grant, Dehradun. Jet Airways, Indigo, Spice Jet & Air India fly from Delhi to Dehradun.

Where to Stay

Rokeby Manor
Rajamandi, Landour Cantonment
Ph 0135 2631093
www.rokebymanor.com
Tariff ₹7000-12000

Cloud End
Near Hathipaon
Ph 9634096861
www.cloudend.com
Tariff ₹5700-7500

Kasmanda Palace
The Mall, Mussoorie
Ph 0135 2632424
www.kasmandapalace.com
Tariff ₹7000

Padmini Nivas
The Mall, Mussoorie
Ph 0135 2631093
www.hotel-padmininivas.com
Tariff ₹3500-7000

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Where to Eat 

Anil’s Café
Pancakes, waffles, sandwiches, parathas, Maggi & ginger honey lemon tea
Ph 0135-2633783, 9259572558

Dev Dar Woods
12 rooms with terrific Himalayan views and wood-fired pizzas
Ph 0135-2632544
Email anilprakash56@yahoo.com

Doma’s Inn
Ivy Cottage, Landour
Tibetan run inn with rooms and a lovely restaurant serving great thukpa and momos
Ph 0135-2634873/4, 9259740461
www.domasinn.com

Author: Anurag Mallick. This article appeared in the June-July 2017 issue of Discover India magazine. 

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Pepper Trail: Treehouse luxury

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Tree-houses, colonial charm, Kerala cuisine and jeep rides around the estate and a wildlife sanctuary, ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY enjoy their plantation stay in Wayanad

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We trudged up the wooden ramp that snaked 40ft above the coffee bushes in a gentle ascent to the Woodpecker Treehouse. Inspired by local Wayanad tribal styles and built on a sturdy jackfruit tree, our lavish perch came with wood-panelled walls, fine décor, luxurious bathroom, a wide balcony with easy chairs besides a country style four-poster bed next to a tree jutting through the floor. While we’re no strangers to Kerala or treehouses, Pepper Trail was definitely the most luxurious perch we had been to. Its twin, the Hornbill Treehouse was a little further away.

Every morning and evening, we’d sip coffee, watching barbets and sunbirds flit about while Racket tailed drongos and Malabar Grey hornbills competed with their vocal calisthenics. Lost in the cacophonic din of urban living, even silence in the rainforest sits on an underlay of crooning cicadas. We sat watching the constant rain beat down on the heart-shaped pepper leaves that quivered in the cool wind.

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Apparently, when the British were taking the pepper plant back to England, the Zamorin of Calicut had scoffed, “They may take our pepper vine, but they cannot steal our Thiruvathira Njattuvela” (the 15-day assault of the monsoon that triggers the fruiting of the pepper)!

Our arboreal existence drew the attention of a boisterous troop of macaques, who would peer through our windows in the hope of biscuits or bananas and romp on the railings in wild tantrum displays. Snootily, we became the burra sahib and memsahib who would descend from their lair only to feed.

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Pepper Trail is a good place to know your poriyal (dry fry) from your ulithiyal (roasted shallots in spicy tamarind coconut gravy). The genuine warmth of our host Anand Jayan was apparent as he patiently explained how farm fresh fruits, vegetables and herbs from the 200-acre coffee, tea and spice plantation was used to make irresistible home-style delicacies.

Meals were served under the tiled roof Pavilion, its deck hovering over a swathe of coffee shrubs broken by the shade of tall silver oak shade and jackfruit. From cheruvayur pindi toran (tempered green gram) to chena mizhaku pereti (yam fry), nendra pazham curry made of ripe bananas to kayi toran, stir fried with unripe ones; each meal was a culinary journey.

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A common local produce like coconut had been reinterpreted into a chapati
 and coconut milk chicken curry. Sometimes, the chicken came in a varatherecha curry with roasted ground masalas or as Chicken kizhi (bundled in a leaf pouch, Ayurveda style) with mint chutney. The diversity of the repertoire can be gauged from the fact that when a Japanese couple came here for three weeks, no dish was repeated! The lean staff toiled away like genies, speaking in hushed tones ready to take care of every need, appearing and disappearing magically to make the holiday experience, a private indulgence. With a maximum occupancy of ten guests, it’s truly personalized service.

After two days of trudging up and down from the treehouse, we moved to the 140-year-old Pazhey Bungalow the ‘old’ plantation bungalow. Set in a manicured garden, the upstairs houses the Mackenzie Suite, in honour of the estate’s original owner Colin Auley Mackenzie who founded the Mangalam Carp Estate in the late 1800s. Mackenzie was a Scottish pioneer planter who was part of the first wave of colonial planters in India.

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After he died in 1920, Anand’s maternal grandfather PB Kurup came from Africa and bought the colonial estate in 1932. Long before biotechnology had taken off in India, this biotech pioneer got into the manufacture of distilled water and extraction of oil from eucalyptus, patchouli and bergamot… People called him Techno Kurup.

The ground floor, with its offices and red oxide floors was renovated into the Malabar Suite, with a hall, bedroom, sit out and the old chemical storeroom converted into a large ensuite bathroom! The philosophy of the place is rooted in Anand’s vision of creating special places to stay – a dream he nurtured even as a child. Taking up his father’s challenge, he renovated it with utmost care. Each Basel Mission roof tile and anjali (wild jack) wooden board on the wall was removed, numbered and put back.

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The old glass swivel windows on its façade have watched history unfold. With heirloom and colonial furniture collected from antique shops, this wood-scented hideaway is ideal for solitude or romance. Lounge in wicker plantation chairs or in reading nooks where speckled piculets peck at windows indignant at their own reflections, or relax in the secluded balcony overlooking a backyard garden with bamboo thickets and trees frequented by scarlet minivets.

The sprawling estate is great for birding besides leisurely walks to understand how coffee and tea are cultivated. Guests can participate in farm work, as experienced hands harvest coffee, tea and spice, using centuries old methods. In the heart of the estate, fed by natural springs, the acre-wide natural reservoir forms the focal point for local flora and fauna. Perfect for fishing or a leisurely canoe or coracle ride, this is one spot where you’d like to linger. Or laze in the pool and get an Ayurvedic spa therapy.

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We decided to head out on an open jeep ride around the plantation. Lined by cheery orange and red heliconia, the driveway cut through the expansive estate with tea bushes on one side and coffee on the other. Driving through the buffer zones of Muthanga and Bandipur wildlife parks, we spotted seven elephants, wild boar and numerous chital (spotted deer).

It was time for dinner by the time we returned. The piece de resistance was the mola ari payasam or sweet porridge made of bamboo rice, jaggery and coconut milk. Each time the bamboo flowers – once every hundred years – the entire bamboo forest dies. It’s a fascinating natural phenomenon that’s as tragic as it’s beautiful. After blossoming, the flowers produce a fruit called ‘bamboo rice’, which is collected and stored for future use. Last year was a bumper harvest in Wayanad. Who knows it would be decades before the flowers would bloom again, but we wouldn’t wait that long to return…

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FACT FILE

Getting There
Located at Chulliyode, 10 km from Sulthan Bathery in Wayanad, Pepper Trail is 100 km from Calicut International Airport, 130 km from Mysore, 250 km from Bangalore and 280 km from Cochin.

What to See/Do
Visit the old Jain shrine converted into an ammunition dump by Tipu Sultan (hence the name Sultan Battery), hike to Edakkal Caves in the Ambukuthi hills to see the Neolithic cave drawings dating to 6000 BC and go on wildlife safaris in Muthanga and Bandipur.

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Pepper Trail
Mangalam Carp Estate, Chulliyode
Sulthan Bathery, Wayanad
Ph: +91 9562 277 000 www.peppertrail.in

Tariff
Malabar Suite Rs.11,750
McKenzie Suite/treehouse Rs.14,750
Inclusive of breakfast, Meals Rs.600 lunch, Rs.750 dinner

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the August, 2016 issue of Outlook Traveller magazine.

Matheran: Riding into the Sunset

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ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY explore Asia’s only pedestrian hill resort on foot, palanquin, horseback and a heritage train only to find the experience anything but pedestrian

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The steady clip-clop of horses, reminiscent perhaps of an old OP Nayyar song, could be heard from the moment we hopped off the slow train to Matheran. Just under 100km and a few hours from Mumbai, the hill retreat was established by the British in the upper reaches of the Sahyadris to escape the burning heat of the plains. Literally ‘A Forest atop a Mountain’, Matheran was a wooded Eden meant for leisurely walks, romance and rides into the sunset. What made it truly unique was that it was the only hill station in Asia where private vehicles were banned. The chief modes of transport were horses, manually drawn carriages, bicycles or foot. In an age of mechanized mayhem, the only motorized sound we could hear was the hum of an airplane 30,000 ft above in the sky.

How and when the grazing ground of adivasis like the Thakur, Dhangar and Kathkaris became a posh retreat for wealthy British officers and Parsi businessmen is anybody’s guess. But records mention that Matheran was ‘discovered’ by Hugh Poyntz Malet, the former District Collector of Thane in 1850. Lord Elphinstone then Governor of Bombay laid the foundation for its development into a hill station and sanatorium for the British. But it was Sir Adamjee Peerbhoy’s introduction of the Matheran Hill Railway in 1907 (later accorded a World Heritage status by UNESCO) that made the journey as special as the destination.

As we clutched our manually stamped Edmondson tickets, the train chugged up 20km from Neral over two hours, hugging the curves of mountains, gorges and valleys. We slipped into the fleeting darkness of One Kiss Tunnel, cheekily named by a British officer, as the length of the tunnel offered just enough time to steal a romantic peck. We halted at Jummapatti station for the downward bound train to cross us on the single track. A few hawkers sold berries, meetha imli and other stuff to passengers who seemed more interested in clambering on the engine and getting photographed on the train.

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Waterpipe our next stop was where the engine was cooled. A little later, around a curve, a massive image of Lord Ganesha, vibrantly painted on a boulder suddenly appeared out of nowhere. Mount Barry, Panorama Point and Simpson Point slid by as lush forests spread like glinting sheets of emerald as we pulled into Matheran station in the heart of town.

The idea of hailing down a horse or hand-pulled carriage instead of a cab or an autorickshaw seemed novel but we decided to walk along the bridle path instead. Kapadia Market with its arched entrance and rows of shops displayed an assortment of leather belts, shoes, bags, dried flowers, chikkis and other colourful knick-knacks. The air was scented with a residual sense of lavishness as we walked past several bungalows that had seen better days. Luckily, we were headed for the finest address in town…

Neemrana’s The Verandah in the Forest, the former home of Captain Barr, was the second bungalow to be built in Matheran. A beautiful heritage property, the white, colossal two-storeyed structure was set in a wooded patch with a pretty wraparound verandah overlooking Prabal Garh. At 30 ft, it boasted the highest ceiling in Matheran. The spacious rooms were named after prominent Parsis and citizens – Jehangir, Jeejeebhoy, Peerbhoy, Kotwal, Petit, Albert Sassoon, Chenoy, Shankarshet and Kapadia. 

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Malet Hall served as the dining area whereas the royal suite Elphinstone was on a lower level alongside ‘before and after’ photographs of Neemrana’s renovation efforts. The regal reading room, colonial décor, polished crockery and attentive staff ensured that we got a true taste of a Burrah Sahib’s luxurious life.

As an Englishman observed years ago in the 1924 Handbook to Matheran ‘Roaming and riding seem to be the main business at Matheran.’ The 38 scenic points were spread across three different ranges covering an area of 8 sq miles and an 18-mile circumference. Each site bore an intriguing name, often attributed to a geographical position, natural feature or some individual of note. In the magic glow of the late afternoon sun, we strolled across to the shimmering Charlotte’s Lake. Juice stalls ran a brisk business as tired visitors, unaccustomed to walking, stopped for a breather. Monkeys trapezed in the trees around the ancient Pisarnath (Shiva) Temple.

After a brief stop at Lord’s Point and the elevated Celia Point, we came to Echo Point, which opened into a deep valley that bounced off every shout. The deep gorges and craggy reddish rock acquired a mesmeric beauty as the evening softened, painting them in colours of dusk. A group of Parsis and foreigners sitting quietly on park benches shushed a loquacious Gujarati expat to watch the sunset in silence. As if on cue, the red sun dropped down a perfect V-shaped silhouette of Prabal Garh with the uncanny outline of the Indian peninsula!

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Silvery moonlight filtered through the canopy as we returned for a hot shower, a sumptuous meal and restful sleep at The Verandah. We realized in Matheran, you learn to leave your cars and cares behind. At dawn, we hopped over to the tree house for some birdwatching and after a hearty breakfast, headed to The Byke, Matheran’s oldest bungalow built by Captain Hugh Malet and named after his favourite racehorse. The original bungalow was intact with five heritage rooms while The Byke had developed into a popular resort.

At Hope Hall, another old property, we met Maria who lamented about Matheran’s fast changing landscape, ‘In 1875, Lakshmi and Hope Hall were the only lodgings. Today anyone with a roof claims to be a hotel while heritage properties can’t do any renovation or alteration without government permission. There’s rampant poaching of the Malabar Squirrel by adivasis, Maharashtra’s state symbol.’

After a delicious lunch near the bazaar we went on a 12-point horseback tour (Rs.350) to the famous lookouts. A frisky black racehorse called Rocky waited impatiently while his more sagely partner Bobby stood majestically as we slipped our feet gingerly into the stirrups and grabbed the reins. Santosh who trained horses as a kid took pride in how the animals responded instantly to his low whistle. “I earn Rs.250-300 for the 7km ride from Dasturi car park to town. That’s the nearest place for any motorized transport. The only vehicle here is an ambulance,” he said with a smile.

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Lakshman, another guide said, ‘Jaisa gaadi showroom se nikal ke ata hai, ghoda bhi waise hi milta hai.’ We learnt there were about 462 horses in Matheran, procured mostly from Nasik and Shirdi. They are about 2-3 years old and cost Rs.25,000-40,000 for a gauti (country) or Rs.50,000-80,000 for Sindhi, Marwari, Punjabi or Kathiawari, which is like an all-terrain vehicle better suited for colder climes like Matheran. Arab horses didn’t fare well here.

We trotted past King George and Landscape to Honeymoon Point, which was linked by an exciting zip-line Valley Crossing to Louisa Point, the southernmost extremity of Matheran’s westward range. Developed by Edward Fawcett in 1853, Louisa was one of the oldest points and the earliest to receive an English name. The vertigo-inspiring vantage overlooked a deep valley and a rocky outcrop in the shape of a Lion’s Head. On a clear night, one could look beyond the historic Prabal Fort to see the distant lights of Mumbai! 

As per a romantic legend, Prabal Garh was once the stronghold of Maratha ruler Shivaji and guarded by his deputy Prabal Rao. Being a devotee of Lord Shiva, he prayed regularly at the old Shiva temple near One Tree Hill, named after its lone tree. However, Matheran was under the control of his adversary and Mughal lackey Ramaji Rao, who wielded strange powers over a ferocious lion. This made Prabal’s daily visit arduous. One day, Prabal Rao aided by Shivaji, launched a surprise attack and killed the lion and Ramaji. The precipitous route he took came to be known Shivaji’s Ladder and the Lion’s Head was linked to this legend.

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The northward trail continued past Malang to Coronation Point, created in 1903 to commemorate Edward VII’s coronation. Laxman regaled us with anecdotes of how the locals thwarted the Ambanis’ plan to take over Matheran after they bought properties like Rugby Hotel and Gulmohar. ‘The impounded vehicle in the police station belongs to Nita Ambani’ he smirked.

The saddle of a frisky horse wasn’t the best location to hear about the tragic tale of a skilled rider who lost her balance and fell off the cliff, along with her horse. Danger Point or Janjeera, a narrow path with a deep valley on one side, got its name from the grave danger of falling off the cliff because an ocean of mist filled the valley, making things invisible. We finally came to Porcupine or Sunset Point, the farthest extreme on the western range. The spectacular precipice afforded a breathtaking view with smoke billowing out of chimneys in a Thakar settlement down below.

With the southern circuit of Olympia Race Course, Alexander Point, Rambag and Chowk still on our list, we rued our impending return to Mumbai. At the busy bazaar area, we bought the famous Nariman chikkis and fudge, finally settling for a moonlit dinner at The Byke. A brisk morning walk led us back to the station and our train huffed out at 7am. Engine driver Rajaram Vaman Khade invited us over to ride in the engine. Co-incidentally, the Ganesha rock painting we saw enroute was made by him, taking time out of his busy schedule. He stalled the train at the temple for a brief prayer and rang the bell before hopping back on the train.

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From types of engines to railway hierarchy and Matheran’s viewpoints, Khade was a tome of information. ‘You know what locals call Panorama Point in Marathi? Pandurang Point!’, he cackled, before continuing ‘On 1st May 1913 Sir Adamjee Peerbhoy gave his famous picnic party here in honour of WD Shepherd, commissioner of the southern division. A special train had run on the occasion from Matheran to Panorama Point!’

We learnt Alexander Point was named after the husband of Mr. Hugh Malet’s niece. Rambagh overlooked a dense forest of tall trees and Mr. Malet used the path to the foot of the hill on his return from Matheran. Navara-Naveri (or newly wedded couple) got its name after a wedding party travelling from Badlapur to Panvel mysteriously disappeared enroute.

‘You must come in the rains to fully enjoy the beauty of Matheran, when the landscape is lush green and small waterfalls criss-cross the tracks. Even though the train service is suspended in the monsoon, one train runs daily to inspect the tracks. You can ride with me!’ As we made our descent, we looked dejectedly at what we were leaving behind – clean air, peace and the rejuvenating spirit of Matheran. The only things that stuck were memories of stunning views and red dust on our clothes and shoes.

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared on 24 June, 2012 in the Sunday edition of Deccan Herald newspaper.   

Holiday on a Banana Leaf: Best Places to Stay in Tamil Nadu

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One of the most popular tourist circuits in the country, Tamil Nadu has witnessed the impact of several cultures across centuries. Besides the royal stamp of the Pallavas, Cholas and Pandyas whose bustling seaports lured colonial powers like the Portuguese, Dutch, Danish, British and French, Tamil Nadu also bears the imprint of Roman and Armenian trade. Dotting the entire state are grand monuments, imperial forts, pristine beaches with soft sands, traditional temple towns, mist-covered hill stations and lush green paddy fields. The diversity of accommodation options would woo any traveller to overstay – from heritage hotels to boutique five star luxury, palatial mansions in Chettinad to French villas in Pondicherry, eco-friendly resorts on the Coromandel Coast to British clubs and bungalows in the hills… Here’s a selection of some amazing places to stay.

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Around Chennai: Vivanta by Taj Fisherman’s Cove
Though Chennai has its share of 5-star hotels, perhaps the best place to stay is far from the mob, 36 km south at Covelong. Fisherman’s Cove is a luxurious beachfront hotel near the serene Muttukadu backwaters off the East Coast Road. Built on the ramparts of an old 18th century Dutch fort and spread over 22 acres, the resort’s plush rooms, beachfront cottages and Scandinavian villas offer splendid views of the sea. Wade in 10,000 sq ft of crystal clear waters in the hotel’s Infinity pool with its luxurious plunge bar Sun Burst. Dine on exotic Seafood, Med and Continental fare at the three restaurants – Bay View, Upper Deck, Seagull while the signature Jiva Spa adds to the other sensual pleasures of the cove. It’s also a great base to visit nearby attractions like DakshinaChitra and Madras Crocodile Bank.

Covelong Beach, Kanchipuram District 603112
t 044 67413333
www.vivantabytaj.com
Tariff Rs.8,400-11,900

Also check out: Hilton, Le Meridien, Sheraton, Marriott, Trident, Radisson, GRT Grand and The Park aresome of the biggest names in 5-star hospitality, though Taj Connemara, Chennai’s only heritage hotel, is the top pick.

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Mamallapuram: Radisson Blu Resort Temple Bay
The maritime capital of the Pallavas, Mamallapuram was known in antiquity as The Town of Seven Pagodas after the seven Shore Temples that once dotted its coast. Today, only one remains and the best way to see it is not from land, but from sea, like the ancient mariners did. Boat rides to the Shore Temple are the signature activity at Temple Bay, besides a range of water sports. Set in a 46-acre oasis along a spotless waterfront, the resort has a wide choice of stay options. Exclusive pool villas come with private plunge pools while elegant chalets, villas and bungalows face the bay, the garden or the meandering swimming pool, one of the largest in south Asia. Sumptuous platters, grills and pastas await you at The Wharf, the seaside specialty restaurant (rated among Asia’s best) and Water’s Edge café a 24×7 multi-cuisine restaurant. A fitness centre, a 9-hole putting course and an uber cool spa make it the perfect setting for pleasure-seekers.

57 Covelong Road, Kanchipuram Dist, Mamallapuram 603104
Ph 044 27443636
www.radissonblu.com  
Tariff Rs.6,250-11,250

Also check out: Indeco Mahabalipuram near Shore Temple, a hotel housed in a museum on an 1820’s British camping site or the psychedelic guesthouses and lodges with rooftop cafes on Ottavadai Street, a favourite backpackers hangout.

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Pondicherry: Maison Perumal
With wide rues (streets) named after French governors lined by tall villas washed in yellow and white, Pondicherry has an archetypal colonial air about it. Yet, most travellers tend to miss Pondy’s other charms. Located in a quiet part of the Tamil Quarter is Maison Perumal, an extraordinary double-storeyed Chettiar bungalow. In keeping to its theme of homely hospitality, the renovated rooms are left unnumbered and the restaurant is sans a name. The friendly staff smile and clarify, “When you visit a friend’s place, does the guestroom or kitchen have a number or name?” Mellow lights, a smattering of antiques and furniture, sepia photographs and posters add to the old world charm. Large urali (metal cauldrons) with fronds and ferns pretty up the two sunlit courtyards while a band of geometric coloured stained glass bordering the balcony livens the interiors. After delicious seafood platters and eclectic Franco Tamil cuisine, the soft inviting bed beckons…need one ask for more?  

58, Perumal Koil Street, Pondicherry 605001
Ph 0413 2227519, 9442127519
www.cghearth.com  
Tariff Rs.6,790

Also check out: Other heritage stays and boutique addresses like Calve, Hotel de l’Orient, Le Dupleix, Villa Helena, Hotel de Pondicherry, Gratitude offer the characteristic trappings of French colonial comfort.

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ECR (East Coast Road): The Dune Eco-village Resort & Spa
Imagine a sprawling 35-acre area sprinkled with villas and rooms hidden from public view, gourmet restaurants dishing out fusion food, an exotic designer spa offering wat-su (water shiatsu treatment) and 700m of seafront just for you. Sounds as implausible as the desert planet of Arrakis in Frank Herbert’s Dune saga? Well, The Dune eco-hotel is as surreal as its literary inspiration. Bearing the creative stamp of architects Dimitri Klein and Neils Schonfelder, each room is radically different in design using recycled materials from local homes and palaces, besides a ship breaking yard! Dimitri confesses “It was a mistake that evolved into a hotel”! Organic linen, recycled wine bottles for water, CFL lamps, solar heating, cycles for guests and an in-house organic farm have ensured that the resort’s carbon footprint is 75% less than the industry standard. No surprise why it was voted as one of the 5 Best Ecological Hotels in the world (Geo), the Best Spa Destination (Harper Bazaar) and the Best Luxury Resort in 2011 (The Hindu-NDTV Lifestyle Award). Shop at Artyzan, a vocational academy cum design studio, for handmade local crafts.

Eco Beach Village, Pudhukuppam, Keelputhupet (via Pondy University) 605014
Ph 0413 2655751, 3244040, 9364455440
www.thedunehotel.com   
Tariff Rs.5,500-17,950

Also check out: Ocean Spray, Mango Hill and Ashok Resort off the ECR are great places to explore Auroville nearby

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Tranquebar: The Bungalow on the Beach
At dawn, in the erstwhile Danish outpost of Tranquebar, the old Dansborg Fort on the beach is cast into gold by the awakening sun; on the gilded sea, silhouettes of fishermen set sail for the days’ catch past the 12th Century Masilamani Nathar Temple. Such picture postcard images are what you wake up to at Neemrana’s heritage property, The Bungalow on the Beach, once the British Collector’s Office. Built on two levels with a runaround verandah offering views of the garden and the sea, the bungalow’s eight spacious rooms are named after Danish ships that docked at Tranquebar – Prince Christian, Crown Prince of Denmark, Queen Anna Sophia, Countess Moltke, Christianus Septimus. Parquet flooring, period furniture and collectibles, blue and white china and a trellised garden by the pool imbue the place with old world allure. An INTACH walk around the quaint town takes you to a Danish cemetery, Zion Church, New Jerusalem Church and The Governor’s bungalow, all built in the 1700s. 

24 King Street, Tharangambadi 609313, District Nagapattinam
t 04364 288065, 289034-36, 9750816034
www.neemranahotels.com
Tariff Rs.4,000-6,000

Also check out: Neemrana also runs a B&B facility in the Danish-Tamil style Gate House and the vernacular Nayak House, a Tamil sea-facing home with 4 rooms, which includes a Tower Room (the loftiest in town), ideal for honeymooners.

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Madurai: Heritage Madurai
The graceful peacock origami towel painstakingly embellished with tiny flower petals in the room defines Heritage Madurai’s idea of hospitality – god is in the details. Plush rooms, a sagely 200-year old banyan tree and a 17-acre shaded enclave diffuse the reality of being in a hectic temple town. Conceptualized by Geoffrey Bawa around the original British Clubhouse, the architecture illustrates his design philosophy of ‘tropical modernism’ and creating spaces that seamlessly blend the outside with the inside. The resort’s 72 rooms include 35 villas with sundecks and private plunge pools. Antique lamps and lanterns have been cleverly transformed into modern light fittings. Dine at Banyan Tree restaurant overlooking its namesake as chefs rustle up traditional Tamil, multi-cuisine and Sri Lankan fare. Indulge in the wellness spa offering traditional Ayurvedic therapies and western aroma massages. Swim in the Olympic-sized pool styled after Madurai’s famous temple tank Theppakulam. After the customary visit to Madurai Meenakshi Temple and Tirumala Nayaka Palace, drop by at the Gandhi Museum.

Heritage Madurai, 11 Melakkal Main Road, Kochadai, Madurai 625 016
Ph 0452 2385455, 3244185
www.heritagemadurai.com
Tariff Rs.6,400-10,000

Also check out: GRT Regency inthe heart of town and Taj Gateway a colonial retreatperched atop Pasumalai hill on the outskirts

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Kumbakonam: Mantra Veppathur
A welcome drink of panakam (jaggery and ginger), a relaxing foot massage and a gong sounded to mark your arrival, get ready for a traditional holiday at Mantra Veppathur. Situated in a coconut grove between the Cauvery and Veezhacholan rivers, the eco-resort has agraharam-style cottages called Mantra Ilam or Paniyar Ilam, decorated with Kanjeevaram silks and Thaliyatti bommai (Tanjore dolls). Wake up to the call of peacocks, dine on sattvik (veg) cuisine at Annaprasanna, take a plunge in the Infinity swimming pool and get an Ayurvedic massage at the Punarjenma spa. Traditional games like daayam (dice), palaanguri (cowrie), parama padam (snakes and ladders) add an authentic rural touch. In the evening, sip freshly brewed Kumbakonam coffee at the Mantra Chai Kadai, enjoy pastoral life on bullock cart rides, visit silk-weaving units or witness cultural performances at Mantra Kalairangam, the open-air theatre. And of course, don’t miss the grand Chola temples at Thanjavur, Kumbakonam, Darasuram and Gangaikondacholapuram.

No.1 Bagavathapuram Main Road Extn, 536/537A Sri Sailapathipuram Village, Veppathur 612 103, Kumbakonam, Thanjavur District.
T 0435 2462261, 2460141
www.mantraveppathur.com
Tariff Rs.7,000-12,000

Also check out: The riverside heritage property Paradise Resort and Indeco Swamimalai, an ethnic 1896 Tanjore village resort, India’s only winner of the Global Eco Tourism Award

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Chettinad: Chidambara Vilas
Chettinad’s latest heritage hotel is easily the final word in opulence. Earlier the mansion of TS Krishnappa Chettiar, Chidambara Vilas was built over a century ago at the cost of Rs.7 lakh! As you enter through the gate bearing the owner’s insignia, an ornately carved doorway makes you stop in your tracks. The profusion of carving, the pillars made of teak, rosewood and granite and the string of courtyards leave you in a whirl. Meticulously restored by the Sangam group, the resort’s 24 heritage rooms overlook a beautiful pool. The terrace offers a magnificent view of the region’s typical architectural landscape with endless rows of tiled roofs. The Bomma kottai (Hall of Dolls), renovated into a restaurant, serves authentic Chettinad fare on banana leaf. The only problem is, with so much pampering, you might not even stir out to see the Tirumayam Fort nearby.

TSK House, Ramachandrapuram, Kadiapatti, Pudukkottai Dist.
Ph 0433 3267070, 9843348531
www.chidambaravilas.com
Tariff Rs.12,000-15,000

Also check out: The other beautiful mansion hotels, Visalam, The Bangala, Chettinadu Mansion and Saratha Vilas, are located further south around Karaikudi and the heritage town of Kanadukathan

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Nilgiris: The Kurumba Village Resort
Cut away from the clamour of Ooty and Coonoor, Kurumba Village is located in a quiet forest patch between the 4th and 5th hairpin bends on the Mettupalayam-Coonoor road. Named after one of the five ancient tribes of the Nilgiris, its tribal-styled cottages in earthy tones, thatch-work roofs and Kurumba artefacts are a tribute to the ingenious forest dwellers. French windows offer an unhindered view of the Nilgiri hills while the balcony overlooks a British spice plantation of nutmeg, cloves, pepper and lofty trees of jackfruit and rosewood. Treetops, afire with the Flame of the Forest, attract sunbirds and flowerpeckers and one can spend hours watching the dance of wings. The large thatched dining area, where delicious meals are served, is an ideal perch above a murmuring brook. Go on a walking tour of the spice plantation, luxuriate in the stunning pool or hop on to the mountain railway for a leisurely ride up the hills.

Ooty Mettupalayam Road, Hill Grove Post, Kurumbadi 643102, The Nilgiris
Ph 0423 2103002-4, 2237222, 9443998886
www.kurumbavillageresort.com
Tariff Rs.8,500-13,000

Also check out: Heritage bungalows like Fernhills Palace, an organic cheese-making farmstay Acres Wild or the plush Destiny Farm, which also runs unique concept hotels like King’s Cliff and Sherlock

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Yercaud: Indeco Lake Forest Hotel
Half-hidden by tall trees dressed in pepper vines in a wooded corner near Yercaud Lake, this delightful resort was once the Eastlyne Farm Coffee Estate. Rosar Villa, the charming bungalow built in the 1800s overlooking the lobby and restaurant, is named after its former Portuguese owner Henrietta Charlotte Rosario, who resided here during the British days. Like all Indeco Hotels, the resort bears the signature of its chairman Steve Borgia – a front lobby that doubles up as a museum, adorned with carefully documented rare memorabilia.  A friendly chef and attentive staff make dining at the restaurant or in the sun-dappled courtyard, a pleasure. The Eastlyne Garden and Wood House suites give panoramic vistas of the Shevaroy Hills. Besides nature walks, Lake Forest is a great base to explore Yercaud’s main sights – the lake, Shevaroyan Temple, Botanical Garden and lookouts like Pagoda viewpoint, Lady’s Seat and Gent’s Seat.

Near Anna Park, Ondikadai Post, Yercaud 636 602, Salem District
Ph 04281 223217/8, 9444001438
www.yercaud.indecohotels.com
Tariff Rs.4,000-10,000

Also check out: GRT Nature Trails SkyRocca Yercaud, an extravagant resort contoured against the mountains and The Grange Resort, the first camping place of the British with facilities for off-road adventure.

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the November, 2011 issue of JetWings magazine.