This has earlier appeared as a lead article in The Tribune’s Travel Special edition of 19th May.
India-born Sir Cliff Richard, I’m wagering a guess, had no experience of the famed Indian summer when he sang Summer Holiday, “….we’re going where the sun shines brightly, we’re going where the sea is blue, we’ve all seen it on the movies, now let’s see if it’s true”! For us residents of the North Indian plains, you will agree, summer is the least favourite time of year. And with the season staring us ominously in the face, we are already plotting our escape from the imminent soaring temperatures, blistering heat, and dust-laden hot winds.
India is home to the most splendid summer destinations and one is wholly spoilt for choice. Blessed with the Himalayas in the North and North-East, and the Nilgiri Biosphere in the South, the many hill stations that dot these ranges remain ever popular. Endowed with amenable climate throughout the year, and with a provision of all manner of activity, a mountain escape is your best bet for rest, recreation and rejuvenation. As you ready your travel plans, we decided to provide our readers with a much-needed head-start.
The most obvious choices lie in the Himalayan states of Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, and Uttarakhand. With tremendous opportunities for nature lovers, trekking and adventure enthusiasts, history buffs, as also for those looking to do simply nothing. Places such as Srinagar, Shimla, Manali, Mussoorie and Nainital are the usual suspects with an incredibly high foot-fall during the “season”. Most of which belong to organised tours, families with gaggles of school-going children, and honeymooning couples draped in a single wrap as a public display of their new-found affection. These popular hill stations are also the ideal springboards for the road less travelled, say, into the lunarscape of the Ladakh region, replete with remote villages, mysterious plains and aquamarine lakes; to the lofty monasteries of the Sutlej Valley in Kinnaur; to the bugyals (high altitude meadows) and glaciers of Kumaon and Garhwal, as also to breathtaking views of the mist-kissed Nanda Devi.
Uttarkhand has taken on the informal mantle of the spiritual destination of India. Assisted in this measure, no end, by the existence of a number of ever popular pilgrimage centres; Haridwar, Rishikesh, Badrinath and the char dhams to name a few. Increasingly, treks to the Valley of Flowers and Hemkund Sahib are becoming a permanent fixture in travel parlance. A burgeoning demographic of busy individuals seeking relief and stress-busters is finding its way to luxurious spa resorts with Ananda in the Himalayas topping the chartbusters. Another gem tucked away in rural Bageshwar is the uber-luxe Shakti 360 degrees resort. Visitors will swear by their effective, albeit expensive, path to nirvana!
The Kashmir valley, long and affectionately referred to as paradise on earth, continues to hold us in its thrall since way before an energetic Shammi Kapoor serenaded a coy Sharmila Tagore while the Dal Lake looked on indulgently in “Kashmir ki Kali”. The splendid Mughal gardens of Srinagar–Chashme Shahi, Nishaat, Shalimaar–now boast of another addition to their hall of fame, the much-acclaimed Tulip Garden; its multi-hued flower-rows providing the eyes a dramatic spectacle to feast upon.
Surprisingly, despite a number of infrastructural and civic ills, the Shimla hills appear to get more popular by the summer. They combine the best of Raj heritage with a flavour truly Indian, endearing themselves to the thousands that throng here every summer. Though the crowds on the Shimla Mall may stand testimony to its popularity, a day of golf at the Naldehra greens is equally attractive. As could be a walk back into history at the Indian Institute of Advanced Studies, the erstwhile Viceregal Lodge, or a trudge through the verdant ridges of deodar-enveloped Mashobra.
The Kangra valley not only hosts the world’s most famous exile at Dharamsala, it is also home to the snowy majesty of the Dhauladhars, century-old tea estates in and around Palampur, and possibly one of the world’s best take-off points for para-gliding at Billing. The Kullu vale has played muse to many an artist and continues to draw throngs of visitors, even though Manali and Rohtang Pass have long been heaving under their weight. Take the pressure of them, do; visit the Tirthan valley and the neighbouring Great Himalayan National Park instead. Or perhaps allow the spectacle of Himachal’s high altitude districts to really blow you away. This summer, for a change, pack that 4WD and head off into the alpine Sangla valley or onwards to Lahaul-Spiti.
The northeast has retained its air of mystery and exotica as the states remain largely underexplored. Other than the touristy triangle that Darjeeling, Kalimpong and Kurseog collectively form. Why not visit, and bring back memories of the salubrious environs of Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh, or perhaps the amenable climes of the Khasi Hills in Meghalaya? How about revelling in the multi-hued orchids, blue poppies and rhododendrons of Sikkim at the foot of the Kanchenjunga? Or tracing the old silk route to the Nathu La pass to nod at our Chinese neighbours across a barbed wire fence? If that doesn’t catch your fancy, a yak ride around the half frozen lake Tsomgo just might.
Central and southern India is easily as bountiful, boasting justifiably of the tropical forests of the Western Ghats, as also the incredible ecology of the Nilgiris. Here, too, a well-established troika has long ruled the roost. Nestled in the blue mountains, Ooty has been one of southern India’s favoured hill destinations with its endless slopes covered in tea and coffee plantations. In the Palani hills of Tamil Nadu, lies the soothing pine scented Kodaikanal, while Munnar in Kerala mesmerises with its tea and spice plantations. In neighbouring Karnataka, Kodagu, better known by its anglicised moniker Coorg, captivates with its fascinating past, lip smacking cuisine and, its coffee plantations. Coupled with its friendly weather, and pocket-friendly plantation home stays, this delightful region is a worthy choice. While there, try your hand at berry-picking, bird-watching, cheese-making or rain-forest hiking. Also, the wildlife-rich reserve forests of Madumalai and Nagarhole offer splendid sightings in parched summers.
Panchgani, Mahabaleshwar and Lonavala in Maharashtra have played a huge role in stress-busting the lives of many a celebrity and film star. Another, Khandala, even finding its way into a chart-topping Aamir Khan number! Sandwiched between Mumbai and Pune is the pedestrian-only hill-station, Matheran. A quaint town, it has retained the aura of the times of Lord Ephinstone responsible for developing it while he was Governor of Mumbai. Replete with colonial-era Parsi-owned homes located amidst wild damson-jungles, Matheran qualifies as another possible getaway this summer. Happy planning!