The Verandah in the Forest is a mysterious little jewel tucked away in the furthest end of the ‘world’s only pedestrian hill station’, Matheran. This lovely old colonial property is a good one hour walk through dense jungles that are constantly fighting to keep the sun’s rays out of reach. Each bend breaking free to offer a peak at the lush Sahyadri Valley spreadeagled below, as you follow the tracks of the seasonal toy train to your destination.
Simmu (as much a travel buff as yours truly) and I made a quick early morning dash away from the hustle-bustle of a crazily busy Mumbai, one autumn weekend. A two-hour train journey disgorged us at the Neral junction from where a half-hour ride in a rickety contraption that passed itself off as a taxi ferried us to the drop-off point; beyond which no vehicles are permitted. We began our walk alongside noisy tourists, heading towards the high street, the hub of activity in this quaint little place. About 45 minutes later, loud Bollywood music greeted us before even more noisy tourists, souvenir stalls and buzzing eateries came into view. It was the furthest thing from solitude.
Tired, hungry, and caked in fine red dust, we continued doggedly towards Barr House, our destination in local parlance. Soon we left the noise behind, the jungle got thicker and human presence turned from a trickle to zilch. Silence. Wonderful, melodious silence. Broken only by chirping birds and the odd peal of distant laughter. We went past stately old homes, some ramshackle yet suggestive of a glorious history. Others proud sentinels amidst vast grounds. Not much further, our path began a gentle descent and we came upon a gate that led to the Verandah in the Forest. We couldn’t have asked more.
A large mansion with oodles of character had a wooden verandah running along its entire front, broken midway by a semi-circular cantilever over the well-kept grounds. Stairs led down to manicured lawns and a lily pond. A machaan offered panoramic views of the ghats through dense foliage comprising wild jamun.
Polite staff led us to the cool environs of our delightful little suite, tastefully done up in period furniture. A quick shower followed by a lavish buffet lunch ensured a very refreshing siesta, waking just in time for tea. It was promising to be a decadent outing but we weren’t complaining.
The number of guests had gone up during our snooze, taking the tally to roughly a dozen like-minded souls. Everyone kept to themselves, proffering polite smiles on eye contact. Perfect. Simmu and I took a leisurely tour of the property, delighting in the high-ceilinged den with it’s fine collection of portraits. The well polished dining table of some vintage was being readied for a sit-down meal later that night. Reportedly, all the furniture came with the house.
Deciding to work up an appetite for the many-coursed dinner awaiting us, we made our way out of the premises towards the Charlotte Lake a short distance away. A tiny water body created due to damming, it had a path going around it which was also accessible from the main street. Which meant more people, more ponies, and many more hawkers. A secluded temple caught Simmu’s fancy while the peanut seller caught mine. Busy in our tasks, we lost track of time till we were enveloped in dark and stillness. Stopping only to take a few shots of the flaming dusk, we headed back to Barr House.
The house appeared surreal when viewed at night. Adequately lit, still unable to shrug off the cloak of darkness that the forest around it accorded. Nocturnal sounds, those of crickets, owls, and slithering creatures I don’t want to name, reached us as we hastened back. Finding a quiet corner in the brightly-lit den, we indulged in a quick game of Scrabble before dinner. Which, I must add, turned out to be a fine affair with well-trained staff serving us course upon course of scrumptious food.
Next day, I awoke to the sounds of monkeys scampering across the span of the tin roof, while staff tried to shoo them away in hushed tones for fear of waking up the guests. Fat chance. Simmu was still dead to the world, so I stepped out onto the ubiquitous verandah for my bed tea. One cup turned into many as I watched the first rays of the sun break through to create a kaleidoscopic artwork around me. Soon, Simmu joined me for tea and I joined her for my nth cuppa. Breakfast was another sumptuous spread while lathi-wielding staff stood guard against a simian invasion.
The hearty breakfast deserved a strong coffee to wash it down, drunk high up on the machaan, accompanied by The Palace of Illusions. Lethargy was fast becoming a way of life, but I wasn’t going to do anything to change that. Immersed in Draupadi’s version of the Mahabharata, I totally lost track of time. Coming aware only when I heard Simmu shout out to me. She had found a past-time too, in the guise of a wandering soothsayer. It was hard to keep a straight face when he pontificated that I would never be quite as rich as the Ambanis. Well, I could live with that…
The rest of the day replicated the previous one. Lunch, siesta, tea, walk, dinner, walk, sleep. It was a crying shame we had to depart the following day, but depart we did, promising to return soon to this idyllic place.