A place in the sun

Travel tips: All roads lead to the cool climes of hill stations this summer.

A place in the sun

If you are wondering how to escape the sweltering summer heat, here are our picks of six hill getaways spread across the country. Some of them were originally summer capitals of Indian princedoms and summer headquarters for the British.

The British built resorts to which they could escape for rest and recuperation. Soon they became summer capitals of the governors, and later, popular summertime destinations. Tucked far away from the hustle and bustle of the cities, these hill stations offer a medley of salubrious weather, stunning landscape, outdoor pursuits, and a slice of history. You’ll find a potpourri of vacations to choose a memorable getaway. So pack your bags and retreat to the cooler climes of these hill stations.

Matheran, a walker’s paradise
If you want to give your eyes and ears some rest, your feet some exercise, and shed some weight in a few days, all you have to do is head to Matheran, the only pedestrian hill station in Asia. Vehicular traffic is prohibited, which accounts for the healthy, clean and unpolluted environment. In this walker’s paradise, you can trudge along the red-gravel kutcha road, or the tiny railway track, or hire horses to navigate you to the 38 designated lookout points bearing those exotic English names and a peculiar charm.

Matheran is an undulating hilltop cloaked in shady trees and ringed by walking trails leading to several vantage points from where one can have stunning views of the cliffs, plains, grassy glades and the mountain range. One can hike one’s way through wooded pathways winding through towering evergreen trees, ferns and wild flowers to see the green carpeted slopes and cliffs and the whorls of haze, blue mist swirling down the mountains into the gorges from these points.

From Porcupine Point, one can see the dramatic sunset and hear one’s own voice thrown back at Echo Point; Louisa Point flaunts a beautiful plateau and the ruins of the Prabhal Fort. The Hart Point offers you a view of the night lights of Mumbai. You can reach the valley below Tree Hill, down the path known as ‘Shivaji’s Ladder’. It is so called because the Maratha leader is said to have used it. From Panorama Point, you can get a bird’s-eye view of Neral town, and on a clear day, even as far as Mumbai in the west. Round off your trip with a visit to the main bazaar. Shop around for touristy knick-knacks and sip cups of piping hot masala chai over nibbles of vada pav.

Wayanad, Malabar’s gem
If you go to Wayanad district scouting for a place called Wayanad, you are likely to be disillusioned! There is no place by that name. Interestingly, though the district is called Wayanad, unlike Kerala’s other district headquarters, this one is not named after the district. Wayanad in local parlance means paddy country, but there is hardly any trace of paddy here. Keeping the district headquarters Kalpetta as the base, explore the myriad tourist attractions of the district.

If you have a flair for history, visit the pre-historic Edakkal Caves formed out of a strange disposition of three massive boulders on the crest of Ambukuthimala, a hill near Sultan Bathery. For the laid-back, there are mist-cloaked, undulating hillsides swathed in spice plantations, hedged by lush rainforests, rushing rivulets, and sparkling cascades that stun the eyes with their varying shades of green. Take a boat ride in the freshwater Pookode Lake near Lakkidi. This placid lake gets its name from the myriads of white and mauve water lilies that grow within.

For a whiff of raw adventure, take the nine-kilometre trek through the dense forests to Pakshipathalam, a grotto of caves crafted by nature millions of years ago in Brahmagiri Hills, climb up Chembra Peak, the tallest summit in this region, pitch a tent, or go island-hopping to Kuruva Dweep, a 950-acre maze of islets.

The ancient Mahavishnu Temple at Thirunelly, set against the backdrop of the towering Brahmagiri Hills, is a big draw for those of a religious persuasion. A ritual dip in the Papanasini river, flowing downhill, will wash away one’s worldly sins. There’s also the Sultan Bathery Jain Temple, which was Tipu Sultan’s ammunition dump. The town derives its name from that use. Culminate your sojourn with a visit to Tholpetty and Muthanga wildlife sanctuaries, which form part of the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve.

In tea country, Munnar
With its sprawling tea plantations, rolling hills, sparkling waterfalls, picture-postcard hamlets and undulating valleys of lush greenery, Munnar has all the makings of an idyllic holiday destination. If you want to delve into the history of tea tradition in the High Ranges, just walk into India’s first tea museum set in an over-a-century-old tea estate of the Kanan Devan Hills Produce Co.

The drives out of Munnar through some of the far-flung tea estates are pretty interesting, especially the one leading to the dams of Mattupetty, Kundale, and also to Top Station, perched precariously on a precipitous ridge in Tamil Nadu, three kilometres from the inter-state border. This idyllic spot has stupendous views of the Tamil Nadu plains and the edge of the Western Ghats. En route, scream your lungs out at the Echo Point and take a cruise in the picturesque backwaters of the Mattupetty Dam, flanked by steep hills and dense woods, and you are sure to catch glimpses of wild elephants quenching their thirst on the far side.

Munnar’s allure lies in its proximity to a host of attractions like Kolukkumalai, acclaimed to be ‘the highest tea plantation in the country’ churning ‘the most flavoursome tea in the market’. Within driving distance is the Eravikulam National Park where you can spot the endangered Nilgiri Tahr gambolling freely on the slopes within touching distance. It plays host to the 8841-ft Anaimudi, the highest peak south of the Himalayas, and also shelters the exotic and endangered Neelakurinji plant which covers the hills with its mauve blossoms once in 12 years. In the vicinity of this tea town is Kerala’s largest natural sandalwood plantation in Marayoor and Chinnar Wildlife Sanctuary where you can spot the endangered star tortoises basking in the sun, and the giant grizzled squirrel, the star attraction of the sanctuary.

Cool, cool Coonoor
If you want to skip ‘Snooty Ooty’ and give its regular tourist attractions a miss, head off the beaten path tracks to Coonoor. From Mettupalayam, hop on to the tiny toy train (1899-built Nilgiri Mountain Railway train, a UNESCO World Heritage Site) which chugs through the middle of small hill hamlets, providing a scenic thrill around every bend. The wheezing and whistle screeches of the train echo across the valley, as it pushes the carriages forward, across ravines, through tunnels, bridges and hugging mountain slopes, and passing rushing streams and sparkling waterfalls and toy-like stations with quaint names like Adderley, Hill Grove, Runnymede and Ketti, where Shah Rukh Khan gyrated to ‘Chaiyya, Chaiyya’ atop a train.

Head to the cooler reaches of Upper Coonoor, which are still quiet and peaceful. Visit the lovely Botanical Gardens of Sim’s Park, which feature more than 1,000 plant species. The drives out of Coonoor are refreshing with the towering eucalyptus and cinchona trees rising from the slopes, their mingled fragrance teasing the senses. Lamb’s Rock, a sheer precipice which drops down several hundred metres into the heart of dense jungle, provides a stunning view of the Coimbatore plains. From Dolphin’s Nose, a rock resembling a dolphin’s snout, you can see Catherine Falls, a silver cascade, on a clear day. Don’t miss ‘Sixth Mile’ and ‘Ninth Mile’, designated film shooting areas which have been immortalised in many a Bollywood dance sequence.

The drive from Kotagiri to Kodanad, past sprawling tea plantations, rolling hills, arch-shaped, thatched barrel-vaulted Toda temples, and undulating valleys of lush greenery, is exhilarating. Claimed to be the smallest and oldest of the trio of hill resorts in the Nilgiris, Kotagiri is now a  tea plantation territory, and the region offers splendid walks.

From Kodanad Viewpoint (6,400 ft, near Kotagiri), the views of Rangaswamy Pillar and Peak are simply awesome. The stunning view of the Moyar river snaking its way and emptying into the Bhavani Sagar Dam will remain vividly etched in your memory.

Manali, an alpine getaway
Located at the northern end of the Kulu Valley, at the confluence of the Beas and Manalsu rivers, this alpine getaway is synonymous with streams and bird song, scenic landscape and snowcapped mountains, ancient Hindu temples and Tibetan monasteries. It has currently metamorphosed from a backpacker’s jaunt to a flamboyant destination. For adrenaline junkies, there’s a gamut of breathtaking adventure sports and outdoor activities like trekking, white water rafting and skiing in this great outdoors destination.

According to legends, the name Manali is derived from Manu, the abode of Manu, who came here for the renewal of life after the great deluge.

Visit the several Tibetan monasteries bang in the heart of the town. Stop by the handicraft centre if you wish to pick up thangka paintings and handwoven carpets. If you want to ‘see’ and ‘touch’ snow for the first time, head to Snow Point, the closest point to Manali with ample snow. You can build your snowman, hurl your buddies with snowballs, and amble around in snow shoes.

Explore on foot the nearby hamlets of Old Manali and Vashisht. Admire the laid-back charm of old wood-and-stone houses, visit the old market and relish a delicious meal at a riverside café. Try the pan-fried trout with lemon and garlic, or the wood-oven-baked trout with roasted almond sauce. Stop by the little hamlet of Vashisht located on the left bank of the Beas on the northern side of the valley. It is renowned for its hot springs, temples and stone houses. Soak yourself in the sulphurous hot water springs and experience the magic.

A grassy path leads to the Hidimba Temple, which was featured in Mani Ratnam’s Roja. It stands tall among the stately deodars in a clearing in the dense forest. The temple has a four-tiered pagoda-shaped roof, and a carved doorway that is embellished with figures of Hindu gods and symbols.

Shillong, Scotland of the East
Located in Khasi Hills, Shillong is a three-hour drive from Guwahati. With its old world charm and lingering echoes of the British Raj, spectacular sunrises, pine-covered hills, green lakes, polo ground, championship golf course, Victorian bungalows, churches, singing brooks and crashing cascades, Shillong, the capital of Meghalaya, earned the sobriquet ‘Scotland of the East’. The British influence is discernible in the names of the waterfalls which abound here. Picnics, boating and day-long hikes are punctuated with leisurely shopping. Attend the concerts in Shillong, which has a vibrant music scene, and don’t forget to try out the roadside momos.

Start with a visit to Umiam Lake, better-known as Barapani (big water), which sets the mood for a lovely destination ahead. One can hire boats to splash around the placid lake created as part of a hydroelectric project. The Don Bosco Museum of Indigenous North East Culture, a truly amazing repository of information on the entire North Eastern states, is worth a peek.

If you need more enervating exercises, there is the Shillong Peak to climb with its summit of 1,965 metres, affording a splendid view of the city and its outlying environs on a clear day. In the evening, the city lights below glitter and twinkle like a giant Christmas tree. Shillong and its environs resonate with the sound of thundering waterfalls that hurtle down the hill slopes, spraying its surroundings with a delicate mist of water. Mawsmai Falls, Elephant Falls, Bishop Falls, Spread Eagle Falls, Sweet Falls, Crinoline Falls and Beadon Falls are the well-known ones.

Explore the Mawsmai Caves, an atmospheric system of caves and tunnels filled with stalagmites and stalactites. Stop by Nartiang, the summer capital of the Jaintia kings. Take a look at the incredible collection of monoliths and standing stones raised by these kings.

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