High on the hills

Heading up verdant hills and cool climes is the best way to beat the scorching heat, writes Charukesi Ramadurai

Tea plantations in Munnar

With an early summer making everyone break out into an uncomfortable sweat, and the promise of more heat and humidity around the corner, it is only natural that all our thoughts wander towards places with cooler climes. Essentially a product of the British Raj, India’s hill stations offer the perfect respite from the sweltering heat of the plains in the summer months. So why not follow in the footsteps of the elite British and pack your bags to one of these hilly destinations?

Ooty: Blue mountains

The British era hill station of Udhagamandalam, corrupted into Ootacamund and finally Ooty, is rightly known as the Queen of the Nilgiri mountains. Buildings from the days of the Raj still stand proud inside this town, while lush tea plantations dot the hillsides just outside. Go for an evening boat ride on the lake at its heart or take a train journey down to Coonoor on the UNESCO-listed Nilgiri Mountain Railway, fondly called the toy train by locals. Or take a cab up to Doddabetta Peak which, at 2,637 m, offers great views of the valley. And remember to bring back some Ooty chocolate fudge with you.

Munnar: Carpeted in foliage

Once every 12 years, the Neelakurinji flower blooms on these hills, carpeting them in beautiful blues and purples. But even without these blooms, a trip to Eravikulam National Park is a must, offering the chance to spot the elusive Nilgiri Tahr (a type of mountain ibex). Located close to Kochi, Munnar’s tea plantations and spice estates provide a welcome break from the heat. And the aptly-named Top Station viewpoint, perched at 1700 m, is a great place to catch sprawling views of the Western Ghats.

 

Darjeeling: Mesmerising hills

Famous as the place where some of India’s best tea originates from, Darjeeling is one of those laidback hill towns meant for people seeking to slow down. Simply spend an hour or two at the Peace Pagoda near the town centre to come away with batteries recharged. And for train travel fans, a ride on the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway — this region’s toy train — is an utterly delightful experience. Darjeeling also offers stunning views of the Kanchenjunga, the world’s third highest peak, especially from Tiger Hill. Kalimpong is an excellent day trip for a visit to the Buddhist Phodong monastery and Durpin Gompa.

Gangtok: Stunning mountains

Although most travellers use Gangtok as a base to explore the natural wonders of north and west Sikkim, it is worth spending a few days in this busy town up in the hills. Head out of town to the spectacular Buddhist monastery of Rumtek, or gawk at the rare red panda and Himalayan black bear at the local zoo. The main market road of Lal Bazaar is lined with enough cafés and shops to fill an entire evening. And on a clear day, it is possible to get a view of the Kanchenjunga right from this road. What more could you ask for?

Shillong: Towering forests

Surrounded by towering pine forests, this small hill station in Meghalaya is also known for its indie rock music scene. Start your exploration of Shillong at the Don Bosco Museum that showcases the culture and heritage of all seven north-eastern states. Next morning, walk through the maze of narrow lanes at Bara Bazaar, or Lewduh Market, where almost everything under the sun is for sale, usually at wholesale prices. Make sure to keep an afternoon aside to watch the Teer archery lottery at the polo ground in the market area — this traditional sport has found a new life through this unique local twist.

 

Gulmarg: Meadow of flowers

Just over two hours from Srinagar, Gulmarg is an all-year destination, especially popular among those who like adventure sport and outdoor activities. If you have ever dreamt of learning to ski on pure white snowy slopes, then Gulmarg is your best bet. From baby slopes for beginners to more advanced ones for the pros, skiing as well as snowboarding and sledging are on offer in this ‘meadow of flowers’. And for those who just want to enjoy the sun and snow, the gondola ride up towards Afarwath peak is a fun experience.

Nainital: Lake district

Another favourite of the British sahibs and their families, Nainital is an ideal summer getaway for families and large groups. With the Naini Lake at its core for boating, and the surrounding hills filled with splendid opportunities for adventure activities such as paragliding, there is something for everyone here. The Mall Road is a shopping and eating zone, perfect for long and leisurely walks and sampling local fast food. When it feels too crowded, get out for a day to the quieter lake regions of Bhimtal and Naukuchiatal in the neighbourhood.

Manali: Snow-capped, adventurous

Savvy travellers know that the best way to enjoy Manali is to stay away from Manali — and stay in the smaller guesthouses or hotels outside town. Whether you take a day trip to Rohtang Pass to play in the snow or try a white water rafting session on the Beas river, Manali is filled with outdoor activities for the entire family. You can also just relax in the hot springs of Manikaran or in the cool cedar woods near the Hidimba temple. And there are plenty of waterfalls around the town for picnic lunches and lazy afternoons.

Matheran: Forest on the head

At this pedestrian-only hill station near Mumbai, get ready to leave your car behind and hike or ride a pony up the winding roads to your hotel. Matheran does not offer much by way of things to do, but it more than makes up with its numerous walking trails and viewpoints, making an ideal break for those seeking the quiet life, away from noise and traffic. It is worth waking up early to see the sunrise from Louise Point and then relax by the banks of Charlotte Lake close to it.

 

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