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The foothills are alive with tourists

PREETI MEHRA
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Lake city Nainital, in Uttarakhand, sees a perennial flow of visitors. - Photo: Aamit Khanna
Lake city Nainital, in Uttarakhand, sees a perennial flow of visitors. - Photo: Aamit Khanna

For a quick break over a long weekend, Nainital beats many overseas favourites.

If Bangkok, Singapore and Kuala Lumpur are beckoning the upwardly mobile Indian traveller for long holidays, it is the extended weekends that are keeping alive the traditional hill-station destinations of the country.

Nainital is one such example. Though its luxury hotels jostle with the likes of Thailand and Malaysia in offering competitive tariffs, for short breaks like the recent Easter weekend, it is these very properties that are choc-a-bloc. “The trend is visible. On long weekends, we often encounter footfalls of around 1,500 visitors,” says Ashwin Chaudhry, the proprietor of Fun Slopes, an amusement park at Snow View, where the cable car from Mallital makes a stop. Visitors here feel that the attractive airline and hotel deals offered for overseas travel are good choices when the kids have their school holidays, but for the “quick break” the hassles of visas and bookings are not worth the while. “We would rather take the overnight train or drive down to breathe in the fresh mountain air over a long weekend,” says Dheeraj Tiwari, a resident of Delhi, citing lucrative deals that come with free accommodation for kids and breakfast thrown in.

Nainital, the lake city of Uttarakhand, for many is an ideal location as it lies in the Kumaon foothills of the outer Himalayas and provides access to several lakes including Sattal, Bhimtal and Naukuchiatal. Besides, Nainital itself has a resplendent water body that is ringed by lights that reflect on its waters during sundown, providing city visitors that added sensual experience.

The town also figures in ancient mythology, making it that much more special for religious Hindu visitors. It is believed that the Nainital Lake is one of the 64 religious sites (Shakti Peeths) in the country where the charred pieces of Goddess Parvati's body are supposed to have fallen when Lord Shiva was carrying it. The spot where her eyes (nain in Hindi) fell is where ‘Nain'tal Lake came into being. Hence even today on the northern shore of the lake stands the Naina Devi temple, a revered destination for many a visitor.

Nainital also figures in the Manas Khand of the Skand Puranas, with the lake in its valley being called the Tri-Rishi Sarovar. As the story goes, the three rishis — Atri, Pulastya and Pulaha — visited the town and when they found no water in the vicinity, they dug a massive hole at the spot where the Nainital Lake stands today. The rishis proceeded to fill the space with holy water from the Manasarovar Lake in Tibet. According to folklore, a dip in the Nainital Lake can give pilgrims the same benefits that Manasarovar is believed to.

Besides mythology, the hill-town itself has a lot to offer. Apart from quaint and comfortable stays in hotels or even lodges, the Tibetan market, the Burrabazar, the Mall, and of course the Naina Devi Temple are popular hot spots where tourists shop, pay homage or loiter around for hours on end. Among Nainital's special wares are aromatic candles and items made of pine seed that are sold in the wholesale market. In innumerable colours, shapes and sizes the wax candle business in Nainital has been flourishing for decades.

So have its bakeries, some of which have the white sahibs of yesteryear as their founders. Scones, croissants, cakes and pies are part of what visitors rush to have a taste of.

Famous for some of its boarding schools like Sherwood and St Mary's, the hill-town also caters to a large parent population. They come here on long weekends to spend time with their wards and leave behind a substantial ‘tuck' for them to share with friends at residence. They too add to the tourist numbers. But most of all, Nainital's easy access, decent roadways (some patches, however, have been washed off by the unprecedented rains last year and are crying for attention) make it a favoured long weekend destination. Of course, it is not as if the summer months don't bring along the crowds. Then too hotels raise their rates and locals brace themselves to serve the unending tourist population.

A royal view

A starry sky, with the moon rising in slow motion across the mountain range. The Nainital Lake in the valley below, lit up, with the lights reflecting on its water. Strains of oft-heard songs drifting with the chill breeze. That is the picture you take along after a stay at Manu Maharani, DS Group's flagship property in Uttarakhand's picturesque hill-station.

The USP of this luxury boutique hotel is undeniably its location and rooms overlooking the lush green Nainital valley and famous lake. Just a short walk from the Mall and bang opposite the High Court, the property was acquired from a member of the royal family and its name retained to give it the regal touch. Though the building was brought down, rebuilt and refurbished by the company, care has been taken to mingle its classic cultural heritage with contemporary design.

A two-day familiarisation trip for the media starts appropriately with a welcome drink made of fresh Himalayan rhododendron flowers. Most of its 67 premium rooms, terrace rooms, suites and club rooms face the lake, while the garden below offers leisurely walks and Himalayan sights for the eyes to feast on. The rooms are also equipped with amenities that tempt you to stretch the hours and savour the moments. Sink-in beds, elegant furniture, a flat LED television, hot water, refreshing showers — what more could a visitor want? Maybe Wi-Fi? But for that you would have to go to the front office. On second thoughts, that's a good thing because for a while the mind and body want to cut out the incessant din that makes one run away from metro life. The next indulgence is food. Here the variety unveils itself over the next few meals. We begin with mainstream continental, go to authentic Chinese and end with familiar barbeque. The chefs are hell bent on revealing their every talent. Panorama, the speciality multi-cuisine restaurant too provides you, yes, panoramic views of the valley and lake below. From fresh-cut vegetables and dips served in wine glasses, to cheese platters dressed up with olives and local mulberry to crispy Chinese starters — it's all there, showcased for taste and presentation. Breakfasts at the open-air coffee shop Gardenia — which too overlooks the mountains, valley and lake — again prove that variety is the spice of life, specially when it gives you umpteen choices relatively early in the morning. For starters, cereals compete with fruits and fresh juices. Then comes the South Indian idli-dosa fare, followed by North Indian parathas and the continental do-it-your-way egg preparations. DS Group's Vice President of Hospitality Operations, Nikhil Vahi, orders something I've never heard of — a fried egg of only the whites. And later, we decide to do what visitors generally do — shop. We spend a fortune on scented wax candles and come back to the sound of lilting music at the best outdoor location — the hotel's vast terrace. To add warmth to the chill of the starry night, coal fires bedeck the terrace and food takes on an all-together new meaning. Yes, it is this scene that stays with us as we say our goodbyes to a property worth its weight in leisure.

(This article was published on April 28, 2011)
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