It took seven years to build The Khyber Himalayan Resort and Spa in Gulmarg, I am told, since work is suspended for six months in a year when the freezing winter puts all construction to a halt. Walking around the 85-room property built to take advantage of the gorgeous view of the Apharwat range in the distance, it seems like it was most definitely seven years well spent.
At present, the weather is erratic, with sunshine and rain in equal measure. Sometimes, one can experience all four seasons in a single day - it can go from bright sunshine to pouring rain to downright chilly and snow in the course of 24 hours. Well, the weather gods may be gambling in Gulmarg, but the place is beautiful regardless.
Picture postcard perfect
The property is set in a semi-circle around a valley situated in the Pir Panjal range with one set of rooms facing the snow-covered Apharwat range in the distance, and another facing the town of Gulmarg. Built in the classic style of wooden logs with dark green tiled roofs, the property does remind one of the classic mountain cabins described in childhood storybooks.
One look at the undulating pine-covered, snowy hills and almost every guest demands a mountain view room, I am told, though the forest view rooms are equally dreamy. Imagine sunlight filtering in through the pines and chinar trees, through the glass windows in your room – it is certainly a sight you would want to wake up to.
Rooms at the Khyber are designed keeping a similar warm, polished wood look with plenty of local influences. Carved walnut panels on the ceilings, teak panelled floors, traditionally embroidered bed covers and the classic Kashmiri woven silk carpets all come together to make a rooms that’s luxurious yet cosy and inviting. Step out into the balcony to be greeted by a view that’s breathtaking and make yourself comfortable on the sofa outside since you’re sure to spend a lot of time here, trying to get the perfect shot of the scene outside. Pine trees stand like sentinels on watch, growing smaller and smaller until they become black streaks on the pristine white Apharwat range.
If you can’t take your eyes off the view, you can’t be blamed – and the Khyber seems to realise this since the view continues into the bathroom as well, where a strategically placed large glass window pane makes sure that you can feast your eyes while soaking in a hot bath or even while brushing your teeth.
The warm wooden theme continues throughout the property, and the décor is simple and a generous dose of embroidery typical of the state, gives a rich feel to the upholstered sofas and chairs. Warm browns and reds teamed with soft beige make the décor seem snug , and whether you’re relaxing in the lobby, dining at their restaurant or warming up in their cigar lounge, the picture perfect views are never far from sight.
Noush, the hotel’s terrace lounge, winds around the first floor and has three different views from three different sections. It’s a great place to relax since the cushioned cane chairs make for a quaint spot to retire to with a book and a cup of tea. The hotel can arrange for charcoal heaters in case it gets too chilly and sometimes they even serve dinner here, on special request. If unlike me, you can resist the temptation of the warm room, this is definitely a great place to take advantage of Khyber’s accommodating hospitality.
In between, you catch the occasional glimpse of pine, walnut and chinar trees whose grandeur against the perfectly blue sky is a sight that you can’t get tired of. In winter, however, I’m told that snow piles up on either side of these roads, up to eight or nine feet high and the journey to the top takes almost twice the time it takes in summer. But despite the heavy snowfall, winter is when Gulmarg gets its fair share of visitors who are mostly skiing enthusiasts.
A heavenly diet
While checking in, the concierge will probably offer you a cup of the traditional Kahwa – do not refuse, for this drink will probably become your best friend for the rest of your stay. A local green tea prepared with a generous dose of crushed dry fruits and the locally grown saffron, try it without sugar or any other additions and savour the warmth that seeps into your body in the chilly weather.
A must try at the hotel is the traditional Kashmiri meal served in a communal plate for four, called the Trami. I was served a one-person Trami, but the servings were so large, by the time I was finished, I felt like I had eaten for four! The Kashmiri staple is rice, and around a large heap of steamed rice, I was served mutton cooked in four ways – they do love their lamb out here! A finely cooked Rogan Josh, a local mutton dumpling speciality, grilled ribs of lamb and the classic mutton seekh kabab. I was warned that Kashmiri food was spicy, but I really did underestimate just how spicy it would be – here, the chilly hits you in the aftertaste, but the food is definitely worth it. The local spinach curry and a tangy paneer in a tomato-based gravy were good but largely ignored thanks to the tenderly cooked lamb. Food at the Khyber is a win – whether it’s the Murgh Kali Mirch with a subtle hint of ground pepper in a creamy gravy or the classic Waza Murg, the spicy, more flavourful offering, or the Kashmiri Dum biryani that is worth breaking any diet plan for, its all extremely well-prepared and the flavours are definitely a change from the norm. Breakfast, however, is a bit of a let down after the delicious lunch and dinner options – but that’s mostly because one can’t order lamb for breakfast (or so they tell me).
Things to do
As tempting as it was to stay in my room, under the warm covers, or take an hour long hot shower, I braved the brisk weather to savour the beautiful outdoors, and I’m glad it did! There are a million things to do here depending on your interest but one thing that you simply can’t miss is the Gondola ride. Forget Venetian gondolas, the one at Gulmarg is far more exciting. I stepped onto the world’s highest cable car, which took me from Gulmarg upto Kungdoor (the first phase) where it snows pretty much all through the year. I skipped the sledding here and headed for the second phase, where the promise of snow awaited. And it did snow! Standing there on the peak of the Apharwat mountain range –a staggering 14,000 feet high, making snowballs for the first time in my life, it was certainly worth getting over my initial worry!
For those looking for less adrenalin and more relaxation, there’s a lot to see around Gulmarg. I visited the local Baba Reshi shrine, where locals take their newborns for blessings, and the St. Mary’s church, that was originally built for British soldiers stationed here. Both picturesque and make for great photo ops – I would know!
Whether you’re looking for respite from the summer heat, or looking to try your hand at skiing this winter, Gulmarg should definitely be on your list of places to visit, and if you’re heading there, the Khyber should definitely be on your list of indulgences. After all, there’s no season to visit Paradise!