…Because sometimes, you simply want to unwind with an undefined agenda and an unfettered mind.
Sometimes you just want to escape to a place reminiscent of a childhood fantasy. One that is filled with romantic castles, fairy tale villages, breathtaking scenery and heartwarming moments. A place to feast your eyes, free your mind and flâner (wander/stroll). Maybe, with a bottle of wine.
Picture “France” beyond Paris and visions of châteaux amidst lush vineyards fill the mind. Then, the stomach might rumble and images of Michelin Star eateries that serve difficult-to-pronounce dishes swirl along with visions of freshly-baked crusty baguettes, sinful creamy desserts and fabulous stinky cheese. Picture: Alsace.
Bordering Germany and Switzerland, the neighbours’ influence is evident in the region’s architecture and cuisine. With routes to suit most travel interests, Alsace is a great option for an open-ended trip.
- For adventure enthusiasts and active travellers, the route des Crêtes with its national parks and Alps provides ample options.
- For gastronomes or oenophiles, the route des vins with its outstanding restaurants is unmissable.
For the indiscriminate traveller, Alsace is the France of our dreams and the cherry on its green cake is colourful Colmar. Despite being one of the most romantic places in France, it also happens to be the perfect place to explore with family. So, we did. All nine of us…aged from 9 months to 60+ yrs.
When fiction becomes fact…
Frequently spotted on the list of France’s “Les plus beaux villages” or most beautiful places to visit, old town Colmar is a living fantasy. Little wonder then, that Colmar supposedly inspired the village setting for Disney’s “Beauty and the beast”.
Flowers spill out of potted plants, colourful houses, shops and restaurants line canals of an area aptly named “Little Venice”. Ducks happily quack away as the tourist train (yes, we sat in one of those!) ambles along. The tourist train, though unsurprisingly touristy, is a great way to get a lay of the land. Utterly enchanted by the scene before us, we sat, commentary forgotten…until I accidentally dropped the baby’s milk bottle, spewing milk everywhere. Baby wipes to the rescue, I am happy to report that the train was spotlessly clean when we disembarked.
With no agenda, no cause for hurry and no pressure to sightsee, we simply set off and wandered as we pleased: beside the canal, over a bridge and onto hidden lanes. We stopped to pick juicy berries from the covered market, follow a Raclette cheese-like aroma to find a terrific restaurant called La Pergola, gorge on treats from numerous biscuiteries and pâtisseries, taste freshly baked bread in Bisch de Bruche, pop into scores of shops or boutiques and light candles in the glorious Saint Martin’s Church.
Our meandering ended with a visit to a park, Champ de Mars. The kids ran free, rode funky trikes and hopped on a carousel, while we contemplated the blessed life with some delicious wine. It was pretty much a perfect day.
While there are a host of options, check the restaurant operating schedule before you go.
For the regional specialty, tartes flammées, at Flamme & Co in Kaysersberg (Vegetarians: request a veggie version of their Flammée Tacos and top it off by the Petite flammée pomme). Caution: those with hearty appetites may need a more substantial meal afterward.
For arguably the best roësti west of the Swiss border, dine at eclectic La Pergola. Run by the same folks as Wolfberger, the French onion soup, pasta, pizza and tiramisu are fabulous as well. Watch out for the witches on broomsticks lining the ceiling for good luck.
A few of our favourite things…
We chose to embrace the “simple” life. No fancy restaurants, no complicated itineraries and no frenzied shopping = great family trip.
Though we were utterly besotted by Colmar, beauty and charm abound everywhere in Alsace. Here are some of our favourite experiences:
Village-hopping: Riquewihr, Kaysersberg, Ribeauvillé…Alsace is filled with gorgeous and exotic-sounding towns/villages/cities of all sizes. Pick a name from the map and head over to explore.
…We picked Éguisheim, a flower-bedecked town on the route des vins that has a flea market on Sundays. Not for the shopping, but for the experience of stepping into a storybook and because the “plus beaux villages de France” really are incredible.
Travel tip: If choosing a destination is a challenge, Google images can certainly be very helpful!
Picnicking: Armed with fresh cherry tomatoes, gruyère cheese, bread, potato salad from the Éguisheim market and candied fruit from Le Comptoir du Fruit, we picked our spot and settled for a picnic lunch with a view.
Wine-tasting: Alsace is known for its fabulous wines. If in Eguisheim, try the elixir(s) of your choice at a wonderful cellar and tasting room by the 100+ year old winemaker Wolfberger. The modern cavernous room offers a stylish experience. The wine – especially the Belle Saison Muscat – is a revelation. For a toddler-controlled group like ours, it was the perfect way to sip a bit of Alsace.
Driving: The roads of Alsace are blessed with spell-binding views around every bend, but for a fabulous drive that ends with the best bird’s eye view of Alsace, head to Château du Haut-Kœnigsbourg in Orschwiller.
Reportedly, the château inspired a bit of the set for Lord of the Rings. While parking can be a pain, the drive is fantastic and chateau itself is an impressive structure with stunning views overlooking the region.
Luxurious living: When in France, stay in a luxurious château at least once. No better base to discover the dreamer’s France than from Château d’Isenbourg in Rouffach, a lovely town on the route des vins. A Small Luxury Hotels (SLH) property, the boutique château hotel is designed as a countryside retreat.
Quaint rooms, flavourful food and friendly service are accompanied by uninterrupted views of verdant vineyards on one side and the medieval city of Rouffach on the other. Think: long, lazy breakfasts and gorgeous sunsets. Did I mention the indoor Jacuzzi that overlooks seemingly endless vineyards?
Travel tip: If requested a day in advance, the hotel is happy to provide Rösti (a delectable Swiss dish consisting of potatoes smothered in cheese) for breakfast. Also, those travelling with infants or toddlers receive special gift bags with a soft toy and yummy treats.
Sometimes, it’s not about what to do or where to go next, but about staying where you are. Alsace is a place which inspires you to write your own travel story. There is no right or wrong story, just your unique travel story. One that might have an uncanny resemblance to all the beauty sans the beast.
Spellbinding views, untouched forests, luxurious and historic lodgings, Maggi, momos and ginger lemon tea. Discover the joys of Mussoorie and Landour.
William Henry Davies had it right when he famously wrote: “What is this life if, full of care, We have no time to stand and stare.” Sometimes, travel is not just about making memories, but also about making time. To grab that moment of peace amidst the sea of routine. To take the time to just “be”. So, when the “queen of the hills” called, we answered.
Dial M for Mountains…
Mussoorie is rightfully known as the queen of hills in India. A beautiful 2-hr drive from Dehradun, the city gets its name from the British mis-pronunciation of the Mansoor shrub that grows in the region. A summer retreat for heat-escaping British during the Raj, remnants of the colonial era add a distinct charm and character to its appearance.
Travel tip: For travellers from Mumbai, Jet Airways offers a non-stop, direct flight to Dehradun. Mussoorie and Landour are great options for those summer months when most of the country battles oppressive heat.
It’s in the air…
Our foray into Mussoorie began with a shared bowl of Maggi slurped at a shack somewhere before the climb up to the city. Rickety tables overlooked a beautiful valley, while bright sunshine created a dazzling halo over everything it touched. One bowl became two. Maggi never tasted so good. It wasn’t just the seasoning – though liberal amounts of garlic, coriander and green chilies certainly had our taste buds buzzing – it was the air. It is amazing how a place can change the flavour of food so dramatically.
Property, property, property…
On we drove, up and around the hill taking in the beautiful views, the buzzing Mall Road, the beautiful Savoy, until finally, we left it all behind to reach our destination: the J W Marriott Walnut Grove Resort & Spa. Constructed as a rather underwhelming building, the property is quite modern and luxurious inside. Though the hotel has a fabulous location away from the hustle bustle of the town center, views of the mountains are interrupted partially by the property itself. Nevertheless, its amazing recreational activities (massive indoor entertainment zone) and fabulous food more than make up for the less-than-charming layout and exterior. Not to mention, the supremely relaxing L’Occitane en Provence Spa.
A highlight, was the high-tea served on the pretty lawns each evening. The menu was short but flavourful: Pahadi chai (local tea brewed with spices for 1-2hrs), fresh corn roasted on traditional coal stoves, roasted groundnuts, cookies and light snacks. Families and staff played badminton and local musicians strummed popular tunes as guests lounged on blankets, hammocks, beanbags and benches spread across lawns that overlooked majestic mountains.
The hills are alive…
Treks are a great way to peek into untouched Mussoorie. We opted for the J W Marriott’s Pine forest trek as well as a visit to a Buddhist monastery. The manicured beauty of the hotel gave way to the natural beauty of the land.
We walked at the relaxed pace, taking in the views interspersed with some local huts. We heard a tinkling sound and turned just in time to dodge an errant goat that decided to move ahead of its herd. Accompanied by some local villagers, the herd was out to graze in the forest.
Our chatty guide regaled us with charming childhood tales: running through forests, sliding down hillsides, catching bugs in matchboxes, stealing apples, splashing in streams and bathing in waterfalls. As we continued our ascent, the openness gave way to the slightly dense Pine forest. We found the perfect spot to pause for refreshments, while listening to the music of chirping birds and buzzing forest creatures. With nary a soul for miles around, the feeling of peace was incredible.
Travel tip: Opt for a trek to the bird sanctuary. Though relatively long, it offers more beautiful views and goes deeper into the forest.
Where wildflowers grow and eagles soar…
It was a day of feasting on views. Literally. Each more stunning than the one before and always just a plate of momos or bowl of Maggi away from each other.
…Leaving the pine forest behind, we marched onward on a less-than-exciting cement road to the Buddhist monastery. The monastery itself was simple, but the sight of colourful flags waving in the wind and altitude provided lovely views over the surrounding areas.
Next stop: Everest Estate. Home to Sir George Everest, namesake of Mount Everest, and severely in need of maintenance, the property offered stunning views of the hills. Blue skies greeted the hills with tufts of fluffy white clouds, while the hills reached up shrouded in shades of green.
The drive to the Everest house itself was scenic enough for us to pause for an impromptu picnic at a roadside shack.
…While heading to our next “viewpoint”, we saw signs for “See Green Café”. Every quarter mile or so, sign posts pinpointed the location and spotlighted items from the menu. So of course, we paused for some Maggi and lemon ginger tea. Again delicious and again one bowl turned into two. Air. It had to be the air.
Final stop: Cloud’s End. A “resort” of sorts, that is best reserved for visiting rather than staying. We followed a trail to the back of the property and into the woods in hopes of finding the infamous Echo point. Instead of inspiring us to shout, what we found left us speechless.
The path led to a clearing surrounded by woods and wildflowers that overlooked the valley and hills. Green all around, with the road a distant slash of white snaking through the wilderness. One, two, three eagles swooped and soared over the mountains. Leaves and wildflowers swayed in the breeze as butterflies flitted around.
There are no words to describe what seeing such beauty does for the soul.
How many ways can I love thee…
A visit to Mussoorie would be incomplete without a visit to its busy, commercialized, heart – Mall Road. We discovered the lively center of Mussoorie via a halt for grub on Mall Road.
Disappointed to find an endless wait for fabulous smelling pizza at the famous Little Llama Cafe, we settled for smoothies with a view instead. Rumbling stomach under control, we headed to the authentic, crowded and fabulous Kalsang for some Thukpa (noodle soup) and momos. A meal that must not be missed.
While we opted for a brief halt, Mall Road offers plenty of additional options for munching (Clock Tower Cafe), browsing (Cambridge Book Depot – frequented by Ruskin Bond), strolling (Camel Back Road) or indulging (Chic Chocolate). Design the Mussoorie experience that delights you.
We saw and loved Mussoorie from virtually every angle: the drive up from Dehradun, trek into its interiors or stroll into its center. However, none was more charming than the hidden paradise above – Landour.
Landour, O Landour!
Linked to Mussoorie via busy Mall Road, Landour was named after the Welsh village Llanddowror. Mussoorie was lovely, but Landour was pure poetry. A place where untouched and untamed beauty knows no bounds. A walk to the famous Lal Tibba viewpoint is filled with lush greenery interspersed with wildflowers and endless views of the surrounding valley, mountains and Mussoorie.
Sign-bearing trees remind visitors to maintain peace, calm and quiet. Each bend of the road offers a different perspective, each with its own level of beauty. We only came across a handful of people during our 1 km long walk and the occasional troop of monkeys. It was almost like walking in a wild, secret garden. One that, at night, overlooked a sea of twinkling lights that rivaled the stars above.
Where storybooks come alive…
If Landour was poetry, our property Rokeby Manor, was a storybook. One that let us write our own story.
Our “suite” was a pretty pink room with flowers painted on the archway between the sitting and bedroom areas…a little wooden chest was dressed with a vase filled with fresh flowers, with a fireplace that just begged to be lit. The “Tea” Garden was exactly as you might picture a garden in a storybook – flowers spilling from pots, with little white garden furniture and flagstone paths.
The most incredible experience, however, was watching the sunset over the town of Mussoorie. There, sitting on benches outside the Tea garden amidst the flowers, beside ancient tree, we simply sat and watched as the sky changed colours, until finally the stars appeared.
Travel tip: The property offers an opportunity to meet and dine with famous author Ruskin Bond. Book ahead to avoid disappointment.
Life should be all Momos, Maggi and Ginger lemon tea…
Most of the eateries in Landour are owned by the restaurateur Sanjay Narang. Before a hearty meal at Rokeby Manor’s famous restaurant Emily’s, we walked over for drinks at the Stray Dog pub. The British style pub had dark wooden paneling and leather couches/bar stools. A little fireplace and large TV filled one wall, while a dartboard adorned another. If it weren’t for our glasses of Sula Satori Merlot, we could have been in any place in England.
Despite the winning ambience of both the places and the unparalled views from Cafe Ivy, our favourite meal had to be the one we had at Char Dukan (four shops). Located in the heart of the town, Char Dukan is literally a line of 4 shops. Touted as legendary cricketer Sachin Tendulkar’s favourite haunt in town, Tip Top is the most famous of the lot. As was customary, we paused for lemon tea, chocolate waffles (too sweet) and Maggi at Char Dukan. The next day, we were back for some Momos with more of the delicious lemon ginger tea. The meals were simple, fresh and tasty.
Exactly how life should be.
Standing still or still standing?
Mussoorie and Landour reminded us to appreciate the little things in life: good food, fresh air, natural beauty and the importance of being quiet and still.
Some places transport the mind to a place beyond any map. A place where you have time to stand and stare. Time, as is its nature, did not stand still; but, we did.