Mussoorie sunny side up, topped with a hint of Landour

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…

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The drive to Mussoorie

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.

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Live music on the lawns

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.

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A happy goat

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.

The pine forest, Mussoorie, Uttarakhand, India
Peaceful pine 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.

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Advertising done right…

…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.

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The road less travelled

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.

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Picture perfect: mountains, clouds and wildflowers

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.

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Connect with yourself

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.

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Where storybooks come alive…

If Landour was poetry, our property Rokeby Manor, was a storybook. One that let us write our own story.

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Timeless beauty…

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.

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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.

Sunset over the queen of the hills - Mussoorie and Landour, Uttarakhand, India
Sunset over the queen of the hills

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…

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The heart of Landour: Char Dukan

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.

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Life should be so simple, tasty and refreshing

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. 

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Be still; Stillness reveals the secrets of eternity – Lao Tzu

Majestic Rajasthan: Reliving History in Jaipur, Jodhpur and Jaisalmer

Incredible fortresses, luxurious living, sumptuous feasts, extravagant celebrations, haunting melodies and haunted tours make for an experience of a lifetime.

There are some places on earth where history comes alive. Where the past and present co-exist. Where wild sands are tamed and nurtured. A land of royal palaces, imposing fortresses, mesmerizing desert sands, brave warriors, brilliant colors, vibrant festivals, haunting melodies and sumptuous feasts. The ‘land of the kings’ – Rajasthan.

No state in India is as vibrant, exotic or majestic as Rajasthan. There are some truly incredible places to explore, but vast distances and limited connectivity mean that one trip is seldom enough to see them all.

This past Diwali, the sun, moon and stars aligned for our family to explore Jaipur, Jodhpur and Jaisalmer together. Timing was perfect, occasion was perfect, itinerary was set, and off we went with toddlers, in laws, nephew and Samsonite showroom display in tow. Despite the long journeys and assorted age groups (<15 months to >60yrs), we had a fabulous time and even managed to come back charmed and rejuvenated!

Here are some recommendations for how to do it:

#1: Live life king size; sometimes, the property is the experience.

Rajasthan has some of the most beautiful heritage properties in the world, so going luxe was almost a foregone conclusion. What surprised us, was how much the properties contributed to the overall experience. These weren’t simply places reserved for crashing after exploring outdoors, these were spaces that compelled you to reserve time for themselves as well.

Our first property, Trident, Jaipur, a nice but slightly older property, with the kind of service that turns a good property to great. From having a kids club and convenient garden/play area to entertaining the kids to catering to our every food whim, this property surpassed all expectations. There was the time when one of the waiters surprised us with the infamous Rawat’s pyaaz kachori when he learnt that we wouldn’t have the time to do so. Or the time when, on request, the chef prepared a fabulous and elaborate Rajasthani thali, complete with freshly made desserts.

Our property in Jaisalmer, Suryagarh, was simply out of this world. From the start, the property surprised us. An impressive feat, the ‘hotel’ is actually a massive yellow stone fortress that arises like an oasis in the desert. From the minute we saw the grand entrance, to long after we entered our lovely chamber, we were floored by the sheer size, scale and beauty.

We celebrated Diwali in style, awoke to a beautiful vista before us, complete with a peacock on the terrace. We had breakfast in a lovely courtyard surrounded by peacocks, rabbits, turtle and various charming, but unobtrusive, pets of the property. There was even a magician in traditional Rajasthani garb, a little ‘farm’ where the property grew some of their own vegetables and herbs, as well as ample space for kids to run around and be free.

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Breakfast with peacocks

The benefit of a great property is also the level of access and depth of local knowledge. We enjoyed sunset dune-bashing with Lama tours (one of few companies to have staff trained in Dubai and SUVs instead of open jeeps) at one of the non-touristy sand dunes, hotel-arranged sunset camel safari to the quieter side of touristy Sam sand dunes, ATV rides, visit to the Jaisalmer fort, the bustling market and ancient Jain temples, a haunted tour, luxurious spa treatments and amazing local cuisine prepared by in-house chefs. The boys even visited Jaisalmer War Museum and Laungewala War Memorial, where they paid homage to heroes as well as discovered military vehicles. The whole family was thoroughly fed, spoilt, pampered, entertained and very grateful.

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…As we had already been to Jodhpur before, the husband and I opted to take the kids to Reggie’s Camel Camp Osian. Those seeking an exclusive luxurious experience, might want to opt for the incredible Umaid Bhawan Palace. The kids were super-excited about staying in tents as well as dancing around the bonfire at night, while listening to live traditional Rajasthani music. Since the baby was having a little too much fun driving us crazy by going in and out of the tent, we opted to head for Mihirgarh first thing in the morning. An interesting experience, but probably best done with companions older than 5.

An hour outside of Jodhpur, the little fortress of Mihirgarh, has been on my wishlist as it is one of few Relais et Châteaux (properties that combine luxury and gastronomy) properties in India. Owned by relatives of the Maharaja of Jodhpur, the small but beautiful all-suite property made up with room size and service what it lacked in scale. Our room was more than 1100 sq ft with a living area, large bathroom with Forest Essentials toiletries, balcony with a table for two, terrace with a jacuzzi and some lounge chairs to sit back and take in the beautiful surroundings.

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A Bishnoi woman churns butter as her brood looks on with amusement

We took a jeep safari and spotted the rare black buck by off-roading en route to the Bishnoi village (a tribe that lives in harmony with nature, uses no electricity or modern equipment and uses cow dung liberally) and experienced a glorious sunset from the sunset terrace. Food is definitely a highlight, with the menu serving as a formality: whatever the belly desires is dished up by their talented chef. For our last meal, he prepared traditional Rajasthani specialties – dal (lentils), baati (baked hard and dense round breads), churma (deep-fried baati crushed and mixed with sugar or jaggery), green tomato and papad (lentil wafers)-methi sabzis…absolutely delicious.

Tip: In Mihirgarh, ask for the upper level rooms. The lower level ones are a bit too close to the trees/flowers, so there could be some unwanted visitors in your plunge pool. For those interested in glamping, they also have another property with luxury tents nearby.

Where family time is concerned, it is as important to spend time together as have time apart. Staying in luxurious properties is a great way to strike this balance: sharing unique experiences strengthens the bond, while large rooms and superlative service ensure sufficient space, rest and relaxation. Maybe we would have seen the same Rajasthan from other properties, but probably not. We would certainly not have enjoyed the trip as thoroughly or felt as rejuvenated or loved each other as much by the end of it.

#2: Break it Up

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Pause for Poha at Pokaran

Travelling with two toddlers to a remote place is challenging under the best of circumstances. To go from Mumbai to Jaisalmer, requires a 2.5hr flight to Jodhpur followed by a 4-6hr drive (depending on chauffeur, traffic and halts) to Jaisalmer. A whole DAY of travelling. Then, the husband came up with a brilliant idea: why not fly to Jaipur, spend a couple of days there, take the overnight train to Jaisalmer and on the way back, break our journey with overnight stay at Osian (desert camp) and Mihirgarh (a wish list property outside Jodhpur) before flying back to Mumbai?

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Journey to Jodhpur

My first thought was of course of the ‘less-than-hygienic’ train toilets, but the more I thought about it, the more appealing it became. So, armed with hand sanitizer, soap and a large toilet roll (along with our assorted bags), we took the plunge.

The plan worked wonderfully – we had a blast in Jaipur, slept through most of the train ride, enjoyed the sights whilst awake, stretched our legs at Pokaran station and stayed at unique properties.

Tip: Those who enjoy luxury rail travel, should consider the über luxurious ‘Palace On Wheels’. Also, I recommend the following – when going from Jaisalmer to Mumbai, stay overnight at Manvar tents (better located than Osian) before heading to Mihirgarh (highly recommend a 2-night stay) or skip it all and stay overnight in Jodhpur.

#3: ‘See’ less to do more

Travel with kids can best be described as a “balancing act”. We wanted to make the most of our time in Jaipur, while continuing to have happy kids. So, we planned our itinerary around them, but while ensuring our top priorities were met.

We decided against hardcore sightseeing and opted for a brief overview instead. We managed to:

Sample local specialties: we picked up some local grub from LMB in Jaipur market on our way from airport to our hotel (Trident Jaipur) – a 15 min detour that was enough to get a feel of the bustling market beautifully and brightly lit up for Diwali.

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Decorating ‘Chanchal’ the elephant at Elefantastic

Discover a unique experience: The highlight of our trip, was the day spent with an elephant. Elefantastic (a superb option for families and animal-lovers), is of the best kept elephant farms I have seen. It was very green, clean (no visible piles of poop) and organized (on schedule). All families had an elephant to themselves. We fed ‘our’ elephant (who preferred the kids’ stuffed parathas instead of hay), decorated her using harmless natural colors, bathed her and went for a ride in the nearby village until the little one protested. The kids not only enjoyed interacting with the elephant, but also loved chasing chickens and splashing in muddy puddles (a Peppa pig-inspired fantasy).

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Royal feast at 1135 AD

Have a lovely meal and catch the sound and light show: we wanted to see the 8pm sound and light show at Amber fort, so we planned this on the same day as Elefantastic. The kids were tuckered enough to be lulled by Amitabh Bachchan’s lovely baritone, so the husband and I managed to enjoy a fantastic Rajasthani thali at the commendable 1135 AD restaurant in the fort. Frequented by numerous dignitaries  celebrities over the years, the restaurant is decorated in deep red and gold, with sparkling chandeliers, flickering candlelight, live music, and rich food that reflects its royal heritage. For a moment, we were transported to another time.

Tip: Keep the hotel car/taxi when visiting Amber fort. We let ours go and ended up on unfamiliar, unpaved, roads in a bone-jarring never-to-be-repeated auto rickshaw ride as no other mode of transport was available. Those who understand Hindi might want to watch that version of sound and light show as it is recorded in Amitabh Bachchan’s voice.

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View of and from the Nahargarh fort; the site of a scene from the movie  ‘Rang de Basanti’

Enjoy stunning city views: The boys monkeyed around the hotel garden with the monkeys, and burnt off a suitable amount of energy, before we headed to Nahargarh fort to watch the sunset over the city. It was recommended to us as the place where locals go for the view, especially during Diwali. Though the fort itself was not very well-maintained, the views were lovely. What was truly wonderful, was the bird’s eye view of Diwali lights and fireworks across the city from the restaurant within.

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City lights from the Nahargarh fort restaurant

By the time we boarded the train to Jaisalmer, the boys were blissfully knocked out! All in all, we had a great 2.5 days in Jaipur. I would have loved to go for tea or dinner to Rambagh Palace, take the kids to Chokhi Dhani and shop a bit, but there’s always next time!

 

#4: The best travel stories live beyond comfort zones
(Warning: not for the faint hearted.)

In our quest for finding unique experiences, we opted for the ‘Chudail (Banshee) Trail’, a Suryagarh signature experience that took us on a haunted trail. The husband, mother-in-law and I were the bravehearts that went on this tour in the pitch dark of night with our car headlights and guide’s torchlight as the only light sources for miles around.

Our first stop, was a mysterious lake in the middle of the desert that – for unknown reasons – has maintained the same water level since centuries. Surrounded by tons of holes dug to unearth the water source, the lake has seen the death of many. I was fine with the spirits, but the thought of slithering snakes and creepy crawlies was unnerving. We hopped back in our vehicle and whizzed off to a cemetery that was far less fascinating.

Our third and final stop was the highlight of the tour – a visit to the cursed and haunted village of Kuldhara. Apparently it, along with 84 other villages, was abandoned overnight a few hundred years ago. No one knows where the inhabitants went, but they cursed the village so that anyone who inhabits it dies.

As experiences go, this was the creepiest and most unusual, making it a great story to share.

#5: The most memorable experiences might be the most surprising ones

If anyone had told me that the highlight of my trip was watching a transvestite dance, I wouldn’t have believed them. But, the Diwali celebration at Suryagarh was – like the property itself – outstanding.

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Stage set for Diwali puja

What started as a simple, tastefully, handled prayer in a beautiful setting by the owner, morphed into a binge-fest of mithai (sweet meats) freshly prepared by an in-house halwai (sweets chef), which moved onto a celebration with sparklers and fireworks, and flowed into live Sufi music performance followed by an unforgettable dance performance by Queen Harish and her troop, finally ending in a dining extravaganza.

The earthy and soulful music echoing off the massive fortress surrounded by nothing but inky blackness, has to be one of the most memorable performances I’ve ever experienced. Only Wordsworth’s words can describe it: “…The music in my heart I bore, long after it was heard no more.”

I was thankful just to be there, in that space, at that time and in that moment.

When celebration of an occasion becomes a celebration of life, life is beautiful.

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Reflections of Rajasthan

Whether it is the bespoke luxury of boutique fortresses such as  Suryagarh and Mihirgarh, or the convenient luxury of a Trident hotel, or the unmatched royal luxury of an authentic Taj palace, Rajasthan’s heritage properties beautifully recreate the magic of a bygone era while delivering unique and unusual experiences.

The palaces and fortresses are almost as much a part of the experience as the land itself…allowing one to get into character by setting the scene. Rajasthan, while wonderful in itself, viewed from the lap and through the lens of luxury, is an experience of a lifetime.

…After all, what better way to discover the ‘land of Kings’, than to live like one?

 

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