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Haven in the hills
Landour at a glance
State: Uttaranchal
Languages spoken: Garhwali, Hindi, English
Best time: throughout the year
Altitude: 2,500 meters
Nearest airport/railway station: Dehradun Airport, 45 km/Dehradun
Railway Station, 32 km
Attractions: Sisters’ Bazaar, Ruskin Bond’s House, Char Dukaan, Tibetan Temple
Quick getaways: Mussoorie, Nag Tibba, Dehradun, Tiger Falls, Chakrata, Yamunotri

Sitting at Char Dukaan ' so called because there are just some four shops there ' I thought I saw someone familiar at the table next to ours. I took a close look, and found that, indeed, it was Ruskin Bond, the writer, chatting with a group of friends. We went up and spoke with him, and he graciously invited us over to his little house in Landour for a visit.

That's the nice thing about Landour ' it's like a place of your own. I first went there about eight years ago after a friend told us about this quaint little hill town just above Mussoorie. Since then, I have been there a dozen times, and always loved it. Landour is beautiful ' and quiet. There are no teeming tourists, no Marutis zipping by with blaring music and ' hold your breath ' no video-game parlours.

For most travellers, hill stations usually translate into Shimla, Nainital or Mussoorie. Every year, thousands of people gather around these towns at the first signs of summer. But the problem with these places is that the crowds leave you with no breathing space. In fact, instead of going to these hill stations in the middle of summer, you might as well spend your holidays in Calcutta's crowded Shyambazar!

But Landour is different ' untouched because it's a cantonment town. Elsewhere, beautiful hill towns have been spoiled by the growth of ugly hotels. But army rules have stopped hotels from mushrooming in Landour.

In the mid-19th century, the British developed Landour, where many of its wounded soldiers were sent to be looked after by devoted nurses. And that's how Sisters' Bazaar ' the main hub of Landour Cantt ' got its name. There are two beautiful churches there ' the Kellogs, near Sisters' Bazaar, and St Paul's, by Char Dukaan.

One of the best things about Landour is that it is easy to get there. From Calcutta, you can take a train to Dehradun, which is some 30km from Landour, and then either take a taxi right up to Sisters' Bazaar, or a bus till Picture Palace in Mussoorie. From there, it's a three-kilometre walk up to Sisters' Bazaar ' but let me warn you, parts of it are really very steep. Or if you are planning a trip from Delhi, you could either drive up ' seven to eight hours on the road, though the distance from Delhi is barely 300km ' or take the Shatabdi to Dehradun. And lots of buses go up to Dehradun and Mussoorie.

Landour is a picture-postcard town with pretty little cottages. The town is still green ' for the ridge occupied by the Landour Cantonment has thick oak woods on one side, and old Devdars on the other. It is restful, as the only thing you can do there is take long walks. There are little zigzagging pathways into the hills, and one that takes you straight up to Mussoorie ' if you are the kind that likes video-games and chhole batureys for lunch.

But those who go to Landour actually fall in love with its soothing ambience. There are not too many places that rent out rooms. There's the Rokeby, which caters mostly to foreign students who come to the Landour School of Languages to learn Hindi. A small, two-bedroom set has now come up in Char Dukaan. And then there is the place where I always stay ' a 100-year-old cottage called the Devdar Woods. You can drink endless cups of tea, sitting under a 150-year-old Devdar tree ' and contemplate the world below.

The nice thing about Landour is that you don't have to live a hermit's life there. If you are a foodie, there are all kinds of good things to eat, including the delicious homemade pizzas that you get at Devdar Woods. The hotel's owners also run a lovely little shop at Sisters' Bazaar. It has everything that you could ask for: from pasta sauce, peanut butter, locally-produced preserves and tins of ham and sausages to books on Landour, umbrellas, gumboots and trousers. The place is famous for its homemade cheddar cheese: Anil Prakash, one of the owners, studied cheese-making in Switzerland and will tell you all about it when in a mellow mood.

Even the little teashop on Char Dukaan has its own aura. You go for a long walk, circling the cantonment and a quiet cemetery, and land up at Tip Top caf' for a bowl of steaming noodles or a plate of pakodas. In the early evenings, all of Landour comes out for an airing, and you can sit there and watch people as they go by. The walk back to Devdar Woods takes you past actor Victor Banerjee's house ('Beware of a rabid thespian,' says a sign) and Prannoy Roy's cottage with its imposing retaining wall. Ruskin Bond's modest flat is at the mouth of Landour, from where the real climb to Char Dukaan starts.

Every season in Landour has a different tale to tell. The summer days are light and breezy, and something like a breath of fresh air. In the rainy season, clouds billow into your room as the town turns a brilliant green. And in winter, Landour is like crystal. We were there once when it snowed through the night. When we woke up, we found that that the town had been covered with a glistening white blanket.

I have broken the Omerta code of the Landour lovers' club by letting the world know about a picturesque little hill-town. I fear that, as punishment, I will have to spend my next holiday in Mussoorie, in a hotel on the busiest part of the Mall, in a room with a TV with cable, and facing a children's amusement park.

Photographs by Rahul Verma

Route map

• What’s the quickest way to North America' Right now, the crown for the fastest flight out of India to the New World is probably claimed by Air Canada, which operates a 15-hour flight from Delhi to Toronto seven days a week. By November, Air Canada will get competition from Continental, which has announced that it will fly nonstop from Delhi to New York. Other carriers like Northwest take passengers from Mumbai to the New World via Amsterdam and Delta also stops in Europe. Jet Airways will soon be flying to America either via Brussels or Paris. But Jet is scouring the world to get aircraft on lease for the flights.

• Have you always been keen to get a glimpse of the Royal Bengal tiger in its natural habitat' Well, a trip to the Sunderban Tiger camp may give you just that opportunity — to view the big cat in all its wild glory.

The package includes a pick-up from south Calcutta, and a bus ride to Sonakhali from where a boat takes you to the camp. Food, lodging and sightseeing are included in the price and one can put up in a tent, a hut, a non-A/C or A/C cottage. A 2-days-1 night trip is priced between Rs 1,850 and Rs 2,550 per head, depending on the accomodation, while a 3-days-2-night stay could cost between Rs 2,550 and Rs 3,550. While the regular package includes a trip to Sajnekhali bird sanctuary and a ride through the creeks, staying back an extra day means a trip to Dobanki watch tower where a glimpse of wildlife is assured. Ph: Harmeet Singh Bajaj at 98311 70453.

Southern sojourn

Just as there’s more to Himalayan hill towns than Shimla, Mussoorie and Nainital, there’s more to southern hill beauties than Ooty. Looking beyond, we zero in on four hideaways in the four southern states: accessible, but not tourist traps. Head for them before commercialisation claims them.

Coorg, Karnataka

The Kodagu or Coorg district is perhaps one of the most beautiful regions in India. Covered with forests, Coorg is a magical land enveloped in gentle mists and redolent of the smells of coffee and oranges.

Home to the Coorgs with their unique and distinct cuisine, culture and dress, most of this hilly country is between 3,000ft and 4,000ft above sea level. Coorg is cool throughout the year and there are several places to visit. You could stay at one of these places — the Dubare Elephant Training Camp within the Dubare Reserve Forest, Kabini, Siddapur, Madikeri, Kakkabe and the Nagarhole National Park — and visit the others.

While Kabini is the original pachyderm land around the lake in the forest area, Siddapur is coffee country. There are home-stay options in and near Siddapur, with plantations like Ammathi and Pollibetta with home-stay inns. Orange County is a popular and lavish resort.

Madikeri’s USPs are the fort built by Tipu Sultan, its natural stone view-point, Raja’s Seat and waterfalls such as Abbi. The town is also a starting point for a trek into wilder Coorg country.

Getting there: Nearest airports are Mangalore and Bangalore and the nearest railway station is Mysore.

Coonoor, Tamil Nadu

Coonoor, at an altitude of 1,858m above sea level, is essentially a small tea garden town with excellent climate — cool, yet not too cold. This lovely hill station in the Nilgiris retains an old-world charm, and has managed to keep away the tourist masses.

The town abounds in relics from the Raj, with pretty Raj bunglows with quaint names around every corner. This is tea country, and a tour of the tea gardens is a must. As is a day’s excursion to Dolphin’s Nose, 12km away, for a view of the misty blue hills that give the Nilgiris its name. Nearby are two well-known waterfalls, Catherine Falls and Laws Falls.

Getting there: The nearest airport and railhead are at Coimbatore, from where one can hire a car. Those who love a train ride through the hills could opt for a narrow gauge train from Mettupalayam .

Munnar, Kerala

This one-time summer resort of the erstwhile British Government in South India is a charming little hill station in Kerala’s Idukki district. Munnar is home to sprawling tea plantations and pretty Raj bungalows. South India’s highest peak, Anamudi, which towers over 2,695m and is an ideal spot for trekking, is also located here.

Nearby, the Mattupetti lake and dam is a popular picnic spot. The Kundala tea plantations and the Kundala lake are other attractions.

Pothamedu, 6km away, offers an excellent view of the tea, coffee and cardamom plantations. Nyayamakad, 10 km away, is a land of waterfalls, best suited for a picnic.

If you are making a longish stay in Munnar, you can also make a day trip to Devikulam with its famous Sita Devi Lake, where die-hard anglers can try their hand at trout fishing.

Rajamala, 15km away, is the natural habitat of the endangered Nilgiri Tahr or mountain goat. Close by is the Eravikulam National Park.

Getting there: The nearest airports are at Kochi and Madurai and railway stations are Kochi and Kottayam.

Horsely Hills, Andhra Pradesh

That hot and dusty Andhra Pradesh can boast of a hill station of such quaint beauty is nothing short of a surprise. At a distance of 144 km from Tirupati, this tiny hill town is named after one W.D. Horsley, collector of Cuddapah district, who chose this spot for his summer residence.

At an altitude of 1,265m, the road up to Horsley Hills is covered on both sides by a thick growth of eucalyptus, jacaranda, allamanda and gulmohar trees. The forest is home to an amazing variety of flora and fauna, and naturalists will have a wonderful time here spotting birds, beasts and flowers.

There is nothing much to see or do in Horsley Hills, besides the breathtaking mountain scenery, making it ideal for some serious R&R. Still, the well-known Rishi Valley School and the Mallamma temple are worth a visit as is the Kaundinya Wildlife Sanctuary, known for its cheetal, four-horned antelope, sambar, wild boar, and elephants.

Getting there: The nearest airports are at Tirupati and Bangalore, and the closest railhead is at Madanapalle Road. There are daily buses to Horsley Hills from Madanapalle and Tirupati.

My favourite holiday

Bikram Ghosh,
tabla player

Thinking back, it would have to be my honeymoon in London last August. I was in Europe at the time, touring with my band Rhythmscape. But tour complete, the band returned to India and I went on to London where I met up with Jaya.

We spent an idyllic two weeks there and stayed at this lovely rented apartment on High Street in Kensington. While I’ve been visiting London since 1990 and am quite familiar with the city, it was a first for Jaya. So yes, we did go to all the usual places. It was a different experience though, as earlier, I’d always visited London on work. It was great exploring it with Jaya.

While in London, we’d experiment with a lot of different food and the Moroccan restaurants were a favourite. Shopping was also on our agenda as were long walks near Hyde Park. We even took a few days off to visit Cambridge,Chelmsford and Southend.

On the whole, my honeymoon in London was an unforgettable experience. And I can’t wait to take Jaya back. This time though, I’d like to explore the North of England — places like Wales and Scotland — with her.

 

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