A home away from home, ‘The Retreat’, Bhimtal

While I was looking for homestays during my last summer’s travels to Uttarakhand, I had stumbled upon ‘The Retreat’, Bhimtal. They were sold out, but I was already in love with the place. I am a daydreamer and often last year I kept visualizing myself at the quaint colonial homestay. This year, when I started working on my project of waste management, (where I am working with the village women to remove waste from the world ecosystem and convert it into something useful and beautiful; adding livelihood and pride to lives of village women), the first place that I had written on my list was Bhimtal. Though, I am still at the primary stage of the project, I wanted to visit Bhimtal, to look at the villages around.

I had quite a few e-mail communications and telephonic conversations with Padmini Smetacek, the host at ‘The Retreat’, Bhimtal, about my accomodation and I got some good vibes. There are times, when you do not need to see something to believe in it, the energies that you receive are convincing enough. This is so true to this place. My general OCD-self was completely relaxed before reaching this place. From the moment I reached, and all over my stay, I promise, this has been the best experience of a homestay.

Away from the constructions surrounding the Bhimtal lake and nestled in the foothills of the Kumaon’s Lake District, amidst a forest estate, ‘The Retreat’, Bhimtal is a home away from home. It takes a lot of things for me to call something ‘home’, and this place has everything to call it a ‘home’. It is an old British bungalow, maintained well, keeping the historical feel alive. If you love to unwind, wake up to the chirps of birds, get excited at the sight of colourful blooms, soak in the sun, smell the rain,  feel the pebbles under your feet, read and daydream, gaze at the starry night and paint stories in your mind, this place is for you. So, if this summer, you are looking for some digital detoxification, pack your bags and head to ‘The Retreat’, Bhimtal. For queries and bookings, contact  http://www.theretreatbhimtal.in/

I have travelled to Kumaon, Uttarakhand quite a few times, but every time I fall in love with the place like an old wine in a new bottle. I believe it is not only the place, but it’s the people who make the place. And this time, I give all the credit to the host and her family at ‘The Retreat’, Bhimtal. I think my descriptions would fall short to describe how enchanting the place is and you should make time for a visit to experience it all by yourself; and you would not regret it.

This place looks exactly like my childhood sketches, an old bungalow amidst pine, cedar and oak, filled with flowers and all plants I could name. It is the place I would think of, if I ever write a fairy tale. There is a ridge behind the homestay where you could go for leisurely walks, I enjoyed most of the mornings and evenings, watching the sunrise and the sunset while walking on the ridge. Breakfast used to be lavish affairs in the verandah, getting childlike excitement at the sight of colourful birds of varied species. If you are a bird or butterfly spotter, this is the perfect place. You have your complete privacy to sit and drown in your thoughts or choose to unfurl the artist in you. Or you may join for long conversations in the evenings with the host about her family’s splendid history. The best part for foodies like me is you are spoilt by exotic homemade food from locally sourced vegetables and meat. The taste will always linger in my soul. The family makes the best food and will give any Michelin star restaurant run for their money. From shakshuka, to kadi chawal, from pot chicken roast to focaccia bread, from lemon cheesecake to pumpkin soup, they make food that you will crave once you leave this place. The best part, surviving all odds, the host and her family is always smiling, warm and eager to help you out. They will guide you for walks to the Sattal lake, arrange a cab to nearby villages, make you rhododendron juice when you are back from a hike. They will even spill the beans about some secret spots nearby, which you can explore.

The home and the people breathe an atmosphere of comfort and peace. This is a  perfect get-away for nature lovers, botanists and entomologists, bird watchers, yoga and meditation enthusiasts, trekkers, walkers, campers, couch potatoes, dreamers, artists, and writers. If you are looking for a laid-back atmosphere, with the world class hospitality, this place is a must visit. I appreciate innocence, I appreciate an organic growth. And this is something you will find in abundance here. The kids of the family are so well-behaved and so full of love that it moved me. I feel sad, that in cities these days we are losing that innocent, unadulterated charm in the younger generation. I definitely love to travel to explore a new place, but it’s more because of the people like of ‘The Retreat’, Bhimtal; there is always so much to learn from them.

The family strives consistently to conserve the forest and wildlife in the area. If you are planning to visit this place, please travel responsibly and respect the privacy of the host as well.

The parts of Bhimtal I explored during this trip, we will talk about it in my next post, because I have already started daydreaming of ‘The Retreat’ again. I celebrated my  birthday here. When Padmini, got to know about it, she baked me a cake and I had the most heartfelt celebrations in years. More than work, I relaxed here and on the day of departure, I didn’t feel like getting back, but with the hopes of going back sometime soon for a family vacation, I think of this place and the people fondly.

Every place stays with us, but some are special. Which is the best place that you have been to which you can call home?

 

Itachuna Rajbari: A Weekend Getaway

Itachuna Rajbari, literally meaning brick and lime palace, was built in 1766 by the Kundu family who supposedly descended from the Bargis, the dreaded Maratha clan who invaded and looted Bengal time and again annually for a decade (1740s to 1750s). They were originally, “Kundaan” clan but since the time they settled, they embraced local culture and through word of mouth, it has become “Kundu”. In the present day, you can experience living in a heritage house.

A few steps from Kalyani across the river Ganges you will wade into the heritage Hooghly district. People from different places came and settled here. You will  find the elegeant monuments of the Portugese colonies in Bandel. Apart from that, you will find heritage of Dutch, French and Greeks. There are confluence of regional races & cultures too. Jains adored the place and even Pathans admired and left their traces here.

This heritage mansion is in thee village Itachuna, originally known as Bargi Danga. After the downfall of Mughal era, after the death of Aurangageb, Marathas became powerful. Many a times they used to attack Bengal,Bihar & Orissa. The erect watch-towers  from Singur to  Arra, Purulia witnessed the threat of Maratha warriors locally called Bargis centuries back.  Bargis used to come, loot and collect taxes. However, many of them never left Bengal and began to settle here embracing local culture. A sect entitled “Kundaan” settled in the remote village of Hooghly now known as Itachuna. They amassed  huge wealth and property by their wit and strength. Subsequently they became powerful zamidars/rajas of the locality. Over times they lost their original identity of Kundans, it turned to Bengali title Kundu.. They cultivated Bengali culture, Bengali cuisines, Bengali language and local deities. They became friend, guide and protector of local people here. They were pious and liberal. Their behaviour towards local people became a folklore even heard at the nook and corners of Itachuna. Still, people in the village put them on a pedestal.

The palace was made by ita (bricks) and lime (chun) and hence it was called Itachuna Rajbari. The majestic, splendid architecture and structure is intact  although it is about 250 years old. Currently, a part of it is being used as heritage-stay.
The Vishnu temple within the palace is  another attraction of the palace. Still now the deity is worshipped.
The caretaker of this place was guiding me to the artefacts kept for visitors. When I was exploring the huge property, its nooks and crannies and the rustic stairways at times I thought I was lost and couldn’t remember the pathways, but I was lost for a better reason, I was blissfully disconnected from the urban jungle and digital connectivity. The palace is a self-contained entity. There are rooms for royal families. There are space for amusement and dances. The visiting room has a magnificent outlook .
A night stay here will  certainly refresh your mind. If you spend seeing the village from the roof, you will stumble upon delightful oddities, when the afternoon gives way to dusk.

This place is just the perfect getaway if you are looking for a quiet, peaceful and scenic weekend. Away from everyday chaos this is the place to just be. The areas around the Rajbari is green and there are quite a few water bodies around it and one within it. It is a perfect place to rest, recuperate, and spend time enjoying nature, good food, and music! Yes, music of the flute variety! There is a person who comes in every morning and evening and he plays the flute. It was a lovely experience and somehow added to the ambience!

In the evening I was provided a tour of the Rajbari and the areas around it.
To sum up, it was a great experience to spend a weekend indulging in history and gorging on delicious Bengali food.

The rooms are pretty good. The experience of staying in a house over 300 years old with so much of  history was quite something! At present, mud huts have been built near the waterbody and people can experience night stay even there. The mud hut are each named after different flowers.

The food was excellent. They served Bengali food and the menu is fixed. You can choose between veg and non-veg food. The spread was very good. If you want to taste authentic Bengali cuisine this could be the perfect place and setting to experience it. You get to experience eating on old traditional dinnerwares and feel royal.

If you live in Kolkata and don’t know where to go next weekend, try to visit Itachuna. For more details you can visit the website of the Itachuna Rajbari: http://www.itachunarajbari.com/

Do not visit Itachuna Rajbari if you are looking for hotel-like amenities and modern comforts.
Come visit if you want to meet characters lost in a time gone by in a sleepy little town that houses a mansion full of charm for those that seek it.

Have you ever stayed in an old mansion?

Off-beat Destinations in Himachal Pradesh: A home has a heartbeat

You cannot turn people into homes. This myth got busted while travelling to the off-beat destinations in Himachal Pradesh. I always thought people are rivers, ever changing, ever flowing. During my recent travel, I learnt homes do have a heartbeat.

  • Experience peace & tranquility while living in the lap of nature at Kotgarh

This little village is the perfect interlude from the city as well as the over crowded hill stations during the summers. Kotgarh is the heart of Himachal’s Apple Orchard Country, it is where the famous Samuel Stokes began the apple boom. It is about 70 Km ahead of the state capital, Shimla and about 15kms from Narkanda, which is famous for skiing during the winters. The further you move ahead of Shimla, you realize that you have left the tourists far behind and reached a peaceful region with astounding views all around. Surrounded by apple orchards, and the simplicity of village life, Apple Orchard Homestay at Kotgarh offers all the urban comforts that we city dwellers are accustomed yet maintaining its old world charm.

There are  tastefully done wooden cottages, each with a shared long balcony overlooking the apple orchards and a breathtaking view of the mountains. I had spent hours just sitting in the balcony and gazing into horizon. There is a suite with an attic and a room in the old house as well.

A common dining room below one of the wooden cottage rooms serves delicious meals cooked by the homestay helps in the supervision of Meenakshi.

Breakfasts are typically a hearty affair with a range of juices, paranthas, eggs, sandwiches, sausages/baked beans. One can also have puri- aloo etc on prior request.

Lunches are served on prior intimation as most travellers prefer to explore the region during the day and usually end up eating out.

Dinner is again a lavish affair and one non-vegetarian dish is served along with the usual Indian vegetarian food.

Bonfires are also arranged for groups to escape the evening chill.

One can choose to spend time hiking on short treks around the village or just live the village life. I spent time chatting with your hosts over tea, meeting the village folks and learning about their simple yet happy lives. The village of Kotgarh has quite a few heritage sites to visit, like the Oldest Missionary School, Heritage Church Building, Oldest Hospital, Oldest Apple Valley.

You may indulge yourself in the activities:

  1. Short treks
  2. Picnic in the scenic regions
  3. Trip/Trek to Hatu peak
  4. Plucking fruits (Seasonal)
  5. Bird watching
  6. Reading/ Writing/ Painting

 Minimal pesticides and chemicals are used in the apple orchards, vegetables used in meals are sourced from local growers/ neighbors. Rain water harvesting is practiced at the homestay. Garbage and waste is separated into bio degradable and non-biodegradable waste before disposal. Local people are employed at the orchard for the upkeep of the orchards as well as the homestay. Meenakshi, the hostess is also actively involved in promoting local produce like jams and pickles, dried apples etc. I bought a few to savor the taste of the mountains for a long time after my trip.

 

  • Recharge yourself at a quaint little village hidden in the mountains of Himachal

The Village homestay at Fagu, is a home to witness the traditional Himachali lifestyle, to taste the authentic delicacies and to take a break from your city life and enjoy with a splendid view of the Himalayas.

The homestay is divided into two parts, the traditional and the recently renovated one. The host family itself lives in the traditional house which is about 80 years old. The old house is attached to the newer renovated portion that houses travellers by a hallway lined up windows to let the sunlight in. There are three rooms for accommodating travellers. The interiors of the rooms are tastefully done by locally found wood and stone. The mud room has walls done up in mud and thereby providing breathing walls. The rooms are spacious with a row of windows to let the sunlight in. The homestay is abundant with milk, buttermilk, ghee and the likes thanks to the cows owned by the family. The hostess Ritu is an expert when it comes to traditional Himachali dishes like Siddu and Patanda. The local cuisine is served if one is willing to indulge in local delicacies. Otherwise, simple yet delicious vegetarian dishes are served. Depending on the season, self-grown vegetables like cabbage, cauliflower, peas, etc are served in the meals. The homestay is situated in the village of Cheog and is just on the outskirts of the forest that occupies most of the region. A scenic part-road part-dirt track of about 30 Kms in is the most exciting activity one can indulge in on cycles. Some other activities that one can consider while at the homestay are:

  • Visit Narkanda for Ice Skiing in winters.
  • Hill stations Kufri and Shimla are a short drive away.
  • Horse Riding on tracks in the nearby jungle.
  • Visit ancient temples of Tungish and Dharech.
  • Picnic in grasslands near the homestay.

It was an experience of a life time while staying at home Stay in Fagu. Wonderful property but more than anything else it was the generosity and hospitality of the host family that made the short vacation memorable.

Karam Singh, the host, is popularly known in the village “Highlander” The history behind the title takes you back in time when Karam Singh’s father and grand father took part in the freedom struggle. Because of his progressive farming techniques and efforts Karam Singh is a major contributor to the development of the area.

His son Sohan Singh Thakur is a social activist and an ex-Zila Parishad member.

Both father and son with the help of co-villagers have put the village on the world map as the largest contributor to the production of vegetable in Theog Tehsil.

The homestay rooms meant for travellers have been made from recycled or locally sourced stone and wood.

This off-beat destination will charm you endlessly.

 

  • Rejuvenate your senses at this hidden retreat in Dhauladhar Himalayas

The Lodge, Palampur is an eco-friendly home in the middle of a beautiful tea estate. You will love living with the hosts on a working tea estate, knowing about tea and eating delicious meals cooked from local and homegrown produce.

Wah Tea Estate has been part of the Prakash family since 1953. The previous owner, Sir Sikandar Hayat–Khan was the son of the Nawab of ‘Wah’, a town in Pakistan, from which the estate derives its name. The estate is one of the largest manufacturers of tea in the Kangra region. The teas are completely pesticide free, and carefully hand–plucked.
The Lodge came into existence when the owners decided to build themselves a home at the estate They were inspired by the local artisan’s craftsmanship with mud, wood and stone and decided to put their skill to use. The river stone and slate is hand chiseled and crafted to give it the feel of the local Kangra architecture. The bricks used to build the cottages are from the mud which was excavated when the foundation was being built. These bricks are all naturally dried in the sun. Even the white colour of the walls has been done with a natural formula, after extensive research on homes around the world.
The wood used at the lodge is originally from the Old Palampur Courthouse, which was demolished to be rebuilt a few years ago. Roof lining details, banisters from witness stands, and even whole doors and windows are originally from the Old Courthouse. Rest of the wood is pine and cedar from the Estate, in place of which multiple trees were planted.

Meals are an intimate affair at the Lodge. Almost everything served is grown organically in the kitchen garden or the green house which is a short walk into the tea estate from the Lodge. Get ready to bite into healthy as well as delicious meals from different cuisines. From local Himachali dham to continental baked chicken to a wholesome south Indian meal! And not to forget, never ending cups of tea originating from the estate was all around me! Guests can share any dietary requirements and the hosts strive to cater to guests preferences for all meals.

Palampur is at a distance of 250 Km from Chandigarh in the Kangra region of Himachal Pradesh and is famous for its tea plantations. One can see the Dhauladhar range of the Himalayas from here and enjoy a host of activities in and around it. Listed below are a few of the activities that one can indulge in this off-beat destination while staying at the lodge.

  1. Visit the tea factory
  2. Tea tasting session at the tea estate
  3. Paragliding at Bir-Billing
  4. Treks at Triund, Billing and Barot, with options for overnight tented stays
  5. Visit Andretta, a village world famous for pottery and Sobha Singh’s art gallery
  6. Try your hands at the potter’s wheel at Andretta
  7. Angling at Barot
  8. Picnic near the river
  9. Cycling tour of the Estate
  10. Cricket or badminton at The Lodge at Wah
  11. Board games at The Lodge at Wah

The Prakash’s are highly inclined towards eco-friendly practices both at the lodge as well as in the Tea Estate. The Lodge was built with the aim of providing a luxurious stay in the tea estate without harming the environment in any way. The villas at The Lodge are made of mud, slate and wood. The food prepared at the lodge is locally grown. Most ingredients are from the kitchen garden and the green house, both of which are completely organic.

The hosts also invest in cooperative farming, the tea estate workers have been given plots of land and seeds to grow their own produce. Only what is needed for The Lodge (less than 10% of what they grow) is requested from them, rest is for them to sell or use as they see fit. The Lodge has also provided for job opportunities for the locals. All the workers in the garden, kitchen and housekeeping are from the neighboring villages and have been trained on the job by the hosts and the manager, Nikita Patel.

To know about more experiences at these off-beat destinations, Stay Tuned!!

If you want to experience it yourself and plan your journey, visit http://pheritales.com/d-i-y-journeys/

 

P.S: Some information has been sourced from different websites on the internet.

 

 

 

 

A Village Under Thousand Stars

 

Long ago in the past, I had travelled to Uttarakhand, I think before it had been even named Uttarakhand. My recollections and my reads on the place urged my wish to explore it.
I took the early morning Shatabdi express from

I took the early morning Shatabdi express from the national capital to Kathgodam; hopped into a cab from there and headed towards Almora via Bhimtal Bhowali road. It was extremely sunny and warm and honestly, I was frustrated with the weather. Once I reached Almora and asked the cab guy to drive towards Hawalbagh, there was a change in the wind. As you drive down from Almora, you’ll stumble upon tiny villages of Uttarakhand and Hawalbagh is one among the loveliest, with a retreat, Innisfree ~ Hawalbagh, that is a home away from home. This is one of the beautiful experiential accommodation I have visited.

It’s an old dak bungalow, converted into a homestay, by the most loveable hosts I have met until date. Lat, Julia, their children and Arjun and Prakash, the two boys who work at the experiential accommodation, will go out of the way, to make you feel snug. All my weariness whisked away after I was treated to a glass of chilled homemade rose water. I might never consider making it or have something thing as refreshing as this one.
I call this place, a retreat beneath thousand stars, as a result of at the primary night here; we were sitting beneath the open sky, the lights of the Almora town and also the stars on top gave the impression to dance and celebrate the sweetness on earth, glinting around us. After eons of years, I could see a shooting star.
When I woke in this Kumaoni retreat, the sunrise, the sound of the breeze needling through the pines, the birds chirping around, playing with the wind bells, soaked my morning with the warmest sunshine, the sweetest aroma and the most dulcet music.
Julia will spoil you with homemade kiwi, orange and fruity marmalades and a good spread breakfast. Once spoiling myself with the irresistible food on the table, I hiked right down to the Kosi stream. Few kids, on their way back from faculty, gave me company. Though it absolutely was a sunny morning, I could not resist the natural pool with Jacuzzi and spent until afternoon here. The walk back to the retreat was through the cover of cedar and smell of flowers.

I reached right in time for lunch and how overwhelmed I was! Julia, Lat and other people here create some tempting dishes from deep-fried chicken, Kumaoni rice, bhang chutney (no, you will not go high on this), pork curry and after all, the desserts, I bet you’ll not leave your bowl aside, be it banana frozen dessert or mousse.

I must tell you, they’re tributary to nature, by not exploiting plastic. In rooms, they serve water in recently used liquor bottles. I was delighted to envision that, myself being into recycling and up-cycling things. Their place is given a vintage feel with the usage of furniture and linen spreads.

In the evening, I walked to the Katramal Sun Temple, that is that the solely second sun temple within the country. It is a 13th-century heritage. I lost my way back to seek out a brand new way. One of the women from the village astonishingly asked me, on an overcast evening, why was I walking!! I told her, laughing, nature will guide me back.

I returned and was delighted to understand, Julia would be accompanying me for a stroll to visualize the panoramic view of the village.

I will be heading towards a new place tomorrow morning, my baggage is packed; however, I am unable to wait to come back to the sunrise, the sunsets, the smell of the pine, the canopy of the cedar and also the conversations over food at Lat and Julia’s experiential accommodation.Every day is sort of a family Christmas lunch.
I will be back before long to inform you a lot of tales from this place, that has been my workplace for last 3 days.