Deep in the mountains of Uttarakhand, I discovered a secret. I first experienced it while sitting with an old, back-bent, wrinkled-face lady under the shade of a tree, as she waited more than three hours for a passing car to hitch-hike with. I began to comprehend it while walking alongside two young, shy girls on their way home from school. And it dawned on me like an epiphany on my hike through isolated village homes, set miles away from the next house and the road.
What you and I might describe as idling around, is an art that lends itself to contentment here – the art of doing nothing. In our always connected lives, it has become rare to break away from technology and free ourselves to do nothing, let our thoughts flow and tune out of the mental baggage we carry around. In the mountains, it’s a way of life.
This post is about places where I’ve let my mind wander in the backdrop of the snow-capped Himalayas, and reconnect with nature and myself. I’m only highlighting environmentally-committed accommodations in Uttarakhand, because I would hate to see my home state go the way of lower Himachal, where in the mess of concrete constructions and mass tourism, that dreamy Himalayan bliss is fast disappearing. Also because these places far surpass soulless hotels or holiday resorts to offer spectacular, immersive, affordable experiences in the mountains I love so much.
Leave behind your checklist and gadgets the next time you travel, and tune into the mountains at these unique homestays and lodges in Kumaon and Garhwal:
Where: Kuflon, near Uttarkashi – Garhwal
Growing up in the Doon valley, I could never fathom what lay beyond the hills I could see from my rooftop. An 8-hour bus ride on rickety roads later, I found out – pure bliss. Near the temple town of Uttarkashi overrun by pilgrims, lies the village of Kulfon; population less than thirty but enough warmth to make anyone feel at home in the frigid Himalayas. The last house in the village is Kuflon Basics, the home of Anil and Sree, who left behind their lives in the city to build this refuge, 5,000 feet high.
Between hiking up to the natural pools (and jacuzzi!) made by the Asi Ganga and silent nights on the stargazing rock, my days were spent reminiscing with Anil about the ways Dehradun has changed, learning about Sree’s work with the local schools, and chatting up the neighboring village folk. Among them was an 80+ year old couple, who were married as teenagers, and choose to live without electricity and far from their children, in an old wood and stone house that still echoes with laughter.
Eco efforts at Kuflon Basics: The huts are built with locally sourced materials, using natural airflow techniques to keep warm in winter. Weather data and local wildlife are tracked, staff is employed from surrounding villages, drinking water is channeled from the river through creative mountain filters and biodegradable waste is segregated to make compost.
Where: Bhimtal – Kumaon
I love it when serendipitous discoveries lead to unexpected friendships; that’s my story with The Retreat and its hostess, Paddy. I first landed there on a weekend that needed getting away from Delhi and its chaos, busted the myth about Bhimtal having nothing to offer, and fell in love with this colonial refuge and its fascinating history. In the 1930s, Frederick Smetacek fled the Nazis, boarded a ship sailing to India, married a descendant of the famous warrior king Tipu Sultan, and set up a holiday retreat to welcome diplomats from around the world.
Decades later, I found myself inflicted by the same love that keeps the Smetacek family attached to these mountains and forests, so much that I’ve gone back multiple times to see Paddy, indulge in her divine cooking, hear stories of by-gone days, and search for exotic herbs! With Wifi and the solitude of the mountains, it’s my muse for uninspired times.
Eco efforts: The Smetacek family has carefully preserved the heritage of their home, retaining its original colonial character, mud walls and wooden ceilings. Vegetables and herbs are grown or sourced locally, and cooked using traditional family recipes. The family strives to engage locals on the importance of saving trees and local wildlife; hear the boys tell you stories of how they’ve personally fought forest fires!
Where: Navgaon, near Jageshwar – Kumaon
One of my most memorable weeks in Kumaon was a hiking adventure with Itmenaan Lodges, that gave me a sneak peek into life in remote villages in the lower Himalayas. Over many kilometers of walking (and some driving), my local guide navigated me through secret rhododendron trails, community gossip and man-wildlife conflicts in these parts. All this while staying in restored Kumaoni homes, fitted with urban comforts and solar lamps within.
As an amateur hiker, I felt intimidated by the mountains that lay before me, but not for long – the warmth of the locals was a balm for my tired feet. After every long day’s walk, my guide, the night watchman and I lit a fire under the dark skies, and talked until late about their encounters with leopards, beliefs in the supernatural, what dating is like under the village vine and things we dream of. It made me feel like our lives were intrinsically connected, just like these seemingly remote villages.
Eco efforts: Itmenaan Lodges has tastefully restored traditional Kumaoni houses with recycled stone and slate, with the help of local masons whose craft is otherwise undervalued. Local guides offer an insightful peek into rural Kumaon. Seasonal produce is grown organically or sourced locally; insist on local Kumaoni cuisine for meals to treat your tastebuds.
La Villa Bethany
Where: Landour, near Mussoorie – Garhwal
I thought I knew Mussoorie. After all, I had visited it with family every summer for years. Turns out, I never scratched below the surface until I found myself at La Villa Bethany, quietly tucked away in Landour, a world away from main Mussoorie and its crowds. I woke up to panoramic vistas of my hometown (Dehradun) below, spent my days wandering the forests and by-lanes of Landour and stargazed by night at the in-house observatory.
Perhaps more inspiring than the old-world charm of the villa, is the story of its owners, Sunita and Amarjeet. They started their corporate careers much like anyone you or I know, but almost impulsively quit them one day to invest their life savings to restore this colonial home in the mountains – making it what might be Mussoorie’s only self-sustainable home. So many of us dream and talk about doing something like this, but when you meet someone who actually did it, you are bound to reminisce about your own forgotten dreams.
Eco efforts: While restoring Bethany, Sunita and Amarjeet creatively ensured that every single beam of wood and stone was recycled. The house is powered with solar energy, and on sunny days, delicious food is whipped up in an outdoor solar cooker, using ingredients grown in the organic garden or sourced locally. Rainwater is collected and re-used in this water-starved region.
Getaway Jungle Camp
Where: Across Sattal River – Kumaon
I don’t camp often, but the idea of spending a night at Getaway Jungle Camp in a secluded forest valley, without electricity or connectivity, was too good to resist – and one I’m never going to forget. To get here, we had to cross the Sattal lake by boat and take a long walk through the woods. When night fell, we went on a hike in the eerily silent forest, and later lit a bonfire, hearing stories from the village staff about their wildlife encounters in these parts.
That night, a few hours after we had tucked in, I woke up to distinct breathing sounds outside my side of the tent; my friend woke up and tried to hush away whatever it was, and for a while that worked. Then the creature came back, and when I shined a torch, we could see an outline of its eye and sharp tooth in the shadows! I imagined if it was a leopard, it would go straight for the kill and hopefully a sharp and painless death. Read the full story here.
Eco efforts: The camp site was once a barren valley created by the drying out of one of Sattal’s lakes; the Getaway team transformed it by planting poplar trees in the early 90s. No electricity is installed to maintain the natural environment of the forest and all staff are employed from surrounding villages.
The Dak Bungalow
Where: Peora, near Almora – Kumaon
One more couple who quit their city jobs to seek refuge in the mountains – and you thought Indians aren’t daring enough? I admire Pradeep and Shubha for their adventurous spirit, for it compelled them to leave behind a cushy banking job and their well-settled children, and dedicate their time to helping local organizations in Kumaon. While looking for a home to rent, they chanced upon an abandoned, dilapidated Dak Bungalow – one of many colonial bungalows built by the British to house their troops back in the day – and decided to lease it from the government! Many years later, I serendipitously stumbled upon it and found myself drawn to its colonial grandeur and uninterrupted mountain views.
I always try to write when I find myself somewhere majestic, but at the Dak Bungalow, on both my visits, it was not to be. My mind felt emptied of thoughts, even as I put one foot after another on long walks, even as I joined Pradeep and Shubha for a drink under the stars, even as I lounged outside, gazing at the mist-covered peaks beyond. Sometimes that emptiness is what you need for the words to come back refreshed.
Eco efforts: Pradeep and Shubha rescued this once-abandoned bungalow in an attempt to preserve its heritage and share it with travellers. Pradeep works with a local organization to tackle education issues in the region, while Shubha trains village women to create and sell handmade crafts.
Also read: Tales from a Kumaoni Village
Where: Dhanachuli – Kumaon
I witnessed the most magical monsoon sunsets in the backdrop of the Dhauladhar range at the artistic refuge that is Te Aroha. Weary at first, of this being just another hotel commercializing the mountains, my attic under the yellow rooftops proved otherwise – on rainy days, we watched the clouds hug the mountains and tuned out of civilization with books, and when the rain relented, we let ourselves be swept away by the charm of the sleepy hamlet that is Dhanachuli.
Although the foodie in me desired more, my artistic side felt indulged; to be left in those creative spaces, now playing poker by the large glass windows, now browsing the quirky old-school museum collection, now lost in the vistas from the open verandah. It wasn’t just about tuning into the mountains, it was about letting the mountains tune me.
Eco efforts: Rainwater harvesting and solar lights are used to conserve water and electricity. No trees were felled to build the hotel, 80% of the staff is employed from surrounding villages, and community-made products are sold at the inhouse shop.
Also read: Te Aroha: Under the Yellow Rooftops
I hope to add on to this list of environmentally / socially conscious homestays and lodges in Uttarakhand over future trips. If you own, have been to, or know of a place that I should check out, let me know in the comments.