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.
Responsible travel 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.
Environmentally-conscious 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 with locals on the importance of saving trees and local wildlife; hear the boys tell you stories of how they’ve personally fought forest fires!
Sarmoli (Maati) Homestays
Where: Munsiyari – Kumaon
11 hours. That’s how far you need to travel from the nearest train station (Haldwani), to truly get away from life as you know it. And I don’t just mean having the snow-capped Panchachuli peaks right outside your window. Tucked away in the Munsiyari tehsil, Sarmoli is a village where the locals believe in keeping their traditional way of life, without shunning positive urban influences: think female hiking and birding guides, high altitude marathons, challenging patriarchal conventions, photography workshops, environmental activism, and women-led homestays, which are a significant source of livelihood.
I first decided to stay in the Sarmoli Homestays in the hope that these mountains would inspire me. But when I met Malika – an avid mountaineer who has called Sarmoli home for 28 years – and the rest of the Maati Sangathan (self-help group), I found myself inspired in ways I couldn’t have imagined. But don’t take my word for it; stay there a while, and experience it for yourself.
Responsible travel: The homestays in Sarmoli are managed by the Maati Sangathan, involved in the protection of local forests and conservation of natural resources, and raising voices against social issues (like domestic violence) in the region. Environmentally-conscious treks and local guides are also offered under the purview of Himalayan Ark.
Grand Oak Manor
Where: Binsar Wildlife Sanctuary – Kumaon
Some friendships begin on the other side of the world. And so it was with Shikha, a travel writer I travelled with briefly in Spain, who also happens to call the spectacular Binsar Wildlife Sanctuary her “neighborhood”. Along with Sindhu, she hosts travellers at the Grand Oak Manor, a 19th century estate that retains its original character and offers the original silence that these forest getaways were meant for. In fact, the estate kind of came before the sanctuary: the British Commissioner to Kumaon in the mid 1800s bought some pieces of land in Binsar, then declared it a protected forest where no one has been allowed to buy land or build since!
As blissful as the Grand Oak experience is, it also puts our future in perspective. On a short hike with a local guide to a village within Binsar Wildlife Sanctuary, I was surprised to see many houses abandoned, and only the elderly living in others. Since their right to even limited firewood was taken away, life has become difficult; at the same time, they no longer have an incentive to protect the forests that were once their source of warmth and food. Even as I sat in the silence, writing under an old cedar tree and watching the full moon rise, I couldn’t help but think the present might be the only time we have left, to enjoy these forests.
Sustainable travel: Grand Oak Manor is largely powered by solar energy, grows most of its own produce, and trains and hires staff from the villages of Kumaon. They also offer multi-day village walks near Binsar, with overnight stays at traditional Kumaoni homestays run by village families.
Where: Hawalbagh, near Almora – Kumaon
I clearly remember sitting on a warm summer evening under a magnificent silver oak tree, watching the golden sunset fire up the skies, as I munched on bicchoo booti (stinging nettle) pakoras! A refreshing swim and “waterfall jacuzzi” in the Kosi River in the backyard had left me hungry – as much for a snack as for stories from the days of yore. Stories of the restored Dak Bungalow – christened Innisfree after a Yeats poem – originally built by the British in perfectly scenic locations to house their troops and horses as they travelled through the mountains, now leased out by Lat and Julia. Stories of Lat, a descendant of Burmese and Kumaoni royalty, and Julia, who spent her childhood in Latvia.
When I hiked with Julia, years ago, from Nathuakhan to Sitla, I got the feeling that there are some people we are destined to meet as we
crawl walk through life. Years later, as I fell in love with the gushing rivers and Silver Oak trees of Hawalbagh, I got the feeling that there are some places we are destined to visit. Life is a giant puzzle and sometimes the pieces just fit.
Environmentally-conscious efforts: Lat and Julia are working to restore the Dak Bungalow to its original character, reforest its surroundings and bring employment to Hawalbagh through alternate livelihood opportunities.
Where: Nag Tibba, near Mussoorie – Garhwal
No electricity. No internet. A 2 hour hike from the nearest market. Pure mountain air. Pure spring water. Pristine meadows. Apple blossoms. Traditional Garhwali food. A cafe within a greenhouse. Inspiring conversations. Wild chamomile flowers. Millions of stars.
A lot of locals in Uttarakhand seem to be leaving their villages and farming culture because they think their way of life is inferior to that of city folk. The irony is that their traditional diet consists of superfoods like amaranth and finger millet (mandava/ragi), goji berries and chamomile flowers grow wild in these parts, they get pure water from the natural spring, the air is free of pollution (those star-studded night skies are proof) and plastic and junk food hasn’t yet infiltrated their lives. So by creating a space – Goat Village – where city dwellers can not only escape their chaotic lives but also practice organic farming, feast on local foods and cherish the simple joys of life, the Green People organization is trying to send a message to the locals.
As I hiked to Nag Tibba and further to the Jhandi peak, walked amid the wildflowers, indulged in delicious farm-to-table food, and heard stories of the locals who have chosen to stay (or chosen to come back), it sure felt like a message to me too: that our choices – where we travel and what we eat – do make a difference.
Responsible travel: The Goat Village consists of houses built in traditional Kumaoni style, where travellers are hosted by volunteers and local staff. The greenhouse is used to experiment with smarter organic farming practices and higher value crops, in an attempt to bring local farmers back to their abandoned lands in a financially viable way. Organic produce grown by local farmers (including amaranth, finger millets etc) is sold in stores across Dehradun and Delhi under the Bakri Chhap brand.
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.
Sustainable travel: 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.
Responsible travel: 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.
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.
Environmentally-conscious 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.
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.