Away from the crowds, The Retreat Bhimtal – a unique, eco-friendly homestay in Bhimtal – introduced me to some hidden treasures.
I’ve crossed Bhimtal several times while making my way into the higher reaches of Kumaon. Most of these times, I’ve looked away from the Bhimtal Lake. Though surrounded by colorful trees, it looks only as clean as you can expect an easily accessible lake in India to be.
At the start of Bhimtal town, ugly concrete construction lines the hill slopes. Vegetation looks sparse, and cars, fruit sellers and people are aplenty. Most of these times, I’ve been glad to leave behind what seems like an unsightly town.
Stumbling upon a rather unique homestay in Bhimtal during my research though, convinced me otherwise. The Retreat Bhimtal was described as a rambling estate in the midst of pine forests, far from the madding crowds I always imagined Bhimtal to have. I had to see it to believe it.
The paved roads at the start of Bhimtal quickly turned to winding paths. The number of houses and people progressively decreased. A signboard to a resort would occasionally interrupt the thickening wilderness, but we quickly left those behind too. The higher we went, the prettier the glimpses of the Bhimtal lake below became. As though rewarding us for making it past the initial deterrent to enter the town.
Then there we were, at The Retreat Bhimtal, a colonial house from the British era. Set on what was once a tea estate, greeting a family that would soon feel like our own.
Relieving our lungs of Delhi’s citified air, we hiked through the pine forest. Watching langurs and monkeys jump from tree to tree. Hearing deer scramble in the bushes. Spotting birds in brilliant colors. Envying quaint mountain homes made of stone and wood dotting the hillside.
Below the forest lay fields of wheat and potato, rice paddies and landscapes cut into terraces for farming. A narrow stream winded through the farm, surrounded by stonewalls. On its edges we tip-toed, stopping every now and then to converse with the farmers.
We made our way to the pretty little church of Bhimtal. Then followed the wilderness till it led us to a hill overlooking one of Sattal’s seven lakes. We scrambled down paths strewn with fallen leaves in the forest, till the lake lay before us, pristine and welcoming. Into its depths we plunged, the icy-cold waters offering respite to our sunburnt skin and tired feet. Under a tree by the lake we sat, reading and resting in its cooling shade.
And just like that, Bhimtal transformed from an unsightly wayside town, to one of Kumaon’s most deceiving secrets.
The Retreat Bhimtal – a unique, eco-friendly homestay in Bhimtal
The story goes that in the 1930s, Frederick Smetacek fled the Nazis and boarded a ship sailing to India. He married a descendant of the famous warrior king Tipu Sultan and moved to the hills of Bhimtal. He bought a tea estate, set up a stone and wood house, and opened it up as “The Retreat Bhimtal” to welcome travellers from around the world!
Decades later, we found ourselves hosted by descendants of the Smetacek family. Exploring the mountains, forests and lakes. Indulging in Paddy’s divine cooking. Hearing stories of by-gone days. The perfect combination of Wifi and quiet to write.
Unlike much of the ugly concrete construction in Bhimtal, the Smetaceks have carefully preserved the heritage of their Bhimtal homestay. Its original colonial character, mud walls and wooden ceilings. Traditional family recipes still live on in the kitchen, using vegetables and herbs grown or sourced locally. Almost like a time warp.
How to reach The Retreat Bhimtal
Delhi to Haldwani / Kathgodam: Take the Kathgodam Shatabdi from Delhi’s NDLS station. It takes 5.5 hours.
Haldwani to Bhimtal: Ask the taxis lined up for a shared taxi to Bhimtal. There might be a few minutes of waiting around, but substantially lowers cost and footprint. The drive takes about 1.5 hours.
Kathgodam to Bhimtal: A taxi to Bhimtal from Kathgodam takes 1-1.5 hours, and costs roughly INR 700.
Nainital to Bhimtal: Nainital is 20 km from Bhimtal, and the drive takes roughly 1 hour.
The weather in Bhimtal
Lying in the lower elevation of the Himalayas, the summer weather in Bhimtal ranges from warm to hot during the day (the sun is strong but shaded areas remain cool), while nights remain cool. It doesn’t snow in winter, but early mornings and nights are very cold, while days remain relatively warm.