Rains are in and if you are looking to soak in the romance of the monsoon beyond Delhi, here’s a weekend destination (with an extra day thrown in) that will leave you refreshed in more ways than one.
- Hideout for the famous: If that makes you feel great, just look at the list of ‘who is who’ Mashobra has played host to ever since Lord Dalhousie developed this Himachali hill station in the 18th century. If it had the British blue blood such as Lord Kitchener and Lord Ripon as its residents then, now it has our own Priyanka Gandhi Vadhera and outgoing president Pranab Mukherjee homing in here. In fact, Gandhi has such an emotional connect with the place (as a child she used to visit it with her father, the former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi) that she had even built her own vacation home. Situated at Charabra village of Mashobra, the house stands on a three-and-a-half bigha of land which she purchased in 2007 for Rs 47 lakh (now valued at Rs 5.2 crore). It was a two-storey five-room cottage initially, but she pulled it down soon after to build a house that has the stamp of local architecture. The house looked well lit and lovely from Mahasu House, the resort I was staying in. Of course, the house attracted its share of controversies since outsiders are not allowed to buy land in Himachal. The then Himachal Pradesh government had relaxed norms to facilitate the sale.Mashobra also houses one of the two retreats (the other one is at Hyderabad) of the President of India. This wooden building constructed in 1850 is where Mukherjee visited last year. More recently the little hamlet made headlines because our president in waiting Ram Nath Kovind was denied entry to the Presidential Retreat.
- I’m pretty and I know it: With all these heavyweights trouping in since last century, certainly Mashobra must be a beautiful place! It is, only I didn’t realise it would be prettier than my standards of pretty. It is a thick forests out there, up in the hills, of pine and cedar, oak and deodar, rhododendron, maple and horse chestnut. At a height above 8,000 feet, you are literally walking in the clouds, now misty, now clear, now misty, now… It is also so quiet that other than the song birds, the tap-tap of the rains on tin roof, the rustle of the wind, and our own breath, you would hear nothing – even a pin drop would sound like violence. Away from the noise and buzz of Shimla, this is grand isolation at its grandest.
- Play the guitar, write a book: With such deep quiet, this place can only inspire creativity. Film maker and writer Amit Khanna has a cottage in Mashobra where he spends several weeks every year working on his new book. Diplomat and author Navtej Sarna is also a part time resident of Puranikoti village near Mashobra. Heard of Pankaj Mishra? This writer/poet also lives in Mashobra. Even novelist Anita Desai has written about this place. But the most vivid account of how Mashobra inspires your artistic soul is told by Anil Walia, owner of the ten-room luxury boutique resort, Mahasu. “One day as I was entering the resort I heard a haunting melody. Where is the sound coming from? I looked around to find a dhoti clad youngman sitting on the balcony of his first floor room, eyes closed, back straight, blowing into a flute. Next to him, a woman was painting on a canvas, her strokes dictated by the notes of the flute. It was such a spiritual moment, I can’t tell you!”
- Exclusive, classy, luxurious and upmarket: With none of the cacophony and touristy buzz of Shimla or Nainital, Mashobra is not where you are likely to bump into the touristy junta. It is a retreat for those who would rather be left alone. Of course, there is a price to pay for such privacy. This small pocket isn’t really for the budget traveller with a list of things to do, but for those whose idea of luxury isn’t a swimming pool or a Jacuzzi, but personalised service and private space. Slow tourism at its best, the very few resorts in the area are meant for the well healed. The Oberoi Wildflower hall can cost you anything between Rs 23,000 to Rs 28,000 per night. And the Mahasu House can set you back by Rs 11,000 to Rs 18,000 a night. In fact, the owner of the Mahasu House told me that he makes it a point to screen the profile of people wanting to stay there. “I definitely don’t want large noisy groups out to dance away the night,” he said.
- So near Shimla and yet so far: There is a helipad near the presidential retreat, if that’s your chosen mode of transport. There is also an airport in Shimla from where it is just a half-hour drive away. The other way is to simply enjoy the 10 hour drive along the 370 km long route from Delhi. There are also several trains including Shatabdi from Delhi to Kalka, after which you may take the toy train – a joy ride for sure. The luxury Volvo overnight bus is very convenient for its timing – you board it by 10 pm and reach Shimla by 6.30 am – but we had a very rude driver who not only took jolting sharp turns and kept talking on his phone while driving, but also shouted back at passengers when they protested. While returning, we opted for the train and booked ourselves a first class coupe made just for two. Just in case you need the buzz, Shimla is close by.
- Season’s greetings: And every season has one. Right now it’s the rains and that’s the immediate reason to visit. June to September marks the monsoon as the mountains change the look ever so often, now under the clouds, now clear. We went for a walk, colourful umbrellas overhead, and soaked in the lush vegetation. Out came the pakoras and the chai as we sat within a roadside stall.For snowy landscapes, circle your dates in January and February. Temperature in Mashobra during this time ranges from 0°C to 10°C, carpeting the entire place in a deep layer of snow.
- In the neighbourhood: At 3 km from Mashobra is Carignano, a beautiful picnic spot that was a villa of Chevalier Federico Peliti, an Italian photographer in India from the times of Queen Victoria, who named it in honour of his native town Carignano near Turin in Italy. If you so like, you can drop by at the usual nearby touristy places like Kufri (horse and yak rides) and Chail. But a typical Mashobra visitor (I don’t want to call them tourist) would rather play golf at Naldhera nearby. You may also club your visit to the Mashobra with a trip to the wildlife sanctuary or Mahasu which has an ancient temple.
- To do or not too do: Rafting, boating, paragliding, rock climbing, mountain biking, horse riding, trekking, bird watching… Yes, yes, all these are there too if you are bent on doing something, but we would rather not do anything. And if we did, it was to take in the little joys the hill station offered: Morning walks led us to a village and a temple. We drank apple wine (at 12 per cent alcohol, half a bottle is enough to get you tipsy) made locally and surprisingly good, enjoyed chicken curry and rice the Mahasu chef made, and tried the local Lingri pickle. It was so good that we bought a few bottles in fact. By evening, Walia the owner, a product of Bishop Cotton, kept us engrossed with ghost stories by a bonfire. Sample this: One of his guests came running out of his room late one night after he ‘saw’ some faces floating around in his room. Soon after the mattress of his bed caught fire. Really? We were all attention. “Really,” Walia said, “He had one too many for a drink.”
This place is so pretty that Priyanka Gandhi couldn’t help building a cottage there