Yasmin Hussain’s Homestay, Srinagar
Srinagar never disappoints. Not even when you spend all your time shuttling from crowded bagh to bagh, carpet shop to dry fruit shop, coming away with little to show for your hard work, except a few selfies on the shikara, and a bag of walnuts, maybe. But to truly befriend this shy, if polite, city for a while, and see it like it ought to be seen, you must first befriend its people. And what better way to do that than by staying with them? The Hussain family lets out a lovely, tree-hugging bungalow planted in the middle of their garden, right next to their own house in the quiet, upmarket neighbourhood of Rajbagh. An arrangement that allows for plenty of privacy, and yet, encourages you to join siblings Zulfikar and Yasmin, or their parents, for tea, biscuits, and advice, if you want any. With large windows to let the mornings in, and elegant furniture, the bungalow hosted several guests until the floods hit Srinagar about two years ago. Restored again, it opens its doors this April. The Hussains prefer to rent out the five rooms at this two-storey bungalow to families or groups.
Tariff: Rs 20,000 per night with breakfast, but double rooms are also available separately, Rs 4,000 per night with breakfast
Contact: 9906505354, email@example.com
Sitla Estate, Mukteshwar
Full disclosure: This one’s a cheat. Sitla Estate, a colonial home-turned-guesthouse, which has reigned supreme in the Kumaon hills for more than a decade, is now really a refined place to stay. That’s the cheating bit. Now, the honest part: scores of visitors call this, variously, their “second home”, “home away from home”, or “home in the hills”. That’s a lot of homeyness. Yes, Sitla Estate is also a ‘homestay’. The love affair usually begins when Shifta the German Shepherd comes bounding up the paved path to welcome you noisily before the Estate’s owner, Vikram “I just work here” Maira, emerges. Then one turns the corner to the lawn, where it’s usual to stop and gasp. On a clear day, the reason will be the stunning Panchachuli range spread out ahead at eye level. Else, your gaze should drop to the breathtaking reserve forest sprawled below. After this, it’s either cosy stone-walled rooms or smart modern ones with massive windows. Food that’s an endless delight, and always a surprise (Maira never reveals what’s for dinner, even if you’re the kind of visitor who was present when Shifta arrived as a puppy a dozen years ago). Treks into the forest. Afternoons in a hammock in the fruit orchard. Kumaoni produce-shopping at the onsite shop or at the Kilmora or Panchachuli stores in the village. Evenings with a cool drink under the plum tree (summer) or by the blazing fire in the drawing room (winter).
Tariff: From Rs 5,800 doubles, with breakfast
The Retreat, Bhimtal
However challenging life in the hills for colonial era officers may have been, there is little doubt that their erstwhile houses are now coveted by modern Indians like little else. The Retreat at Bhimtal fits right in—a family owned 19th-century colonial bungalow nestled among the Himalayan foothills of the Kumaon, in the midst of a cedar, oak, and pine forest covered estate. Once called the Jones Estate, it is now filled with old colonial furniture, cutlery, and knick-knacks. In another of its earlier avatars , it was a holiday home catering to diplomats from all over the world, and still has that sense of grandeur to impress the most demanding and well travelled of guests. The house is redolent in old-world charm and exudes cosiness.
Two of the three bedrooms have annexes which can accommodate two additional people, while the other bedroom has its own sitting area, which can be used for a spare bed as well. Enjoy the laid-back atmosphere as you are transported back in time. There’s home cooked food, or you could always step out to explore the lakes and forests and springs, all at the doorstep of your Retreat.
Tariff: Rs 3,500 on double occupancy
Yangsum Heritage Farm, Sikkim
If getting to a charming destination is half the fun, the 44-acre Yangsum Heritage Farm promises heaps of it, with the drive to Rinchenpong in western Sikkim rated as one of the most scenic routes in the state. Built back in 1833, the mountain farm homestead was majorly refurbished more recently in 1966, but without losing its old-style sensi-bilities or respect for the vibrant local culture. Owned and managed by the hospitable and well-informed Tashi couple, Thendup and Pema, home-cooked food is definitely an important reason for surrendering to Yangsum. So expect deliciously prepared pork and chicken dishes served with freshly plucked vegetables and fruits from the fully organic farm—the Tashis grow avocadoes, cardamom, oranges, bananas, pears, apricots and mangoes, apart from seasonal veggies like peas and cauliflower, and they also cultivate paddy, maize, ginger, turmeric and sweet potatoes. The chhang is just as bracing. All around are groves of bamboo, and an open mixed forest of Himalayan alder, schima, magnolia, pine, rhododendron, cherry and chestnut, which guarantees wonderfully pure air every time you breathe. Remote but not isolated (the bazaar village of Rinchenpong is just a couple of kilometres away), the countryside is nothing short of idyllic, and is framed by a backdrop of the towering Khangchendzonga peaks arrayed against the Singalila Range. Don’t be surprised if you envy the folks who call this paradise home. There are only five rustically wood-panelled rooms, each evocatively designed in the local tradition, mostly with muted wood juxtaposed alongside colourful, handwoven touches in linen and artefacts.
Tariff: From Rs 5,700
Sunnymead Estate, Shimla
Sunnymead is as lovely as its name suggests. The heritage cottage, one of the older surviving residences of Shimla, is particularly distinguished by its architecture and décor, with its design adapted from a book on English architecture by R.A. Briggs (take a look at it when you visit—they’ve preserved a copy), though the construction approach relied consciously on the local Dhajji tradition. Sunnymead was opened to visitors (you can book ahead for a meal even if you aren’t staying here) and guests only in 2011, and the owners see it more as an effort at conservation. The house is as it was originally, and the family now wants to share it with like-minded friends and family, which is the basis for their warm hospitality too. There are only two twin-bedded rooms, plus one room with an antique four-poster, and a single room, all of them steeped in quiet elegance, and decorated with period furniture and precious objet d’art. The rooms don’t have TV, or room service, but they do have real and private fireplaces, while books and movies are at hand, and al fresco dining is offered in a beautiful garden.
Tariff: Rs 4,500 for singles; Rs 6,000 for doubles
Contact: Find them on Facebook, firstname.lastname@example.org
Thembang, Arunachal Pradesh
In the already off beat Northeastern state of Arunachal Pradesh, not generally known for heritage tourism as much as landscapes, the ancient fortified Buddhist village-kingdom of Thembang, West Kameng District, one of the state’s better kept secrets, is currently contending for Unesco World Heritage status. The Tibetan-origin clans here still live more or less self-sufficiently in old-style traditional stone high houses and ruins built with only locally sourced materials, practice orthodox Tibetan Buddhism, farm only organically and live in harmony with nature and each other in ways that could be considered either exemplary or charmingly antiquated. With an inviting combination of easy road access and charming homestay infrastructure to match, this is one of the most easily reachable samplers of Tibetan culture this side of the Indo-Chinese border. For longer haul visitors, there are fascinating birding options and trekking routes following trails taken by Brokpas, the nomadic yak herders of the region. The WWF facilitates a community based tourism programme here, which rotates visitors among four hospitable homestays, and arranges guides and excursions. The season lasts from September to March. The closest town is Bomdila.
Tariff: Rs 700 for double stay, Rs 500 for single
Contact: Find them on Facebook. You could also contact Pema Wange on 9436635835 or Bodung at 9402948422
The Homestay Taras, Ladakh
How often do you get to stay with nuns? That too, in their home. Well, the Dutch Foundation for Ladakhi Nuns has a newly built guesthouse, The Homestay Taras. This homestay, near a new convent for elderly nuns in Nyerma, is not far from the famous monastery in Thiksey in Ladakh. The homestay intends to provide an income source for the livelihood of the nuns who live in the nearby nunnery. There are six double rooms on offer, with attached bathrooms. The views from the room engage a good part of the day for guests! There is a shower with warm water ‘sometimes’, though hot water is available on request. All meals are vegetarian. However, if the yearning for flesh overpowers, step into Leh for a meal. As with every corner of Ladakh, the location is breathtakingly beautiful, overlooking the snowy peaks of the Himalaya. The ruins of the ancient stupas stand all around the monastery, some of them dating back several centuries.
Tariff: Rs 800 per person, per day, half board.
The Hermitage, Spiti
It’s so remote that there aren’t even the sort of electric lights that may be seen in towns like the better known Tabo, which is about a couple of scenic hours of driving away. Now imagine the night sky here, with stars sparkling like scattered diamonds. The Parahio River flows past this painterly scene, its water as pure as the banks are clean. Phukchong, situated away in the remote buffer zone of the Pin Valley National Park (just walk over to the NP), is a hamlet where tranquillity resonates soul-deep. It’s not surprising that the village is the other-worldly location of a monastic retreat where monks and nuns withdraw to cottages that serve as their abode for months or even years, their spiritual master and the person who delivers them their sustenance being their only contact with the outside world. The owner of The Hermitage is also the latter. Among other things, he has a greenhouse to grow fresh fruits and vegetables, too. Spiti Ecosphere collaborated with him to create this lovely family-run guesthouse with four rooms on the ground floor, three rooms on the first, and a cosy lounge that invites visitors to put up their feet and get convivial. The locally styled aesthetic, with design inputs from Spiti Ecosphere, is charming and irresistible—the exteriors are made of a lot of strong stone but the interiors are warmly woodsy. Expect to enjoy hearty home-style north Indian food, and local specialities like piping hot thukpa and momos.
Tariff: Rs 3,000 per couple, includes all meals
It’s easy to underestimate the charm of knolls such as Chuikhim. Situated in the Kalimpong sub-division of Darjeeling district, Chuikhim is a recent addition to the tourism map of the region. Actually, it’s hardly on the map—you can only reach it after trekking for about six to seven hours or via a drive on a stony track! One-shop Chuikhim is a remote village spread over a few hills. Most of the thousand-odd residents are involved in farming. There are about 20 family homestays, most of them hosting visitors for the past couple of years. A track through unspoiled forests to Yelbong takes four to five hours, and here there are eight family homestays among the fifty houses there. No, for neither will you get pit stops or even a teashop on the way!
Tariff: Rs 1,200 per person per day on full board
This is a beautifully maintained, warmly hospitable and genuinely heritage farmhouse that welcomes visitors to an authentic experience of a remote and stunningly beautiful part of western Sikkim. Biksthang, they say, is derived from the Lepcha word bik mon (‘the place where a tiger ate a cow’). The pristine wilderness and crystal clear air at 4,100ft (pollution isn’t known around here, of course) makes birdwatching particularly rewarding. The Sharkahlon family, which owns the homestead, has been settled here for 14 generations— ancestor Sharkahlon Tshering Thondup, who built the original house (it still stands), was an important minister in the 18th century, the period to which the property dates. Today, the main floor serves as the reception and every modern comfort is available to weary travellers. Villagers provide most of what the resort requires, and local people are employed here. There’s healthful organic food and drink to be had (do imbibe the generously offered chhang), and the farmer over at the opposite hill can be seen following the same soil revival practices for his harvests of fruits and vegetables as he has done for years. Don’t miss the traditional stone baths of Sikkim here for they are a truly relaxing experience, especially if you have been travelling over Sikkim’s roads for long hours before arriving. The upkeep is particularly admirable—the seven suites and rooms are aesthetically pleasing (though they can get a tad drafty in winter). Unforgettably, the dining area has magnificent views of the Khangchendzonga.
Tariff: Rs 7,050 for doubles