No matter how much they tell you that SUVs are only meant to fit in large Indian families, or to push rickshaw drivers around, remember, that’s not the full story (nothing ever is). I was reminded of this again just before getting to Vishranti, “a Doon valley jungle retreat” run by the former Ranji cricketer Michael Dalvi. The long and arduous highway was finally behind me, I had hit a narrow tarmacked jungle road, and the leviathan I was inside–the Chevrolet Trailblazer–had suddenly taken on new life. Finally, it was making friends with me. Thank god, I suppose, for my training on the Himalayan Odyssey–in which you ride a motorcycle from Delhi
The not-so-long road to Leh and back via the Spiti valley–which had first introduced me to the wondrous pleasures of off-roading. A few kilometres up from Prem Nagar, the next town after Dehradun, we were asked to cross a dry riverbed. My Odyssey-training kicked in, I turned off the tarmac, onto the riverbed, and pressed down with my right foot. This is why they make SUVs like the Trailblazer–to boldly go where no man has gone before. But I was jack knifing. The stones on the riverbed, washed clean over the years, allowing for little purchase, and just for a minute I worried that I might topple over. I did the sensible thing. I asked Sanjay, my polite photographer, non-driving travel companion (don’t you just hate it when people refuse to share driving duties?) to put his backrest up, and switched on the traction control. Oh the things we did on that riverbed, and how they would upset my mother. We drove fast, then faster; we made sharp turns, allowing the Trailblazer’s automatic transmission to go through the gear changes for us, and then, when it had read my mind, lurch out like a rocket. We carved out figure eights, we climbed up embankments, and we took gullies at high speed accompanied by sharp intakes of breath. And, of course, we forgot all about lunch, which would really, really upset my mum. But mother, at least we were restoring order to the world. I mean what sort of madman uses his SUV on city roads when somewhere out there somebody has forgotten to build a road? Or there is a dry riverbed.
The good people at Vishranti (Vishranti is another word for Shanti) were kind enough to lay out a late lunch for us. Sanjay, the photographer, who is Garhwali–I myself am Kumaoni, so I suppose it was apt that we had ventured into Uttarakhand–has obviously spent far too long in the company of Delhi’s Punjabis, insisted on “something heavy” to eat. That I suppose is code for butter chicken, which we asked for along with a Vishranti garden fresh salad, all of the ingredients for which come from the organic vegetable garden on campus. Madhav Dalvi, Michael’s son, says “family”–that’s what they call guests here– are allowed to pick their own vegetables should they wish to. I suppose that’s understandable since Vishranti started out as a family home in 1988, only asking for guests to come visit about eight years ago. “It started by accident,” he says, “when we found an American couple traipsing through the vegetable garden pulling up produce.”
“And who might you be?” the couple was asked. “Oh we are staying with you,” they were told. “And we are picky about what we eat.” The Dalvis acquiesced to the request, going on to think it was a rather pleasant idea, and have now institutionalised the practice. As you can imagine–if they are growing their own vegetables–the Dalvis have a sprawling campus. Vishranti has been built over 23 acres, in the middle of the Doon valley and about 20km farther up from the city of Dehradun. “Most of it bought cheap,” says Madhav, courtesy a dubious man and a black cobra. Nag Chand, a resident of the original farming community that owned the land, had been of the troublesome sort. He drank, fought and harassed all the women until the village elders got fed up with him and encouraged a few youngsters to gently push him off a cliff. A few days later, a black cobra was spotted in the village. Certainly this must be Nag Chand, said the villagers, come back to exact terrible retribution. Immediately all farming activity was halted and the fields left fallow. Michael, an old Doon School boy, happened to be looking for land at the time and the worried farming community seemed quite happy to give it to him. And while Vishranti today has a number of things one could do–they have an Ayurvedic spa, a pool, a mini golf course, and a viewing aviary with some fairly exotic birds–it is probably Michael who is the star attraction. The senior Mr Dalvi is the sort of man who was born to be in hospitality. Loud and jovial, he has that special ability to make you feel at home. It’s a concept that, strangely, few people in the hotel industry seem to get.
It isn’t efficiency–although that too is important–that will inveigle people into coming back to you but attention. Can you make them feel truly welcome? Michael is also the son of Brigadier John P Dalvi, the senior most Indian army officer to be captured by the Chinese in the war of 1962 and the author of Himalayan Blunder: The Angry Truth about India’s Most Crushing Military Disaster. The book, which came out in 1969, was thought of as “controversial” and true to current Indian form, banned. Brigadier Dalvi spent about a year with the Chinese, and on his return, the army and government had the sneaking suspicion that perhaps our neighbours to the north had turned him. Which is why, the Brigadier’s restaurant and bar have been named after him. They are an ode to the old man and to India’s men in uniform. As is Holdy’s pub, named after RL Holdsworth, Michael’s tutor at The Doon School and the man the little boy looked to for succour when he was told that his father had been taken prisoner. You add one and the two together and you begin to understand why the Dalvis call Vishranti a “retreat” rather than say, a resort. Over here, they remember.
Route (262km): Delhi-Ghaziabad-Meerut-Muzaffarnagar-Roorkee-Dehradun-Vishranti. Considering the just-right driving distance (anything more than 250km a day gets to be an exertion for most drivers), it is surprising that Doon is not more popular with the Delhiwallas. In the mind’s eye, Doon is as far as Nainital or Shimla, when it is actually only 250km away. Maybe Dehradun’s lesser popularity has something to do with the town’s lower altitude and therefore higher temperatures during the summer months. But it is a good getaway, if you’re a like-the-chill sort of person, in the winter months. Plus, the lower altitude means only a short hilldriving stint.
Chevrolet says it is a “brute” and the biggest in its class. They’re certainly right about the brutish aspect of their latest offering; it suffers from absolutely no turbo-lag, and its 2800cc engine sends you, like I have said before, shooting out of the starting block like a rocket. It seats seven, and when that happens there can be very little boot room left to play with, but all the rear seats also fold down, leaving you with a massive total of 1,830lts of boot space. Chevrolet also seems to be proud of its Hill Descent System which, when switched on, gets the engine and brakes to work in unison with the limit speed. STATS Engine: 2776cc/2.8L, 4 cylinders (diesel) Max output: 200 PS (147kW) @3600rpm Max torque: 500Nm @2000rpm Gearbox: 6-speed automatic with active select Ground clearance: 253mm at kerb Price: â‚¹26.4 lakh, ex-showroom, Delhi
Vishranti started out as a family home in 1988, taking as many as 20 years to make the leap to a hotel. They still like though to be thought of as almost a homestay, saying they have their regular repeat visitors and that every year one of their visitors will bring a friend along–“a shehri type who then becomes part of the family”–until the “family” keeps getting bigger and bigger. With that philosophy in mind, don’t expect serious poshness and efficiency here. Come if you’d like to be part of the family (â‚¹10,000, inclusive of breakfast; 01353987750; vishrantiresorts.com).