Solang Valley, located 13km northwest of Manali at an altitude of 8,000ft, has some of the best ski slopes in Himachal Pradesh. The vast snow-covered meadow here, which commands extensive views of the surrounding glaciers and snowcapped peaks, has gentle introductory slopes ideal for beginners. The Directorate of Mountaineering and Allied Sports (01902-250337, www.dmas.gov.in) in Manali runs a number of skiing courses at their Solang Ski Centre. They’ve also installed a ski lift at Solang for training purposes. A major attraction at Solang are the national-level Winter Games organised by the Himachal Pradesh government in February. Solang’s proximity to Manali means that it’s possible for you to stay in Manali and make day-trips to Solang. In Solang, your most comfortable option is the Solang Valley Resort (Rs 4,500-11,000; 01902-256134, www.solangvalleyresorts.com), located in the middle of an apple orchard.
The district of Kinnaur, lying at the northeastern edge of Himachal Pradesh and rubbing shoulders with Tibet, enjoys splendid isolation in the cold months. Three mountain ranges — the Zanskar, the Greater Himalaya and the Dhauladhar— cut through the land, bestowing it with innumerable peaks, gorges, valleys and glaciers. Three rivers — the Sutlej, Spiti and Baspa — and their tributaries carve deep gorges through the mountains. The slopes are thickly forested. The historic Hindustan-Tibet Road that Lord Dalhousie commissioned in 1850 runs through Kinnaur. The culture is a seamless mix of Buddhist and Hindu influences, witnessed most prominently in the pagoda-like temples of the region. Recong Peo, the headquarters of the district, is 260km from Shimla. Stay in Kalpa, at the Kinner Kailash (Rs 700-1,100; (01786) - 226159).
3. Skiing in Auli
Auli is to Uttarakhand what Gulmarg is to Kashmir — with lots of snow, perfect ski slopes and good infrastructure. The differences — with a ski area of 5-7 sq km it’s much smaller, and with altitudes ranging between 9,500 and 10,500ft, its slopes are much steeper. It’s also much less crowded (it gets less of the picnicking crowd) — which makes it perfect for people who’re serious about skiing. The slopes here are great for cross-country skiing, slaloming and downhill skiing. GMVN, which manages the slopes, has snow beaters to keep the slopes fit for skiing, and also runs a 500m ski lift. From the top of the slopes you get a panoramic view of Himalayan peaks like Dronagiri, Kamet, Neelkanth and Nanda Devi. If you’re a learner, try one of the GMVN (Tel:0172-2707649 (www.gmvnl.com) skiing courses — the seven-day course costs Rs 5,280. For a more relaxed holiday, try the 2N/3D package offered by Leisure Hotels (1800 102 4652, www.leisurehotels.in). It costs Rs 8,999, all-inclusive for two; you stay at their Char Dham camp in Joshimath, which is connected to Auli by ropeway.
In summer, Leh is a stunning resort town. In winter, it becomes a lonely and forbidding outpost. The city retreats back into its past — when it was a significant trading post on the Silk Route, where caravans from Central Asia stopped to trade in spices and silks. The caravans no longer come to Leh, but in winter the same aura of mystique returns. It’s bitterly cold and the streets are deserted. At night, water freezes in the pipes, but during the day it can be hot in the sun. This is also when most monasteries have their colourful festivals. You’ll have to search hard for an open restaurant, but since you’re the only customer they’ve had in a long time you’ll be treated royally. You’ll have the town entirely to yourself, and we won’t be surprised if you came away feeling like a late 19th-century explorer at the very edge of civilisation. Hotel Omasila (Rs 2,300 for two, including all meals; 01982 252 119, www.hotelomasila.com) is one of the few hotels open in winter.
The Yumthang Valley in north Sikkim is one of those places which has no need for ‘tourist attractions’ — it’s just so beautiful on its own.Sikkim’s mountains and glaciers come flowing down this valley’s slopes — in summer it’s studded with primroses, crisscrossed by streams, and in winter it’s carpeted in a thick layer of snow, leaving just a thin ribbon of road which winds its way along the imposing mountains and past the forests of fir. A trip to the valley in winter is a magical experience. You can combine it with skiing, which has recently been introduced at Phuni (close to the Sangri pass in the valley) — which, at 11,500ft, is the highest and most extreme skiing you’ll find in the country. You’ll have to stay at Lachung (24km from Yumthang), which has a very comfortable resort, Le Coxy. Contact: Blue Sky Tours and Travels, 011 4241 5062, 9232543905, www.himalayantourismonline.com
6. Treehouse, Manali
While Manali may not be an obvious choice for a cosy winter getaway, this charming family-run establishment is sure to change yourmind. Away from the touristy din, these cottages are located amid plum, walnut and apple orchards, offering pretty views of the valley below. Each cottage offers two bedrooms, drawing and dining areas, a well-equipped kitchen and an attached verandah. But the star attraction here is their treetop cottage, supposedly the only one in the area. This wood and thatch structure provides everything you could possibly require for a comfortable stay — cheery bedrooms, a modern bathroom and large windows that afford lovely treetop views. This place isn’t particularly high on luxury, but it’s ideal if you’re looking for some serious peace and quiet. There are regular flights from Delhi to Bhuntar airport from where it’s a two-hour drive to Manali. Tariff: Rs 500-1,500 per day. Contact: +91-1902-240365, www.manalitreehousecottages.com
7. Chadar Walk
At the peak of winter, Ladakh’s Zanskar river freezes over. For the Zanskaris, marooned by snow and impregnable passes, there is onlyone way to trade — they walk on the river. For adventure seekers, the Chadar (as the frozen sheet of ice is called) has become something of a pilgrimage, one of the ‘ultimate’ treks. Below the 8ft slab of ice, the river gurgles, and each step must be placed carefully to avoid thin ice. At 30o below zero, taking between 10 to 24 days to do depending on how thorough you want to be, this is adventure at its most extreme. The Chadar walk starts from Chilling, 2-3hrs from Leh. Rimo Expeditions has a 20-day guided trek beginning January 19. Cost: Rs 72,000 per person (including airfare ex-Delhi). Contact: +91 (1982) 253348 / 253257, www.rimoexpeditions.com
Near the Indo-China border in Arunachal Pradesh is a Monpa settlement that is sometimes called the ‘hidden paradise’. At 3,500m, Tawang nestles high in the mountain ranges of the Himalaya, affording breathtaking views as dawn lights up the peaks. In the vicinity are the hot springs of Dirang, the old and beautiful Taktsang Gompa or T Gompa with its 26ft-high gold-coated image of the Buddha and the serene Sangeshar Lake, renamed ‘Madhuri’ after a dance sequence from the film Koyla, featuring Madhuri Dixit, was filmed here. The spectacular drive from Bhalukpong to Tawang takes you over Sela, one of the highest motorable passes in the world. But what makes Tawang such a delightful winter holiday is the snow — white blankets that envelop the world, frozen waterfalls and icicles that weigh down on eaves and pines — investing all nature with a hushed silence. Tawang is 12hrs by road from Tezpur. Stay at Tawang Inn (Rs 800-1,600; 03792-224096).
9. Dodital Trek
This is a traditional trail used by nomadic Gujjar herdsmen to take their sheep and goats to the high meadows every summer, and by sadhus who make the walk between Gangotri and Yamunotri. The trek up from the Bhagirathi Valley, extremely popular in the warmer months, is rendered more tranquil in winter. It passes through thick forests of oak, rhododendron, fir and deodar, with night halts in shepherd shacks completing the experience. The trek begins from the roadhead for Dodital, and after two days of fairly moderate walking, the route touches the crystal-clear lake of Dodital at 3,310m. The snow-covered trails which dot the dense forests surrounding the lake are great for spotting wildife. Aquaterra Adventures has a trek planned from February 21 to 27 (Delhi to Delhi). Cost: Rs 18,540 per person. Contact: 098 11 103831, www.indianhimalayas.net
For a quiet, intimate holiday in the snow, book yourself a room at Chapslee in Shimla. Built in 1835, this former summer residence of the late Raja Charanjit Singh of Kapurthala, is today a skilfully preserved heritage property that offers a perfect blend of old-world charm and modern-day comfort. There’s a choice of six luxury suites, each of which displays beautiful period furniture and family heirlooms such as chandeliers from Murano, Persian carpets, Multani blue pottery and Peshwa vases. For your recreation, Chapslee offers a library and card room. You could also take scenic walks for breathtaking snowy views, or better still, stay in and warm up beside your private fireplace with a hot meal and a glass of wine. Shimla is an eight-hour drive/overnight train journey from Delhi. Tariff: Rs 10,000-13,000 per couple (all-inclusive; winter surcharge of Rs 500-1,000 applicable between October 15 and March 31). Contact: 91- 177 - 2658663, 91-177-2802542, 91-177-2650921, www.chapslee.com
The first true modern luxury resort in the Indian Himalaya, Wildflower Hall’s status remains unthreatened. Set at 8,350ft in Himachal, near Shimla — the resort’s correct name, incidentally, is Wildflower Hall, Shimla in the Himalayas — the Hall was once famous as Lord Kitchener’s residence. The contemporary tourist, however, gets to enjoy a recreated magnificence — in classic Oberoi Hotels style, everything here is rebuilt, reinterpreted faux-heritage. You probably won’t mind, because also in classic Oberoi style, service will be superb, the food outstanding and your every creature comfort slavishly pandered to (including at an award-winning spa). Upto March 31, the hotel’s offering a ‘Himalayan Adventure’ package: 4N for Rs 71,000 (double occupancy), which buys you accommodation in a premier room, breakfast, a rafting trip on the Sutlej, a choice of a mountain biking trip or a forest trail with a naturalist, one spa treatment, and daily yoga and meditation sessions. Or just settle for the more sedentary 2N/3D ‘Himalayan Vacation’ for Rs 27,000 (double occupancy). Located 13km from Shimla; 385km/8hr from Delhi. Contact: 0177-2648585, www.wildflowerhall.com
12. Snow & Water
For those of you who’re getting bored stiff sitting indoors all winter, here’s the perfect winter adventure sports package for you. The Snow and Water package offered by Countryside takes you skiing, river rafting and kayaking in Uttarakhand. The 7N/8D package starts with a couple of days of skiing in Auli, before moving on to rafting, which starts from Nim beach near Shivpuri. Over the next few days you tackle Grade II and III rapids, have barbecue dinners on the beach, go rock climbing and rappelling. It’ll be cold by the river, but this is a good time to go rafting — the water level is low, and the waters are crystal clear. Accommodation at Auli is in a hotel, while at Rishikesh you camp on the beach. The package is available from January to March. Tariff: Rs 23,900 per person. Contact: +91-22-24071222; www.countrysideindia.com
Its name translates to ‘the place with snow’. Munsiyari in the Kumaon hills of Uttarakhand lies at the base of the great Himalayan mountain range, on the banks of the Goriganga river. Wedged between the borders of India, China and Nepal, this charming place lets you gaze on five snow-clad peaks that are together called the Panchchuli (literally, ‘five cooking hearths’). Legend has it that the Pandavas cooked their last meal here before ascending to heaven. Apart from epic lore, this town is steeped in history as well, for it was on the ancient salt route from Tibet. Trudge up to the Munsiyari Bugyal, just east of town, for unbeatable views of the Panchchuli range, the Johar Valley and the village of Harkot. A mere six kilometres from Munsiyari is the village of Dar Kot, noted for its 100-year-old houses with traditionally carved doors and windows. Munsiyari is 125km from Pithoragarh. Stay at Zara Resort (Rs 990-2,100; 91-02114-269163 / 64).
14. Sitla Estate
Once you could be assured of a white Christmas at Sitla Estate. Christmas is past (it probably wasn’t white), but the snow will come to Sitla. We promise it’ll be lovely: when it’s snowing, you’ll be holed up with a book in your room with a bukhari going at full tilt, or you’ll be arguing at Scrabble in the lounge with logs crackling in the fireplace with a hot toddy by your elbow. Or you’ll be walking about the fruit trees laden with snow rather than fruit. Or along the hill roads feeling the snow on your face. And then your day will end with one of Vikram Maira’s glorious dinners (we hate to put any pressure on him, but the last time we ate there, meals featured roast pork, stir-fried beef, khow suey, warm chocolate pudding...). Located 10km from Mukteshwar in Kumaon; 9hrs drive from Delhi. Tariff: from Rs 4,000, all-inclusive. Contact: 05942 286 030, www.sitlaestate.net
15. The Chalets Naldhera
Set against the backdrop of a lush deodar forest and along the edge of a nine-hole golf course, The Chalets is a lovely mountain retreat in the Himalayan mid-hills. Twenty-three quaint fir-log cottages, covered with sloping red-tiled roofs, lie scattered over a comfortable two acres. Each of these lodges promises a relaxed stay with independent drawing/dining rooms, bedrooms, a kitchenette and luxury bathrooms. To truly unwind, reward yourself with a massage followed by a sauna at their health spa. If you’re looking for a little more than just peace and quiet, there’s a host of indoor and outdoor activities to keep you busy, including horse-riding, picnics and treks. A bonfire underneath the star-studded sky, accompanied by a barbecue, is the perfect way to end your day here. Naldehra is 22km from Shimla, and an eight-hour drive from Delhi. Tariff: Rs 6,500-30,000 Contact: 0177 274 7715, www.chaletsnaldehra.com