Located around 250km from Mumbai by road, Panchgani is easily one of the most picturesque hill stations of Maharashtra. Lying beneath the sprawling Table Land, which is actually a part of the Deccan Plateau, it overlooks the wide valley of the Krishna River.
Even before you enter the heart of the town, you will realise that strawberry is the king here. Hoardings of strawberry gardens invite you to visit them. Even hotels and restaurants borrow the fruit’s name to attract guests. Then there are the umpteen ads about products made from the fruit. As you weave your way into the town market and follow the road that goes up to Mahabaleshwar, you will find scores of vendors selling fresh strawberries (especially in winter).
Apparently, the tiny hamlet on the way to the pilgrim town of Mahabaleshwar, caught the fancy of one John Chesson in the mid-19th century. He found the climate and soil in this hilly region good enough to grow fruits like strawberry. Soon Europeans and a few Parsi families from the then Bombay Presidency began to settle here. Churches and fire temples were built, schools were opened and a sanatorium founded.
It is said that pioneer industrialist J N Tata (1839-1904) wanted to buy the flat Table Land for real estate purposes. However, according to an old guidebook, the Europeans and other residents of the wee town ‘felt the great loss they would sustain by being deprived of its use’ and bid for the privilege of retaining the Table Land. They secured its use in perpetuity by paying a princely sum of two thousand rupees, the guidebook says.
Today, the Table Land is still used for recreation and sports by the local residents and schools though one has to be cautious while roaming the periphery. Although cars go up to the top, a walk along the twisting road is quite rejuvenating. If you can be there in the pre-dawn hours, you are likely to see the sun rise over the distant hills. During afternoon, the entrance is like a mini fair ground. But do avoid the people urging you to take a horse ride on the plateau and go sightseeing. Many visitors have complained about being fleeced by them.
As you descend from the Table Land, you may stop by the St Joseph Church built in 1912. Further down, at the main road, you will find one of the old shops of Panchgani, the Roach Bakery, founded in 1901 and still owned by the family. However, owing to a lack of demand, it has stopped making its signature cakes. Don’t forget to sample the old-fashioned cream rolls, jam tarts and butter beans (with a strawberry cream filled centre), while they last. Another notable church in the market place is St Peter’s. In the churchyard, hidden among the wild grass, is Chesson’s grave.
Like other hill stations of India, Panchgani too has its fair share of viewpoints. Most of them offer a look at different corners of the town and the surrounding hills and river valley. Off the Panchgani-Mahabaleshwar road is the Lingmala Falls. The waterfalls that rushes down the hillside after a good monsoon narrows somewhat in winter but is worth the short trek through the forested slopes.
There are several strawberry farms around Panchgani, which may allow you to pick the fruits on special request and after a short talk on the rules. Usually, you can buy the lot you have picked. Most of the gardens also grow other fruits, such as raspberries, blueberries, and gooseberries. One of the most popular gardens belongs to Mapro, which started with a food processing unit in 1959. They have a food court where the fresh cream and strawberries combo is not to be missed.
There are also many flower nurseries in Panchgani.
One of the latest addition to Panchgani is the Devrai Art Village. Tucked away in a hilly corner, it supports a group of highly skilled tribal craftspeople, artists from Gadchiroli in Maharashtra and a few villages in Chattisgarh. There is a shop where you may buy some of the products, including dokra artefacts.
Panchgani has come a long way from its days as a sanatorium and sparse population. Hotels and resorts are coming up in and around the town. The hillside between Panchgani and Mahabaleshwar has a few luxury resorts, away from the urban humdrum. But how long one wonders.
Getting there: Mumbai (about 250km by road) and Pune (about 100km by road) are the nearest airports. Pune and Satara (about 45km away by road) are connecting rail heads.