Almost as soon as you leave the plains at Kathgodam, the sudden cool air that breezes in through your car window acts as a precursor to the beauty that awaits you in the midst of the mountains.
Within a short while of the first sighting of the hills, you arrive in Naukuchiatal; a gigantic statue of Lord Hanuman welcomes you to town, which is home to one of the loveliest lakes in Kumaon’s Nainital district.
Local legend has it that anyone who can sight the nine corners of ‘Nau-kuchia-tal’ all at once will find their way to heaven. It is believed that the lake was created by Lord Brahma and a parikrama (circumambulation) around the lake is considered scared.
Given the sheer size of the tal, the chances of anyone accomplishing this is very little but it is nonetheless worth trying during one of your walks over the hills that cradle the lake. In any case, this azure blue lake, set amidst gorgeous oak and pine forests, makes it easy to believe that you have found heaven on earth. A glimpse of the full moon reflected in the shimmering tal is indeed a celestial sight.
THINGS TO SEE AND DO
Naukuchiatal has quite a few resorts and is used to tourists, but it can fool you into believing you’re the only one here, as you wander the paths around the lake, with only your thoughts for company. Discover the tal by boat, or even by gliding through the nippy mountain air.
Boating in Naukuchiatal is magical, particularly if you choose to do so in the early morning or afternoon. You could even break journey, rest your boat by the edge of the lake and have a picnic by the waters.
*Boat ride approx Rs 250–300 for a 30 minute ride in a boat or shikara. Make sure to ask for lifejackets.
The Naukuchiatal Escape Festival of Art and Music, a creative retreat, is now a regular summer feature here.
The Tal Walk
The 3.5km walk around the lake’s periphery takes in all of Naukuchiatal, winding past the jetty, resorts, pretty country cottages and a small temple. In parts the trail is quiet, with secluded spots in which you’ll hear varied birds including kingfishers and swallows.
Mata Vaishno Devi Temple
The huge statue of Lord Hanuman that welcomes one to Naukuchiatal is part of the the Mata Vaishno Devi Temple.There’s always a line of devotees and tourists outside, waiting for their chance to enter the temple through an artificial tunnel.
The resorts here offer a variety of adventure activities. The Lake Village has specialists for zorbing, kayaking, aqua ball, paintball, rock climbing, rappelling and a slew of rope activities. Club Mahindra’s Dancing Waters Resort also arranges activities like trekking, rappelling and rock climbing.
One of the main attractions here is paragliding. Pandeygaon is a hilltop meadow that serves as a launching pad. Get there early in the morning, as paragliding flights are offered on a first-come-first-served basis. You should know that there have been accidents while paragliding at Naukuchiatal due to the inexperience of some of the operators. Although help is at hand, be sure you have the heart for this – the idea of being in the air is thrilling alright, but some lose their nerve when their feet are suddenly swept off the ground. Remember that if you paraglide here, it is at your own risk.
TIP KMVN recommends HAI Fly here (Cell: 09412906780, 098975 38668; W haifly.co).
WHERE TO STAY AND EAT
Naukuchiatal offers a number of stay options. At The Lake Resort all the rooms have excellent views of the lake. The resort organises treks, boating, horse riding and paragliding on request. The Lake Village offers five-star cottages. KMVN’s Lakeside TRH is situated right next to the lake. Parichay Resort also run by KMVN, is currently being renovated. Club Mahindra’s Dancing Waters Resort has studio apartments. Déjà Vu is a cosy cottage overlooking the lake. Emerald Trail is a great homestay, towards Bhimtal. The roadside stalls and restaurants offer parathas, pakoras and rajma-chawal. For good vegetarian food, head to Balaji Kitchen, opposite Hanuman Temple. Aipan Restaurant serves delicious Kumaoni meals. Café Orchid at The Lake Resort serves good Chinese, Continental and Mughlai fare.
Once home to one of the largest lakes in Kumaon, today Bhimtal’s unchecked development is forcing the waters to recede every year. However, the paths through the hills around can still offer a peaceful commune with nature and some lovely views. A stroll along the far bank of the Bhimtal Lake is quite a soothing experience. You can also try your hand at angling here (permits Rs 50 per day).
At the centre of the lake is a small island with an overgrowth of trees. The island was once home to a lovely restaurant, which has now shut down. There is a small aquarium in its place now. The Bhimeshwar Mahadev Temple (Timings: 5am–7pm), adjacent to it, domi-nates the landscape here. The Kumaon Umang Mahila Samiti outlet on the Ranibagh Road offers a wide range of woollens at great prices; you can also find delec-table home-made pickles here. The Ghoda Khal temple, which is about 3km from the town is one of the most revered temples in Kumaon. There is also the privately owned Folk Culture Museum at Mehragaon on the Bhowali Road, which show-cases a collection of rock art. You can go boating on Bhimtal too.
Charmingly understated, the luxurious Fishermen’s Lodge is a wonderful base for exploring this area. Cottage-in-Hills is a lovely two-bedroom cottage. Monolith Resorts is a castle-like watchtower. Aamod Resort, Country Inn and The Pine Crest are also good stay options.
The seven interconnected lakes that make Sattal (literally, seven lakes) are named after mythological gods and heroes. While the isolated Garur Tal (or Panna Tal) is said to be haunted, Nal Damayanti has shoals of silver carp. Bharat Tal lies a short distance away; Ram Tal, Sita Tal and Lakshman Tal combine to make the actual Sattal lake.
Legend has it that the trio from the epic Ramayana had lived here for a spell during their exile from Ayodhya, hence the names of three of the lakes. There are two ways of getting the full flavour of Sattal – either by carrying your own tents and equipment and setting up camp by the lakes, or by staying at one of the organised campsites. If you have your boots on, then the only way to go is up the hills, climb rocks or just trek along the trails.
Accompanied by experienced mountaineers, rappelling and river-crossing are other heady choices. These, along with mountain-biking and flying fox are some of the best adventure activities here. Climb up Suicide Rock under the watchful eyes of an instructor. Burma bridges are two ropes a few metres apart that traverse a gorge or river, once used in World War II to transfer soldiers and supplies. They are now used for the entertainment of adventure-seekers. You walk on the lower rope, holding on to another one above you, while crossing a deep gorge. Another easy thrill is the Tarzan Swing, a long rope that you use to swing over a ditch. Cool off later with a swim. Go rafting or kayaking on the lakes. If you do not have your own equipment, the camps here will arrange it for you. There are also plenty of boatmen to take you around the lakes at a moderate price (Rs 250–300 per hour).
Looking down from the tree-lined bend in the winding road to Sattal, you can spot a tiny church in deep verdure right on the banks of a tiny nearby tal. The church is part of the Sattal Mission Estate and Methodist Ashram and is at a 30-minute trek away from the lake. The church was established by preacher and missionary Stanley Jones.
Try the KMVN Tourist Rest House. But staying in camps is the best thing to do here. Just getting to the Getaway Jungle Camp is an adventure in itself. Wildrift Adventures’ Camp Suryagaon, earlier Saattal Camp, at Suryagaon on the hill just above Sattal about a kilometre from the lakes, offers a panoramic view of the lakes. V Resorts is perched on a hill over the lake. Right on the lake, yet shielded from the tourists, the YMCA Camp offers a wonderful location.
When to go March–August, October–November
Air Nearest airport: Pantnagar (64km/ 2hrs), connected to Delhi. Taxi costs Rs 1,700–2,500. Shared taxi costs Rs 50–100 per seat
Rail Nearest railhead: Kathgodam (26km/ 45mins), connected to Delhi. Taxis charge Rs 600–1,000. Shared taxi costs Rs 50–100 per seat
Road From Delhi, follow the NH24, NH9 and NH109 to Kathgodam. About 5km ahead of Kathgodam at Ranibagh, turn right and follow the Bhowali-Bhimtal Road to Bhimtal. Skirt Bhimtal Lake, cross the bridge and at the junction, turn right for Naukuchiatal, 4km away along the road before Bhimtal bazaar Bus Uttarakhand Roadways runs one bus from Haldwani to Naukuchiatal at 5pm every day. Many buses leave for Naukuchiatal from Almora and Haldwani