The rat race can be one exhausting affair and living in a jungle of buildings can make you crave for the great outdoors. However, even as the urban sprawl continues to grow each day, there is a sleepy little Raj-era town nestled in the hills above Mussoorie, which has simply refused to accept the juggernautish onslaught of time – Landour. And I had the wonderful opportunity to stay at a lovely inn here called La Villa Bethany, whose keepers are proud custodians of the past. In the words of Sunita Kudle, the innkeeper, this beautiful home-stay is the “new baby on the block”. Even though this historic inn is a century old, all the other buildings in Landour are more than 150 years old, so a real whippersnapper by comparison. Amarjeet and Sunita Kudle saved the building from the brink of complete ruin and have been successfully running the inn for the last seven years.

La Villa Bethany
La Villa Bethany in Landour

Their decision to move to Landour leaving flourishing careers behind to manage this inn was not a pre-planned one either. As former employees of the bustling hospitality business, the couple barely had any time on their hands. One day, Sunita was late picking up her daughter from a crèche. “Papa’s never there and you don’t have the time for me,” said the two-year-old toddler to her mother. This prompted them to take a short break from their hectic work life and they, along with their daughter, headed to Landour for a much needed holiday.

During their stay, they stumbled upon a building in a state of total neglect, and enquired about it. They found out that the structure had once belonged to a Dutch-American doctor who used to treat leprosy patients. It was called ‘La Villa Bethany’, which means a ‘place of healing and rest’. At the time of their enquiry it was owned by a mission, which was planning to put the structure up for sale as they could not maintain it. They tracked the organisation down and contacted the board responsible for over-seeing the sale of the building and requested them to change their minds. The committee, impressed by their zeal and seeing a win-win way of saving the property, asked them outright if they would be willing to run the building as an inn. The couple had not anticipated this sudden turn of events. With a look of mutual understanding born from years of togetherness, Sunita and Amarjeet agreed without hesitation. They put forth a proposal to convert the decrepit structure into an inn at their own expense, pay monthly rent to the denomination, and the rest is history.

Priyam Bagga
The 100-year-old La Villa Bethany will delight anyone with a green thumb
The 100-year-old La Villa Bethany will delight anyone with a green thumb

After landing at Dehradun Airport and a motion-sickness inducing ride uphill, I arrived at the homestay by lunch time. I quickly learned that Sunita and Amarjeet take the word ‘home’ in homestay to heart. As soon as you check in you will be told that you should feel free to treat La Villa Bethany as it were your own home. I found out that La Villa Bethany does not serve lunch to its guests. Instead, they are encouraged to explore Landour and support local businesses and food vendors. In fact, Sunita told me that if guests aren’t interested in stepping out, they are handed the menu cards of all the restaurants in Landour that deliver! This ties in neatly with La Villa Bethany’s philosophy of corporate social responsibility, which the couple takes very seriously. The homestay’s lovely furnishings are locally sourced, bought from disenfranchised, underprivileged women with the help of an NGO called Purkal Stree Shakti Samiti, which is based out of Dehradun. The toiletries are from SOS Organics, an organisation in Almora. Perishable items are procured from local farms and markets (they only use the famous Prakash jams – yummy!). Their staff are all locals who are trained in-house. The Kudles have also tied up with a few locals to drive guests to and from Dehradun, since they discourage guests from driving on the steep slopes of Landour. With their help, the local drivers have been able to grow their cab businesses considerably. As Sunita puts it, “We believe that it is our duty to create jobs for the underprivileged because we cannot wait for the government to do everything.” In light of their efforts, the homestay was given the number two spot in the ‘Best Accommodation for Local Communities’ category in 2012 by the Virgin Holidays Responsible Tourism Awards, at the World Travel Mart, London, only one year after it opened for business.

La Villa Bethany offers spectacular views of the surrounding hills
La Villa Bethany offers spectacular views of the surrounding hills

La Villa Bethany has ensured that the history of Landour remains unforgotten even if you stay indoors. All its buildings are named after the founders of Mussoorie and Landour except for one, which is named after Amarjeet’s mentor from his time at the Oberoi group of hotels – the Longworth Block. It’s interesting to note that every single aspect of this homestay has a personal touch – instead of numbers each room has a name. So you could find yourself enjoying a quiet meal at Captain Young’s dining hall, or spending an idle afternoon deep in thought in Mckinnon’s study. There is also a room that has been designed like an American-style log cabin called Pahari Wilson’s Cabin, which can accommodate 4–5 people, and another that is straight out of the fictional universe of JRR Tolkien. Aptly titled Bag End, it has been designed like a hobbit’s home, complete with a round entrance and a roof covered with grass!

I had the opportunity to stay in the Bedell Suite, named after Prema Bedell, who was Sunita’s landlady, friend and confidante. This lovely, red-walled room, which used to be a servants’ quarter, has the best view of Landour that La Villa Bethany has to offer. Unfortunately, it was raining constantly during my stay, so I could barely catch a glimpse of the wondrous mountains facing the inn. However, it was still a delightful experience to see the mist rolling in to my room every morning as soon as I opened the door!

La Villa Bethany’s philosophy of corporate responsibility extends to the environment too. This is a completely self-sustained property – an absolute feat considering the kind of water woes Mussoorie and Landour experience. Their rainwater harvesting set-up has a capacity of a whopping 95,000 litres, the highest in all of Mussoorie. The water they save is more than what the property requires, so they end up recharging the groundwater table as well. La Villa Bethany has been chosen as a case study on how rainwater harvesting can be accomplished in Mussoorie by the Mussoorie Water Forum, a decentralised forum that acts as a repository of information on the town’s water situation in the context of rapid urbanisation and climate change. The property also has a solar water heater and a solar cooker. The Kudles have also undertaken massive reforestation drives around their property since the area is extremely prone to landslides. Many of the seasonal vegetables and fruits served at mealtimes come straight from the homestay’s kitchen garden and the local villages.

The Kudles have also adopted two villages – Kakdu and Udiana. The former was badly hit by rampant alcoholism – the village originally had 80 families, but only 20 remained as many male members perished after consuming toxic home-made liquor. Out of the 20 families, only eight of them had earning male members. These villages were not given adequate attention by the authorities, so the Kudles took it upon themselves to help the inhabitants by providing them with cows, bulls and goats so that they had a source of income.

Solar water heater on the property
Solar water heater on the property

The adoption of two villages wasn’t the end of the couple’s philanthropic activities either. They played an extremely crucial role during the 2013 floods that ravaged Uttarakhand as well. In the month of June, a multi-day cloudburst caused immeasurable loss of life and property in the region. Closer home, less than 35km from Landour, the Aglar River, a tributary of the Yamuna, changed its course near Thatyur. All standing crop in the area was lost, leaving the villagers without food or a source of revenue. The Kudles realised that something had to be done and managed to raise about ₹17.5 lakh just through their former guests.

However, their guests wrote to them saying that the family must ensure that the funds reached the right people. So, with the help of Landour Community Hospital, they provided the villagers in the area with solar cookers, sewing machines, fishing nets, goats and chickens. They also made the villagers sign an indemnity bond for six months (for which they had to pay a token amount on a case-by-case basis depending on the family’s economic status), which warranted that they would not sell or eat the animals. This ensured that the villagers would receive long-term sustainable relief rather than short-term aid.

Courtesy La Villa Bethany
The cozy library inside the homestay is paradise for the Ruskin Bond fan
The cozy library inside the homestay is paradise for the Ruskin Bond fan

In February 2014, Amarjeet and Sunita became the first couple to be awarded with the REX Karamveer Puruskar by the International Confederation of NGOs in partnership with the United Nations.

Sunita is also the secretary of KEEN (Keeping the Environment Ecologically Natural), a citizen’s movement that works in tandem with Mussoorie Nagar Palika to keep Landour and Mussoorie clean. They organise door-to-door garbage collection and disposal and also conduct extensive awareness campaigns so that Landour is kept pristine. The organisation holds workshops in schools every two months because they believe that children are the future and if they are informed, the future will be a better one.

While the Kudles are clearly environmentally conscious, that doesn’t mean they ignore the lighter side of life. In fact, there are quite a few fascinating activities on offer at the inn. You can take a walk around the area and explore tiny Landour, with its splendid churches and eerie cemeteries, and maybe bump into Ruskin Bond. If you’re seeking a bit of adventure, you can go for a trek in the surrounding mountains. For you nature buffs out there, there’s the Benog Wildlife Sanctuary and Jabarkhet Nature Reserve. I had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to walk through the Jabarkhet Nature Reserve during leech season (yay!). One of my fellow trekkers found one in her hair! However, witnessing a barking deer running through the thicket and witnessing spectacular shades of green while it was pouring cats and dogs made this trek totally worth it.

Delicious pastries and snacks at the famous Landour Bakehouse
Delicious pastries and snacks at the famous Landour Bakehouse

One of the most interesting facets of your stay here will be the daily three-course dinners. It’s not every day that one gets to try Garhwali cuisine but I got to savour a few dishes during my stay. The homestay does not have a typical restaurant. Instead, there is a huge dining table with seating for 10 people. The menu changes on a daily basis, keeping dietary restrictions and preferences of the guests in mind, and offers food from a different region of India or the world. Since everyone eats at the same table you get to interact with people from around the world and learn about their distinct cultures – an innovative concept that sets La Villa Bethany apart from your average, run-of-the-mill homestay. In fact, Sunita told me of a time when the 10 chairs were occupied by women from 10 different nationalities! Their library, which is definitely worth a perusal, has a map of the world where people have crossed out their home cities – a delightfully eccentric touch! It was heartening to see so crosses on many different parts of the world. It’s no wonder that you feel like you’re truly a part of a global community during your stay here.

Remember to visit Sister’s Bazaar to pick up some local treats. You can visit the Landour Bakehouse for yummy morsels, or bring back some Prakash Jams in different, equally delectable flavours, or their famous peanut butter and cheese. You can also buy clothing, jewellery and Ayurvedic products here. Don’t forget to dig into a steaming hot plate of Maggi when you visit Char Dukaan. La Villa Bethany can also organise a trip to Himalayan Weavers, an organisation that produces environmentally friendly handloom products located on the Mussoorie-Dhanaulti Road.

The entrance to the Tolkien-inspired ‘Bag End’, designed like a hobbit’s hole
The entrance to the Tolkien-inspired ‘Bag End’, designed like a hobbit’s hole

Amarjeet also dabbles in pyrography – the art of decorating wood by burning a design on its surface. He makes some extraordinary plaques on local Haldu wood, which are on display around the inn. You will spot designs based on the Harry Potter series, the Lord of the Rings series, and even Bruce Lee! The plaques are for sale should one catch your eye. All proceeds go to the Mercy of God Academy, a school for underprivileged children in Pratapnagar, Tehri district.

Female travellers need not worry about their safety during their stay – the owners are very particular about the kind of guests they want in their establishment. As a result, bookings can only be made through their website (W lavillabethany.com); they also correspond with potential guests before confirming the booking in order to understand what they are looking for from the experience. As a result, everyone who stays here usually ends up getting along like a house on fire! The inn is pet-friendly (they have three dogs of their own), so guests can be rest assured that their furry family members will be heartily welcomed.

Sunita and Amarjeet saw Landour and La Villa Bethany as their escape route from urban insanity, and they are sharing it with the rest of the world. In this charming little town, you can leave big-city chaos behind and live out your fantasies (they literally have a hobbit hole for crying out loud!). Whether you want to admire the flora and fauna, take a walk through the historic town, or start reading that novel you’ve been putting off for a while, this wonderful abode in the hills awaits you.

HIGHLIGHTS

  • Heritage building
  • Adopted two villages; helped them gener­ate a steady source of income
  • Locally sourced upholstery and toiletries
  • Solar water heating; solar cooker
  • Rainwater harvesting
  • Afforestation drives around the property to reduce soil erosion
  • Vegetables sourced from kitchen garden and local market
  • Associated with KEEN, an organisation that works towards waste management

FAST FACTS

When to go Landour is best from March to June and from October to early December. Winters are very cold. There is snowfall in December and January

La Villa Bethany

Near Kellogg Memorial Church, Landour, Mussoorie – 248179

Tel: 0135-2630054

Cell: 09910049644

Email: mail@lavillabethany.com

W lavillabethany.com

Tariff Deluxe room ₹4,500; Suite ₹7,490; Log Cabin ₹12,000 (meals extra)

Activities

  • Explore Landour
  • Trekking
  • Nature walk
  • Visit to Jabarkhet Nature Reserve and Benog Wildlife Sanctuary
  • Shopping at the local markets

GETTING THERE

Air Jolly Grant Airport, Dehradun (65km/ 2.5hrs) is served by Air India, Spice Jet and Jet Air from Delhi. Pre-book at La Villa or call direct (Shiv Travels: 09837374335) for local taxi (to avoid union hassles, and safer hill driving). Fare: ₹2,500 (drop)

Rail Dehradun Railway Station, located off Gandhi Road, is served by the Dehradun Shatabdi, Janshatabdi and overnight Mussoorie Express. Taxi as above

Road Make your own arrangements to Dehradun. Taxi for La Villa Bethany as above

Read more in the new Outlook Traveller Getaways Responsible Escapes