The last time I was in this part of the country, my friends and I had slept amid fragrant sheep turds as we were too exhausted to sweep the filthy stone hut that lacked one of the most essential amenities, a roof. That seemed to belong to another age and time as I now lazily soaked in my current comforts. I am exhausted after a long hike to see some of the most jaw-dropping mountain sceneries in the world. But this time, after a tingling hot shower, I settle in a leather armchair and sip my Rioja; a fire crackles nearby. I’m discussing molecular gastronomy, the current craze in the haute cuisine world, with Lindsay, a chef from England and her husband Andrew, a cardiac surgeon, and also my companions for the trek. We’re sitting at 2,200m, up in the Kumaon Himalaya, in an improbable luxury resort. 360° Leti is just five buildings located in a meadow atop a ridge that looks like the snout of a sleeping dinosaur. In the gathering gloom, the lower hills, covered with oak and rhododendron forests, looked dark. Higher up, the peak of Nanda Kot and its surrounding mountains, which soar more than 6,000m, appeared ghostly white in the star light; soon the night sky will turn into a carpet of diamonds.
It’s a far, far cry from Delhi, where I’ve just spent 10 choking days blundering through smog that resembled a particularly poisonous simulation of onion soup. So, you need to get away from it occasionally. 360° Leti is one of those places you love to escape to.
It’s been on the international luxury travel map for the past couple of years. 360° Leti was started by Jamshyd Sethna, the man behind Shakti, which does high-end hiking holidays; they started with operations here in Kumaon (2004), followed by Sikkim (2007) and this year, Ladakh. 360° Leti can be booked as a package deal with a few days of hiking between three villages in Kumaon where Shakti has converted traditional local village homes into very comfortable rooms; the idea being that the time spent hiking in relative but rustic comfort should be capped with three days spent in real luxury, with some hiking thrown in.
It’s of course possible to spoil yourself at 360° Leti, but as a package, it actually works rather well, because after several days of hiking through the Kumaon hills, the improbable comforts of 360° Leti seem even more remarkable. Like the other stays that Shakti offers, you have to do a little work to enjoy what’s on offer. In this case, it’s a walk from the road head at Leti village, a sharp 300m descent to a rocky ford across a mountain stream, followed by an equally sharp climb. The resort itself reveals itself quite spectacularly — architect Bijoy Jain’s Studio Mambo has created a small group of structures that use traditional techniques, such as dry stone stacking for the walls, with an aesthetic that is entirely contemporary.
And what hills. The view from 360° Leti itself is fabulous, but there’s something much better for those willing to put in a little work. On my first morning there, we were off on a four-hour trek to a pasture on a ridge about 3,200m high. It wasn't easy, with moderately hard stretches, though conversations with my guide Siddhartha about everything, from leopard scat through Led Zeppelin to the identity politics of outsiders, took out the sting from the strenuous walk. And then, just past a ruined herder’s hut and a chorten, it’s there, a simply jaw-dropping, staggering sight - 300km of the entire Central Himalayan Massif.
There is nothing quite like it on earth. The centre piece is the incomparably beautiful peak of Nanda Devi, at over 7,800m, the highest peak in India. Nanda Devi is the 20th-highest mountain peak on earth, but the rocky range has few equals. Famous mountaineer, Eric Shipton, who along with Bill Tillman, first charted the extremely difficult access route to Nanda Devi, considered this to be the greatest mountain wall on earth. There are several higher individual mountains, but virtually nowhere on the planet is there a wall of rock, snow and ice that presents a barrier quite like this, because almost nowhere does it drop below 5,000m. I could not speak for several minutes as I looked upon the astonishing view.
These joys aren’t for everyone, though. 360° Leti is unforgettable, but it does offer a very individual view of luxury. If you’re expecting the sybaritic, over-the-top splendours of high-end luxury as found in Rajasthan and Agra, you won't find it here. The cottages aren’t short of comforts, with fireplaces, light but warm duvets, sheepskin throws, leather furniture, and elegant teak and brass-lined bathrooms. But everything is very understated, almost minimalist. Your room doesn’t come with high-speed broadband, Blu-Ray DVDs or high-definition plasma TV. Mobile phone coverage is not good. There’s no room service, for that matter. In fact, in its price range — and 360° Leti isn’t cheap — it’s positively spartan. The lack of such frills does make sense, though. Absolutely nothing comes in the way of the most important thing the cottages offer — each has an individual and quite astounding view.
And though there are excellent whiskeys, wines and other drinks to go with some fine food, there’s no extensive menu. You simply eat what a very good chef decides is appropriate for that day. Children may find the place somewhat quiet for their liking. There really isn’t anything for most children to do here. Above all, you have to be fit, and should ideally have had some experience of trekking over difficult terrain at moderate altitude (2,000-2,200m). The walk to 360° Leti itself is moderately challenging, and it’s easy for an inexperienced or ill-shod walker to twist an ankle or wrench a knee. The hikes from the resort, especially the long seven-hour tramp through forests and meadows that yields that wonderful view of Nanda Devi and the surrounding Himalaya, is rather difficult, and involves a climb up to 3,200m. The scenic beauty is utterly worth the panting and sweating, but if you have any doubts about your physical and cardio-vascular fitness, do check with your doctor before setting out.
An awful lot of caveats for a holiday experience that’s ultimately about being cosseted? 360° Leti is not for everyone . For a lot of people, one or the other of these caveats is simply going to be a non-negotiable point of objection. It doesn’t matter a bit, though. For its intended audience, 360° Leti offers a combination of great food and drink, wonderful contemporary design, lovely hikes and a glimpse into the staggeringly beautiful natural surroundings.
- Getting there
- The easiest way of getting there is to take the Ranikhet Express from Delhi to Cathectic (alternatively you can drive — it takes about 8-10hrs). Shakti’s staff will pick you up for the drive to the roadhead just ahead of Leti village (8hrs). From here it’s a 2-hour walk, involving a 300m descent followed by an equally steep climb to 360° Leti. This path is over rough, broken terrain, at heights of up to 2,200m, so you’ll need to be fairly fit and used to hiking over narrow hill trails, rock and scree.
- The hotel
- 360° Leti has 4 cottages arranged around a central building allowing privacy for every guest. Each cottage has a private sit-out and offers distinct but superb views of mountains and forests through walls of toughened glass lined with teak. Though there is no electricity, solar energy provides running hot water and charges the lamps in your room.
- Tariff: $540 per person per night (all-inclusive; a minimum stay of three nights) Contact: Shakti, 011-41734788, www.shaktihimalaya.com
- When to go
- The season runs from October 1 to May 31 (it’s closed for the rest of the year). The view is one of the biggest attractions of 360° Leti, and the best time is between October and March. December and January are cold (night temperatures will dip below freezing), but offer unparalleled views. The forests nearby are full of rhododendron, which blooms after March; a lovely sight, marred only by a slightly hazy skies.
- What to see & do
- You could just laze at your cottage or on the spacious lawn. There are a number of walks into the forests and meadows, ranging in duration from 1 to 7 hours (out and back) and easy to moderately difficult. The longest trek rewards you with an absolutely spectacular view of the Himalaya, with Nanda Devi as the centrepiece, from a meadow at about 3,200m.
- What to take
- Warm clothing for the evenings, and comfortable hiking gear.