The Sattal-Bhimtal-Naukuchiyatal troika in Uttarakhand’s Kumaon hills was still scrubbing the hard winters off its rusty shutters when we arrived. But with kettles on the boil at chai shops and the freshly yellowed PCO booths astir, boatmen were already hustling a Bengali family into their swan-headed dinghy. Yet, unlike those first-time visitors, who were probably peddled a package tour of Kumaon’s ‘lake district’ by cabbies outside their hotel on Nainital’s Mall, regulars drop anchor off centre — in search of other lakes placid. Sattal, a camper’s paradise, continues to be the most unspoilt of the lot. Bhimtal and Naukuchiyatal, even as they fight a grim battle against arbitrary real-estate development, also offer a fair share of charming hotels and homestays. A round-up (listed alphabetically, not qualitatively!) of the best accommodation in the three lake-towns.
Getaway jungle camp: Two camp cots and a lantern may not be everyone’s idea of a great hill holiday. But the frills here include a ballet of Himalayan jays and white-crested thrushes virtually on your breakfast table. A short boat ride-plus-trek away from the touristy quarters of Sattal, the camp sits in an overwhelmingly quiet wooded ravine — even the sound of leaves underfoot grates. Sand pear and peach blossoms in white and pink punctuate the greenery. The tents, huddled between bare poplar trees, are basic — two beds, blankets and a side table — but this 13- season-old, no-electricity camp is better known for its impressive menu of activities: rock climbing, rappelling, fishing, valley crossing, canoeing and trekking. There’s also the option of doing nothing — sipping milky tea from battered steel mugs, playing with the resident mutts, chickens and geese, or conjecturing if it was a barking deer, wild boar or leopard call one heard at dusk.
Accommodation: 20-35 tents
Tariff: Rs 1,800 per person (twin-sharing), inclusive of meals and a couple of activities
Food: Indian (including Kumaoni), Continental Contact: 9412039293
Sattal Birding Camp: With warm, comfortable tents that have downy four-poster beds and an en suite bathroom, this is as close to luxury as one can get in Sattal’s camps. Given the setting, the honest food and service are easily taken for granted. But it’s the hot water bottle handed out at day’s end that makes you want to hug its bearer. Dinner table banter can take a feral turn with hair-raising tales of the leopards rife in the region. Mornings are best reserved for less threatening pursuits such as birding, trekking and fishing. In-house guides are happy to take guests to birding hotspots in the surrounding pine and oak woods and at the fish-filled Nal-Damayanti Lake nearby.
Accommodation: 5 tents
Tariff: Rs 3,500 (single)/Rs 4,000 (double), including meals
Food: Indian, Continental
Contact: 011-44128785, 9811704651, www.sattalbirdinglodge.com
Sattal Forest Resort It is possible to reach the resort — perched on a hill overhanging the lake — by four-wheel drive both from the lakefront at Sattal and Bhimtal. But the walk through the woods is so much more rewarding. The red-roofed cottages have almost everything you might need (and those that you probably don’t, such as burglar alarms and DVD players). Homemade cheesecake and pineapple cake are house specials.
Accommodation: 9 (double rooms) and 1 (single), set in three cottages
Tariff: Rs 3,500 (single)/Rs 4,500 (double)/Rs 9,000 (cottage/two doubles), inclusive of breakfast and dinner
Food: Indian, Continental, Chinese
Contact: 0124-405224, 9810107116, www.sattalforestresort.com
The Sattal Christian Ashram “All who sincerely desire to find God are welcome…” Founded in 1930 by evangelist E. Stanley Jones from the Methodist Church, it attracts ‘spiritual seekers’ (“men of all faiths and no faith”) from all over the world. But it’s the location of the ashram — by the prettiest waterbody in the area, Garud (or Panna) Lake — that’s unrivalled. It’s so veiled by pines that it’s impossible to see it from the road that winds past it to reach the Sattal boating hub. A wooden cross is the only telltale sign.
Accommodation: Ranges from singles, doubles, four-seaters to dorms; can accommodate up to 125 people.
Tariff: At the Ashram’s discretion; educational and religious groups for long stays get preference.
Wildrift: This one’s not for the faint-hearted. Expect modest tents on the spur of a hill — a happy yellow or green on the inside — and a separate row of pucca loos and baths. The camp offers a long list of activities that span land, water and air — the usual rappelling, rock climbing and river crossing as well as ziplining. Wildrift also offers treks across most of the Kumaon and Garhwal Himalaya. Depending on a camper’s skills and time, they tailormake treks in the Nanda Devi, Panchachuli, Roopkund and Gangotri regions.
Accommodation: 18 tents
Tariff: Rs 1,500 per person per day, all-inclusive
Food: Indian Contact: 9810808448, www.wildrift.com
YMCA Camp: It’s a good thing they entertain walk-ins. And non-members. Else, the merry Sattal waterfront would see a legion of grouchy faces. Bang on the lake, yet shielded from the tourist hordes, the YMCA Camp banks on its ‘location, location, location’ advantage. Less than a year old, there’s also that ring of newness about the place — new linen, not-slept-in beds and plans to begin kayaking and night treks.
Accommodation: 10 six-seater tents for school groups with separate bathrooms, 8 four-bed safari huts with en suite bath
Tariff: Rs 2,500 per person per day for safari huts, inclusive of breakfast. Meals cost Rs 175 (veg) and Rs 225 (non-veg). For six-seater tents, tariff depends on group size.
Food: Indian Contact: 936800208
Birdy House: The owners’ six-year-old daughter gave Birdy House its name. She could as well have chosen to christen the two-bedroom cottage, roosting on an odd, elongated plot, ‘Doll’s House’. The Lewis Carroll air about it lingers on the small patch of green dotted with baked clay hens and frogs. The all-glass façade sets the cottage — otherwise made of local stone and wood — apart. But it’s only in the afternoon, when the breeze tickles the chimes, that one discovers the answer to ‘Why Birdy House?’ Hill mynahs choreograph an elaborate dance on the corrugated roof to build a nest. Roll around and return to your siesta. Bhagat Singh and Gopal, the efficient duo, will later wake you up with a nice cup of tea and ply you with excellent food. That the place faces the valley is a forgivable detail. The only grouse: voices carry, and one can hear the tread of housemates. But we’re willing to blame it on the engulfing silence.
Accommodation: 2 doubles
Tariff: Rs 3,980, inclusive of breakfast and a meal
Food: Indian, Continental, Chinese
Contact: 9811018118, www.birdyhouse.net
Fishermen’s Lodge: It’s a place that need not fish for compliments. Except, fish they do—on every wall hangs a variation of a tubby, adorable fish. The signature motif makes its mark on everything else, from stationery to toiletries, door handles to matchboxes. This obsession with the fruit of the lake should have amounted to overkill but, somehow, it doesn’t. Charmingly understated, Fishermen’s Lodge is the sort of place one can’t help gushing about. Large, lake-facing bay windows, Easter egg-coloured linen, great food and music. And if you happen to share an evening with the hotel’s well-travelled owners, Bunty and Bindu Bakshi, you’ll go home with tales about Bhimtal that you’ll find in no guidebook.
Accommodation: 12 doubles
Tariff: 2N/3D for Rs 16,000, 3N/4D for Rs 24,000 (double), inclusive of breakfast, high tea and dinner. No charge for children up to six years; Rs 1,000-2,000 per day for older children. An additional Rs 300 per person for lunch.
Food: Indian, Continental
Contact: 9910162244, www.thefishermenslodge.com
Moksha Retreat: Nirvana is hard won. But at this old English clubhouse-turned-summer home, it’s on the house. Spiritually inclined, its Delhi-based owner hopes to host meditation workshops here. But even if you have misgivings about anything phonetically similar to moksha-dharma-karma and the like, you needn’t strike this charming place off your list. Potters, artists or holidaymakers who intend to loll on the lawns are equally welcome. Only a couple of rooms have a bird’s eye view of the lake though.
Accommodation: 1 single, 1 triple, 1 quadruple, 1 suite
Tariff: Rs 2,000-3,500. Meals cost Rs 300 per person.
Food: Indian and Continental Contact: 9810085883, www.moksharetreat.com
Monolith Resorts: It’s hard to lose your way in Bhimtal. But if you still manage this feat, Monolith Resorts’s castle-like watchtower makes for a handy reference point. In its 10th year, this was architect Gautam Bhatia’s attempt to mirror the wood and stone style of Kumaoni homes. And though somewhat the worse for wear, the genius of the design and loveliness of ivy growing on garden benches and cottages makes it worth a pause.
Accommodation: 10 cottages (triple/quadruple), 3 luxury cottages (doubles), 3 luxury rooms (double)
Tariff: 2N/3D for Rs 9,900, inclusive of two meals
Food: Indian, Continental, Chinese Contact: 05492-247415, www.monolithresorts.com
Neelesh Inn: Neat rooms, each with a veranda opening out to the lake, ensure that this two-decade-old hotel continues to be in business. The aviary of exotic pheasants and peacocks, though, is one feather they ought to lose from their cap.
Accommodation: 4 deluxe, 13 super deluxe, 2 suites, 1 cottage
Tariff: Rs 1,800 (deluxe/non lake-facing), Rs 2,800 (super deluxe/lake-facing), Rs 4,500 (suite/quadruple), Rs 5,000 (cottage /two doubles). Lunch costs Rs 275 and dinner Rs 350.
Food: Indian, Continental, Chinese Contact: 05942-247117, www.neelesh-inn.com
Déjà Vu: It’s an old haunt. But you won’t spot its name on the scores of signages that outnumber the trees on the road to Naukuchiyatal. A well-kept secret, it’s lovingly decorated with collectibles from every corner of the map. Its pine-shaded deck by the lake is a world unto itself. But, as is the case with several homestays in Kumaon, it’s manned by a caretaker and not by the owners.
Accommodation: 1 two-bedroomed cottage
Tariff: Rs 8,000 (for entire cottage), exclusive of food. Pay for ingredients and the caretaker will cook for you.
Food: Indian, Continental Contact: 9899891118, www.naukuchiatal.com
Emerald Trail: “You’re living my dream!” Sumith Dutta gets told that a lot these days. But they aren’t thinking of the guts it takes to give up a plum job, the determination to keep going without family for months and the patience it takes to get stuff done here. Marketed by Mahindra Homestays, this four-bedroom getaway — high up in the hills above Naukuchiyatal in Jungliya Gaon — can be hard to find. But the paragliding hub, the entryway to Kailash Dwar and cricketer Manoj Prabhakar’s home are helpful markers. In its first season, this pet-friendly home is the last property on a winding road. At 6,500ft, the land is a riot of cherry blossoms and rhododendrons. The air is rarer and several notches colder than that at Bhimtal or Naukuchiyatal. Emerald Trail is the kind of secret one is always loath to share.
Accommodation: 4 doubles
Tariff: Rs 2,500-4,000 (doubles), all-inclusive
Food: Kumaoni Contact: 9833949954, www.emeraldtrail.in
Lake Village: It’s difficult to be harsh about a place overrun by flowers. But the lush, landscaped gardens barely redeem the befuddled identity of Lake Village. With one too many styles of architecture — concrete cottages, log cabins and gazebos — and décor accents borrowed from Rajasthan and Punjab, it looks like a fish out of water in Kumaon. Having said that, the resident owners have made thoughtful additions to their four-year-old resort: cottages come with a microwave and a fridge for those travelling with babies. It’s a popular venue for music festivals and conferences.
Accommodation: 7 log huts, 9 gazebos, 3 cottages
Tariff: 2N/3D for Rs 10,000 (log hut)/Rs 11,500 (gazebo)/Rs 22,000 (cottage), inclusive of two meals
Food: Indian, Continental, Chinese
Contact: 9811360616, www.thelakevillage.com
The Lake Resort: This oversize resort lords over an entire stretch of the tal. Naukuchiyatal’s drawing card of a few years ago shows signs of ageing, but if one discounts a musty sofa or two, it still holds promise. Large, open spaces for kids to run about in ensures a full house.
Accommodation: 25 rooms (various), 1 log hut, 4 rooms in hunting lodge
Tariff: Rs 2,800 (deluxe), Rs 3,200 (suite), Rs 6,000 (family suite), Rs 3,500 (log hut), Rs 2,000 (hunting lodge). Breakfast costs Rs 200, lunch/dinner Rs 300
Food: Indian, Continental, Chinese
Contact: 05942-247061, www.lakeresort.co.in
At last (Naukuchiyatal). Tariff: Rs 4,000, meals extra. Contact: 9758513755
Club Mahindra Dancing Waters (Naukuchiyatal). Tariff: from Rs 14,950, all-inclusive. Contact: 044-39881000, www.clubmahindra.com
Country Inn (Sattal and Bhimtal). Tariff: 2N/3D from Rs 9,555, inclusive of four meals. Contact: 011-4619-0100, www.countryinn.co.in
KMVN Naukuchiyatal and Parichay (Naukuchiyatal). Tariff: from Rs 700, meals extra. Contact: 05492-247138, 248201
Lake Inn (Bhimtal). Tariff: from Rs 2,500, all-inclusive. Contact: 9759545415
Mountain Club (Bhimtal). Tariff: from Rs 3,500, meals extra. Contact: 9719812757, www.clubgroupofhotels.com