Fourteen days of skiing in Gulmarg had left me sore and weary. The thrill of seemingly flying down mountains on a pair of fibre glass contraptions is incomparable, but as unexpected are the accompanying aches and exhaustion. I had never quite realised there were muscles in my toes and palms, let alone ones that could make their presence felt by throbbing in pain. I was in need of some well-deserved rest and that’s why I couldn’t be gladder about my upcoming stay at The Khyber Himalayan Resort and Spa.
As I approached the hotel, I noticed it looked deceptively small for a property with 85 rooms. However, on entering, I was bowled over by the grand lobby. With plush diwans, Kashmiri bric-a-bracs and gorgeous tapestries illuminated by dozens of trellised lanterns descending from the ceiling, it seemed like the durbar of an erstwhile royal. I was welcomed by Ishfaq, who sat me down at Chaikash, the tea lounge. Over a cup of kahwa, I completed the check-in formalities. The Kashmiri green tea, generously garnished with almond silvers and just a hint of saffron, was the perfect antidote to the snowstorm raging outside.
As Ishfaq showed me to my room, he expounded on the curios along the corridoor. “This here,” he said, pointing to an elaborate copper decanter with carved foliage patterns, “is a tash naer. It is used for washing guests’ hands on formal occasions. All above is khatamband. Pieces of walnut wood have been joined together to make geometric designs on the ceiling. It is handmade and that too without any nails!” With my head cricked up to admire its finesse, I almost stumbled into a wall sconce. “That is decorated with Kashmiri papier-mâché,” he enlightened me as I tried to regain my composure. “The technique was introduced to the valley from Persia in the 15th century.”
“Welcome to your room,” he said opening the door with a quick swipe. “Luxury Balcony Room with Himalayan View.” Before I could even check it out, the bathroom captivated my attention. It has a voluminous bathtub fronted by a ceiling-to-floor window. Beyond foamy heaps of snow, there are hundreds of snow-dusted deodars stretching along steep slopes. I have seen many a rooms overlooking gorgeous vistas, but a bathroom with a view – now that’s a novelty! As I peered at the landscape, I realised why the hotel seemed small from the outside – it is laid out in a semi-circle along a slope such that there is minimal intrusion on the landscape. In front are the famed meadows of Gulmarg and behind, the snow-kissed peaks of the Pir Panjal Range. Thus, the superlative views from every window of the property.
The bathtub was extremely inviting, but I was scheduled for a session at the spa. The Khyber Spa is run by L’Occitane, an international beauty products company with roots in the Provence region of southeastern France. Amongst its offerings are body massages, scrubs, wraps, baths and facials. The spa has five rooms – three for individuals and two for couples. All are alluringly named after the ingredients used in their treatments – immortelle, shea, almond, angelica and Verdon.
As I leafed through the spa brochure, I was immediately tempted by the Deep Tissue Intense Relief Massage, which was described as a combination of “Hawaiian lomi lomi massage, acupressure and gentle stretching.” But what caught my eye was “perfect for recuperation after a long journey.” And as if he was reading my mind, the therapist Jackie helpfully added, “We highly recommend it after a long day of skiing.”
I fill a form asking myriad details regarding my medical history and skincare regimen (Unfortunately, splashing water on the face is not among the listed options and I have to leave the boxes with ‘toning’, ‘night cream and ‘day cream’ woefully unchecked). A swig of herbal tea, a few minutes in the steam room, a foaming lavender bath for my feet, deep inhalation of an aromatic essential oils blend and I am ready for the massage. Over an hour, Jackie methodically tackled my body parts one after the other – the knotty back, the overstretched thighs, the stony heels and the underworked arms. As he rubbed and kneaded and squeezed and stretched my muscles, I could feel the weariness take flight. And then, he asked me sit up. As I was about to thank him for the lovely experience, I felt a pleasurable tingle traverse my spine – he had ensconced my torso in a hot, moist towel and gave a backrub over it. The warmth melding with the invigorating strokes shrouded me in sheer bliss.
The next day was spent at the Khyber Wellness Block, hopping between the gym, sauna, steam room, jacuzzi and the highlight of the hotel – the indoor heated swimming pool. Although modest in its dimensions, it is the most gorgeous pool I have swum in. Unlike most pools where the view is restricted to a sullen lifeguard cradling a flotation device, here entire Himalayan peaks and snow-covered slopes watch over you as you splash and gambol. The glass panels surrounding the pool allow the landscape to cast deep reflections in the water. I can’t say what was more fascinating – the wavy, upended image of the countryside immersed in the pool or the surreal experience of swimming in warm water while surrounded by snow.
I had still not emerged from the spa-and-swim bliss as I headed to The Khyber Spa for my next treatment. I was recommended the Signature Lemon Balm-Apricot Scrub and after last night’s wizardry, readily accepted their suggestion. My therapist Manu, a well-spoken, young man from Mizoram, introduced himself and said that he would first apply the scrub for 30 minutes and then moisturise and massage for the remainder of the hour. I partook of the preliminary rituals and lay down supine. Manu smeared the scrub with gentle yet firm strokes and soon I was covered in a gelatinous layer. It felt so relaxing I fell into a reverie. After the application of the scrub, he gently nudged me (He must be quite used to customers falling asleep, I thought) and asked me to take a shower. As I looked down at my body, I noticed that I resembled a bear arising victorious from a mud-slinging competition. After a leisurely shower punctuated by some ardent scouring, I emerged squeaky clean. I positioned myself back on the bed and Manu poured dollops of what the L’Occitane catalogue mentioned was an award-winning body lotion made with shea butter from Burkina Faso. And just as I was exulting in the velvety smoothness, came the hot towel rub. I couldn’t have imagined a more perfect end to the treatment. To use spa brochure writers’ favourite word, I felt rejuvenated. Indeed, for the first time I felt I could stake claim to that elusive entity they call inner glow.
Basking in this newfound radiance, I headed for dinner to Cloves, the resort’s multi-cuisine restaurant. While the restaurant has diverse options – from the omnipresent dal makhani and pizzas to selections from East Asian and Continental cuisines, I was more interested in the Kashmiri delicacies. The pièce de résistance of Kashmiri cuisine is the wazwan, a multi-course meal served on important occasions, such as weddings. The wazwan comprises as many as 20 to 30 dishes, or even more, depending on the wealth and appetite of the hosts. The preparations are overwhelmingly meaty, though greens and paneer make a humble appearance. Lamb is the meat of choice. The meal is prepared by traditional, hereditary male cooks known as wazas. So important are they to the nuptials that the date of a wedding is often determined according to the availability of wazas!
While my dream of gate-crashing a Kashmiri wedding failed rather prematurely (April to October is the season for weddings, I was told), I had a chance to sample a miniature wazwan in the Khyber Tarami. The tarami is the plate in which the wazwan is served. It is covered with a copper cloche known as sarposh. As soon as Sameer, my server, lifts the lid, the juicy aroma of the meat ambushes my senses. I espy two seekh kebabs and tabak maaz (fried lamb ribs) on a heap of rice. There are intricate, shallow carvings on the sarposh and the plate, which make the food look even more tantalising.
Sameer then places bowls containing different preparations – rista (meat balls in a cumin- and saffron-flavoured red curry), marchwangan qorma (lamb in a chilli gravy with hints of fennel and cardamom), haak saag (a Kashmiri variant of spinach), tamatar tsaman (paneer in tomato curry) and gushtaba (meat balls in a tangy yoghurt sauce), as well as chutneys and dips. I did not know much about the order of the courses or dishes, except that gushtaba is eaten towards the end. Even though the number of preparations was no comparison for the most modest of wazwans, I found myself feeling quite full in a matter of minutes. I took a break and then persisted at it – refusing the gushtaba towards the end, no matter how distended your stomach, is considered an insult to the wazas’ culinary talent. It is not uncommon for guests to imbibe a kilo of meat, and I think I might have come perilously close to that figure.
I could have used a digestif after the rich meal, so I headed to Calabash, the sheesha lounge in the resort. It is the closest to an après-ski scene that Gulmarg has and in the evenings, reverberates with stories of skiing and sloth shared over gurgling pipes. Since they do not serve alcohol (guests are welcome to bring their own drinks), I opted for the betel nut hookah. As I watched the mountains glisten in the moonlight through wisps of smoke, I couldn’t help but echo travellers over the centuries – from the Mughal emperors to yesteryear Bollywood stars – all of whom had found their paradise on earth right here.
There are direct flights to Srinagar from Delhi, Amritsar, Chandigrah, Dehradun, Jammu, Leh and Bombay. It costs approximately ₹6,000 for return tickets from Delhi. Gulmarg is 55km from Srinagar. Cabs (₹2,000–2,500) can be hired at the airport, though in winter, only vehicles with chains or 4WDs can navigate the 12-km-long snowy stretch from Tangmarg to Gulmarg. You can rent winter gear and gum boots (for walks in the snow) at the market next to the taxi stand in Tangmarg or Gulmarg. The hotel arranges pick ups and drop offs from Srinagar airport.
Gulmarg is quite small, and you can get to most places on foot. Human-pulled sleighs are a popular, albeit rather awkward, touristy attraction.
The Khyber Himalayan Resort and Spa has five kinds of lodgings – premier room, luxury room with Gulmarg/ Himalayan View (which comes with a balcony), luxury one bedroom cottage, luxury two bedroom cottage and a presidential cottage equipped with a private jacuzzi, heated plunge pool and garden. It also has a business centre, banquet halls, a cosy movie theatre, a children’s playroom (with table tennis, board and video games) and a terrace restaurant, Nouf, which is functional only in summers.
The ski package (₹14,000, 16,000 and 18,000 per night for single, double and triple occupancy respectively) is available for visitors staying a minimum of 5 nights between 3 January and 30 April 2017. It includes buffet breakfast, dinner and complimentary WiFi.
CONTACT 9906603272, 954254666: khyberhotels.com: [email protected]
What to See & Do
As India’s premier skiing destination, Gulmarg offers opportunities to all – from novices to professionals. First-time skiiers should head to the slope near Hotel Highlands Park. The government-run ski shop next to it rents out equipment. Guides are available here or you can ask the hotel to arrange one for you.
For experienced skiiers, there’s the Gulmarg Gondola (gulmarggondola.com), located practically at the doorstep of The Khyber. Those with basic skills can tackle Phase 1, but only expert skiiers should attempt Mary’s Shoulder and Phase 2. Book tickets online in advance as on peak days, it gets sold out.