The winding drive up from Kathgodam railway station to Sitla village took two hours but we hardly noticed. We were distracted by the low-lying wispy clouds that looked like delicate veils draped across verdant hillsides. The mountains are always fascinating, but they take on an almost magical air during the monsoon. Try driving through a cloud bank like we did and you’ll know what I mean – you almost expect to see fairytale creatures emerge from the mist and whisk you off on an adventure.
A sprawling homestead, which includes apple, peach, plum and apricot orchards, Sitla Estate sits at the edge of a reserve forest in the beautiful Kumaon region of Uttarakhand. I felt as though I had stepped back in time the moment we set foot on the property. A British-era bungalow with ivy covered walls was the first thing I noticed. This dignified old lady is over 165-years old but has been beautifully maintained by Vikram Maira, the proud owner of this wonderful property. Vikram left behind Mumbai’s rat race 20 years ago and returned to Sitla village. He settled down as a gentleman farmer and opened his home out to those seeking quiet and solitude. He built 11 rooms – six contemporary style and five colonial – employing traditional Kumaoni architectural techniques.
The material used for the roofs is wood wool, which is wood shavings bound together with an adhesive; terrific for insulation. When it gets cold, the compact fireplace in each room can be fired up. Vikram swears that the combination of the insulated roof and the fireplace keeps you toasty in even the harshest winter. As a result there’s been no need for electrical heating devices in the cold season, which in turn keeps the estate’s power usuage low. The contemporary block is situated further down the hill from the private residence, with sweeping views of the orchards and valley beyond. We got the biggest surprise on our first evening, as we stood on our balcony. The clouds parted and revealed snow-covered Himalayan peaks in the distance, amongst them Nanda Devi, Trisul, and Api, which lies in Nepal.
As we discovered at dinner, Vikram is a man of many hats. He spoilt us with a four-course meal of mushroom soup, deconstructed shepherd’s pie, chicken roulade and apple crumble. My eyes were bigger than my stomach and I polished off everything on my plate. I couldn’t help but think of the bears and leopards that occasionally visit the property under the cover of darkness as we made our way back to our room after dinner. “Just talk loudly so you don’t take them unawares,” was Vikram’s advice. I sang loudly on our walk downhill knowing fully well I wouldn’t be able to run very fast after the dinner we’d polished off. If you’re lucky you’ll get to eat a perfectly made thin-crust pizza while you’re here. It was definitely better than a few I’ve eaten at fancy restaurants.
A birding tour the next morning with Raju, the resident naturalist, was just what the doctor ordered for our case of overeating. We were joined by friendly desi dog Tiger during the 90-minute walk around the hills that comprise Sitla village. We soon realised learning how to focus binoculars is as important as identifying the birds. The hills were alive with birdsong and we were lucky to spot drongos, warblers, doves, woodpeckers, and parakeets, to name a few. We also came across swathes of cannabis growing wild. Raju mentioned that the parakeets love eating cannabis leaves. This makes them clumsy, which means that catching them is child’s play.
During the tour I’d noticed that Sitla’s hillsides were remarkably free of garbage. Having been to other villages and towns in Uttarakhand, I sadly, always noticed trash marring the landscape. Luckily for this village,
Sitla Estate set an example for all the other households and commercial establishments by collecting non-biodegrable waste and having it sent down to a recycling plant in Haldwani. The others soon stopped burning their trash and followed suit.
Sitla Estate is not a hotel and nor will it ever be run like one. Don’t come here expecting room service. Neither do the rooms have TVs. However, if you love nature, peace and quiet and are looking for a getaway then this is the place for you. Catch up on your reading or go for a leisurely stroll. There’s also the option of a guided hike through the reserve though Vikram prefers not to offer this activity during the monsoon since leeches are out in full force. He is very focussed when it comes to his vision for Sitla, “I’m creating as tiny a footprint as possible. I’ve got 40 acres of land. I’ve got captive water, land that’s not very steep, so constructing a resort would be the obvious thing to do since I’d earn a heck of a lot more money from that than selling organic apples. But I’d rather enjoy the farming and let the forest encroach upon my land.” If you consider this from an environmental standpoint then this attitude comes as a breath of fresh air since most businesses would look to increase their revenue by any means necessary. Vikram is content with what he’s offering and has no plans to change his slice of Kumaoni paradise. While you’re here, do visit the shop on the estate. It sells local produce such as jams, chutneys, handmade soaps and all-natural scrubs as well as shawls, stoles and scarves.
A rainstorm lashed the area one night. We burrowed under the quilts trying to ignore the wind, which made the doors creak and blew rain in through an open window. Lightning zig-zagged across the sky and the dark valley below looked ominous. But I awoke the following morning to a gorgeous sight. A thick fog was drifting slowly towards us, covering the hillsides in a white blanket. It was perfect weather for a hot cup of chai and the kitchen staff indulged us with a big flask of masala tea at breakfast. Incidentally, the staff at Sitla Estate are either locals or from neighbouring villages, all trained by Vikram. He is also happy to share the farming practices he’s been using with local farmers and encourages them to try the same. For instance, he began growing broccoli on his farm. It is similar to cauliflower in terms of rearing but fetches a much better price in the market. After seeing Vikram’s success in growing and selling it over two years, the rest followed and now they all earn a higher profit from its sales.
Sitla Estate is involved in a number of welfare programs in the area. The local Gram Sahab, which consists of three villages including Sitla, has 11 families that are currently living below the poverty line. In order to reduce some of their financial burdens, Vikram has pledged that the cost of their children’s education will be borne by him. An NGO called Aarohi based around 6km from Sitla organises medical camps with a whole team of doctors from various specialisations four times every month. In the early days of these camps, only the people who lived nearby could benefit from the medical treatment offered. So it had a limited reach. This is where Sitla Estate stepped in. Now a part of the funds generated from the estate goes towards printing a large batch of posters, which are then distributed around several villages, informing residents about every camp. Additionally a fleet of vehicles ferries people between their villages and the camps, thereby giving more individuals access to medical facilities.
Another interesting practice on Sitla Estate is the collection of waste water – be it from the farm, kitchen, roofs or toilets – and its release back into the soil. According to Vikram, Mother Earth is the most effective water-recycling machine. They merely have to be mindful of where they discharge the water that’s collected. While water that runs off from the farm and roofs is harmless and can be released near the source of the spring on the property, they have to ensure kitchen and bathwater run offs are released at a safe distance allowing nature time to work its filtration magic on the water before it reaches the groundwater table.
When you’re visiting Sitla you could take advantage of its proximity to other interesting places. I was content to gaze at the delicate branches of the willow trees blowing in the breeze for hours, while listening to music, or reading, never tiring of the natural beauty around me. If you prefer a bit more activity, you could easily plan a day trip to Jageshwar, Nainital or Binsar Wildlife Sanctuary. Jageshwar, in Almora district, is known for its ancient temple complex. Believed to have been built between the 9th and 13th centuries CE, these stone temples bear inscriptions from various periods in Sanskrit and Brahmi. If your interests lie more towards the natural than historical, then Binsar WLS would be your best bet. Set up in 1988 to preserve Central Himalayan broad leaf oak forests, the sanctuary spans 46sq km. It is home to over 200 species of birds incuding the tit, magpie, wood-pecker, eagle, etc. Amongst the larger animals that can be spotted are the leopard, black bear, wild boar, chital, musk deer, red fox and red giant flying squirrel.
If you love reading, then you’re going to spend a good portion of your stay in Vikram’s well-stocked library. There is also an old Scrabble board, which we made full use of every evening. We also walked through the orchards with Raju early one evening. I have to admit, as someone with no green thumb whatsoever, the sight of fat red apples and juicy peaches hanging from branches gave me a real appreciation for the hardwork organic farming involves. While it might be tempting to pluck the fruit, please respect the produce and admire it from a distance. You will probably hear a lot of yelling from the farm during daylight hours. We were amused and confused by this strange phenomenon until Vikram informed us of the logic behind it. Apparently parakeets also love to feast on peaches. Flocks of them descend every day trying their luck but they’re usually driven away by the ‘professional yellers’ whose loud screams scare the flying thieves away.
Needless to say, we did not want to leave on our last day. Vikram had been right when he told me three days weren’t enough to soak in all the beauty his home had to offer. Initially, I had wondered what I’d do without a proper internet connection. It took just a few hours to forget about Instagram and Facebook and the constant need to be connected. Whether you visit with family, or with a group of friends or for a romantic getaway, Sitla Estate has something for everyone, as long as you’re open to really letting go of the city life. I guarantee you will come away from this beautiful place with a little piece of it forever in your heart.
- Organic farming
- Groundwater recharge
- Employs locals
- Welfare initiatives
When to go Anytime of the year though winter offers the best chances of clear views of well-known Himalayan peaks
Nainital district - 263138
Cell: 09756560677, 09917506183
- Birdwatching tour
- Guided hike
- Indoor games
Air Nearest airport: Pantnagar (3hrs) served by flights from Delhi. Sitla Estate arranges pick-ups and drops
Rail Nearest railhead: Kathgodam (70km/ 2hrs). Taxi fare is ₹1,500–2,500 to Sitla Estate
Road From Kathgodam drive on for 5km to Ranibagh where you turn right near the HMT factory for Bhimtal. Skirting the lake turn left for Bhowali (4km) from where you take the Ramgarh Road to Tala Ramgarh then to Sitla via Nathuakhan. It’s a good road and shorter so you don’t have to go all the way to Mukteshwar
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