Done in by the hairpin bends on my drive to the picturesque lake town Nainital, a narrow uphill road on the Ayarpatta slopes leads to a hotel, where I finally clamber out of the car and breathe in the fine crisp hill air that my lungs had sorely missed.
Naini Retreat, erstwhile residence of the Rajasahib of Pilibhit, is one of the town’s oldest properties nestled cosily amid tall pine and oak trees, with a spell-binding view of the mountains and the Naini lake. As I ambled downhill, a quick trot through the winding staircase took me to the main hall, where my fascination soon gave way to hunger, and I found myself being escorted for a sumptuous lunch at the Gurney House, the multi-cuisine restaurant on the property. The aroma of fresh cooked chicken in black bean sauce with Kumaoni mutton and pahadi raita wafted over from the kitchen and found its way to the table. We wrapped up the lunch with vanilla tart (made with sesame seeds, yum!), and before I could catch a siesta, a storm gathered over the mountains and I headed outside to enjoy the autumn showers in the garden, with a cup of tea.
The hotel was originally constructed in 1927 as a summer palace, was later restored and converted into a heritage hotel in 1989; it is reminiscent of a European cottage (albeit a large one), and has an old-world colonial charm that Nainital has come to represent.The retreat’s verdant setting is a welcome change; I imagine people bent painstakingly over the pebbled grounds every night to fish stray stones out of flower beds. Surrounded by trees and shrubs, Naini Retreat’s suites are a bespoke luxury, with a grand palatial exuberance that made me feel pampered beyond all expectations. The accommodation options (especially the lake and garden facing rooms) are a reflection of their royal past, as is the Anglo-Indian inspired cuisine left behind by the British Raj.
Time moves slowly in the hills, and I find myself gazing at the serene lake from the newly constructed alfresco eatery ‘The Walnut Cafe’ - a suspended wooden deck built next to an idyllic 150-year-old walnut tree with a stupendous view of the town just below it. Behind me, the hotel’s Tudor-inspired structure is breathtaking and sublime in equal measure. Its stony frame, fitted with modern amenities for modern day travellers, beckons luringly set against the gorgeous Kumaon Himalayas peering from behind the clouds.
Here, if you wish to lie low and rejuvenate, the wellness spa is your best friend, followed by a nice drink at Stella Bar which offers a range of cocktails and hookah (I had a few drinks with a chatty fellow traveller). Most winter days, a bonfire, accompanied by live music outside the bar, enthralls all visitors who quickly take to dancing to the tunes of their own. But if you wish to stretch your legs a bit, DS Jeena, the manager, will leave no stone unturned in arranging a trip to the lakes, and if the time is right, their quaint sister property in Ramgarh.
When I woke up to depart, I caught a glimpse of the clear morning sky over the mountains from my room, a privilege us plain dwellers are oft bereft of. Nainital is packed to the brim with visitors, considering its popularity, but I found myself looking at the pastley sky with a warmth that comes with finding a kind of home, right in the heart of the hilly chaos.
Pro Tip: Take a long leisurely walk to the Governor’s House, or conservationist Jim Corbett’s home Gurney House, both of which are few minutes walk from Naini Retreat Hotel.