Straddling the vast hillscape of the Western Ghats, Matheran is a beloved hill station boasting unparalleled natural beauty. Its proximity to both Mumbai and Pune, Maharashtra’s most important cities, coupled with its extraordinary climate lends it the distinction of being a year-round favourite with holidaymakers. Visitors flock here everyday, some come by cars or two-wheelers, navigating the hairline bends of the corniche that leads to Matheran, others prefer to take the toy-train that serves the hill station. It is quite a memorable experience to ride the train, taking in the scenery as the locomotive pain-stakingly chugs up the hillside. A third alternative is to brave a trek from the town of Neral up forested slopes to Matheran. Albeit for the adventurous, this is the best way to appreciate the beauteous, unmarred surrounds, and incomparable views of the valley that lies below.

Courtesy MTDC
A pathway in a forest
A pathway in a forest

Although the credit for the discovery of paradisal Matheran in May 1850 goes to Hugo Poyentz Malet, erstwhile governor of Thane, it was Lord Elphinstone who saw the potential in this discovery and laid the foundations to develop Matheran as a hill station. Owing to its elevation of over 2,000 ft above sea level, Matheran, unlike Bombay, was rarely humid. It did not take long for it to become a summer retreat for British officials stationed in or around Bombay, who even constructed mansions for themselves here. Needless to say, Matheran’s charms have not waned with the passage of time.

Today, Matheran, which, loosely translated, means ‘forest on the mountaintop’, is unique insofar as it is an eco-sensitive region by the decree of the Ministry of Environment and Forest. Motor vehicles are banned altogether within town limits, effectively making it a rare place completely free of any type of exhaust or noxious fumes.

This is probably the reason for Matheran’s immense appeal among Mumbaikars. The air is always cool and crisp, and seems to possess rejuvenating powers. One could walk here for miles together without feeling fatigued. Indeed, the dense evergreen forest cover and the cool air creates a conducive atmosphere for walking. The many trails and routes, as well as the wild secluded scenes here are best explored during quiet, unhurried walks, when you are accompanied by nothing other than a soft inland murmur of trees.

Punit Paranjpe
The ancient Western Ghats, as seen from Panoroma Point
The ancient Western Ghats, as seen from Panoroma Point

Long after you are back in the city, going about your daily business, the memory of these tranquil moments spent in Matheran will afford you a welcome respite from the weariness of urban life. Another prefered way of travelling here is on horseback. Numerous vendors vie for your custom near the car park at Dasturi Naka. Most of them are rather garrulous, and willingly offer information about the place and its people.

THINGS TO SEE AND DO

Matheran boasts 38 designated lookout points, a map of which can be procured from the MTDC office at Dasturi Naka. If you wish to travel and explore at your own pace, walking is the best option. It is impossible to get lost because there are always scores of people around and the trails are interconnected, but keep the map handy. If you choose horseback riding, be prepared for some serious haggling. You could opt for the complete tour (could last upto four hours), or consult with the vendor and construct a bespoke itinerary.

Punit Paranjpe
One Tree-Hill Point
One Tree-Hill Point

Panorama Point, almost 5 km north of the market, is a trek that can be refreshing (though long) in the rains and in winter, but gruelling in summer. From here you get a bird’s eye view of Neral town and, on a clear day, even as far as Mumbai in the west. Midway, if you time it right, you might catch the toy train as it chugs along the narrow mountain tracks. The shaded walk to Hart Point and Monkey Point is rewarding in itself. Comparatively undisturbed and densely forested, these areas are recommended for birdwatchers. Crowds gather at Porcupine Point for great views of the sun set. Louisa Point, to the west of the market, offers an undisturbed view of the ruins of Prabal Fort and grass-topped hills. As the name suggests, there is indeed only one tree at the windy One Tree-Hill Point – a truly scenic spot, especially just after the monsoons. From here, a footpath leads southwards to Shivaji’s Ladder. From Rambagh Point, Khandala and Karjat can be spotted, and Alexander Point affords you views of Chauk Valley. Another must on every visitor’s itinerary is Charlotte Lake, fringed by the forest and with Pisharnath Temple at one end. With more than 8–10 different routes, Matheran is the ultimate destination for the trekker and outdoor enthusiast. There are many routes to get here. Matheran-Karjat, Matheran-Vangani Station and the Railway line trek (from Neral, following the famous narrow-gauge rail way line all the way into Matheran) are the most popular ones.

SHOPPING

Shops in Matheran, like many other hill towns in Maharashtra, abound with chikki. This caramel confection (jaggery with nuts, peanuts or sesame seed, cut into slabs or cubes) is a sellout, and there’s loads to choose from – with peanuts, coconut, channa, almonds, pista, cashew and sesame. There’s also scrumptious fudge to pick up. Salted channa and fresh honey are other must-buys from the bazaar here, which runs along the railway station road.

Courtesy Neemrana Resorts
19th-century hill house
19th-century hill house

The Verandah in the Forest

The Verandah in the Forest is a charming 19th-century hill house, set among the woods of Matheran. Located by a river, surrounded by a forest, upon the red earth of Matheran which is Asia’s only non-motor vehicle hill resort, I confront the following options to make the last leg of my journey: chug uphill in a toy train, trot up on a horse, hike, or be carried up in a palanquin.

I succumb to the final option. Being carried through wooded land, past gigantic mansions that look straight out of the pages of Dickens’ Great Expectations is quite an experience. Forty-five minutes later I arrive at the resort, a place that would surely have made it into the fantasies of Thoreau, situated as it is in the very lap of nature. What is particularly charming in this self-proclaimed ‘non-hotel’ is the homely treatment you receive upon arrival. Grand common spaces that inspire community living abound – from a wonderful giant verandah with a treetop forest view, to a tree house where you can pore over one of the coffee table books you’ve selected from the community room, to hammocks from where you can watch people on horses canter by. The house with this glorious verandah was built in 1852 by a Captain Barr. This explains the sign still standing upon the gate. When the British left, it was sold to a Parsi gentleman named Mr Dubash. It was eventually bought by the Neemrana group of hotels, who refurbished and inaugurated it in 2002. What pre serves its 19th-century charm is the fact that most of the furniture, including the beds and the dining table, were transferred along with the house and are revamped versions of their historical selves.

Accommodation

Each room in The Verandah in the Forest has its special character: an exquisitely high ceiling; old furniture that stayed on with the house or prototypes thereof; and a name. For instance, Shankarshet has its own sit-out, but much less of a view than Peerbhoy which is right on the giant verandah. But it is in my comfortable double bed that I find the space to contemplate how the ancient portraits and statues, which dot the place, contribute to the old-world atmosphere.

The servings at meal-time are king-size. Breakfast includes the speciality Neemrana jams and teas. Lunch is buffet-style. Tea is served in keeping with the spirit of abundance that drives life here. Expect not a dainty biscuit or two, but an array of cookies and several varieties of the chikki for which Matheran is famous. Dinner is a pre-set elaborate menu. It might be tough at first to wean yourself away from the enchantment of eating on the verandah, but what gives the Continental dinner a special quality is that it is set around a very long dining table where all guests sup together. These fixed menus are charged at per person rates, 500–600.

WHERE TO STAY

April to June and October are the main tourist months in Matheran and the hotel rates rise rather steeply.

The Byke Retreat (Tel: 02148- 230365-66; Tariff: 6,500–7,000, with meals), near the market, is spread over seven acres around the first dwelling in Matheran, built in 1854 by Hugh Malet.

Adamo The Resort, formerly Richie Rich Resorts (Tel: 230007-08; Tariff: 7,200–24,000) has a six-room bungalow, which can accommodate 12 adults and eight duplex villas accommodating four adults each. It is located on MG Road, and has spacious rooms and a pool.

Hotel Regal (Tel: 230243/ 87; Tariff: 8,600–10,850 for 2D/ 2N, with meals) is one of the best hotels here. A charming property located on One Tree Hill is Fleetwood House (Cell: 09702851885; Tariff: 2,750 per person, with meals). This Colonialstyle bungalow has stables, two temples, a yoga hut and a garden.

Horseland Hotel and Mountain Spa (Tel: 230421-23; Tariff: 3,500–5,000) is located on Vithal Rao Kotwas Road and its facilities include a restaurant, indoor and outdoor games and a swimming pool. Rangoli Retreat (Tel: 230272; Tariff: 4,800– 6,240, with meals) is opposite the railway station.

The Verandah in the Forest (Tel: 230296; Tariff: 4,000–7,500) is a heritage property of the Neemrana group near the lake. Hotel Usha Ascot (Tel: 230360; Tariff: 8,500–18,000, with meals) is on MG Road.

WHERE TO EAT

Gujarat Bhavan is on the way to Charlotte Lake. Their Gujarati thali is highly recommended. Regal Hotel’s restaurant is another recommendation for Gujju food. For Parsi food, make for Brightlands Resorts’ restaurant. From the marketplace along the mosque, a narrow lane ascends to join another road. At the junction, on the right, is Shabbir’s, a small eating place. Try its chicken and mutton biryani.

FAST FACTS

When to go Pleasant throughout the year, but it is magical during the monsoons

Tourist Office

MTDC Mumbai
Tel: 022-22044040
W maharashtratourism.gov.in
STD code 02148

 

GETTING THERE

Region Desh

Location Asia’s only pedestrian hill station is situated 2,636 ft above sea level in the Western Ghats, 26 km from Karjat

Distance 127 km NW of Pune

Route from Pune Take the Pune-Mumbai Expressway; Get off the Expressway at Khopoli and take the SH35 (Cars are not allowed within Matheran Hill)

Air: Nearest airport: Mumbai (105 km/ 3 hrs) Taxi: 2,800–3,400

Rail Nearest railhead: Neral (11 km by road). From here, walk up to Matheran or hire a horse, a hand-pulled cart or a shared taxi (70 per head). Get off at Dasturi Naka, after which a shuttle service (45 per head) is available upto the market. Again, you either take a horse-ride (400) or rickshaw (500) or walk up to town. Coolie charges are about 300 (negotiate). Better still, take the Blue Mini Rail (Tel: 02148- 230264) up to Matheran (dep Neral: 7.30, 9.00, 10.35 and 11.40am, 12.50 and 5.05pm; dep: Matheran 7.00 and 9.50am, 12.35, 1.50, 3.15 and 4.30pm). More trains on weekends. The mini-train (fare 70–300) does the trip in about 2 hrs. Neral is connected to Mumbai by local trains and others.

TIP No mini train in the monsoons

Road From Mumbai take the Mumbai- Pune Express way at Kalamboli; after about 8 km, take the first exit on your left for Khopoli-Shedung. After that, continue past the Toll Plaza to reach the old Mumbai-Pune Highway (NH4). About 16 km down this highway, you arrive at Chauk-Karjat phata. Turn left here and after another 10–11 km, you arrive at a crossroad; the right turn goes to Karjat and the left to Matheran via Chinchavli and Neral. Park your car at Dasturi Naka, 2 km short of Matheran Dasturi Naka Parking 40–50 per day Tourist Entry 50 per head

Bus ST buses from Mumbai ply regularly to Neral