It’s been a long, long time since our last trip. For a family that enjoys travelling as much as we do, the past two years have been an especially tiring period. The LO (the ‘Little One’, our now eight-year old) has even forgotten much of her last journey, to Kenya, back in January 2020.
I know many people who haven’t let the pandemic interfere with their travel plans too much, especially not over the past twelve months or so. We, however, have been exercising a good deal of caution – with the result that we’ve ended up feeling really restless.
Finally, I decided we had to go. Somewhere, anywhere. Somewhere we wouldn’t need to worry about housework, somewhere cool, an escape from the heat of the NCR summer.
Nainital, not too far from Noida, was what we settled on: it’s not so very far (only about 8 hours’ drive, stops included), it’s cool, and the LO has never been here. We decided to combine that with a trip to Corbett National Park: the LO, who has aspirations of being a naturalist (a ‘wildlifer’, as she termed it till a while back) would perhaps enjoy that.
The LO went into a tizzy as soon as she discovered what was being planned. First of all, she drew a calendar to help her count down to the day we would pack (because packing is halfway to leaving). She made a list – a very long and very detailed list – of things she would need to pack. This, I edited drastically, to make sure we wouldn’t have to hire a truck to follow all the way into the hills.
And she packed her Social Studies textbook. This year, she’s learning about the geography of India, and she figured she couldn’t go into the Himalayas (“Are these the Himadri we’re going to? Or the Himachal? The Greater Himalaya?”) without taking along a ready reckoner.
This textbook was whipped out while we were still hours away from our destination. Sections were read out to us (in between the LO – still securely strapped in – dancing to the play list I’d created).
When, about five hours into the drive, I pointed out the hazy outline of the foothills on the horizon, the LO was so excited, she couldn’t wait to get there. Every five minutes, we would be asked, “Are we in the mountains now?” When we finally did get to Kathgodam and pointed out to her that the road was climbing—if she looked out, she would see the slope outside—she refused to believe it, because it didn’t look to her as if there was any perceptible slope.
Anyway, we got to Nainital, and to the Earl’s Court Hotel, where we had booked a room. While my husband checked us in, I went berserk over the flowers—the fuchsias, the hydrangeas, the agapanthus and strawflowers and whatnot—while the LO gushed over the little children’s play area that stretched at the base of a massive old oak tree in the grounds.
Our room, a wonderful wooden-beamed one with a fabulous view of the oak as well as the mountains beyond, had a fireplace (alas, not in use at the height of summer, much to the LO’s dismay)…
… but she compensated by making it the centerpiece of what her father billed a ‘shrine’: with pebbles gathered from the gravel outside, and a twig of deodar that we’d found on a jaunt around the garden in the morning.
There were four upside-down pyramids, which the LO found rather fascinating. There were steps leading down to a nice little room with a sofa, dressing table and a bathroom. The porcelain was a little chipped.
(The previous sentences have been added by the LO, who came along while I was writing this and decided she had to add her two paise. Those somewhat ambiguous lines describe a secondary section of our room; the ‘upside-down pyramids’ are the vaulted ceiling).
We got started on our sightseeing the morning after we’d arrived. First up, just five minutes’ walk from our hotel, was the beautiful old church of St John in the Wilderness. Built in 1848, this stone church is named for the deodar wood in which it stands. Alas, the wood is much depleted now, though there are still some trees around. Though it’s part of the Church of North India and services are still held at this church, it looked pretty run-down, with peeling paint, crumbled plaster and broken glass in the windows.
Unfortunately, though we visited on a Sunday, the church was closed (service was at 4 PM, and we had visited in the morning). We wandered around the outside, looked up at the rose window, peered in at one of the broken side windows, and imagined how that stained glass might look on the inside.
After our trip to St John’s, we hired a taxi to take us around some more. For the bulk of tourists coming to Nainital, the top sights seem to be the ones that offer views of Nainital and around, and a road trip above Mallital showed us three of these: a view of the mango-shaped Naini Tal, the lake that is the centerpiece of the town.
Snow View Point, from where you can see the snowcapped peaks in the distance (we were unlucky that on this day, the distant ranges were completely hidden behind clouds). And Khurpatal View Point, from where you can see the nearby lake of Khurpatal, supposedly shaped like a cow’s hoof. Or a trowel, depending on who’s translating ‘khurpa‘.
While these views were nice, the fact that you have to stop on a very busy (and narrow) hill road, jostling dozens of other tourists, all competing for a great view (and/or a great selfie) means that it’s also pretty fraught with danger. My personal recommendation would be to skip this if you’re not especially gung-ho about ‘view points’ (why on earth do we Indians call these ‘view points’? I get the logic, but a ‘viewpoint’ is something quite different).
All those view points done, we got our driver to take us to the Nainital Botanical Gardens. Spread out across a mountainside, this small but delightful garden showcases the flora of the Middle Himalayas, and then some. There were masses of hydrangeas, torch lilies and dahlias near the entrance, and beyond that, a small Butterfly Park (in any case, the gardens have lots of butterflies, so even if you don’t stop by here, you still see lots of lepidoptera).
There is a Medicinal Plants section (all Indian botanical gardens seem to love putting together beds of plants used in Ayurveda), and beyond that, a Fernery and Orchidarium, which was all mossy and drippy and full of ferns, though we saw only three varieties of orchid currently in bloom here.
The Botanical Gardens have their own view point, offering a panoramic view of the surrounding mountains. Just a little below the View Point are the Domes, three green houses that house the cactus and succulents collection of the Botanical Gardens. These were really beautiful, and though only one cactus was flowering, several succulents were in bloom. And anyway, many cacti and succulents don’t even need to be flowering to look utterly gorgeous.
From there, we took ourselves off to a well-earned lunch at Sakley’s, an iconic Nainital café where the LO had her first taste of fruit beer (“Beer? I’m allowed to drink beer?), and tucked into fish and chips.
By the time we got back to our hotel room, we were tired and feeling lazy. While her father had a nap, the LO and I went down to the garden opposite and had a wonderful time. I photographed flowers and butterflies, and the LO tried to make herself fit into the toddlers’ slides, swings, and other play equipment. We sat down on a huge swing (of the type you see in 70s Hindi films) and swung ourselves into a pleased, sleepy stupor that was relieved only when my husband joined us, bringing with him muffins (which I’d baked and brought along from home) and potato chips. Tea and juice were ordered.
“This was the best siesta I’ve ever had,” the LO declared. (She first labelled it a ‘fiesta’ and had to be corrected).
That night, it poured buckets. It was still drippy when we woke up the next morning, and though the rain stopped shortly after, the clouds, grey and swollen with rain, kept hovering all through the day. The LO couldn’t figure out what they were; she thought it was smoke. Because how could clouds be all around us? How could they be so low?
We went to the first place on our list, Raj Bhawan (which is the residence of the Governor of Uttarakhand, when he’s in Nainital). Raj Bhawan is a lovely old colonial building, all grey stone and towering deodars around. Distant memories of visiting the exquisite Viceregal Lodge in Shimla had had me all eager to go on a tour of this place, but we were destined for disappointment: it turned out that the Governor had been in residence till the night before, and though he had gone back to Dehradun (his usual residence), Raj Bhawan was not yet ready to be opened for visitors. Some other day, we were told.
The LO, not having been all anticipation, was unfazed. “Can we go to the zoo now?” she asked.
The High-Altitude Zoo, more popularly known just as Nainital Zoo, is situated higher up the mountainside from Nainital’s main road, the Mall. The Mall winds its way along the bank of the Naini Lake, from Tallital at one end to Mallital (which was where we were staying) at the other. We were told that because there is very little parking at the zoo, private vehicles aren’t allowed. Instead, all visitors to the zoo must take the zoo shuttle, which operates from a point on Mall Road, near Mallital.
So we got in line to get into the shuttle, and stood. And stood. The line didn’t budge for a long time, and when one shuttle finally arrived, we discovered it was nothing more than a jeep, in which some twelve-thirteen people were to be crammed in, pretty much sitting in each other’s laps.
Meanwhile, it began raining. The two men who’d been selling tickets for the shuttles (fortunately, not in advance; they took money only as they seated people in the vehicles) ran off. That was when we too decided to throw in the towel.
The LO was, of course, vastly disappointed (a ‘wildlifer’ who hadn’t seen the zoo? For shame!). So I suggested a solution: we’d find someplace to have coffee, and hopefully by the time we’d finished, the rain would have stopped, there would be fewer people in the shuttle queue (and the ticket-dispensers would have returned, most importantly). Perhaps we could then go to the zoo.
We ate hot, crisp pakoras at a café. We gazed out over the lake (it had stopped raining, and the sun was shining, if sporadically), and enjoyed the view. The LO had a pineapple juice through a bendy straw, and was very happy.
Happy enough, in fact, to not be too upset when we discovered that the shuttle queue was even longer than it had been before. There seemed little point in frittering away our entire day just trying to get to the zoo, so we decided to ditch the idea and go on a Naini Lake ride instead…
We hired a row boat (with boatman; you can also hire a paddle boat, which you’re then obliged to propel by yourself). The LO was in splits to see her parents clad in bulky life jackets, but settled in between us and enjoyed the ride. I was tempted to sing Jis gali mein tera ghar na ho baalma, but desisted; the boatman might have thought I was nuts.
After the boat ride, we made our way to a lovely place called Café Chica, part of a homestay that offers grand views, delicious food, and massive hydrangeas in a gorgeous garden.
That done, we went back to our hotel, to rest, to play chess (the LO began honing her skills on this trip, though she has a long, long way to go still), and to pack. Because, the next day, we were off to Corbett.
Watch this space for the Corbett travelogue, up soon.