The LO Goes to Nainital and Corbett, Part I: Nainital

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.  

22 thoughts on “The LO Goes to Nainital and Corbett, Part I: Nainital

  1. Lovely post Madhu…..We were in Nainital in May for a quick 30 minute ‘seeing the sights from the car’ trip. We did not want to stay at Nainital because we felt it would be touristy and commercial. We stayed at a place near Bheemtaal – that was also touristy and commercial!!!!!

    Your photos and the comments by your LO made the post very interesting.

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    • I’m so glad you enjoyed this post, Ravi. Thank you so much. My husband and I had gone to Nainital many years ago – I think 2000 or 2001 – and in the off-season, which was why we got a unreal impression of Nainital, completely uncrowded and serene. I had realized, even before we went this time, that it would be much more crowded, but I hadn’t guessed just how much!

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  2. Nice catching up with an eight year old wildlifer!
    LO sounds wise beyond her years. Beer?!!
    Was the Social Studies book referred to at all?
    Are a few more photographs possible in the next installment.
    That’s when the wildlifer will be in element.

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    • Thank you! I’m glad you liked this post. And yes, the LO can, when she puts her mind to it, be surprisingly wise. :-) She did refer to the Social Studies book, and read out portions of it every time she saw a signboard (or heard us talk) of any place that she recalled having read about.

      There will be more photos in the next post. We didn’t see much wildlife, sadly, but we had a good time, anyway.

      P.S. Fruit beer is completely innocuous – it’s just called that because it’s fizzy and it’s the colour of beer. Otherwise, it’s sweet and fruity and utterly non-alcoholic. Just the sort of drink the LO loves.

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  3. Great write up! Enjoyed it from LO’s perspective!! You should have finished singing the Kati Patang song anyway!😊

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  4. I enjoyed this post thoroughly, chiefly because you brought back memories of a visit to Nainital with my parents in 1960 (long, long before your time!). I don’t remember the Botanical Gardens or the Zoo, but I do remember walks to the Mall, boat rides, pony rides, rainy afternoons spent tucked up in bed reading She by Rider Haggard, listening to the small radio, and best of all, breakfast in bed! That was my first, and only, experience of that luxury, along with not having to make my bed, and all three of us sitting down to dinner and being served hot meals without my mother having to work in the kitchen. Oh yes, I also remember the bhutta we ate at the Mall every day.
    The LO is paying keen attention to detail – chipped porcelain? I don’t think I even knew what it meant when I was 8. I am glad she took her textbook along. Now she is sure to be the top scorer in her class because she knows the book like the palm of her hand.
    Looking forward to the next part about Corbett. We hope to visit there some time.

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    • What lovely memories, Lalitha! Thank you for sharing those with me – it made wonderful reading. Interestingly, my parents also went to Nainital in the 60s: in 1966, to be precise, when they went there for their honeymoon. There are some really nice photos of my mother in Nainital, and one of my parents on a boat, which was taken by the boatman!

      The ‘chipped porcelain’ reference is not original, to be honest. I had written up reviews of our trip to be posted on Tripadvisor, and the LO (who is a voracious reader and will read anything that comes in her path) saw it, read it, and wanted to know what porcelain was. I think that stayed with her!

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      • The LO is most certainly a girl after my own heart! I was known for reading anything that came my way, including the paper bags which contained groceries! Social Studies was always my favorite subject in school, and wildlife has always captured my attention. We have three different kinds of birds building their nests in our yard at the moment – robins, trashers and mockingbirds. I found the trashers in the nest, but I haven’t yet found the other two nests, which are hidden away in two holly shrubs in our yard.
        Have you introduced the LO to the books by Salim Ali?

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        • Social Studies – especially history (as you’ve probably guessed!) and geography was also my favourite subject in school. :-)

          I hadn’t known about thrashers, so thank you for introducing me to them. I went and had a look about what sort of birds they are. How lucky you are to have birds nesting in your yard! We have a hibiscus bush in our yard where sunbirds, white eyes and the occasional Indian silverbill comes to sip nectar, but no nests.

          I haven’t introduced the LO to Salim Ali’s books yet; did he write anything suitable for children? She has a couple of delightful books – one by Ranjit Lal, which is really a great introduction to Indian birds.

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  5. I was LO’s age when my family had their first proper mountain holiday in Nainital- my grandparents lived in Dehradun so all summers were spent there with short, sporadic drives to Mussorie, which after a few years lost their charm. I felt like I was the LO in th is post running and skipping excitedly through Nainital. I can’t help laughing that after grumbling about why Indians talk about view points, you go on to to list all the ‘view points’ you saw at Nainital! I don’t remember the zoo but we did visit all the view points, with the mandatory horse riding, and we decided to be brave enough to paddle our own boats in Naini lake which made us all sleep with stiff legs the next day. My dad being my dad discovered a gurudwara too, where we would run in to eat prasada every morning.
    I, also, feel that there is a short story waiting to be written here, somewhere :-) I hope you write one!

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    • We, at least, decided categorically not to go horse riding! :-) Both my husband and I were absolutely adamant that that wasn’t on the agenda (though the LO was pretty keen, given that one of her favourite TV shows – Spirit Riding Free, I think it’s called – is all about girls who ride horses.

      Talking about short stories, I actually wrote one, years ago (2000, I think; or maybe a year or so later), after I’d first been to Nainital. It’s called The Eye of Sati, and I never offered it anywhere for publication. It’s still sitting in my laptop.

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  6. Hi Madhuji,
    Nice to read about the trip to Nainital with your little one. When I went to Naini, my LO was no more a LO but how should I put it – a MO!! Within Naini, nothing was fascinating. the road to the Governor’s place was enjoyable early in the morning and made for a refreshing walk. Long drives away from the town were enjoyable too. But I guess it would have been a great trip if I was a LO too or a LO was tagging along with umpteen questions. Not so much for an adult. If only wishes were horses!!
    K B Patil

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    • Thank you, I’m glad you enjoyed this post. I agree that Nainital actually doesn’t have any very interesting sights – for me, the church and the botanical gardens were good, because I am keen on history and flora. But a lot of the other stuff is highly overrated and not really worth it. I would much rather go to a place like Shimla, for instance, because of the wealth of history and heritage architecture there.

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  7. Madhu, I enjoyed this review of Nainital. We went there some years back.and stayed at the Chevron Fairhavens Hotel which is a large,delightful hotel built on a hill by the British. It overlooks the Naini Lake, and it’s the same hotel shown in the movie “Koi mil gaya” where Hrithik Roshan stays (and its windows are stoned by Johnny Lever !).
    Nainital is a beautiful hill station as you must have observed and your LO must have enjoyed it. The picturesque beauty of the place starts from Haldwani itself when the steep climb begins. Haldwani and another nearby place , Mohan, are mentioned in Jim Corbett’s “The man eaters of Kumaon”. The song “Main dekhoon jis or sakhi ri “, from the movie “Anita” was shot in Kumaon. And many scenes of “Aaye din bahar ke” and “Kati Patang” were picturised in Nainital. We also saw the Mango lake ,where the song “In hawaaon mey” from “Gumrah” was filmed. We were also able to visit the zoo there which housed leopards and many wild animals. I wish you had been able to see that, the LO would have been fascinated. We also had a cable car ride over the hills and took a hair raising ‘ Freefall’ ,ride , it’s like a mini roller coaster !
    Then we went onto Ranikhet, which is smaller and wilder than Nainital, but equally lovely. We saw the golf course there and I recognized it as the place where “Yaar chulbula hai” from “Dil deke dekho” was filmed, it’s still unchanged after over 60 years ! The hotel in Ranikhet , Chevron Rosemount,was right out of a mystery movie ! It was built over 200 years ago by the British and like Fairhavens it’s all oak beams, half timber, stone floors and numerous glass windows. It has acres of lovely garden and forested areas around it and we were told not to venture far because of bears and leopards, but the two resident dogs ‘Rani’ and ‘Pichku’ became friends with us and this reassured us that if any wild creature were nearby they would have barked their heads off !
    From Ranikhet we went to Corbett, where our Spa Hotel was 17 kms from the Railway Station ! We took an expensive Jeep Safari into the Dhikala Reserve , but saw no tigers.

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    • I am so glad you enjoyed this travelogue. (If you have the time, you might want to read the next one too, about Corbett). Talking of Corbett, the first time I went there, when I was perhaps 13 or 14 years old, we stayed in Dhikala, and were able to see a tiger – for almost 7-8 minutes, at fairly close quarters – in the grasslands beside Dhikala. Also saw many, many elephants there, both then as well as a few years later. Actually, those sojourns at Dhikala were the most fruitful – I haven’t seen so much wildlife in the two more times I’ve been to Corbett as I did when we stayed at Dhikala.

      Oh, and yes: I love Ranikhet. We went there again a few years ago, with the LO, and loved it. I like the fact that it’s relatively quiet and woodsy, compared to Nainital, which was claustrophobic, it was so crowded.

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