Bubbling brooks, slithering rivers, majestic mountains and gorgeous valleys; that’s Himachal Pradesh for you. With hill stations like Shimla, Kasauli and Dalhousie appeal with colonial-era charm, Manali gives a dose of adrenalin rush and Dharamsala, also known as the ‘Little Lhasa’, is the home away from home of the Dalai Lama. That’s not all – across the state, traditional Himachali culture flourishes amid Himalayan landscapes. Villages perched on staggering slopes enchant with wood-and-stone architecture as does the easy-going grace of the people who live there.
In this excerpt from Best Escapes North India, we tell you about the top hill stations to visit in this charming state, take your pick.
Visiting Kasauli is like spending the summer with your grandparents. It’s hard to resist the soothing pleasure of visiting old stone churches and listening to the warble of birds while walking along endless forest pathways. Being a cantonment town, with minimal private construction, the tiny hill station of Kasauli looks very much like it must have a hundred years ago. You don’t have to venture far from your hotel to reach a forested mountain road with only birdsong for company and a magnificent view around the corner.
The cobble-stoned lane winding through its main market, and the cheerful, if ageing bungalows with sloping roofs and flowers blooming effortlessly in their gardens, all seem to belong to another time. The best way of enjoying Kasauli is to just give in to the all-pervading nostalgia. Walk, don’t drive; don’t turn on the TV, gather over a carrom board instead. Rediscover the pleasures of doing very little, very slowly.
Lush deodar forests, the highest cricket ground in the world and a palace hotel are Chail’s top draws. The solitude simply adds to its quaint charm. Chail was always meant to be, quite literally, anti-Shimla. Bhupinder Singh, the larger-than-life Maharaja of Patiala (1900–38), transformed this tiny village into a summer capital for himself when he was apparently banned from Shimla after trying to elope with the British Viceroy’s daughter. Given the maharaja’s vivid personality, there may well be some truth to the story. His imprint is all too evident – in the palace and on the cricket grounds of the Military School. Chail may not have the colonial architecture of Shimla, but it has its own magic: of dense chir (pine) and deodar forests, of mesmerising views, bird watching at dawn and dazzling stars at night.
North India’s blue-chip hill station, Shimla is alive with the buzz of restaurants, cafes and splendid Raj architecture. Think hill station and you’ll think Shimla. The British established many mountain retreats for their heat-sapped officers, but Shimla was special. In 1864, it was declared the summer capital of British India and viceroys and Maharajas built their mansions here. Gothic churches and grand public buildings completed the historic charm. Regrettably today, as the capital of Himachal Pradesh and a favourite holiday spot for North India, Shimla has seen feverish building activity. Still, for all its crowds and construction, Shimla’s beauty hasn’t faded.
A former capital of the Rajput kingdom, defined by an unbroken lineage since the 6th century, Chamba is on the banks of the Ravi river. It’s a must-visit before the charming old capital speedily loses its quaint character. Sandwiched high between the river and the burgeoning township is a large Chaugan – central park – surrounded by a promenade, and rows of shops. Crowning the town’s ridge is Akhand Chandi Palace (now a college); flanked by the 11th-century Laxmi Narayan Temples, and a red-hued Rang Mahal, home to the Handicrafts Centre (visit for Chamba rumaals).
5. Dharamsala & McLeodganj
With the Dalai Lama and some 80,000 Tibetan exiles living around Dharamsala, this bustling but scenic corner of Himachal Pradesh abounds in all things Buddhist. It will almost feel as if you’ve stumbled into Tibet. Serve yourself a helping of nirvana, leisure, adventure and cuisine from a vast and varied melting pot. From a one-horse town to British cantonment, to a refuge of the world’s most illustrious exile, Dharamsala constants have been the watchful presence of giant cedars and the snowy Dhauladhars. Best known as the home of the Dalai Lama, the grubby market, where the buses pull in, is actually Lower Dharamsala. A picturesquely set stadium has seen it lately emerge as the Himalayan Mecca of sport, especially cricket. Note that the Tibetan government in exile is based just uphill in Gangchen Kyishong, and travellers make a beeline further uphill to the remarkably buzzing town of McLeodGanj, also known as Upper Dharamsala.
The capital of the erstwhile Sirmaur State in southern Himachal, Nahan lies snug against a ridge of low hills, defined by a series of encircling roads called ‘rounds’, once a walker’s delight. Dominated by an old fort, the central chaugan (large green square) is hemmed by an eclectic mix of buildings with architectural features of Rajasthani and colonial vintage. Of note is the Lytton Memorial in all red, and the fresco-rich facade of the Ranzor Palace. Nahan sits at the top end of a triangle that includes Renuka Lake and Paonta Sahib, destinations of faith.
Think snowballs, woollen caps, noisy family holidays and loads of fun, and you are in Kullu–Manali. There are conifer-cloaked green vales and gurgling brooks too, for anyone looking at quieter retreats. The eponymous town proliferating along the Beas no longer mirrors the famed splendour of Himachal Pradesh’s most-visited valley. Manali, defined by lush open valleys, forested walks, pretty wood and stone homes, and glorious food, continues to be Kullu Valley’s poster destination. Overwhelming crowds, traffic snarls and crummy hotels don’t take away from its evergreen charm.
When marvellous year-round weather, lush tea plantations and the dazzling Dhauladhars beckon seductively, why resist? Throw in a ride on a toy train – a heritage one at that – and a picnic on the banks of gurgling brooks, and you have a complete Enid Blyton holiday. Palampur is just waking up to its popularity with the urban wanderer. The verdure of tea estates, fed by a criss-cross of gurgling brooks against a backdrop of the dramatic Dhauladhars showcases nature at its best. The chug of its heritage toy train and many cups of the Kangra brew hold you in its waning old worldly thrall.
Dalhousie’s host of thickly wooded trails, plunging pine-clad valleys, magnificent views, and salubrious climes are exactly what the doctor ordered! ‘Lootera’, a film starring Sonakshi Sinha and Ranveer Singh, portrayed this sleepy town exactly the way it is – like a painting straight out of the pages of a Victorian sketchbook. It lulls you into sweet slumber. Action seekers may shun this sleepy hill station for its slow pace of life, but lovers of solitude find heaven in the former sanatorium.
Another cute and quiet hill town, quite different from the busier Himachali resorts, is Narkanda. Home to stunning ski slopes and lush apple orchards, long walks and picnics will take up most of your time here. This quaint hill station is also the gateway to apple-rich Thanedar- Kotgarh, replete with snaking hill roads, towering deodars, gentle valleys and the Sutlej playing hide-and-seek between stunning views ever so often.