NO, NO, NOT SHIMLA!
WORDS ANJUMAN DEODHAR
PHOTOGRAPHS JEREMIAH CHRISTANAND RAO
GREAT FROM Chandigarh, New Delhi
GREAT FOR Shimla without all the bustle
Yes, that’s a perfectly justified sentiment. Shimla’s absolutely overrun with tourists, a lament that you’ll hear quite often from the old-timers. What is fortunate, though, is that it still has a few gems that aren’t exactly public knowledge.
Take Sunnymead Estate, for example. While almost all other hotels are constantly vying for visitors’ attention – with advertising boards making claims that range from the fantastic to the bizarre; all that the signs at Sunnymead tell you is that it’s a private property. Which means that, unless you’re in the know, you’d have no idea that you could stay in this restored, early 1900s house made of wood, stone and mud right at the edge of an oak-and-rhododendron forest, just a few kilometres short of Shimla, but a whole world away from its madness. That the resident dogs are friendly, fat and happy might give you an idea of how special the place is, but you’re in for more surprises. Laughing thrushes doing belly flops in the bird baths is one. The almost ridiculous number of flowers, second. And how 30-odd steps down from Cart Road could spell the difference between tourist mayhem and a slice of paradise, a third. But Sunnymead’s biggest draw is undoubtedly its proprietor. Owner Madhavi is a rare mix of elegance and easy warmth. And the fact that she’s a fantastic cook doesn’t hurt either. Meals here are elaborate, but be warned… if you don’t have an appetite that can put Bakasura to shame, you’ll be chided for it.
Another great stay hidden in plain sight is the Ballyhack Cottage. Situated next to Christ Church, it is one of the best locations on the Ridge as it should be, considering it was originally built way back in 1826 as the residence for the Governor General of India. A part of the property has been restored to its former glory and now offers four bedrooms and a suite with fantastic views of the valley. The only hitch is that since vehicles aren’t allowed anywhere on Mall Road, (except in emergencies) the only access to this place is by foot.
A third property that is the antithesis of everything that Shimla has been reduced to is Sanjiv’s Aira Holme Retreat. Although the main house is in need of some maintenance, two rooms have been constructed quite recently and are in perfect condition. And considering there are just two of them, the homestay can accommodate only four guests at a time, so you don’t need to worry about it getting crowded.
But the real charm of these places is that they offer you a glimpse of what this beautiful town must’ve been like before it was ‘discovered’. And a leisurely stroll through the Shimla Water Catchment Sanctuary is the perfect way to round off the experience. Originally leased by the British from the Rana of Koti in 1878 to get access to the numerous fresh-water springs in the forest, it remains an important source of water for the city. The forest itself is well preserved, and is home to a variety of avifauna, including the elusive yellow-throated marten and the koklass pheasant. You can either walk or cycle the easy 7km path from the Dhalli Gate to Seog through a serene deodar-and-oak forest.
So this time around, visit the other side of Shimla – one you thought was lost, but thankfully still exists against all odds.