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Kumaon, Uttarakhand: A Romantic Trail

Set amid towering deodars, Van Serai makes a great base from which to visit the Jageshwar Temples
Photographer: Mahesh Sagari

The hills and valleys of Uttarakhand’s Kumaon region are stunning, and these five properties effortlessly up the romantic quotient


Sometimes, all it takes to hit the romantic high notes is a good property. And when it comes set amid the gorgeous mountains, valleys and forests of Uttarakhand, you can be sure that you’re going to be on a winning love streak.

Each of these five properties, set well away from city or town, comes with stupendous locations or views, amazingly passionate people running it, and staff that goes way beyond a conventional welcome. Each is very different from the other – choose, if you can, from a jungle lodge that celebrates the tiger, a bungalow that basks in the Himalayas, a close-to-Heaven property, a convenient base for gorgeous ancient temples, and a home-away-from-home cocoon. Or string them together in an easy itinerary that will gladden your heart.

Jim’s Jungle Retreat, Jim Corbett National Park
The closer you stick behind Balam Singh on the morning walk, the better. The de facto headman of the staff family at Jim’s Jungle Retreat, he is given to sudden stops and starts, and the less time he has to spend waiting for you to scramble across the boulder-strewn river beds, the more he can concentrate on pointing out the signs and sounds of the waking forest. You start from the property at 5.15am (6.15am in winter) and sunrise comes suddenly over Corbett’s buffer zone. A jackal slinking away, spotted deer startled into ‘statue’ mode, langurs making their noisy way across the brush – these are givens. The privilege lies in what Balam points out so nonchalantly – an elephant print larger than your biggest serving platter, the hoof marks and poo of deer. Sighting the tiger on the morning walk is an often-time thing here; and, even if you don’t spot one, Balam will show you the next best thing – the pug marks of a tigress who has walked just ahead, the so-cute marks of a cub, and scat with bone and fur, evidence of the deer who was a tiger’s last supper.

It won’t matter that you missed the tiger by a whisker. By the time you get back to Jim’s Jungle Retreat, hope will have been reinstated. The over-15-year-old property has two sides touching the jungle and has been planted to mimic the surroundings. Birds fly out of the low trees lining the paths as you go from your cottage or lodge to meals or the Reception; the wild is always with you. Each of the 12 cottages is a cosy cocoon with screen windows that bring the sounds and sights of the jungle in as you loll around between safaris. Four are family-style with two bedrooms, and six lodges offer elevated views from bay windows as you lie in bed. The lodge’s chief naturalist Manoj Sharma came to nature via a failed small enterprise and a keen interest in birds. He counts Corbett, with its beautiful grasslands, elephants, birdlife and wildlife, among the most scenic parks in India. “Corbett’s location at the foothills of the Himalayas ensures different habitats within its five zones: mixed forests, over 110 species of trees, varying types of shrubs, herbs, grasses and bamboo. More than 60 per cent of the forest cover is sal, providing a unique habitat, home to lots of insect life, which, in turn, invites birds. So, Corbett is a birders’ paradise – over 500 species have been recorded, and, of course, it is also home to over 50 species of mammals.” Going on a morning or afternoon safari is always a treat for the senses. The forest is alive with peacocks in procession, massive beehives all abuzz, the smell of a decomposing kill… You’ll see the bottoms of trees shaven off by porcupines, langurs kissing the ground to lick up minerals. A keen eye will pick out weaver-bird nests, the beautiful paradise flycatcher, the butcher bird that builds a larder of impaled insects, the prehistoric-looking grey hornbill, even five vultures in a tree seemingly ready to sing We’re your friends from the previous The Jungle Book film. And you may be lucky enough to catch sight of one of Corbett’s 215 tigers, the largest population of this big cat in any one reserve.

Between safaris, make the time to visit Jim Corbett’s house in Kaladhungi. Corbett – “Carpet Sahib” to the locals – bought the land in 1915, and left it to his tenant families when he left India for Kenya in 1947. Run by the Corbett Gram Vikas Samiti, the Jim Corbett Heritage Trail takes in the chaupal (meeting place) where Corbett used to help settle matters among the villagers, a part of the six-foot wall he helped erect with chuna and stone, and the house that he had built for Moti Singh, his beloved tracker. Corbett’s house itself is a shrine to the many sides of the man – army man and railways man, wildlife photographer and taxidermist, painter and carpenter, and, of course, hunter-turned-conservationist.

Be sure to be back in time for meals at the lodge restaurant. Chef Deepak Negi’s food is always bountiful and tasty, and you can have a romantic meal by the pool, or in one of the property watchtowers. And, by evening, don’t miss the documentaries, punctuated by the serving of excellent tandoori chicken and paneer tikka

Perhaps the tiger is smarter than we think. On our morning safari, we shared our jeep with a very sweet young lady who was super excited about the animals but also, paradoxically, super scared of the sun, the heat, the bees, everything… The tiger didn’t bother to show: he knew that showing himself would be wasted on us – we’d be too busy giving her CPR at the heart-stopping moment of the sighting than offering him the attention he was due.

Four more great properties, four more great romantic experiences – find them in the September 2016 issue of Lonely Planet Magazine India. Pick up a copy from your newsstand or click to subscribe via Zinio or Magzter.