WORDS: AMRITA LALL
PHOTOGRAPHS: KRISHNA PRABAKAR
GREAT FROM: New Delhi, Chandigarh, Dehradun
GREAT FOR: Nature enthusiasts, seekers of quiet
Ours is a mad, mad world. It breeds the idea that we need to constantly keep up – with our tedious work lives, with who’s doing what on our social media feeds, with the latest everything. It’s not all bad news though – there still exist few well-guarded little hideouts that offer a brief escape from our routinised, digitised lives and teach us a thing or two about how to have a good time, away from our smartphones and the internet. Nestled in the hills of Uttarakhand’s Kumaon Lake District, in the midst of an ancient cedar, oak and pine forest, is one such secret getaway.
Run by the charming Padmini, or Paddy, Smetacek, The Retreat is a 19th-century family owned Colonial bungalow, which was acquired in 1939 by Frederick Smetacek, Paddy’s father- in- law, when he fled the Nazis and sailed to India.
The four walls of the bungalow cocoon a repertoire of stories that date back a hundred years. Narrated by Paddy, who’s a master storyteller, these include mentions of Hitler, tales of curses and notorious leopards, an endearing love story, and innumerable instances of the good ol’ pahadi way of life. And there’s a delightful photo album with sepia-tinted snapshots from the earliest days of the bungalow; you’ll come across the Smetacek clan, leopard cubs, and some of The Retreat’s first guests enjoying a full meal out on the porch.
The porch is also the ideal spot for your morning cuppa. Be warned though, you’ll need to fend off the four rambunctious resident dogs who are given to shamelessly stealing biscuits off the table. Give them a rub or two – they’ll be momentarily dissuaded, and run off to chase the many birds that come visiting in the mornings. If bird watching interests you, Victor, one of Paddy’s older sons, will take you on a nature tour through the estate – from woodpeckers and babblers to Great Himalayan barbets, there’s plenty to delight the ornithologist in you.
The Retreat also arranges guided tours and hikes to explore the rustic surrounds. You can also opt for a high-altitude trek or a mountain expedition led by Victor (price on enquiry). The walk to Sattal Lake is particularly picturesque. Stop for a picnic lunch at Pannatal Lake before heading to Sattal, where you can go boating and kayaking. Ask the boys to take you to the secret waterfall nearby – while the trail may be slightly challenging, the sight of the stunning waterfall is well worth the effort. On your way back, stop by the Butterfly Research Centre, a stone’s throw away from The Retreat. Run by Peter Smetacek, who has inherited his father Frederick Smetacek’s passion for collecting and studying butterflies, the centre is home to one of the largest collections of butterflies and moths in the country.
While there are plenty of activities to keep you occupied, The Retreat is also perfect for a do-nothing holiday. You can sit by the fireplace in the living room, get some alone-time with your favourite book, and swap stories with Paddy and the boys around a bonfire, only to be interrupted by the calls of barking deer and wild boar in the distance.
Ours is a mad, mad world. But, thanks to magical places and warm people who convince us that our world is still many kinds of beautiful, we manage to deal just fine with the daily drudge of our lives. And, if you’re still in doubt: call Paddy and tell her you’ll see her soon.