Travel: Exploring the ‘berry baskets of India’

Post-pandemic the picturesque twin towns of Mahabaleshwar and Panchgani are gearing up to receive tourists

By Aftab H. Kola

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Photo by Aftab H. Kola
Photo by Aftab H. Kola

Published: Thu 8 Dec 2022, 5:04 PM

Post-pandemic the picturesque twin towns of Mahabaleshwar and Panchgani in Maharashtra, the vast plateaus bound by valleys on all sides, are gearing up to receive tourists.

Our trip to this touristic belt where bright red, plump strawberries are everywhere to be seen was as sweet as the region’s berries. Endowed with a climate that makes it a refuge from the stifling heat of nearby big towns and cities, the highland haven of Mahabaleshwar and Panchgani are one of India’s top berry baskets, as well as popular summer resorts.

Ascending to the top, the fruit vendors along the roadsides with baskets full of strawberries is a sight that is a feast for the eyes. We had planned our trip coinciding with the Mapro Strawberry Festival, and so after we checked into the quaint cottages in Hotel Mala’s, just a short distance away from the busy Panchgani bazaar, we dashed off to the Mapro Garden, the venue of the festival. The whiff of strawberries prevailing in the atmosphere was simply overpowering. We then noticed a crowd and people rushing towards a particular spot, and realised that tourists were being offered bowls of strawberries for free, and people could be seen feasting on it.

Like at every festival, here too there were magic shows, acrobatics and the like. The venue has huge replicas of strawberries, and shutterbugs had a gala time clicking away. Spread across two acres of lush greenery, the Mapro Garden also has a chocolate factory and a farm.

The famous Strawberry Festival is held in the month of March/April during the Easter weekend. The exact dates are known a month before.

Since we were based in Panchgani, we explored the sight-seeing points in this place on day one. The Panchgani plateau, alternatively known as ‘table land’, is a part of the Deccan Plateau. Places like Sydney Point, from where you can see the waters of the Dhom Dam, Parsi Point that overlooks the Krishna Valley, and Devil’s Kitchen offer a breathtaking scenery. The real fun is at the Table Land where you feel like you are on a giant table with lush greenery down below. Here, one can enjoy horse riding and relish the Maharashtrian speciality, vada pav.

It only takes 15 minutes to reach Mahabaleshwar from Panchgani, and the former is a livelier spot. Mahabaleshwar is situated at a height of 1,439 meters above sea level, and is one of the highest points in the region. Arthur’s Seat, the queen of all points at a height of 1,470 meters, is a popular point where a panoramic view of the famous Jor Valley unfolds. Arthur’s Seat Point area has 6 view points in total — Arthur’s Seat Point, Echo Point, Hunter Point, Tiger Spring Point, Window Point and Malcolm Point. While Kate’s Point encompasses the main Kate’s Point, Echo Point and Needle Hole Point. All these offer views from different angles. Though we hail from a region where water bodies are in abundance, we took a boat ride on the placid Venna Lake that is surrounded by lush vegetation. Along the narrow, winding roads through which tourists move from one place to another, there are plenty of fruit vendors selling heaps of red, ripe strawberries. Besides strawberries, mulberries (shahtoot), raspberries, gooseberries and other wild berries, usually foraged from homesteads and nearby private farms, find a place in the vendors’ baskets. In and around Venna Lake, there are many farms which permit tourists to take a stroll, and they can buy hand-picked berries from these farms if they so desire. The strawberry fields in the region span more than 2,300 acres. The varieties that reign supreme here are of the Californian genre — Sweet Charlie, Camarosa and Winter Dawn, the first accounting for around half the produce.

In downtown Mahabaleshwar, the shops that offer strawberries topped with whipped cream are a big hit. Biting into halved strawberries smothered in fresh cream bursting with different flavours is a heavenly experience. In Mahabaleshwar and Panchgani markets the tourists can also feast on the hill station’s famous channa and chikki.

We also visited factories of big players like Manama, Mapro and Mala and bought freshly-prepared jams, squashes and crushes.

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