'We came here to escape the world'
Satoli, a sleepy village in the mountainous state of Uttarakhand in India, is the ideal getaway from urban madness
Uttarakhand, a hilly state in northern India, has the kind of lush mountainous landscape that could be mistaken for a stolen slice of paradise planted on earth. Satoli, an hour's drive from frenetic Bhimtal, is a village of around 300 souls, encircled by the humped Kumaon Hills. In the distance, the snow-cuddled Himalayan massifs heave on the horizon like stony behemoths.
And during a three-day stay at One Partridge Hill, a lux vacation cottage that is available on rent, we revelled in the heavenly vistas - over al fresco morning cuppas and breakfasts.
We were there in the month of May but thanks to unseasonal rain, bands of mist curved around the ample bellies of the hills, and, soon, the two-level garden at One Partridge Hill became our favourite getaway spot. The seemingly unending views of pine and oak forests, the tuneful whistle and trill of the laughing thrush and the black bird and the sight of birds chasing each other in the sky with joyous abandon bewitched us.
One Partridge Hill is the only luxurious option in Satoli village, a picturesque residential hamlet in the district of Nainital. Innocent in terms of tourism, devoid of touts hard-selling their wares, crime, traffic jams or even the purr of cars and honking of heavy vehicles, Satoli's serenity is beguiling. On the menu of a stay there are bird-watching, forest walks, picnics by the river, tuning into nature and her moods and swapping life histories with locals.
On our first forest walk, we inhaled lungs full of fugitive woodsy fragrances ranging from wild, fresh rosemary to the tingling aroma of pines. We popped blood-red raspberries and the local berry kaphal, which exploded in our mouths with a sweet-tart flavour, even as amber pine needles crunched underfoot.
We soon felt disconnected from time and space in the quiet of the woods till we came upon a 1905 Dak Bungalow, which has been artfully restored by Shubha and Pradeep Gupta, who now run it as a no-frills B&B. They, too, had opted out of the pressure-cooker existence in their city to settle amidst the mystical mountains of Satoli.
Back at One Partridge Hill, we lolled in the living-cum-dining area, subtly done with rich drapes, a wall that glowed with a wall paper of red rhododendrons, which bloom once a year in Uttarakhand, and a skylight through which wan sunlight filtered. With its hand-chiselled stone walls and exquisite detailing in terms of the period furniture, we often felt that we had drifted into a colonial cottage rather than a modern one.
Every morning, we would peruse the feel-good message of the day, which the owner or a staff member inscribed on a little black slate placed on a small table: "Keep a green tree in your heart and a singing bird will come." The daily homilies lifted our spirits as did the sight of the garden with its exotic blossoms like English roses, orchids, Peruvian lilies, foxgloves, hollyhocks...
We did a couple of gentle treks and wallowed in the sight of pine-covered mountain slopes and the rustle of trees that whispered ancient secrets to the winds. Rustic shrines to Gorakhnath, the presiding deity of the hills, combined myth and legend to deliver a lesson in ecology. When a young boy chopped a stately deodar near a temple, he met an untimely death that night. For deodars have souls and to cut them is to wound them mortally, whispered a local.
Indeed, the locals feel deeply connected to their land as do recent runaways from the festering sores of our cities. We met 86-year-old Anne Mukherjee and Jasdev Singh-Akoi in Anne's lovely stone cottage, seemingly buried in a forest. Anne related how she woke up one day in her home in Delhi, some time around the year 2003, and decided to build her dream home in the hills.
Anne has no regrets about escaping to the hills and reads books on Kindle, does gardening, walks, entertains and occasionally watches TV. Even as we spoke, we saw the silhouette of a plump Kalij pheasant on a tree outside her bay window, as dusk mantled the landscape in the deep colours of a Van Gogh painting. Nature can throw up such cameos only in a place like Satoli!
Jasdev Singh-Akoi, on the other hand, bought a dilapidated 19th century house, 3kms away from Anne's home, and has restored it very sensitively. He showed us around his home which sits pretty on two acres of land, aglow with outsized hydrangeas blooming in the garden alongside 100-year-old cypress and other trees. There are wrap-around verandahs, fireplaces, low wood-beamed ceilings, walls adorned with lithographs, period furniture." I came here to escape the world," he said, and we understood what he meant at a visceral level.
Our friend and hostess, Seema Kundra, and her brother Shivendra too built One Partridge Hill as a family home. However, when complete, they felt it was selfish not to share its beauty and the ravishing surrounds with friends and guests and converted it into a four-room boutique vacation rental.
And that's how we too stumbled on One Partridge Hill in a village of stately pines, oaks and luxuriant fruit orchards, where the mountains have soared for millennia. On our last evening, we sat on the sit-out outside our room, waiting for the flying squirrel to flit from one pine to another; instead we got a whiff of the country's spirit - eternal, undying - resisting the pressures of modernisation to obliterate it.
* The nearest railhead is Kathgodam, a two-and-a-half-hour drive (72km) from Satoli village. The Shatabdi Express from Delhi is a convenient option.
* Delhi to Satoli, 350 km away, takes around 7-8 hours (including two stops).
* One Partridge Hill with its four beautifully appointed rooms is ideal for a relaxed getaway.
* For more information, visit: www.onepartridgehill.com or Kumaon Tourism (www.kmvn.gov.in), an arm of Uttarakhand Tourism.