Shimmering in Shimla Written by Camilla Frumar
When you live in a frenetic city like Mumbai, where I have been residing for the past year, sometimes you just need to get away. One of the things I love most about living in India is the depth and variety of this country, which is so vast; it often feels more like a whole continent. Some fresh air and a peaceful long weekend in Shimla, located in Himachal Pradesh (North-West Himalayas) seemed like the perfect antithesis to mad city life.
After catching a ridiculously early flight to Chandigarh, my partner Mark and I were met by our smiling hotel driver Krishna who happily informed us that our drive to the hotel would normally take 3 hours but because it was Indian Independence Day there was a lot of traffic. Since we are used to Indian traffic jams this didn’t faze us – in fact, the festival vibe provided us with some great car seat viewing.
After we managed to squeeze our way out of the Chandigarh traffic jams, we started our ascent to the Shimla district. As we transcended into the hills we were afforded the most magnificent views and were overwhelmed by the pristine beauty of the place. I wound down my window and gulped some fresh Himalayan air and could feel the big city strain start to slip away.
Shimla is known as “the Queen of the Hills”, a truly befitting title due its majestic, lush green proportions. Since we arrived during monsoon season, the hills were covered in a rolling mist that had an almost waterfall like aesthetic. It is the sort of place that would be uniquely beautiful anytime of the year and I am desperate to go back and see it in all its blue-skied glory in summer and equally in its snow capped grandeur in winter.
We decided to spoil ourselves and checked into the Wildflower Hall (run by the Oberoi Group of Hotels), the former 19th century retreat of Lord Kitchener, Commander in Chief of the British Army. This gorgeous property is located about 45 minutes drive from Shimla town at an altitude of 2,500 meters (8,250 feet), and is situated atop a knoll so offers a great vantage point to admire the rugged mountains and stunning cedar forest. It’s a truly wondrous, fairytale like place and looks like nothing I’ve seen in India before.
The Wildflower Hall is accessed through a steep, long stately driveway, and the gabled resort building retains all its yesteryear glory. Lord Kitchener greets you as you enter the resort, albeit in the form of a distinguished oil-painting portrait, which hangs pride of place above the lobby’s fireplace. We have bought the monsoonal drizzles with us from Mumbai and as I hear the rains change from a drizzle to a torrent I cosily imagine myself reading by the fires warmth.
As we are whisked away to our room, I sneak a peek at the billiards room, card room and library and wonder if Lord Kitchener had a similar set up when he himself stayed here. Our room is a luxurious woody affair that I am told on clearer days, frames panoramic views of the silvery Himalayas beyond the jagged lush hills. The hotels grounds offer scenic walking trails, but Mark and I decide than in the rain horse-riding is a preferable option. We are also offered mountain bikes, but we decide this isn’t an ideal wet weather sport. Depending on the season white water rafting is another popular option, along with river picnics which we were sad to miss out on. Asia’s highest golf course at Nadhera is only a short drive away and in the winter months the Wildflower Hall also has an outdoor ice-skating rink.
For the less outdoorsy types, Wildflower Hall’s pièce de résistance is its stunning mosaic floored indoor heated pool, complete with chandeliers and splendid views over the mountain ranges. As Mark soaked in the views in the outdoor jacuzzi, I treated myself to a blissful Himalayan body wrap in Wildflower Hall’s award winning spa.
In a nod to the Raj we decided it would be fun to dress up a little for dinner. As we toasted to a fabulous weekend and many more to come I couldn’t help but admire some of the hotel guests, mainly affluent Indian travellers, some of them looking extremely glamorous and dripping in diamonds. A far cry from the colonial past and the way of the future in India, with the fasting growing middle and upper class in the world.
On our way back to Chandigarh we spent some time taking in the nearby Mashobra town, where at the historic Gables Hotel, the British Raj set visited for weekend balls and soirees. I have heard fantastical stories of 19th century high society types arranging to have their dinner sets transported to the Shimla hills by elephant. We then ventured out to the Shimla Mall which was, according to our hotel concierge, “the place to see and be seen” in during the heyday of the Raj. The Mall is a shopper’s paradise, with some great local handicrafts on offer as well as some resplendent Colonial style architecture. I loved the story behind ‘Scandal Point’, the highest point on the Mall offering great views of the valley below, named for the dalliances of the flirtatious Maharaja of Patiala, who was rumoured to have kidnapped the daughter of the then Viceroy-of-India from this point.
The onset of the rain signalled it was our time to leave, but not before Mark was lightly coerced into buying a yak vest, which admittedly turned out to be great wet weather gear. During our long descent back to Chandigarh we both mused about how nice it would be to stay for another day or two.
I couldn’t recommend Shimla enough to those travelling to India and seeking an extraordinary experience. It’s literally like taking a step back in time and the scenery is truly breathtaking.
By air: Jet Airways (part of the Oneworld network) has daily flights to Chandigarh – the nearest major airport – from both New Delhi and Mumbai. Shimla is located 125Km from Chandigarh. The drive generally takes around 3 hours.
By Rail: The nearest train station is Kalka.
By Road: The Distance from Delhi to Shimla is 380 km and takes approximately 8 hours.
There are various accommodation options available to suit all budgets. If you are looking for old-world grandeur, the Wildflower Hall is worth the splurge. Also recommended are the Oberoi Cecil (located right on the Mall) and the Gables Hotel (closed for renovation at the time of writing).
Make sure to pack: good walking shoes, an umbrella, cottons and light woollens in summer; heavy woollens in Winter.
For more information: Log onto www.himachaltourism.nic.in