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PICS: Top 10 holiday destinations in India

Last updated on: December 17, 2012 19:02 IST

PICS: Top 10 holiday destinations in India

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Dilshad Master-Kumar

Dilshad Master-Kumar, Co-Founder Farinto.com, shares her favourite holiday vacations in India this year.

It's that time of year again – when people make Top 10 lists. Top 10 songs, top 10 movies...you get the picture. I prefer to count down on the best food and my best holidays.

When I look back at these last 12 months, I am amazed at how much I managed to do – despite a little baby and a start-up to contend with. Of course, it helps that the start-up is travel-based and all my holidays get counted as work!

I bashed the dunes in Rajasthan this year and skied down the slopes of Gulmarg. Both count as two of my Top 10 holidays of the year, but for the fear of repeating myself, here's my Top 10 list of 2012 (barring those two) in no particular order – let me know if you agree or disagree and you're welcome to add your own to the list!

Click on NEXT to read on...


Photographs: Dilshad Master-Kumar

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Shillong

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What do you say about a place that celebrates Bob Dylan's birthday every year? Totally in tune with reality :-)

I went over Christmas and New Years, and the air just smelt of X- Mas cake! The first thing that strikes you when you enter the main Shillong town is...music. It's there on every street corner, makeshift stages have been set up and people young and old are belting out the songs I grew up on.

Apparently, back in the 1970's, when the rest of India was just waking up to rock n' roll and the blues, Bob Dylan, The Doors and The Rolling Stones were already playing their music in this hilly town. I took a local cab to move around and the cabbie was belting out Deep Purple's Smoke On The Water – surreal and insane at the same time!

Meghalaya literally means "abode of the clouds", and Shillong, its capital, sits amidst pine forests and waterfalls with the mountains in the backdrop. It has the most beautiful gentle trekking routes that takes you through flat meadows and forests only to emerge into a clearing with a gigantic waterfall right up ahead!

We stayed at a friend's place and it was always open house in the evenings. Streams of unknown kids would walk through the house singing carols every night partaking of your Christmas cake and other goodies!

Guwahati in Assam is the closest railway head or airport and the drive to Shillong takes about 4.5 hours with a stopover for momos at Nongpo.

I know most people would recommend going there in the summer months, but December is special. The streets are full of festivities and the crisp mountain air and warm sunshine in the day makes up for the cold nights. Shillong is a must-see for people who are looking for culture, music, the hills and adventure all rolled into one.


Image: Shillong is a must-see for people who are looking for culture, music, the hills and adventure all rolled into one.
Photographs: Dilshad Master-Kumar

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Aaranyya By The Ganges, near Rishikesh

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Watch the monkey's perform at breakfast, raft the cool Ganga in the warm morning sun, sit by the beach in the afternoon and slump into your mooda besides a blazing warm fire at night. This is the to-do list while you're here!

Aaranyya is run by people who are pioneers in the adventure business since 1985. They run a rafting camp on the banks of the Ganga as well, but if you're into flushed loos, hot running water and the general comforts of a hotel, I'd recommend this new jungle lodge at Shivpuri – one hour's drive from Rishikesh.

You hit the river every morning, bask in the warm sun on the beach till 4 pm, and come back to clean rooms, crisp white bed sheets, and hot running water in the evening. And if you're really lucky, at night, by the warm blaze of the bonfire, Col. Narinder Kumar – owner and India's most decorated mountain climber, will join you. He will regale you with hair raising tales of his expeditions to Nanda Devi, Everest, Kunchenjunga and more!

It's open all year round, but best time to go is October to April – especially if you want to go rafting. Best way to get there is to drive up from Delhi – takes around 8 hours. Dehradun airport is the closest and then about a 2.5 hours drive.


Image: Aaranyya By The Ganges, near Rishikesh
Photographs: Dilshad Master-Kumar

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Casa Bella Vista in Manali

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Mountain views, peace, a warm fireplace and the best pizza in town! Could you ask for more?

The aroma of oven baked pizzas wafts its way the moment you step into their wooden gates. Combine that with a beautiful green lawn blooming with spring flowers, lovely wooden cottages and the warmth of your Spanish hostess Martha, and you know this is where you want to stay!

Poised on the top of a small hill, beyond the crowds and bustle of Manali town, yet just a short distance away from both the main bazaar and old Manali, Casa Bella Vista is owned and run by Girimere and Martha, who also make their home there with their three little kids through the summer.

There are two cottages of three rooms each and two separate rooms. Impeccably furnished (you must ask Martha about her shopping experiences in Delhi's Chandni Chowk!) with a fully- equipped kitchen, you can choose to take a whole cottage if you're in a large group. And if you don't feel like cooking on your vacation, they will provide a cook for you.

What could be better? Aha! There's the Cafe – warm, inviting and with Mediterranean flavours so divine you never want to leave! Let me say this quite emphatically, they have the best pizzas in the country! It's a veggie place – but even a hard core non-veg like I didn't miss the meat. The kids will love the blue berry cheese cake and the chocolate bombs!

Best time to go? I recommend July and August. The main tourist traffic has left Manali by then and the madness and mayhem is replaced by peace and tranquillity! Drive up from Delhi takes around 15 hours so I recommend a mid halt at Nalagarh for the night.


Image: Casa Bella Vista in Manali
Photographs: Dilshad Master-Kumar

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Raju Bharti's Cottage, Gushaini

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Fresh tout for breakfast, river gurgling by, bhutias for company – I think I found my heaven!

What can you say about a place that makes you think of Alice in Wonderland the moment you enter? Nestled in the midst of the Banjar Valley, just three hours drive from Kulu, you have to cross the Tirthan river in a makeshift cable car to reach Raju's homestay.

Suggestion - don't stare at the river gushing below, especially if you're a non swimmer! As soon as you enter the cottage grounds, you're surrounded by apple, chikoo, apricot trees and cherry bushes and 4 bhutias come bounding up wagging a warm welcome...it's almost magical!

Raju Bharti is the man in charge and his cottages are rustic but extremely comfortable with running hot water and clean sheets every day. Some super trekking routes - for the serious and not-so-serious trekkers are nearby, and fishing for the passionate anglers. There's fresh trout for dinner (and sometimes even breakfast!) and a warm bonfire at night. It's the place to be - if you're looking for a quiet retreat with the family.

The Banjar Valley is about 450 km from Delhi and it should take you around 11 hours. Best time to go is when the plains get unbearably hot – May to September is perfect.


Image: You have to cross the Tirthan river in a makeshift cable car to reach Raju's homestay.
Photographs: Dilshad Master-Kumar

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Chattra Sagar, Nimaj

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Sigh...I could keep going to Chattra Sagar again and again. This isn't Rajasthan the way we know it.

No sand dunes here, no forts and palaces either, but luxury tents on top of a private dam overlooking the lake bordered by green hills on all sides.

You're witness to the most stunning sunrises and sunsets you've probably ever seen, and what made my holiday complete – the most awesome laal maas and other Rajasthani spread you have ever been fortunate to eat! Run by brothers Nandi and Harsh, this is personalised service to the extreme, with their wives carefully supervising the food that comes out of their kitchen.

You get to experience rural Rajasthan when Harsh takes you around in his jeep through the village of silver smiths and lets you wander around. You chat with the villagers, explore the farms and local temple ruins nearby.

An early morning walk into the forest area on the opposite side of the dam brings you face to face with neel gai and barking deer. And as you emerge out of the forest into the clearing near the water, there's this most beautiful site of daintily stepping Flamingoes – a photographer's dream! Chattrasagar spells luxury and romance so I'd highly recommend it for honeymooners and if you're into birding too – this is your very own paradise!

It's open from October to April, and is a 480 km drive from Delhi – just 95 km from Ajmer. You should really plan to be at Chattra Sagar when you're doing the Jodhpur-Jaipur-Udaipur triangle. It's a great break away from the chaos of the three cities.


Image: Chattra Sagar, Nimaj
Photographs: Dilshad Master-Kumar

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Houseboat on Dal Lake

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Dal Lake is Sringar's jewel in the crown. As you approach it from the airport, you can see the houseboats with their carved wooden eaves reflecting in the calm waters. The sun shines off the placid lake and ducks float around, oblivious to the enchanting picture they make.

The houseboats are like floating mini hotels, quaint, delightful, totally charming and luxurious depending on the one you pick. The walnut carvings, the Kashmiri carpets and the warm kawa welcome just threw me over.

I spent my day just sitting on the houseboat balcony watching the lotus flowers bloom and the shikaras making their way through the houseboats like local taxis in our Delhi colonies!

The floating vegetable and flower market is a must on your list of experiences.

Get into your shikara, make sure you have hot kawa and a blanket to keep you warm and then paddle your way to the floating market where vendors gather on shikaras to sell vegetables, flowers and even saffron. And hey, if it's a warm sunny day, take a shikara ride to the chaar chinar area of the Dal Lake and swim your heart out. Sheer joy!

Best time to go is July/August – when the tourists have left the place and Srinagar is calm and quiet again.


Image: Dal Lake is Sringar's jewel in the crown.
Photographs: Dilshad Master-Kumar

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Korta Escape

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Nestled in a remote corner of the Aravalli hills south of Jodhpur, this is a small 11 cottage property run by the erstwhile Thakurs of Korta. I found it intriguing that each cottage was designed differently – based on a theme.

So the Phool (flower in Hindi) Villa had colourful flowery curtains and bed spreads and the Dhani Villa had rustic mud packed interiors with wall frescoes – quite like the village homes in Rajasthan.

Run by the Thakur of Korta - Nirbhay Singh Deora, the battle hardy and rare Marwari horses are bred here. So yes, horse safaris are part of the experience. These are luxurious, self-contained safaris with every comfort you could possibly think of - the royals of the past do come alive!

Nirbhay will also take you for an off-road adventure around the retreat in his open jeep, so keep the cameras handy to capture the local wildlife, and the endless Aravalli range. Hiking trails wend their way through the villages, fields and watering wells giving you a glimpse of village life.

25 km from Korta is Jawai Camp – a campsite built by the Thakur facing a reservoir, right in the middle of flat land at the base of the Aravalli foothills. For me, this was the most special part of the Korta experience. Amazing food was laid out under the open sky and in the evenings, across the reservoir, the setting sun seemed to put on its own special performance with striking yellow and red colours that filled the sky!

Korta Escape is an ideal retreat if you're looking for adventure, relaxation and photography. Best time to go is between November and mid-February, after which it could get really warm.


Image: Korta Escape is an ideal retreat if you're looking for adventure, relaxation and photography.
Photographs: Dilshad Master-Kumar

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Kasaar Devi

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Kasaar Devi is a little town 30 minutes from Almora market and after an eight hour drive from Delhi, you hit Almora town at dusk.

Like any other hill town in India, Almora has a central market that's bustling with activity, a bus stand where the entire town seems to gather, and a German Bakery.

Well, it's like this. Where there are hills in North India, there are foreign settlements (read Manali, Dharamsala, Dhanaulti etc.), and where there are foreigners, a German Bakery isn't far behind. It's never "German" though, and besides bread and sundry "patice" you don't get much else. But it's always there. Intriguing.

The locals will tell you that Kasaar Devi is "just 5 min away" from Almora Market – they lie! It's a 30 minutes drive and at the end of it we reached this beautiful colonial style bungalow tucked away off the main road and facing a meadow of pine trees.

The site is breathtaking. Almost picture post card like. The pine trees – they whisper to you, and create a music all their own. We went in June and it was quite warm for the hills – unexpectedly so, since the cottage had no fans! And the Kasar Devi mosquitoes – they're huge! Like one of the locals said, huge and dumb, because they come buzzing straight into your face thinking you can't see them!

Mohan's Cafe, about 10 min drive away, is our retreat for food. They also have an internet cafe there – so you can munch on your tuna pizza and send your emails at the same time.

Just get off from the main Almora road and there are some amazing trekking and mountain bike tracks and we took off for a 6 km stint to Balta village on a super hot day. It was a brilliant ride and we gave the good old Firefox bikes a good drubbing.

The Binsar Wildlife Sanctuary is just 30 km away and the really adventurous ones can bike the whole road uphill. I'm not. I preferred to bike it all the way down – so much easier on the quads!


Image: Kasaar Devi
Photographs: Dilshad Master-Kumar

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MHE Camp at Damdama Lake

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If you are in Delhi and have just the weekend off, I'd highly recommend this place. It's just 1.5 hours away from Delhi on the Gurgaon-Sohna road - a little haven away from the madness of the city.

It's child and dog friendly – just let them know in advance if you plan to bring your 4-legged children along! Kids love this place and there's a lot to keep them occupied. The wide open spaces and the green lawns apart, there's a whole series of ropes courses on the other side of the lake which will keep them out of your hair for hours. They're managed by professionals and fully equipped with all the safety features so you don't need to worry.

I hadn't been there in a while and when I entered the camp last week, I saw two all-terrain vehicles parked in the garage. We got the most amazing off-road experience in the forest at the foothills of the Aravallis – a one hour ride that took us through sand dunes, over rocks and under thick prickly bushes. Awesome! It's not part of the general package and the charges are extra but it's well worth it.

Reach here on a Saturday morning and plan to stay till Sunday afternoon – you can leave after a leisurely Sunday lunch cooked by their master chefs who really know how to lay out a spread.

This is one place that takes you out of the city quickly, isn't a long drive and gives you a restful weekend – all good reasons for it to be on my Top 10 list.


Image: MHE Camp at Damdama Lake
Photographs: Dilshad Master-Kumar

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Manali to Leh drive

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From the lush green of Manali to the snow white of Rohtang to the brown, orange and blue hues beyond - this is a must-do on your list if you're into driving.

It's a four day drive and don't let anyone talk you into making it shorter because you need to acclimatize as you make your way up. You're at 10,000 feet or more for most of the way, so you need to take it easy. Altitude sickness can get the best of us - it makes no difference how fit you are.

I've done the PCH 1 drive in California - which I thought was the best ever - but this one supersedes that by far. The landscape changes from lush green vegetation to barren mountains and desert, the colours change from green to various hues of brown and orange, the rock formations are unreal and the clear blue sky against the wide expanse of brown and grey is simply stunning.

Yes it's cold and your tented accommodation at Sarchu can get windy and icy cold - so go well clad. No jacket is warm enough - the wind finds its way through the smallest of passages!

On this trip, sadly, I couldn't reach Leh. We got stuck at Pang plateau for over 2 days because of some riots in Leh town. No cars were allowed entry. Altitude sickness in our group made us turn around after waiting for 2 days. But it was still worth it.

I guess they're right when they say; you can only go when the mountains call! Leh, you still owe me one!


Image: Manali to Leh drive
Photographs: Dilshad Master-Kumar
Tags: Leh , Pang , PCH , Rohtang , Sarchu

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