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The Great Escape
... Fifteen places to spend a summer vacation

E-Mail this travel feature to a friend Are you looking for the perfect vacation escape?

An unsual place where you and your family can spend an interesting few days? And not get roasted or toasted?

It should be off the beaten track? But modern amenities should be nearby and you should find clean linen and safe drinking water in your hotel room? And not pay through your nose... And?

Rediff On The NeT has put together a list of interesting getaways. Some you may have not heard of before. Good! Others are very much on the beaten track but pleasant places nevertheless.

Kasauli, Himachal Pradesh

Summer holiday-wallahs will this month, and the next, be making a beeline by the busloads to Kufri, Shimla, Dalhousie and other popular Himachali destinations.

Fortunately, quiet Kasauli does not figure on these itineraries. Located roughly three hours south west from Shimla, this peaceful town is located amidst forests of chir pine, Himalayan oak, chestnut and offers distant views of the serene Himalayas.

Kasauli, at 1,927 m, does not offer monuments or temples and other sites to fill up tour programmes. It does offer a happy and cool holiday near meadows, forest and flowers. There are plenty of popular 'look out points' to visit. And energetic hikes to undertake, especially a 12 km one to Kalka, from where one can board the toy train to Shimla for a joy ride.

Kasauli was a cantonment town that drew Rajwallahs in the years after Shimla gained popularity. It has remained just that -- a quiet cantonment settlement of whitewashed bungalows, pretty gardens and traffic-less roads and 150 years on life has not changed much.

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Horsley Hills, Andhra Pradesh

W D Horsley, once the collector of Cuddapah district, set up his summer home in the Tirumalai hills to escape the sweltering Andhra heat. The town was named after him. At an altitude of 1,265 m, Horsley Hills offers a cool, salubrious climate and time away in the wooded slopes of southern Andhra. It is one of the state's few hill stations; the only Raj era established hill resort, at that.

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Yercaud, Tamil Nadu

Yercaud, 33 km above Salem, nestles in cool coffee plantations, orange groves and thick forests. Considered a stepsister of asli Tamil Nadu resorts like scenic Kodaikanal and Ooty, Yercaud is very quiet and uncommercialised. And that is probably its main draw. You will not bump into film crews shooting circle-the-tree scenes or oochy-smoochy honeymooners posing next to bougainvillea bushes.

Yercaud is derived from yeri or lake and kadu or forest. Forest by the lake sums up Yercaud well. The British set up Yercaud in the 1820s. This tiny town of red-roofed, whitewashed cottages, set among some 17,000 coffee plantation, boasts of its own set of lookout points and lake. More interesting is the wide range of flora that dots the hillsides and is carefully nurtured at the horticulture research stations in the town. A number of schools are located in Yercaud. Shevaroyan temple nearby is worth a look. As to the beautifully maintained Holy Trinity Church.

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Gokarn, Karnataka

Pretty Gokarn on coastal Karnataka offers sparkling beaches, blue green mountains and the famous Shri Mahabaleshwar temple. Just about two hours from the border of Goa, Gokarana, as it is also called, has not been Goa-cised yet, though it does receive a few foreign tourists.

The temple houses the pranalingam, believed to be one of the mightiest of shivalingas. Legend has it that Vishnu, in order to protect the lingam from being swiped by Ravana, had it take root in Gokaran. An important pilgrimage site, paying homage at this ancient shrine can, it is believed, bring a good deal of happy change in one's life. The temple and the shrines nearby are the scene of very hectic religious activity -- bathing, fasting, vow takings/breakings, head shaving and pujas.

Gokarn is flooded with pilgrims during Shivratri, but during other seasons this quaint town of red-roofed houses and narrow streets is a pleasant place to stop by. Kootlee and Om, the main beaches, though a bit far from the town, are magnificent stretches of sand.

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Panchgani, Maharashtra

Panchgani is another one of India's dreamy, quiet hill stations. It is located in the Western Ghats of Maharashtra, on Parasni ghat, just 20 odd kilometres from the very resort-ish Mahabaleshwar and set in an even more pretty location. This town is crammed with all kinds of lookout spots and lanes of silver oak to pursue nature rambles.

The name Panchgani means five hills and the town -- which was 'established' in the 1850s by John Chesson -- is surrounded by these hills. It is at a lower elevation than Mahabaleshwar by just a few feet. The drive between the two towns is breathtaking.

During the monsoon Panchgani is deluged with some six metres of rain. So fierce are the downpours that even buildings don special raincoats of kulum grass and the hill station all but closes down.

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Jaldapara Wildlife Sanctuary, West Bengal

You are not likely to view spectacular samples of Indian wildlife at Jaldapara. If you are lucky you may spy one of the sub-continent's rare one-horned rhinoceros or a tiger or a leopard. More probable are encounters with deer or wild elephants. But this sanctuary in north Bengal by the Torsa river, at the foothills of the Himalayas, is a very pleasant summer refuge. Rides by elephant through the park, strolls through towering elephant grass and silent evenings at the jungle lodge are the stuff of good vacations.

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Ramtek, Maharashtra

Ramtek is bound to be very hot in summer. It is not a vacation destination. But if you happen to be in the area, Ramtek is worth a visit. The jumping off point for this hill of temples is Nagpur. Located about 40 km from the city, Ramtek looms, like a scene out of E M Forster's Passage to India, in the horizon on the road to Jabalpur. Mythology has it that Ram stopped at Ramtek on his way to Lanka. Kalidas is believed to have written the epic, Meghdoot here.

The complex of temples date back to the 5th century and the fort belonged to Raghoji I, the first Bhonsla of Nagpur. Ramtek was once the seat of power of the Vakataka kings.

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Bhagwan Mahaveer Sanctuary, Goa

Now here's a corner of Goa that you are not likely to have encountered before. The jungles of Bhagwan Mahaveer do not conjure up Goa, for those of us who possess a surf and sun and suntan lotion view of the place. Nevertheless Bhagwan Mahaveer's 240 square miles of forest, grassland and villages, the state's largest sanctuary, is a pleasant place to retire to during the hot Goan summer.

The park does not offer much wildlife, most of it having become prey years ago. But should you base yourself at the non-descript town Molem, where the only accommodation is available, courtesy the Goa tourism department, two rather interesting excursions are possible. The Dudhsagar falls, which translates to 'ocean of milk', though spectacular if viewed post monsoon, is very impressive all year round.

The other option is the isolated Tambi Surla temple located in a jungle clearing. This temple was once located many miles south and was moved to its present hidden jungle location so it would escape desecration by the Portuguese. Tambi Surla is easily one of the most interesting sites of the state.

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Pinjore, Haryana

Pinjore is a popular Chandigarh getaway. The exotic Yadavindra gardens, fountain and zoo, with its aviary and otter enclosure, attracts plenty of daytrippers and picnic-wallahs. But the spot, which legend says has existed since the days of the Pandavas, is truly beautiful. And what is better is the fact that the Haryana Tourism operated hotel, Budgerigar, is located in a Mughal era palace.

Yadavindra was once the preserve of the Sirmaur kings until the Moghuls took it over. Fidai Khan, Aurangzeb's brother, designed the gardens. There are three rather impressive palaces on the grounds. Situated near the charming Shivalik hills, very close to Kalka, Pinjore is on the road to Shimla.

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Ponmudi, Kerala

A hill station with a view of the ocean. That sums up Ponmudi. Up in Kerala's Ponmudi hills, this resort, a half day's drive from Kovalam, has an exceptional, breathtaking location. A precipitous climb (22 hairpin bends), through lush, humid clove, rubber and cashew plantations, bamboo and teak forests and rivers, brings one to this tiny outpost situated among the tea plantations that crown the misty mountaintops. Very close by is the Peppara wildlife sanctuary, where elephants, sambar and leopards live.

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Amarkantak, Madhya Pradesh

The Narmada river begins her long journey across the baked plateau of central India 1,065 m above sea level in the cool, forested glade of Amarkantak at the intersection of the Vindhyas and Satpura ranges. Narmada was apparently blessed with special religious powers by Shiv and the mere sight of the Narmada is enough to bring blessings uncounted.

Amarkanatak is an important destination for Hindu pilgrims. Temples thrive and flourish amidst the waterfalls, forests and quiet surroundings.

Amarkantak is very much off the beaten track.

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Almora, Uttar Pradesh
The Kumaon hill station of Almora is an ordinary enough bustling Himalayan town. But at 1,646 m above sea level nothing appears that ordinary. Blessed with splendid views of the peaks -- Nanda Devi, Kasan Devi, Banari Devi, Trishul... and a tranquillity not found in a number of other mountain resorts, Almora is quite charming.

The town is also one of the few hill stations not set up by the British and that is evident in the layout of the town. Established as a town in the 1500s -- though the Vedas and Puranas indicate that Vishnu once lived here and habitation by people and god people began much earlier -- it lacks the typical Raj hill station flavour, which makes it quite unique.

Its very traditional and picturesque market, with the classic old buildings of wood and stone and ancient temples, is rather atmospheric. The wooden homes -- like in Khazanchi Mohalla -- are embellished with carvings.

The town is spread across a horseshoe-shaped ridge and interestingly the collectorate occupies the highest point within the Almora fort. A sign, near this monument, sums up the history of Almora: "Fort Nanda Devi erected by Chand rajas and strengthened by Gurkha regiment, captured by the British under Colonel Nicholls on 26.4.1815. The convention for the surrender of Kumaon was formed the next day."

The Udyotchandesvar temple honouring Nanda Devi is worth a visit. The bazaar chai stalls offer spicy Indian snacks if you have an iron stomach to match. Do drop in and watch the tamta artisans, copper craftsmen, at work in the bazaar at Tamta Mohalla; their style of craft is over 2,000 years old. Or the Pachmarhi shawl weavers. Almora is also known for its Harris tweed; maybe the only place east of the Suez manufacturing it.

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Sasan Gir National Park, Gujarat

Gujarat quite literally boils in the summer. Hot winds blow. The earth cracks. And the sun is relentless. But at the Sasan Gir national park -- which spans 1,412 square km of rolling coutryside of Saurashtra -- the weather is a bit better.

The thinning teak forests are home to a very unsual species -- the Asiatic lion. This royal beast, which once roamed territories as far west as Persia and Arabia, now only has the Gir to call home. But home it is and spotting one of the few hundred animals is not that difficult, especially during one of Gujarat's raging summers, when they can be spied at the waterholes. It is equally easy to spot a range of other animals -- nilgai, hyenas, sambhar, panthers, cheetal, wild pigs, chinkara and crocodiles.

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Jeypore, Orissa