A pleasant winter getaway; watch the snow piling outside your hotel while you sit by the fireplace
Manali is the haunt of adventure tourists, with opportunities galore for trekking, hiking, paragliding and skiing. The Manalsu offers fishing and rafting. Backpackers make their way to the villages around the town. The town itself is the gateway to the Rohtang pass and the arid and pristine Lahaul and Spiti beyond.
But as the lights switched off for the 15-hour bus journey, I found myself thinking about the hotel I would be staying at rather than ways to fill my days. Pictures of the pool of blue water, shingled roofs and clouds changing colours had captivated me on The Himalayan’s website. But with rain and overcast skies forecast for the weekend, I wondered if they would have anything to keep visitors occupied. I needn’t have worried.
The bustling bus stop at Manali makes it difficult to believe that a restful resort could be as close to the town as it claims. But a mere 1.5km away, down a bend on the Hadimba Mata temple road, at a dead end stood The Himalayan. The pseudo-Gothic façade loomed large and gloomy on that overcast morning. Wet flagstone-paved steps covered with an atmospheric patina of moss led to a surprisingly cheery vestibule that functions as the reception.
The bellhop deftly shouldered my rucksack as I took in the rearing golden ibex that is their logo, polished shell casings in a glass display, the antique till and other restored antiques blending in, and began the ascent to my room on the second floor.
Like in every other room in the castle, there was a luxurious four-poster bed, a cast-iron fireplace, a study desk and high wing-backed chairs surrounding a round table. As the bellhop left with a promise of a pot of Assam tea, I sank into a plush chair and waited. Large windows fill up the room with light and a breeze carried in the fragrance of flowers. Above the fireplace hung paintings of birds. An armoire stood forlorn in a corner while two marble-topped bedside tables flanked the bed.
Revived by tea, I walked into the bath and was immediately impressed by the sheer space. Not the small dark wash closet a Gothic mansion might claim! I kicked myself for not packing bath salts but the hot soak on a grey day did wonders for the spirits anyway. So much so that I cancelled my plans to nap through the morning and headed straight down for some brunch. Instead of the refectory dining room, I found myself seated under a vaulted ceiling and looking out over the pool with the sky reflected in it.
I ordered a chicken steak and some beer, then wandered down into the garden to photograph the moisture-laden flowers after a drizzle. Bees and butterflies hovered overhead beyond the snails, slugs and skinks thriving in the garden. Small cottages clustered around the pool. There are many quiet reading nooks to indulge your goosebumps over a book, though, or to spend a quiet romantic evening. I lay down with my head in the daisies and looked up at green apples. I loved the spot beside the young maple tree. A locked wooden door led to nothing more sinister than the surrounding apple orchards, which are not part of the property and don’t seem to support any Beasts. Dogroses flourish on this side, though, and crickets sing in the evening.
It is enough to lose track of time in. A friendly waiter comes out to escort me back to the steak. In the days that follow, the steak, the whole roasted trout and the rösti become my partners in crime. The spicy rogan josh is a close sidekick. Dinners may not have the frisson of sampling the local street food, but abjure any untoward horrors.
However, that first evening is spent sipping tea in the parlour, admiring the paintings on the walls, learning more about the elaborate clover trelliswork, picking up acquaintances and exchanging stories about the long snake that almost always suns itself near the parlour in the winters, the civet that created a racket when it got stuck in a wire mesh in the middle of the night (and was successfully rescued) and anecdotes about the three resident dogs.
I turned in early for the night after spending some time under a clear, starlit sky that refused to lower portentously. I woke up to apples galore, unripe still, making me feel like Tantalus. A winged shadow fell. I looked out of the window to find a cuckoo, rather than a raven, peering in. Great tits flitted around the trees and I could distinctly hear the excited yapping of dogs asking for a game of chase.
I found them fetching nothing more sinister than a ball in a large space at the back. It was meant to be a tennis court, I was told, but might just get converted to a skating rink in the winters! As ever, the dogs have a hierarchy of their own: the smallest and also the eldest, Peggy, is bullied by the youngest, the Siberian Husky (Lizzy), who is continually challenged by the beautiful Fifi. The canine charmers led me to a locked gate — here was hope of adventures at last — and I was soon hailed by a local gardener helping out in the kitchen garden. Peas, cabbage, cauliflower, zucchini, basil, mint, okra, aubergine, parsley and other greens used in the kitchen are grown here.
Having failed to turn up crypts, coffins or even a suspicious bone, afternoon found me in my room, slave to the idiot box, but as I looked outside I found the sky changing colour, iridescent blue, purple, overcast with a half-formed rainbow.
In the evening I was roused by jolly party goers and headed to The Dungeon. A raised pulpit serves as the bar, schoolboy chairs, schoolboy bar stools, distressed tables and music blaring from speakers completes the scene. I felt a tad disappointed by the absence of torture equipment, but the revelry made up for it.
The morning after found me nursing a hangover, with an iced tea, up in the crow’s nest. It offers a panoramic view of the surrounding hillside. From here the planted raised troughs in the garden seemed like coffins. A clamorous crow perched on the raised croquet hoops made me want to say, “Off with its head!” quite like the Queen of Hearts.
I promised myself to be back in the winter when the hills will be snowclad and snow will slide down the shingled roofs of the castle. In the evenings the light will paint pretty pictures on the snow, and there will be blazing fires in the fireplaces.
Location: The Himalayan, Hadimba Road, Manali; 1.5km from the town centre and bus stop; Delhi to Kullu, the nearest airport, is a 45-minute flight, and the 50km drive to Manali takes 1 hour
Accommodation: 8 chambers in the castle: 4 classic bedrooms, 1 grand bedroom, 1 premier bedroom with private balcony, all double-occupancy, and 2 family rooms for 4; 8 two-bedroom cottages with drawing and dining areas and kitchenette
Tariff: Rs 7,500 (classic), Rs 8,000 (grand), Rs 9,500 (premier), Rs 11,900 (family), Rs 17,000 (cottage)
Contact: +91-124-4062480, www.rareindia.com