Sipping steaming chai in the first floor balcony of The River Side Cottage in Manali, my eyes trace the undulating expanse of the snow-capped Himalayas. Save for the Beas River purling below, there is pin-drop silence. Occasionally, magpies chime in. Marigold sunrays filtering through a canopy of deodars that fringe the six-year-old property only add to the enchanting views. The sheer fact that I am toasting my eyes to the Himalayas is enough to make me sit there, unfazed, doing nothing, for hours. It’s only when the temperature drops to 4°C do I reluctantly retreat indoors.
We are in Himachal to celebrate my parents’ 25th anniversary, and this is my first time in Manali. Barely an hour has passed since we checked into the rust-coloured, Lego-like cottage, and our celebratory fervour is already at its peak. For city slickers like us such great proximity to nature, accessible from a little-known boutique hotel, is a source of bountiful joy. I am loving every bit of it.
It took us seven hours from Shimla to reach Riverside, which sits at an elevation of over 7,000 feet in Kalth (also Kalath), along the Kullu-Manali National Highway. Exhausted from the drive, the bed in our basic wood-furnished room looks even more inviting. My mother and I are the first ones to jump in. As I lie admiring the fading evening light streaming in from the window and the Himalayas outsise, I see a smile spread across my mother’s lips. Inspired by the gorgeous screensaver views, she does something next that takes me completely by surprise. “Tapasviyo si hain atal yeh parvaton ki chotiyaan (behold the mountain peaks as immovable as sages in deep meditation),” she recites the lyrics of a number from a 1967 Jeetendra starrer. We exchange goofy grins and decide to idle away the evening in the balcony, soaking in views of the tiny lawn sprinkled with daisies and apple trees.
The good thing about mountain getaways and nippy weather is that you work up an appetite every two hours. So, a little past nine, we finally make our way to the common dining hall. The ivory marble floor here is in contrast with the tawny wooden ceiling, and the saffron tint from the ornate chandelier lends a sepia tone to the room. The food is as basic as the setting—simple yet delicious. I devour the piping hot, perfectly round rotis and the creamy butter-chicken. Cosy from the warmth of the heater in my room, sleep comes effortlessly that night.
The next morning, after a simple breakfast of bread, omelette and tea, we set out in the direction of a hot spring, a stone’s throw from across the cottage. To get there, we cross a wobbly suspension bridge festooned with multi-coloured prayer flags. The gurgling river underneath makes my heart pound even as locals and monks hurried across in seconds. As I lay my eyes on the hot spring at the other end, I heave a sigh of relief on having crossed the bridge. Taking off my shoes, I park myself on some rocks around the shallow pool of bubbling spring water to dip my feet. The warmth of the gushing bubbles feels deeply comforting in the cold air. Before leaving, I pocket a tiny white pebble—a perfect souvenir, a perfect memory of a holiday well spent in the hills.
Located in Manali, along the Kullu-Manali National Highway, The River Side Cottage is about 5 km before the town center. The boutique property, run by two caretakers, has four rooms, and comes with heaters, Wi-Fi, and parking space. The caretakers can arrange a taxi to visit the town centre on request. (www.riversidecottagesmanali.com; +91 9810737177; doubles from Rs 3,500; taxi to town centre Rs 200).
Right across The River Side Cottage is Hot Spring Café, a haunt frequented by monks, locals and tourists alike. Try their delectable mutton momos and chowmein (Rs 200 for a meal for two). Mall Road and Old Manali are also dotted with tiny food stalls and quaint cafés that are big on trout dishes. The Johnson’s Café on Circuit House Road en route to Hadimba temple is hugely popular among travellers. Here, gorge on local delicacies like siddu, a ghee-slathered wheat bread stuffed with a paste of green peas, ginger, garlic, walnut, and peanut. Polish it off with green chutney. Thenthuk, a typical hand-pulled noodle soup is another must-try Tibetan delicacy. Worked up an appetite? Here’s our guide to the best places to eat in Manali.
Pooja Naik is Senior Sub-Editor at National Geographic Traveller India. She likes to take long leisurely walks with both hands in her pocket; channeling her inner Gil Pender at Marine Drive since Paris is a continent away.