The twilight sky’s shapeshifting colours could fill a paint wheel as my friend and I near our hilltop sojourn for the weekend in Binsar Wildlife Sanctuary, now visible in the distance as a dull light signals the end to our 13-hour journey. We’ve been in transit from Delhi before dawn, first catching the morning train to Kathgodam, and then hopping onto the road for a four-hour drive. Sugarcane fields and meandering streams alert us to the mountains in the distance. Our journey through the fog-misted lakes of Bhimtal and hairpin bends of Kumaon so far has been breezy and treacherous by turns because of unexpected rain. All it took was a whiff of the crisping air and a quick glance at the valley below, blanketed with oaks, pines and deodars, to perk us up for the weekend ahead.
Mary Budden Estate is a five-acre mountain retreat, home to three luxury cottages and lodges, and one of five other homestays in the 47-kilometre radius of Binsar Wildlife Sanctuary. Common timber ceilings, lavish rugs and copper jugs greet our senses at first glance, as do the smell of fresh white linen and burning wood in the bukharis. Each room has a luxe modern bathroom and a living room with a small library, steeped in wildlife, history, fiction and photobooks. A bedroom chair grants views of the endless rhododendron forests.
As the name suggests, the estate has colonial antecedents. An hour’s drive from the old British cantonment of Almora, the calm of Jhandi Dhar hills that surround Binsar has long seduced Europeans in the summer. In 1899, General McGregor, who owned this property, bequeathed it to an English missionary, Mary Budden. In 1990, Serena Chopra came into the cottage’s ownership and transformed the rugged space into the eco-luxury homestay that it is today. The most recent revamping happened over the summer of 2021 where tapestries, lamps, fragrances, upholstery and furnishings were meticulously picked out to give every room a different personality. Our Cedar Lodge is a mixture of colonial English interiors with Indian undertones.
Nitesh Thakur and Yogesh Singh—our hosts for the weekend—hand me a carefully planned but absolutely packed two-day itinerary wrapping leisure, relaxation and adventure. Our first meal is homely, warm and greasy. We dig into a glistening bowl of green. Nettle soup, made from bicchu booti, a plant whose sting can leave rashes for days. We dive into its mild flavour, instantly forgetting the tiring day. Soon, a quinoa salad, Himalayan cheese, a shiitake mushroom pastry, and alfredo penne are gobbled up with some bitter chocolate mousse to cap it off.
The next morning, a sweet chirping of birds flood my senses as I stand still in my tracks, eyes closed. “What you hear is the song of green-backed tit and a jungle warbler,” says Hemu Updadhyay, a local naturalist and guide. We are on the ‘Ramsay’s Walk’, a tribute to Henry Ramsay, Kumaon’s Assistant Commissioner in 1840. We learn that the cobbled pathways around the cottage premises were carved out by British officers on horseback, who were avowed explorers of the wild.
The trek to Mayoulikhan reveals misty mountains, pristine streams and soon takes us into a thick-canopied jungle where we spot an array of colourful birds basking in the sunlight. A chestnut and white-bellied nuthatch appear in the distance and our keen eyes and hushed footsteps lead us to a magnificent Eurasian Jay, whose tans and blues complement its eccentric movements. An ultramarine flycatcher sits on a thin oak stem. Halfway down to Mayoulikhan, we turn back knowing we did not come prepared for an eight-hour trudge. Luckily, we catch a glimpse of a goral grazing in a gorge below and the rare Rufous-bellied woodpecker pecking a rhododendron bark.
Each hike is crafted by the cottage hosts for all levels of explorers. Hours later we meander past the cedars and oaks, collecting pictures of mossy barks and glossy mushrooms on our trek to Zero Point through the ‘Lama’s Path’, where grey skies part to reveal the majestic snow-capped peaks of Nanda Devi and Panchachuli.
It is the trek to Dalar homestay that takes our breaths away. The idyllic two-kilometre hike changes landscapes every 300 meters—from cobbled stone pathways and canopies that transport you to lush rainforests, we walk the narrowest paths lined with slanting pine trees and silky grass. Songs of great barbets accompany us, as we spot markers of wild boars and the beautiful kakkar (barking deer), with a red-orange coat snacking on a shrub. Finally, we stand facing a small two-storeyed hut nestled in a green pine-covered terrain. A small stream trickles on the edge and we spot a timber balcony that needs to be enjoyed with a cup of tea.
For a spot so remote and a view so glorious, a few hastily arranged cold meals will do but here we are, feasting local Kumaoni cuisine atop a cliff, from a table, ornate with beautiful mats, indigo ceramics, fine cutlery and copper glasses. Before we know it, bamboo baskets holding manduwa and gehu rotis are set down in front of us. Piping hot laai ka saag (garlic tempered Himalayan mustard leaves), jakhiya aloo, pahadi badi, bhatt ki chutkani (crushed Himalayan soybean), lal bhaat (Kumaoni red rice), raita and freshly cut salad form a colourful spread. Even the rain mid-way through our meal does not dampen our excitement for some warm ragi ki laapsi (finger millet halwa) afterwards.
Breakfasts at Mary Budden begin with soaked fenugreek seeds and a block of Himalayan cheese. Warm beverages are a bell away throughout the day. High tea is characterised by cold sandwiches in gardens. Lunches are grand, dinners are candle-lit. If that didn’t already feel heavy, eventide is accompanied by charred hors d’oeuvres—all courtesy of Chef Veshraj Sharma’s craft. From cold brews to cold cuts, trucks from Munsiyari and Delhi bring all the supplies you can imagine (except liquor) to the estate. Through the two days, our appetite grows as we devour heavy meals, starting with stuffed parathas to shepherd’s pie at night.
On our first afternoon, we are treated to a Himalayan lunch—a meal inspired by local traditions and made with seasonal produce. We approach the pre-plated oak table under the bluest sky. Our first course is of tangy smashed cucumber salad in shot glasses served with Himalayan root vegetable carpaccio, veduroth (Kumaoni lentil cake stuffed with spiced red rice), a light spinach and soybean salad, and cold Tibetan thukpa. A second course introduces a generous proportion of pine-smoked lamb, ragi dumplings with bright sorghum sauce and Bhutanese ema dashi with cinnamon-scented tingmo. Having downed food for six, we are still left with chef Yashpal Koranga’s pineapple crumble and a cheese-and-nut charcuterie board for dessert.
Devious gluttony, wonderful hikes and secluded splendour—for a blissful weekend at Mary Budden, our hearts stay firmly in the clouds.
Take a morning train from Delhi to Kathgodam and drive 4 hours to Binsar Wildlife Sanctuary. Mary Budden Estate is inside the sanctuary. (marybuddenestate.com; doubles from ₹27,000 per lodge, ₹70,000 per cottage, inclusive of three meals).
Muskaan Gupta travels with a camera that doesn't fret to capture touristy pictures and believes visiting local markets is the best way to unearth a city's gems and jewels. She is Junior Writer (Native Content) at National Geographic Traveller India.