After a long, dusty drive through the Kumaon Hills my husband and I finally reached a small clearing near Bhimtal. As we unloaded our luggage, a smiling teenage boy directed us towards rough stone steps that led to a colonial bungalow with a porch extending all along its front, a sloping roof, and flowering plants around each pillar. The sound of whining puppies and chirping birds completed the idyll.
We’d arrived at The Retreat, a homestay run by the gracious Padmini Smetacek or Paddy, along with her happy brood of six homeschooled children aged 11 to 25, and several dogs. Their 19th-century home is grand, yet steeped in simplicity. Set in the middle of an estate surrounded by fragrant cedar, oak, and pine forests, the whiff of the past lingers on the quaint wooden hangers, and armchairs by the fireplace. Even the food had a touch of colonial ceremony: tea served in a pot with an embroidered tea cosy and three-course meals even for vegetarians like me.
We set off to explore the estate with the two older boys, listening to a woodpecker’s tuk-tuk-tuk in the distance, while a group of babblers chattered in the bushes. I excitedly collected some pine bark from the peeling trees. Our guides seemed to know every rock and tree like the back of their hands, and in less than an hour, we’d reached the top. They soon had a fire going and served us barbecued paneer and veggies.
As evening descended upon Bhimtal, city noises and mundane routines seemed miles away. We savoured the pervasive silence by the fireplace, warming our hands and chatting with the family. Two days later, with a trunkful of memories, a jar of homemade plum jam, and my collection of pine bark we bid adieu feeling we now had family in the hills.
Appeared in the November 2014 issue as “A Whiff Of The Past”. Updated in October 2017.
Accommodation The Retreat has three rooms, two with an annexe that can house a large family with children. All three rooms have attached bathrooms (www.theretreatbhimtal.in; doubles ₹3,500, including breakfast, tea, and a snack; meals extra ₹600-700, per person per meal; activities like trekking, barbecue, and picnics extra; during holidays and long weekends book a month or two in advance.)
Getting there The Retreat is in Bhimtal, 20 km/45 mins west of Nainital in Uttarakhand. Kathgodam Railway Station is 21 km/45 mins south and Pantnagar Airport 52 km/1.5 hrs south, but be sure to check in advance if flights are operating. A taxi from Kathgodam to Bhimtal costs approximately ₹700 and from Pantnagar Airport ₹1,800-2,000. Alternatively, the homestay can book you a taxi.
Bhavani is a traveller by choice and writer by desire. She believes that "backyard" discovery is as enriching as any other travel. She is in a dedicated relationship with books, dogs, chocolate, her husband and lower case, in no order of preference. She tweets as @bhavan1.