Looking out the French windows that fill two sides of the living room, I see the threat of rain looming over the valley which was sunny just a few hours ago. Big clouds that are every shade of grey between delightful wisp and thundering rain fill the sky. Below them, the branches of apple trees heavy with half ripe fruit, streaks of red beginning to run through the green, seem to quiver in anticipation. A susurration runs through the much taller deodar trees in the forest beyond the orchards.
Monsoon in Himachal Pradesh’s sunny apple belt is a magical experience. It’s also the perfect time to enjoy the charms of Meena Bagh Ratnari, an almost 65-year-old stone-and-wood cottage set in the orchards that has been renovated to welcome guests with a delightful cocktail of rural rustic and modern comfort. The wooden floor is worn, and the bare walls show the layers of wood and stone that are typical of traditional construction in these parts. Bright pop-art cushions and bedspreads liven the space, creating cosy nooks in the sitting rooms that run along the front of the cottage, with windows overlooking the orchard-filled valley.
Sitting in one of these, biting into a tart and juicy golf-ball sized Tydeman apple (one of the early varieties grown in the orchard around the cottage), I watch one daring cloud descend from the pack and brush flirtatiously with the tree tops, before racing back to join its side like a successful, if breathless, kabaddi player. I can hear a few dogs bark, the sound of birds, the murmurs of orchard workers. We’re just 17 kilometres from popular Narkanda, but my husband and I are thrilled to have finally escaped the crowds that claim dominion over the Himachali towns and villages along National Highway 5 (formerly NH22) during the summer. No strident honking, speeding car with Delhi license plates, or loud music interrupts my communion with the clouds.
With a breeze holding the rain clouds in check, we step out for a stroll. Numerous trails lead off the road in front of the orchard into the surrounding forest. Choosing one that seems well-trodden we shortly find ourselves in the village meadow, a flat stretch of green punctuated by a muddy streak that is the local cricket pitch. No game is in progress, but we can hear the distant murmur of a stream and look for a path leading to it. The trail is narrow and covered in deodar needles. It leads to a rickety wooden bridge over a stream, continuing beyond into more apple orchards. A gentle drizzle begins to fall and before it can turn into some-thing more, we quickly retrace our steps to the cottage.
We’re only too happy to return. Lingering briefly to admire the wild flowers that grow along the path to the cottage, we resume our exploration of the property itself. Every aspect of it is informed by the aesthetic of owner Sanjay Austa, a photographer and writer, who also spends time looking after the family orchards. One wall is filled with framed photographs from his travels around the world. Another, with some of the souvenirs he’s picked up on those travels, showcased in a display case made from used wooden apple crates. In the living room, which is one of the new additions to the old house, along with the generous bathrooms that adjoin the two rooms, the walls and benches are lined with strips of waste wood. Sanjay points out that the same waste wood has been used to make serving trays, the racks for cups and glasses in the kitchen, and even a couple of stools. Looking up, I see that that the light fittings hanging from the sloping wooden ceiling are fashioned from old brass cookware Sanjay found in a local scrapyard, some still with the names of their former owners painted on the side.
The overall impression is of a cosy, yet elegant home with enough beauty within it, and around it, to make doing nothing a delicious prospect. The home-style Himachali food that cook Deshraj makes for us, seals that feeling. Before going to bed, I slip outside for a quick look at our home for the night. It shines like a yellow jewel lit from within, an inviting bright spot between the shadowy apple trees, and the evening fog slowly descending from the forest to encircle it like a soft blanket.
ACCOMMODATION Meena Bagh Ratnari has two rooms in a cottage surrounded by apple orchards. However, more people can easily be accommodated on single beds and extra mattresses that can be placed in the three sitting rooms in the front of the cottage. The rooms combine modern comforts with rustic decor, while the bathrooms are quite large and luxurious, complete with bathtubs. While Deshraj the cook is always around, and happy to cook up meals to suit individual tastes, guests can also saunter into the kitchen themselves to rustle up a morning cuppa (meenabaghresorts.com; Ratnari Village, Kotkhai Tehsil, Shimla District; 98106 72755; for reservations write to firstname.lastname@example.org; Rs15,000 for both bedrooms/4 adults; includes meals and activities like apple picking and guided walks.). Sanjay welcomes guests with pets, and offers a generous discount to writers, journalists, artists and those involved in conservation activities.
GETTING THERE Meena Bagh is in Ratnari, a village about 17 km/50 min east of Narkanda. About 10 kilometres of this is on a narrow mountain road winding through forest, best navigated in an SUV with 4-wheel drive (though locals also drive their sedans there). The cottage is a 150-metre walk up from the road. Narkanda is 62 km/2 hr northeast of Shimla, and 174 km/5.5 hours northeast of Chandigarh. Chandigarh has convenient flight and train connections with major cities, including daily Shatabdi trains from Delhi.
Neha Dara is a travel writer and editor. She is happiest trotting off the beaten path, trekking in the Himalayas, scuba diving in Andaman & Nicobar, or exploring local markets in small towns. She tweets as @nehadara.