As I poured some honey into my cup of fragrant kahwa in the outdoor dining area of Srinagar’s Lalit Grand Palace, one of the hotel staff said, “Gandhi and Maharaja Hari Singh had a conversation under that chinar. You will be able to see it better in the morning.” The Gandhi chinar held pride of place here, and the next morning, I agreed that the chinar deserved all the attention it got. In all its verdant summer glory, the tree was magnificent, maybe just a tad more than its counterparts standing around the sprawling lawns of the heritage hotel.
Built in 1910 by Maharaja Pratap Singh, the property was later handed over to his nephew and successor Hari Singh who converted it into a heritage hotel. Beyond a walkway flanked by fountains is the reception area with an elaborate khatambandh, a traditional Kashmiri ceiling made by fitting together small pieces of carved wood. The original palace remains largely unchanged and it has come to include the Chinar Garden restaurant and the hotel’s heritage wing. In the Maharaja and Maharani suites, vintage four posted beds, mahogany writing desks, and wood-and-carpet-accented libraries open to views of sinewy safeda trees along the Dal.
On my first day in Srinagar, I spent equal amounts of time in the hotel’s Chinar Garden restaurant and on Dal Lake, a five-minute walk down the road from my hotel. On a shikara ride, I’d watched the floating market light up as the sun set behind the mountain slopes around the lake. I’d returned the next day to see the city wake up along the fringes of the lake and vendors gather at the morning market. The faint birdsongs, the sound of oars cutting through water, and my boatman Moisar’s softly narrated stories, had suddenly given way to a cacophony of voices just as the shikara turned into an inlet of water. Men, young and old, on their wooden boats, argued about the price of plump pumpkins and gourds as they shared cigarettes or hookahs. Flower sellers with boats full of roses, lotus and water lilies, tried to get past the crowd onto the placid expanse of Dal to sell seeds and flowers to travellers on a morning shikara ride. This was the Kashmir I had heard about.
Back in the hotel, after warming my hands with a cup of kahwa—in Srinagar, early mornings and evenings of summer are mild and if it rains, even chilly—I bit into the flaky barkhani bread slathered with spiced apple jam made out of fruits picked from the hotel’s orchard. Over 200 apple trees line the road from the gate to the entrance at the Lalit, and every apple consumed in any form at the hotel comes from them. It is one of the many indulgent things about the menu here. The others are harissa, a Kashmiri breakfast staple made of lamb that has a baba ganoush-like consistency, and my favourite, the wazwan. At the Lalit, this traditional communal meal is made under the supervision of a waza, a Kashmiri cook who specialises in making wazwan. It features both vegetarian and non-vegetarian regional delights such as haaq saag, nadru yakhni, rogan josh, and the lamb meatball curry, gostaba.
Over the next two days of my stay at the Lalit, I witnessed that Kashmir stays true to almost every verse, portrait and motion picture dedicated to it. Srinagar’s narrow lanes are lined by bungalows and cottages with sloping roofs, some of which house carpet and woodwork workshops. Its many mosques, including the 750-year-old Shah-e-Hamdan, are unique in their architecture with conical roofs and papier-mâché art on their walls. The magnificent Mughal gardens exude an old-world charm romance. And the view of a mist-covered Srinagar from Pari Mahal is unparalleled. Riding in a gondola over Gulmarg’s pine forest is just as exciting when the view is obstructed by a sheet of rain as it is when the valley is covered in snow. The lack of snowfall does not take away from the grandeur of Sonmarg, which is all jagged mountain and looming firs.
For any traveller out on their own, Srinagar and Kashmir are rewarding but not easy to navigate. Getting to the awe-inspiring sites involves negotiation with persistent local guides, and a constant wariness instilled by the presence of military personnel in unexpected corners. However, returning to my garden-facing room at the Lalit gave me a chance to pause and appreciate the strength and grace of Srinagar: a capital city that lived on, slightly wary but undaunted by conflict. The natural beauty of the valley was as memorable as the warmth of the people I met outside and within the Grand Palace.
A gondola ride in Gulmarg might seem cliche but is a rewarding experience. An hour and half from Srinagar, one of the highest gondolas in the world takes visitors to 14,000 feet gliding over snow-dusted pines and ski slopes in winter, and gurgling streams in summer.
Sonmarg’s draws are its magnificent glacier and green meadows of wild flowers. The two-hour drive from Srinagar affords views of the Sindh River and frothy mountain streams.
Head to Pahalgam, two hours from Srinagar, for the hiking trails and freshly caught trout. Stop and taste the apples from orchards along the road.
Sail on the Dal Lake, not just for the shikara experience but to view local life—morning markets on boats, floating farms and stores, travellers on shikaras or houseboats, and locals, young and old, returning home on narrow boats.
Srinagar’s old quarter has traditional homes with wooden facades, and old mosques—some dating to the 14th century—with distinctive conical roofs. The sprawling Mughal gardens with chinars, roses and stone fountains, are favourites for school picnics and leisurely walks. A visit to the city is incomplete without visiting the woodwork and carpet-making workshops. The carpets’ weaves are born of scraps of paper with unique design codes, while the walnut-wood artefacts are inspired by Kashmir’s flora and fauna.
The Lalit Grand Palace is a 30-minute drive from Srinagar airport. It has 113 rooms including 10 cottages. The heritage wing is part of the original palace while the newer cottages, though built in the style of the palace from the outside, have contemporary interiors. The hotel has an outdoor restaurant, bar, spa and an indoor pool. Special meals and barbeques can be arranged in the hotel’s gardens on request (www.thelalit.com; doubles from Rs12,000).
Rumela Basu is former Assistant Editor at National Geographic Traveller India. Her favourite kind of travel involves food, literature, dance and forests. She travels not just to discover new destinations but also aspects of herself.