There are tucked away hotels, and then there are tucked away hotels—The Kumaon is the latter. A nine-hour drive from Delhi or a six-hour drive from Bareilly Airport, this two-acre property sits in a thicket of pine forest above the town of Almora, Uttarakhand. And up until now, much of its business has been word of mouth. My introduction to The Kumaon is like most others’, under the night sky after a day of travel. After parking in a secluded lot, I stretch my knees before a troupe of helpful hotel staff and I make our way down a modest, slanting path.
Each downward step towards the hotel I can’t yet see compounds my curiosity, my expectations markedly high after the journey, gaining momentum until the route swerves switchback-like. The trail curves into an expansive walled enclosure, delightfully teasing the design, a trail of twinkling lights leading towards the trim lounge. The double-sided, wide glass panes let me look right through their bones, straight at the mountain shadows that swell beyond. It’s a viewshed so pure I can even make out the sinuous zigzag of slash and burn fires, etching the distant mountains in fiery calligraphy. As I move closer, the eastern acreage opens to a glen glittering with gently illuminated stone paths, snaking through the topsy-turvy terrain, casting shadows on pines pruned like bonsais and sleek stone and bamboo villas that jut from the forest floor in an expansive outcropping.
I take a load off in the lounge’s library, the wall of tasteful titles watching me indulge in a nightcap as the stone hearth is stoked next to me. Tempted to curl up in the reading nook with a good book right then and there, I eventually stir myself out of my stupor in favour of the bukhara and electric blankets that await me in my chalet—one of 10 winsome quarters thoughtfully spread out across the landscape. As I get up, Sid, the Manager, a gentleman who I’ll quickly learn is as accommodating as his goatee is impeccably groomed, says “Let me know how you like the morning view,” as assuredly as a Michelin chef leaving your table with, “I hope you enjoy your meal.” It’s hard to believe tomorrow will bring a better vista than the distant village lights scattered across the inky waves of hill country before me: lapping at the shores of the Himalayan cordillera like seaside reflections of the bright stars above. But I leave my curtains open, just in case.
Come daybreak, my invitation to the only ones capable of peeping into my lofty lodging is warmly accepted. I blink awake to the jagged visages of Nanda Kot and Nanda Devi, beaming upon me like parents hovered over their kid’s cradle, their cousins, the Panchachuli range, shimmering salutations in the distance. The brightness is all-powerful, like the lighting behind a Hollywood actor when they’re playing god—the only difference is this aura isn’t pretending.
I drink in the mountains with my morning chai. The long tail feathers of Yellow-billed Blue Magpies swoosh through the trees, while woodpeckers beat their beaks in a trill-like drill. I’m in such a good mood I actually stop to smell the ‘roses,’ sniffing the blooming honey-raspberry bush along the path to breakfast. Its depths are buzzing with life, the nectar-heavy bees making way for me to sniff the orange blossom-like scent from clusters of buds.
I savour what’s left of sunup in the suspended dining area, part of which hangs over the hillside in the direction of the parallel mountainscape. It has a carriage-like alignment, positioned like a posh dining car on the Orient Express, the floor-to-ceiling windows at the far end masterfully framing the poster-worthy peaks like a fisheye lens. Here, and the adjoining rooftop terrace, will be where I get to know Kumaoni slow-cooking between my daily hikes curated by the hotel and its naturalists.
While many of The Kumaon’s hikes conveniently start at the hotel, the five-kilometre Chitai Hike involves a 10-minute drive to a nearby forested area. There, I meet Nandan, the hotel’s on-call naturalist. Our sally into the forest is immediately immersive. Nandan picks up a pine cone gently scorched by a forest fire, shaking out golden nuggets of roasted pine nuts. The toasty handful makes for a spontaneous trail snack, delicious enough to adorn any fine pesto. We graze again farther up the trail, a gracious Pahadi woman, harvesting grass for her livestock, lithely shimmies up a rhododendron tree and cuts off some flowers for us with her short sickle. I try a couple whole, but they are best enjoyed by sucking off the inky nectar that lines the inner petals, or as a cordial used to make diluted juice. Nandan points out how the Forest Department still uses an ancient local technique of harvesting sap by cutting intricate patterns across the bark of the pine trees—like a hundred games of tic-tac-toe carved over each other. I begin to see them everywhere.
At the halfway mark we exit the forest and stop at Chitai Golu Devta, a temple where devotees seek justice by pleading their cases through pieces of paper placed within the inner reaches of the structure; if all prevails well, such followers return and tie bells to the temple, of which there are thousands. Here, the murmur of mantras and chatter of monkeys are accented by the clanging of behemoth bells, echoing far into the forest loop we soon return to.
Nandan gestures to small, axed indents lining a naturally felled tree, each mark on the log punctuated by a slate stone. He explains this means someone has staked a claim to this wood and will use it—“no one else will touch it,” Nandan confirms.
Staggered ditches cut into the hillside trap water for wildlife and underground natural streams fill small tankers with clean water for empty canteens. Sustenance sets the scene here. And more impressively, Nandan assures me the people taking from the forest seem to never overuse the source that holds just enough for everyone’s needs. Right then I see two hotel staff smiling down on me from a nearby hillside, having just set up a surprise picnic for yours truly. Soon I’m sipping chai watching life slowly move across the vast valley ahead, enjoying just what I needed.
In the late afternoon I take on another curated stroll with Nandan, a little over two kilometres in total. I leave Mary, the Kumaon’s resident young pup, with a little boy who clearly wants a turn petting her, and head out with Juno and Elsa, her adopted canine parents. We maneuver around the hillscape, pausing to admire traditional cottages topped with the region’s iconic slate roofs. Nandan grew up in a nearby village, so he knows most of the people here, who come to their windows or balconies to greet him. The slim path we take twists past gardens hanging with larger-than-life lemons, cactus clinging to the vertical terrain, and nasty nettles ready to sting passing elbows.
I see mountainside cricket games, cute calves moo-ing for their mothers, and goats hopping up and down the hillside. All of a sudden the path culminates at a mammoth meadow, the soft swathe of land revealing itself, upon closer inspection, as a boundless bed of thyme. Following Juno and Elsa, their trotting releases an herbaceous perfume into the air. I pluck a few sprigs and rub them on my hands before popping a leaf or two in my mouth. In the middle of the meadow I see another unexpected picnic waiting for me. Hot coffee in hand, I watch the sun that so graciously woke me, spill over the mountains in one last blazing farewell.
My second day is kicked off with the Kosi River Hike, a relatively easy, three-kilometre, downhill walk from The Kumaon—though the sometimes steep descent could be hard on one’s knees if they’re already a little shaky. Nandan foreshadows the day ahead by telling me the story of how Elsa, one of the sweet doggo guardians of The Kumaon—who tried rather hard to join us on this hike—was once attacked and almost dragged off by a leopard, when Juno, a local breed of shepherd dog, saved her by chasing it off. Just then we pass a bovine carcass that Nandan confirms is leopard kill, meat it will probably return to this evening. He also tells me of a leopard that was recently relocated by the Forest Department for being a man-eater, her past territory the tract of the Kosi River where we are heading.
Clear waters greet us along the banks where a couple of guests spotted wild boars yesterday. Today the valley is quiet, save for a few children playing and fishing downstream. I soon find myself rolling up my jeans and wading into the cool water to skip stones. The hotel staff meet us there, and are setting up another scrumptious picnic full of tidy sandwiches and freshly baked cakes and biscuits. They suddenly point up to a cliff area, which Nandan mentioned was riddled with leopard caves. Lo and behold, a sun-bathing leopard is looking straight at us. With the gain in elevation, he’s a good 100 metres away, and poses no threat, I’m told. But we still whistle down the river to where the kids are, letting them know who is watching them as sunset nears and appetites increase.
Upon my third day at The Kumaon, I start things off with, I hesitate to say, perhaps the best hotel massage I have ever had. The masseuse coaxes the tension from my frazzled framework, uncoiling knots with the precision of a master sea hand, all while I look out of an open window, once again framing the famous massifs. Now I’m all set for my Binsar Wildlife Sanctuary hike, a three-kilometre, mostly uphill, stretch to Zero Point, which, on a clear day, promises some of the most popular panoramas of the immediate Himalayas. My badly suppressed panting, all too similar to the wheezing sounds of a wounded boar, are met by an unfazed Nandan, who looks like he’s strolling through his grandmother’s garden.
Eventually, I find a rhythm, and the ample birdlife sets the track for the walk. Nandan and I try to mimic a variety of calls by whistle as we climb up. At Zero Point the view is almost clear, a slight haze holding back its full form. I find The Kumaon’s vantage point more idyllic, however, I’m more than happy to be in Binsar. Not only do the rhododendron leaves splash the forest with a bounty of crimson, but I’m fortunate enough to spot several yellow-throated martens, adorable critters that somehow look part red panda, part weasel.
Sid has come up with a very special hike for my last morning at The Kumaon. Most outsiders familiar with Kasar Devi have heard about it in the context of Crank’s Ridge, today’s destination, a five-kilometre hike from the property. It is an area where NASA has reportedly measured a pronounced and unique frequency of magnetic activity only found in two other specific parts of the world, Machu Picchu and Stonehenge. These zones make up the Van Allen Radiation Belt. Long before this belt was recorded, Swami Vivekananda is believed to have deeply meditated in the cave of a huge stone outcropping along the ridge in 1890, around which Kasar Devi temple was later built. The adjacent ridge became a nearby hangout for visiting hippies to watch the clouds go by, perhaps blowing a few themselves, upon the latter half of the 20th century.
Over the years many notable erudites, spiritual leaders, and creatives have visited the temple and ridge, including Rabindranath Tagore, Cat Stevens, Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Alfred Sorensen, Timothy Leary, Lama Anagarika Govinda, and Robert Thurman.
Before sunrise we amble up and down the pine forest, spotting half-hidden owlets and leaping mountain goats. The constant elevation of the route makes it the most taxing out of all the short hikes I embarked on at The Kumaon, but the reward of cresting the high hill on which the temple stands is well worth it. I peer into the cave where Swami Vivekananda conducted his contemplation, and take the time to do a bit of my own on the stone bench that lines the periphery.
When I open my eyes, at the far end of the ridge, I see a beautifully laid breakfast atop a blanket, a sight I’m getting happily accustomed to. As I enjoy my breakfast spread, filled with fresh fruit, hot parathas, and local pickles, several Himalayan Griffon Vultures ride the thermals around me. They glide at the height of the ridge, showing off their massive three-metre wingspan. Now I’m no scientist, I can’t comment on the actual magnetism of the Kumaon region, but I can tell you I feel a pull—an undercurrent as wholesome as the millet and milk that goes into their kheer.
You don’t need to stay at The Kumaon to enjoy the Kumaon region. But if you do, they go out of their way to bring the foothills to your fingertips. It’s a place proud to serve Kumaoni cooking, not empty imitations—and don’t worry, room service can swing by and serve you a burger, though you won’t be needing that. It’s architecture is also stunning, but the emphatic focus is on the surrounding natural beauty.
When I’m at a hotel as prepossessing and blissfully situated as The Kumaon, I’m typically doing my level best to avoid talking to other guests in an attempt to preserve the sanctity of my sanctuary. But here, after a day of bird watching, river play, leopard sightings, stunning hikes, or terrace reads, I feel like sharing my splendour. And they have bonfires exactly for that purpose, sometimes with a crooner ready to serenade the evening with his guitar.
Life has a different cadence deep in Kumaon’s deodars, where the first faces I’ll see in the morning are the sun-bathed Himalayas.
This feature appeared in the print edition of National Geographic Traveller India May-June 2021.
The Kumaon is located in the Gadholi Village of Kasar Devi, a ridge looking over the city of Almora in Uttarakhand. The property is a 9-hour drive from Delhi (360 kms), a 4-hour drive from Kathgodam Railway Station (90 kms), a 5-hour drive from Pantnagar Airport (125 kms), or a 6-hour drive from Bareilly Airport (195 kms). Doubles starting at ₹23,000.
Julian Manning can usually be found eating a crisp ghee roast with extra podi. The rare times his hands aren’t busy with food, they are wrapped around a mystery novel or the handlebars of a motorcycle. He is Senior Assistant Editor at National Geographic Traveller India.