In Roads To Mussoorie, an anthology of stories, Ruskin Bond wrote: “The adventure is not in getting somewhere, it’s on-the-way experience. It is not the expected: it’s the surprise.” But what is it that makes an adventure memorable? I would like to believe that the secret sauce to any sojourn, that which makes it momentous, even life-changing, lies in the people you meet en route. It is that human touch that uplifts any trip, whether it is a powerful raconteur, who spends an evening narrating a region’s vibrant folklore, or a social entrepreneur, who introduces you to the cheese- making tradition of nomadic tribes. You could meet a former army officer who knows trails in the mountains like the back of his hands, or a former advertising professional who curates the most fabulous of Famous Five-esque farm adventures.
These are people who don’t just bring a place alive but also add meaning to your holiday. So, this summer, why not travel for the people and not just the destination? Lounge suggests eight destinations that will be made all the more memorable by the people you meet.
Follow the path of shepherds in Tons Valley, Uttarakhand
With Anand Sankar
Experience the pastoral life, taking the sheep to high-altitude grasslands with the shepherds, spending the days making goat cheese or foraging in the jungle for edibles and mushrooms. Anand Sankar, a former journalist who runs the eco-tourism social enterprise Tons Trails in Uttarakhand, does two nomad trails every summer. The six-day moderate one takes you up to Beejay Dhar, or the musk deer mountain, at 11,500ft, offering stunning views of the Supin and Rupin valleys. The 11-day intensive trail leads up to Barad Sar, a glacial lake at 14,100ft and is followed by a trek to Manjhi Van, a grassland at 14,600ft, where you camp with the shepherds at Kukar Kanda.
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Sankar’s knowledge of the region and the pastoral community ensures the journey is filled with stories and nuggets of information. On the moderate trail, for instance, you may have dinner cooked over a shepherd’s campfire, try goat cheese making sessions with locals, and explore the remote village of Kalap.
For those who don’t wish to hike, Sankar has a three-day heritage trail, taking guests to the upper Tons Valley, redolent with myths and legends from the Mahabharat. You visit the mystical Rupin valley, going up to Doni village, where you stay in a traditional wooden “Chowkhat” home and trek to the pristine village of Khanna. Sankar aims to empower the locals economically while offering a unique experience to travellers. “Hence, we do only small groups, with the upper limit being 12 guests. We strictly follow a ‘leave no trace’ policy, picking up our own garbage and recycling. All our trips are led by people from the local community,” he says.
The nomad trails are priced at ₹18,000-31,000. The heritage trail is priced at ₹9,500-11,500, www.tons.travel
Enjoy a heritage home with your pets at Jambughoda Palace, Gujarat
With the Jambughoda Family
At any given point, there have been at least five dogs in this heritage home, located in Gujarat’s Panchmahal district. “The number could go up to 13-15 at times,” laughs Bhavna Devi, whose family owns the Jambughoda Palace.
The history of the estate stretches back 600 years, when the Jambughoda state was founded by the Parmars, a Rajput royal family from Dhar. Today, besides dogs, you can see a flock of geese casually walking by on the front lawns. “In the 1900s, we had around 25 horses in the palace. So, we have always coexisted with animals—pets and otherwise—at home,” she adds. The 12-acre compound, within which the heritage property is located, is surrounded by mango orchards and farmland, giving pets ample space to gambol.
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During summer, you can treat yourself to the 12 varieties of mango that grow on the estate, or listen to stories recounted by Bhavna Devi and her family—comprising her mother-in-law, Gyaneshwari Devi, and her husband, Karmaveer Sinhji. Her father-in-law, Maharana Vikramsinhji, worked with Verghese Kurien when the National Dairy Development Board was set up in the 1970s.
He introduced dairy farming in Jambughoda taluka as well, starting the first milk cooperative. Today, the area has around 34 milk cooperatives, four of them operated entirely by women. Head to Champaner, a 40-minute drive away, to see exquisite examples of fusion architecture or get a glimpse of the lives of indigenous communities such as the Rathwas and Nayaks.
The Jambughoda family, which continues to live in the oldest part of the property, has opened 21 rooms to travellers since 2000. You won’t just stay in a beautiful room but a space that is imbued with history. Ingredients from the farm are used to bring generations-old recipes to life, slow-cooked on a wood fire. “I have been told by a lot of travellers that living in a heritage home is a very different experience as the family is always around to interact with them. It is a place that has soul,” says Bhavna Devi.
Prices for the three categories of rooms range from ₹2,500-7,000, plus taxes, a night, www.jambughoda.com
Up, close and personal with Kashmir’s craft heritage
With Gulzar Hussain
There is something meditative about watching a sozani shawl maker at work. After needles thread their way through the fabric over hours, exquisite patterns of shikaras, the lotus on the Dal lake and beautiful flora spill on to the shawls. “Every single day for two years, an artisan spends seven hours on a single shawl,” says Gulzar Hussain, co-founder, Frozen Himalayas, which focuses on unique and sustainable ways of travel through the western Himalaya.
The organisation runs a customised craft trail through Srinagar, focusing on the heritage keepers of the city. You can watch embroiderers work with silk skeins on jamawar shawls and hear stories about mystics who practised this art for its meditative qualities, or watch papier-mâché artists create exquisite pieces with gold, mineral dyes and cats’ hair brushes. The trail focuses on some of the major crafts in the region, including walnut woodwork. Hussain doesn’t just take you for a rendezvous with the artists, he also offers historical and modern context to these crafts.
Walk in the old city, starting from Zaina Kadal, and get a glimpse of the Mughal and local architecture that has inspired craftsmen. The trail takes you to culinary landmarks such as Ahdoos for a traditional Kashmiri wazwan meal as well.
This unique initiative started as a collaboration between Hussain and Jammu and Kashmir Tourism 12 years ago. “The government asked us to run the trail and today an intensive craft tour takes around five nights and six days,” says Hussain. Those pressed for time can do a truncated version spanning three-four hours.
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The trail design aims to battle counterfeit and fake Kashmiri crafts in the market. “We connect the craftsperson straight with the customer. Also, buying craft need not be the superficial process that it has become. Why not know more about the story behind each craft and craftsperson? When you see the process, each piece acquires newer meaning,” he adds.
The trail, which costs around ₹80,000 per person on a twin-sharing basis, includes pick-ups from the airport and accommodation, www.frozenhimalayas.com
The perfect forest adventure in Sangla, Himachal Pradesh
With Ajay Sud
At the Banjara Camps and Retreats, a collection of Swiss tents and cottages set in an apple orchard 6km from Sangla town, you wake up to the sound of the Baspa river gurgling and the sight of Kinner Kailash shining golden in the sun. After a hearty breakfast, you set out with Ajay Sud for a four- to five-hour hike, which starts at a tiny bridge across the river at the quaint Rakcham village. The duration depends on fitness levels; I, for one, overshot the stipulated time by an hour. Sud, a former Indian Army officer, guides you patiently, keeping up a steady supply of kind words and stories. He knows the region from Kinnaur and Lahaul-Spiti to Manali intimately, having travelled it extensively since 1993 with his friend Rajesh Ojha. In fact, Banjara Camps and Retreats—today spread across the northern Himalaya—was born out of this love for the mountains, and the wish to share this joy with like-minded travellers.
The Rakcham hike is just one of the trails that introduce you to the forests and glaciers of Sangla. You can start from the Banjara property and cross the river up to Batseri village, see old wooden houses with massive, complex locks, and are very often joined by genial Pahadi dogs. The landscape changes dramatically during the hike, with lush green vistas giving way to the icy tips of a glacier, eventually opening up to golden forests of sea buckthorn. The hike ends with a breathtaking view of the valley below and the snow-capped mountains ahead. “Another popular walk is from the camp to Sangla town, and one to the Sangla meadows. You get to see the back of the Kinner Kailash,” says Sud. You could also walk to Chitkul, the last Indian village on the Indo-Tibetan border, and make a phone call from the last Indian telephone booth there.
A double room costs ₹11,000, plus GST, while an orchard hut is priced at ₹12,500, plus GST, per night, www.banjaracamps.com
Soak in the Santiniketan vibe at Amoli, West Bengal
With Bidisha Tagore and Aloke Ghosh
The sense of aesthetic at Amoli is very strong—warm, open spaces tastefully done up with contemporary wooden accents, local crafts and textiles. Plants flourish. This home-stay, with four guest rooms, a café and a store has been conceptualised by Bidisha Tagore and Aloke Ghosh, a couple in their 60s, who used to live and work in Mumbai. The added attraction is that it is walking distance from the Visva-Bharati University, making Amoli the preferred destination for poets, artists, photographers and writers.
“After Aloke retired, I asked my mother, who lives in Santiniketan, to move in with us in Mumbai. She refused as she had lived there for so long and had a strong community,” reminisces Bidisha. Ghosh had always wanted to return to Santiniketan—it was the couple’s alma mater. “I had always dreamt of starting a café with a little place to stay and a curio shop,” she adds. Luckily, the couple had some land right next to where Bidisha’s mother lived. The architectural and décor plans for Amoli began to fall in place from 2017. Today, the two houses stand connected, with Bidisha’s mother closely associated with the running of the place.
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She was encouraged by her sister and friend to put dishes, Bengali and Western, she knew how to cook well on the menu and today people can’t stop gushing about the food. “We employed people from the village and trained them in every aspect of running the place. It was our way of giving back to the community. We also have equal opportunities for people with learning disabilities. It has been a year and a half since we opened and the response has been great. We have built a little Amoli community (of repeat visitors),” says Bidisha.
Besides being at a stone’s throw from the university, Amoli has yet another close association with the Tagore family of Jorasanko. Bidisha’s father was the grandson of artist Gaganendranath Tagore and the décor and architectural elements have been informed by the stories he would tell of his childhood. “In the Tagore home, during any auspicious occasion, a light fish was bought. And after a small ceremony, it would be thrown into this one well. It was where all the kids learnt to fish. I simply had to have those little elements in the architecture,” says Bidisha. The presence of the couple in this home-stay and the stories make this an intimate space for those seeking an offbeat experience.
Double rooms are priced ₹6,000 onwards (inclusive of breakfast). www.amoli.net
Learn bullock cart riding at this farm in Ratnagiri, Maharashtra
With Rahul and Sampada Kulkarni
In the tiny village of Phungus, in the verdant Ratnagiri region, lies a farm where birds are forever chirping, the cattle are always happy and the trees abound with fruit. The Farm of Happiness is run by Rahul and Sampada Kulkarni, a former creative director at an advertising firm and an actor, respectively, who left their jobs in Mumbai in 2007 to follow their passion for agro-tourism.
The shift happened when Shekhar Bhadsavle, an entrepreneur farmer based in Karjat, made the couple understand the importance of educated youth taking up farming. The Farm of Happiness, which they opened up to guests in 2014, has not just emerged as an example of sustainable farming but as a cosy, comforting space for children. “We warn families that there is no television or mobile network. Initially, parents are worried if their children will take to this kind of life but within hours, when they see kids running after the chickens or taking the cattle grazing, they are pleasantly surprised,” says Rahul.
The food comes from the farm, where crops and vegetables are grown only for sustenance, not for commercial purposes. “Whatever you need and what the land allows” is their farming motto. So, you will find a lot of ragi (finger millets), paddy, turmeric, gourds, beans and lentils on the menu.
“A farm is a most exciting place for a child, who thinks everything comes from a supermarket. They have never seen a cashew fruit drop or played with a calf; 95% of the kids don’t want to go back. We get very mushy, wet-eyed goodbye hugs with requests like, ‘can I take the bull home?’, ‘can I play with the dog one more time?’” says Rahul. Children even get a bullock cart riding licence.
You can work on the farm, pick out vegetables for meals and go on nature trails. Nightwalks, pre-monsoon, are a huge attraction, with the fireflies eliciting gasps of wonder. The Kulkarnis encourage stargazing sessions for children and also take them birdwatching, introducing them to a whole new vibrant world inhabited by the green bee-eater, purple sunbird, red wattled lapwing and Malabar whistling thrush. Do keep seasonality in mind, though, and don’t expect all the crops, birds and other fauna to be present at all times.
A two-day package costs ₹12,000 per room for two adults,with additional costs for children depending on the age group, www.farmofhappiness.com
Embark on a cacao trail at Varanashi Farms, Karnataka
With Partha Varanashi
It’s time to don your Willy Wonka hats and immerse yourself in the world of chocolate at Varanashi Organic Farms. Located in Adyanadka in Dakshin Kannada district, this natural haven sprawls over about 100 acres, with seven irrigation ponds, a river and a rivulet crisscrossing its pristine landscape. It feels like a veritable Eden, with 60% of the farm still an untouched forest, while the rest of the land has multilayered crop trees such as areca nut, coconut, nutmeg, banana, black pepper, and, of course, cacao, all grown on regenerative farming principles.
The land has been with the family for at least 200 years old, passed down through six generations of the Varanashi family. Today, the youngest member, Partha—a coach for team India in the 2019 World Aquatics Championships and a mentor for movement sports and aquatic education—manages it. It’s an ideal destination for families with children who wish to be one with nature, or corporate teams that wish to experience a minimalist lifestyle.
The cacao trail, spanning three/five days, is a highlight and you can often hear children squealing in excitement at the small chocolate-making facility. “We prefer to do this in groups. You see the entire process of grafting, harvesting cacao pods, seed removal, fermentation, and more on the farm. We have an expert chocolatier, Ketaki Churi, who takes the groups through tree-to-bar chocolate-making. So you go back with a bar you have created,” explains Partha.
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You can learn about regenerative farming practices, take walks, or go kayaking and open-water swimming. “We take people to water caves in the vicinity. In fact, one of the farmers, Amai Mahalinga Naik, has won a Padma Shri for having built a water cave himself and we take guests to his farm,” adds Partha. Varanashi is not a resort but a farm stay, so make sure not to add to the carbon footprint by taking plastic bottles.
The cacao trail costs ₹1,500-6,000 per day, depending on whether you pick a dorm, room, mud cottage or treehouse, www.varanashi.com
A river safari on the Chambal, Rajasthan/Uttar Pradesh
With Kunal Jain
For the longest time, the Chambal river and its ravines were associated with dacoits. Kunal Jain’s Agra-based travel agency, Travel With, is a collective that organises holidays to “uncrowded” destinations, and hopes to change that perception through a Chambal river safari to create awareness of the area’s rich biodiversity.
Little do people who visit historic Agra in Uttar Pradesh realise that one of the country’s “most alive river ecosystems” is barely an hour away. The Chambal is home to the critically endangered gharial, marsh crocodiles, eight species of turtles, including the red-crowned roofed turtle, Gangetic river dolphins, Indian skimmer, and more. During the nearly two-to-three-hour safari, you could also spot the striped hyena, jackal, jungle cat and desert fox on land.
Jain’s fascination with the river is linked to his journey in conservation and tourism. He was working as an auditor in Singapore when he took a sabbatical and volunteered with the Wildlife Conservation Society and the Centre for Wildlife Studies. He realised conservation was not just about wildlife but peaceful coexistence of humans with nature. He started Travel With in 2018.
“I was based in Delhi but would travel to my home city of Agra often. I started going to offbeat monuments, birdwatching trips, in the wilderness and many other places that were far away from the mainstream tourist circuit . One day, I ended up at the Chambal and took a boat safari. I was amazed by the rich ecosystem and the fact that not many people knew about it,” he says.
Jain serves not just as a naturalist but as a sutradhar, or narrator, of Chambal’s myths and legends . He talks about the contribution of residents of the ravines to the first war of independence in 1857, particularly in Bhareh—where the Chambal merges with the Yamuna, and which is the site of a medieval fortress. In 1857, the British only managed to recapture the fort but only after getting onto French frigate ships that were brought into the Chambal and firing cannons at the fort walls.
Local legends suggest the Chambal area is the site where Draupadi was disrobed. She cursed the land and its people. “We don’t know how many of these stories of the ‘cursed river’ are true but these have been passed down through time and kept the river largely undisturbed,” says Jain. It is true, though, that owing to the terror of dacoits, no factories or buildings were built, other than those in Kota, and the river remained largely unpolluted.
Jain organises the river safaris from October-March—this year the trip has been extended to April, since the weather has remained cool. Jain reminds groups to take back the garbage, be quiet and respectful of the wildlife, and keep safety norms in mind. For this is still not an area you would like to loiter in after dark. “It’s important to listen to the guides and the locals and take care of security. Stow your mobile phones away, drink in the sights and sounds of the river as what you are going to see, you won’t see anywhere else in the world (in the wild). I am here to take images with my camera, which I share with all my guests. Nothing should come between the Chambal and you,” says Jain.
Prices depend on the size of the group and the duration of the safari, www.travelwith.in