A return visit to the queen of the hill stations
by koshkha on December 27, 2012
I didn't want to go to the Hotel Sukh Sagar Regency. I tried to get out of it but the company who 'organised' (I use the term fairly loosely) our trip seemed seriously disinclined to pay any attention to my requests to be somewhere else. However, on balance I didn't want to go there less than I didn't want to go to the first place they suggested which had one of the lowest ratings I've ever seen on Tripadvisor. I had booked with the website 'makemytrip' before and found them difficult to deal with but they were the only company I could find that was offering the length of trip and destinations that I wanted for a trip to Himachal Pradesh. Dealing with them was a necessary evil – but quite a cost effective evil none the less.Our tour started with two nights in Shimla, the historic summer capital of the Raj. We've been there before and we knew we'd love to go back again but I couldn't understand why the tour company were so determined to keep us away. The hotel they offered was in an area called Tara Devi, a sort of suburb (but not really) and most definitely not in Shimla itself. I argued that I wanted to be IN Shimla, not 20 minutes drive down the road and that if I had to pay more, then I'd pay more. The multi-email argument went something like this:Me: "Why are you trying to send me to a hotel so bad that the reviews on Tripadvisor are suggesting I'd be better to sleep in the car?MakeMyTrip: thank you blah blah blah, have you noticed that we're ignoring you?Me: Why can't I stay in Shimla instead of down the road?MMT: La la la, we're not listening, when can we call you so you can give us all the money?Me: You're not listening, are you? If I HAVE to stay in Tara Devi, you can stuff your suggestion and put me in the Sukh Sagar Regency instead.MMT: OK, Sukh Sagar Regency it is.See what I mean? A 'partial' success. I lost on location but won on the hotel. Seriously if you want to have a laugh sometime, go take a look at the Tripadvisor reviews for the Quality Inn Himdev in Shimla.My husband has a theory that he trots out every time we walk round our village. There's a beautiful old house that overlooks a block of ugly flats. Hubby's theory is that it would be better to live in the ugly flats looking at the gorgeous house rather than the other way round. I told myself that this would be the philosophy for our visit to the Sukh Sagar Regency – we would be in in the ugly part outside of Shimla but looking at the gorgeous view of the city. After all, if you stay in Shimla, you can't get a nice view of the place because you're already a part of that view. We arrived late in the afternoon on the first day of our trip. We'd met our driver earlier in the day and were still in the phase of wondering if he didn't speak English or he was just the 'strong but silent' type. Mr Singh was a man of mystery. He'd never heard of the hotel and his face told us he was quite concerned about where MakeMyTrip were putting us. Luckily I knew Tara Devi would be on the road before we got to Shimla itself so I had my eyes open, watching out for it. My cry of "Mr Singh, Mr Singh, over there" was well timed to be just too late. We had to go up the road and come back down again. The sun was setting in the distance, a beautiful bright moon was rising above the mountains and I could see that the hotel would indeed have a great view over towards Shimla. I was ready to give it a go and hope for the best.Once we parked up I wasn't quite so sure we'd done well when it became apparent that we'd turned up in the middle of a wedding party. Indian weddings are noisy affairs and music was pumping at speaker-distorting volume throughout the hotel. The reception was stuffed to bursting with wedding guests in glorious outfits. As two scruffy tourists who's been in the car for nine hours, we were seriously out-dressed. Check in was fast and efficient with the hotel taking photocopies of our passports so we wouldn't have to stand around too long filling in the guest details. The staff on the reception were polite and friendly and later became life-savers in our attempts to communicate with Mr Singh, the driver but helping us to arrange the times to meet him. We were given room 404 on the second or third floor above the reception and headed up in the glass lift.The reception area is an atrium reaching from ground level up to the top of the building. The upper floors are laid out around the atrium with the rooms off corridors which overlook the public areas below. This meant that there wasn't much protection from the noise greeting the party-goers and when we first arrived there were lots of children running around the corridors. However, once we were in our room we barely noticed any more noise. The room was large with enormous windows which overlooked a tree-filled valley. We couldn't tell too much about the view until the next morning when the sun rose and we found that cricking our necks in one direction meant we could see the city of Shimla clinging to the mountainside in one direction, and looking the other direction would give us a view of Tara Devi train station, one of the tiny places where the equally tiny Kalka-Shimla toy train, one of the UNESCO World Heritage railways, stopped throughout the day. The train gives a glorious cheery hoot as it arrives and leaves which I loved to hear. If views are your 'thing' it's worth knowing that taking the lift to the fourth floor brings you to a roof terrace from which you can look across the valley towards Shimla and from which I might have got great night shots if I'd had a better tripod.Back to the room which was furnished in a rather modern style and was surprisingly 'un-Indian'. The furnishings were a bit worn in places but the standard was good. In the entrance to the room the floor was tiled whilst the rest of the room had laminate flooring which is not something you see all that often in India. There were two soft chairs and a coffee table next to the windows from which we could enjoy the views. The bed was at least king-sized and had the lumpiest and most unpleasant mattress I've experienced in a long time. I like Indian mattresses as they tend to be quite firm but this was full of nasty lumps. These were not 'Princess and the Pea' type lumps – they were 'Am I lying on bags of cement?' lumps. The bed had a warm fleecy blanket in a bright design and a top sheet that was oddly too short for the bed so that our feet stuck out the bottom. Either side of the bed there was a large bedside table with a light. Had we needed it, there was an additional duvet in the wardrobe. Indians go to Shimla for the novelty of getting cold but to us it was warm enough to not need more than the fleecy blanket. There was a flat screen TV on the wall with a few English channels as well as a wall-mounted fan which would have been ideal in the mornings when the room warmed up very quickly as the sun came through the valley. Sadly the fan didn't work so it's a good thing we weren't in the room much during the day.
by koshkha on December 28, 2012
The bathroom was very odd. Almost all bathrooms in the type of hotels we use in India are pretty similar but this one was trying to be very different. The most noticeable thing was the glass wall between the main room and the bathroom. That's not all that unusual in Europe where I've seen it done several times but for India it's very avant garde. This is the land where married couples barely know each other and people wear almost as many clothes in bed as in the street. It's not a place for titillating glimpses of flesh through a glass window. It's not a swanky risqué New Yorker like the Hudson Hotel (the first place I saw a glass bathroom wall nearly 10 years ago) Perhaps the hotel had realised that this wasn't going to fit their demographic and had added Venetian blinds to divide the bathroom and the main area. My suspicion that they were looking for the honeymoon trade was further piqued by the whirlpool bath. Baths are rarer than hens teeth in budget and mid-range hotels. Normally you get a shower head sticking out of the wall, no curtain, no cubicle and if you're lucky there's no electrical socket directly in the flow of the water. Not only was there a bath but a whirlpool. Very interesting! But then the reality of being in India kicked in and we noticed that there was no plug in the bath or the sink and therefore there would be no bubbling going on. The shower head was one so low that you could really only have used it to rinse the shampoo out of your hair and any ideas of a normal 'over-bath' shower were clearly not going to be fulfilled by this arrangement. My husband was in improvisational mode and managed to create a 'plug' by wedging part of a hot water bottle into the hole. (Don't ask – the reasons for the water bottles will become apparent in later reviews of this particular holiday. Just accept that for rather odd reasons we did have not one but two hot water bottles with us).The rest of the bathroom was fine and more conventional. The tiling was in monochrome black and white with a strange pattern of pebbles on the tiles. The vanity unit was highly polished black basalt with a mirror above. The toilet was entirely normal and was clean and provided with lots of toilet roll. Best of all there was plenty of hot water. This might all sound like stuff you should take for granted but it isn't. Our visit was at the end of October and we got our free wake-up every morning provided by the sun streaming through the windows. The curtains were useless at stopping this and I can imagine in the summer months when the hotel would be much more busy, nobody would get much sleep.Our package included breakfast and dinner and on our first evening they rang to check if we wanted to order. We like to go to hotel restaurants to eat whilst it seems that most Indian guests prefer to eat in their rooms so we told the person on the phone that we'd be down shortly. The receptionist had told us that there'd be a buffet each evening and we could find it in the basement dining room but on our first day we assumed that there was no buffet due to the wedding guests all eating at the wedding party. The dining room is enormous and we were the only people in it. The waiter showed us the details on the back of the menu which explained what we could have on our package. The best way to describe this would be that we were entitled to more food than we could have eaten if we each had three stomachs. On the first night we had a soup, three different curries – a dal, a veg curry and a paneer dish) plus rice, naan bread, salad or papads and a pudding. The food quality was excellent although we were at the start of our holiday and more enthusiastic about tucking in than we would be a week or so later. The dal fry came in a brass bucket and there was about twice as much as we could manage. The aloo gobi (potato and cauliflower) was spectacular whilst the paneer pasanda was too creamy and bland for me but my husband liked it. For pudding we had hot gulab jamun which was a recurring theme of our holiday. There were other puddings available but it takes little more than the words 'hot gulab jamun' to make me deaf to everything that follows. On the second evening we skipped the soup and pudding and repeated the dal fry and aloo gobi which were both as good as the first time although the alternative paneer dish (paneer makhani) was just as bland and disappointing as the previous day's dish. Neither alcohol nor meat were on the menu but I can't rule out that beer might have been available if we'd asked. It's often the case that a hotel restaurant will 'send a boy out' (often a little old fella of retirement age) and sneak a bottle or two under your table. We didn't try so I can't be sure.Breakfast in the mornings was always a bit confusing and a lot more busy than dinner time. We took my cafetiere mug and ground coffee with us because my husband is sick of me moaning about crap coffee every time we go to India. The daily request for hot water was dealt with after some initial confusion and I was also able to get some hot milk from the breakfast buffet where it's the standard issue for your cornflakes. We ordered toast with jam and butter each morning and I skipped the buffet. I knew we wouldn't starve.I don't know what our bill would have been if we'd paid it directly instead of as part of a package but the indications on the website give a standard rate for the dinner, bed and breakfast deal of approximately £71 for the two nights. There's an additional 7.42% tax on top which we had to pay when we left as it wasn't included in our package.If you want to visit Shimla – and I highly recommend that you do – I would recommend staying in the city and not out at Tara Devi. It's about a 20 minute drive from Shimla and has the advantage of being a quieter area, but you'll miss out on the atmosphere by being so far away. You should not consider staying in Tara Devi unless you've got your own transport as anything you might save on the hotel bill will be swallowed up by taxi fares. My assumption was that the company put us out in Tara Devi because we had a car and driver and they needed a place with a car park and driver accommodation and the city hotels tend to have neither. However, you can get a place out of the town with both that would be a lot closer. The Sukh Sagar Regency has fantastic views, a restaurant serving really good food, and the rooms are more than acceptable especially if you get a room that doesn't have such an awful bed as room 404. I suspect we got more for our money than we would have if we'd been more centrally located but I still wish our tour organiser had been more willing to listen to what we wanted. The Sukh Sagar Regency is a nice enough hotel with very pleasant staff. Note – there is a second hotel called the Sukh Sagar which is much closer to Shimla. Take care that you know which of the two hotels you're booking.
The night before we were due to go to Kufri I did a bit of research. Nothing too sophisticated or in depth; just a quick read of the reviews on Tripadvisor. They told me everything we needed to know – that the place had beautiful views but we should expect to be hassled to go pony-riding on ponies that would most likely be poorly kept and rather sad looking. The ponies would drag us up a muddy track and the handlers would do their best to part us from our money for tips and extras. Forewarned is forearmed as the saying goes. We set off from our hotel at about ten in the morning and it took about an hour and a half to cover the 25 km to Kufri. The mountain roads don't encourage fast driving and multiple sets of crews applying tarmac to the pot holes slowed us down even more. We pulled into a car park and discussed how long we'd need with our driver, Mr Singh. To be honest, it's an exaggeration to say it was a discussion. He talked to a man who was trying to rent us horses, we said we didn't want them, they both wobbled their heads disbelievingly. We said we would walk, making the international 'We're going for a walk' gestures with our fingers. A lot more head wobbling and Mr Singh held up three fingers. "Three hours sir, madam" and we strolled off up the hill.It's easy to forget you're at altitude even when the evidence is all around you in the form of massive great mountains. As he shot off up the hill I told my husband to slow down and take it easy or we'd both be collapsing in two exhausted heaps. As we walked every man with a pony wanted to rent us one but they soon realised that 'the pinkies weren't playing'. As the only non-Indians in Kufri we were more or less expected to behave oddly. The head wobbles converted into head shakes and they left us alone. We took photos of the scenery and of the poor, sad, skinny ponies, feeling happy that we weren't going to be adding to their suffering. Even the man selling lurid bright pink candy floss in plastic bags got bored with our excuses and left us alone.If you do want to take a pony ride and you don't mind going nose to tail with hundreds of other people up a steep muddy track, then it's not an expensive experience. The basic ride will cost you just 250 rupees (a little over £3) with the longer ride at 380 rupees (less than £5). These are fixed prices set by the pony-men's union.Recognising that there was no way we could go up the pony track without walking through a lot of poo and being mown down by the ponies, we settled for a nice stroll up the road. The air was sparkling clean and a refreshing relief after the weekend we'd spent in Delhi. We passed terraced fields and the 'Central Potato Research Station' which sounded fascinating but wasn't open to the public. Next door was the Himalayan Nature Park and slightly further up the road was the Indira Tourist Park.We kept walking a little further and realised that there wasn't much more to see than the places we'd already passed so we popped back to the Indira Tourist Park and paid 5 rupees each to go in, not really knowing what to expect. Actually that's not entirely true because I remembered the reviews I'd read which told me that the park was decidedly lame. However, we have a weakness for ridiculously daft Indian tourist attractions and this was, in its own way, rather a delight.The park has some historic significance since the building at its heart – Chini Bungalow – was used for some of the discussions between Mrs Gandhi and General Bhutto when they were negotiating the Shimla Agreement at the end of the war between East and West Pakistan which led to the creation of Bangladesh back in 1972. What you'll find today is a very small park with both the old bungalow building and a small tin-roofed summer house. In the summer house you can get ice-creams and cold drinks whilst the main bungalow building contains a restaurant and bar. There are a few small souvenir stalls and a children's play area as well as an area where children can take rides on mini electric quad bikes. You won't need long to see everything that the Indira Tourist Park has to offer but I'm happy to spend 5 rupees for a super-clean loo and a chance to buy a cold drink and sit in a cute old summer house covered in nasturtiums.From the Tourist Park you can see over the fences and into the nature park. We went back to the entrance and paid the entrance fee of 20 rupees each and an additional 20 rupees for my camera. In total this was about 75 pence which seemed a tiny price to pay with the promise of bears and leopards on show.The route around the park is about one kilometer in length and it's perhaps worth knowing that you don't leave by the route you went in so you'll need to walk back to the entrance along the road after you leave. In total, you should count on walking around a mile in total. The path is well paved but steep in places and there are a lot of steps so it might not be ideal for anyone with mobility issues or with a pram or pushchair.The circuit starts with several large pens which are home to what were referred to as 'Barking Deer' or muntjac deer. We got the giggles about going all the way to India to see a type of deer that roams wild in much of the south of England. The cages were large and the deer had plenty of space to roam around and didn't seem at all stressed. There were also sambar deer, a local large deer with ears like a teddy bear, and we were quite impressed to see some Tahr goats, similar to the ones we'd walked miles to see in Kerala the year before.As we moved away from the sweet little vegetarians towards the rather more aggressive beasts, the cages got stronger and more secure. The first big 'wow' factor came with a large enclosure which was home to three Himalayan Black Bears. These are big, fluffy cuties with thick black fur. Clearly they like to climb since the trees in the enclosure had metal sleeves around them so that they couldn't climb high enough to get out. Not that they looked like they were particularly enthusiastic about running away. There was plenty of space for the bears to play, run and fight with each other. The next enclosure had brown bears, bigger, faster and much more lively than the sleepy black bears. For each of the bear enclosures there were multiple viewing points.After the excitement of all those big bears, the so-called 'pheasantry' was a bit of a let down and we skipped by without taking too much notice, knowing that behind the pheasant pens we'd be able to find not just a leopard, but his cousin the snow leopard too. Both their enclosures had strong wire mess which made it just about impossible to photograph the big cats but we were happy to just sit and watch.The best thing about the vast majority of tourists being on ponies heading up the mountainside was that we had the nature park pretty much to ourselves with about half a dozen other people sharing the park with us. Zoos in India often attract people who want to shout at the animals and make a lot of noise, but our fellow visitors were probably animal-friendly like us and were also avoiding the ponies. The Himalayan Nature Park is clean, well laid out and the animals have plenty of space and interesting pens. If you are looking for glamorous beasties, then you might be disappointed by some of the deers and goats, but the bears and leopards more than make up for their more timid little brown friends.Kufri is a popular excursion from Shimla and we were happy to go because we'd been to the city before and knew that we'd pretty much seen the main attractions. However, if you only go to Shimla for a short time, I would recommend spending that time in the city and visiting closer attractions like the old Viceregal Lodge.
Shimla is a wonderful place which is quite literally built clinging to the side of a mountain. Maps of the place are almost useless since any two dimensional representations of an almost vertical city can't hope to give you any kind of accurate idea of how far apart things are – or more importantly how steep the route between them might be.After a morning in Kufri, we asked our driver to drop us by the 'lift' on Cart Road at the eastern end of the Mall and then arranged that we'd see him again three and a half hours later. Most of the city centre sights are in areas where cars are not allowed so if you want to explore, you need to get dropped off by the road side (or in the car park) and then work your way up to where the action is. If you're feeling really energetic and you have a good sense of direction, you can find a route up the hillside climbing hundreds of steps. Or, if you've only just arrived in the mountains, it's much wiser to take the lazy route before you over-do things and take a nasty hit from the altitude. If that's the case, you need the lift that joins Cart Road to the Mall.It's worth thinking about access to the city centre if you are booking a hotel in the pedestrian area. There will always be lots of porters, small wiry men and women who can be seen dragging fridges and luggage up steep inclines but many visitors will feel really bad about expecting someone to put themselves through physical torture carrying their bags. If you want to have any chance of taking your own bags, it's best to use the lift and then walk the less-steep roads at the top.Cart Road runs parallel to the Mall but 100 feet below it. That might not sound like a lot but please take my word for it, it's a tough climb at altitude.There's a small ticket booth where you can pay 8 rupees (about 10 pence) per person to use the two-part lift system for getting up the mountainside. The lifts themselves are very small and would hold no more than about 8 people at a time. Despite the small capacity, we've always been able to get in the next lift that appeared. The first lift takes you vertically up and then leaves you at the end of a walkway which joins the two lifts. Don't hang about looking at the view or the second lift might go without you and if the one following you is full there might not be room for everyone to fit in the next lift. The second lift takes you up to the Mall level where you need only to walk a short distance to reach the road. Turn left up the slope and the road will take you past all the shops and restaurants to the historic buildings, Scandal Point and the Ridge.The price is high enough to deter many of the locals from using it but so cheap that you'd be a fool not to use it at least once or twice. Of course it's tempting to take the lift up and then walk down but if you choose to do that, allow more time for finding your way down and pushing through the crowds. You'll have plenty of opportunity to show how fit and healthy you are just walking around Shimla but I recommend taking the easy route into town and using the lift.
by koshkha on December 29, 2012
I love Indian food. I can eat it all the time but for some strange reason, once I get to India and there's nothing else to eat, I can quickly get rather jaded with eating the same sort of food twice a day every day. Looking at our itinerary for our trip around Himachal Pradesh, it didn't take me long to identify that we weren't likely to get too many opportunities to eat anything that wasn't local except in Shimla, near the beginning of our trip. Shimla is the sort of city where I could happily sit down and eat all day long and still want more because there's so much great food from sit-down restaurants to fast food and street-side snacks. This choice makes it all the more ironic that both places we ate during our visit were places that we'd tried and loved when we visited about 5 years before. It's human nature to perhaps create your own rituals when visiting the places that you love.After a morning trip to Kufri, we got our driver to drop us off near the 'lift' at the eastern end of the city, and I already had a pretty good idea where I would want to eat. Sun Cafe is the roof top cafe-restaurant of the Combermere Hotel which is located very close to the Shimla Lift at the east end of the Mall. Despite only being away from home for a few days, and despite hardly ever eating pizza when we're at home, we both decided we needed to track down some bland food in a super-clean restaurant and we knew that this would be the place.The restaurant has a strange roof that's semi-circular and looks a bit like a polytunnel. When you are inside you don't tend to notice this as it's quite high ceilinged and the curved walls and roof don't feel at all oppressive. The floor is tiled in small 'swimming pool' tiles as are the bench seats at the edge of the room. Tables vary in size from small square ones for just one or two people, up to much larger tables for groups. If you can, try to get a table close to the windows so you can see the views, but if that's not possible, be sure to go outside on the terrace to take some photos.The menu is enormous with a very large number of different options. I don't generally like restaurants with too much on offer as it's unlikely that any kitchen can excel at multiple types of food. However Cafe Sol is always busy and seems to cope well with the complicated menu. It offers Italian pizzas and pasta, Euro-American snack standards like fish and chips and different types of burgers, a range of Mexican dishes and also some Thai options. Normally I would go for Thai food whenever it's available but I wasn't too excited by the options so we stuck to our original plan to eat pizza. It's worth being aware that Cafe Sol serves both vegetarian and non-veg options as well as offering a wide range of alcoholic drinks. Since we wanted neither meat nor booze, this wasn't an issue but many people who are looking for both may find it's not always that easy to track them down in India.We ordered cold drinks to sip whilst waiting for the pizzas. I ordered the so-called gourmet vegetarian pizza and my husband took a Four Seasons. Both were eight inch diameter pizzas and were plenty big enough for us. I forget exactly what was on the top of mine because I was so overwhelmed by picking all the pickled jalopenos off. I really should have thought to ask for them to be left off. The bases were crispy and cooked right through which was a relief as there are few things worse than pizzas with soggy bottoms. Two diet cokes and two pizzas cost us around 700 rupees – quite a lot by local standards but still a cheap lunch.I have a five point scale for grading Indian toilets – a point for toilet paper, a point for soap and running water, a point for a clean towel, a point for a toilet seat and a final point for not stinking or swimming in urine. The first challenge at Cafe Sol is finding the loo but it's also quite an adventure. The facilities are down several floors and to get there you have to go out of the restaurant, along an open corridor (with fantastic views of the city) and down in the lift to the hotel. The hotel's toilet for the cafe users was a four pointer – hoorah – with just a point knocked off for no hand towels.Cafe Sol is popular with both Indian and international tourists and has always been busy when we've eaten there.
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