We’d planned a ten-day trip to and from Delhi, which is southwest of Kumaon, and driving all the way there and through the area was one of the things we were looking forward to - everybody had been telling us how very scenic it all was. Although we covered a large number of places (Nainital, Bhimtal, Naukuchiatal, Saat Taal, Mukteshwar, Almora, Binsar, Ranikhet, and Bhowali), the actual driving was strenuous only on the first and the last day, when we had to cover the 300-odd kilometers between Delhi and the hills.
Roughly, our trail was:
Day 1: Delhi-Nainital (314km): The road is National Highway (NH) all the way (which, in terms of Indian roads, means it’s better maintained than the others). From Delhi all the way up to Rampur, we followed NH24, which was by and large okay, except in some bits, especially near Garhmukteshwar, where heavy monsoon rains had wreaked havoc on the road surface and left it pitted with potholes.
From Rampur onwards, the road changed to NH87, which continued up to Rudrapur (the first town in Uttaranchal) and then beyond till Nainital. Shortly after Haldwani and Kathgodam, NH87 rises up into the hills, and we were in for a pleasant surprise: the road was beautiful. Although a little narrow, it had an excellent surface, the view was stunning, and a clean, unpolluted breeze swept through the car windows bringing with it the fragrance of pines. Mmmm!
Day 2: Nainital: We spent the entire day exploring town and recuperating from the long drive of the previous day.
Day 3: Nainital-Bhimtal-Naukuchiatal-Saat Taal-Mukteshwar (approximately 100km): This may sound like a long, long drive, but it’s not. Bhimtal is just 22km from Nainital; Naukuchiatal is 4km from Bhimtal, and Saat Taal is 7km off the Nainital-Bhimtal road. We had to come back to Nainital to go to Mukteshwar, which was 52km away. The entire area is gorgeous, all pine woods and stunning landscapes.
Day 4: Mukteshwar: A day spent totally in Mukteshwar - it’s a really pretty place, and warranted it!
Day 5: Mukteshwar-Almora (50km): Okay, this was the first of the slightly bad roads in Kumaon. The road downhill from Mukteshwar is a dirt road for much of the way, but it makes its way along wooded countryside, with mountain streams all along the way. It was beautifully cool, and there were plenty of birds - especially hoopoes and yellow wagtails - all along the way, and the journey was so lovely, we actually forgave the road!
Day 6: Almora-Jageshwar-Binsar (approximately 90km): Almora to Jageshwar is about 35km, a good road but not exceptionally pretty until we got to Jageshwar itself, where the deodar woods form a picturesque backdrop to the temples. To get to Binsar, we had to come all the way back to Almora, and then go further - up to Kaparkhan, beyond which the mountain road into the Binsar Wildlife Sanctuary is fabulous. The road’s narrow and gravelly in parts, but the dense woods around (plus, if you’re really lucky, the chance of seeing an animal or two) makes it worthwhile.
Day 7: Binsar:A day we spent in wandering through Binsar - a morning walk, an after-lunch walk, an evening walk, and then evening tea while sitting on the terrace watching the sun set across the snowcapped peaks in the distance. Awesome.
Day 8: Binsar-Ranikhet (65km):Again a part-scenic, part-not road back to Almora, followed by the 44km road to Ranikhet, which was really quite lovely all the way. Ranikhet begins with the army cantonment’s golf course, and the first sign you see warns you to go slow and watch for golf balls that might hit you!
Day 9: Ranikhet-Bhowali (44km):Pretty road - we were still in the mountains. Bhowali, though, was a disappointment (not that it has much to recommend it: all it's known for is its many orchards; it’s a major center for fruit cultivation). Easy drive - so easy, in fact, that we decided to visit (once again!) Saat Taal, which we’d fallen in love with the first time we saw it.
Note:About 5km down the Bhowali-Bhimtal road is the Fruitage shop. They sell excellent fruit and vegetable products - jams, squashes, pickles, canned fruit and juices - made from local produce. Great stuff (we bought loads!), and reasonable too.
Day 10: Bhowali-Delhi (314km):More or less the same route as Delhi-Nainital, as the road from Bhowali connects to Jeolikot and then follows NH87 - the road to Delhi.
We didn’t have the time to stop over at Jeolikot, but I believe there’s a house here which had been built by a retired British Army major called Warwick. May not sound like anything extraordinary in a region that’s dotted with relics of the Raj, except for the fact that after he died, Warwick was discovered to be a woman - and supposedly still haunts the place! Maybe we should have pulled out some time and stopped over anyway...!!