A Weekend in the Hills

I traveled in November 2010 to Panchgani and it seems like it was in another life as a totally different person. This was my very first travel blog and it was picked up by TravelBlog.org too. An acquaintance recently shared a link to this piece of memory that I had thought lost. Here it is, my early writing skills in its raw state and from an age devoid of filters. 

I have traveled many times to places both popular and little heard of. But it is very difficult to hold on to the memories and thus, the experience and feelings invoked. 
Entry to Tata Textile Staff Holiday Home

I begin my attempt to preserve the experience of the traveler, besides loads of photographs, with my trip to a hill station called Panchgani. 

Panchgani was discovered during the British Raj and was one of the many Summer Retreats for the officers and their family. Located in Satara district, Maharashtra, Panchgani is now home to many residential schools and strawberry farms, it is a scenic spot frequented by tourists from cities around. 

We decided to spend a weekend at the Tata Textiles Staff Holiday Home at Panchgani and made plans to travel by road in our car. On Saturday, November 27 we left at 6.00 a.m. from Mumbai. Since traffic was sparse, we made good time in reaching the ghats that go to Lonavala. While driving towards the tunnels on the Mumbai–Pune Expressway or NH4, I saw something I hadn’t seen in a long time. The fluid morning fog flowing down the green hills around the highway left us in a refreshed mood.

We traveled around 255 km, occasionally halting for breaks for snacks. The turn from Wai leading up the hills to our destination is lined with trees and aerial roots. The entry to a fairytale forest city would not be any different. A lot of farms on either side of the road were filled with sugarcane and many other crops. Some of the farms were being prepared for plantation and some had vast meadows of drying hay. Though this was a scenic spot for photographs, I was impatient to get on with the journey. There were many stalls selling fresh sugarcane juice from the fields, something not seen in the cities. 

We then started our ascent to the top of the hills which was slow but beautiful with the breath-taking views of the valley we were leaving behind. The clear sky was gleaming like a gem on the bright day. We reached the first point and tourist attraction – Sydney Point and stopped to get some directions and I, a few snaps. As we drove on again, I couldn’t but help look at the green flora with its abundance of flowers on the way.

Chishtia Manzil - A colonial styled structure

We reached the market of Panchgani that is painted red and pink with the strawberries at this time of the year. There are many modern shops and there are many vendors of sweets, chiki (a jaggery based candy with nuts and fruits) and chana (roasted and spiced nuts). One can walk the entire length of the market in a matter of 15-20 minutes. It is an interesting walk one can have in the midst of colonial styled structures like Christa Manzil and beautiful flower-lined balconies of one-storied houses looking into the street. The idea of the walk through the market was so appealing that we went that very evening to the market.

We crossed The Kimmins School past the market. Established in 1890, Kimmins was originally a boys and girls school exclusive to Europeans. It was in 1902 that the boys' section was split to become what is now known as the St. Peter’s High School and Kimmins is an exclusive school for girls. 1 k.m. past The Kimmins School, is a turn to Jamshedji Tata Road which is on a pretty signpost, the likes of which are in old movies or in storybooks. A half k.m.. more and we were at the Tata Textiles Staff Holiday Home.

The Tata Textiles Staff Holiday Home is tucked away in what seemed like a cozy part of Panchgani. A small resort, the holiday home has nine cottages and a dining hall called ‘Oomra Hall’. Once part of Tata Textiles, it retains the old charm of Parsi living, d├ęcor, and cuisine. The hospitality would take the luxury spoilt over-pampered vacationer by shock but it was perfect in its simple and homely appeal. The staff also seem like they are untouched by the digital age. After a short survey of the holiday home and rest, we went for lunch. The homely food was very welcoming after the tiring travel. A dish of spiced potatoes with eggs, bread & rice with chicken curry and a banana for dessert was served in the dining hall. The hall looks like a setting out of a period novel. A tall ceiling of dark polished wood, a picture of Zoroaster with the traditional candle stand above the fireplace, a picture of Jamshedji Tata and the light beige colored walls has the elegance of the Parsi community in India. 

After the delicious meal, we proceeded to Table Land. At 4,450 feet above sea level, Table
A Tanga on Table Land
Land is a volcanic plateau which is the second highest in Asia after the Tibetan plateau. It offers a breathtaking view of the hill station. The plateau offers a view of the valleys and the patchwork of fields at the foot of the hills. The plateau also has a small lake with cool water. Despite so many tourists the lake appears to be surprisingly clean. Though paragliding was not available in the evening, I’m sure that during the day the lake would look like a mirror from the sky. I would definitely put this theory of mine to the test by paragliding the next time I visit Table Land. 

I, for the first time, saw some unique refreshments and rides being sold. What made them so unique was how they were being sold more than what they were. First, we were pursued by a guy who wanted us to experience the scenery in a Tanga (horse-drawn cart). He pursued us relentlessly offering us tailor-made rides to suit our site-seeing schedule best. He was then bullied away by a man on horseback who offered us a horse ride around the plateau. After patient refusals, we were then pursued by a homemade ice-cream seller. He claimed that his ice-creams increase love because it is the ‘love ice-cream’. That is truly original. 

From love ice-creams to Tangas named ‘Skoda’, from the breathtaking view of the waters of Krishna River, Table Land offers a one-shot view of the hill station. 

Entry to Pandav Cave
Table Land has spacious caves. The more popular ones are The Pandav Cave (also known as Pandav’s Feet) and the Devil’s Kitchen (also known as Devil’s Key Hole). Unfortunately, was not able to visit them on Table Land owing to the fact that the paths to them were littered. Another spot I wasn’t able to visit was the Rajapuri Caves which is visible from Table Land. 

We then next went for a stroll in the marketplace. Having seen all the sweets being prepared earlier that day, we walked into a store that had a large cauldron. There we found something very unique – Strawberry & Walnut Fudge. After some sampling, we decided that was the best fudge we had ever had and immediately proceeded to make our first purchase. Shopping in a different location is always fun no matter how senseless it would seem back home. 

We then took a drive to the Mapro Food Park which is around 8 km from the market. We, however, did not linger too long in the park as it was evening and we wanted to head back to our room before dark. Driving in the ghats with no street lights at night may sound very thrilling but should NEVER be attempted. We did manage to take a quick walk around the park. After seeing the (mini) chocolate factory we headed to the restaurant and had the yummy strawberry with cream and ice-cream. Since the theme was strawberry, the whipped cream and ice-cream had the flavor of the season. 

With dusk, the warmth of the day gave way to a chill which made me get my sweater out. After spending some time in the garden in what seemed to me like ‘freezing on a bench’ we headed to the dining hall to have dinner. 

A hot meal of chicken cutlets, tomato-based chicken curry with bread and rice and two oranges for desert closed Day One at Panchgani, both in energy and in appetite. 

After a good sleep I had in a very long time, Day Two began. After packing to leave we headed for the check-out and had a good meal of eggs and toast. My favorite part of breakfast was making the tea with the entire tea set. 

A few more photographs later, we checked-out at 10.00 a.m. and headed to Parsi Point.
A splendid view from Parsi Point
This point offers a good view of the Krishna River and also has a lot of hawkers who can be very irritating. From fortune-teller to footwear, one cannot linger around undisturbed for too long. With a brief photography session, we headed to Mapro again to spend some time. 

The Park has a sales counter with lots of fruit beverages and products on offer. Many samplings later, we finalized on black current crush, peach & apricot crush, a couple of jams and of course the strawberry crush. 

With the purchases done, we took a stroll in the garden restaurant. One can enjoy a delicious dessert in the midst of the many flowering plants around. We then moved on to the food counter outside and ordered a vegetarian Italian Pizza which was absolutely delicious. We then purchased some chocolate coated almonds and began our journey homeward. 

We took a quick stop to buy the visually appealing bunches of baby radish and baby carrot. Rarely seen in cities, these would definitely make a very appetizing souvenir. We then halted at the market to buy some more strawberry fudge – a must try when strawberries are in season. 

Our journey back was not very eventful in the hot afternoon. We took our first and only wrong turn but got back on the road pretty soon. Past the tree-lined road and green fields, we reached the highway and sped away. 

While refueling we saw a couple of boys carrying plates of hot rotis and chicken curry and our temptations got the better of us. We headed to the source of the food carriers and entered the roadside restaurant. To our dismay, we discovered that no chicken was available and we settled for a Paneer Makhanwala or Butter Paneer. 

The dish seemed like it had arrived from an oil field. The floating oil could be a side dish itself. However, what it lacked in appearance it made up for in taste. With our stomachs full we headed back on the road again. 

Through hills and plains, traffic and clear roads we reached Mumbai in 5 hours. 

The travel and site-seeing were not at all tiring and I was ready to face the coming weeks rejuvenated and refreshed. It is back to reality but the memory will definitely last. 

Strawberries and great food, site seeing, and the relaxing holiday home – my weekend had come to a happy end. 
My! how I looked back then