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Mukteshwar and Beyond

Mukteshwar and Beyond

Mukteshwar is the perfect choice for a mountain retreat. It’s within striking distance of Delhi and yet away from the maddening crowds. The place has excellent infrastructure and is secluded enough to lose onseself in.

Kausani to Mukteshwar

Most travelers will drive down from Delhi or Kathgodam to Mukteshwar. Which means they’d be bearing in a North – Eastern direction. However, since we were coming from Kausani, we were coming in from the opposite direction. The distance was a mere 105KMS, and Google indicated that the drive would take a shade over 3 hours. We were to bypass Almora en route and decided to stop at Kasar Devi for lunch.

Kasar Devi is a small village sitting above Almora. It’s claim to fame is that people as diverse as Swami Vivekananda, Bob Dylan and Cat Stevens spent some periods of their lives here. Well, they’re not that diverse when you realize they all came here for answers. Each of them meditated in his own way and found their calling. Or at least thought they did, which if you think of it, is really the same thing. Our objective was less esoteric of course. We only wanted to eat at the Mohan Café, a place recommended by Mansi and Ashish. So here we were.

Mohan’s Cafe

Getting to Kasar Devi is simple enough. Cross Almora, ascend the mountains for another 10KMS, and there you are! Mohan’s Binsar Retreat is the quaintest little boutique resort that houses the eponymous café. There’s ample parking in an adjacent lot, and the café is right off the road.

Mohans Cafe at Kasar Devi
Mohan's Binsar Retreat is a quaint boutique property at Kasar Devi

 

Walk into the place, and you could be in one of the better endowed shacks in Goa. The place has a mix of indoor and outside seating. Huge thatched sheds cover the outdoor tables. Comfortable seating and 80’s rock music complete the Goa feel. That is until you lift your eyes and glance around. The café affords panoramic views of the Himalayas! That and the cold are probably the only two things that tell you that you aren’t in Goa, but Uttarakhand!

Everyone wanted to eat a different dish from the menu, with little or no regard for homogeneity of cuisine. Eventually, we ended up ordering Veg. burgers, Hakka noodles, Chilly Chicken, Chicken Biryani and French Fries. Then there was the Grilled chicken in some sauce and Assorted vegetables in another. I don’t remember the names of either sauce, unfortunately. The food was uniformly good. Everything tasted as it should. Nothing had turned cold despite the chill in the air and the fact that the kitchen was at a distance. Service was quick and courteous, especially given the madhouse that was our table. All in all, an immensely satisfying meal. What took the cake, though, was the dessert. Literally!

Mohan's cafe at Kasar devi
The look of satisfaction after you've stuffed yourself to the gills!

 

While waiting for our food, I got talking to the person manning the dessert counter. He informed me that Mohan’s have their own bakery. Let alone cakes, they also bake their own breads, rolls and soup sticks! Baking cakes is one thing and most bakeries can do it with some level of proficiency. The real skill is in baking breads. Looking at the loaves on display, I figured these guys are pretty adept at it. What however got my attention were two cakes. One was a chocolate sponge and the other a banana sponge cake. I haven’t seen better looking cakes in a long time! 

The upper crust had just the right amount of gloss on it. Both cakes had one slice cut out of them. One glance at the cross – section made by the missing slices revealed that they were baked to a perfection. Our olfactory senses were overwhelmed by the heady aroma that wafted out when he opened the glass display case! Mohan’s café serves these cakes by the slice, and we promptly booked our share of two slices each.

The cakes were suitably heated and served with scoops of vanilla ice cream. If they’d looked good on display, they tasted even better. The crust was as crusty as it looked. One bite, and it crumbled in our mouths even before we’d reached the sponge part of the cake. As for the sponge, it maintained its integrity with amazing consistency. It was springy without being rubbery and broke off with the slightest application of pleasure. Gastronomic pleasure is as much about what you see, feel and the overall experience of eating the food, as the flavours. On every count, I don’t see how these cakes could’ve been better. Having worked in a 5 star hotel for 4 years, I know a good cake when I come across one. This was easily one of the best!

After a most satisfying break, we headed on towards Mukteshwar. From Almora it was a further 90 minutes away, and we made quick time. There was sparse traffic on the roads, and the overall drive was quite picturesque. I guess this is a constant feature on the Himalayan roads. We were on NH 109 pretty much all the way and got there in little over an hour. Our destination though was the village of Parvada, which is a further 12KMS away.

Valley view en route to Parvada village from Mukteshwar
The Shivalik's look lush green in the late afternoon winter sun

 

A couple of kilometers ahead of the main village, we took a turn – off to the left that goes to Parvada. If Mukteshwar looks like a colonial retreat (which it once was), the road to Parvada takes you back in time. There are long stretches of uninhabited mountains. The road is potholed at best, which deteriorates to a glorified mud path in places. Every 3 to 4 kilometers, the countryside is punctuated by a small hamlet. There aren’t any sweeping views of the Himalayas. All we could see were the Shivalik’s, green and lovely in the afternoon sun. And then, all of a sudden we were at the gates of the Parvada Bungalows.

Parvada Bungalows

The Parvada Bungalows is a homestay conceptualized, curated and run by Vasudha and Sanjay Sondhi. For once we found that ‘homestay’ is an under – statement and how! The thing we like about off – beat, family – run places in the mountains is that these places are usually a reflection of the people running the place. Be it the Jungle Hut in Masinagudi, Misty Mountains in Jhaltola or the Villa Urvinkhan in Chikmagallur. They’re all remarkable reflections of the people who’ve made and manage them. Parvada Bungalows in Mukteshwar is pretty much the same. If you are looking for a place that has a minimal carbon footprint, then you cannot go wrong with Parvada Bungalows. Like I've stated in several of my previous blogs too, I like to believe I'm a realistic environmentalist. Which means I'm very passionate about solar power for heating water. However I am pragmatic enough to understand this will sometimes need to be supplemented with conventional heaters in the Himalayas! At the Parvada Bungalows, Mukteshwar, you can sink into the luxurious ambience without an iota of guilt about YOUR carbon footprint while doing so!

Approach to the main living quarters is on a turn – off from the road. It is a steep climb, upwards of 30 degrees. Drive a couple of 100 meters and you get to the main bungalow. The owners call this the ‘Quinta’, probably a throwback to Vasudha’s vintner aspirations. Irrespective, this is the unit that houses a lovely dining room with a beautiful terrace, superbly appointed modern kitchen, a well – stocked and comfortable library on the lower level and a yoga / exercise room on the upper level. The structure itself is built into the side of the mountain. That makes it seems like three separate yet inter – connected bungalows. Overall, it seamlessly merges with the natural aesthetics of the place. 

Parvada Bungalow Mukteshwar
The Quinta as seen from the Wild Fig Villa

 

Beside the Quinta is the Wild Fig Villa. This consists of three main bedrooms and a small living room. Two of these bedrooms (the North & South room) sport smaller attic rooms too. Each of the 5 bedrooms has an en suite bathroom, making the place appropriate for 10 persons. Or so we thought. Once we got there, we realized the attic rooms are of an open architecture. Essentially, this means access to these rooms is ONLY through the master bedroom below. Plus, the rooms are open on one side. Effectively, there is zero privacy. In other words, it works only if it’s one family. In our case, we were suddenly short of one room.

 

Wild fig villa at Parvada Bungalows Mukteshwar
The wild Fig Villa is the piece - de resistance at Parvada Bungalows Mukteshwar

 

Our hosts were gracious enough to immediately make the Oak cottage available for us. This is a single room unit a little away from the Wild Fig Villa. The cottage is extremely charming and nestled amongst the fruit trees and other shrubbery on the estate. Every single room, be it the Oak or the Wild Fig Villa, is made to an exacting standard. Mind you, this place isn’t in Nainital. It’s not even in Mukteshwar. It is in a small non – descript village completely off the beaten path. And yet, here we were, at a luxurious property masquerading as a humble homestay! One can only imagine the logistical nightmare of getting something like this made in a place like Parvada.

Attic room at the Wild Fig Villa in Parvada Bungalows Mukteshwar
The kids made the most of the Attic rooms at the Wild Fig Villa in Parvada Bungalows, Mukteshwar

The first thing that hit us once we entered was the under – stated luxury. Take the linen for instance. The towels are 600 GSM at the very least and made of the finest cotton. Simply put, they are satiny – soft, fluffy and super absorbent. Then there are the rooms themselves. Each room sports wooden flooring polished to a gloss. The king – sized beds are polished to a matching shade. Furnishing like drapes, covers and upholstery further bring out the sense of luxurious comfort. The rooms we had were equipped with walk – in wardrobes. In addition, the bathrooms sported plumbing and tiling of the highest order. Seriously, this place would give the best 5 – stars a run for their money. If only the attic rooms were made such that there was privacy for all occupants.

Sitting room at Wild Fig Villa in Arvada Bungalows MUKTESHWAR
Under - stated luxury is the norm at the Parvada Bungalows, Mukteshwar

 

The only issue we faced was the heating in the rooms. Each unit is equipped with oil heaters. Usually these are more than competent at warming up a place. However, since the rooms had an 18’ ceiling to accommodate the attic, they were woefully inadequate. Or at least that is what I thought until I stepped up into the attic room. Remember your school lessons on how hot air rises? Well, we got a practical demonstration of that!

While the main bedrooms struggled to up the ambient temperature, the attic was nice and toasty. Obviously, all the air that was getting heated rose to the ceiling. With nowhere else to go, it hung around in the attic, making it warm and comfortable. Thankfully though, Vasudha and Sanjay had warm blowers which they placed in the lower rooms. These are cute little contraptions that blow warm air with great force. Effectively, we had a continuous stream of warm air blowing over our bed all night. That effectively took care of the heating issue!

Quinta at Parvada Bungalows Mukteshwar
The sitout at the Quinta offers sweeping views of the valley below

 

If the accommodation was a reflection of the attention to detail that Vasudha and Sanjay gave to the smallest of things, the food was a revelation. Be warned that the Parvada Bungalows, Mukteshwar serves only vegetarian fare, besides eggs. Unless you’re a die – hard carnivore, you seriously won’t miss the absence of non – vegetarian food. Every meal is personally supervised by Vasudha or Sanjay. Be it the parathas, khichdi or kumaoni thaali we had, they were outstanding. The only downside was the fact that most meals would be ready about 30 minutes later than we’d want them. But then, we weren’t in a hurry to get anywhere, so no one cared!

Cozy seating and delectable home - cooked food make for a deadly combination!

We spent 3 nights and days at the Parvada Bungalows, Mukteshwar. Save for an evening where a few of us drove down into Mukteshwar village, we spent every minute exploring the estate and surrounding countryside. Naturally, there being no other place worth its name in a 12KM radius, we had all our meals too at the property! At the end of the day, we certainly don’t regret our decision. Neither the one of coming to Parvada Bungalows, nor the one to not venture out of the place!

Parvada Bungalows and the local community

Since we spent a lot of our time exploring the estate and mountains surrounding it, we had several opportunities to speak with Vasudha and Sanjay. Ritika and I are huge proponents of protecting the environment and our ecology. I mean, we’ve even created the world’s first ever Eco – Warrior Superhero in Biplob the Bumblebee! So you can well imagine our joy when we found out about some of the things that Vasudha and Sanjay do with the local community, to better the natural quotient of the place.

Water is probably the most precious resource up in the mountains. Sanjay has created a rainwater harvesting system on their private land. In one master – stroke, that has turned this perennially water – deficit place to being water – positive. Not just that, but they  generously share it with the neighbouring farms, orchards and homes. And all this without charging the villagers a dime!

Trekking at Parvada Bungalows Mukteshwar
Rainwater harvesting is the norm at Parvada today, thanks to Sanjay's efforts

 

Vasudha is putting her hotel skills to good use and has already got a few households to start their own homestay. Simple and non – expensive additions to their homes suddenly make them equipped to accommodate guests. Visitors get a village – stay experience, and the ladies get much needed incremental incomes! Sushil, our driver stayed at one such place run by a staff of Parvada Bungalows. In his opinion there was certainly room for improvement, but it is a great start.

Last but not the least, Vasudha and Sanjay have formed in informal cooperative of sorts for the local women. The women put their traditional weaving skills to good use, making scarves, socks and woolen caps amongst other things. They’ve created a little boutique on their property, where the women retail their stuff from. For now this is more of an informal arrangement. However, given what Vasudha has been able to achieve with the resort, I’m sure it is but a matter of time before this turns into a formidable society changing the fortunes of rural mountain ladies for the better!

One of the treks at Parvada Bungalows Mukteshwar
The ladies at one of our treks in the mountains around Parvada Bungalows Mukteshwar

 

We spent a blissful three days at Parvada Bungalows, Mukteshwar. When we weren’t trekking in the mountains, we’d be chatting up our hosts. If you’re looking for a mountain retreat that offers luxurious comfort, great company (when the owners are in – house, that is), lip – smacking food and is away from crowds of any sort, then Parvada Bungalows, Mukteshwar is the place for you. This was the last leg of our holiday. I think we’d be hard – pressed to come up with a better end to what had been another memorable sojourn through the Himalayas. It wasn’t so much about what Vasudha and Sanjay had created. I think it was more about who they are!

Reading next

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