As we drove into Nainital, the sun had long set and the small hill town glistened in the glow of lights reflected in the waters of the kidney-bean shaped lake at its heart. The drive beyond Kaladhungi, as you begin the uphill ascent, was a pleasant change from the taxing whizzing through crowded towns of Moradabad, Kashipur and others. The Mall Road in Nainital is turned into a vehicle-free walking plaza during evening hours, and by the time we arrived, the vehicle restriction was in place. So we had to take a long detour through steep slopes on the other end of the town. Tired from a long drive, we weren’t really pleased by the idea but the view from the highest point on this hill flanking the Naini Lake was breathtaking. The vast expanse of tinkering lights all over the surrounding hills, reflections in the water, clean, fresh air and a prevailing silence. As we got down from our car to take it all in, the promise of a good holiday looked strong.
A Stroll through the Town
We began our Nainital explorations on foot, with a stroll through the town roads, and started off with breakfast at the Embassy Restaurant on the Mall Road. Sitting at a window seat right by the roadside and overlooking the lake on the other side of the road, sipping on my coffee and treating myself to an indulgent cheese omelette, something caught my eye. The Municipal Library housed in an old building with that characteristic heritage look – red coloured tapering tin roof, wood pillars, creaky wooden floors, and walls painted a faded yellow. I hurried through the rest of the breakfast, egging the husband on to gobble down his portion too. Oh, the smell of old books with yellowing pages, the comfortable silence and the warmth stirred in by sunrays escaping in from the ventilator panes. It was a place worth losing yourself in. I’d have liked to stay on longer than we did, but there was more touristy stuff to do and the husband was showing signs of compulsive restless, and so I bid goodbye to this cosy little book haven. I was already in love with Nainital.
The other thing that really left us impressed was the immaculate cleanliness of the town, despite the heavy tourist influx. The roads are lined with dustbins at short distances and people actually make the effort to use them. The roads are clean and dust-free, and you see nearly no polythene or plastic strewn about.
After about two hours or so of just walking aimlessly, we decided to take the cable car ride. It covers a short distance, going up to the Snow Point situated on the first hilltop that comes its way. You can literally climb up to the point in no more than 10 minutes. But hey, since it is the highlight of this sleepy town, you might as well give it a shot. The view of the lake from the cable car is rather impressive.
By the time we returned, it was time for lunch and we settled on the Boat House Club. The club isn’t open to public and follows a strict members-only policy (there is a separate extension for yatching deck that is open to all but the club in itself remains exclusive).Guests residing at the Army Holiday Home are given temporary membership passes for the duration of their stay, and that’s how we gained access to this heritage property right by the lake. It was a cloudy, windy afternoon, and we decided to have our meal outside, on the lower deck of the property, right by the lakeside. Beer, lip-smacking Chinese food, followed by a ride on the Naini Lake amid light drizzle. Just perfect!
A boat dropped us off at the other end of the lake which was right opposite the Holiday Home we were staying in, and thus, our walking tour came a full circle.
Sakley’s – A Heaven of Flavours
In the evening, we were back on the road again and that’s when this fancy pastry shop caught my eye. The place is a food lover’s paradise packed with so many tempting offerings from a range of global cuisines. I was truly surprised to find such a spotless, fancy bakery in Nainital. We had gone in with an idea of having coffee but the menu was too irresistible to stop at just that. So we ended up with honey chicken, a dumpling clear soup, and Blueberry cheesecake on our table, and devoured it all down to the last crumb. At the end of our trip, I made a quick stop at the bakery once again grab some chocolate éclairs and pastries to go.
The Tibetan Market
In the evening, a clearing at the fag end of the lake and in close proximity to the Naina Devi Temple comes alive with a lot of hustle-bustle. As we emerged from Sakley’s, we were instantly drawn to this place. It turned out be the Tibetan or Bhotia market (as the locals call it) – a flea market with some very good quality clothes, beautiful handicraft, and what looked like fakes of high-end perfumes. It is your classic flea market with narrow lanes, lots of crowd, small shops overflowing with goods, sounds of haggling and loud hawkers. But the quality of the stuff sold here is excellent.
The Hidden Momo Gem in the Main Market
Since the place has its share of Tibetan population, you obviously expect some seriously good momos here, and yours truly happens to be a sucker for momos. While the Sonam Fast Food joint at the Tibetan Market is the most popular among tourists, upon a local’s recommendation we went looking for this obscure little momo corner in the main market. It was called the Sandeep Momo Corner, I think. The name of the guy running the place was definitely Sandeep, and any shopkeeper in the market will be happy to guide you to the place. It is that typical dingy-looking small eatery but the momos – oh, the momos! – are to die for. I still haven’t eaten momos half as good as Sandeep’s and I eat momos A LOT. The mutton momos turned out to be my favourite, the chicken ones were pretty awesome too. I cannot comment on the veg varieties really because ‘what veg momos?’ His preparation of the chutney is insanely fiery and he doesn’t believe in serving it on the side of your plate of momos. Instead, big plastic jars, the kind you see in candy stores, filled with the chutney are placed on counters and you can help yourself to as much as you like. The guy seems like an avid Indian Ocean fan, and during our three back-to-back visits to his place, the band’s album Kandisa was playing on a loop. Every time I hear Kandisa or Hille Re, I’m reminded of those foodgasmic momos at Sandeep’s.
Pushed Off the Edge
The next day we were exploring the areas around Nainital, going up to Bhimtal and Naukuchiatal. When we reached the latter, big sign boards for paragliding greeted us, and the husband being the adventure junkie that he is, dragged me all the way. I’m very wary of these adventurous sojourns, for I’m constantly gripped by the paranoia of the whole thing falling apart. Very Final Destination kind of emotions, if you know what I mean. Anyway, so we reached the paragliding spot and the husband was denied permission owing to some weight restrictions with the gliders they had. I was relieved, thinking good riddance, when out of nowhere these guys started asking me to put on the harness. Despite my resistance, everyone just ganged up on me, got me to wear the damned harness and stand on the edge of a cliff. I was still talking to the husband about this being a bad idea and all, when he signalled the gliding expert to just take off. The guy did the countdown, I somehow managed to match his stride, and before I knew I was floating in the air.
Oh, good heavens! Those were certainly the most surreal, mind-blowing 10 minutes I have spend literally floating in thin air, taking in the vast expanse of blue mountains, lush green fields, water bodies and buildings with red roofs.
Ranikhet – A Disappointment
I have read a lot about the beauty of Ranikhet. A book I had finished reading back then, The Distant Drum by Manohar Malgonkar, had entire pages dedicated to singing praises of Ranikhet’s raw beauty. Now that we were so close to the place, there was no way in hell I was going to miss the opportunity to witness that beauty up close. Much to my dismay, Ranikhet turned out to be the drabbest and lacking in character hill town that I have ever visited. The only thing worth checking out perhaps was the Kumaon Regimental Centre Museum but that too was closed on the day we visited. We found it hard to even spend an hour in the place. Wouldn’t recommend it at all.
Ours was a short four-day trip but we came back fully rejuvenated and relaxed. Nainital is definitely worth exploring if you are in the northern part of the country.