It was a midsummer night when Elsa the brown Himalayan sheepdog, the resident Miss Congeniality, was nowhere to be found. Elsa was missing. The staff at the resort combed through the locality, the nearby villages, the cottages; Elsa was a friendly Indie after all. She fell in love easily. Did she go off on a walk with a guest or two?
She didn't. A leopard had carried Elsa away, waiting for its chance to make a meal out of her.
Juno knew something was wrong. The big black Himalayan mastiff, the 'man' of the resort, sniffed out what was amiss. Where Elsa might have been. He followed her scent, found the predator, fought it off, and brought an injured Elsa back. Since then, Juno has been standoffish. He doesn't have much of a care or concern for the kisses and hugs that the guests at The Kumaon smother him with. Well, guess fighting almost-certain death does that to you.
Between Juno and Elsa, this 10-chalet resort at Kasar Devi in Almora, Uttarakhand, knows how to get people. Juno gets the 'whoas'; Elsa is all gooey love, sap and saliva.
When we took off from Delhi early on a late-March morning, we hadn't guessed what the resort might have been like. Of course, there were photos of a cantilever restaurant jutting out into the nothingness, the Milky Way above your head, and otherworldly views, but resort websites always give you the best, no? The reality here at The Kumaon; strangely, unexpectedly; was perhaps a little better than those DSLR-telelens photographs. Or maybe there was just something in the cold mountain air that evening when the car finally pulled in into the two-acre resort.
The Milky Way above the cantilever restaurant
A high-tea set-up waited at the terrace for the group of us. The mist hid the Nanda Devi, but an app showed us where which peak lay. The weather clears up most summer evenings. Sometimes it doesn't, and the enthusiastic staff assures you it won't be the same the next evening. Mornings are crisp and clear anyway, you are told. If you are an early riser, the Himalayas are right there in front of you; right as you open your eyes and look out of the massive top-to-bottom French windows.
Out of the 10 minimalistic chalets at The Kumaon, there are 5 terrace chalets and 5 garden ones. What's the difference? The terrace chalets have a little slice of that - a terrace - to take in the Nanda Devi range from. The garden chalets have the mountains right outside your door.
The names of the 10 chalets are borrowed from the villages around Kumaon. You'll find suites like Naini (that's the one I stayed in), Kasar, and so on. These suites whisper - not scream - sustainability into your ears as you walk in into one. Concrete, quarried stone resembling the village adjacent to The Kumaon, stick out of the garden chalets. The resort uses fly-ash bricks, intertwined with bamboo sticks and copper wire for the terrace chalets. All 10 face the Nanda Devi range. You need to walk out of your room to soak in the magnificent colours of the sunset, followed by the twilight, and then that hour when the tendua comes out to stalk the village dogs.
Like every place though, the charm of The Kumaon lies in the people who call the place home, or office. For us folk from the plains, a workstation with the Nanda Devi range in front of you is a pipe dream at this point in life, when offices are back to working with 100% staff and work-from-the-hills is a thing of the not-so-distant past. A tinge of envy is allowed.
The people who run the show here are all locals. They belong to the adjacent village, Gadholi. Harish, the resident chef here, treated us to fish from the Kosi, caught just that evening. This Bengali out of Bengal couldn't have been happier.
The resort curates experiences for its guests; from two college kids singing Kishore Kumar tracks, to a bonfire, complete with throws and shawls to keep you warm. The Rhododendron-dipped Whiskey Sour helps with the rest.
One of the dinners that we attended at this place was accompanied by a thousand tealights and wildflowers from the resort compound. There were lanterns on the trees, smoke from the forest fires somewhere in Binsar, and the wind had a lullaby to keep Nusrat company as he sang of a halka halka suroor. It was perfectly splendid. Every five seconds; perhaps like what Flora from Bly Manor would have said.
A lot of emphasis here is on local food. If you're lucky, Harish will also treat you to his Chinese; or whatever this country has done to it. Most of the raw material that goes into your food at The Kumaon is locally sourced; and some, grown on the property. So, you get to see the leaves that go into your salad, and the tomato that ends up becoming your ketchup. You will also be treated to Bhaang Chutney.
Thandai Pinacolada too, if it's too hot during the day. One of the lunches here had a shocker on the menu: Creme Brulee!
The place, a brainchild of Dr Vikrom Mathur, reflects his personality through and through. Dr Mathur has researched and written about the environment, society and development for the past twenty years; so, a sustainable resort was perhaps but a natural corollary.
A few kilometres from the resort are the Kasar Devi temple and Crank's Ridge, a steep rock that pierces the sky, with just a spot for you to sit with a book, legs dangling, wind in your hair, looking at time passing by. Or stopping, if you wish. Near the Kasar Devi temple is a nook where Swami Vivekananda spent days meditating. This is 1890; and a 27-year-old Naren, who found moksha in the Kasar Devi Cave. You might find calmness here. For a while at least.
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The Binsar Wildlife Sanctuary is a 40-minute drive from the retreat. Keep a morning for Binsar. In Spring, the sanctuary is on fire. There's the dark-red rhododendron at every turn. There's also the Simtola Eco Park, a 15-minute drive from The Kumaon. A walk through the eco park and the hills takes you to the Golu Devta temple; the resident deity of Almora; who ardent devotees leave letters for. The property arranges curated naturewalks through the forests and hills, leading up to the Chitai Golu Devta temple.
In all, The Kumaon has what it takes for a long weekend; or a longer stay, if you so wish. There's a spa, there's good food, there are people, there's Nanda Devi, there are dogs, there are stories, there are books.
If you agree to a village walk through the narrow lanes of Gadholi, Juno will guide you, stopping and waiting for you if you happen to lose your group. He knows of the leopard.
WHERE: The Kumaon lies in Gadholi, a small village near Kasar Devi in Almora, Uttarakhand.
NEAREST RAILWAY STATION: Kathgodam
NEAREST AIRPORT: Pantnagar
TARIFF: from Rs 28,000 a night, full board
EXPERIENCES: Binsar Wildlife Sanctuary, Chitai Forest Walk, Golu Devta Temple, Kosi Riverwalk, Katar Maal Sun Temple, Kasar Devi Temple and Crank's Ridge