The journey from Haridwar to Shimla is about 180 miles, but it’s such a slow one. Our route took us via Dendrahen which was just a mass of roadworks that took ages to negotiate. We stopped off at a little café for a rest and a cup of tea thinking we’d broken the back of the journey, but little did I know how the rest of the journey would be a mass of twists and turns as we progressed from the Lower to the Middle Himalayas. This was the first time in decades that I’d felt terrible motion sickness in the car. It was excruciating. All I could do was shut my eyes and try not to see the horizon.
Somehow we managed to reach Shimla without my throwing up, but it was a close thing. Our hotel for the first two days in Shimla was the Oberoi Cecil, a stately pile in the centre of the town and perfectly located for sightseeing. Unfortunately our journey took such a long time – a good ten hours – that we were hardly in a position to enjoy its bounteous pleasures when we got there. But we tried our hardest anyway. Mrs Chrisparkle had to attend a phone business conference as soon as we arrived so I supported her in the only way I knew – I picked up a book and went to the bar and had a bottle of Kingfisher. Later we enjoyed dinner in their restaurant, a very grand and regal affair with a marvellous atmosphere of Raj decadence. Looking back, however, both Mrs C and I agree that, overall, this is the least impressive of all the Oberoi hotels we’ve been to. Don’t get me wrong, that means it’s only superb. The bar shut unnecessarily early, and, whilst it was a thoroughly enjoyable stay, it just lacked the touch of Oberoi magic that you find in their other properties. Yes, I’m being incredibly picky.
The next day we awoke rested and ready for a day’s sightseeing. Our guide was a very funny and knowledgeable chap by the name of Dinashkumar. First he took us a little way out of town to visit the Jakhu Hill Temple, with its huge statue of the monkey god, Hanuman, who keeps a watchful eye over the town below. It’s not surprising that this temple is dedicated to Hanuman as the area is totally overrun by monkeys, and you have to be very careful not to encourage them because they’re devious little buggers. Dinashkumar equipped us both with what he called a monkey-stick; it had the dual purpose of scaring them (or indeed pushing them) away if they got too close, and also acting as a walking stick to climb the path to the temple. The views are magnificent; this was the first time we’d seen mountainous India, with its fresh air (indeed the lack of oxygen did have a literally breathtaking effect on our respiration), lack of crowds and (relatively) cold temperature. We looked inside the temple and Dinashkumar was very keen that we should have the full Jakhu experience, so he paid for us both to be blessed. It always makes me laugh that a blessing is a financial transaction in India. Hanuman keeps a lovely garden up in the hills above Shimla, and it’s very well worth taking fifteen or twenty minutes to slowly do the rounds and get all the great views.
Back in the car, we descended back to town. A perfect spot for a morning refreshment – indeed, lunch if you fancied it (we didn’t – but I have a great recommendation for you later) – we took a pause at Clarke’s Hotel, the easily forgotten third Oberoi in Shimla. Built in 1898, in mock Tudorbethan style, it sits grandly at one end of the town’s famous Mall Road. We had a reviving pot of Earl Grey tea, and a very pleasant chat with the welcoming manager, Pooja. Her husband, Amardeep, is the manager of the Cecil, so together she said they are known locally as the Oberoi Mafia. The hotel seems like a great place to experience Oberoi service without paying Oberoi prices.
After a welcome rest, we walked up Mall Road, past a range of small shops – some of them barely one person wide. It has a very relaxing and stressless atmosphere; rather quaint and bijou, a little like how one would expect an Indian Polperro to look like. We had the statutory stop in a pashmina scarf shop; they were promoting a Diwali sale – baby pashmina scarves at two for the price of one. I’ve no idea to what extent it was a genuine sale, but the scarves are very attractive, soft and warm (although, be warned, when you get them home, they moult like crazy!) Dinashkumar pointed out the interesting central sights at a meeting place – the wonderfully named Scandal Point. The scandal in question was the abduction of an English lady by the Maharajah of Patiala in 1892. One thing we did realise as we wandered around – there are so many Brits! Its place in the history of the British Raj in India means it’s enormously appealing to the more intrepid British tourist. Sadly, Shimla is choked with traffic, but nevertheless it’s still absolutely charming, and definitely worth the trek there.
We were just too late to visit Christ Church (it closes for lunch) so we thought we’d take the same dining opportunity as the vicar. On Dinashkumar’s recommendation, we went to the Ashiana Restaurant in the centre of the town. It’s located in what was an old British Victorian bandstand. We sat in the outside garden, had superb food, friendly service and a much-needed Thunderbolt beer. On the other side of the street is The Ridge, which consists of a beautiful viewpoint, with a statue of Indira Gandhi, and it’s also the site of Christ Church, a neo-Gothic structure consecrated in 1857, with a chancel window designed by Rudyard Kipling’s father Lockwood. In a rather sweet cross-fertilisation of faiths, you have to take your shoes off to enter the church; I don’t know of any other Christian church where that’s a requirement.
Many of the shops are recognisable from home: Levis, Benetton, Wrangler – even Domino’s Pizza. I bought a thick warm shirt in BlackBerry, which I’ve washed a few times now and I’m very pleased with it; it’s a brand and a shop you can trust. After slowly wandering through the Mall Road area, we headed back towards the Cecil. I made a schoolboy error where the road passes the Army Headquarters. There’s a noble looking sculpture outside of four brave Indian soldiers with a flag, which I photographed, then turned around to photograph the entrance to the Army HQ just as a means of identifying where I was. Of course, I was instantly hollered at in no small measure and refused permission to photograph. Daft of me, I know the rules. I just forgot. We reached the Cecil in time for a nice afternoon nap, followed by drinks, dinner and more drinks. The highlight of the meal was a dessert of gluten-free vanilla and choc chip muffins. It may sound like a simple pleasure, but it was heaven to the coeliac in the family.
The next morning we checked out of the Cecil, although we were still staying in the Shimla region for another two nights. Our first port of call was the Viceregal Lodge, built in 1888 in Jacobethan style for the Viceroy Lord Dufferin. Getting in to the building is something of a bureaucratic challenge, with set visiting times, set queuing locations (which you have to guess at), no photos permitted anywhere, quite a lot of barking custodians – and the first few rooms you walk around are pretty dull. But it comes into its own with its amazing sweeping staircase and it’s actually quite an interesting place to visit. The gardens are also worth your time – very beautiful and immaculately kept.
Once we’d left the Viceroy Lodge it was no more than a half hour’s drive to our next hotel – the majestic Wildflower Hall in the mountains above Shimla at Mashobra. On arrival we had the disappointing (I jest) news that our Premier Valley View Room had been upgraded to a Deluxe Suite. It’s like having your own apartment overlooking the Himalayas, easily big enough to be your permanent home provided you don’t want to cook and are prepared to do without most of your unnecessary nicknacks. It was one of those places that made your toes curl with pleasure. The building was originally Lord Kitchener’s Himalayan hideaway (although there’s not much there now that he would recognise) and it has an amazing jacuzzi that looks for all the world that you’re at the edge of civilisation and with one false step you could fall into the valley below. Mind you, with that view, what a way to go! There’s a very comfortable bar (The Cavalry Bar) where Rajat will prepare your pre-prandial gin and tonic, and a glorious restaurant (eat outside during the day, inside at night) where our favourite waiter Sachin made us very welcome and gave immaculate service.
The highlight of our next day was the treat of a genuine walk (trek, hike, if you like, but it was really a walk) in the Middle Himalayas. The Oberoi provides their own naturalist guide, Rohini, to make sure you stay safe and on the beaten track, even though it feels like the most glorious adventure. The path we took was once part of an old silk route from Tibet. Rohini pointed out the local plant life, including the four main trees of the area, the Spruce, the Himalayan cedar, the Blue pine and the Green oak. We saw wild garlic, Daphne, Baby’s Breath, and many other fascinating wild flora. We heard a bell tinkling at one point, and discovered a lone pony, lost in the woods. It was slightly disappointing to discover he wasn’t wild; there’s a pony farm nearby and he’d obviously not followed the signposts home.
Our walk covered just short of 3 miles and took about 2 hours 15 minutes, giving us maximum opportunities to take it all in at a very comfortable, holiday-like, pace. Even though the temperatures were no more than about 7 degrees centigrade, because the sun was so strong it didn’t feel cold at all; and sitting outside later, in a short-sleeved shirt, felt like the height of decadence. The Wildflower Hall is perfect for a relaxing break; we loved it and would go back without a moment’s hesitation.