The call of the hills
From the Himalayas in the north to the Nilgiris in the south, quaint hill stations nestled in these mountains offer travellers unique, experential havens
The Indian topography is wide and varied, with high mountains, extensive plateaus, and wide plains traversed by mighty rivers. The hill stations of the country, bounded by the Himalayas in the north, and other prominent mountains like the Aravallis, Vindhyachals, Satpuras, Eastern and the Western Ghats, remain popular summertime destinations. Some were originally summer retreats of Indian provinces or princedoms while others served as summer headquarters for the British government. Today these destinations are not just popular in the summer time but people flock to them even in winters.
Indian hill stations offer some of the most spectacular landscapes in the world. From the misty valley of Coorg in Karnataka to the adventure-packed Manali of Himachal Pradesh, from the romantic hills of Nainital to the scenic beauty found in Ooty of Tamil Nadu, tourists have unlimited choices. Elaborating on this further, Subhash Goyal, president, Indian Association of Tour Operators (IATO), says, “Jammu & Kashmir, Sikkim, Garhwal, Kumaon, other hills of Uttarakhand, Darjeeling Hills of West Bengal, Dalhousie-Chamba of Himachal are most popular, mainly, because a lot of adventure sports and trekking opportunities are available there. One can also participate in mountaineering, river sports, angling, spotting Himalayan wildlife and golfing at Gulmarg, wihch is one of the highest golf courses in Jammu & Kashmir. The scenic beauty, fairs and festivals, cuisine experiences, experiential niche tourism preferences, including connectivity and affordability, can easily explain the growing popularity.”
Starting from the Indian Himalayas for the adventure travellers to various pilgrim centres and Himalayan temples for pilgrims, India offers many popular travel destinations. According to Goyal, “Domestic tourists like soft trekkings around Chail, Kasauli, in Himachal Pradesh, Badri-Kedarnath-Gangotri-Yamunotri, Chamoli-Almora and Darjeeling-Kalimpong Sikkim-Pemayangtse regions, to name a few.”
In Himachal Pradesh, mountain adventures beckon from all directions. Manali offers adventure tourists with trekking, paragliding, rafting and skiing opportunities. About 53 km away is the famous Rohtang Pass which offers breathtaking sights of glaciers, peaks and valleys. Also, Mcleod Ganj, the home of Dalai Lama is the destination for many travellers visiting Dharamshala. The activities range from heritage walks to spiritual retreats. Shimla, the present capital of Himachal Pradesh, was earlier the summer capital of India during the British Raj. Here, the hills blend with structures from the colonial era.
Srinagar in Jammu and Kashmir has attracted people since time immemorial. Famous for its houseboats, historic gardens and a mild summer climate, Srinagar rests in the Kashmir Valley along and around the banks of the Jhelum River. According to Showket Pakhtoon, MD, Elizabeth Tours and Travels, and MC member, Travel Agents Society of Kashmir (TASK), “ The most popular hill stations are Gulmarg, Pahalgam and Sonamarg offering activities like cable car tours, horse riding, skiing, golfing, water rafting, etc.”
Leh, the capital of Ladakh, is the new emerging hill station and is one of the most beautiful tourist destinations of India. Ladakh tours are becoming popular. Tourists from not only India, but also worldwide visit this destination to enjoy activities like polo, trekking, mountaineering, cycling, river crafting, archery, jeep and camel safaris.
The hill station of Nainital, in the Kumaon region of Uttarakhand, is one of the top visited, highest rated hill stations in north India. It features the Naini Lake, water sports and rides, hill resorts and adventure activities like yachting, kayaking, parasailing, horse riding, and wildlife safari tour in Jim Corbett National Park. Offering views of the Doon Valley and the Himalayan peaks, Mussoorie, located 34 km from Dehradun, is popularly known as the ‘Queen of the Hills’. One can walk up and down the famous Mall road, or enjoy the mist-covered hills from Mussoorie’s highest point called Lal Tibba.
Sikkim, one of the most preferred hill stations across India, is the second smallest and low populous state of India. It boasts of beautiful and unexplored hill stations.
Dotted with Buddhist monasteries and a war memorial, Tawang is one of the least discovered towns in Arunachal Pradesh.
Darjeeling in West Bengal, perched at an elevation of 2,134 m above sea level, attracts many tourists. A journey on the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway also known as the ‘Toy Train’ is a great way to explore the surroundings of this hill station.
Known as the ‘Scotland of North-East’, Shillong, the capital city of Meghalaya, sits amidst the Khasi Hills. One can enjoy activities like river canoeing, kayaking, trekking and caving, golfing, scuba diving, rappelling, and zip lining here. Spread out on the Western Ghats, Coorg in Karnataka is a major centre for spice and coffee production.
Ooty and Kodaikanal in Tamil Nadu are the most famous hill stations of southern India. Also, established as a summer retreat by the British and nicknamed ‘Snooty Ooty’, Ooty is a visual delight filled with cottages, fenced flower gardens, thatched-roof churches and terraced botanical gardens. Kodaikanal, nestled 120 kilometers from Madurai in the Palani Hills of Tamil Nadu, meaning ‘Gift of the Forest’, is home to exquisite flora and fauna. Smaller and quieter than its neighbour Ooty, Coonoor is nestled in the Nilgiri Mountains and is surrounded by rolling hills and tea and coffee plantations. The ride on the Nilgiri Mountain Railway’s toy train, from Coonoor to Ooty, covers the region’s several scenic spots including the cantonment area of Wellington.
Munnar in Kerala is another favourite destination among travellers. Wayanad’s landscape encompasses a part of the forest reserves and is home to a variety of animals, including tigers, elephants and sloth bears.
Forests, foot trails and lookouts define Maharashtra’s hill-station, Matheran. Motor vehicles are banned within Matheran and hence travellers can arrive on a narrow-gauge toy train that chugs along a 21 km scenic route, or trek up the scenic path that makes its way through train tracks and hillsides.
Located in the Aravalli range of Rajasthan, Mount Abu is the most visited hill station of north west India. It is surrounded by lakes, Aravalli forest hills, ancient forts, hidden picnic spots, resorts and accommodations, different religion temples and heritage architecture. Another popular attraction here is the Mount Abu Wildlife Sanctuary.
Having some of the highest mountain ranges, India is gradually becoming one of the most sought after destinations and the ministry of tourism is also seen aggresively promoting the Himalayan range.
Talking about various activities which require infrastructural development, Goyal believes that since many people visit these locations for adventure activities, infrastructure should be further developed. “An average of 30 to 35 per cent of domestic tourists visit hill stations combining leisure, pleasure and pilgrimage. International tourists are mainly interested in adventure tourism activities in J&K, Garhwal Hills, Manali, Sikkim, etc and they form about 10 to 12 per cent of the total crowd. There is also an interest for high altitude mountaineering expedition though the number is very limited due to regulatory conditions.” Given a different persperctive, Jyoti Kapur, president, Association of Domestic Tour Operators of India (ADTOI) states, “Nature has already endowed us with maximum potential and great destinations. The development of infrastructure is a lengthy process but even in that case a lot of the hill stations have world class facilities and more are being developed gradually. Most of these have been the legacy of the British but our government has also undertaken many initiatives like the Himalayan Expressway.” Talking about it further, Goyal states, “Infrastructure development is a continuous process and since last one decade there is sea change in accommodation scene as also in air, road and rail connectivity. Rishikesh has one of the best infrastructures and Ananda Resorts is much better than any western resorts. Similarly resorts in Jammu & Kashmir, Shimla, Kullu, Manali, Matheran, Ootacamund, Kodaikanal, Munnar hills have better infrastructure when compared to many foreign locations.”
Earlier in 2013, the Ministry of Tourism had launched the ‘777 days of the Indian Himalayas’ campaign to publicise the tourism potential of the Himalayas and promote this incredible tourist product internationally. Kapur believes, “Smaller hill stations like Dalhousie, Palampur, Bhimtal near Nainital, etc need to be marketed more as they are promoting tourism in the smaller run since the bigger and well known hill stations already have the monuments, etc to promote themselves better. Activities like tenting and camping, white water rafting, etc are cheaper here and therefore can be more of interest to travellers.”