Somewhere beyond all the Bhimtals and Nainitals lies a little land, not touristy, where yellow tin roofs shine as bright as the sun and the apples grow wild and red. It’s called Dhanachuli, a little hideout in Kumaon. The drive up from the Kathgodam station — that one last train stop for any worthwhile weekend place around Delhi — is a fairytale. Starting right from the soft mountain corn that is char-grilled to a dainty golden, buttered and smeared with green chutney and served with all the hill love of the humble locals.
Available every bend up till Dhanachuli, the sweet treat, explain its harvesters, is grown on a particular cow manure to give it the heavenly taste that makes you never have the Delhi bhutta again.
As you nibble at it while gazing out on the high curves and occasional peaks that line the horizon along clear blue skies, the clouds start to float in a couple of kilometres later. Clear, light cotton bobs, with singing streams below, a suspension bridge every few miles and the family-throngs left far behind on the Haldwani road. Enter Te Aroha. The sole (and soul) resort in Dhanachuli sits up smiling after we have crossed pretty pine forests and the most wondrous natural waterfalls and the crickets in their chorus for about an hour and a half. Absolutely worth the dizzy drive.
Soaking up some peace
The name of the place itself means ‘place of love’ in Maori, and it does keep true to its essence. The staff is mostly a bunch of happy, pink hill boys, but not without their crisp grey Jodhpuri-pant uniforms, and the many flights of stairs give you a good, healthy sweat. Every fruit tree proudly placards its name, every hill herb has an identity there, and the rooms have no TVs. The assortment of quaint collectibles — a rabbit weather-vane here, a giant toad in the pond, Victorian adornments in the gardens — speak of a tasteful nurturing, as does the introductory note when you enter. The place, originally bought as a holiday home by writer-poet Sumant Batra, now beams with beauty fit for the kings. In the acknowledgement that is for all guests to read in the lobby, he refreshingly thanks even the ghodiwalas (horsemen) — complete with each of their names — for lugging up tirelessly the heavy antiques that make the interiors so interesting.
I am ushered to my cottage — The Long House, done up in pretty pastels and peaches and pinks— almost like a doll house. My aversion to those colours vanishes instantly — there is an unmistakable purity in the air — that of the virgin hill kind, that which takes away all your stress of the cities.
And then begins the Poetry Retreat, the one we’ve come over for. Poets Ampat Koshy, Abha Iyengar, Kamlesh Acharya, Seema Shenoy and Sangeeta Suneja all have their pens and plans out, and what follows is a magical exercise in synergy. The words flow on their own, one verse after the other, warming up the hill air before the bonfire is lit. The food is as fresh — a bite into it and you realise there was no refrigerator involved.
The next day starts with Sumit Sehgal of the literary group Butterflies and Bees urging us onto an early morning yoga session, where of course, I end up the last entrant. The guide, Sanjeen Sahni, preaches in pristine white in the activity room that has a view as vast as the one she gives you inside of you. For the more adventurous, there are organised jungle and village walks, and treks into the higher Kumaon hills.
Sitting out and staring beyond on a clear sunlit day, you’ll find the tallest of snow-covered Himalayan peaks glistening right back, with wild ravens and beasts breaking the silence as if to remind you that thankfully not all of Heaven’s sweetest apples — at least not the one you just plucked from the tree right there — are forbidden.
Dhanachuli is a seven-hour drive from Delhi depending on the traffic conditions and the time of day you start. There are three daily trains, including Shatabdi Express from Delhi to Kathgodam. Dhanachuli is a 90-minute drive from the Kathgodam station, with a benevolent view of Bhimtal and other popular tourist towns. If you’re staying at Te Aroha, the resort can arrange for a pick-up and drop to the station.