Rude Travel by Vir Sanghvi: Is Mashobra the new Maldives?

Published on Jun 27, 2021 07:34 AM IST

This village, a few miles from Shimla, has suddenly become the coolest destination of the summer for holiday-makers

Though Wildflower Hall is a new structure, it builds on the legacy of stately homes in Mashobra
Though Wildflower Hall is a new structure, it builds on the legacy of stately homes in Mashobra

Twitter can provide the strangest insights. When I travel to somewhere picturesque I post a picture of the view from my hotel room. Sometimes, it is just a way of sharing the beauty of the location. And sometimes it becomes a game. I ask people to guess where I am.

On my first morning at Wildflower Hall, I posted a picture of the stunning views from my window as a way of saying good morning. The views are spectacular — green trees, blue skies, brown mountains, etc. — so I was not surprised when over two lakh people saw the tweet. But one reply got me thinking. It was from the travel writer Vishakha Talreja: “Mashobra is the new Maldives. Everyone on my Insta is in Mashobra.”

At first I was surprised. In my mind Mashobra is just a village outside Shimla. And Shimla is a very 1960s Hindi movie kind of place. It is now hideously over-developed and I can’t imagine anyone regarding it as the “new Maldives.”

But within a few days, I discovered that a) nobody who came to Mashobra believed that they were going to Shimla, and b) that an awfully large number of people on my timeline had been to Mashobra recently or were there at the same time as me. Many messaged or tweeted to say that they had just left Wildflower Hall.

So how had this area suddenly become such a trendy destination?

This is the ‘view from my window’ photo in the tweet that caused all the excitement
This is the ‘view from my window’ photo in the tweet that caused all the excitement

I have been to Mashobra and Wildflower Hall before. I remember the exact dates because every time I have been at Wildflower, something vaguely interesting has happened in the world at large. Way back in 2002, when the hotel had just opened and I was editing the HT, the Vajpayee government suddenly announced that APJ Abdul Kalam would be the consensus candidate for the President of India. The office kept calling from Delhi and we worked out a coverage plan over the phone.

I did not come back till July 2011. But, while I was at Wildflower that time, Rupert Murdoch announced that he was shutting his British newspaper The News of the World after a phone-hacking scandal. This was a milestone in journalistic terms and I still remember my shock when the announcement was made.

And then I did not go back to Mashobra till the second week of June this year. What I hadn’t realised was that in the decade since I had last visited, much had changed.

Yes, Shimla was a concrete mess, a town of no great interest. But the villages around Shimla had become highly desirable holiday spots. There had always been a tradition of rich North Indians owning holiday homes in the area but these could not have numbered much more than fifty. Now, the area was packed out with holiday villas, new resorts had opened (both the Taj and ITC have hotels in the region) and suddenly Mashobra was the place to go to.

Chandigarh’s Sukhvilas consists of luxury villas as well as tents in the forest that adjoins the main hotel
Chandigarh’s Sukhvilas consists of luxury villas as well as tents in the forest that adjoins the main hotel

Was it a hillside version of the seaside glamour of the Maldives? I didn’t think so. But yes, it did attract many of the people who would also have visited the Maldives in the days before the second wave, when foreign countries welcomed Indians.

Fortunately, unlike Shimla, which was destroyed by its own popularity, Mashobra and the areas around it remain unspoiled and quite ethereally beautiful. And Wildflower Hall is still the Queen of the Hills.

The property has an interesting history. Over a century before it became trendy again, Mashobra was one of the most desirable places in British India. The Viceroy, Lord Curzon, had a house in the area and Lord Kitchener, the Commander-in-Chief of the British Indian Army decided he would build one for himself. In 1902, he found a beautiful spot and built a country house over 26 acres. That country house was eventually demolished to build a 50-room hotel which, after Independence, passed to the local government. This hotel burned down in the 1990s and the Oberois were then called in.

They decided they would construct a grand new hotel, respecting the legacy of the original building but sticking to the standards of their precedent-shattering Vilas properties. Thus was built the new Wildflower Hall, the top resort in the region surrounding the foothills of the Himalayas.

As you might imagine, there is not a lot to do in Mashobra, so you are encouraged to go out and explore the beauty of the surroundings. On my first full day, a guide took me on a forest walk, pointing out trees, birds and hills till we came to a clearing where the Oberoi had set up a deluxe picnic. It was so much fun that I resolved to eat all my meals alfresco. The following day, I expanded on this resolution and decided to do everything al fresco.

The best thing to do in Mashobra is to go for picnics and to always eat al fresco
The best thing to do in Mashobra is to go for picnics and to always eat al fresco

My wife and I sat on the terrace in the shadow of the hills all day and read or worked. (I had articles to write; she had proofs to correct.) So beautiful were the surroundings that even the work seemed like fun.

At Wildflower Hall, you can expect the levels of luxury the Vilas hotels are known for. For most of us, the combination of natural beauty, of history and Oberoi-style luxury will prove irresistible. I am not sure if it is the new Maldives but it is suddenly hot and happening.

On my previous trips to Wildflower Hall, I had driven all the way from Delhi which was much too tiring. But now, there is a better way. We took a flight to Chandigarh and spent two nights at Sukhvilas, the latest Vilas. I was there a few years ago when it opened and I wondered why anyone would want to go to a Vilas in Chandigarh. My doubts were misplaced. It is now one of the best-performing resorts in the country, drawing guests from Delhi and all over Punjab.

The main hotel, which is all that was open when I first went, is rather like Jaipur’s Rajvilas, the first of the Vilas hotels. It consists of luxury villas spread out over several acres of landscaped gardens. But now, Sukhvilas has been able to build luxury tents in the forest that adjoins the main hotel. These are tents in name only: some of them have their own private gardens and swimming pools.

We stayed there on our way back from Wildflower, before we took our flight to Delhi, and the experience was totally different from the main hotel. You saw some of the 70 species of birds (including domesticated turkeys and ducks), who live in the forest, and as we took a golf cart to our tent, dozens of deer peered shyly at us through the trees.

Even with the spa shut, the hotel was doing nearly maximum occupancy. Nobody was calling it the new Maldives, but it had become an oasis of peace and luxury in the middle of the lockdown.

I often think back to the late 1990s, when Biki Oberoi opened the first Vilas properties and other hoteliers said he was mad to go so upmarket. Then, last year, when foreign tourists stopped coming to India, they predicted doom for the Vilases again. In fact, the resorts are doing fabulously well on the basis of Indian clientele.

Some of this, of course, is because it is hard to travel abroad and Indians have been forced to rediscover our own country. But as more and more people stay at the Vilases, they realise that they will never get this level of luxury at these prices anywhere else in the world.

It pleases me that Indians no longer hunger only after foreign destinations (like the Maldives). We have rediscovered our own. And realised they are even better.

The views expressed by the columnist are personal

From HT Brunch, June 27, 2021

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