Go On, Get Out of Here

A selection of 25 choice holidays for the season
ESCAPE
HAVE A SPLASH: You can take the über-cultural route in Austria, or just chill out in the lap of nature (Photo: CORBIS)
Monsoon carnival in Wayanad
Munnar’s mist-kissed tea estates
A slice of history in Fort Kochi
Take a round of heritage city Udaipur
Go on a monastery tour of Leh
Go trekking in Gulmarg while the weather is still gorgeous
Check out eco-tourism in Coorg
There is something romantic about the ‘toy train’ ride to Shimla
Apart from a cup of Darjeeling tea, enjoy a ‘toy train’ ride in the hills
It’s the ideal time to tour Masai territory in Tanzania

It is June and the weather is a little all over the place, if you get our drift. Rain-soaked clouds are preparing to burst over Kerala, and soon they will be moving across South India, but it will be a month and more before they drift northwards and cover the Subcontinent. For a good while yet, summer still holds sway over the north of the country.

Whether you’re beleaguered by the sun or the monsoon, however, the urge to ‘get out of here’ is a pan-Indian one. To retreat from the heat, take your pick from a rich array of hill stations. As for the rain, there are two ways to tackle it: hole yourself up in those rare rain shadow patches where there’s no precipitation, or better still, embrace it... chase the monsoon, seek out those spots that thrive on bountiful showers. Or there is yet another way to get away: zip off to a completely different climate altogether... an Arctic summer, or even winter in the southern hemisphere. Open brings you a selection of 25 choice holidays for the season

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UDAIPUR, RAJASTHAN

You wouldn’t think rain and Rajasthan in the same breath, but the truth is the monsoon renders the stately city of Udaipur even more gracious than usual. The rains fill up the city’s numerous lakes, and the beautiful Lake Pichola—with the famous heritage Lake Palace island—is a wonderful sight. Udaipur has more heritage than you can reasonably handle, but you absolutely must see the magnificent City Palace complex, the largest of its kind in Rajasthan. A fusion of Rajasthani, Mughal, European and Chinese architectural styles, this complex was started by Maharana Udai Singh in 1559 and added to by a succession of 76 rulers since. The result is an agglomeration of structures that include 11 separate palaces. As is customary, they all face east—since Sisodia Rajputs are sun worshippers. Inside, these buildings are interlinked through a number of chowks with zigzag corridors. By the palace, don’t miss Jagdish Temple, a 17th century temple to Vishnu. Also include Sajjan Garh, a monsoon palace built on an elevation by Maharana Sajjan Singh that offers a panoramic overview of the city’s lakes, palaces and countryside.

DARJEELING, WEST BENGAL

The very name evokes a sense of delicate gentility—it has come to mean a light fragrant tea of refined flavour. But Darjeeling is more than its finest produce—it is quite simply a fabulous hill station. The town and its surrounding areas were gifted to the East India Company by the Chogyal of Sikkim in 1835 and its slopes were found to be particularly well suited to growing tea. There are plenty of trekking opportunities in these hills, and among the other touristy things to do is explore the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, a UNESCO World Heritage site that was opened in 1881. Wander about this lovely Victorian town, catch the views from Tiger Hill (from where, if you’re lucky, you can catch sight of Mt Everest and Mt Kanchenjunga), visit the pagoda-style Dhirdham Temple, and, of course, buy some Darjeeling.

LEH, LADAKH

The high-altitude desert of Ladakh is among the most forbidding and yet most beautiful landscapes on earth. It is, in a word, mesmerising. Its capital Leh, a beautiful historical trade town located on the great river Indus, makes for an ideal destination this time of year because it doesn’t get too much rain. As soon as you’ve settled your high- altitude unease, wander about the town’s wonderfully vibrant market, and visit the Royal Palace built by King Sengge Namgyal in the 17th century. A little further afield, the Shey and Thiksey monasteries must make it to your list of sights.

FORT KOCHI, KERALA

Looming dark clouds, fat raindrops, bolts of lightning that sunder the skies... the first glimpse of the monsoon is always Kerala’s privilege. Fort Kochi is a beautiful place to be when this happens. There’s plenty to see and do in this historic town. With incursions by the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British, there were several European influences here—and you’ll find them all in St Francis Church, India’s first European church. It used to be a Roman Catholic Church during Portuguese rule, became a protestant Church under the Dutch and metamorphosed into an Anglican Church under the British. Visit neighbouring Mattancherry, stroll around Jew Town, shop for antiques, see the local synagogue and the Dutch Palace and don’t leave Kochi without admiring the wonderful Chinese fishing nets or cheenavaala in use.

MUNNAR, KERALA

No fewer than three rivers—the Madupetti, Nallathanni and Periavaru—flow through this charming hill town, giving it its name ‘moonu aar’ or ‘three rivers’. Munnar’s history involves the British, who discovered it, and then, it involves tea. So, when you’re done strolling through its salubrious pathways, looking around at mist-kissed green hills, you should visit the Kolukkumalai Tea Factory, 38 km from Munnar. Also, dive into the Tata Tea Museum at the Nullathani Tea Estate. After that homage to the world’s favourite brew, the Atukkad Waterfalls are particularly scenic, and Chithirapuram (10 km from Munnar), once the retreat of the Royal Family of Travancore, is full of heritage bungalows that reek of the old world.

WAYANAD, KERALA

The pleasures of this hill district in North Kerala are the quiet, deeply satisfying kind. Find a nice homestay, laze, eat, walk, go birdwatching... If you’re inclined to see the sights, make a trip to the ancient Edakkal Caves in the Ambukuthi hills, 25 km from Kalpetta. Or frolic at Meenmutty Falls, one of the largest waterfalls in Kerala. And if you happen to be in Wayanad in the second week of July, join in the revelry at the tourism department’s monsoon carnival, Splash.

PERIYAR, KERALA

Most national parks and forest reserves in India are closed for the monsoon months—but not Periyar. It is true that sightings during the rains are fewer, but if you’ll be content with the immense beauty around you and grateful for a chance to simply be in the wild, you’ll find this National Park very rewarding. The roads and trails are iffy in this season, but boat safaris on the lake make for a very scenic alternative. And then, there’s always the chance of stumbling upon elephants.

BINSAR, UTTARAKHAND

Binsar in Uttarakhand’s Kumaon Hills is a lovely hamlet that lets you set your own pace. The Binsar Wildlife Sanctuary is home to some exotic bird species as well as leopards; besides, it offers some fantastic views of the Great Himalayan mountain ranges as well as the Nanda Devi peak. Do a round of some wonderful temples to Shiva (don’t miss the 16th-century Bineshwar Mahadev temple), or just walk, walk, walk along any of these gorgeous trails.

SPITI VALLEY, HIMACHAL PRADESH

Bound by snow for most of the year, this beautiful and desolate valley on the Indo-Tibet border opens up each year for a short while between June and September. At an elevation of more than 4,000 metres, Spiti Valley (‘the middle land’) is an imposing landscape—high naked ridges, vast barren slopes, clear cloudless skies... It lies to the north of the Pir Panjal range and falls in the rain shadow area, so it hardly ever rains here. Experience the hospitality of local homestays, plan a trip to the beautiful Chandratal lake, explore the breathtaking architecture of centuries-old monasteries, crane your neck at ancient forts that hug the craggy precipices, and visit the Pin Valley National Park for some rare high-altitude flora and fauna.

CHERRAPUNJI, MEGHALAYA

If you’ve decided on the ‘embrace the rain’ route to tackling the weather, then Cherrapunji must be on your shortlist of options. The title of the ‘wettest place on earth’ is taken every year by one of two places in Meghalaya: either Cherrapunji or its neighbour Mawsynram. The green of the verdure and the white of mist and spray... catch some lovely views of the Cherra cliffs at the Eco Park at Nongrum and catch a small glimpse of Meghalaya’s labyrinthine limestone caves at Mawsmai. And while you’re here, you simply must trek to one of several living-root bridges in these parts. ‘Jingkieng deingjri’, as they’re called, are roots of the rubber tree, guided to form bridges over gushing monsoon streams.

SHIMLA, HIMACHAL PRADESH

When it comes to great destinations, you could step off the trodden paths, blaze trails into the unknown and discover for yourself the wondrous beauties of nature. Or you could just latch on to other people who’re brilliant at precisely that sort of thing. In other words, the sahibs of the erstwhile Raj, who knew a good place when they spotted one. And then went about adding wonderful infrastructure to make it habitable. Take Shimla, which they ‘discovered’ in 1819—and where they made themselves quite at home. This gorgeous hill station became their summer capital and is still one of the most evocative remnants of the British Raj. You’ll get views of snow-clad peaks, green meadows, Victorian architecture, charming bazaars and the historic centre which is almost entirely a pedestrian shopping mall—an area so famous that its mention inevitably follows within a few sentences after the word ‘Shimla’ has been uttered. Take the ‘toy train’ from Kalka, walk around the mall, admire the heritage Gaiety Theatre, saunter to Christ Church, venture out to Chadwick Falls and take in some of the town’s wonderful museums. And if people tell you Shimla’s a cliché, say it’s a classic.

NAINITAL, UTTARAKHAND

Nainital, up in the hills of Uttarakhand, is named after the lake that forms its centrepiece, and, for the sake of nostalgia and countless movies that have been filmed here, you should take a boat ride on the lake. Walk about the town, admire the colonial-era architecture, visit the Aryabhatta observatory, take in a few churches, trudge up to Naina Peak, and don’t miss the hill town’s zoo.

COORG, KARNATAKA

Set in the lush Western Ghats, with views of verdant hills, unending slopes of spice plantations and hospitable people, Kodagu or Coorg in southwest Karnataka is a beautiful place. Madikeri, its capital, has been dubbed ‘the Scotland of India’. Catch the sunset from Raja’s Seat, visit the temple at Bhagmandala, the Buddhist monastery at Bylekuppe, and see for yourself the origins of the great Cauvery River at Talacauvery.

GULMARG, KASHMIR

Gulmarg may save skiing, its choicest treat, for winter, but the summer delights of this ‘flower-meadow’ are special too. Glorious weather, scenic mountains in any direction you care to look and a host of things to do. At 2,690 metres, Gulmarg has one of the highest gondolas in the world—a two-phase cable lift from Gulmarg to Kongdoori mountain. From up there, look for the famous Nanga Parbat, the eighth highest mountain peak in the world. Besides, Gulmarg offers some wonderful treks in the area and downhill trails for mountain biking as well. It adds yet another ‘highest’ to its kitty—a magnificent 18-hole golf course that has wild flowers in bloom in summer. The Alpather Lake, the shrine of Baba Reshi, the old Shiva mandir... there’s lots to admire.

MANALI, HIMACHAL PRADESH

There are many reasons to head out to Manali, particularly if your city is sweltering. At 2,050 metres in the Kullu valley, this multi-faceted hill station is located on the river Beas and quite a hit with adventure seekers. Not only is it a crucial staging point for an impressive variety of treks, it allows for white water rafting and rock-climbing. Besides, NH21, the highway from Manali to Leh via the valley of Lahaul and Spiti, is one of the most beautiful routes in the country and a perennial favourite with bikers. But that’s not to say Manali won’t please the family or the more sedentary holidaymaker, no sir! Drive up to Rohtang Pass (3,978 metres) for spectacular panoramic views, explore Old Manali, or visit a rare temple to Manu who gives the town its name. Take in the four-storey wooden temple to Hidimba Devi, or go up to Vashisht to soak in the medicinal hot springs there. Or better still, eat! Manali boasts of some excellent food and restaurants that serve many cuisines.

MANDU, MADHYA PRADESH

The romance associated with Mandu or Mandavgarh is quite out of the common way. The hilltop fort in Madhya Pradesh, which overlooks the plateau of Malwa, has layer upon layer of history. It was a favourite with the Mughals as a monsoon retreat. Emperor Jehangir is supposed to have confessed: “I know of no other place that is so pleasant in climate and with such attractive scenery as Mandu in the rainy season.” Mandu’s lore is full of the epic love story of warrior-poet Baz Bahadur and his consort, the beautiful Roopmati. It ends tragically but Mandu carries the tale of their love in the beautiful structures it retains—the fort, which an impressive 82 km in perimeter contains ruins of palaces, canals, baths, pavilions... all of which provide a fabulous vantage to view rainstorms from. Among the points you should touch is Jahaz Mahal, which is flanked by lakes on either side, making it appear like a ship. Then there is the architectural marvel, Hindola Mahal, with its sloping walls; the Jama Masjid; the tomb of Hoshang Shah, a monument built on Afghan lines and said to be the inspiration for the Taj Mahal. Don’t miss the high-perched Roopmati Pavilion, which allowed her a view of Baz Bahadur’s imposing palace on the lower levels.

GOA

The monsoons are ‘off season’ in Goa. It rains rather a lot, the shacks shut down, the fishermen don’t venture into sea, you can’t swim in the sea, the beaches are deserted and there are no flea markets... so why is Goa in the monsoon a good idea again? Because, for one, the landscape is glorious. The grey of stormy seas is offset by the luxuriant green of foliage – the world renews itself again. The tourists have gone and it’s time for the locals to relax and put their feet up. Find a nice homestay that’ll feed you, and just be there... occupy a comfortable armchair and watch the clouds roll in. When you’ve had enough of that, go white water rafting on the Mahdei-Surla rivers or join in the many festivals Goans treat themselves to during this season.

COONUR, TAMIL NADU

The hill stations of Nilgiris easily rival those of the Himalayan foothills for charm and atmosphere. If you think Ooty is a bit too crowded, then the place for you is Coonoor. There are many wonderful trails to walk along, the local toy train will delight your children (and the child in you), there are wildflowers everywhere and an abundance of hill birds. Spend some time at the botanical garden Sim’s Park, take photographs of panoramic views from various points and be sure to visit the 16th-century Droog Fort, 13 km from town.

BUXA, WEST BENGAL

The name is dooar – meaning ‘doorway’ in Assamese/Bengali/Nepali, a name given to 18 passages or gateways that connected Bhutan to the floodplains and foothills of the eastern Himalayas. And when it rains—and it rains a lot here—words don’t do justice. Travelogues about the dooars in the monsoon tend to sound extraordinarily poetic and you’ll come across the words ‘lush’, ‘verdant’ and ‘green’ rather a lot. The sanctuaries and parks are closed for the monsoon months but that doesn’t mean you can’t experience the dooars. As an example, base yourself in Rajabhatkhawa just outside Buxa Tiger Reserve, watch birds, visit the village of Jayanti, pay obeisance to the Mahakal temple, fit in the historical Buxa fort. Or cast your net wider and explore a larger swathe of the dooars: Mongpong, Murti, Samsing, Suntalekhola... they’re all worth it.

MATHERAN, MAHARASHTRA

Located in Maharashtra’s Raigad district, Matheran is a delightful Western Ghats hill station that should find favour with you in any season. Plus, it happens to be one of those rare hill towns where motor vehicles are restricted from entry—you get around on foot, horseback or man-drawn rickshaws. But first things first: you must strain every nerve to travel by the 2-ft-gauge toy train that runs from Neral to Matheran for the breathtaking views it offers. In the town, there are scores of look-out points that give you a bird’s eye view of the valley. Make sure to include the lovely Charlotte Lake in your meanderings, as well as the ancient Pisarnath temple nearby.

VALLEY OF FLOWERS, UTTARAKHAND

Rain does something magical to a remote, far flung corner of Uttarakhand. Snow bound for most of the year, summer opens up the route to the Valley of Flowers, a high altitude valley known for its variety of flora. About 520 alpine plants and close to 500 species of flowers grow in these regions, many of them rare and endemic. In the rains, the valley wears a veritable carpet of flowers, set off to stunning effect against the snow capped mountains. You’re likely to find the Brahmakamal (the state flower of Uttarakhand) here, as well as the blue poppy and the cobra lily. It takes a 17 km trek from Govindghat, near Joshimath, but this UNESCO World Heritage Site is worth every arduous step.

AUSTRIA

Summer has a different connotation altogether when you’re talking of Europe. With every country and its capital beckoning the Sybarites, there is what is generally termed ‘an embarrassment of riches’. But why not go the über-cultural route and zoom in on Austria? Concerts, theatre, opera, museums, cathedrals, palaces... enough to satiate the most ravenous culture vulture. Go to Salzburg, the birthplace of Mozart, appreciate its fine baroque architecture, walk around its historic centre and take The Sound of Music tour. And do stop at Vienna, see its imperial palaces, shuffle around a museum or ten, and don’t forget to book your ticket to a musical.

AUSTRALIA

If a complete change of scene is what you need, you’ll have to turn the world upside down. Head to the southern hemisphere for a taste of winter, a time when there is a cornucopia of marvels to explore in Australia. Luckily, the continent’s northeastern coast is warmer—in fact, it’s the perfect time to visit the Great Barrier Reef, go snorkelling or diving in this gorgeous hotspot for marine life. Around Cairns, tour the magnificent Daintree rainforests which preserves major stages of the earth’s evolutionary history. Winter is also the perfect time for an epic Australian journey: take ‘The Track’ or Stuart Highway which connects tropical Darwin to Alice Springs and Uluru (Ayer’s Rock) through the Northern Territory Outback. Or perhaps you’d prefer to explore Western Australia, where more than 12,000 wildflower species—including native hibiscus, bluebells, sticky cassia, and native fuchsia—explode across the state. Alternatively, you could go completely urban and do the rounds of Melbourne and Sydney. Or then maybe you’d like a chilly winter after all, in which case you should head south to Tasmania’s snowfields, skiing down the powdered slopes of Legges Tor in Ben Lomond National Park or in Mount Field National Park.

ALASKA, USA

If you are thinking of making a getaway, why not be thorough? This time of year is absolutely perfect for a family cruise around Alaska. Cruises range from six-day tours to month-long ones. You’ll find the days warm and long (about 14 to 18 hours of daylight)—allowing you to maximise on your sightseeing. Expect to see plenty of wildlife (moose, caribou, humpback and killer whales), and many cruise routes allow you glimpses of some of Alaska’s magnificent mountains and glaciers. Plus, there’s plenty of Alaskan history to glean. It’s all good.