Cosy little cottages and heritage homestays run by enterprising couples are attracting the avid Indian traveller far more than jazzy resorts with spas.
Radhika Gupta woke up at the brink of dawn to find something scratching at the door. The staff had warned her that wild animals often strayed into the cottage area, but nothing had prepared her for the vision that greeted her when she tiptoed to the door. As the rays of a still groggy sun trickled through the gentle mist, she saw a beautiful barking deer mirroring her curiosity in his big brown eyes. “God only knows how long I must have stood like that. That’s Jilling estate for you. You are always greeted with the unexpected,” she chuckles.
And many, like Radhika, are falling for the charms of the unexpected and heading to these ‘non-hotel’ getaways. The increasing demand for such establishments has provided a feasible alternative for enterprising young couples who want to leave behind the monotonous humdrum of their city lives. A number of such dynamic husband-wife teams have thrown open cosy little spaces in various nooks and corners of the country. From a quaint little cottage in a heavily-wooded estate in Kumaon to a traditional, ancestral home in Kerala, a rough-it-out wildlife camp to a farm complete with livestock in the northeast, each of these spaces is infused with the unique warmth and vitality of these couples.
Take Jilling, for instance, where run-ins with the wild are common. Run by ex-Air Force man Steve Lall and his wife Parvati, the estate offers guests a chance to be at one with nature while sampling all the comforts of a Kumaoni home. Not to forget their six delightful dogs—Muchchi, Dhanno, Lalu, Jilli, Kali and Bhontu—who welcome you into their abode with hearty barks.
The discerning traveller prefers to give the commercial buzz of neighbouring Nainital a miss and head for Jilling where telephones, traffic and televisions are kept out with a vengeance. In this heavily-wooded estate, you end up finding that most coveted and elusive of commodities—peace. This, and the promise of warmth and personal attention, is making many pass up the fancier resorts of hotel chains, replete with their homogenised rooms, dispassionate service and mandatory spas.
“Travellers from within the country and abroad want a more real and wholesome experience. Large hotel establishments are sometimes not able to offer insights into local food and culture. A homestay or a small establishment is able to do this better,” says Ashish Gupta, director of traveltocare.com, a site that helps independent travellers get information about sustainable and responsible holidays in popular yet less-known places in Asia. “Earlier, only retired couples earlier ran such establishments, now younger people have also jumped into the fray,” he adds.
And unlike lavish set-ups where the owner resides elsewhere, leaving behind a manager to supervise things, these couples believe in the DIY creed of hands-on participation. From choosing the colour of the linen to ensuring each guest has the fruit of his/her choice, they are involved in every aspect of the guest’s stay. Some, like Ritish and Minakshi Suri of Camp Forktail Creek, Corbett, have even designed the entire place on their own, without a designer or an architect. “God knows how many drafts we worked on,” grins Minakshi.
And the freshness of their amateur vision shines through. A profusion of green greets the eye as soon as you enter the camp. Nature has not been interfered with. Stand warned, though, that this means calls from the wild at odd times. You just might find an elephant peering down at you as you read, or a leopard growling nearby while you eat. “Sometimes elephants just come and stand under a mango tree outside the kitchen. We used to try to shoo them away but now we just watch,” says Minakshi.
Camp Forktail is a whiff of fresh air amid the commercialised properties that have sprung up in Corbett. “None of the others are serious about wildlife. You can hear loud music and noise coming from those properties, which disturbs the animals,” says Ritish.
THE ACCIDENTAL HOTELIERS
Most of these couples are not hoteliers by profession. “When Bindu and I started The Fishermen’s Lodge in Bhimtal in November last year, we simply wanted to share our lifestyle with a lot of people. Stuff that we have at home—good cooking, baking our own bread, good music,” says Bunti Bakshi, a Delhi-based entrepreneur. And though barely a couple of months old, the lodge has already got quite a few repeat visitors.
Bunti and Bindu have chosen not to market the place through travel agents. Instead, they rely on word-of-mouth publicity. Guests are urged to feel at home. “Kids want cakes and hot chocolate at odd times of the day. If it were a hotel, they would charge for every little thing, but we don’t. When Bunti got to know that it was an Irish guest’s anniversary, he took out a bottle of champagne from his own collection and organised a romantic candlelight dinner. No one I know does that,” says Bindu. Every Thursday, you find Bunti on a train to Bhimtal, laden with goodies for guests. “Most guests come for the weekend and I like to be around,” he adds. And for all this, all the couple expects in return is that you don’t spoil their property or disturb other guests.
It’s working, clearly. Their personal touch has the guests raving about the place. “The view of the lake from the lodge was so soothing that our tiredness simply melted away. The beautiful interiors, the subtle smell of cedar and Bunty’s citrus-tossed salad all made for an inspired break,” says Delhi-based Madhumita Sharma, who visited the lodge recently.
The changing profile of the Indian traveller also has a lot to do with the shift towards ‘non-hotels’. While young professionals earlier took only one big holiday in a year, they now take frequent short trips. “Though people still want to go abroad, they have also realised there’s a treasure trove of gorgeous destinations in India. And they want to experience it as it is,” says Minakshi, who regularly plays host to a lot of young filmmakers and photographers.
This fascination with smaller, cosier and more intimate arrangements hasn’t come about suddenly. Even five years ago, travellers would approach these places with scepticism. ‘No room service’ was known to raise many an eyebrow and many were apprehensive about staying in other people’s homes. It is only in the last three years that positive word-of-mouth reviews have convinced people of the potential of these places.
Take the Arakal Heritage in Alappuzha, for instance. Run by the husband-wife duo of Aby and Mini Arakal, this ancestral home was opened to guests some ten years ago. But it is only in the last couple of years that foreign tourists and Indian nationals have discovered this tiny gem tucked away in the backwaters of Kerala. And it seems guests just can’t get enough of Mini’s traditional meals and Aby’s anecdotes about the many film crews that have shot there.
“The ‘Incredible India’ ad was shot here and so was a film by Bharat Bala,” says Aby. Most guests can be found sunning themselves on the beach, a mere three minute walk away from the huts. Aby also organises small fishing trips with local fisherfolk. “I am basically a farmer and have some 15 acres of coconut plantation. I used to have a side business that wasn’t doing so well. Thankfully, this homestay has picked up,” says Aby.
Farms seem to be the latest favourite in homestays. Living on a farm with its cows, chickens and geese, and helping the family with daily chores fascinates people endlessly. Just ask Thendup Tashi whose Yangsum Heritage Farm is in Sikkim. The ancestral home, built in 1833, opened up to guests five years ago. “After my parents passed away, there was no one to stay here. So my wife and I decided to look after the farm,” says Thendup, who used to teach local children.
Guests can help the young couple grow organic veggies on the farm. There are also lovely walks to nearby villages and monasteries. “When we first started, we would hardly get guests. However, word-of-mouth publicity and Internet reviews created a buzz around the farm,” says Thendup. Now, Yangsum Farm attracts visitors not just from Bengal but from as far as Bangalore, Chennai, Mumbai and Delhi.
Italian poet Cesare Pavese had once said, “Travelling is a brutality. It forces you to trust strangers and to lose sight of all that familiar comfort of home and friends.” But warm, personal spaces like these seek to stimulate the imagination by offering a close encounter with reality. And instead of thinking about how things may be, you are given a glimpse of what they really are. So welcome home.