The Complete Guide To: Highland India

Beyond its glorious array of cuisines and cultures, India enjoys spectacular mountain ranges. Harriet O'Brien reveals where to take to the hills

HIMALAYAS AND HILL STATIONS?

Largely, yes. The sweep of the Himalayas in the north of India acts as a mighty wall, setting this kaleidoscope of states and territories apart from the rest of mainland Asia. And the Himalayan area contains some of the most celebrated of the remnants of the Raj: the hill retreats built by the British so that they could escape the stifling heat of the plains.

But other, less dramatic, highland ranges are located across the subcontinent, with their own hill stations. The rocky Aravallis runs along the west between Delhi and Gujarat; the Vinhyas range extends east to west across the centre of the country, roughly from Gujarat to Varanasi; while slightly further south and running roughly parallel are the Satpura hills. Ranging south from West Bengal are the Eastern Ghats, and along the west of the country, from Maharashtra almost to the very tip of Tamil Nadu, are the Western Ghats.

CAN I SKI?

Yes. Since November 2003, a ceasefire has held between India and Pakistan over the disputed territory of Kashmir, which has cautiously begun to reopen to tourism. And adventurous skiers are being attracted to the nascent ski areas here. In May, the world's highest gondola lift, reaching up about three miles, opened roughly an hour's drive from Indian Kashmir's capital, Srinagar. The lift connects the Kongdoori valley with the peak of Afarwat and provides access to "big mountain", off-piste skiing previously accessible only by hiking or by helicopter. Note, though, that the Foreign Office ( www.fco.gov.uk/travel) continues to advise against visiting the state of Jammu and Kashmir - with the exception of Ladakh, the largest district in the state.

A TASTE OF TIBET?

Make for Ladakh. Remote, majestic and rocky, it lies outside the area disputed by India and Pakistan. Geographically, it is part of the Tibetan plateau, and its challenging landscape, together with the white monasteries and prayer flags of the Mahayana Buddhist culture, make a good substitute for Tibet itself. The ancient footpaths criss-crossing Ladakh's dramatic hills and valleys offer breathtaking views.

Several UK companies arrange treks in the area. High Places (0114 275 7500; www.highplaces.co.uk) has a 19-day trip to and through Ladakh's Markha Valley. Ten days are spent walking in stark terrain, lush barley fields and high, yak-grazed pastures; and nine days are divided between Delhi and Leh, the colourful capital of the region. The holiday costs £1,800 for departures in July and August next year, including flights, internal travel, trekking costs (tents, meals, guidance, pack animals) and accommodation in Delhi and Leh.

Ladakh is by no means the only Tibetan part of India. Further south in Himachal Pradesh, Dharamsala is home to the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government-in-exile. The town originally developed as a British hill station. Since the 1960s, the upper part, still known as McLeod Ganj (or market), has been home to the refugees, complete with monasteries, meditation centres and craft outlets. Tibetans have also settled further east in the Kullu Valley, an idyllic area of orchards and terraced hills surrounded by the snow-dusted Barabhangal and Parvati Himalayan ranges. Manali, at the head of the valley, has become one of the major tourist centres of the state, offering a wide range of accommodation and activities - including trekking and rafting.

Negotiating your way around these areas on an independent trip is perfectly possible. But if you have limited time it could pay to take an organised tour. The adventure travel specialist Explore (0870 333 4001; www.explore.co.uk), for example, has a 17-day "Little Tibet" holiday departing July to September next year and taking in Leh, the spectacular drive from there to Manali, the Buddhist monasteries of Hemis and Tiksey, and Dharamsala as well as the Sikh holy city of Amritsar. The trip costs £1,299 including flights from Gatwick to Delhi, transport and accommodation.

HILL STATIONS: SOUNDS COOL

If you're after a sense of nostalgia and a taste of the burra sahibs' world of British India, you don't have to confine yourself to Simla. Northern Uttar Pradesh also retains British-built hill retreats. Mussoorie in the Garhwal district is close enough to Delhi to get somewhat unpleasantly packed during the summer, between March and July.

Naini Tal in Kumaon further east tends to be a little less crowded. Set by a lake and with wonderful countryside nearby, it remains a place of great charm. Naini Tal is also the gateway to Nanda Devi, the highest mountain completely located in India at 25,645 feet (7,817m), to the north. (Other, higher, peaks such as Kanchenjunga are partly in Nepal.) To the south-west is the Jim Corbett National Park, one of India's best wildlife reserves.

India's Leisure Hotels group offers atmospheric places to stay in the area. In Naini Tal itself, the 32-room Naini Retreat (00 91 5942 235 105) was once the residence of the Maharaja of Pilibhit. A double room costs Rp5,555 (£71), including breakfast. In the Corbett Park, the Corbett Hideaway (00 91 5947 284 132) has doubles for Rp 4,250 (£54) in thatched cottages hidden in mango groves.

Organised walking holidays include "Garhwal Heights and Tiger Trails" with Walks Worldwide (01524 242000; www.walksworldwide.com). The three-week tour includes trekking by Brahmtal Lake, with jaw-dropping views of mountains, two days at the Corbett Park; and an excursion to see the Taj Mahal at Agra. Accommodation is in hotels, village houses, camping and sleeper trains. Departures in December, February and March cost £1,585 including flights from London to Delhi, accommodation, most meals and a guide and porters.

FOR SOMETHING MORE RELAXING?

Uttar Pradesh also has Ananda in the Himalayas, voted the world's best spa in Condé Nast Traveller magazine's awards this year. Once the residence of the Maharajah of Tehri-Garhwal,* *Ananda is a 75-room hotel dedicated to beautifying the mind and body. The 80 or so treatments are provided in therapy rooms that overlook the Ganges or offer panoramas of the Himalayas. Among UK travel companies arranging trips here, Erna Low Body & Soul (020-7594 0290; www.ernalow.co.uk) has a nine-night holiday with two nights spent at the Imperial Hotel in Delhi and a week at Ananda with all meals, and including five therapies. The price of £2,130 includes flights from London to Delhi, transfers and accommodation.

TIME FOR TEA?

Make that first-flush Darjeeling. You can reach the British hill station in the foothills of India's eastern Himalayas aboard the "Toy Train", the nickname of the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway - and India's most celebrated line. On a clear day the valiant steam locomotive affords its passengers bewitching panoramas as it chugs its way up seemingly implausible gradients on its two-foot gauge.

Darjeeling is synonymous with the tea industry that developed there in the mid-19th century. Visiting the outlying tea estates and buying packets of the fine first harvest, or flush, is just one of Darjeeling's attractions. The mountain views from its crescent-shaped ridge are terrific.

In town, the nostalgic old Windamere Hotel (00 91 354 225 4041; www.windamerehotel.com) is something of an institution. It began life as a boarding house for English bachelors and is now run by the WelcomHeritage group; doubles are $152 (£84), full-board.

Alternatively, to get a fuller flavour of the area, stay on a tea estate. Audley Travel (01869 276200; www.audleytravel.com) offers a 10-day tour of north-eastern India, including four nights at the glorious Glenburn Tea Estate. This is a working tea estate about an hour's drive from Darjeeling, near the River Rungeet. It presents magnificent vistas of Mount Kanchenjunga and other Himalayan peaks, and has just six beautifully appointed guest rooms. As part of the service here, there's a naturalist on hand for all activities, from trekking to fishing, rafting and bird watching. You then move on to the Himalayan Hotel in Kalimpong, another wonderfully atmospheric building whose guest list includes many of the world's most famous mountaineers, such as Mallory, Hillary and Tenzing Norgay. The holiday costs £1,700, including flights from London to Calcutta, air travel to Bagdogra, accommodation, most meals and transport by private car.

CAN I TREK HIGH?

Head north of Darjeeling to Sikkim, which until 1975 was an independent kingdom wedged between India and Nepal. Thirty years ago, it became the second-smallest state of India (Goa is about half the size). This is a semi-secret land of ethereal Buddhist monasteries, majestic snow-capped peaks and rivers glistening with garnets. You need a special permit to visit, which is available from the Indian High Commission in London. Kanchenjunga, the third-highest mountain in the world, looms large and lovely over Sikkim. Trekking is possible in the mountain's very shadow.

Peregrine (01635 872300; www.peregrineadventures.co.uk) offers a 20-day Kanchenjunga holiday, starting and ending in Kathmandu. After a few days exploring the Nepalese capital you fly to India and the highlight of the trip - an 11-day trek up to Geocha La pass at 16,000ft (4,900m) for sensational views of Kanchenjunga. The tour costs £1,340 for departures on 2 April and 15 October next year including accommodation, trekking costs, and flights between Nepal and India. The flight from the UK to Kathmandu is excluded.

Meanwhile, Naturetrek (01962 733051; www.naturetrek.co.uk) can arrange tailormade botanical tours on a similar trekking route. Its 22-day holiday costs £2,595 including flights to Delhi, onward air travel to the north, visits to Darjeeling and Kalimpong, tours of Sikkimese monasteries, accommodation and trekking costs.

WHERE CAN I LEAVE THE WORLD BEHIND?

Make for Arunchal Pradesh on the north-eastern tip of India, bordering Bhutan, Tibet and Burma. This remote region of stupendous vegetation and amazing tribal peoples remains largely undiscovered by travellers. As with Sikkim, you need a special permit to visit. Himalayan Kingdoms (0845 330 8579; www.himalayankingdoms.com) offers four different itineraries here, the most adventurous of which is probably the Lost Pass trekking holiday. The 23-day trip includes a 10-day trek through an area barely known to the Western world. You walk along jungle paths and through tribal villages up to Riutala Pass, which, at 12,000ft, presents mesmerising views of Tibet and the eastern Himalayas. The holiday takes place in October; the price of £3,050 covers flights from London to Calcutta with four nights' accommodation there, air travel to Dibrugarh, transport to the trek departure point, and all trekking costs.

AND FOR HIGHS IN THE SOUTH?

Up in the Sahyadri range of the Western Ghats in Maharashtra, the hill station of Matheran remains in a time warp. In this appealing little retreat there is no motorised traffic, except for a miniature train that toots its way up on a two-hour journey through wonderful scenery from Neral Junction, fairly close to Mumbai. Matheran has a good choice of accommodation, but if you want a real treat book in at the Verandah in the Forest (00 91 2148 230 296; www.neemranahotels.com) just out of town. You reach this wonderful colonial mansion by horse and cart, and stay in rooms with four-poster beds and vaulted ceilings; doubles from Rs3,000 (£38).

ANY OTHER OPTIONS?

Head further south to Kerala, which offers stunning scenery in the Western Ghats bordering Tamil Nadu. In particular, the Nilgiri Hills, north of Calicut, and the Cardamom Hills, towards the very tip of India, can be breathtaking on a clear day. Colours of India (020-8343 3446; www.partnershiptravel.co.uk) has a two-week "Hilltops and Hideaways" itinerary that takes in both these areas. Two nights can be spent literally up a tree in the forests of Wyanad in the Nilgiri Hills, where local craftsmen have constructed comfortable tree houses.

Accommodation in the Cardamom hills is less unusual but no less atmospheric. You spend one night on a working cardamom estate and two nights in regal splendour at the former hunting lodge of the local maharajah; this is set by a lake in the Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary. You also spend time in Cochin, and take a rice boat tour around the Kerala backwaters. The holiday costs £2,405, including flights, transport and some meals.

WHEN SHOULD I GO?

To see the mountains, it pays to avoid cloud and rain. The monsoon breaks in the very south of India at the end of May and makes its way north during June, July and August. These months, however, are a good time to visit Ladakh in the far north-west, which lies in rainshadow above the Himalayan divide, so is unaffected by the monsoon. The optimum periods for the rest of mountainous northern India are October and November (after which life becomes more than a mite chilly) and the flower-filled spring of April and May. It's a different situation down south, which in effect gets two monsoons: the first in May to August and the second, sweeping in from the Bay of Bengal, in early October. Neither of these periods is an unappealing time to explore the hills of Kerala - November to March is the coolest, driest and most pleasant time to visit.

WHERE CAN I FIND OUT MORE?

At the Government of India Tourist Office, 7 Cork Street, London W1S 3LH (020-7437 3677; brochure line 01233 211999; www.incredibleindia.org).

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