Ask Vir Ask Vir

Those mist covered mountains

Are you a hill station kind of person?

I never used to be one. Mainly it is because hill stations have been destroyed by over-development. Shimla is just one example. (Though, Mashobra next door is much better.) Ooty is a mess. (Fortunately, the Army has maintained the character of Wellington, nearby). Darjeeling is a disaster – but the town has had its share of political troubles, too.


But the hill station looms large in the collective imagination of Indians. Some of this has to do with Hindi cinema where such places as Nainital were portrayed as lovely locations to play the piano or sing songs, ideally after a drink or two. Most middle-aged Bengalis have glorious memories of Darjeeling. Mumbai people will get nostalgic about Mahabaleshwar, Lonavala or Panchgani.


   I have always wondered whether India’s hill stations can be saved, if not fully revived. Nearly 20 years ago, when our own places were already in a state of collapse, I went to Sri Lanka and was impressed by the way they had maintained their hill stations. Was it too late for us to do the same?


   Sadly, it was. And since then, the decline has accelerated. But after spending over a week in Mussoorie, I am convinced that India is ready to find solutions.


   One answer is to ignore hill station streets with such names as The Mall. They have been overdeveloped and in any case, they are not filled with memories we should treasure.


   In some hill stations, the British did not allow Indians to walk on the Mall. The British Empire was not a good thing (for India, or for the world at large) so we should not be celebrating it.


   However, the British did leave behind some things of value which we should preserve. The idea of a hill station itself is not bad. I was very glad to escape the blistering heat of Delhi and go to Mussoorie, where the day time temperature was 15ºc. Because of the pandemic, it made sense to go somewhere that was not crowded and I could escape unwanted human contact.


   One of the big differences between Lankan hill stations and ours (at least when I went there) was that they had wonderful old hotels. With the exception of Shimla, where the Oberois are sentimentally attached to the Oberoi Cecil because it was MS Oberoi’s first hotel, most Indian hill station hotels are now not very good.


   So, I was pleasantly surprised to see that The Savoy, for a century Mussoorie’s greatest hotel, had now been restored to its former glory. The property opened in 1902 (the first year in which motor cars were allowed into Mussoorie), was spread over acres and acres of gardens and soon became one of India’s greatest hill station hotels. Everybody who was anybody, from Motilal Nehru to Haile Selassie to the Shah of Iran, stayed there and it hosted all the usual Raj events. Black tie balls, dances, award presentations, etc.


"The Savoy will get plusher. The plans include new luxury suites, another restaurant and even, in land owned by The Savoy, a helipad."

   Post Independence, when the Brits went home, The Savoy earned new fame as the hotel where the Delhi rich would go for their vacations and where Bollywood would come to shoot its song sequences. Over 50 movies have been shot at The Savoy.


   The new guests did not care too much about the history or the legends surrounding the hotel. Nobody bothered with the story that a murder at The Savoy formed the basis of Agatha Christie’s first murder mystery, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, which introduced Hercule Poirot. Rumour has it that the ghost of the murder victim still haunts the hotel. (Sadly, though I spent five days looking for the ghost, the only spirit I found was vodka!)


   The Savoy now belongs to KK Kaya and his associates, after a bad period during which it was shuttered. The new owners have spent crores refurbishing and restoring the hotel in collaboration with ITC’s Welcomgroup (the full name of the hotel is Welcomhotel The Savoy) and with each year, the property gets better and better.


   As much as I loathe the Raj, I love a hotel with a sense of history and as the improvements continue, The Savoy will get plusher. The plans include new luxury suites, another restaurant and even, in land owned by The Savoy, a helipad.


  The JW Marriott is a modern structure so it has to make its own history. Owned by Raj Chopra, a respected Delhi figure with interests in everything from automobiles to movies, the hotel makes up for its main building (which can look a little like an all-inclusive hotel in Benidorm) by creating plush and comfortable interiors and by making the most of its spectacular location.


   I was in Mussoorie to spend the period after my second vaccine jab before the antibodies kicked in. Delhi, my doctor said, was too full of infections for an elderly bozo like me to take any chances. The JW was perfect for those purposes.


   Each morning when I drew my curtains I would be astonished by the cool and lonely splendour of the view. It was, quite simply, spectacular.


   The JW Marriott’s way of coping with the deterioration of Mussoorie is to encourage people not to spend too long in the town (which is some distance away from the hotel), but to explore the natural beauty around Mussoorie. They will take you on picnics, encourage you to enjoy nature and let the hills speak for themselves.


   The hotel restaurants are either open-air or have al fresco areas, which is much safer in these times. I ate delicious quiches at the flower-filled greenhouse, had one of the best pizzas in North India at the open air Italian restaurant and feasted on freshly-caught Himalayan trout under the stars.


   As good as the hotel was, the real revelation for me was the food. The chef incorporates local ingredients from nettle grass to natural grains into everything making the cuisine delicious and different.


   Both The Savoy and the JW Marriott are exceptionally well-run: The Savoy by Gautam Valli and the JW by Sachin Mylavarapu, who I know from his time at Mumbai’s St. Regis. It is an odd feeling to find such well-managed places in our hill stations where the average property (outside of Shimla) used to be a second-rate establishment run by a guy who couldn’t get a job at a proper hotel.


   It is one sign of how hill stations are changing. I don’t know how long this current Covid wave will last but even if it does, there is a case for driving out of the heavily infected big cities and seeking isolation and comfort in nature.


   Does the renaissance of Mussoorie herald a new beginning for India’s hill stations, one based on avoiding the over-developed town areas and staying in quality hotels and enjoying nature?


   It may well do. This time I went to serve out my post-jab period. But when this terrible pandemic recedes, perhaps we can all go to the hills and commune with nature.



Posted On: 01 May 2021 11:45 AM
Your email id will not be published.
Security code:
Captcha Enter the code shown above:
Your email id will not be published.
Friend's Name:
Friend's E-mail:
Your email id will not be published.
The Message text:
This email was created by [your name] who thought you would be interested in the following Article:

A Vir Sanghvi Article Information

The Vir Sanghvi also contains hundreds of articles.

Additional Text:
Security code:
Captcha Enter the code shown above:

CommentsOther Articles

See All

Ask VirRead all

Connect with Virtwitter

@virsanghvi on
Vir Sanghvi