Being someone who gravitates towards quiet, wild places, I never set my sight on the hilly town of Shimla which is chock-a-block with tourists and archetypal honeymooners all year round. However, a bleisure trip with my parents to Himachal Pradesh led me to spend two nights at Sunnymead Estate, a 200-year-old family cottage converted into a boutique, residence-style lodge.
Living a European fairytale
Elegantly sitting downhill from the arterial Cart Road, on the edge of an oak and rhododendron Reserve Forest, Sunnymead is one of the older surviving residences of Shimla. Since the road to the front door of our temporary home isn't motorable, we unload the taxi at the main gate and take the stone path that leads us straight to our family suite on the first floor where we are welcomed by Madhavi Bhatia, the affable owner and chief guardian of the charming wood and stone mansion with bay windows. Sporting a Kashmiri pheran, Madhavi displays warmth and aura that instantly makes you feel at home. She lives here with her furry family members — two cats and three dogs, chief house help Deepak, assistants-cum-gardeners Motilal, Ritu and Madhu who rustle up some delicious food.
Straight out of a European fairytale, the building maintains the traditional Dhajji architecture and lime wash. The white cottage, rich in history and personality, comes alive with floral delights like ornamental plums, lilies, camellias, primulas, mallows, geraniums, muscaris among others. Spread across an area of around four acres, the property's on-site garden grows everything from berries and basil to lemons, tomatoes and dill, most of which is used in decor as well as in the kitchen to put together a fantastic gastronomic experience.
Rooms that take you back in time
We settle in our suite which comprises Tara — the double, balcony room facing the Tara Devi mountain, and the Forest Room — a twin-bedded room overlooking the misty forest. Both rooms have a lot going on for someone who appreciates little details in the decor. Wooden ceilings, carved, wooden four-poster beds and settees, rich carpets, floral curtains and pastel upholstery, table lamps which are converted kerosene burners, 19th-century original watercolour paintings, cloisonne pieces, and dainty ceramic crockery, framed monochrome photographs of the family members; the suite takes you back in time.
Other than the family suite, there are two other guest rooms — The Oak Tree and The Bay Window which is a single room, ideal for a solo traveller. Each room at Sunnymead has a fireplace and a mini library with an eclectic collection of books.
Both placid and intellectually invigorating, Sunnymead Estate is a place where writers and poets, muse and artists find inspiration. No wonder Madhavi quit her successful career in Delhi and settled in the hilly town of Shimla only to conserve the family heritage home where her aunt was born and raised. "Built sometime in the 1800s, this estate was often used as a summer house by our family. When my aunt passed away, I found it difficult to sell the estate and do away with all the memories we created here over the years. Hence, I moved here from Delhi and had the property restored in about two years to run it as a B&B and share it with like-minded people," shares Madhavi.
It's time for a luncheon in the ambient dining room with a beautifully-restored Kashmiri embroidered wall piece as its highlight. Located on the ground floor of the house, it opens onto a small verandah and the front garden. Our hearty gourmet lunch consisted of tomato soup, house-special feta cheese, focaccia, grilled potatoes with lettuce and olive, garlic and honey dressing, chicken and paneer steak with house sauce and oh-so-delectable coffee cake — everything made from scratch.
They serve both Indian and American breakfasts. Think piping hot parathas, homemade poha, granola, stewed fruits, yoghurt, delish egg preparations, freshly-baked buns and more. Meals at Sunnymead are fit for royalty! Madhavi personally supervises every meal which gives us a chance to know a lot more about the story behind her ancestral home as well as the town of Shimla which is very close to her heart.
We pick up the old-school, hand-drawn map placed in our suite and set out to explore some places around the property. Here are the must-dos:
1. Take a guided tour of the Viceregal Lodge
One of the most historically significant and architecturally impressive buildings, Viceregal Lodge, also known as Rashtrapati Niwas, was formerly the summer residence of the British Viceroy of India Lord Dufferin and the scene of two crucial conferences (1945 and 1946) that sealed the partition of India. Occupying an entire hill, it is designed by British architect Henry Irwin and built in the Jacobethan style using local pine and cedar wood.
For a look inside the Scottish castle-like lodge, you must join a guided group tour that takes you around different rooms with a brief explanation about each. Some of the striking features are the reception hall with a splendid fireplace and a grand spiralling staircase, a vintage piano with keys made of the valuable elephant tusk and precious articles and photographs going back to British rule in India. The rest of this grey sandstone building houses the Indian Institute of Advanced Study where the massive library occupies the old ballroom and more. If you're not taking the house tour, a stroll around the manicured gardens is a good idea.
2. Grab a cup of coffee at the iconic Indian Coffee House
Established in 1957, the iconic Indian Coffee House humbly sits on Shimla's Mall Road and offers piping hot idlis, sandwiches, burgers, filter coffee, tea and more. Retaining a colonial charm, this place is always packed with locals; men sporting vibrant Himachali topis are often seen engrossed in a conversation over their favourite brew. Plan a light breakfast or a quick mid-day coffee break at this historic cafe.
3. Consider a walking tour with a historian
If you're someone who is looking at delving deeper into the history and fabric of Shimla, consider a walking tour with Sumit Raj, historian and founder of Shimla Walks. The tour takes you back 200 years, with lovely stories of the city's creation and development.
It begins at the Ridge and covers some of the notable places including the Neo-Gothic Gaiety Theatre. Several Indian and foreign actors have performed here, including Rudyard Kipling who participated in the first play to be staged here called Time Will Tell.
Your next stop is the Town Hall, a huge building that houses the offices of the Municipal Corporation. You then proceed to Scandal Point which is not only a popular meeting point but also a place that has several stories hidden in its bosom. Among other stops on the tour are architectural gems like the Railway Board Building and the Cecil Hotel.
4. Spend some quiet moments inside Christ Church
One can easily say that Christ Church is among the most treasured landmarks in Shimla. A beautiful butter-yellow building, it is the oldest Anglican Church in North India and the most photographed building in the city. Its frescoes were designed by famous writer Rudyard Kipling’s father Lockwood Kipling. The cornerstone of this Church was laid in 1844 but it was opened to the general public only in 1857. When here, don't miss observing the gorgeous Victorian stained-glass work. Take in the serenity by lighting a candle and spending some moments in silence.
5. Take in the sunset at the scenic Shimla Brewing Company
Imagine enjoying the sunset while sipping your beer, seated on a hammock, suspended 2,270 ft in the air! With ample unique seating options, quirky interiors and a long bar, Shimla Brewing Company is located in the Willow Banks estate which dates back to 1871. It offers delicious pizzas, continental fare and a range of craft beers with a burst of freshness. Choose from their Belgian wit, blonde, dark ale and apple cider. Made using crisp apples that are freshly picked from the orchards of Himachal, apple cider is a favourite among tourists. Drop in post-noon and stay until the sun goes down to be treated to mesmerising panoramic views of the Lego-like Shimla town.
Shop for all things local and authentic at the Mall Road
The maze-like alleyways of Shimla's Mall Road are flooded with shops selling everything under the sun but few sell authentic, locally-made products. If you're looking for edible souvenirs, head to Minchy's. It processes Shimla's abundant wealth of fruits into delicious, high-quality gourmet products like juices, chutneys, marmalades, pickles, preserves, honey, vinegar and more. When it comes to stylish winterwear for women, Lakshita, near Healing Heights, Middle Bazaar, is a one-stop shop for elegant jackets, co-ord sets, stylish tracksuits, evening wear and more. Dewanchamd Atmaram in Lower Bazaar is also a great place for high-quality woollens.
Step back in time by travelling along the Kalka-Shimla toy train route
While Shimla is easily accessible by road, experience the joy in the slow journey by travelling along the narrow-gauge Kalka-Shimla toy train route which starts in the Panchkula district of Haryana and winds its way upwards along the narrow track to arrive in Shimla or the Queen of Hills.
One of India’s most incredible feats of engineering — covering 102 tunnels, 864 bridges and 919 stunning curves — this train journey is a UNESCO World Heritage experience. The longest tunnel on the route, stretching 1,143.61 metres is an architectural marvel that passes over a deep valley surrounded by steep hills on both sides. All 18 train stations, painted in white and blue, retain an old-world charm and transport you back in time. With stunning panoramic views of hilly hamlets, the journey is magical, to say the least.
Tip: If you don't wish to book the complete trip (which takes a little over five hours), you can board the train from Kandaghat to enjoy the best views minus the boredom that could come with a long rail journey. There are several trains – both budget and luxury – that operate on the Kalka-Shimla route.
Book the toy train journey: Click here
Book a stay at Sunnymead Estate: Click here