Let’s be honest, the year 2020 has been hard on all of us, and if you are someone consumed by wanderlust, then the lockdown must have hit you harder. When the year began, I had made a resolution that I will travel every month, even if it is for two-three days and I was able to maintain that resolution till March 2020. I ended up going to five novel places, and then well we all know what happened next.
As the lockdown eased and was eventually lifted, I decided to get back to my resolution with baby steps. One of the places on my wish list was Mary Budden Estate, located within Binsar Wildlife Sanctuary in the Kumaon hills of Uttarakhand. Nestled in the woods of the sanctuary, it offers you the rarest of luxuries - that of time and space.
Road trip to bliss
Binsar is a 3-hour drive from the mountain town of Nainital. The roads are long with exhilarating hairpin bends, but the ultimate destination makes the road trip worthwhile. Why do I say road trip? Because even if you choose to take a flight to the nearest airport (Pantnagar) or take a train to Kathgodam, you will still need to travel up to Binsar by road. Personally, I would recommend that you break your journey at Nainital or Bhimtal for the day if you are driving up to the mountains as it can get extremely tiring. We drove up from Delhi to Binsar and it took us almost 12 hours to reach the estate. Due to the property being inside the wildlife sanctuary, you also need to ensure that you reach the forest department check-point before 6:00 PM in the evening.
Mary Budden Estate was acquired in 1899 by Ms. Mary Budden herself, and was then converted into a school for local orphans. It lay neglected for about a century, before the renowned photographer and writer Serena Chopra bought it and turned it into her mountain home. The estate is spread over five acres of land and has a cottage that sleeps six people in three rooms and has a lodge with additional three rooms. The rooms are just what you expect them to be in the mountains - cosy, warm and equipped with a fireplace. The adjoining private dining rooms have the most stunning antique furniture adding to the charm. The property is also solar-powered, so it is advisable to not carry high energy-consuming gadgets.
Seasons in the sun
One of the highlights of the trip was to be able to witness the change in season over the five days that we were there. The mountains greeted me with snow on my first day there. It was my first snowfall, ever, and it took my breath away. I remember waking up in the middle of the night, opening the door of my room to see snowflakes falling and blanketing the ground in pure white. I’ve never felt this joy before...of tasting snow, of letting go and trusting the universe to heal. Over the next few days, the snow melted to make way for sunny spring.
The trek to zero point at Binsar is a must. It is a delight for birdwatchers as you peer at the myriad species of birds through binoculars, while you pass through the forest. It is about a 4km roundtrip from the estate and can be strenuous, but the view of the Nanda Devi range from the zero point leaves you mesmerised and utterly humbled.
Eat like a local
Operated by the MRS Group of Hotels, Mary Budden Estate assures the best of hospitality while respecting the terrain and its culture. What took my heart away was the confluence of the local culture in the food that is offered at the property. For a place that’s nestled in the thick mountain forest of Binsar Valley, the food pays a tribute to the local flavours of the Himalayan region while keeping up with the modern presentation. Not once were the flavours being compromised and what you taste is a familiar comfort served with a swish.
The Himalayan Brunch stood out - a meal where you see the confluence of Kumaon, Garhwal, Nepal and Bhutan coming together seamlessly on your dinner plate. With dishes like veduroth, bhatt salad, cold thukpa salad with achari aloo and Himalayan wadi, pine smoked mutton, Himalayan root vegetable carpaccio with pahadi lemon and apricot oil, handmade steamed dumpling with sorghum sauce and emma datsi with steamed tingmo. I was been told that the president of MRS group of hotels’ Karan Singh and Chef Ram spent a long time researching and putting together the food experiences. I’d say that Mr. Singh and Chef Ram make that team where one thinks and the other is able to translate that thought into plate - like art.
One of the days we also trekked to a local hamlet called Dalar, where Serena Chopra’s summer home is situated. Since it is a private home, it isn’t a part of the property but one can book an experience here for a local meal prior to checking-in. The meal included the most delicious Kumaoni ghar ka khana - bhatt ke dubke, pahadi raita, jakhiya aloo, gajar-methi, bhang ki chutney, galgal ka achaar, rice and lemon. This is worth the trek that you will take to reach this place.
If you are planning a trip to Binsar, I would advise that you keep at least three nights in hand because it is only by the second day that you have acclimatised to the terrain and start taking in the sounds and sights that surround you. The chances of you wanting to extend your stay are high!
Mary Budden Estate gives you a chance to disconnect, slow down and reset. It is not a place for tourists, but for travellers. It is a place where you go not to seek, but to obtain inner peace, or as they say - disconnect to connect.