12 hill stations that are as nice as the 'big six'

Sept-Oct is an ideal time for fleeing the plains and heading for these mountain getaways
Umiam Lake, near Shillong
Umiam Lake, near Shillong

1 Shillong
Shillong (4,900ft) was the capital of undivided Assam for over a hundred years, and all the attendant paraphernalia is still in place, making it a bustling hill town complete with traffic snarls. But yes, we still recommend it. Shillong&rsquos immaculate golf course, polo ground and Victorian-era bungalows and churches earned it the epithet &lsquoScotland of the East&rsquo, and even today it&rsquos all there to be seen. Colonial relics include Ward&rsquos Lake, Lady Hydari Park, Botanical Garden, Butterfly Museum, and Shillong Cathedral. When you tire of the sights, tuck into some of the signature Khasi jadoh (rice cooked in pig&rsquos blood) it&rsquos actually delicious. Out of town, visit rain-swept Cherrapunji, the oldest missionary settlement in these hills, for its charming church and vast, breathless meadows.
Best place to stay The Pinewood Hotel (https://megtourism.gov.in/hotels.html) run by Meghalaya Tourism or the heritage Tripura Castle (www.tripuracastle.com)

2 McLeodganj
Although named for David McLeod, the then Lieutenant Governor of Punjab, McLeodganj is best known for being colonised not by the British, who established a garrison here in 1850, but the Dalai Lama and his entourage, who sought asylum here after the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1959. Today, McLeodganj, strung along a high ridge above Dharamsala at an altitude of 5,800ft, is the base of the Tibetan Government-in-Exile, and our very own Little Tibet. Happily for you, this is no forbidden land. Any tour must take in the Tsuglagkhang complex, which includes the chapel itself, the Kalachakra Temple, Namgyal Gompa, and the Tibet Museum. If you&rsquore lucky, you&rsquoll catch one of the occasional performances of lhamo (Tibetan opera) at the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts. Former viceroy Lord Elgin lies buried in the grounds of the charming Church of St John in the Wilderness. Don&rsquot leave without sampling some delicious Tibetan fare.
Best place to stay The spectacular Chonor House, where each room features bold Tibetan murals (www.norbulingka.org, Tel 91-1892-221006/221468, e-mail chonorhs@norbulingka.org).

3 Ranikhet
Like most of the hill stations established by the British, the &lsquoqueen&rsquos meadows&rsquo of Ranikhet offers fabulous views at 6,000 ft, well preserved examples of colonial architecture, pleasant temperatures and a peaceful retreat from urban life. Ranikhet was an army town and is still cantonment area, so development is thankfully limited. There&rsquos really no need to do much more than take leisurely winding strolls up the Mall roads, soaking in views of the snow-capped Himalayas and flower-carpeted valleys. But if you&rsquore determined to be active, you can start by exploring the Kumaon Regimental Centre Museum and the six colonial churches to get a flavour of the Raj. Then, for an entirely different ambience, have a look at the constantly chiming Jhula Devi temple and the small Kalika temple dedicated to Kali. Outdoors again, picnic at the fruit-filled 260-acre Chaubatia Orchards, or take in a high-altitude game of golf at the panoramic course at Upat. Finally, if you&rsquore up to travelling a little further afield, you can head to the intricately carved 12th-century temples at Dwarahat.
Best place to stay The Ranikhet Club (www.chevronhotels.in/ranikhet-club-ranikhet), whose billiards and cards rooms create a nostalgic throwback to colonial times.

4 Mahabaleshwar
Rugged hills, steep falls and rivers that seem to flow in all directions made Mahabaleshwar (4,500ft) the perfect summer capital of the Bombay Presidency. Today it&rsquos Maharashtra&rsquos most popular hill station. Narrow streets meander through the town past churches and little bungalows. Mount Malcolm, the residence of Sir John Malcolm, who established the hill station in 1828, is a beautiful baroque structure. The Roman Catholic Holy Cross Church (with beautiful stained glass), Frere Hall, Government House and the Mahabaleshwar Club (still functional) are other landmarks. From Parsi Point you get panoramic views of the Krishna. If you&rsquore feeling adventurous you can climb the 500 steps to the Pratapgad Fort. The view is worth the effort.
Best place to stay At Pratap Heritage (www.prataphotels.com/prataps/mahabaleshwar) or Dina Hotel (www.mhra.org.in/dina-hotel/dina-hotel.htm).

5 Almora
The &lsquocultural capital&rsquo of Kumaon, Almora (5,374ft) was established by the Chand dynasty in 1560. But the medieval hill station developed colonial flavour only after the British bombed it in 1814-15 in the Gurkha Wars. Yes, it can be alarming to arrive at Almora&rsquos noisy and unlovely main street. Do not be daunted. Go to the bazaar and admire its wooden carved shop fa&ccedilades. Look out for homes decorated with traditional murals. Keep an eye out for the few colonial-era buildings that still survive. Watch sunset and sunrise from Bright End Corner. Shop for shawls and rugs at the Panchachuli Weavers Factory. You will have a charming holiday.
Best place to stay Kalmatia Sangam Himalaya Resort (www.kalmatia-sangam.com), which has pretty, old-style cottages dotted along a hillside.
6 Mount Abu
As the highest peak in the Aravalli range at 5,640ft, this literal &lsquooasis in the desert&rsquo has been a popular summer retreat from the rest of Rajasthan for centuries. Even before the days of the Raj, rulers of nearby princely states seasonally partook of the cool climes. Popular for being the only hill station in arid Rajasthan, Mount Abu offers a number of attractions to keep visitors busy. No exception to the rich history and legend that characterises Rajasthan, the town has a number of well known historical sites. These include the famous, ornately carved 11th-century Jain Dilwara temples, a complex of five temples, and the imposing Achalgarh Fort, which presents excellent views. Outdoor options include boating on the ever popular Nakki Lake, trekking up to the vantage points, and visiting the wildlife sanctuary.
Best place to stay At Connaught House (www.welcomheritagehotels.in/hotel-overview/connaught-house-mount-abu), owned by the maharaja of Jaipur and stylistically reminiscent of a colonial cottage.

7 Coonoor
Along with its sister hill stations in the Nilgiris, Ooty and Kotagiri, Coonoor (6,060ft) was developed as a hill retreat by the British in the mid-19th century. It&rsquos now overdeveloped, of course, but the cooler reaches of Upper Coonoor are still quiet and peaceful. Retired folks tend to their gardens and school children go about their business at the town&rsquos several boarding schools. For visitors, the focus in Upper Coonoor is the lovely botanical gardens of Sim&rsquos Park, which feature some 1,000 plant species including 330 varieties of roses. There are good views to be had around Lamb&rsquos Rock and at Dolphin&rsquos Nose, from where you can also see Catherine Falls. To heighten your colonial heritage experience, get there or get away on the &lsquotoy train&rsquo that runs on the 1899-built Nilgiri Mountain Railway.
Best place to stay Wallwood Garden (https://wallwood-garden.neemranahotels.com), the 100-year-old former home of a Scotsman, two minutes from Sim&rsquos Park

8 Matheran
Matheran (2,636ft) was discovered by Hugh Poyntz Malet, the Collector of Thane District, in 1850, and this tiny hill station continues to pay homage to its British legacy. Malet Spring apparently marks the spot where the man once stopped for water. The road from Neral to Matheran was built during the time of Lord Elphinstone. Today, it is probably the only entirely pedestrian hill station in India. It&rsquos full of old colonial houses and Parsi bungalows, and has its very own toy train service. There are many lovely walks in and around town, which offer spectacular views of the Sahyadris. The trek to Panorama Point, about 5km north of the market, is lovely in the rains and in winter.
Best place to stay The Byke (www.thebyke.com/matheran_index.html), a heritage building built by Malet in 1854 or stay at the Verandah in the Forest (https://the-verandah-in-the-forest.neemranahotels.com), also a 19th-century bungalow.

9 Dalhousie
A summer hill retreat established by the British in 1854, Dalhousie has retained its original English architecture, five still-functioning churches and tranquil ambience. Named for Lord Dalhousie, viceroy of India at the time, the town was once mainly frequented by residents from Lahore. Spread at about 6,500ft over five distinct hills in Himachal Pradesh &mdash Balun, Kathlog, Petreyn, Tehra and Bakrota &mdash it&rsquos unsurprising that the charming town offers panoramic valley views, impressive lookout points over the Pir Panjal Himalayan peaks, and pleasant walks through thickly-wooded forests of pine and oak. Dalhousie centres around Gandhi Chowk, where you can pick up Tibetan handicrafts and other souvenirs. Once an asylum for Tibetans escaping the Chinese invasion, the town comprises one of the state&rsquos oldest Tibetan settlements.
Best place to stay Hotel Grand View (www.grandviewdalhousie.in), built in the 1920s and still in excellent shape.

10 Kasauli
Chestnut trees, narrow cobbled paths, quaint gabled houses Kausali&rsquos well preserved colonial ambience is a reminder that this small cantonment town was initially established by the British as a summer getaway. Although it&rsquos only seven hours away from Delhi, Kasauli is still one of the quietest, least commercial hill stations around, making it ideal for a peaceful break from the city. There&rsquos not much to do here, apart from checking out the Upper and Lower Malls, and visitors come mostly for solitude, fresh mountain air, and scenic walks along the hills elevated at 6,070ft. Pleasures here lie in the simple things leisurely picnics, watching the hummingbirds or magpies, or just lazing in the crisp air and mountain sunshine. The loveliest views are to be found at Monkey Point, which overlooks the hills, valleys, and the sparkling river Sutlej in the distance.
Best place to stay Alasia Hotel (www.alasiahotel.co.in), whose old-fashioned rooms still have fireplaces, or Hotel Ros Common, run by HPTDC (https://hptdc.gov.in).

11 Pachmarhi
At a mere 3,549ft, it is debatable if Pachmarhi can qualify as a hill station. But such doubts will be forgotten once you drive into the little town. It is easy to see why the British developed this town as a sanatorium and summer resort. Pleasant climate, thick sal and bamboo forests, and clear ponds and streams are some of the more obvious reasons. You can easily spend a day walking around, checking out the town&rsquos red-roofed colonial bungalows and the crumbling churches with their magnificent stained glass windows. Or you could wander off into the forests, discover a hidden pool and take a leisurely swim. You could also look at 10,000-year-old cave paintings or even try your hand at parasailing and if you have the time visit the nearby Satpura National Park. Best of all, there&rsquos no swarm of tourists to block the beautiful view.
Best place to stay Evelyn&rsquos Own (Tel 07578252056, e-mail evelynsown@gmail.com, bunnyrao@gmail.com) is a homestay in a 100-year-old colonial building.

12 Kalimpong
In the early 1900s, Kalimpong (4,101ft) was the nucleus of trade between British India and Tibet. The wool traders and mule runners established this town, not our colonial rulers. So while you will not find a Mall Road here, you will find pretty colonial bungalows with sloping roofs and gables built by those early traders and by latter-day Englishmen who made Kalimpong their hill getaway. Imbibe some Raj nostalgia in these bungalows, visit one of the numerous flower nurseries in town, play a round of golf at the Army golf club, shop for local cheese, lollies and jewellery at the haat, have your fill of momos and thukpas and watch the sun set over the Kangchendzonga. Lolling around in your hotel verandah or garden is an equally tempting alternative. You choose.
Best place to stay Silver Oaks (www.elginhotels.com/DOCS/kalimpong.php), built in 1930 by a British jute magnate, is a lovely colonial building with polished wood floors and period furniture.

Rafting on the Teesta
The emerald-coloured Teesta River in Sikkim offers a series of challenging rapids from Grades II (moderate to difficult) to IV (very difficult, powerful waves). You can pick between short, medium and long runs, and unlike most rivers in the Himalayas, the season runs from October to March. Trips depart from Teesta Bazaar, about 16km from Kalimpong. Darjeeling is perhaps the best place to organise a trip. Tour operators Samsara Tours, Travels & Treks (www.samsaratourstravelsandtreks.com) in Darjeeling and Potala Tours & Treks (www.potalatreks.in) in Gangtok. Rafting can be combined with overnight camping on the white sandy beaches through Tashila Tours & Travels (www.tashilatours.com) and Gurudongma Tours & Treks India (www.gurudongma.com).

Strawberry season
There are many reasons to visit idyllic Mahabaleshwar, but the gardens of strawberry in Panchgani must be the primary one. The town has a little something for everyone &mdash undulating hills and waterfalls for Bollywood filmmakers romantic vantage points aplenty for honeymooners pleasant temperatures for burnt-out city-dwellers &mdash and, of course, the strawberry fields. The Maple, Monama and Mapro farms are the most popular, where you can tour the endless fields of berry and buy bottles of strawberry jam, crush, and handmade ice-cream. Strawberry season runs between October and March, so this is the best time to sample fresh pickings. After exploring Mahabaleshwar&rsquos other attractions settle down to one last fruity delight a strawberry shake, the local favourite concoction of fruit, cream, and vanilla ice-cream.

Say cheese
Apart from the flowers, Kalimpong is known for its almost-cheddar-cheese. A Swiss Jesuit by the name of Andre Butty set up the Swiss Welfare Dairy in Kalimpong in the 1950s and started a major cheese industry. Kalimpong once exported around 2,000kg of its cheese to Kolkata every month. But today, cheese making in the hill town is slowly dying out. Many dairy farms have downed shutters, only a handful remain. You can still find some good cheese in Lark&rsquos Provisions on Rishi Road in Kalimpong. Or just head to Kodaikanal, where cheese making continues to flourish. You can get several varieties of cheese at the Kodai Dairy or you can visit Eco-Nut (www.eco-nut.com), a shop that sells organic food and also stocks cheese.

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