It was nothing short of surreal hitting the road for an out-of-town trip after months of being holed up at home. We slipped out of Delhi at sunrise, headed due west. At that hour, the world always brims with possibilities. The road in front of us lit up gradually, the traffic not exactly scanty. Everyone seemed to be in a hurry. Or, maybe, we were the ones trying to take it slow, savouring every moment of the journey. There was an insatiable hunger in our hearts, a lust to wander. There was a more prosaic hunger as well, the one which was making our tummies rumble. But, although Puneet&rsquos heart was set on it, Murthal&mdashthe world capital of paratha bellies&mdash disappointed at that early hour, and we had to drive as far as Karnal before we could find decent oily flatbreads.
Let me not be stingy with my praise. They were near perfect straight-off-the-tandoor fluffy, bursting with flavour and fillings, paired with a dollop of butter and some masala chai to wash it all down. Even Puneet, an uncompromising paratha connoisseur, seemed visibly moved.
We hit the historic Grand Trunk Road again as chuffed as a pair of pioneers. For a first outing after the lockdown, we could not have chosen better. At Mohali, we took a quieter country road, lined with trees which leaned over the path to touch each other, that is, when it did not have a stately irrigation canal gurgling past. The road had lurched north by then. At some point, there was pouring rain and the temperature plummeted. Once the skies cleared, we pulled over and popped open a flask of lukewarm coffee to dunk our cookies. Priceless.
There are a number of check dams in Hoshiarpur, which have led to the creation of some spectacularly scenic waterbodies. Bring your boat, if you have one.
On the last leg of the drive, we left the highway behind and drove between farms in the quiet afternoon. Finally, swerving past the gates of Citrus County Firdaus, we ran into an impressive pair of moustaches. They belonged to our host Harkirat Ahluwalia, a man with friendly eyes and an easy laugh. No, nothing can keep a Punjabi man down, not even a pandemic. Harkirat&rsquos family were the primary landlords of the area, and continue to own acres of farmland, where they grow as many as seven kinds of citrus and several vegetables. Besides, there are impressive stands of poplar, a profitable cash crop. The farmstay is a newer revenue stream. The original, at Chhauni Farms, which is also the family residence, is about a decade old, while Firdaus, their second property, is of recent vintage. This was heaven, reimagined as a farm. Harkirat promised that the row of poplars facing the 10 cottages that make up Firdaus will never be cut. The Lower Shivaliks looming in the distance seemed to agree.
Once we had inspected our well- appointed cottage&mdashreserving special admiration for the sprawling bathroom&mdash it was time to eat a big, fat lunch and plan our activities for the next two days. Of course, if guests so choose, they can do absolutely nothing at Citrus County, except emerge at mealtimes (or not even that just elect to dine on your own private patio), but for those who swear by the active life, there&rsquos enough and more to keep them out&mdashor in, depending on your perspective&mdashof mischief.
That epic lunch had to be worked off with an epic snooze so we set about doing just that. After which, a much-needed break for tea and we were off on bicycles with wine bottles filled with water strapped to them&mdashthere is no water in plastic bottles offered at Citrus County&mdashto explore the surrounding countryside. Some of the party were devoted quad bikers, and we let them race ahead, following at a more civilised pace.
We went offroad pretty quickly, resisting the temptation to strip and cool off at the village borewell. It was interesting terrain, and occasionally challenging. Our weathered MTBs struggled in the sandbed of a seasonal stream, so we changed course. Soon, we were inside the Nara Forest Reserve, huffing and puffing our way up to one of the many check dams that have been built in Hoshiarpur district in recent decades. We were drenched in sweat by the time we got to the Nara Dam, but the serene waterbody, which had attracted some local anglers, was a sight to behold. The only thing missing was a cold, fizzy&mdashand possibly alcoholic&mdash drink.
A word about the area in particular and Punjab in general is in order here. Hoshiarpur is one of the greenest districts in Punjab, replete with forests rich in wildlife (nilgai and wild boar are frequently sighted, and the rarer leopard), an interesting topography comprising low hills and ravines, and scenic waterbodies where you can even go boating if you bring your own inflatable raft or dinghy along. Punjab itself was proving to be a revelation, its rugged beauty, friendly folk, hearty food and warm hospitality winning our loyalty effortlessly. That it&rsquos not marketed well enough as a tourist destination was the general refrain at dinner that night.
And what a dinner it was, not least because of the scenic setting, on Firdaus&rsquos lush lawns overlooking the citrus plantation. The night sky was crystal clear, and we spotted several satellites and shooting stars. Then the fireflies arrived, which caused a flurry of excitement, especially among the middle-aged guests, some of whom were seeing them for the first time since childhood. As for me, fireflies seem to pretty much follow me around these days. Our last trip before the lockdown, to the Palni Hills, had been illuminated, in more ways than one, by fireflies too. I can swear there was a nip in the air. In winter there would have been a fire in the middle of us socially distanced folk.
We were in good company. Harkirat has been choosy about his guests ever since Citrus County reopened, preferring to accept people he knows or through trusted word-of-mouth references. The guests I shared my weekend with included a well-known golfer, the GM of a five-star hotel who couldn&rsquot stop raving about the simple charms of Citrus County, a prominent industrialist, a corporate lawyer and a hot-shot photographer (the last two rode in on their impressive BMW bikes, which purred like tractors and were nearly as large). The conversation, as you can imagine, was interesting.
Citrus County is planning to keep some quad bikes on standby again. Just one more thing to look forward to.
As we reassuringly discovered at dinner, meals at the farmstay are now cooked by staff armed with gloves and face shields. Harkirat is quite the chef himself, and rustled up a killer paneer bhurji, easily the highlight of the evening. The food at Citrus County is self-described as &lsquohome-style comfort food&rsquo and they pride themselves, among other things, on their succulent kababs and (Punjabi) Chinese dishes. They also do a standout stuffed capsicum, the bell peppers sourced from a friend&rsquos farm nearby. And there&rsquos always dessert. Always It&rsquos certainly not out of character for a farmstay to be centred around food. Breakfast next morning&mdashmuch discussed the evening before and, therefore, highly anticipated&mdashwas the legendary Amritsari kulcha.
Given the post-pandemic new normal, masks and sanitisers were pretty much ubiquitous at the property. Bicycles were rigorously sanitised before use. Housekeeping was strictly optional.
We remained cautious but social, and definitely not on tenterhooks. The countryside tends to have a soporific effect on you, putting you at your ease, letting you trust in the ways of the universe...Social distancing, I must confess, doesn&rsquot come naturally to our species. It&rsquos not just because we lack discipline. It&rsquos simply against the grain of human nature.
My surmise is that properties like Citrus County, essentially boutique homestays blessed in being in the lap of nature, will see a lot of interest in the post-COVID era and be able to address the pent-up desire for travel that has been building up for the last few months, safely. As people look to travel to uncrowded destinations they can drive to on their own, farmstays are bound to thrive. The cottages at Firdaus are spaced apart so well, they almost seem custom built for our crazy age.
Harkirat&rsquos a model employer who has stood by his staff through the lockdown and its aftermath. The advantage of running a property on a working farm is that staff can be deployed in either direction. So his people weren&rsquot out of work even during the lockdown. Now with the guests returning, they are as busy as ever. Any way you look at it, it&rsquos a win-win proposition.
The evenings are quite social, but with necessary distance maintained among guests.
Needing to work up an appetite for lunch (Chinese had been promised), we investigated the plantation after breakfast. We walked among the kinnow trees, set out in neat rows, an automated sprinkling system in place. The poplars had grown tall, and looked positively regal. There were deep furrows where the quad bikes had been in the morning.
That evening, we cycled deeper into the wilderness, finally ending up in a deep gorge where a broad, flat stream murmured quietly by. The quad bikers were having a field day doing donuts and disturbing the shallow waters by riding up and down the stream. Why do we get so much joy from splashing water (Not complaining, just wondering.) We, the cyclists, decided to give our protesting legs a rest, and headed back in a tractor trolley, pulled by a half-century-old Tafe tractor made in Yugoslavia. If Punjab is beautiful by day and by night, it&rsquos positively magical at the hour of twilight. As the evening sky took on a deeper golden hue, the air was filled with bird call. We trundled along, startling a nilgai once, which rapidly disappeared into the surrounding foliage. At one point, the tractor got stuck in the sand, which provided some mild frisson, but we soon nudged it into action and were on our way. We ran into two guys in an Isuzu pickup, whom Harkirat knew. They had stopped in the middle of nowhere to have a couple of cool beers and contemplate the Punjabi countryside in all its tremulous beauty. One of them looked like he mostly lived abroad. A typical tableau of Punjab if ever there was one.
That night there was excellent mutton curry and even better conversation with Harkirat&rsquos father, a fount of ancient wisdom on everything from spirituality to the stock market. Some of the stuff he shared with us will stay etched in my mind forever.
We had planned to leave early the next morning, so we could get into Delhi at a decent hour. But Harkirat would have none of it. There was no way we would be allowed to depart until we had partaken of some parathas and anda bhurji. I&rsquoll be honest it wasn&rsquot difficult to convince us. You know, when it comes to parathas, we get all weak-kneed. Once we were sufficiently stuffed, we bid a teary farewell to Harkirat and his garden of paradise. But not without fervent promises to return soon and often.
How to Reach
Nearest Airports Adampur (Jalandhar), 40min away. there&rsquos a direct flight from delhi. both Amritsar and Chandigarh airports are 2.5hrs away
By road 6-7hrs drive from Delhi
Citrus County consists of two properties. The original, started around a decade ago, is at Chhauni Farms, the family home, consisting of a few suites and several tents (currently closed). Citrus County Firdaus, with 10 cottages, is nearby and operational.
Contact firstname.lastname@example.org, citruscountyfarmstays.com
Day 1 Arrive by lunch. evening bush walk or cycling in the forest. Self-cooking barbecue optional
Day 2 Farm visit, complimentary jungle safari on tractor trolley in the evening, followed by Punjabi dinner cooked on a slow fire.
Day 3 Breakfast and check out.
Activities at Citrus County
What Else in Hoshiarpur
Hidden Gem in the Forest
There are many British-era resthouses here. The one in the Nara reserve is the closest to the farmstay.