For a north Indian like me, Mahabaleshwar is not an automatic choice for a weekend getaway. With the mountains so close, the forest retreats of the Western Ghats don&rsquot really come to mind.
However, Mahabaleshwar is well connected to Delhi, and just 120km from Pune International Airport. It&rsquos a comfortable drive watching a cavalcade of trees on the highway that eventually leads to a serpentine climb. These monsoon days, the hillside is lush green. Within two hours you, somewhat accidently, stumble upon Le Méridien Mahabaleshwar Resort and Spa.
Tucked away deep in the forest, this 27-acre property feels wild and tranquil right from the point one turns into a rather majestic black gate. Driving in, the steady pitter-patter of rain reinforces a sense of splendid isolation. Look up, and you&rsquore likely to see a thousand shades of gorgeous greens on the umbrella of trees that barely allows sunlight to hit the ground. The foliage is full of complicated vines, wrapped around gnarled and old trees. At your feel is a bed of ochre leaves on reddish gold stones. I am told a catsized giant squirrel called the Malabar is often spotted scampering across the laterite rocks.
A buggy ride on a winding path took me to my villa, right at the edge of the property. Called the Sanctuary Suites, they are ideal to enjoy the panoramic views of the surrounding valleys. The 86 sq m villa features a well-appointed living room with a fireplace and a dining table for six. A workstation occupies one corner. The bedroom is cosy and the bathroom impressive in an ethereal white. The rooms are comfortably luxurious but it&rsquos really the adjoining terrace that is the selling point here. Both evenings I watched the sun set slowly over the acres and acres of sprawling forest, snacking on strawberry chikki the chef had very thoughtfully sent to my room. Dusk is a wonderful time here because there&rsquos a cool breeze and an orange-hued sky. Interestingly, this entire belt has no mosquitoes.
Metaphorically, the jungle stands for something akin to hardship. Maybe that&rsquos why spending time in this difficult terrain is so central to develop some sort of understanding of it. Unlike the rest of India, the forests around Mahabaleshwar have been painstakingly conserved. A manager tells me all the 122 rooms in Le Méridien have been built around the trees because the laws don&rsquot allow the felling of a single branch. Permissions need to be sought for any improvements. Forest officials maintain records and conduct surprise checks, and the result is that Mahabaleshwar is leaps and bounds more beautiful than neighbouring hill stations Lonavala and Panchgani.
My first stop was the Plunge Bar and infinity pool, perched precariously high, and from where the views are absolutely breathtaking. The temperaturecontrolled pool, circling mist and soft Buddha Bar music make this an ideal space to chill with a drink.
For dinner, I went to Chingari, Le Méridien&rsquos fine-dining restaurant&mdash an elegant and understated space, done up in dark wood. Well known for authentic north Indian flavours, I ordered the tandoori platter. There were an assortment of delicately flavoured kebabs, but their kasundi jhinga deserves a special recommendation.
Mornings at this hotel were long and languid. I browsed around the library and checked out the very busy recreation area for kids. Well stocked with board games, table tennis and foosball, it has loads for kids to do, giving parents ample time at Explore, the property&rsquos spa, that deserves all the international accolades it has received. Audaciously enough, the treatment rooms here sparkle in bright white with plenty of light, a far cry from the standard decor protocol of dim lights and dark wood. Explore has pulled off this ivory tone with aplomb, the ambience being one of quiet relaxation.
If one must find fault at all, it&rsquos probably that it lacks a clear identity. Is it a family getaway or is it a spa weekend destination for executives looking for some R&R While the management works that out, at the moment there is something for every kind of guest.
Location 211/212, Medha Road, Mahabaleshwar 2hrs from Pune International Airport
Accommodation 106 rooms and 16 suites TARIFF Classic Forest King (@INR 13,299), Classic Forest Twin (@INR 13,299), Tranquility Suite (@INR 19,949), Sanctuary Suite (@INR 27,549), Serenity Suite (@INR 29,449)
Contact 91-20-66411111, 91-9022000222 lemeridienmahabaleshwar.com