Hill Stations: India’s Historic High-Altitude Getaways
These high-altitude escapes, where British colonials went to escape the heat, are getting renewed attention with the onset of PBS’s latest period drama, Indian Summers.
Despite centuries plundering the tropics, the British never quite squared themselves with the world’s balmier climates. They tolerated Bombay in the winter and built themselves gracious mansions in Calcutta and Madras and New Delhi, but pick up any novel or memoir from the period of the Raj, and you’ll find woeful complaints against the unhealthy climate of the humid, malarial lowlands.
Wherever they found higher ground and lower temperatures, the British built little outposts of the British Isles, replete with half-timbered houses and genteel gardens. This is where officers sent their wives to give birth, where European and wealthy Indian children were educated, and where high-level officials disappeared to administrate the colony during the hot months—quite literally from on high.
These high-altitude escapes are getting renewed attention with the onset of PBS’s latest period drama, Indian Summers, which is set in the hill stations at the onset of India’s own Independence. Though many of the most famous hill stations have been practically destroyed by thoughtless construction, overcrowding, and poor management of tourism (Shimla, Ooty, and Darjeeling are among the casualties), India has many hills, and happily, plenty of charming towns left among them. Here are some of our favorites to visit.
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This charming artists’ colony is typically overshadowed by Dharamsala, home of the Dalai Lama, which lies about 25 miles to the north. This is a good thing. Founded in the 1920s by Irish actress Norah Richards, Andretta remains precisely the place she wanted it to be, known today for the exceptional earthenware turned out by the Andretta Pottery and Craft Society, which also offers three-month courses for aspiring potters.
Situated just 15 minutes uphill from the busy, boisterous, and largely unpleasant hill station of Mussoorie (one of the many lost to the ravages of family tourism), Landour remains mercifully quiet and remarkably pretty. Home to the Woodstock School and the Landour Language School, this is still a town of ramshackle colonial charm and active minds. Stop for lunch at the Clock Tower Café, for a light bite at Char Dukan, or peruse antiques at some of its dusty shops, and you’ll immediately feel yourself transported to another time.
The only hill station in the desert state of Rajasthan is also home to a first-rate boarding school and a set of exquisite, yet only occasionally visited, Jain temples built of carved marble. When you’ve had enough of the Forts and Palaces that make the rest of Rajasthan justly famous, head to Mount Abu for a bit of rest, a break from the arid heat of the plains, and a glimpse of divinity expressed in stone.
The hills to the west of Mumbai are full of hill stations, built over the years to accommodate the city’s many populations and their different needs. Matheran, Lonavala, Panchgani—each has its own adherents, but our personal favorite is Mahabaleshwar. The most distant of Mumbai’s popular hill stations, Mahabaleshwar is situated among dramatic rock formations that burst with greenery and life during the wet, humid months of the monsoon.
Kodai (pictured), as locals affectionately call it, may not be as peaceful as it once was—hawkers crowd the lakeside and rambunctious teenagers paddle across it—but it is still home to an especially eclectic array of artists and craftspeople from around India and the world. It’s also an ideal jumping off point for walks into the Western Ghats, the spine of lush hills running along India’s western edge. Day walks from Kodai abound—the village of Vellagavi, accessible only on foot, is a lovely choice at about six hours.
Unlike many of India’s other major hill stations, Munnar is still worthy of its fame. Though the town itself is nothing special, the surrounding hills and tea plantations—endless fields of iridescent green disappearing into the clouds—are among the most beautiful sights in all of India. Sitting out on a verandah with a steaming cup of oh-so-local tea and watching the mist rise off the hills is among the most magical experiences the Subcontinent has to offer.
Michael Snyder is based in Mumbai, and covers the India beat for Travel + Leisure.