You Can Snow Ski, Sleep in a Houseboat, and Play at the Highest Golf Course in the World in the 'Switzerland of India'
Snow covered mountains, lush green valleys full of wildflowers, and cozy wood cabins aptly stamp Kashmir as the "The Switzerland of India." Jammu and Kashmir — India's northernmost state — is a popular destination among Indian travelers and slowly being discovered by the rest of the world because of its rich culture and captivating scenery changing with every season.
Srinagar, the capital of Kashmir is only an hour flight from New Delhi. Known as the city of gardens, honeymooning couples stroll through the 17th century gardens of Chashme Shahi (the royal spring), Nishat Bagh (garden of bliss), Shalimar Bagh (abode of love), and Pari Mahal (angel’s abode). These were built by the Mughal emperors to enjoy the crisp fresh mountain air as the city was established as a summer capital. In Spring, Indira Gandhi Memorial Tulip garden of Srinagar, the largest tulip garden in Asia, attracts visitors from all over the world. In Fall, changing colors of the iconic chinar trees against brisk sunlight make Kashmir a photographer’s paradise. Most hotels such as the 39-room Fortune Resort Heevan have garden courtyards overlooking the Zabarwan Mountains that tower the city. The suites, decorated with oversized floor cushions and intricately carved beds, give guests the feeling of a luxurious Kashmiri home.
Long wood carved houseboats line the coast of scenic urban Dal and Nigeen Lakes in Srinagar. These 2-3 bedroom floating hotels come equipped with traditional Kashmiri decor of hand knotted wool carpets, walnut carved furniture, papier-mâché cabinets, and delicately embroidered tapestry. Most people relax in a rented houseboat for a night or two, pampering themselves with warm Kashmiri hospitality.
A shikara ride in Dal Lake is as noteworthy as a gondola in Venice. These long wooden boats with covered canopies and comfortable cushions take you through the calm waters of the lake as an expert paddler carefully navigates lotus gardens and floating villages. Bargain with vendors selling BBQ, pashmina shawls, silver jewelry, and leather bags from their narrow boats. The best time to visit Dal Lake is at the crack of dawn when lakeside residents bring their vegetables for sale to the floating market.
To get an authentic flavor of Srinagar’s Muslim neighborhood, walk through Old Town’s narrow alleys dotted with aging buildings with wood balconies, historic domed mosques, shops selling dried apricots, walnuts and almonds, and tiny restaurants simmering tender lamb with spices in nickel-plated copper vessels over open flames.
Nearby, the town of Gulmarg is known for some of the best skiing in the country. Surrounded by pine and fir trees, this winter sports destination has a well-known ski school and several ski lodges. In summer, practice your swing at the highest golf course in the world, fish in trout-filled streams, and paraglide over the majestic Himalayan mountains. Ride the second highest cable car (locally known as gondola) to 12,300 feet and spot nomad villages set amidst alpine forests below. Watching snow falling from the comfort of the area’s newest 5-star hotel, Khyber Resort and Spa, while sipping on kahwa (traditional green tea with locally grown saffron and almonds), is the perfect way to enjoy the winter wonderland.
Pahalgam is a small resort town located along the banks of the Lidder River, which looks bright blue with its gushing glacier waters. Most people come here to backpack, hike, horseback ride, camp, or picnic in the surrounding Aru and Betaab valleys or beyond. Along the highways, you can see shepherds flocking their precious pashmina goats, the wool of which is used to make luxurious cashmere scarves. The melodious sound of the river will put you to sleep at Hotel Heevan Pahalgam, which is a popular place for day trippers and weekend getaway. Nearby, recently renovated Welcomhotel Pine-n-Peak offers tranquil settings with cottages and suites surrounded by gardens and views of the Lidder Valley.
Despite being criticized as a politically unstable area, the people of Kashmir are peace-loving and very friendly towards tourists, and crime is almost nonexistent. Kashmiris will go out of their way to make you feel welcomed, making polite conversations, and inviting you to their homes for meals. Misunderstood by the media, they feel it is their personal duty to show why Kashmir is called ‘Heaven on Earth.’