Monday, 13 June 2016

A short weekend trip to Panchgani - Mahabaleshwar

If there is a most frequented weekend for us it has to be Panchgani-Mahabaleshwar. Be it summer, winter or rainy season we have experienced the twin cities in all forms. Every season has its own charm here and it never fails to amuse you with its excellent climate and things to do. This was probably our 12th trip in 4 years. The number easily tells you how much in love we are with these two places.

Mahabaleshwar was the summer capital of the Governor of the erstwhile Bombay Presidency during the colonial era. It is merely 120 Km from Pune and nearly 290 Km from Mumbai. State buses and some private luxury buses ply from Pune and Mumbai regularly multiple times a day. So its very easy to reach the hill stations even if you don't have your own vehicle. Mahabaleshwar is nearly 19 KM from Panchgani and can be reached in 15-20 minutes depending upon the traffic. We have been to Panchgani both on bike and state transport buses from Pune and it takes about 2.5 to 3 hours on an average depending on the number of stops you take in between.

Out of all the seasons though rainy season is the most picturesque. Mist, clouds, emerald rolling hills and valleys, cold weather and garma garam chai nothing beats this combination. So when the newspaper last week features an article exclaiming Mahabaleshwar to be in the coldest in the state with 18 degrees we decided it was time again we headed towards the hills for a quick break.

On 11th June morning we started from home at 6:40 AM and reached Swargate bus depot at about 7:10 AM. Our bus was expected at Swargate at 7:30. The bus was arriving from Pune station and was a bit late which is normal. Soon the bus took off along the newly built flyover. As we left Katraj and approached the ghats the air outside became pretty cold, in fact after enjoying the open air flipping though my hair for a while I had to close the glass windows to avoid falling ill due to the cold air. We could see masses of rain clouds spread over the horizon far away and this made us all the more happy. Rains here we come, we said to ourselves.

The first stop was at Wai. It is a small rural town in Satara district also popular with tourists for its  natural beauty. We got down from the bus for a quick chai and freshly fried wada pav. The weather was very cold and chilly winds made us shiver. We were slightly concerned that though we took our rain gears with us we weren't carrying any jackets or sweaters.

The bus soon took off again and we crossed many agricultural fields spanning on both sides of road. Freshly ground turmeric and red chilli were being sold in packets by the villagers on the road side. The air was heavy with the smell of wet earth and fresh turmeric.

Soon we reached Panchgani. It was about 10.30 AM. This place's claim to fame was due to the existence of multiple boarding schools and bollywood celebrity farmhouses. Once Mahabaleshwar reached saturation point with all the hotels, the next favourite spot became Panchgani. Now you can see a number of hotels and hostels in Panchgani as well offering roms with a view of the beautiful valley. My recommendation would be to stay in Panchgani and go for day trips around Mahabaleshwar. The simple reason is that even the shabbiest of Mahabaleshwar hotels are steeply priced as compared to the wonderful hotels you can get in Panchgani at the same price. Moreover its far more calm and away from the maddening tourist rush. You can enjoy nature and be on your own in Panchgani.

We also had our booking in Panchgani itself. Thanks to my R&D prowess we have got the chance to stay in some of the best places in Panchgani mostly when all these places were newly built. After that we never got a chance for encore strangely enough. When a new hotel opens it offers a low price and provides top class facilities to attract tourist but once it shoots to fame, the prices become steep and you dont get availability at the last moment. So for n number of reasons we never had a chance to stay at one place twice. But we are okay with that as long as we find another hotel which is equally good.

This time our destination was Mala's hotel. The name doesn't really sound classy or elegant, infact you would think it would be some kind of a small dinghy hotel at one corner of the road. But if you are aware of Malas - the brand that is well known in this part of the country for its crushes, juices and jams then you would think twice. But even though I was aware of Malas, the green color in its name always made me thing it was a pure vegetarian hotel so even if the name cropped up in my searches i never really studied about it earlier. Sounds Stupid? Guilty as accused. But this time I was running short of options and decided to read about Malas hotel and what did I find? The pictures looked stunning on the website and the tripadvisor reviews were tell tale. And bestest part the tariff. The prices were pretty cheap compared to many hotels in Panchgani and Mahabaleshwar. Our booking went through pretty smoothly and we gave a token amount of Rs. 1000 towards booking confirmation.

We had a quick breakfast at a hotel near the bus stand which serves pretty good pav bhaji before going to the hotel. The path from the bus stand to hotel was very scenic. Its nearly a 10 minutes breezy walk to the hotel and is situated near the table land or Devils Kitchen.  I had my Google maps navigation on so we found it pretty easy to reach the hotel. Though we had been to Panchgani so many times before but we never really explored this side of the town earlier. Though you dont get the view of the valley from here but the surroundings are very pleasant and full of greenery. Its even more peaceful than the other side of the town.

The hotel is tucked away at one end of a dirt road. Parallely however there is a proper road which takes you to the lounge of the hotel. The obscure entrance didnt have any security guard. We reached the gates and were welcomed with Silver oak lined driveway leading to a one storey vintage looking bungalow. There were huge ancient trees and more trees every where around. We kind of felt lost among such a paradise and had to look hard to locate a small arrow directing towards reception which was nearly hidden away behind a huge tree again.

Greenery around the Hotel
The reception was quaint, neat and classy. The small cute decors all around imparted a warm homely feeling towards the entire place. The guy at the reception was very friendly and informed us about the necessary things in this property. We were then asked to wait in the lounge or restaurant for 20 minutes after which our rooms would be allocated. The check in time at the hotel is 12 PM but they are okay with giving you rooms half an hour before.

Lounge Area
We went and waited in the lounge area. The path leading to the lounge was done with wooden panels. It looked so beautiful against the green carpet of grass I cannot tell. It was pretty much empty apart from us and the two people manning the bar. There was a lot of non alcoholic drink and food options to choose from as you wait. But we were already full with the pav bhaji so we decided to share a malai kulfi instead. The kulfi turned out to be a dry fruit kulfi with lots of anjeer and nuts in it. Lovely!

Dry Fruit Kulfi & Lounge Entrance
Lounge Area
The lounge area looked really neat and rustic with the entire place done beautifully in wood. It a great place to hang out with a big group of friends. The hotel even arranges bonfire on request. What would be better than to sit around the fire on a chilly night with a group of friends and good food. For couples also this is a nice place as you can get all the privacy and peace you desire in this calm and peaceful environs along with the romantic weather.

We checked into our room at 11:30 precisely. Every place in this building had traces of history associated with it. It would make you feel like a time warp, walking along the long hallways, vintage furniture in the rooms, ancient looking upholstery. We had booked a delux room which had a double bed and a single bed. But by the size it could easily accommodate a family of four. Now a bit about the history of the place. Over 50 years ago Shaikh Asgarali Ebrahim Mala located this piece of land and built a few cottages to let out rooms to children who came to study in the schools here. During the vacations their families would also join the children and spend some quality time in these beautiful place. Gradually other people also started coming down to this place and the number of rooms increased. In those days the Indian Army's approval was needed to finalize the hotel premises. The government asked the founder to let out the premises to the army for three years. According the army requirements a set menu was introduced. So popular was the food that came from the kitchens of Mala's that both the cuisine and the set menu system has held ground even today, decades later.

 We rested for a while and then decided to take a stroll around the roads nearby. Actually we wanted to go to the table land which is like a 10 minutes walk again, but unfortunately we went the wrong way. Though the road was also very scenic, it was the route to Rajpuri caves. But we also had plans to go sightseeing hence we came back to the hotel. The guy at the reception summoned a taxi for us. We looked at the sightseeing option chart and decided to go for a trip that we hadn't done earlier - to the Arthurs seat point and all nearby points. All tours have fixed prices. Ours had 12 points and was priced at Rs. 1200. From Mahabaleshwar if you go on sightseeing of the same place they will cost less nearly Rs. 500- 600 because all these points are near to Mahabaleshwar.
View from Rainforest Restaurant
Lunch was at the Rainforest Restaurant which overlooked the Koyana valley. The only good thing about the restaurent was its stunning location by the side of the Parsi point. Food wise it was average. The white kebab was pretty much bland and the chicken patiyala was pretty disappointing if I compare it with what we had in the Himachal by the same name.

The drive towards our sightseeing points was though a dense forest reserve area. It was so green that it almost hurt the eyes. Thick mist and cloud were flowing in as the day progressed. We even got some rain but not too much. Arthur's seat point is known as the queen of all points yet we never came here before. On the way to Arthur point, there are around 8 to 10 different points. Each point has its own history but it gives you same valley view with little bit different angle.My recommendation would be to go for sightseeing as early as possible in the day. there are two advantages to it - one as the day preceeds the traffic comes to a standstill at all these remote area points. Two the clouds and rains become intense towards the later part of the day, so to get a better visibility prefer the morning time. We reached these set of points nearly by 3 PM so already it was crowded and the clouds had descended to cover everything, On a few occasions we were lucky to see the verdant valley but mostly it was misty.
Hunting Point
Malcolm Point
Tiger Spring Point
Arthur's Seat Point
Savitri Point
After visiting the points we went to the two temples in old Mahabaleshwar - Panchganga temple and shiva temple both on the same premises.

We came back to hotel by 6:30 PM. While hubby paid for the tour to the driver I headed towards the "small library" as quoted by the person at the reception. It was just beside the reception. The room was indeed small but had all sort of provisions like sofa, TV so that you can spend time. And the book collection was pretty cool. I have seen far more smaller libraries in hotel which they proudly present to the guests. But this one was specially upto my liking because of the topics on which it had the most varied collection - food, animals and comics :). There were even marketing and accounts books. Actually I love the fact that hotels now a days are reserving a corner for library. For avid readers like me its a real  blessing, because then we dont have to carry our own books on a trip which saves some space in the bag. I picked three books of my choice and as I came out of the library I saw hubby was playing outside with two little puppies. They were stray puppies who were given a home there I believe. The mummy dog was no where in sight. The two pups one black and one white were pretty playful but started squealing loudly no sooner we caught either of them to pet.  We played with them for a while and then came back to the room.

The agenda of the evening was to relax in the room. So I went to freshen up first. When I came back hubby had a surprise for me - a birthday cake! Well my birthday had fallen on a week day and hubby was away on a tour hence we couldn't celebrate it then. It was sweet of him to arrange it in the room. I had a cake cutting ceremony in the room and then we ate some of it. But it was a big cake so we decided to feed the pups some of it. We wrapped a few pieces in paper and stealthily went to the pups avoiding the notice of any hotel staff in case they oppose to it. I was the one who fed the pups. The white one was super active, he even tried to eat form the mouth of the black one. They polished off the cakes within minutes. It was so cute. We decided we will feed them whatever is left after we had it.
puppies @ the premises
The evening was spent in watching TV and reading the books that I had got from the library. Soon it was 8:30 PM so we decided to have dinner. I had read reviews of the hotel in which food was the primary discussion point. The hotel is famous for its Bohra Muslim food. Not only the culinary traditions have been upheld through the decades, the prices of the meals are also very reasonable. They offer a set menu buffet breakfast, lunch and dinner. Breakfast is priced at 250/person and lunch and dinner Rs. 375/person. If you are taking a bording lodging plan then you get the entire meal pack costing Rs. 1000 at Rs. 800/ person which is really remarkable. Mala's is a heaven for all the carnivores like us. They specialize in all kind of meat dishes.

Dinner Buffet
We were the first ones for dinner. One can also have food at the lounge which is just adjacent to the restaurant. But since it was quite chilly outside we decided to have food in the restaurant itself.The lavish spread was arranged nicely in the restaurant. We browsed through the day's menu :
- Chicken Lemongrass soup
- Chicken Pahadi kebab
- Chickpea salad
- Mini dahi vade
- Aubergine salad
- Green salad
- Papads
- Mutter Paneer
- Corn Masala
- Khichdi
- Gujarati Kadhi
- Butter Roti
- Mutton Pulao with palida
- Sahi Chicken
- Cut fruit - papaya
- Dry Fruit Ice Cream
- Gulab jamuns

Pahadi Chicken & Gulab Jamun with Ice Cream 
It was a treat fit for the king. The chicken starter - pahadi kabeb was actually not on the table. While you have the soup they prepare the kebabs and serve it to you at the table. The result is a moist melt in the mouth kebab which you will  love. I tried out everything on the menu in little portions and repeated the ones that i really loved. The pulao was good. This was the first time I tasted a palida. It is a Bohra Muslim delicacy made with toor dal, rice flour etc. It pairs well with the pulao. The soup was also pretty unique. But dahi vade was the one that i really really loved. It was so soft and tasty, I could go on and on. The ice cream was also a winner. It was something prepared in house I believe. The taste was pretty different from store bought ones and it paired well with the hot gulab jamuns.  After we had more than our fill we came out for a stroll in the garden.

There is a black cat family also in the premises. But they are not people friendly and run away from you go towards them. I could manage to take a picture of the mommy that too from very far.

The In-House Momma Cat
We strolled int he garden and then sat in the rope swings for a while. They are now making some play area for the kids as well. A bonfire in the lawns would be the perfect thing really. After a while we went around the premises taking pics. There are sitting areas and swings everywhere so you can relax wherever you feel.

We retired to the room soon after. All the walking around the points made our legs a bit sore and we feel in sleep soon after.

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