Homing in at La Villa Bethany, Landour with the Discovery Sport

It is always tough to say no to Landour. The lovely little cantonment town in Uttarakhand has remained our unanimous choice when it comes to choosing an easy-paced and languid escapade. While other popular hilly destinations may fail to offer a rejuvenating experience with their cacophonous chaos and rampant commercialisation, Landour scores high with its lingering calm and natural charm. The deep woods, misty walkways, gabled roofs and quiet environs of this colonial outpost are reminiscent of a bygone era – with everything from its name to its temperament retaining an unquestionably British hangover. And what better way to get there, than drive up in a remarkable piece of contemporary British engineering; the Land Rover. More specifically, the Land Rover Discovery Sport.

A long weekend and the Discovery Sport in our garage was an irresistible combination. There was little choice, but to head out. And the moment we got a call from Sunita at La Villa Bethany that our stay was sorted, we decided to hit the highway. Our drive was the top specced HSE Si4 petrol variant in the 5+2 seating configuration, which comes packed to the gills with creature comforts. Powered by a 2.0L 4-cylinder turbo engine mated to a 9-speed automatic transmission, it churns out 237 BHP and 340 Nm of torque, making for a sweet highway cruiser.

Within the limited time and distance we could have traveled, this was to be the perfect test for the mid size, versatile Discovery Sport – through highways and hills, day and night; with a bit of forecasted rain thrown in. Though it is made of sterner stuff with a go-anywhere attitude, we knew we had a reasonably good challenge in hand the moment we left Delhi in the rear view mirror.

The drive up to Landour is a mixed bag in terms of terrain, and our impromptu decision to drive out from Delhi at 3.30 pm kept us on the road well into the night. Thanks to the monsoon showers, some patches of NH 334 and NH 307 were in total shambles with crater sized potholes; leaving average vehicles gasping for breath. The Discovery Sport of course, flew over them without a hair out of place. It’s remarkable ability to go over rough and majorly broken roads without feeling anything inside the cabin was truly commendable.

Barring a long clear stretch through the toll highway, the rest of the drive was all about navigating on-going road construction, broken small town roads, street hawkers, tractors, cyclists and jaywalkers in Mofussil towns. The forest road before approaching Dehradun which is usually a respite, was in terrible shape due to the rains, and the last stretch of mountain drive to Landour was steep, narrow and a bit of a challenge. Remnants of landslides were encountered at a few spots with huge rocks and debris by the wayside. But the Discovery Sport was under no pressure and seemed to lap it all.

With multiple modes (Drive & Sport modes with Eco option for both), a capable terrain management system (Grass, Gravel, Snow/ Mud-ruts/ Sand), cruise control, speed limiter, and paddle shifters for control at a flick, it made for a delightful drive in both favourable and adverse conditions. With torque kicking in at 1750 rpm, it hit the sweet spot in the mid and top range, with a perfectly tuned combination of power & torque between modes. The Sport mode isn’t overly dramatic, and the Eco mode doesn’t limit performance either. The regular Drive mode is quite spirited as well. For most parts, we drove in Eco Drive mode without experiencing any significant lag or drop in performance. Whenever we felt the need for more power, a flick of the paddle shifters did the job.

Given its weight (over 2 tonnes), the Discovery Sport is surprisingly quick off the mark, taking all of 8.2 secs to reach triple digit speeds. It drives with characteristic confidence and a sense of surety no matter where you go. It feels planted and stable at high speeds on straights, and the quick shifting 9-speed transmission makes acceleration and overtaking on highways easy to judge. It does tend to rev up unnecessarily when you floor the pedal hard, and takes a fraction of a second longer to figure the right gear before settling in. That’s another time when the paddle shifters come in handy.

On corners and sharp winding mountain roads, it displays impeccable character. With a brilliant turning radius, excellent ground clearance, hill descent control and hill start assist, the Discovery Sport is made for the mountains. Though there is a bit of expected body roll due to its high kerb weight, you wouldn’t hold it against the vehicle. We drove through the mountains deep into the night and the only chink in the armour was the lack of dynamic cornering lights which made it difficult to assess sharp hairpin bends from the driving position due to the thick A-pillars. Having said that, driving in the eerie stillness of the misty mountains at midnight, with the rain dancing on the panoramic roof and ‘Apocalypse’ by Cigarettes After Sex playing on loop, it was a surreal sensory experience that we haven’t had in the longest time.

The sublime ride quality of the Discovery Sport has to be one of its stand out features. The adaptive suspension is configured for both handling pleasure and ride quality. No matter what the road surface, the suspension absorbs all bumps and knocks with ease. Potholes are hardly felt inside the cabin, and the suspension adapts to the road surface extremely well. The exceptional ride quality and in-cabin comfort made it absolutely fatigue free for both front & middle row occupants, even after seven hours on the road. The cabin was completely insulated from the harsh conditions outside, and the adjustable/ recliner seats in the front & middle made the long haul trip supremely comfortable.

The versatile cabin can be configured as a 4, 5, 6 or 7 seater with full-flat folding options opening up huge luggage hold areas. We used it as a 4 & 5 seater, but the utility of the 2 rear seats for bigger families with kids or when travelling short distances with friends is highly practical. The boot can also be accessed easily from the middle row by pulling the middle seat down. Something that you tend to appreciate on long haul trips.

Topping the drive experience is the Discovery Sport’s impressive road presence. Without going overboard on styling, it manages to be immensely good looking, well sculpted, and has sleek, modern Evoque-ish design elements thrown in. The swept back headlamps with day time running LED and a signature grille give it a defining character. Mixing classy chic with muscular proportions and sporty accents, it makes for a purposeful, confident stance. Be it the city or in the woods, it looks completely at home; and despite being mid size no one really messes with it on the road.

The cabin up front is devoid of flash or flair, but is soaked in understated British refinement. Done up in beige and black with aluminium inlays, chrome inserts and leather, it is more classical than flamboyant; with a matured & elegant appeal. The knobs and buttons have a solid, time tested and old-fashioned reassurance about them and the door grips are wrapped in leather. A few buttons like the power window, side mirror controls and emergency blinker are oddly placed and need getting used to.

A bit of drama unfolds the moment you push the start/stop button and the aluminium selector knob gently rises out of the console to its position. It feels special, giving a sense of occasion to the proceedings. Other than that, the ambient lighting is a nice touch, and cabin lights can be turned on and off with just a wave of the hand. Just a few of the many discreet features that silently work to enhance the in-car experience.

The touchscreen infotainment system comes with built in bluetooth, USB and auxiliary connectivity. It has navigation control, 2-zone individual climate control for the front and rear, and a nifty automated park & exit system for both perpendicular and parallel parking. We had ample occasions to test it and we can assure you that it works like a breeze. The 360 degree park distance control is another useful feature, giving an all round indication of hazards. It came particularly handy on our way down, when we squeezed through a massive jam on the narrow (barely 15 feet) Landour bazaar lanes and encountered an Audi RS6 and Q7 coming up from the other side.

Though the navigation system was quite nifty with features to save favourite destinations, points of interest, and all, with experience we have come to realise that in India you can save precious hours if you chuck the in-car navigation system and rely on Google Maps for real time updates and fastest routes. It is far more accurate.

The cabin otherwise is airy, roomy and ideal for long haul road trips and camping. Whether you are going solo or in a bunch, you could mould the Discovery Sport to your requirement. With the full flat rear & middle seats, one can actually slip into a sleeping bag and comfortably spend a night inside the car, in adequate comfort. There is no dearth of storage space either; with huge door pockets, sliding armrest with built in storage, a sliding console top with cup holders and flexible stowage, cubby holes and bottle holders.

The overall size of the Discovery Sport is just right for urban families who regularly indulge in outdoor pursuits. Small enough to navigate city traffic, tight corners or narrow hill roads, and big enough to fit in the extended family or friends on a road trip.

The only major shortcoming is its thirstiness. We got a combined average of 8.5 km/l over a 828 km drive across hills, highways, a bit of off-roading and mixed drive modes. The best we could extract was 9.6 km/l over a stretch of 50 kms on the highway in Eco Drive mode. Which means that even with a tank capacity of 70 litres, you would need to keep a sharp eye on the fuel gauge when you are out on your next adventure.

While we have driven up to Landour earlier, we never had a chance to stay at La Villa Bethany, the much awarded heritage eco property managed by Sunita & Amarjeet Kudle. With just seven rooms, bookings are hard to get. The set of cottages are spread across the one acre property and has a distinct character – quaint, unassumingly attractive and maintained with a remarkable commitment towards sustainable and responsible tourism that support the efforts of the local community.

The hotelier couple gave up professional careers at ITC and Oberoi’s to follow their heart to the hills. Having painstakingly restored and retained the basic structure and originality of the boutique property, they have managed to add a lot of character and convert it into an old English-style homestay with a soul. Widely appreciated for their remarkable hospitality, it is their personal touch and equation with each guest that makes a world of difference.

Every room at La Villa Bethany has a unique identity and a story of its own. Pahari Wilson’s Cabin, Bedell Suite and Everest Suite are a few of the colonial names assigned to the rooms. Common areas include a study, lounge and a dining area, where all guests are encouraged to eat as a community. Long stay guests include foreign nationals pursuing a language course at the well known Landour Language School nearby.

The resort is largely self-sustained with solar heating, rain water harvesting, a small organic garden and a regular supply of natural produce procured locally. Everything comes wrapped in a lot of warmth and it literally feels like home. Un-touristy in character, it makes a remarkable case for itself as a unique hospitality brand.

The good thing about Landour is that its character remains intact as it ambles along in a pace of its own. Here is a town that isn’t in a tearing hurry to get anywhere. Or to please anybody. Recreation here means grabbing an umbrella and going out for a stroll, greeting strangers, making small talk and petting a bunch of super friendly furry mountain dogs who greet you at every turn.

Establishments like La Villa Bethany accentuate the experience by blending in with the local community and environment. You could sit by the patio, indulge in a bit of bird watching and soak in the views as the day goes by. Or curl up at the library in the evening and read a book. Late night conversations with a motley group of like-minded people in the common lounge over some warm ginger lemon honey tea is a part of the experience.

By mid morning you could walk up to Char Dukaan for some basic comfort food and catch up on the buzz. Afternoon is a good time to step into the splendid Landour Bakehouse for a coffee and civilised offerings like cheese croissants, lemon tarts, red velvet and almond rose tea cakes. You could spend hours gazing at the view out of the cafe or reading books by Mussoorie authors, as they have a library too.

Landour is a slow vacation that helps you recalibrate. There is a strong literary, artistic and cerebral side to it, and we are not just talking about its illustrious residents. It is evident in the quality of conversations with the locals and guests alike. The community works together at many levels in areas of skill development and livelihood generation for locals and La Villa Bethany is involved in several such initiatives. Something we discovered once we got there.

While heading back from Landour, it is a ritual to stock up some of the fabulous local produce, which in a way helps the local community thrive. Our annual supply of honey, peanut butter & jams (plum, apricot, gooseberry) comes from here. Then there are a variety of freshly baked breads, cinnamon rolls and hand crafted cheese that you get there. All available at A. Prakash and Co. in Sister’s Bazaar.

The drive back to Delhi was as sweet and sublime, with the Discovery Sport triumphing over every road challenge yet again. But there was a noticeable miss. With a load of cheese to carry back home and a drive of over seven hours, we were hoping the glove box would be chilled. Sadly it wasn’t. Thankfully, the weather was good and the cabin temperature adequate, and we managed. But remember, if you move your cheese, a chilled glove box is a must.

At the end of it all, the Discovery Sport more than impressed with its combination of road presence, the best 4×4 terrain management system, comfort and ride quality. It may not count as the best driving SUV in the segment or the most efficient, but it is a compelling package that is hard not to love. It’s the versatility, refinement and assurance of the Land Rover lineage that makes this luxury mid-size petrol SUV worth it. Priced at INR 48.48 lacs (post GST/ ex showroom price), it is an ideal set of wheels to go out there to explore new experiences and discover new stories. It’s a Land Rover after all.

And Landour, we shall be back.

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