Clifton Heritage Homestay at Ayarpatta Hill. Where old memories make new stories. #ShotOnHonor7X

Think of the ‘City of Lakes’ and the mind wanders to a natural setting unpolluted by human intervention – pristine water bodies surrounded by meadows, woods, hills and clear blue mountain skies. But the hill town of Nainital which once boasted of the moniker, has evolved somewhat differently. The erstwhile summer capital of the United Provinces of Agra & Awadh boasts of a rich and illustrious history, but is a far cry from what it used to be in its heydays. Once a favourite retreat of the British, the overcrowded hill station is now bursting at the seams, with thousands of noisy tourists and honking vehicles making life somewhat miserable around the main town.

However if you look beyond the surface, chances are that you may discover a few places that still retain the original glory of Nainital. Some of the heritage estates and bungalows for instance, are treasure troves from the colonial era. Painstakingly restored to offer immersive experiences into the past, they have managed to revive an interest in heritage tourism in the region. And make for a great escape for urban escapists like us.

Clifton is one such place. Located at a slightly higher altitude on the wooded Ayarpatta Hill, it is one of the warmest heritage homestays you would find in the mountains. It was built back in 1881 by Jim Corbett’s family when they moved to Ayarpatta from Alma Hill which was right across, after a massive landslide there killed 151 people. The Corbett family constructed and lived in Gurney House nearby, and developed Clifton and a few more bungalows in the area to lease out for income. Clifton was later sold to a prominent local contractor in the 1920’s and then changed hands again in 1950, when the current owners acquired it. It has been with the Sahanpur family ever since, and the estate is now managed by the third generation of the family.

The history of Nainital itself isn’t too old. It was discovered in 1839 by an enterprising sugar trader named Peter Barron from Shahjahanpur, while on a fishing trip. He spoke highly of the place and as word spread, the town started to take shape. Barron’s residence ‘The Pilgrim Lodge’ was one of the first structures to be constructed in the region and still exists. The town got its own municipal board and some very British essentials like a cricket ground, that made it immensely popular as a summer retreat for the officers of the United Provinces. The lake was the main attraction and soon the town became a beacon of the Raj era with all its decadence and aristocracy.

Sitting at the Clifton family quarters and being regaled by Rudy Singh about the history of the town transports you back in time. Rudy spent his formative years in the bungalow and was schooled at Sherwood, which is a mere five minute walk from the estate. An effortless storyteller of sorts, he is the youngest of three brothers who manage the family property, and spends most of his time between the family’s Sahanpur farmhouse and the summer home.

Stories in fact are an integral part of the Clifton experience. Conversations sprinkled with anecdotes and memories give a glimpse of the family’s interests – from game hunting to farming, birding, sailing, golfing and now hospitality. Walls are adorned with tiger skins, deer antlers, portraits and hunting photographs, each with a story of its own. A picture of Rudy’s grandfather with the largest tiger ever hunted in India adorns the study. Another has Rudy’s father Shashi Raj Singh with Amitabh Bachchan during their University days. They were tennis buddies. There is one with Dr. Salim Ali, who spent a significant period at Clifton in 1983 researching the Himalayan Quail. Shashi Raj Singh is an avid birder himself, and his immense knowledge about the local flora & fauna helped Dr. Ali in his mission. Browsing through the gallery at Clifton we realised that this is a legacy steeped in history, that deserves nothing less than a coffee table book to chronicle it’s 136 year old history.

Although the Sahanpur family originally hails from Bijnor, their affair with Nainital began in the 1920’s. Rudy’s grandfather owned farmlands in Najibabad, and would often come up to the hills to indulge in his passion for sailing and golfing. He was the first Indian member of the prestigious Boat House Club, which was the only club in those days to provide inland sailing facilities. Entry into the hallowed corridors was a rare achievement, considering the snooty ‘British Only’ policies that prevailed. Even Jim Corbett we were told, didn’t make the cut and was refused a membership.

In 1947 when the British were leaving India, they decided to dispose off much of their assets. The Boat House Club was being wound up and the yachts were to be sold to the Cochin Sailing Club. It was then that Rudy’s grandfather Giri Raj Singh decided to buy the yachts himself with the help of some like-minded members, to keep the spirit of sailing alive in Nainital. And he went on to reconstitute the Boat House Club as one of its founding members. New responsibilities and more time in Nainital meant that Giri Raj Singh now needed a home here, and that’s when he acquired Clifton post independence. It wouldn’t be wrong to say that much of Nainital’s popularity as we know it today is a direct consequence of Giri Raj Singh’s timely intervention in preserving and developing one of its most prestigious institutions.

Over the years, Clifton has had its own share of experiences. Late one evening in 1955, Giri Raj Singh was at the snooker room at the Boat House Club as usual, when the marker came in and announced that someone’s house was on fire up in the hill. Everyone came out to see and Giri Raj Singh realised that Clifton was on fire. He galloped up in a few minutes but the damage was already done. The fire gutted everything and very few of the original installations survived. One of them was a metal chandelier from the 1880s, that still hangs from the ceiling in the upper chambers of Clifton.

In the 50’s & 60’s, the family ran a successful Shikaar Outfitting Company called Indian Shikaar & Tours, which catered to expats who came for big game hunting in the North Indian forests. The company however folded up when hunting was banned and the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972 came into force, and then the family went back to managing the farmlands.

It was as recently as 2016, that the family decided to open up the Clifton experience for guests. The location makes for a serene and peaceful setting, with some great views of the surrounding mountains and a glimpse of the lake below. There are some beautiful trails around and if you are an avid bird watcher you will be in for a treat. The Mall is a short 10 minute walk downhill (uphill back takes about 20 minutes) but at Clifton, you would rather curl up with a book in the garden rather than fall for the touristy trappings.

The property itself has a unique charm and a very ‘untravel’ vibe to it. The hosts are gracious, the staff courteous. Every guest is treated as a part of the extended family and routinely invited for a drink or a meal with the family. The six guest quarters named after birds are done up tastefully, retaining old memorabilia and yet offering all modern amenities that you would need. Each room tells a different story and there is a large common living room with a library and a dining hall that can take in everyone together. The sprawling garden in the front is where you can catch some mountain sun in the afternoon. We highly recommend that you have your evening meals here, as the seasoned chefs at Clifton can rustle up a cuisine of your choice even with limited resources at hand. The trick however is to go by their recommendation. We were treated to Pahadi Mutton and a creamy variation of Palak Paneer that still makes us go weak. The food at Clifton can put several over-hyped restaurants to shame. We carried back recipes, local produce, loads of memories and plenty of fresh mountain air in our lungs.

Clifton is that elusive home in the hills that you always longed for, but never had. Warm, comforting, home style, with a lot of gravitas. Places like these can be terribly intimidating, but Clifton is a solace for the soul. And credit goes to the family for keeping it this way. It’s the little things here that make all the difference, and the time travel between the past and the present makes for a perfect setting where old memories make new stories.

We promised ourselves to be back at Clifton soon. And if you are considering a visit by now, here are a few things you can do while you are there:

1. Walk down to the Mall: It’s a 10 minute walk down and a steep 20 minute climb back. Here you can shop for trinkets, himalayan teas, handicrafts, local weaves and woollens in a quintessential hill station ambience. The flee market is a tad disappointing, but some careful browsing could get you a few bargains. Pots & Stones Cafe and Sakley’s are the places we would recommend for some quick cafe style meals. If steamed momos is your thing, head to Sonam’s at the flea market.

2. Go Sailing: Paddle boats are passé. The Boat House Club at Nainital now has a tourist jetty and a fleet of yachts that can be hired out for some fun under the sun. The magnificent sail boats are the true stars of the lake and the sight of the sails in the horizon against the shimmering sunlight reflecting off the blue waters can be a mesmerising sight.

3. Go paragliding at Mangoli: You could do this on your way back from Clifton. Stop by at Mangoli (before reaching Kaladhungi) where a few adventure tourism companies organise paragliding. On a clear day it is just picture perfect.

4. A round at the Nainital Golf Course: The 18-hole Raj Bhawan Golf Course was built in 1926 and is a part of the Governor’s Residence. It is one of the most scenic golf courses in the world and a round here should be on your to-do list if you are at all into the sport.

5. Discover walking trails around Clifton: The treks and trails around Clifton are some of the perks of staying here, more so if you are an avid bird watcher. Clifton’s close proximity to the Sherwood School means you could walk up the Ayarpatta Hill and admire the campus or trek further on to Tiffin Top, a scenic spot that offers great views of the valley, lake and surrounding mountains.

6. Drive out to Kilbury & Pangot: A short 45 minute drive from Nainital takes you away from the bustling town through the Cheena Peak range for some spectacular Himalayan views. There is no particular destination to look forward to, but the journey itself makes it all so worth it. You are sure to enjoy the drive although the roads are narrow and there are several blind turns that can give you heart stopping moments.

7. Drive around Bhowali and Bhimtal: Bhimtal is a 45 minute drive away and once again, the greatest pleasures are to be found in the drive itself. The roads are wide, well paved and abundantly beautiful. Stop by at Bhowali to buy some local tangerine, lemon and chestnuts at unbelievable prices.

8. Spend an afternoon at iHeart Cafe: Between Bhowali and Bhimtal is the exquisite iHeart Cafe at Mehragaon. This lovely little place started by an American couple Tim and Liz Sebastian is all heart. The couple arrived in India 13 years ago, fell in love with the mountains way too much and never went back. Now they speak a bit of Hindi too and their children go to a local school. The menu is extensive and has an eye popping range of brews and bakes. The cafe supports an orphanage that the couple runs and a pit stop here is highly recommended. iHeart Cafe is one of the most soul comforting experiences you would come across in the hills, and you can be sure that your money is going to a good cause.

9. Stock up on preserves and cream cheese from Clifton: Depending on the seasonal produce at the farm, Clifton makes their own preserves. It could be strawberry, guava, peach or apricot, and each one is equally delightful. Flavoured cheese spread is another thing the staff would make for you on request. Book a day before you check out and it would be ready when you are.



  1. Avatar

    Sanjay Sarma

    January 9, 2018 at 4:44 am

    Yes it's a magnificent property. And glad you liked the article. Do share if you would like others to know of it.

  2. Avatar

    Yadvendra Singh

    January 9, 2018 at 5:37 am

    A magnificently detailed article of the history of one of the jewels of the kumaon hills. It is befitting to experience the history from the present owners, who have painstakingly preseved the cottage's heritage.

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