Come summer and all one can think of is a getaway. With mercury hitting the roof and restless afternoons sapping all our energy, life in the northern plains of India can get quite unbearable. And the idea of a quick drive up to the mountains can be totally irresistible.
Popular hill stations however, are totally avoidable during peak season. Townies take over bustling mall roads, packed eateries and vantage tourist spots, putting immense pressure on the fragile infrastructure. The result – unending traffic jams, parking issues, water scarcity and tons of garbage. Tariffs for hotels and taxis naturally hit the roof, with everyone trying to make a quick buck.
But there are alternatives. Thanks to some enterprising locals and a bit of support from the state governments, village tourism has been gaining traction. More so, after the pandemic. Remote villages are now offering unfiltered experiences that have suddenly become attractive for a new generation of travellers. What was earlier the domain of campers, hikers and trekkers has now started attracting experimental travellers, who make their travel choices exploring endless hours of reels, curated Instagram feeds or through community recommendations.
Being true experimentalists, we decided to ditch the popular destinations in Delhi’s neighbouring hill states and explore a mountain village instead. We zeroed in on Nathan – a small hamlet in Himachal Pradesh about 600 kms from Delhi. For what would be a complete experience with the local village community. Our friends at Nirvana TrueLiving were setting up their first homestay in the village, and we were invited to be the inaugural guests.
Nathan lies in the upper reaches of Kullu district – about 28 kms from main Kullu town, and 11 kms ahead of Naggar. The drive up to Nathan is narrow, steep and rough in parts through dense cedar and pine forests that open out to beautiful apple orchards. Manali is about 30 kms away, and one can easily do a day trip for a brush of the touristy vibe. Paragliding and rafting options are also available on demand for those who are up for it. The village has a population of around 300 and barely attracts any tourist. And that’s what was so attractive about it. And of course the temptation to drive out in the all-new 2022 Maruti Suzuki XL6.
The XL6 is a supremely comfortable 6-seater, with captain’s seats in the middle row, ample head-space and much needed leg-room for long drives. Extra large windows add to the sense of space, and allow unobstructed views of the outdoors. The third row seats can be split/ folded to make room for additional luggage. We went an extra mile and packed our furry friend Merci – an English Cocker Spaniel who has been our travel companion for years now.
The 2022 edition of XL6 has some significant electronic and feature additions that are quite impressive. What is good to see is the subtle introduction of luxe features by Maruti Suzuki in the mass premium segment. Full black leather interiors, a new 6-speed automatic gearbox with paddle shifters, ventilated front seats (very cool), tilt & telescopic steering, 360 degree camera and a 7” touchscreen with a refreshed intuitive UI enhance the premium cabin appeal. The XL6 also has a new 1.5L petrol engine that offers 103hp peak power and 136Nm torque. Considering its size, that isn’t enough juice when you challenge the mountains with a full load. Or need a faster response. But a flick of the paddle shifter and flooring the accelerator gets the job done on most occasions. Highway miles are gobbled with ease and a bit of discipline behind the steering makes this one an immensely enjoyable drive. The trick is not to push the vehicle to its limits or make it a man vs. machine contest. Just allow it to unravel itself at an unhurried pace and cruise along. We found the highway fuel efficiency to be pretty impressive at 16.4 km/l, but it significantly dropped to average out at 13.9 km/l when we added about 425 kms of mountain drive to the 1250 kms that we covered.
The Suzuki Connect advanced telematics allow you to remotely operate key features of the vehicle. Connect it to your smartwatch, operate lights, locks and AC remotely, use voice commands, get alerts & notification, track the vehicle or share live location – you can do it all.
The drive through the expressways in Haryana and Punjab was covered in quick time, but the mountains of Himachal can throw a challenge to even the most seasoned driver. Roads are not in the best condition and lack clear signages. Google maps can throw you completely off track by suggesting a bone crushing route just to save a few minutes of drive time. It’s always good to carefully map your route before the journey.
Once you get on the mountain stretch, the visuals change dramatically from green valleys to bare mountains, and the mystic beauty of Kullu Valley comes alive at the confluence of river Parvati and Beas, where rafters and para gliders create a stunning backdrop. Further from Patlikuhal, a small town in the greater Naggar area, it’s a steep 15km uphill drive to Nathan.
Overall, the XL6 offers plenty of room to stretch, relax and work on-the-go. Comfort overrides sportiness, with a ride quality and handling that one would expect of a premium MPV. The suspension is well adjusted to absorb bumps and bad patches, and the cabin remains fairly well insulated from noise and vibrations. We breezed through the gruelling 16-hour drive uphill and 18-hour downhill drive (thanks to some prolonged traffic jams) quite effortlessly, with minimal fatigue.
Nathan Homestay by Nirvana TrueLiving:
The tiny mountain hamlet of Nathan with less than 50 households offers a spectacular view of the valley nestled in the lap of towering deodars and apple orchards. Here, time stands still and you embrace nature with grace and gratitude. The Nirvana TrueLiving homestay is peaceful, charming, has a tiny gushing spring by its side and overlooks the valley. A large mountain log cabin built entirely with pine wood and stone, it has four well appointed over sized rooms with attached bath, a sit out deck overlooking the mountains, a little garden patch, a secure car park, and some loverly hiking trails around the property. All rooms offer spectacular views of the Dhauladhar range and gorgeous evenings, as the sun sets behind them, drenching the snow-capped peaks in shades of orange and gold.
Nathan is a great option for a long stay or workcation. Here you can combine remote working with aimless hikes, feast on authentic Himachali cuisine served in copper tableware, be regaled by local stories and legends about snow leopards and bears, and enjoy the warm hospitality of the host family. Resources are frugal, amenities are limited, but none of that comes in the way of a memorable stay.
For bookings at Nathan Homestay by Nirvana TrueLiving: Contact: Sukhbir (Ricky) at +91 9823038489 or call +91 8130924141/ 6230262606. Price: INR 24,000 per month (room for 2) including wi-fi, organic meals. Highlights: The team can curate a complete village experience customised to your needs with tours, hikes, organic meals, orchard trails, visit to local farms, bonfires, day trips to Jana Falls & Manali town, adventure sports such as paragliding & rafting, and cab services on demand.
Jana Trails Chalet at Village Badi Da Gran:
After spending a few languid days and working remotely out of Nathan village, we checked in at the very lovely Jana Trails Chalet, located in village Badi Da Gran nearby. Comprising of a set of wood house cottages with over hanging eaves reminiscent of a Swiss chalet, the super secluded property is a sanctuary of calm amidst thick cedar forests. The cottages are built in traditional architecture and offer an ideal retreat for those seeking a quiet offbeat destination in the depth of nature, yet close to the attractions of Manali, Naggar and Jana Falls.
Here, you wake up to the call of the blue whistling thrush. Bird watchers would be delighted with some extraordinary sightings on a good day. There are a number of trails that one can explore, hiking through cedar forests, apple orchards or the farm lands around Hirni village down below. The resident dog Tommy is a therapy package in his own right, eager to show around and accompany guests on those meandering nature trails. The only rush hour traffic you are likely to encounter here is the occasional sheepherder and his flock.
The duplex cottages at Jana Trails Chalet have elegant wooden interiors, high vaulted ceilings, and a private balcony. They are well appointed and offer ample family space to laze around, sit back and relax. The open courtyard offers a picturesque view of the Dhauladhar range, the valley below and Beas river.
Food options are plenty here and meals are served in a beautiful airy all-glass dining area that overlooks the mountains. You could opt for European or Indian breakfast, fresh home style meals, authentic Himachal thalis served with lip smacking chutneys & pickles, or curate a meal of choice on demand. The grilled trout here is certainly not to be missed.
For bookings at Jana Trails Chalet, Village Badi Da Gran: Contact: Sapna at +91 9717482225. Price: INR 10,000+ per night (Duplex Valley View Chalet/ accommodates 4 adults) including wi-fi and breakfast. Highlights: The team can curate a village experience, tours, hikes, orchard trails, local farm visits, special meals, bonfire, transportation & adventure safari on demand.
There are countless outdoor possibilities to consider while at Jana Trails Chalet. You could go for leisurely walks amidst apple orchards or just laze around in the courtyard over coffee & conversations. A short stroll away in Nashala village (2 kms) is the popular Woody’s Himalaya Healthfood Centre. Woody is quite a legend. He came to India from Germany in the 70’s riding the wave of the hippie & psychedelic subculture. He travelled to Nepal, where he opened the Pumpernickel Bakery in Kathmandu before heading to Goa. Here he sold breads in flea markets and then started the famous German Bakery in Goa & Pune. Finally he retired in Nashala village. Where his team along with the local farmer community produce and sell a wide range of health foods made from local mountain ingredients. Himalayan herbal tea, crunchy honey muesli, winter honey, dried apple, apricot kernels, plum jam, a range of pickles, energy bars, cookies – the range is quite extensive and driven by seasonal availability of raw ingredients.
Another place to visit is Cafe Nightingale down in Naggar (15 minutes drive) – a two decade old family run cafe that offers one of the best mountain cafe experiences in the region. Stunning views, authentic oven-fired pizzas (the quattro is highly recommended), pastas, lasagnas (go for the agli spinaci) layered with mouthfuls of spinach and cheese – their all-Italian menu is totally on point and the unhurried, languid pace is just the vibe you need.
Naggar was the capital of Kullu dynasty for more than 1400 years and Naggar Castle (barely 500 metres from Cafe Nightingale) is a reminder of its lineage and glorious past. A visit to the 400 year old castle built entirely with stone and wood in indigenous Kath kuni architecture is a good post-meal idea, on a leisurely afternoon. The architecture, intricate wood carvings, and the works of Russian artist Nicholas Roerich in a gallery within the premises, make it all so worth it.
For majority of travellers, Naggar may not be on the wish list like many other popular destinations. But the old town undeniably has a magical appeal owing to its culture, history and surrounding landscape generously bestowed with imposing deodars, delightful apple orchards, snow-clad peaks towering above the horizon and a lingering aura of peace.
On your next mountain road trip we highly recommend that you take a detour to the less-traversed villages of Himachal and explore the beauty around Naggar town and the villages of Nashala, Hirni, Badi Da Gran, Nathan and Jana.
Note: Conscious travellers carry their garbage back. The hills don’t have a natural waste disposal system and are already experiencing unsustainable levels of pressure from human actions linked to short term tourism. It is important that we collectively keep our mountains clean.