There are certain moments as a solo traveller when you feel very, very solo. As I sit here, squished between two canoodling couples in an outdoor whirlpool at Wildflower Hall in the Indian Himalayas, I realise this is one of them.
One couple, the young, newly-married Indian one, has a fondness for sitting in each other’s laps and rubbing noses. The other, an English couple celebrating 15 years of marriage, enjoy whispering sweet nothings into one another’s ears. And me? Well, I’m focusing very intently on the sunset.
This quixotic moment, however uncomfortable, should not have come as a surprise. Wildflower Hall is, after all, a property that practically begs blokes to get down on one knee. I mean, we’re talking about a turreted fairytale castle, perched on a mountain near Shimla (the capital of the northern Indian state of Himachal Pradesh), surrounded by lush Himalayan cedar forests. If God created a more romantic location, he kept it for himself.
But what Wildflower Hall offers lovers, it also offers self-lovers. Those who, like me, wish to treat themselves. To decadent spa treatments, yoga classes and meditation sessions. Or to more vigorous pursuits like trekking, mountain biking, river rafting, archery and golf.
I prise myself out from between the couples and go for a swim in the indoor pool. Surrounded by blue-and-white mosaic tiled floors, I bob along under the warm glow of three gigantic chandeliers. After a few minutes I’m red-faced and puffing. We’re at 2500 metres above sea level here, which is high enough for the altitude to leave me breathless. I use it as an excuse to get an early night to bed and wander up to my room, perving on the impressive British Raj-style interior features along the way. There’s Burmese teak paneling on the walls and ceilings, opulent fireplaces surrounded by plush armchairs, and antique hand-knotted oriental rugs on the polished parquet wood floors. I’m tempted to stop off at the Cavalry Bar with its log fire, chesterfield sofas and British cavalry artefacts for a G&T. Alas, I’m in a fluffy white bathrobe, so continue up to my room for a bubble bath and DVD instead. Later, I lay in bed gazing out at the night sky and losing myself in those drifting reveries that are the solo traveller’s equivalent of a night on the town.
The following morning I wake just after dawn, during that perfect hour when the air still has a fresh, unused feel to it. First up is a forest walk with my guide Aseem. As he walks me towards Wildflower Hall’s Wild Strawberry trail, he points out the tennis court. “You see how the ground is made from rubber tiles? In winter we remove them, fill the area with water, and it becomes an ice-skating rink.” But of course.
The Wild Strawberry trail weaves through part of the nine hectares of cedar forest that Wildflower Hall is set on. As we start to wander along it I realise I’m rather under-dressed. It is very, very cold and starting to drizzle, and here I am in light jeans and a cotton jacket. I pop my umbrella and crouch beneath the steady rain, trying to focus on Aseem’s story about Lord Kitchener, whose portrait I’d glimpsed above the fireplace in the teak-enveloped lobby earlier. The commander-in-chief of the British army and an avid gardener, Kitchener lived where Wildflower Hall now sits and landscaped this area into bucolic perfection back in the early 1900s.
Soon enough we’re on the move again. Luckily, since I’d started to lose feeling in my left foot. “In the next month, you will come across a lot of wild strawberries growing along the sides of this path,” says Aseem in his enchanting BBC-accented English. For the moment, the low-lying strawberry bushes he’s pointing at are bare save for a smattering of small white flowers.
As we walk, Aseem continues his lesson on the forest’s flora and fauna. With a slender finger he points out butterfly bush, whose pink flowers when open attract butterflies, Dutch clover, and dog violet that’s used in traditional Indian medicine to create cough syrup. By June, says Aseem, the Himalayan raspberry bushes we pass will be covered with red and orange berries.
For now, however, the forest is mostly greens and browns. It’s a sea of towering Himalayan cedars, with some pine and spruce trees, and the odd fern and drooping moss giving it the eerie beauty of a fairytale. Aseem tells me leopards and Himalayan black bears call this area home, as well as deer, porcupine, wild mountain goat and pheasants, and the woodpeckers and laughing thrush we’ve been hearing.
Eventually we reach a forest clearing. There, beneath the trees, sits a small table laid with a breakfast picnic for one. It’s lovely, if not slightly awkward as a solo venture. I take my time nibbling delicious aloo paratha, Indian bread stuffed with steaming spiced potatoes, and the smorgasbord of cheese, fruits, yoghurts and juices that are splayed out before me. I close my eyes and let the little stabs of sunshine that are finally filtering through the trees soak into my skin.
At this point, even though I’m loathe to tear myself away from all this decadence, I take the 40-minute drive into Shimla town. After the serenity of Wildflower Hall, I’m taken aback by how busy this former summer capital of British India is. Sure, I was aware that it’s India’s most popular hill town, but I hadn’t quite grasped the scale of it. In recent years, Shimla’s population has bloated to 500,000, spilling out into the nearby satellite villages that we saw on the drive in, the skittle-coloured houses clinging from the mountainsides like hastily stacked Lego blocks. There’s construction going on everywhere, cars clog the single lanes that wrap around the mountains, and there are streams of people everywhere.
Aseem ushers me out of the mayhem and into the Viceregal Lodge, the erstwhile official summer residence of the British viceroys and the first electrified building in Shimla. After a brief guided tour of the building, a gothic-looking structure that brings Harry Potter’s Hogwarts to mind, we wander through the surrounding flower gardens.
The British Raj vibes continue as we drink tea in the elegant, atrium-style lounge of the 130-year-old Cecil Hotel. Afterwards we wander Shimla’s pedestrian back streets, passing some of the area’s 350 delectably derelict – again in that eerily beautiful fairytale way – buildings that Aseem says the government are planning to restore. We buy a tasty vegie burger from a street vendor. We visit a temple dedicated to the Hindu goddess Kali. We giggle at cranky monkeys swinging from the cypress trees. Eventually we arrive at The Ridge, Shimla town’s historic area with views over the surrounding valleys. Here, buildings dating back to the 1800s, including the stately Christ Church (the second oldest church in North India), Gaiety Theatre and wooden General Post Office, and the cheap modern shopping brands that line the Mall Road shopping precinct, sit side by side. As we push through the crowds it starts to rain again. I’m actually quite relieved; I’m itching to return to Wildflower Hall.
It’s early afternoon when we get back, and I hop straight in my marble tub. After that it’s a long session in their jasmine-scented steam room, followed by an Oberoi signature massage at the spa. My choice seems a little boring considering the menu includes heated lava shell massages, Tibetan singing bowl therapy, floral baths and exotic body scrubs, but it’s absolutely blissful. And I’m glad I left it until the end of my stay, otherwise I might never have made it off this massage bed.
Alas, dinner awaits. It’s a decadent three-course feast of mushroom soup hailing from the “mushroom city of India”, Solan, followed by pan-seared trout from the nearby Kullu Valley, an area famous for its trout fishing. The coup de grâce is some delicious house made ice-cream, after which I haul my bloated belly back upstairs. I flop, exhausted and content, onto my enormous bed. Looking out the floor-to-ceiling windows at the night sky, I imagine what it must be like laying here in winter, watching the snow quietly sift down over the mountains.
It would be lovely, of course. But it could hardly beat the perfection of this moment right now.
Cathay Pacific flies from Sydney and Melbourne to Delhi via Hong Kong from about $970 return. From Delhi, you can fly to Chandigarh with SpiceJet for about $120; from there it’s a three-hour drive to Shimla.STAYING THERE
Wildflower Hall, an Oberoi Group property, offers 85 rooms and suites. Rooms start at about $660 a night plus taxes.NEED TO KNOW
Mantra Wild Adventures offers a nine-day India package that includes four nights at Wildflower Hall, two nights in Amritsar and two nights in Pragpur, starting and finishing in Delhi. From $3799 per person.
FIVE OTHER THINGS TO SEE AND DO AROUND SHIMLA
1 TOY TRAIN JOURNEY
Hop on Himachal Pradesh’s famous toy train at Shimla, and weave through the forests to Taradevi station. From here, take the two-hour trek through the magnificent cedars up to Taradevi temple, where you’ll be greeted by lovely views of the distant low-lying hills.
2 JAKHU TEMPLE
Crowned with a 33-metre orange statue of the Hindu monkey god Hanuman, Jakhu temple watches over Shimla from the top of the town’s highest peak, Jakhu Hill. Take the steep 30-minute hike from the east end of the Ridge to see it up close, but beware the loitering rhesus macaques.
3 WHITEWATER RAFTING
Himachal Pradesh is renowned for drawing adrenaline seekers with activities like skiing and trekking. If you’re one of them, take the 2.5 hour drive to picturesque Malgi, where you can raft down the rapids of the Sutlej river.
4 TATTAPANI HOT SPRINGS
If pampering’s more your thing, take the two-hour scenic drive to the hot sulphur springs of Tattapani, known for their therapeutic power. Afterwards, visit the Shiva Caves four kilometres away, where 181 shivlings (the holy symbol of the Hindu deity Lord Shiva) have formed.
Golfers can take the 40-minute drive from Wildflower Hall to the verdant hill station Naldehra, India’s first nine-hole golf course, and a very pretty one at that.