A couple that I once met in Ladakh – we were staying at the same hotel – claimed that the best hotel they had ever stayed at in their lives was Shervani Hilltop, Naini Tal. I was rather taken aback, because this couple seemed to have visited every hotspot in the world. Then I met another well-travelled, trendy young man who claimed that he never visited Naini Tal but Shervani Hilltop. It made no sense to me, especially when you consider that there are older heritage hotels in the country and prestigious luxury chains. And then one day, I booked myself into this modest hotel and it began to make perfect sense.
Naini Tal has grown around its lovely lake, itself in the shape of an eye, and so, the entire hill-station can be considered to be eye-shaped. Most of the middle-class hotels line the Mall side of the lake, which is very much the focus of tourism here. Consequently, peace and quiet – for which one usually gets away to the hills – is an unknown quantity. The better hotels are situated away from the lake, and a few top-end ones like Shervani Hilltop don’t even face the lake. That’s not a disadvantage however. What each window overlooks is a piece of high hillside, densely covered with oak, pine and fir.
I had always imagined that a walk along the lake was de rigueur for any holiday in Naini Tal, but having been there three times during this year alone, I now know that rambles along quiet hill roads around the hotel are far more appealing and more apt to recharge your batteries than running into half of Delhi at the Mall. To come back to the hotel – which is actually a series of multi-level cottages skillfully designed to look cozy yet provide modern amenities – and order their iconic vegetable cutlets is something I could go back for a dozen more times.
Sadly, food is not the strong point of the restaurants in the Mall which have little to recommend them. The only point of interest lies in the local bazaar in Malli Tal, just below Shervani Hilltop. There are a couple of bakeries, whose speciality is old-fashioned biscuits that you don’t get anywhere else and rather good loaves of bread. Just as interesting are the namkeen shops. Fried channa dal, whole masoor and besan sev are all mixed in varying proportions and doused with a light drizzle of spices. Best of all are sellers of the local Kumaoni mithai – bal mithai. A fudge-like toffee made with chocolate brown khoya, it is cut into fingers and coated with a white, largely tasteless round pill that bears a suspicious resemblance to homeopathic pills.
One of my favourite pastimes in Naini Tal is to snuggle under the quilt, watch TV and munch to my heart’s content. Or else, I sit out in the garden and watch the mist and sun scud around each other. Armed with periodical reinforcements from the hotel’s excellent kitchen, it’s the perfect formula for a holiday in the hills.