My companion has been violently sick right through the lovely drive up from Kathgodam to Binsar. I have been fast asleep. Not exactly enthusiastic traveller behaviour, you would say. And you would be right. But everything changes once the car winds up the last slope and a quaint two-storied mansion veers into sight. We are at Grand Oak Binsar, a colonial-era building that was once home to the British Commissioner Sir Henry Ramsay, and purchased in the 1930s by Rai Bahadur Harkishan Lal Sah Gangola’s family, whose young and idealistic descendant Sindhu now runs it with his charming wife Shikha.
Set in the heart of the Binsar Wildlife Sanctuary, the house gets its name from a giant oak that stands regally near the entrance, with a tiny chapel tucked away near its roots. Remembering my Blyton books, I promptly look for acorns but it’s the wrong season, and I find just one, tiny but perfect. The rooms are on the first floor and mine has a fabulous view of the Kumaoni Himalayas glimpsed just above a fine mesh of pine branches.
We are welcomed with lemon verbena tea, the fruit plucked from the bush in the grounds, warm and refreshing. Sindhu is a chef, trained in France, so the food is outstanding. The traditional Kumaoni dinner is to die for — there’s madua (bajra roti) with nimbu saan (roasted marijuana seeds ground in mountain lemon gravy); badeel (lentil cakes); jholi (the local kadi); and a spicy raita of potato and roasted mustard paste. We end with Madirey ki kheer, made with tiny, local rice grains.
Thankfully, our hosts have organised treks to walk all that off; the first day a walk up to Jhanda Dhari for a dramatic glimpse of Nanda Devi, and the second day, a meandering hike past tiny villages, meadows and woods.
My favourite spot in the sun is the stone bench under the dramatically stark walnut tree. Peering closer, I find it budding in palest green. The grounds are strewn with cedar cones, whose fallen tips look exactly like tight wooden roses.
The property has nine double rooms with attached baths and running water. There is electricity only in the evenings for a few hours when we quickly charge our phones and the battery lamps that will see us through the night. For the rest, we make do with natural light. On our last night, we get a superb bonfire dinner, where we toast our limbs and swap stories, accompanied by wine and an enormous amount of barbecued food.
The couple organises treks with Grand Oak as base camp — Pindari, Kafni and Milam Glacier treks, or a 15-day trek across Kumaon to taste its villages, culture, food and architecture. That’s where I am headed next time.
Name: Grand Oak Manor
Contact: Binsar Estate, PO Ayarpani, District Almora 263601, Uttarakhand, Ph: +91 94129 09518
Tariff: Rs 5,500 for room only, Rs 8,500 all-inclusive,
The stone benches where you can soak in the sun
The very colonial tea room that overlooks spectacular sunsets
Very little, except maybe how long it took for the solar geyser to get hot
(The writer was at the resort on invitation)