SMITA JAIN

Take a break from your regular routine to enjoy the rustic charms and natural beauty of Sonapani.

FOR a touch of heaven on earth this summer, head to Sonapani. While many popular hill stations have come to be synonymous with traffic, pollution, and crowds - in short, all that the wary city dweller attempts to take a break from - Sonapani, with its rare combination of rustic charm and pristine natural beauty, is a welcome respite. Nestled in a forested grove and offering a stunning view of the Himalayan ranges, Sonapani is paradise for the senses and for the spirit.Sonapani is a two-hour drive from the nearest railhead of Kathgodam, which is an overnight journey from Delhi. The estate is located a short trek away from the nearest road, "in order to begin the traveller's immersion in nature," explains Ashish Arora, co-founder of Sonapani. The trek to Sonapani is breathtaking: ruddy-cheeked pahadi folk stop their work to wave at me from the fields; a herd of lively goats, bells hanging around their necks, announce their arrival in front of me; the pine-studded, cottage-flecked valley below looks straight out of a Swiss postcard. Following the meandering path and crossing a short patch of pinecone-carpeted woods, I catch the first glimpse of the red-bricked cottages of Sonapani, which look like they have just sprung up from the earth.

Connecting with nature

At the entrance, a staff member of Sonapani welcomes me with a glass of steaming apple-ginger cider. Its freshness astonishes me, and I remark at the richness of its taste. Not an untimely observation for my arrival at Sonapani, as Ashish explains: "The British established themselves in these parts during the Raj, after experiencing the extraordinary medicinal properties of the water found here. They called the area Sonapani, which literally means `gold water'." A 100-year-old stone cottage on the estate, currently the residence of Ashish and his family, stands as silent testimony to the legend. Creating the resort at Sonapani wasn't easy, however, explains Ashish. "The house and estate were in a shambles when I first came, but I fell in love with the place and so I built it up with my own hands." Ashish had come to Sonapani from Delhi, where he wanted to throw off the "suit and tie" mania of the corporate world. Having been born and brought up in Kathgodam, he yearned to return to the hills and begin a project that would connect city-people to the natural beauty of the mountains, and also create a source of local employment for people in the area. "For want of employment, pahadi folk are often forced to migrate to the cities, where many end up in urban slums. Imagine having to give up this," he says, his hands sweeping across the magnificent landscape in front of us, "for life in a slum!"

Sheer abundance

As my eye catches the iridescent sheen of a tiny hummingbird, the truth of Ashish's words hit squarely home. The sheer abundance around me is so astonishing that it seems as if the word "want" would simply not exist in the vocabulary here. Energetic wildlife - the busiest creatures on the estate - buzz, fly, sing and perch around us. Hundreds of species of birds call Sonapani home; magpies, bulbuls, and woodpeckers are just a few of its frequent visitors. Butterflies of striking design and colour emerge in regular intervals to brighten the azure sky. Fruit trees abound; in front of every cottage, says Ashish, are fruit trees that are "opportunely located so that our guests can pluck fruit from them and eat them from the comfort of their cottages!" Vegetables - most grown organically - are located in neat patches between the cottages, where they find their way to the delicacies stirred up in the kitchen. Indeed, if there were just one reason to visit Sonapani, it may be for the food. Despite being a self-proclaimed non-food aficionado, I found myself eagerly looking forward to the three mouth-watering meals - and everything in between. The recipes are of traditional North Indian style, with the key difference from plains-food being the organic, fresh and local ingredients used. Herbs, such as rosemary, sage and thyme are grown on the estate; garlic, being a commonly used ingredient in pahadi cooking is often used for light flavouring. Homemade fruit jams and chutneys, preservative-free and rich with local flavour, have become a Sonapani speciality.

A boost to the local economy

Just as I was about to ask if I could purchase a bottle of the maddeningly delicious apricot chutney, Ashish informed me that though they do not sell products now, they hope to begin an environmentally-friendly agribusiness in the future in a further effort to bolster the local economy. The most memorable part of my visit to Sonapani was the incredible warmth of its people. Ill prepared for a nippy evening, Ashish's wife Deepa promptly offered me one of her sweaters. "We want our guests to feel at home," she explained. So visit Sonapani and revel in its splendour - but beware, you may never feel like returning home. For more information on Sonapani, contact Ashish at: +919719005900 or access www.himalayanvillage.com.