Holidays needn’t burn a hole in the pocket. Lavish buffets, spa treatments, plunge pools and a butler on call are stuff that luxury resorts are made of. What if someone offered a home-away-from-home where amenities are comfortable yet basic, with local cuisine and an insight into native lifestyles? Homestays have emerged as an alternative to hotels and resorts in recent years and some of them, in verdant locations, need to be booked months in advance.
Culinary expert and photographer Sangeeta Khanna recalls her experience at ‘Raju’s cottage’, a homestay in Goshaini, a village in Teerthan valley, Himachal Pradesh. “A homestay has a personal touch with regard to hospitality. Raju’s cottage is famous for the warmth they treat their guests with. Also, since most homestays are surrounded with orchards or fields around the house they provide a better glimpse of the local life,” says Sangeeta and compares her experience to “visiting one of your dear uncles in the hills.” This homestay was surrounded by apple, apricot and plum trees.
At the cottage in Goshaini, the food was a ready reckoner, with Sepu wadis , Gucchi pilaf , Himachali sidu , and more. “The curd, ghee and paneer were made using milk that comes from cows owned by the family. Most fruits and vegetables are home grown. We chatted with the lady of the house, Raju’s wife Lata and learnt about local cuisine and shops to find the things we wanted to carry back,” says Sangeeta.
A holiday experience can range from a relaxed one to an adventure-filled fun trip, but is incomplete if it doesn’t provide an introduction to native practices.
Photographer Arvind Chenji and his wife Shipra, one morning, decided to take a much-needed vacation without any fixed schedule. “We left Hyderabad by road with our seven-year-old son with bare minimal things and drove approximately 600 to 700 kms a day,” says Shipra. Once they reached Himachal, they got in touch with Deepak Raina, who is involved with running an NGO that has adopted many remote villages in the area. The couple reached their destination, Janvas, a 30-house village on the eastern side of Kishtwarh district, driving through water streams created by melting snow and a two-hour trek across three villages.” At Janvas, we had a homestay with a shepherd’s family. The homes are built out of slate slabs from the mountains and the wood from the forest. We had a balcony where the scenery changed every moment, from snow-clad mountains to the snow forming a gush of water down the mountains, clouds coming down into our rooms, sun playing hide and seek, landslides...,” gushes Shipra.
And here is where she got to understand their lifestyle. The family lives with 50 sheep and 20 cows and buffaloes, indulged in fresh food and gathers around the chulha for warmth.
“Their staple diet is makki ki roti with any saag (greens) and rajma, soyabean with rice, all grown in their own chemical-free fields. They believe that taking care of their cattle sustains them,” says Shipra, who also got a first hand experience of working in the field and living in tune with nature.
Closer home, fashion designer Kedar Maddula jumped on to the homestay bandwagon two years ago, sensing its scope in the burgeoning hospitality industry, when he opened ‘Wunderhaus’ in Pondicherry. “Guests appreciate the personalised touches in the place and some of them enjoy doing a bit of gardening. At times, I’ve exchanged recipes with guests and we’ve cooked meals together. Also, I provide them with information about local events and hidden secrets of the city to discover. In the last couple of years, with portals like airbnb.com, homestays have grown in popularity. While travellers from abroad are familiar with this concept, I find a spurt in requests from Hyderabad and Bangalore of late.”
On the flip side, Kedar hints that homestays may not be for everyone. For instance, homestays may not have a concierge service. While the owners may provide guests with necessary tourist information, they may not facilitate tour/cab bookings et al. And there may be house rules to follow. “I find the younger age group, 25 to 35, more open to this idea. Families travelling with elders may require more services,” he adds.
Drawing from her experience, Sangeeta highlights a common concern, “The laundry may not be as impeccable as that of star hotels. Most homestays choose colours other than white and sheets and blankets may not be laundered after every guest. But if you make your mind free of these concerns, you enjoy the warmth fully.”