The hitchhiker’s guide to Mahabaleshwar

If you don’t drive or own a car, read this. Everyone in and around Mumbai knows that the conveniently located hill-station of Mahabaleshwar is better enjoyed within the four walls of your own private transport. Why? Well because taxis are unreasonably priced and buses are far and few. Still, we survived a car-free trip to Mahabaleshwar earlier this month. Here’s how.

Reaching Mahabaleshwar is the easy part.

IMG_20150130_153510 You are spoilt for options with regards to buses from Mumbai to Mahabaleshwar. Choose between a plethora of private bus operators (priced 400 rs onwards for seater Volvos and higher for sleepers) and government-run ST buses (priced at 225 rs for regular buses and higher for special buses). Both will take you around seven hours to reach Mahabaleshwar though the Volvos might take longer thanks to extended meal stops. If you’re travelling in the night so you can reach Mahabaleshwar early in the morning (like we did), go for a Volvo so you can get some sleep. But if you’re game to take the first bus in the wee hours of the morning and reach Mahabaleshwar at noon, then by all means, save money and opt for the ST bus.

Getting your resort room keys is not.

IMG_20150201_073233 We stayed at Club Mahindra Sherwood resort, which is located 3 KM away from the bus stand at the market. 3 KM isn’t much (just a half an hour walk) but when it’s uphill and to be braved in pitch darkness with heavy bags on your back, it starts to look a bit more formidable. We reached Mahabaleshwar at 6 AM and it was as cold and dark as the late hours of the night. Still, we refused to cede to the taxi drivers’ unanimous demands for 200 rs for that ridiculously short ride. “We’ll walk,” we told them snidely and marched off. “There are wild dogs on the way!” one taxi driver shouted after us. Both of us exchanged alarmed glances but we ploughed on. The moment we reached the main road, which was utterly silent with not a soul in sight, we began to have our doubts. It was cold and we didn’t know the way to the resort. Fortunately, the taxi drivers seemed to have had a premonition of how we would feel and one pulled up beside us. Accepting sad defeat, we hopped in for the princely sum of 200 rupees. Unless you’re staying at the Evershine resort, which is right across the street when you arrive at the main road, walking in the night or early morning is not advised. However, I’ll never forget what our resort looked like at 6:30 AM in the morning – cloaked in blackness with only a speck of light here and there, which allowed us to glimpse flowers, trees and secret woods in the beyond. Not a soul had woken and the twittering birds and rustling leaves had free rein of the foresty landscape. I stood there alone in the silence and shut my eyes, feeling the cold arms of darkness wrap themselves around me and claim me for the woods.

What’s for breakfast?

If you’re on a budget trip like we were, you’ll want options other than the heftily priced resort menu. Right at the start of the lane opposite Evershine Resort that leads to the market, there is a small shop where a lady sells the most scrumptious vada pav I’ve ever had. It comes accompanied by a sweet and tangy green chutney, a flavourful spicy chutney and yummy masala-coated chillies to chew on. You can wrap it all up with a cup of hot tea. But if you do make it to the market, be sure to indulge in Maharashtrian or South Indian fare. North Indian would be a risky option. Misal pav is the safest bet for a filling meal. There are several restaurants in the market area – both big and small and a couple serve alcohol as well. Although you’ll find Imperial Stores mentioned all over the web for your liquor supplies, there is also Treacher Wines (no idea why they didn’t call it Teacher’s instead) near the bus stand. Unfortunately, street food as also Mahabaleshwar’s most famous snacks – berries and flavoured chana – are all priced higher than you would expect. For instance, a small plate of bhel comes for 30 rs and a handful of berries for 50 rs. Nevertheless, that’s the price you have to be willing to pay if you want to bite into succulent strawberries and stain your tongue purple with raspberries as I did. Apart from chana, shops also sell flavoured cholas which I found to be tastier. Mahabaleshwar is also synonymous with Mapro syrups and jams and Madhusagar honey but you might want to visit the factory outlets and get them at a discount. I was told to bring three kilos of honey back but when my mother heard the inflated price (330 rs per kilo), she changed her mind.

Now for the most important part.

IMG_20150130_114538 Yes, the travelling bit. Mahabaleshwar is mostly hills, lakes and scenic viewing points but you must not miss Mapro Garden at Panchgani, which is a delight for adults and children alike. There’s old and new Mahabaleshwar and also neighbouring areas like Wai, Panchgani and Tapola (Mini Kashmir). If you have three days on hand, you can set aside one for the dozen viewing points (many of which involve a lot of walking and climbing), one day for Mahabaleshwar and Panchgani and one for Wai and Tapola. Since I had only two days to travel, I decided to skip some of the places I’d already been to in my many childhood trips – namely the viewing points. I was more intrigued by Tapola a la ‘Mini Kashmir’. But on the first day, I did want to revisit some of my favourite spots around Mahabaleshwar and Panchgani. My research online told me that there were tourist buses operated by the government at affordable rates. Alas, when we reached the bus stand after an arduous walk, we found out that these buses were not operative. So my fervent advice to you is, if you’re going to Mahabaleshwar by public transport, please go in the peak season (summer or holiday times) so that you’re not at the mercy of the fleecing taxi drivers. However, if you’re travelling in the off season like I did, you’ll have the pleasure of not finding every attraction crawling with eager (and sometimes noisy) tourists. You’ll have more than a few moments of peace and for that, one taxi ride might just be worth it.

The dos and don’ts of taxi travelling.

IMG_20150130_130004 There are only three ways to travel around in Mahabaleshwar if you haven’t come in your own car or scooter:

  1. Resort bus, if they operate one. Ours didn’t.
  2. Local buses – this one is tricky because points are located far away from the bus stops and you may not be able to walk that much. Besides, timings are inflexible.
  3. Private or share taxis – you won’t get share taxis in the off-season.

Nearly all the taxi drivers will present you with the same rate card; so there isn’t much point in haggling with multiple drivers. Spend time with one driver until you get a favourable deal. My advice to you is to not follow the categorisation of packages they have. Pick the spots you really want to go to and get the driver to combine them and offer a rate you’re willing to pay. We picked the best of Mahabaleshwar and Panchgani and forked out a thousand rupees for one day. This was better than paying 600 rupees for all of Mahabaleshwar and another 700 rupees for all of Panchgani. If there are other people in your resort who haven’t brought their cars, it might be a good idea to combine forces. Also make sure that the driver allows you enough time at each destination; you don’t want to be rushed along before you’ve even soaked in the spirit of the place. Mahabaleshwar is really hot during the day (even in the winter) so if you want to avoid the worst of the sun, leave early.

If you’re short on time, skip Venna Lake.

IMG_20150131_144745 Venna Lake is one of the most popular attractions in Mahabaleshwar but if you’re short on time, please go to Shivsagar Lake at Tapola instead. There is no comparison between the two. Venna Lake was only a notch above Mumbai’s Powai Lake for me. Also, the steeply priced boat rides are hardly worth it. But Shivsagar Lake, with its resemblance to Kashmir’s Dal Lake and stunning bird’s eye view of islands and forts, is deserving of flowery odes. This one offers a much wider variety of water adventure sports and though expensive, they are worth it because the boats take you to many explore-worthy spots like Vasota Fort and Koyna Wildlife Sanctuary in the surrounding forests and islands. You can go camping at Tapola too, if you’re going to stay the night. Keep your eyes glued to your window during the drive from Mahabaleshwar to Tapola because you’ll be treated to the most spectacular views of this unimaginably large lake, with parts reminiscent of the Indian map. If you want to explore Tapola thoroughly, then start early and set aside the entire day for it because there will be islands, forts, villages, temples and sanctuaries on your itinerary, some of which involve long treks. It goes without saying that you should be dressed for the occasion.

Do NOT take a taxi to Tapola.

IMG_20150131_142752 IMG_20150131_151812 Take the ST bus, because the lake is a mere two minute walk from the bus stop. And the bus ticket costs 64 rupees for a return journey, versus the taxi ride which costs a laughable 1000 rupees. However, the last bus is at 6:30 PM so time yourself accordingly. If you can camp there for the night, I think that would be an experience to write home about. Although you’ll see families vying for the motor and speed boats, if hectic sight-seeing is not on your agenda, then take a leaf out of my boat and go primitive. Take a leisurely row boat ride and listen to the gentle splish splash of the clean, green water. Ask your rower about the history of the village and watch time slide by, second by second, as decreed by the majestic mountains and sleepy villages that circle the lake. Take your time watching the string of windmills rotate in the cool breeze and then feel your heart skip when your rower tells you that there are crocodiles beneath the calm surface! Incidentally, the 90 km long lake is a reservoir for the Koyna Dam. We had a late lunch in the evening at a little restaurant right next to the bus-stop and the delicious misal pav and mysterious ‘special chai’ sent us to food lover’s paradise.

Skip the waterfalls unless you’re going in the monsoons.

IMG_20150130_151908 IMG_20150130_153457 The trick to enjoying Mahabaleshwar is to change your itinerary as per the season. In the summer, the gardens and the lakes are a delight. In the winter, the mountain peaks and viewing points are veiled by curling fingers of mist, which means you may see very little in the wee hours of the morning. But what you do see will be mesmerising. And in the monsoons, the waterfalls and lakes will be plump to bursting and the mountains will be laden with the densest thickets of green you’ve ever seen. So, allow nature to tweak your expectations and your travel plans as well. Don’t let the taxi driver convince you to see Lingmala and Bhullar Falls in the dry summer because the disappointing trickle of water will conceal the majesty that is unleashed when the monsoon Gods dance across the earth. We did end up going to Lingmala Falls and although it wasn’t as bountiful as I recalled, I enjoyed the climb to the falls and the view of the mountains from atop. Also, the pond on the other side of the falls doesn’t dry up as easily and makes for a pretty sight as well.

Don’t miss the strawberry farms.

IMG_20150201_073937 IMG_20150201_074601 They’re everywhere and you need no invitation to see them. The two things I really took back from my trip to Mahabaleshwar were Green Valley Strawberry Farm and Shivsagar Lake at Tapola. Feasting your eyes on rows and rows of neatly planted strawberry saplings and ripe red fruits clinging to the earth – there’s nothing quite like it. The farm we visited combined strawberry plants with beautiful white, pink and red flowers, creating an immensely charming garden and its beauty was enhanced by the first rays of dawn, as we went really early in the day. Good luck resisting the temptation to feast on freshly picked strawberries after you visit one of these farms.

Other things to do.

IMG_20150130_123352 Other things you might want to do at Mahabaleshwar is release the child in you at Mapro Garden with its chocolate factory, life-sized fruits and cartoon characters and panoramic views of the nearby hillside; and ride on horses at Parsi Plateau. Both these delights are located at Panchgani and can be combined in a single day. If you have a shopping budget, splurge on beautiful kolhapuri chappals at the bazaar, which comes alive in the evening with glittering lights and colourful wares on display.

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