We visited the mountain town or ‘hill station’ of Shimla in late November 2015. From Chennai we reached Shimla via a one-stop flight to Chandigargh. Before boarding our early morning flight we stopped at the airport Krispy Kreme where I had to try the locally featured ‘Elaichi Pista’ (Cardamom Pistachio) donut. Even though I am not much of a donut fan, I do like cardamom and all things green. It was sweet, really sweet, too sweet. But an excellent presentation.
Our flight was followed by a 3 1/2 hour drive that covered a short distance but traversed many, many switchbacks up and down the foothills of the Himalayas. Motion sickness is rare for me but threatened as the drive wore on, and two of our travelers did not fare so well. Our day-long journey ended, thankfully, at sunset at the Oberoi Cecil Hotel.
The hotel itself began as a structure built by the British in the late 1800s and Rudyard Kipling reportedly spent time there writing. Of Shimla he wrote “My month’s leave at Simla, or whatever Hill Station my people went to, was pure joy—every golden hour counted. It began in heat and discomfort, by rail and road. It ended in the cool evening, with a wood fire in one’s bedroom, and next morn—thirty more of them ahead!—the early cup of tea, the Mother who brought it in, and the long talks of us all together again.” We could certainly relate to an arduous journey followed by the welcome cool evening, and more distantly back in Texas, to re-joining our parents for long conversation over coffee or tea after being so far away.
The wonderful people at the Oberoi Cecil made for an unforgettable stay in Shimla. They served delicious food, offered elegantly appointed and tremendously comfortable rooms, and even trained and certified our young children for basic bar tending skills! The hotel has been restored to its earlier grandeur. The setting reminded me of The Brown Palace hotel in Denver which is a high compliment to both places.
Shimla sits a little over 7,000 feet above sea level. The cool weather – especially in the mornings and evenings when the temperatures hovered in the low 50s – provided a refreshing break from the south Indian heat. Even at such a high altitude, and somewhat to our dismay, it warmed up to the low 70s during the day. All in all, though, the weather remained pleasant. It is easy to understand why Shimla served as the summer capital of British India and remains a popular destination today.
Mall Road and The Ridge
We spent a good deal of our time in town walking up – way up – and then back down the famous Mall Road. In addition to the welcome exercise, Mall Road offered shops, restaurants, and lots and lots of monkeys.
A friend warned us about the aggressive monkeys here. One monkey in a tree saw me take a picture, stared at me for a few seconds with an angry look, then threw down the nut he was eating and started towards me. Another monkey managed to terrify and disperse a crowd of about twelve people on the road. Not to worry, they are manageable, but watch out for the monkeys in Shimla!
Mostly, it was nice to get out into the fresh air and stroll around the Mall. We also found some of Shimla’s amazing embroidery and woolen apparel in the many shops there.
Hanuman, the Monkey God, stands high over Shimla on Jakhoo Hill at an altitude of 8100 feet, himself 108 feet tall. Apparently the Hanuman Temple is where you can really find some monkeys.
We enjoyed more than one meal at Wake & Bake on Mall Road, which offered friendly service and an extensive menu. We also paid repeat visits to a coffee house and ice cream stand, the latter conveniently adjacent to a shop selling beautiful hand-woven cotton blankets.
People stayed out on Mall Road well into the night. The lights and cooler air made for pleasant evening strolls.
The Ridge continues upward from the highest point of Mall Road. It is known for its amazing wooden crafts at the Lakkar Bazaar. We needed an extra suitcase after leaving this shop.
Also situated on The Ridge is Christchurch Cathedral, built in 1857 for the British Christian population there. It remains active today and is the second largest church in Northern India.
The Viceregal Lodge
We arrived here by walking up another steep incline in the opposite direction from Mall Road. The British built this lodge in 1888 and it now serves as a center for the Indian Institute of Advanced Study. Significant historical events took place here including the 1947 meeting focused on the partition of Pakistan. Walking through the outside grounds and the hallways of the lodge made it easy to imagine this place during the time of the British Raj. Shimla had such appeal that in addition to being made the British summer Capital in 1863, the Indian Commander in Chief made its headquarters here, and the government of Punjab in 1876 relocated its summer Capital here from Murree, in present-day Pakistan.
We went on a few excursions during our five days here. We took a train ride on the Kalka-Shimla Railway, a narrow-gauge British era UNESCO World Heritage Site train. We traveled from Shimla to Tara Devi, crossing dizzying high bridges and enjoying spectacular mountain views. Throughout the trip some local riders kept to the practice of hanging out the open doors for what must have been an even more exhilarating experience.
Tara Devi Temple
A car met us at Tara Devi station and took us to the famous Tara Devi Temple. ‘Tara’ in Sanskrit means ‘star’ and this high up we felt closer to the stars. The temple sits high on a mountain top, and ascending to it in the car alone offered plenty of excitement.
We indulged in lunch and the lush grounds of Wildflower Hall one cool afternoon. It is about a 45 minute drive and a little higher up from Shimla. It too has a storied history dating from the 1800s and the decor reflects its British heritage. Its open green space made for great running and playing for the children. The restaurant offered breathtaking views of the mountains. The food which included many local choices lived up to the scenery.
Back in Shimla
Our last night and day in Shimla we spent – where else? – back on Mall Road and The Ridge. We miss going on neighborhood walks and tried to get as much walking in as we could before leaving.
Shimla has never been easy to get to, from the 1800s up through today. Having been there, all the efforts people have made over the years to relocate to Shimla or visit it make perfect sense. It is definitely worth the trip.