MARY BUDDEN ESTATE @ BINSAR
The name BINSAR had been echoing in my head since long and many birder friends who posted the images of birds on social media inadvertently rubbed in the fact that I had not been there. So with a perfect company, a ride on the new Shatabadi Express from New Delhi to Kathgodam, a beautiful two-night stay in a Kumaoni village en route and a newly acquired 600 mm telephoto zoom lens in hand, I impatiently looked forward to being there this January, especially since it was supposed to be cold and not the best time to visit. Nothing like going a place when there are no other tourists around. Binsar always conjured up images of magnificent Himalayan views, dense forest, colorful birds and beautiful walking trails.
Though I had already spent a couple of days going through the websites of many lodges which had sprung up there, an invitation from MARY BUDDEN ESTATE came just in time which also meant visiting their home stay in a nearby village called DALAR, that it promoted and maintained. The latest trend of mingling with the locals by staying with them in their own village had been gaining immense popularity and this visit would have allowed me the chance to explore that aspect. So with an intention of staying at the Estate and still explore the village home-stay on a walk, I headed for this long awaited break. As one enters the Sanctuary and drives past many lodges, this one is located right on top of the hill, where the road literally finishes and reaches a dead end.
Having experienced luxury in some of the world’s best hotels, lodges and resorts, a stay at MARY BUDDEN ESTATE for 2 nights exposed me to another high. This was luxury redefined. How a small and boutique estate with a handful of cottages tucked away in the Himalayas can give a run for money to the best names in hospitality business is better experienced than explained. The estate is spread over five acres of land at 8000 ft above sea level. It is one of the very few privately owned estates in the Sanctuary and has been beautifully restored, retaining its original charm & character. It is named after Ms Mary Budden who lived here in early 20th century and ran schools, hospitals, refuges and orphanages for the locals. There is even a church to her name in Almora, where a plaque in her memory still stands. The ownership of the Estate changed hands many times till it landed with the current owners in 1990, who nurtured the place to perfection.
The friendly Resort Manager, Sugandha, not only received us at the gate with her three pets but also passionately showed us cottages, common alfresco sitting area, dining rooms, viewpoints, in-house temple, library, her own room that received first rays of the sun every morning, kitchen etc. Having spent a few years in the mountains, her nom-de-plume, the Mountain-girl seemed apt. A multi-talented bubbly young girl, she was the first of many USPs in the lodge that we came across. For two days we thoroughly enjoyed listening to her experiences of life in the Sanctuary, that included encounters with the wild, interactions with interesting guests, severe snowfall, dearth of water, spotting leopards, forest fires, and some other interesting challenges that came in the package. Many of the stories highlighted our wintry evenings along with mulled wine, bonfire and starry skies.
Each cottage at the Estate has a private dining area, where food is prepared only for you, as per your choice. The local chef, who has been trained in Delhi can churn out the most exotic dishes from across the globe using local herbs and spices that will wow your taste buds. He will spend time with you before each meal to understand your dietary preferences and later surprise you with his skills. On our first evening there, the four course meal started with salad that had freshly picked rocket leaves, cherry tomatoes, parmesan cheese and honey glazed tender chicken chunks. This was accompanied with lentil soup flavored with condiments that the pepper mill evenly sprinkled in the bowl. The Tiramisu dessert that was followed by a surprise chocolate fudge cake, could put any baker & confectioner to shame. The Estate has picked up all the staff from nearby villages and has invested in them so they are able to cater to a diverse clientele from across the globe.
From Yoga Gurus, Motivational Speakers, Writers, Honeymooners and High-end travelers to nature lovers, birders, walkers, photographers- everyone comes to Binsar and to Mary Budden Estate. The owner’s exquisite taste reflects in everything in the room and in the common areas. A photographer par excellence with many coffee table books to her credit, Serena Chopra is also an authority on Bhutan, where she spent many years studying, photographing and researching its people. Various artifacts, shelves, side tables, paintings, thankas, wall hangings, book racks and chests at the Estate have been sourced from Bhutan that endorse her love for the Himalayan Kingdom. Each room also has a fireplace with adequate supply of coal outside, to last through the cold nights. The shivering cold weather forces one to spend the evenings lounging by the fireplace in the cozy room while quietly sipping a cognac, munching on roasted peanuts, and catching up on reading that has become a luxury in the fast-paced city life. So serene and quiet are the nights here that the only soft sound one hears is of embers flickering up occasionally while warming the room, and crickets outside in the forest, who never seem to tire.
The Estate provides tranquility and peace that is rare. It also holds many retreats every now and then for Yoga, Writing, Birding & Photography and the schedule is available on the website. It is the same website that has images of the Estate that do not do any justice to its beauty and character. This could be a marketing gimmick to under play and exceed all expectations later, but I was told by the Manager that the website was being revamped and would soon be up and running.
As I sunk myself into the comfy bed which had the finest linen and pillows by the best brands that money can buy, I once again marveled at everything in the room and wondered at the painstaking efforts that had gone into the tasteful detailing that left nothing else to be desired.
Following morning we decided to take a short walk to the nearby Govt. lodge where one gets the best view of the peaks. The Estate has an arrangements so all the guests here get to visit the terrace without any hassle or permissions
Later, as I enjoyed the breakfast service with some French press coffee, many birds kept diverting my attention and making me reach for my camera. The friendly pets continued to play in the sun and had a field day.
Then, we decided to walk to the village nextdoor which was an easy 1 hour flat walk, with the last part being off the main road on the forested path. The small village with a population of probably 100 people had stand-alone houses and one of them was refurbished with comfortable interiors to ensure consistency with the comforts of the Estate. The duplex house has a room with fireplace and en-suite loo on the ground floor with a sit out looking into the valley. On the first floor it has another room, balcony and a terrace for basking in the sun with a view of towering pine and deodar trees that seem to be whispering to the sky above.
The house, i was told, was taken on lease from one of the staff at the Estate. This not only guaranteed a monthly income to the owner, but also provided the visitor a once-in-a-lifetime experience of living like a local in a remote Indian village.
The local family that takes care of meals and upkeep of the home stay is barely 20 meters away and it ensures that guests are well looked after.
Next day it was sad to leave as there was still a lot to be seen and experienced. A short, two-night stay was just not enough to enjoy the laidback lifestyle here. How i wish there was time to trek on a few more grassy trails, observe a few more sunsets, hear some more birds, play some more with the friendly dogs, sleep a night or two in the village house, star gaze at night, finish another book by the fireplace, feast on some more delicacies etc. As i checked out and made my way to the Kathgodam station, the song “Feeling Groovy” by Simon & Garfunkel played in my mind and i hummed it all the way downhill to the plains-
“Slow down, you move too fast, You got to make the morning last, Just kicking down the cobblestones, Looking for fun and feeling groovy, Ba da da da da da da, feeling groovy”
Vagabond Shoes, 1 Nov’ 2016
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