Life under the stars

Experience of an accidental discovery of a heritage property in the heart of a wildlife sanctuary and an impromptu visit at a boutique homestay

It rarely happens that you chance upon a 165-year-old property in the middle of a wildlife sanctuary, 2,700 m above sea level, where you have gone looking for mountain goats, barking deer, wild boars, porcupines, jays, thrushes and warblers. What’s more surprising: the place is neither haunted nor dilapidated. A little closer look reveals that it is actually a heritage hotel.  

Grand Oak Manor

I am talking about spotting the Tree of Life Resorts & Hotels’ 11-hideaway room property, Grand Oak Manor while we were at Binsar Wildlife Sanctuary, around 25 km northeast of Almora in Uttarakhand. The property is named after a 300-year-old oak tree in its premises. We soon find out, courtesy the property caretaker Saket that back in 1856, the then British Commissioner of Kumaon, General Sir Henry Ramsay had acquired this 26-acre piece of land to build his private home. “General Ramsay was a cousin of Lord Dalhousie, the then Viceroy of India. He had plans to spend his retired life here but had to leave for London where he later passed away at 77. And never came back. Almost three quarters of a century later, in 1931, the land was bought by Rai Bahadur Harkishan Lal Sah Gangola. Ever since, it has stayed with the family. The Tree of Life Resorts & Hotels took over the management of the property a few years back, opening its doors to guests offering them a taste of old-world charm and hospitality,” he tells us.

The reception at Grand Oak Manor

We enquire if he has a room available for us and he is too happy to offer the Writers’ Room, the Colonial Day ballroom. Opening towards the southern lawns of the property at the ground level, it has natural light beaming through its glass windows. Supporting the quaintness and beauty of the old world, each of the 350 sq ft room at Grand Oak Manor is lined along high-ceilinged corridors of the double-storeyed colonial building. The rooms are spread over the ground and the first floor, and each room comes with a balcony or a porch from where you can witness the spectacular view of the Himalayas. The attached bathrooms have running hot and cold water. 

The Writers’ Room

The accommodation is simple yet comfortable: teak wood furniture, bright bedspreads and rugs, and cosy fireside armchairs – all reminiscent of the Raj era. But reaching the property on four wheels can be a task, given the tough and steep terrain, especially the last 600-odd metres. You ideally need a four-wheel drive or seek help from Saket who has become a pro when it comes to ferrying guests up and down the hill with sharp hairpin bends en route in his four-wheel. We did the latter. He picked us from a distance of around eight km from the entry gate of Binsar Wildlife Sanctuary. This is also the point where stands the ancient 1,100-year-old Binsar Mahadev Temple, named after Veeneshwar, one of the many names of Lord Shiva. A local tells us that the temple is located at the centre of a mystical cross with important Shiva and Devi temples at a distance of 14 km in each of the four cardinal directions.

Located strategically atop a hill helps one get a spellbinding view of the majestic Himalayan peaks like Nanda Devi, Trishul, Chukhamba, Panchachuli and Shivling. The morning can be best utilised to get to the Zero Point, the highest point in Binsar, as you trek through the dense forest, spotting large lizards and huge spiders or, if you are lucky enough, the barking deer. You can also hear jay thrushes singing. I suggest you must always have a guide to assist you through the terrain which can be confusing, and dangerous as well. Another short trip can be to the Kasar Devi Temple which is one among the three places on earth – the other two being Machu Picchu in Peru and Stone Henge in England – that have the strongest geo-magnetic field, considered the best for meditation.  

The 1,100-year-old Binsar Mahadev Temple

As the property stands in a reserved and protected area, it is solely dependent on either sun or the diesel generator for power generation. The centralised heating system works on wood and PNG cylinders. But it is the traditional hot water bottle that keeps you warm in bed during nights which are chilly, to say the least. There is no television at the property, which means that the connection to outside ‘news’ is missing. If you are looking for some solitude and respite from the city cacophony, like us, this comes as a blessing. At the entry of Grand Oak Manor is a chapel, which we are told, was used by Ramsay and his family. It now lies in a strangely dilapidated condition with one half seemingly maintained while the other looks broken as if cursed.  

It is the night sky which seems to be the biggest blessing for us city-bred souls. Honestly speaking, never ever had we seen so many stars in our lives! In fact, we even spotted a few satellites moving in the dark sky as we sat for a round of post-dusk tea with some hot pakodas and sandwiches. But it is the hospitality which takes the cake and the cherry as well. Here, you are taken care of as at home, with the choicest of delicacies offered during your stay, be it the Continental spread or the local Kumaoni dishes. Devoid of excess oil and spices, each one is simply delicious. The staff is friendly and courteous.  

After a two-day bliss at this unique Tree of Life property, we started our return journey home in the plains, New Delhi. Now, this can be a tiring trip as it can take anywhere between 11-12 hours or perhaps more, especially with the roads in the Uttarakhand hills having given way at most places after monsoons this year. As we were about to reach Kaladhungi, from where the plains start, the sun had readied itself to retire for the day. Home was still around five hours away so we decided to drop anchor and started looking for a place to spend the night. This is when I remembered Saket talking about a Tree of Life property near Corbett. A call later, we were on way to Homestead Corbett Country near Kashipur.

In the absence of proper signboards, locating Homestead Corbett Country can be a tough task. But once inside, you feel like a king. Tired, we chose to have an early dinner and rest. Little had we thought of spending a day here but so hospitable are the owners, Anil and Amu Puri, that we couldn’t leave without experiencing this serene and calm getaway which surprisingly has its own six-hole golf course, a private airstrip and a small observatory.

Started as a beautiful home by the Puris, Homestead Corbett Country offers 10 hideaway rooms and two hideaway cottages set in lush green space are spread over the ground and first floor, each with its own private sit-out space. Each hideaway/ cottage is named after flora and fauna of the region, like Woodpecker, Kingfisher, Cheetal, Sambar, Kakkar, Hornbill, Koel, Magnolia, Gulmohar… Located 18 km from the Corbett National Park, it is surrounded by green farms and fruit trees. The property is an extension of the Terrai region and despite depleting forest cover, there is enough green around.

The Kingfisher Cottage

It was back in 1961 that Delhi boy Anil Puri, now 82, moved here after completing his graduation in agriculture from Allahabad Agriculture University. “When I came here in 1961, there was no electricity, loads of wildlife and limited resources. In fact, I stayed in a mud house for years,” recalls Puri. On what made them open a hotel, Puri is quick to correct you. “It is a home away from home and not a hotel. It was after we had lost our only son that our daughter suggested we started this as we loved having people around. The void he left in our life will always remain…,” he trails off.

Sambhar, The Superior Room

Unlike at Grand Oak Manor, each room here is air-conditioned and has a television, a mini-bar and a tea/ coffee maker. Located across the main building are two independent cottages, with a private garden and bright but soothing interiors. Like in Binsar, the food is simple but delicious. And Puris are a perfect host; they give you company for breakfast and lunch the next day. You can opt to have a quiet dinner with your folks at The Glenfern Restaurant or opt for in-room dining at a nominal charge.

Tara, the observatory

During our conversation at the dinner table, we get to know that the octogenarian is planning to open a Drone Training Academy in near future. “Just waiting for the permissions,” says Anil as he shares his experience of undertaking a flight in a micro-light aircraft from London to Nordkapp, the northernmost tip of Europe in 2015. “It took me and the flight instructor-cum-pilot, Deepak Mahajan, nine days and 45 hours of flying to traverse the 7,300 km distance,” his eyes lighting up as he reminisces the adventurous trip he took at 75.

Our biggest takeaway at Homestead Corbett Country was getting to watch the planets and hundreds and thousands of stars from Tara, the observatory Puris have passionately created. Housed here are two telescopes, one eight-inch and another, 14-inch, through which we travelled to Saturn and clearly saw its rings, Jupiter and its five moons as well as the brightest planet in the sky, Venus. What an experience! 

This article was published in BW hotelier issue dated '' with cover story titled 'INVESTMENT SPECIAL ISSUE VOL 7, ISSUE 6'


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