Mahabaleshwar – Where Time Stands Still

Mahabaleshwar is a popular hill station in Maharashtra that was once the summer capital of the British Raj.  The drive from Mumbai via the Mumbai-Pune Expressway takes approximately five hours.

Stopping en route for vada pav is a must.

Stopping en route for vada pav is a must.

Our small Hyundai hatchback was struggling to scale the slopes of the Western Ghats to Mahabaleshwar.  The weight of four adults with accompanying baggage, the steep inclines and the car’s air conditioning were undoubtedly contributing to our slow pace.  Obnoxious Tata Sumos and Mahindra Scorpios filled to the brim with extended families honked and zoomed past us, risking head-on collisions and rollovers for a few more minutes on the hill.  Having been on the road for almost five hours, Malika, Sharnita and I were probably just as impatient to reach the top, only our restlessness took a less dangerous yet arguably more irritating form – every few minutes we would take turns asking each other, “How much more time?” to which the response would inevitably be “Arrey, God only knows.”  We switched off the A/C and played “20 Questions” to speed things up but with no luck – those last 30 kilometers still felt like an eternity.

I hadn’t been to Mahabaleshwar in almost 20 years and had pretty much zero recollection of the place.  This was effectively my first trip there and I was excited about finally visiting a place that holds such a special space in the lives of my friends in Mumbai.  With The Club, strawberries and cream, cool weather and numerous lookout points, this weekend was going to be about overdosing on the simple pleasures that I’m often deprived of back home.

It was around 1pm when we finally reached The Club and our friends, Gautam and Merzia, were waiting for us to eat. They had arrived a day earlier and were already looking pretty Zen (we later discovered that they were actually just comatose from a very heavy breakfast). The Club, which was established in the late 19th century by a few British Army officers, is the place to stay in Mahabaleshwar if you’re a member or lucky enough to know one.  Its solid red brick buildings overflow with old world charm and exude an aura of permanence – they’ve been standing strong for over 130 years and chances are high that they’ll be around for at least 100 more.  Outside the dining room in the Club House is where you’ll find the noticeboard or as I like to call it, the “No”ticeboard.  There are so many rules and codes of conduct here that I felt I was back to being a student at Kodaikanal International School.  Click here to see what I mean.

The Club, Mahabaleshwar

The Club, Mahabaleshwar

Unlike my boarding school’s food, however, The Club’s meals, which consisted of unlimited helpings from vegetarian and non-vegetarian set menus, are the stuff of legend and definitely worth writing home about.  While breadsticks and soup are always served at the beginning of lunch and dinner, the rest of the meal is as diverse as it gets – during our two-day stay we had everything from pizza to salli boti.

The lunch menu one day.

The lunch menu one day.

The ladies on the way to Lodwick Point.

The ladies on the way to Lodwick Point.

After a heavy lunch and a much needed siesta, we decided to shake-off our grogginess by leaving The Club’s grounds to watch the sunset from one of Mahabaleshwar’s famous lookout points.  Lodwick Point, named after the first Englishman to step foot in Mahabaleshwar, seemed like the perfect choice because it wasn’t too far.  From the Lodwick Point parking lot, it’s about a 15-minute walk uphill on a dark orange dirt path to the actual lookout point.  Having foolishly worn white suede sneakers, I was careful to land each foot as parallel to the ground as possible to avoid kicking up dust.  I was proud about my technique until a horse galloped past, forming a cumulus orange cloud that instantly transformed my sneakers into a pair of clown shoes.

Once at Lodwick Point, the five of us joined dozens of other tourists to pose for photographs against the stunning backdrop.  Despite being dry in mid-April, the hills were a deep, dark green due to one of the country’s few evergreen forests that surrounded us.  The sun descended, a fog rolled in and the air turned nippy – it was refreshing to finally feel a crisp breeze that wasn’t being blown forcefully from an air conditioner.

Lodwick Point at sunset.

Lodwick Point at sunset.

Before heading back to The Club for dinner, we made a pit stop at Madhusagar to buy some fresh honey to take back home.  There are at least half a dozen types so ask for a taste if you don’t know your jambhul from your hirda-gela.  I sure as hell don’t.  When you visit, be sure to notice the subtly ingenious honeycomb design on the building’s façade.  The photographs of beekeepers with bees carpeting their face also warrant some “Woahs”.

Honeys and jams at Madhusagar.

Honeys and jams at Madhusagar.

Back at The Club, we uncorked some wine while Gautam’s iPhone streamed tunes from an app called Songza.  Songza’s editors curate playlists based on particular activities and situations, such as “Indie Apartment Party” or “Pacific Coast Highway Drive”.  I’m not sure which playlist Gautam was streaming at the time but it might as well have been called “Drinking on a Balcony in Mahabaleshwar with Some Friends”.  Yup, it was that spot-on.

The next day, it was time for me to be a wide-eyed tourist and experience everything that’s quintessentially Mahabaleshwar.  The first stop then naturally had to be at a Mapro sales counter at one end of the bazaar.  Over 50 years old and located near Mahabaleshwar, Mapro is one of India’s largest manufacturers of fruit stuffs, including jams, beverage concentrates and candy.  If you’re looking for all-natural and organic produce, then give this place a skip – processed sugar is usually the most important ingredient in their products.  I just bought a small bag of Falero raw mango jelly sweets, which were pretty good.

The Mapro shop in the bazaar.

The Mapro shop in the bazaar.

We continued down the main bazaar road and stepped into a famous saree shop called Pallod Creations and a shoe store called Prabhat Footwear that specializes in colorful Kolhapuri chappals and men’s loafers.  The loafers run between Rs. 2,000 and Rs. 2,500 depending on the style (from basic to Gucci knockoffs) and finish of the leather.  I’d recommend all men to get a pair, especially if you need closed shoes for meals at The Club.

Customers at Pallod Creations.

Customers at Pallod Creations.

Kolhapuri chappals galore at Prabhat.

Kolhapuri chappals galore at Prabhat.

Another Mahabaleshwar institution worth visiting is Mama Chanawala where you can buy fresh, dried chickpeas powdered with flavors such as lemon, masala and mint.  Feel free to ask for samples before you buy – my favorites are lemon and mint.

This photo says it all - Mama Chanawala.

This photo says it all – Mama Chanawala.

After another massive lunch back at The Club, we somehow managed to make our way to Venna Lake to play some games at the nearby fair.  Dozens of stalls seemed to be frozen in time, offering decades-old games like mini basketball and ring toss.  The only indication that we were in fact playing in the year 2014 came from the posters of Bollywood stars that lined the stalls’ walls.  Deepika Padukone and Ranbir Kapoor posed against colorful backdrops that must have once highlighted the stars of yesteryear such as Manisha Koirala, Urmila Matondkar and Jackie Shroff.  In the end, we ended up paying about Rs. 200 for prizes worth Rs. 20.  A poor investment, yes, but it was a lot of fun doing something different out in the open.  Soon it started to drizzle and I spent a few minutes watching families eat freshly roasted corn, ride horses and play games in the rain.

Bollywood stars cheer Malika on from the sidelines.

Bollywood stars cheer Malika on from the sidelines.

The horses here look a lot healthier than the ones in Mumbai.

The horses here look a lot healthier than the ones in Mumbai.

No trip to Mahabaleshwar is complete without strawberries and cream and one of the most popular places to have it is at Bagicha Corner.  Grab a seat and you’ll suddenly find yourself surrounded by banners dotted with photographs of the rich and famous who once visited this establishment.  From the Ambani’s to a random foreigner, many “influencers” seem to (perhaps unknowingly) attest to the quality of Bagicha’s sweets and savories.  We ordered a couple plates of fried corn patties and two glass mugs of strawberries and cream.  The patties were tasty, but our enthusiasm was dampened when we found a long curly hair embedded in one of the balls.  The strawberries and cream were no doubt delicious but Merzia and I thought that the strawberries were fresh out of the freezer.  Hmmm…maybe that’s why there weren’t any pictures of newer Bollywood stars above us?  Or maybe they’re just too busy partying in Dubai and London?

Hey, a foreigner has been here.  Awesome!

Hey, a foreigner has been here. Awesome!

The corn patties before the discovery.

The corn patties before the discovery.

The strawberries and cream sans crush.

The strawberries and cream sans crush.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We skipped a Chinese dinner at The Club for Italian with my parents who were staying at Brightland, one of Mahabaleshwar’s longest-running resorts.  Its restaurant, Olive Garden (no relationship to the U.S. chain), seemed to have been recently renovated with its minimal and modern décor a stark contrast to the homely atmosphere of The Club.  The food was fantastic – pizzas were thin and light and the pastas were cooked perfectly.

The next morning, we loaded our hatchback and started off on our journey back to Mumbai.  The car, like its passengers, seemed refreshed with newfound energy after spending a couple nights in the hills.  Although it seemed sluggish just two days ago, it now zoomed down the ghats and zipped in and out of traffic like a nimble sports car.  I have to admit that when I look back on that weekend, nothing particularly incredible or memorable stands out.  However, for some reason, I felt more fulfilled after Mahabaleshwar than I have after visiting many other Indian destinations.  Maybe it was the lack of exposure to LED screens or maybe it was just the great company.  Or perhaps it was the surrounding greenery or peace at The Club, luxuries that I just don’t have back in Mumbai.  I’m sure that all of these had a part to play in my contentment, but I think the main one is the fact that Mahabaleshwar has managed to hold on to the simple things that make it unique without exploiting them for explosive growth.  And thank goodness for that.  The last thing we need is another Indian destination that’s overly crowded, polluted and full of cafés that serve banana pancakes.  Mahabaleshwar, hopefully it won’t be another 20 years before I see you again.  But until then, please don’t change.

Good Things to Know:

  • From Mumbai to Mahabaleshwar, you’ll have to pay a total of around Rs. 500 in toll fees.
  • In Panchgani, you’ll have to pay Rs. 50 in pollution tax.
  • In Mahabaleshwar, you’ll have to pay Rs. 50 in pollution tax and Rs. 20 per person in road passenger taxes.

You can follow me on Instagram at hershkumbhani.

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