An Insider’s Travel Guide to Shimla & Manali Hill Station
“Ok, I am on platform number 21 but I can only see DTC buses here”. I told Shefali on the phone. My intuitions were telling me that something is wrong, Shefali on the other side of the phone also felt the same way. I once more confirmed with her and said “Shefu, It is platform in Anand Vihar ISBT right” and her reply shook my world for few cold-sweating seconds, “I-t i-s I-S-B-T Kashmiri Gate”. The adrenaline rush is hard to explain, for a moment I believed that heart was the only thing that I had in my body. Our bus to Shimla was scheduled at 9.00 PM and when I checked the watch, it was 9:05 PM! And I was standing in a wrong bus station. I didn’t know what to do! Pacing my speed I reached for an auto and asked him to right away take me to Kashmiri Gate ISBT. What a great start of one of the most anticipated trips of my life!
I finally managed to reach the right ISBT at 9.25 PM, where Shefali and Hemant were waiting for me with a new bus tickets in hands. The next bus for Shimla was scheduled to depart at 9.30PM. A sigh of relief crossed the faces of my two friends who were waiting right outside the Volvo bus. Ok the trio was finally ready to hit the road, taste the real adventure and most importantly learn some useful travelling lessons…
Shimla… The Jack of Holidays
Lesson 1: Bookings and Commutation for Shimla
There are many buses that run between Delhi and Shimla, HPTDC and RSTRC are two bus services that are operated by state government of Himachal Pradesh and Rajasthan respectively. Along with the state-run buses there are many private bus operators also that offer good services between the two destinations. There are two buses in the evening for Shimla from Kashmiri Gate ISBT (I would never forget this piece of information…LOL) operated by HPTDC at 9.00 PM and 9.30 PM. The fare is about Rs 850 (to be precise Rs 824) and it takes about 5.5hrs to 7hrs to reach Shimla (depending upon the weather condition). The tickets are available online on the hptdc site or you can directly go to the ticket counter at Kashmiri Gate bus station to get it in advance.
Kalka-Shimla Toy Train, Kalka Railway Station
The best way to reach Shimla by train is to make Delhi your base. There are number of trains that run between Delhi and Kalka like Himalayan Queen (5.45 AM), Kalka Mail (9.25 PM), Kalka Shatabdi (5.15 PM) and Pashchim Experss (11.05 AM). The famed Kalka-Shimla Toy Train takes passengers on an unmatched journey to Shimla. The Himalayan Queen (12.10 PM), Shivalik Deluxe Express (5.30 AM) and the Rail Motor Car (5.10 AM) are the trains that run between Kalka and Shimla every day. The journey between Kalka and Shimla usually takes about 5hrs to 7hrs.
…I don’t know if I should call myself crazy for choosing winters as the time to travel to Shimla and Manali, but deciding to visit without a pre booking of hotel in Shimla that too at the time of New Years can certainly be called madness! The rush was maddening and so were we, how can we not book a hotel in Shimla during New Years in advance! The bus dropped us at Shimla’s Old Bus Station at 5.30 AM; it had snowed a day before we reached Shimla and was raining since last night, the weather was in full Kolaveri Di mood! Obvious as it seems, we didn’t book any hotel, so had to stand under a tin-shed to save ourselves till a shabby looking man offered to carry our luggage and find us a hotel, we agreed and the adventure of finding a hotel in Shimla began. After a 45 minute episode of refusal, negotiation and getting drenched in the rain, we finally found a place (Hotel Dreamland) to call our own! In order to enjoy your holiday in Shimla and Manali, it is better to make all the bookings in advance or else let the tour operators carry all you burden. There are number of good travel agencies in India that offer excellent tour packages for Shimla and Manali.
Lesson 2: Hotel Bookings
Shimla is replete with number of good hotels that range from luxury 5 stars to low budget hotels. But, if you have plans to travel in summer to Shimla or during the New Year (Like Us), it is better book a hotel in advance. Most of the hotels in Shimla are located on the side of the Mall Road and towards the Kali Bari Temple. A three star hotel in Shimla will cost somewhere around Rs 2500 per day, whereas a budget hotel will cost around Rs 900 per day except during summers and New Year, when one experiences an annoying hike in tariffs. Most of the hotels offer sightseeing packages and sometimes even refuses booking if the tourist disagrees on taking the package (we experienced it). It is not a bad idea to opt for the packages offered by the hotel, especially, if it is your first time to visit Shimla. Anyways, a decent bargaining quality can win you a comfortable stay at affordable prices. People are often sweet to tourists and smile gently, even if they say No for an accommodation…LOL.
… None of us could catch a peaceful sleep last night and right after checking in the small hotel that we managed to earn for ourselves at critical time of New Year, we decided to take a nap before heading out in the chilly and breezy weather of Shimla. Although a bit hungry, I decided to suppress the call of the stomach…and soon fell asleep with the thought of heading Mall Road and eating some sumptuous delicacy…
Lesson 3: Eateries and Restaurants in Shimla
I wouldn’t consider Shimla a good place for foodies; however, there are couples of good restaurants that help you stay away from starving. If you enjoy Chinese and Tibetan cuisines then you can visit Aunty Ka Dhaba and China Town, but if you are not sure what should you eat in Shimla, you can try going to multi-cuisine restaurants like the one in Hotel Combermere called Seventh Heaven. The food and the ambiance are fantastic; in fact it is one of the best places to eat in Shimla. If you have a sweet tooth, Honey Hut in the Mall Road is the place for you, as the name suggests, the restaurant offer everything with topped with extra honey. A must try here is the Donut. There is a cluster of restaurants in the market area near Mall Road that only serves vegetarian food. Baljees, Ashiana & Goofa, Silver Oak, Wake and Bake Café, Indian Coffee House, the Restaurant at Holiday Home, Quilla, and Devicos 5 are some popular eateries in Shimla.
…You just cannot underestimate the power of a Nap! The sleep indeed did some good to us. We woke up by 12.00 PM, the room was freezing cold, Shefali looked out of the window and informed that it was raining. Getting up from a cozy bed was the least thing anyone of us wanted to do, but my stomach was knocking from inside continuously reminding of my duty towards it. Like always Shefali was the first one to get out of the bed and finding the source of inspiration I dragged myself out of the cozy bed. We got ready and left for the most famous place in Shimla and the most obvious one too: the Ridge and the Mall Road…
Lesson 4: Attractions and Activities in Shimla
The Ridge, Shimla
The Ridge and the Mall Road are the most popular Shimla sightseeing places. A flat area with an array of shops and eateries is how I will describe the Mall Road. There are ample of shops that are ideal for shopping of gifts, woolen and wood items. The locally brewed apple, plum, apricot, cider, ginger and grape wine are also sold on the Mall Road. Minchys is a shop that sells locally made squashes and jams (A good bit to take home!). There are many places to buy handicrafts items, but Himachal Emporium on the Mall Road is the best place to purchase handicrafts in Shimla. Situated on the Mall Road is another spectacle called Viceregal Lodge. This colonial style building is worth visiting. The Ridge is a flat area located above the Mall Road; it is one of the most popular places for locals and tourists to hang around at. The centrally located Christ Church is the landmark of the place. Tourists here are mostly seen lingering in the Ridge while munching on sweet corns, momos and popcorns. A view of the distant lofty mountains from here is commendable.
One place that intrigues almost all tourists is the Jakhu Temple. Situated on the highest peak of Shimla, Jakhu Temple is dedicated to the monkey god Hanuman. The 10m long Hanuman marks the identity of the temple. A long uphill climb rewards you with a distinct place that offers a splendid overview of Shimla city. One can also hire a cab to reach the temple but a long nature walk is worth the effort. Other sacred places to visit in Shimla are Kali Bari Temple and the Tara Devi Temple.
Shimla Water Catchment Wildlife Sanctuary, Shimla
Shimla Water Catchment Sanctuary is yet another tourist destination in Shimla. Fringed with Pine and Cedar trees this sanctuary is a good place to watch barking deer, goral, flying squirrel, pine marten, porcupine and leopard. There are also a large number of birds that one can see. Trekking is one of the prime activities that can be enjoyed in Shimla. The local mountain trekking is quiet popular amongst the local and tourists. Annadale, The Glen, Wildflower Hall and Mashobra are the places that one can trek from Shimla city.
Attractions and Activities around Shimla
View from Shimla-Kufri Road, Shimla
Prospect Hill and Kamna Devi (6kms), Chadwick Falls (7kms), Mashobra (12kms), Kufri (16kms from Shimla), Chail (45kms), Tattapani (51kms from Shimla), are other few places for the tourists to visit. A visit to the zoo and the amusement park in Kufri (16kms from Shimla) and ice skating in Kufri and Chail are your options for activities in Shimla. Narkanda (65kms) and Tattapani are great places to enjoy skiing and other winter sports. Bihargaon is another good place to visit while you are in Shimla.
A Yak Named Badal in Kufri, Shimla
…The chilly weather was the real challenge, but we the Three Musketeers were ready to take up anything but boredom. The visit to the Mall Road and the Ridge was fun, with the variety of things Shimla offered, we preferred taking back locally made wines in apple, plum and grape flavours with us. Despite the chills, the Ridge was crowded; the reason was obvious as it was 31st of December (New Year’s Eve). We spent the entire evening hanging around the Mall and the Ridge, the crowd started to bustle more at around 11.30 pm and by 12.00 am, the streets were filled with pretty much drunken yet harmless cheerful crowd… The three of us hugged and wished each other, we were glad to be in Shimla and most of all glad to be together, celebrating our friendship and praying for another year of unconditional love for each other. A group of drunken guys approached us and wished in the gentlest of all manners, we smiled back in return. It was a light social ambiance and we were lovin’ it! We reached hotel and soon fell asleep, the next day was scheduled for the most popular travel destination in Himachal Pradesh… Manali!
Manali… The Queen of Hill Stations
Shefali dragged me out of the bed, screaming like a mad woman, “You guys have 10 minutes! The cab is waiting for us outside.” Hemant occupied the washroom like always, leaving me only with an option to hit the road without freshening up. So here we were Shefali dressed best, Hemant all freshened up and I looking like a potato sack, sitting on the back seat of the Indica V2. First day of the year and we were heading for beautiful Manali, what more could I ask for? Eh…Except of freshening up before the journey (my stomach was making funny noises again). It was a long journey, so, I decided to take a short nap…
Lesson 5: Manali Bookings and Commutation
Manali is situated at a distance of approximately 257kms from Shimla and the best way to go to Manali from Shimla is by cab, although there are many buses available between the two cities. You can book cab online, most of them have fix prices but some are taxis charge Rs 9 to Rs 15 per kilometer. HPTDC (AC and Non AC) and Himgiri Tours and Adventure run buses between Shimla and Manali. The average fare is about Rs 500. It takes about 5 to 7 hours to reach Manali, so it is best to leave early from Shimla (Unlike us, who slept and delayed departure from Shimla). Keeping on the National Highway 21 and 22, one can reach Manali. The route is comfortable and beautiful, with lot of fascinating turns.
View from Shimla-Manali Road
… When I woke up, we were only 100kms away from Shimla, Boy I slept like a baby… the side of the roads were covered with snow, the driver told us that it has been snowing in Manali for since yesterday. Hemant’s smile said it all, he was elated as it was his first time to see snow. Shefali and I on the other side were happy for the fact that we will be trying skiing for the first time…We reached by 7.00 pm in Manali, by then it was dark and of course cold. Hemant was acting like a kid; he was thrilled with the sight of heavy snow. We finally reached the hotel and were shocked…this must be a joke!! Honeymoon Inn…
Lesson 6: Hotels and Homestays in Manali
You are spoilt for choices in Manali as it is replete with hotels and homestays that fit every budget. The sides of the Mall Road are lined with hotels; however there are many resorts and homestays have been located at a short distance from Manali. You can choose from luxury resorts, budget hotels, 3 stars, 4 stars, guesthouses and homestays. For the nature lovers it is best to choose hotels that are away from the bustling Mall Road area, for people vacationing with family, the well-aligned hotels in the Mall Road in Manali are ideal and for the honeymoon couples the resorts on the Kullu-Manali road suits the best, although you can find many in city as well. Homestays are preferred in Manali but make sure that bookings are made well in advance. The spectacular view from the windows of the hotels in Manali is what fascinates the tourists the most.
…Honeymoon Inn!! “Are you out of your mind?!” Shefali yelled at Hemant. I on the other side couldn’t stop laughing; the scene was bizarre, crazy and getting worse. “You booked us at honeymoon inn?? Why??!”, Shefali was continuously yelling and more than a fact that three of us were standing at awkward place, it was rather embarrassing to see the way Shefali was reacting to it, she was again a mad woman (just like today’s morning when she dragged me out of the bed!). Not her fault actually, I mean, Hemant took adventure all the way to a new level! LOL! After few burning moments, we decided to head for another hotel on the outskirts of the city. Nobody was talking to each other, although Hemant and I exchanged grins occasionally. Hungry, tired and cold we finally made it to White Mist hotel, situated on Manali-Naggar Highway, it was decent place with cozy rooms. We ordered food, ate and slept like babies only to wake up to a fun-filled day that would start with a scrumptious breakfast…
Lesson 7: Eateries and Restaurants in Manali
The hotels in the Mall Road area are accompanied with a good alignment of restaurants and eateries in Manali. Many serve continental cuisine along with Indian cuisine. Most of the restaurants are moderately priced and offer satisfactory food. However, Old Manali is a better place to look for some lip smacking delights. The restaurants in Old Manali are fewer yet well organized (I guess, the existence of a large foreign crowd in this area have influenced the quality of food). Olive Pizza, Moondance Café and a Spanish restaurant (near the bridge to Old Manali) are some good places to eat in Old Manali. In New Manali, Khyber, Sa Ba and Johnson’s Bar and Restaurant are amongst the best places to eat. Where Khyber serves delectable Indian cuisine, Johnson bar and Restaurant is an Italian eating joint in Manali. Other than these one can try eating at Mom’s Kitchen, Gozy, Chopsticks and IL Forno. There are many Tibetan eateries in Manali that offer passable food. The Dhabas on the way to Rohtang Pass also serve some yummilicious snacks and food.
Trout Fish, Hotel White Mist, Manali
…Finally some sunshine in Manali, the bright shining sun cheered our morning. We decided to head out for breakfast. Gearing ourselves with layer of clothing, we headed out for Johnson’s Bar and Restaurant for breakfast. After a yummy tummy filling breakfast, dashed out for sightseeing in Manali…
Lesson 8: Attractions and Activities in Manali
To be honest, the main Manali city has few things to offer, in other words the city is merely a base camp to see the surrounding areas. The Hadimba Temple and Maa Sharvari Temple are the attractions in Manali. Along with these, Manali is also famed for its Buddhist monasteries; the Manali Gompa is amongst the best places to see in Manali. Van Vihar, Manu Temple and the lively Mall Road also attract visitors in Manali. The Mall Road and the Tibet Market are the places for shopping. Items that one should shop from Manali are woolen clothes, handicrafts and the locally made fruit crush. Chang and Arak are two alcoholic beverages that are made locally and a must try. You could even take sample back home. In order to see other places around Manali one can book a cab or commute through state-run buses.
Lesson 9: Attractions and Activities around Manali
The surroundings of Manali are replete with wonders of nature. The high snow covered mountains offers great opportunity for skiing, snowboarding and ice climbing. The gushing Beas River is the haven for river rafters, the beautiful valley provide adventure enthusiasts with an option of paragliding and the zig zag trails offer a good opportunity for trekking in Manali as well. To begin with the attractions, Rohtang Pass has been the most popular tourist place in Manali. Situated at an altitude of approximately 3979m, Rohtang Pass enthralls visitors with its captivating beauty. The Manali-Keylong road situated near the Pass offers a spectacular view of the lofty snow-clad mountains. The Beas Kund and the Dassuar Lake in the proximity of the Pass also attracts tourists in Manali.
Frozen Waterfall Enroute Rohtang Pass, Manali
Old Manali (3kms), the Kalath Hot Water Spring (6.5kms), Vashisht Hot Water Springs and Temple (3kms), Jogini Falls (2kms from Vashist Temple), Nehru Kund (6kms), Solang Valley (13kms), Rahala Waterfalls (16kms), Naggar Castle (14kms), Zana Falls (35kms) and Manikaran are the major attractions around Manali.
Naggar Castle, Manali
There are many beautiful trails that offer easy to difficult levels for trekking in Manali. Friendship Peak Trek, Deo Tibba Base Camp Trek and Hampta Pass Trek are your options for great trekking experience. Paragliding in Manali can be enjoyed in Solang Valley. Skiing in Manali can be enjoyed in Sangla Valley, whereas Beas River is the perfect destination for river rafting in Manali. Zorbing and Snow Scootering are two recently introduced adventure activities in Manali.
… We missed out on skiing as it started snowing heavily the day we went to Sangla Valley, but we had tonnes of fun hanging around in Shimla and Manali. We spent the last evening in Manali in the hotel room sipping on Chang and rewinding the memories of our trip to Shimla and Manali. We looked at the treasure of photographs we were supposed to take back home…Our trip was a success, what a pleasant way to enter a New Year with people that you adore the most and travelling to a place that you dreamt of!
PS: Unfortunately, I lost my phone while coming back to Delhi from trip, so I am left with quite a few pictures, which I am uploading in this blog.