Beautiful landscape, Strawberry overdose and a wild climb up into a tree to escape certain death – this trip had all the ingredients of a memorable roadtrip!
While vacations are time for relaxation, a part of the process, which is rather stressful, is deciding where to actually go, especially if it’s the winter season. But, as far as I’m concerned, ‘Hill station,’ is a no-brainer of an answer. But then comes the next question, ‘which one?’ Fortunately for me, in and around Maharashtra, there are loads of them, which is why the British who worked in Mumbai and made it their commercial hub, travelled down to these small towns and made them their holiday homes.
Lonavala, Matheran, Panchgani, Mahabaleshwar are all in the list and the sahebs and memsahebs loved each and every of these locations. Yes, some of them like Lonavala have succumbed to commercialisation, but Mahabaleshwar still has a certain old world charm to it. So, I hopped into the Hyundai Grand i10 and headed to Mahableshwar. It’s a 6 hour drive from Mumbai, so it is better you break it up into two phases; Mumbai-Pune and Pune-Mahabaleshwar.
As far as the drive goes, it’s a brilliant stretch of road and there are a lot of options for breakfast after my early morning start. You’ll have options for everything from McDonald’s to KFC to roadside dhabhas. I prefer sticking to the dhabhas to indulge in some home-grown snacks with Vada Pav being a particular favourite and also because I can indulge in a refreshing drink, which is available from now to the end of summer – Neera. You will find stalls all along the way from Pune and it’s naturally sweet and amazingly refreshing so it’s worth the small pit stop.
Mahabaleshwar is about 130 kilometers from Pune and you start getting a glimpse of the valley you are about to climb after you cross the town of Wai (made popular by Bollywood). You hit Panchgani first and 20-odd kilometers later comes the land of strawberries. A lot has changed over the years, the sahibs’ bunglows have been replaced with resorts, every nook and cranny has a strawberry outlet and the peace and quiet has disappeared. Therefore, I took the decision of staying at a quieter location – Panchgani.
Panchgani still is a quiet city and Hotel Prospect – which is a heritage hotel, makes for an ideal place to stay and for all the idleness and peace you get, it’s worth every penny spent. Of course, if you are the kind of person who loves to explore, then you’re in luck, as there is a lot to see. Taking full advantage of the Grand i10 I was driving, I took it out for a spin on the small streets and boy was it a pleasure to drive it on those winding roads. The 1.2-litre petrol engine is very good and a joy to drive both in city and out on the highway. The road from Panchgani to Mahabaleshwar is not in its best state currently, as the rains have dug into them and made craters but the Grand i10’s suspension handled all the abuse with aplomb. In fact, I would say that the Grand has one of the best ride qualities in small cars.
For a tourist, there are a lot of sites to visit in Mahabaleshwar and you can normally cover all of them in one day, unless it peak tourist season and you get stuck in the traffic and the crowds. But, since it’s the off-season, I wanted to do something different, so I kick-started my day by going to Lingmala falls. Situated 500 feet above the valley, the falls, with water gushing like pearls in the sun is a sight in itself. In fact, it’s actually a 4km walk to reach the site of the falls, but it is a picturesque walk that you’ll remember for a long time. If you are lucky, you might even be able to spot a hornbill or even a giant squirrel. Sadly, I saw neither. I then headed off to Veena Lake for some boating and that is an adventure in itself. One round around the lake and you are convinced it isn’t really a lake. It’s so expansive that you mistake it for a river, and the best time to go here is just before the sunset, the view of which can be quite magical while you’re boating around. You’ll be tired by the time you boating, so head towards the interiors of Mahabaleshwar for some special Strawberry ice-cream and strawberry milkshake. The joint is about 2 kilometers from Veena lake, right before Hotel Brightland and its situated on a strawberry farm so you know that everything you’re having is farm fresh.
It is near this spot that I spotted three bisons lurking about in the fields. Eager to get a picture of them, I got out of the car and headed into the forest. That was a huge mistake. There were three bisons in front of me of which I had a good view, but there was a fourth one who I hadn’t spotted yet. I suddenly heard hooves behind me and climbed the first tree that could hold my weight. With the camera strapped to my neck I was literally holding on for dear life. Thankfully, the bison’s didn’t linger around for too long – probably realising there was too much fat and not enough grass in me to make me a worthwhile meal – and I could finally come down from the tree and walk back to the car. Miraculously, I lived to tell the tale after all.
I got into the Grand i10, took a deep breath and drove off in the direction of civilisation. My feet were still trembling but I was exhilarated by the whole experience. Of course, I had remembered to pick up some fresh strawberries for my folks, and had a good time, mostly. But, easily, the most impressive part about the trip had been the Grand i10, with its stylish and comfortable interior, to its well tuned ride comfort, it really had made the trip seem effortless. Question is, where can I take it next?