From lush green plantations, cloud-topped peaks and dense jungles, to precariously perched monasteries, Martian landscapes and sapphire lakes, these five destinations can offer you some of the most spectacular mountain experiences in India.
1. The charming little towns of Coonoor and Wellington
The Nilgiri mountains of South India are famous for their infinite tea plantations and lovely weather, and for the popular tourist town of Ooty. But if you’re looking to avoid the hordes of tourists that throng Ooty, then Coonoor and Wellington are for you. A little lower down the hills, these two little sister towns are much quieter and less touristy, and make for an ideal base from which to explore the nearby hills. They also have some nice restaurants with views of the town and its surrounding hills, and the tiny Wellington railways stations is quaint and charming.
2. Coorg and its coffee plantations and jungle-covered hills
Though not as high in altitude as Ooty, the mountains of Coorg in South India’s Western Ghats still experience some chilly temperatures at night (though the days can get surprisingly hot). A very popular destination for tourists from the North, as well as from nearby Bangalore, the ‘must-see’ places here are almost always crowded. But if you let go of the need to see and do the ‘right’ things, then just driving through the hills off the main tourist routes can be exhilarating. Watching the coffee plantations and jungle-covered hills unfold around you as you drive along empty roads is the best way to experience Coorg.
3. Kalimpong, nestled in the foothills of the Himalayas
Close to the northern-most tip of West Bengal, Kalimpong is usually ignored in favour of its more popular neighbour, Darjeeling. But perched on top of a low mountain (or a high hill, depending on how you see it), this simple little town is great if you want to experience the foothills of the Himalayas without having to deal with things touristy. You can hike the trails around nearby Sillery, admire the army golf course—said to be the highest in the world—or just kick back in one of the many restaurants and cafés. And if you’re lucky, the weather will be clear enough for you to admire the peak of Kanchenjunga—the third highest mountain in the world—glowing in the morning or evening sun (or both).
4. Bhutan, the land of the thunder dragon
Technically, the tiny Himalayan country of Bhutan isn’t actually in India, but it’s just a hop across the border from West Bengal, and Indian nationals have an open invitation to visit (if you don’t have an Indian passport, though, it’s a whole other story). Very much in the Himalayas but still lush and green, Bhutan is the place to be if you like peace and quiet; and because the Bhutanese are fiercely protective of their culture and natural heritage, and international tourism is tightly regulated, this is unlikely to change. So wander through the towns of Thimphu and Paro while admiring the solid Buddhist architecture; visit the imposing dzongs—a combination of Buddhist monastery, administrative center and military fortress—or sample the fiery local cuisine and equally potent local rice wine. Whatever you do, though, a hike up to the impossibly-located Tiger’s Nest monastery should feature on your itinerary.
5. The Martian landscape of Ladakh
Visit Ladakh, and you’ll see why they call it the highest desert in the world. Though it’s in the Himalayas and surrounded by snow-covered mountains, the place is bone-dry, with the colour green in short supply. But it’s easy to see why the magical, otherworldly landscape draws adventure-seekers from all parts of the world. Ride along the empty Leh-Srinagar highway, brave the snowy Chang La and Khardung La mountain passes, or gaze into the deep blue waters of the 150-kilometer long Pangong Tso lake, Ladakh is sure to leave a lifelong impression. Just make sure you dress warm and take a day or two to acclimatize.