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Summer is here, and you’re dreaming of escaping the blazing heat of the plains and heading up into the cool and peaceful hills. The problem is, everyone else is too! So how do you get away from the heat, and still avoid being suffocated by heaving crowds of fellow tourists? These five destinations are booth cool and low on crowds, making them great options for a quick summer holiday.
1. Valparai, Tamil Nadu
Up in the Western Ghats in South India, on the border between Tamil Nadu and Kerala, and just south of the ‘Palakkad gap’ in the hills, lies the little tea estate town of Valparai. With its serene hills, rolling tea plantations and abundant wildlife (the Anamalai and Parambikulam tiger reserves are right next door), Valparai is a great place for a relaxed few days away from the heat. Even better, it’s not very touristy, so you’ll have the hills mostly to yourself. And there are plenty of accommodation options in and around town—from low-budget lodges and homestays to more upmarket garden bungalows and cottages (including the brilliant Sinnadorai’s Bungalow). Just don’t expect posh food, and watch out for elephants and gaur while you’re there. Seriously.
2. Coonoor, Tamil Nadu
In the Nilgiri mountains of the Western Ghats in Tamil Nadu, and an hour’s drive away from the famous hill station of Ooty, lies the less-known town of Coonoor. Though not as high up in the mountains as Ooty, Coonoor still has fabulous weather and a great continental food scene (Café Diem comes highly recommended), and has far fewer visitors than Ooty.
There are plenty of hotels, lodges and homestays to suit all budgets here, as well as in its sister-town of Wellington and in nearby Kotagiri, though staying in or close to the less congested upper Coonoor is recommended (The Great Escape homestay is a very nice option). All of these are great places from which to explore the mountains and enjoy the spectacular views. And while the drive up to Ooty is nice too, stay away from the ‘recommended’ sights near Ooty like Doddabetta Peak and Dolphin’s Nose if you don’t like crowds.
3. Kalimpong, West Bengal
Straddling two hills in the foothills of the Himalayas, and close to the north-eastern borders of India, lies Kalimpong. Though it’s part of West Bengal state, it’s close enough to Nepal, Bhutan and Sikkim for its feel to be more Nepali than Bengali. And though it’s a popular retreat for people trying to get away from the oppressive Kolkata summer, it’s not nearly as crowded as nearby Darjeeling.
There are lots of budget accommodation options here, as well as some medium- and high-end hotels. Keep in mind, though, that you’ll probably have to hire a car or taxi when you’re there. And, as far as dining goes, it’s better to do as the locals do and stick to Nepali and Indo-Chinese cuisine. Other cuisines are available, but aren’t anything to write home about (a notable exception is the wonderful Café Refuel, with its automotive theme and continental menu).
4. Leh, Jammu and Kashmir
Up north, in the Himalayas of Jammu and Kashmir, lies the Ladakh plateau. And in Ladakh—called ‘the highest desert in the world’—lies the town of Leh. This town is one of the very few urban centers in the whole of Ladakh, which makes it the perfect base from which exploring the area’s rugged, otherworldly landscape. The dry plateau is fascinating in its varying shades of brown, dotted with hill-top monasteries and the occasional splash of green, as are the snowy mountain passes and the deep mountain lakes.
The town itself is charming, with a culture very obviously influenced by that of Tibet, just across the border. This also shows in the cuisine, with Tibetan and Indo-Chinese dominating the local food scene (you definitely need to try the soupy, noodle-y thukpa). Because the Indian army has a major base there, though, you’ll also find decent mainstream Indian food. There aren’t any real low-budget lodges here, but that doesn’t mean you won’t find affordable accommodation, and there are a few high-end hotels to choose from as well. Just make sure you give yourself a day or two to get used to the thin air when you land. Altitude sickness is very real here.
If you have an Indian passport, this could well be the best option in this list. A hop across India’s north-east border and you’re in the tiny Himalayan country of Bhutan, with its lush green mountains, impressive Buddhist-style buildings, and incredibly spicy food. You can even pay in Indian rupees. But you’ll probably be given change in the local currency, the Bhutanese ngultrum (no, not a typo). If you have a non-Indian passport, though, you’ll have to go on a pricey, tightly-regulated government-organized tour.
Besides admiring Bhutan’s natural beauty, you should also take a look at its majestic dzongs (a combination of Buddhist monastery, government center and military fortress), and its amazing monasteries. The dzong at the former capital of Punakha is probably the most impressive and is definitely worth a visit. And even if you do nothing else in Bhutan, make sure you do the three-hour trek up to the fairy-tale Tiger’s Nest monastery. A couple of things to watch out for, though: the local food is spicy enough to blow anyone’s socks off, so you might want to stick to Indian or Chinese food; and the whole country is no-smoking, so leave any cigarettes behind.
Have any recommendations for less crowded summer destinations? Leave a comment and let me know!