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Summer Sojourn in Srinagar

Jhelum River decks up the Valley

Since summer immemorial all of us from the rest of India have been heading to Kashmir for the salubrious climate guaranteed year-round by the encapsulating Zanskar and Pir Panjal mountain ranges. The Jhelum River that flows out of a spring in Anantnag meanders slowly and purposefully before exiting at Baramullah has also given the state the name ‘Jhelum Valley.’ And along the way it adds life and sparkle to hundreds of blue lakes and streams, wildflower meadows, hidden mountain valleys and grassy plains. Endless paddy and saffron fields extend beyond the horizon, orchards at eye-level laden with fruits, Biblical shepherds with intense-green eyes minding flocks, muted laughter around a shared shisha and women fretting over spices freshly picked from the fields for their rogan josh… the Valley conjures images of, what else, but paradise!

Memories on the Dal

Gulmarg, Pahalgam or Sonamarg, Poonch, Hunza or Gilgit. Whether you are headed to the legendary destinations or to less explored ones, chances are that you will be heading out of Srinagar. Srinagar itself is a destination and for many it is even synonymous with Kashmir; the capital city offers a slice of the Valley with its many attractions like the Dal Lake and its famed houseboats, the Mughal Gardens, the picturesque Nageen Lake and the saffron fields on the outskirts, to name a few. The airport and well as rail and road connectivities also makes Srinagar easily accessible from the rest of the country. This summer as you head to Srinagar, Wanderink brings you different accommodation options in the capital city – to help you max out on the memory and experience. From the understated luxury of Vivanta by Taj and the ebullient history of The Lalit to the soothing sways of the houseboat that lulls you into dreamland.

Note: Even if you do not intend to go to Kashmir this summer, just reading about these options are good enough to make you feel cooler.

Luxury Stay

Rediscover paradise: Vivanta by Taj

For the well-heeled and the discerning, Vivanta by Taj has always been the last word in luxury travel. As with the rest of their properties, the location of their Srinagar property too is jaw-dropping – nestled comfortably by the undulating slopes of the Kralsangri hill, immortalising the finest views of the iconic Dal Lake and surrounded by the verdant magnificence of the Zabarwan mountains. The Vivanta by Taj, ‘Dal View’, is spread over six lush acres and is just 20 km from the airport. The drive itself is an appetiser for what is in store – the winding road takes you through the spring-summer bloom of the Tulip Gardens, the snow-peaks of Gulmarg and the golden-warm chinars during autumn.

Taj Dal View: The drive is only an appetiser

By the time you reach the gates carefully manned by guards in soldier-crisp uniforms, you would have climbed to a height of 1,730 metres above sea level. You are extended a sincere warm welcome typical of Taj everywhere and are led to a tea lounge where you can try out different specialty coffees and herbal tea for which Kashmir is famous. Once you check into your room – there are 82 spacious rooms and suites – you might want to unwind at the bar or the spa or dig into mouthwatering delicacies at any of the nouvelle restaurants. Or maybe just sit back and watch the shikharas sway home as dusk settles over Dal Lake.

Look no further, you are in paradise.

Summer steeped in history: The Lalit

The Lalit Grand Palace in Srinagar was originally ‘Gulab Bhavan,’ a palace built by Maharaja Pratap Singh in 1910. As he didn’t have any children of his own, after his death the palace came to his nephew Maharaja Hari Singh who decorated it with the best available in the valley: handicrafts, paintings, carpets and furniture. Most of these items have been carefully preserved under the new ownership among which the most cherished being the chinar tree where Mahatma Gandhi and Maharaja Hari Singh held a conversation.

The Lalit: Hospitality as a tradition

Maharaja Hari Singh and his wife were great hosts who loved to entertain and they used to cook for their guests themselves. The puja house and the durbar hall from the times of the Maharaja have all been restored to their earlier glory. The central courtyard and the lawns where the royal guests had a good time also have been refurbished and done up to suit the modern traveller. The palace, which is The Lalit Grand Palace today, has successfully kept intact the aura of majestic tranquility and splendour.

The Lalit Grand Palace is just 17 km from the airport and has 112 rooms spread over two floors where you can choose between suites and palace cottages and smoking and non-smoking options. From the Ladakhi namak chai (salted tea) to zafrani phirni (rice pudding made in saffron-flavoured rice), the restaurants all serve authentic tastes from the valley. Among the numerous facilities there are several thoughtful ones like the babysitting service, an indoor pool and a shopping centre. Thoughtful touches…are what The Lalit is all about.

Boutique Accommodation

Five star homestay: Hotel Dar-es-Salam

Definitely not in the same league as The Taj or The Lalit, the Dar-es-Salam makes up for any lack of grandeur and history with its affable, personalised care and attention. Standing pretty by the banks of the tranquil Nageen Lake, the hotel had its beginnings in the 1970s when Kashmir was the hottest location among Hindi filmmakers. Picturesquely situated in one-and-a-half acres of land, the property is off the Ashai bridge where the Nageen Lake meets the Dal. In a way you could say here you have the best of both the worlds: the quiet of the Nageen and the splendour of the Dal.

Dar-es-Salam: The Eden Garden in Paradise

Like the traditional houses you see all over Srinagar, the Dar-es-Salam is built entirely of deodar trees laid out vertically and the base later reinforced with earth. A family-owned and run property, there are only 14 rooms which remain true to its Kashmiri roots and traditions. Nevertheless, the rooms are all equipped with handy modern facilities like mini bars and child-lock plugs. The wooden flooring and ceiling brings back the long-lost aura of regal self-indulgence amidst utmost serenity. As the quiet lulls you, take in the fine history of the Hari Parbat – an early 19th century fort atop a hill nearby – or just the peace that seems to permeate from almost-still Nageen Lake.

‘Dar-es-Salam‘ surely lives up to its name which means ‘abode of peace’.

Theme Stays – Houseboats

Any mention of Kashmir and the first thing that comes to mind is of course, the Dal Lake. The closest second would be the houseboats, locally called the shikhara. The origin of the shikhara culture is an interesting one: it was originally a clever tactic devised by the British to circumvent the ruling of the Dogra Maharaja of Kashmir who restricted the building of houses by non-Kashmiris in the valley. The English commissioned gigantic boats – almost like floating houses – where they spent their summer away from the smouldering plains of Delhi and other parts of north India.

Beat the law then, beats the heat now

Even post Independence, the Kashmiri Hanji community used to build these floating behemoths; they still continue to build and operate the houseboats. These houseboats today are at the centre of their source of livelihoods – forming floating gardens, grocery shops and ferrying commodities and people. As tourism picked up in the valley many of these houseboats too became part of the hospitality industry – offering full fledged services akin to a hotel itself.

So you have houseboats with catchy names like Cutty Sark and Almost Heaven to Dilshad Group of Houseboats, De Laila Group, Gurkha Houseboats…all you have to do is just take a walk by the boulevard and you will be swarmed with options that are put to you by youngsters in chaste Urdu to impeccable English. Some of the prominent hotels along the Dal also have houseboats which are maintained as their sister concerns or recommended on commission basis.

Houseboats with deluxe features usually start at Rs 5,000 for a night. But remember the more the number of days you are staying and if you have the knack, the rates can be brought down considerably.

Budget Options

Budget stay: Jamal Resorts

It goes without saying that the star properties, even the boutique ones for that matter, will be beyond the reach of a big chunk of tourists. If you are prepared to let go of the services of a personalised concierge and other trappings of ultra luxury, there are many middle range hotels that are doing a decent job of service and amenities. The reviews may not exactly be rave and the experience not reverie-inducing. However, they do a big service by providing the biggest slice of tourists – the domestic middleclass – with quality, comfort and accommodation within their budgets. The Kaisar, Comrade Inn, Jamal Resorts, Zabarwan Hotel, Grand Mumtaz – most of them around the Dal Lake, along the boulevard – are almost standard in their offerings.

And prices.

(As if the summer wasn’t good enough a reason the Kashmir Festival kicked off on May 14 this year promises to feature the ‘best of Kashmir’ which includes usual touristy stuff like trekking and polo, exotica like qawwali by the Dal Lake and more niche ones like crash courses in Kashmiri cuisines. On till May 29, 2013.)

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