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November 2012

The Verandah in The Forest

One of the modest pleasures life still affords is a short train ride through the post monsoon countryside of Maharashtra. Green fields surrounded by the low craggy hills of the Western ghats, the day cool and bright and, if the ride is early enough, a little nip in the air.

Hot tea in miniscule cups served at regular intervals and the occasional vada pau during the many, many stops that happen on a long distance train. Friendly chats with fellow passengers amidst the quiet inquisitiveness about family and home, to be shared and forgotten the moment one alights.

Just such a journey happened recently on the way to Matheran , aboard the Sahyadri Express which meandered its way through the small towns and villages on the route to Mumbai. We got off at Neral to take a cab up the steep and winding road to Dasturi, the last stop for cars, as this little hill station is probably the only place in India which does not allow vehicles in an area that covers a few square kilometers. What a blessing!

Toy train tracks to matheran

From Dasturi we took a fifteen minute train ride on one of the three famous toy trains that still run in India. As old as I am this was still a delight. Most of the passengers were transported back to childhood  and many allowed themselves to reveal their joy. This made for a happy excursion. The rail tracks stood two feet apart and the train chugged shakily along, up the hill, as breathtaking views of the valley below passed us by.

The final destination for us was a good two kilometer walk from the station and this was made comfortable by having a slightly built woman porter, by the name of Lata Kadam, carry my overloaded friend’s  backpack for her. Map of Matheran and Bar house

We made our way through the lanes which were being repaired and which were consequently rocky and dusty with the typical red stone and mud of the area. A short while later, with the aid of just one signboard on a completely deserted pathway , we walked into The Verandah in The Forest. It was, appropriately, hidden amongst the trees. 1-DSC04257

This large bungalow, once and still known by the locals as Bar Cottage, is precisely what the name suggests. A huge verandah backed by rooms. No swimming pool, no children’s playground, no gym, just a verandah overlooking a forest.

And it was enough. The Verandah

Tables and planters chairs are laid out at decent intervals so residents can lounge in peace reading papers or books. Morning tea is served here. Masala chai or a choice of teas  or coffee . Neemrana’s own roasted coffee. Breakfast and lunch is served here. A buffet for both.  Cereals, choice of eggs, juices and toast plus their rather good jam for breakfast. Lunch consists of a selection of Indian dishes , mutton curry, a couple of vegetables, rice and chapathis. This is a fixed menu as is the dinner and no a la carte is served at The Verandah. A plated meal is provided in the evening and it is Continental food . A soup,. A starter, a mains of vegetables, pasta and meat or fish, and finally a dessert. It is a sit down dinner with candlelight . Very atmospheric and romantic.

You can hear a bee buzz here. It is so quiet. Most people who come to stay, respect the silence and keep their voices down. There is a small garden with hammocks and rope chairs to laze in. It is easy to fall asleep. 1-1-DSC04309

The central  drawing room has  high ceilings , with ventilators at the top that allow a fine light to shine inside during the day and is lit with lamps in the evening. This is the place to come to when one is feeling convivial. A carom board is at hand to while away the hours, and several  illustrated tomes about the Parsis who are presumed to have lived in such places after the British left our shores.

The rooms are large with four poster beds and teak furniture of that vaguely colonial kind. Heavy, not particularly beautiful but strong and comforting.

All the pictures that line the walls, in each room , along the verandah and in the living rooms are genuine old etchings with some reference to the place and its history. The rooms and suites are names after distinguished gentlemen of the time. One of the most luxurious is Elphinstone, another of note is Petit and Peerbhoy is nicely situated along the verandah.

Staying here takes you back to a time when conversation and contemplation  were amusement ,  and gentle activities filled the day. Walks and horse rides are all  there is to keep one busy, if anyone feels the need to be busy here.

The Verandah in the Forest is a perfect place to relax. Just a few things would add to the experience. A game of croquet could be organised on the lawns, a few board games could be provided in the drawing room and the menu could do with an overhaul.

When so much care has been taken with the building and its interiors and there has obviously been such respect for history , a little more imagination would help in approaching the meals.

I suggest a breakfast more Indian in choice…. Millets, ragi, pohe ,sabudana khichadi or lapsi rawa could form the “cereal” options. Egg bhurji or masala vegetarian omelette for course two. And the juice could be more local….coconut water or nira .

Lunch could again reflect the area…Maharashtrian or Konkan . Forget the palak paneer and ubiquitous Punjabi mutton curry, gobi alu, the bhindi fry,and that dry, nasty,  rosogulla. Why not a jowar roti, pitle, amti, bhareli baingan,arvi  or the local yams, kachumber, kokum juice or buttermilk ending with basundi or shrikhand.

The sit down dinner is a lovely idea and the menu could be less “continental” and more “colonial”.All those old Indianised “British” dishes like the khansama used to make.

Mulligatawny soup, Shepherds pie, Russian salad,  caramel custard, blancmange or trifle ending with coffee in the lounge. There are so many other possibilities.

A little wine from our very own Nasik vineyards to accompany the meal would not go amiss either!

Its time boutique hotels like this took more time and trouble over the food. It could make a great experience- unforgettable.


How to get to Matheran- November 2012

Matheran

In my pursuit of the details of Maharashtrian Food and ingredients I make short dashes into the countryside and am always on the lookout for places to stay within a few hours drive of Pune.

Several of these have been delightful finds like The Hidden Oasis  near Saswad. More about that later.

Recently a friend and I took off for Matheran, a place so near and yet -so far. It is impossible to get accurate information online on how to get there. So many conflicting accounts of trains and timings and distances exist, it was difficult to plan the journey.

To help those poor souls sifting through the chaff here are the grains:

 Be warned : THERE IS NO TOY TRAIN RUNNING BETWEEN NERAL AND MATHERAN. Just a short  2-3 km portion at the end  of the line.

From Pune: Take the Sahyadri express which leaves at 7 am. Get off at Neral. ( 10.10 am) Just outside the station is a cab stand. Hire a full cab for Rs 350 or a seat in a shared cab to Dasturi for Rs 70 .

Dasturi is 8 kms up a very steep hill and is the last point for cars. There is a Forest Car Park .

An Entrance fee  to Matheran has to be paid here. Rs 40/- as of today.Tickets for the train can be purchased here as well. Rs 35/- per person.

Toy Train

300 metres from Dasturi is Aman Lodge ,the boarding point for the toy train. It takes you 2 ½ kms up to Matheran station. The train does not run between about 11.45 and 3 pm in the afternoon.

Chaniya Maniya Bor
Chaniya Maniya Bor sold at Aman Lodge stop

You can also take a coolie to carry your bags and walk along the mud pathway to Matheran. Another option is a bone shaking ride in a hand drawn rickshaw. Place for 1 person only in the rickshaw. The third option is a horse ride up the last bit to Matheran.

Be prepared to shell out between Rs 150-250 for the coolie or the rickshaw. If you are not taking the train, any of these other options provides employment for the locals and we were happy to hire a delightful woman porter called Lata who cheerfully hauled our backpacks up the path.

The same options exist from The Matheran station to The Verandah in the Forest. Its about 1 ½ km ( 20 minutes of a leisurely walk) down an uneven path or a  10 minute horse ride away. It is not advisable to take a rickshaw….unless you want to feel the effects for several days after.

It’s best to travel before dark because it is pretty difficult to find your hotel thereafter. Remember to carry a torch, a stick to chase off monkeys, band aids for sore feet, a first aid kit for all other minor problems and beer for the major ones. There is no wine shop in Matheran and very little in the way of alcohol available anywhere else.

Return to Pune: The last toy train in the morning hours leaves Matheran for Aman Lodge at about 11.15 am so get there in time. Take a cab down to Neral as before Rs 70 per seat. Take a fast local to Karjat from Neral …12.45 pm./2.03 pm , 4 10 pm, 4.45 pm

Catch the Nagercoil Express 1.50 pm or the Hyderabad Express  2.15 pm, or any later train to Pune.

To and From Mumbai: Take a Fast local to Neral.  Return the same way. Fast and slow locals ply to CSTM every half hour or so. Follow the route as defined above.

Matheran is a lovely place for long and quiet walks  with incredible views of the surrounding valleys.