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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.