Flashes of deep ruby red started appearing more frequently as the car ascended along the jungle routes.It wasn’t really early morning and the temperature around as I left Almora had risen to a pleasant level.But here along the winding roads, as we traversed engulfed into the vegetation, the mercury had dropped a few degrees again. My mind flashed back on the stuff I had fleetingly read about rhododendrons, as the scarlets gleamed in the morning Sun.I was on my way to a hideaway in the depth of the lovely birding paradise, at Binsar Wildlife Sanctuary. The sanctuary located on the top of Jhandi hills, is accessible by road at a distance of 35kms from Almora city .
As the car reached the top winding through the jungle,it suddenly opened onto a little ground, with a backdrop of the centuries old Bineshwar temple.A neatly erected Simba café,now defunct stood on other side, with an eager canine ferociously barking at my sight.The Place Binsar owes its name to this Shiva temple as I later learnt. This formed the base of routes to other retreats around, including KMVN 4km ahead near Zero point. From here I was in for a little hike with my sack, or so I thought, since the route mentioned was a barely 3m wide uphill forest trail. But I was pleasantly surprised to be picked up by a double geared land rover, with menacing power and a smiling person behind the wheels. A 10min fun ride, over the rocky trail, with frequent backing up for the tight bends, got us going higher and deeper into the forests. The Oaks towered around me and the sweet scent of the air, played on my face as we rumbled to a halt in a small clearing. I could hear the faint barking of canines and yet couldn’t sight the retreat.The joy of discovering more, quickened my pulse as I got off the vehicle and started following the driver, along the naroow 4’wide pathway, anxious about the invisible barking.
And then, before I could sight anything else, two furry zealous set of canines happily dashed at me.What a warm welcome, as I stepped out of the thicket and onto a rustic deck, suddenly opening out to beautiful vistas under the morning sun. And thus,I finally arrived, at my eco homestay, a lovingly nurtured and precariously perched getaway, the Binsar Forest Retreat.
Situated at the height of 7600 ft on the south zone of the beautiful sanctuary, the retreat commands gorgeous views of the tips of the Himalayan range, with Trishul,Nanda devi, Nanda Khot and beautiful valleys with canopies of Oak forests around to the west.From the moment I arrived , I could sense the easy friendliness of the people gathered on the deck that morning, together seeing off a young Bengali couple about to leave for Nainital. Being more of an explorer, constant on my toes, the retreat was poised to be an experience far different, heartwarming , engaging and experiential in many ways.
The Binsar forest retreat has been ideated as an experiential home-stay, to silently merge into the sanctuary fabric. Saturated with their established IT careers, and the chaos of the urban life in the booming IT city of Bangalore, Preetam and Pallavi, the brains behind this home-stay , uprooted their city life to grow amidst nature in the sanctuary. Along with their restaurateur partner from Delhi, the couple leased out the Old Binsar retreat and revamped the entire property with rigorous involvement, to curate the interiors , spaces, engagements and experiences . One takes an instant liking to the couple and it’s easy to catch on their infectious love and nurturing approach to the forest environment.
I was welcomed with a warm wet napkin and a refreshing drink made of the exotic Rhododendrons, the same ruby red I saw enroute to the retreat. I quickly felt at home, after the initial introductions,the easy nonchalance of the hosts and property seeped into me.Here there was no unnecessary pretense, no Managers , no official bell boys,it felt more like visiting your weekend home. There were about 8 rooms and 3 fixed tented facilities with a lovely deck that added silent glamour to the evening sunsets.
The heart of the property though,was the warm and thoughtfully executed common area, which easily became my favourite spot during my stay. Planned to be the central hub of engagement and entertainment, this space, is done up to have casual dining tables which easily double up a work or discussion tables, with a buffet counter overlooking onto the rustic deck . This Multifaceted space pondered over the sunsets on one side and adopted a more cosy look ,of a den on other side . Low sofa seatings, a beautifully stacked library and board games all tucked in with a gorgeous bukhari completed the perfect picture.
The cottages and tents are scattered around the acre of property in a very organic way , with natural materials blending into the woods around. As I was lead to my room, Nandaghunti, I realize all the names of the rooms are derived from the nature around, so you have the rhododendron, Trishul , Nandagunti, Walnut,Rhododendron and such.
As I entered my room ,I was calmed with the sight. The warmth of the teak cladded on the walls, the wooden flooring and the raw slatted stones with big glass windows that allow the forests to peep inside, are just very serene and sedating. Pallavi has done up each room beautifully with a splash of brightness in the linen of the rooms. As I walked out into the balcony , I gasped, I could see a huge valley of the forest canopies and a lovely mountain tip ahead, with the Himalayan range peeping out from beyond. Comfort oozes out of every room , that I had a look at not barring the tents too.Trishul rooms , command a sweeping view from the huge deck of the surrounding valley and the Trishul peaks.
I absolutely adored the muted natural color pallet used to do up every space of the retreat, and it was relief to see no clashes between intents, no pseudo wooden stuff, no unnecessary carvings or relief works, just simple minimalist decor using as much natural materials as possible , complimenting the richness of the environment around the rooms.
After settling in, I joined other guests, a jovial family of 4 from Calcutta in the Common room for Lunch. The daily menu for the day , was written unpretentiously on a cute little black board by the buffet table. The food served as part of the package was entirely a vegetarian affair with only eggs for breakfast breaking this code. The reason as I learnt was to keep the wild animals away from the property since the smell of meat would attract them. But the lunch was a treat , with healthy , organic,balanced and fulfilling options ,a blend of Kumauni and continental delicacies. I witnessed even the ardent non vegetarian Bengali family happily devour the vegetarian meals. The ever smiling and helpful staff working on the property felt more like an extended family than a mere help.
The retreat is highly sensitive to the ecology, and refrains from any activity which might rate them as aliens in the natural environment of the sanctuary. Pallavi has thought about the little things that are a resultant of their existence in the jungles and taken efforts to minimize the damage of their footprint. Solar electricity plays a huge part in the daily life at the retreat, all illuminations are solar driven, since the property is off the grid. Charging is only available at the common areas between 9am to 5 pm and the rooms are not equipped with any plug points to help conserve the solar energy. Guests are usually briefed about the sensitivity of such and more on the arrival to the retreat and more so before it, over the phone conversations. Although they can help you incase of emergency with wi-fi connectivity, but essentially that beats the purpose of being in the retreat, in my opinion. All means of harvesting water, efficient effluent disposal, waste disposal, also vigilant selection of chemical free soaps and detergents has been meticulously adapted by the couple. Daily change of sheets, etc is a luxury they cannot afford nor extend to the guests.I appreciated the smaller things like having two buckets in each toilet to help collect the cold water before the hot water trickles out, the led bedside reading lamps, the handy solar changed lamps to carry for the after dinner walks. All the supplies for the kitchen are hauled all the way from the Almora market twice a week.
Post a delectable lunch, we went for a long walk down to the access road.Pallavi possesses amazing knowledge about the avian community and Binsar is blessed to be a birding paradise. Every now and then she passionately pointed and identified the winged friends for us and told a lot more about the Oak forests, animals and seasons at Binsar.
Though not having the big brand wild life, Binsar is home to Leopards, Himalayan Goral,Chital , Musk deer, wild boars, Langurs and the red gaint flying squirrel.For the birding photographers the place is a boon, with over 200 species of avians for one who sets camp here .I did see my share of tits,forktails, monals,eagles, abundant Eurasian Jays, Launghing thrush , nuthatches and magpies. And, i didnt have to wander for that, they came right next to me while having breakfasts . Ain’t that just so much harmonious.
The retreat as I sensed in the 2 days I stayed was a brilliantly managed property,with hosts who exercised a fine balance between lending you the friendly warmth, engaging conversations and letting you your space if they sense so. I learnt they can curate specific trails basis the interests of the guests , whether its birding, or deep jungle walks. I was amazed to know of their whole day trek from Binsar to the Jageshwar temple forests, hope I can return some day to do it.
The evenings were spend over yummy baked cupcakes and mirth filled conversations with other guests. And as sunset arrived we gathered at the deck to witness the beautiful orange hues that bathed the property like one big happy family.
With winter temperature dropping to 0 and below , the best part of the hospitality of the homestay lies in the way their rooms and common area is heated. As night falls, the silently standing Bukharis are filled in with dried wood and ignited to beautifully warm up every room.As I retired to my room after lip smacking meal , I was soothed with the mellow glaze of the burning fire. But that’s not all, as I sneaked into my bedcovers, I felt my feet rest on a warm surface, and I realized there was a hot bag inside the covers to take care of my cold feet. Such ended the night in absolute serenity, silence and beauty.
The next day at sunrise, I had a soft knock on my door, and Anand greeted me with my bed tea.Oh the pleasures of having a Masala chai , watching over the forests in the valley outside was nothing but luxury. Post tea, I sauntered around the quiet property trying to sight the mountains, but cloud cover was determined. The place is a birders paradise in the wee hours of morning. The little thoughtfully placed water plates invite lot of birds within the property and u can easily pass hours watching and listening to the avian company.
Post a leisurely breakfast, Preetam took us to have a walk at Zero point. About 4 kms from the retreat, we started our trek from the KMVN forest guest house, and wandered through heavily forested trails to view the sight of the Himalayan range. The 2.5hrs trail through the quiet wilderness , with lovely conversation felt just the thing prescribed for a healthy day.The highpoint of the trail was the little picnic buffet that was organized for us after the trail at a lovely vantage point next to the century old Forest rest house.
The evening went by reading the travel books over tea and healthy snacks and the night went through witnessing the board games played with the guests as I sipped over my soup.Every meal at Binsar has been a delight and an experience in itself with not a thing to dislike and I fondly remember the ragi pancakes and lasagna as I recount it all.
The trip to Binsar was a joy of Eco living amidst nature in sync with the peaceful settings around. All thanks to the tremendous effort on part of the owners. The next morning as I started to leave post breakfast, I couldn’t help but feel lucky to have spent a couple of days , experiencing the forest home-stay with this very unconventional and down to earth Reddy family. The couple have been committed to lead a life in lap of nature off the routine and determined to inculcate their little daughter Ahaana with the same values. She is a smart little 6 yr old , very engaging to be with and sure to surprise you with her wit. Some of my beautiful moments have been watching her being read to by Preetam and Pallavi. I left Binsar with a lot of insight and freshness at heart and some lifetime connections with the Ghose and Reddy families.
Not to forget the amazing soft spoken staff and the and friendly canine duo Chanda and Tara aptly named for complimenting their black and white furs spiked my 2 days at the retreat with love.
If you are searching for a secret tucked away in abundant wilderness around Uttarakhand, I would whole heartedly recommend this beautiful retreat, with a little caution for the gadget freaks,mobility challenged and carnivorous bunch.I have not experience a more easy going peaceful homestay right in middle of the forests enveloped by himalayas.I hope to return some day for trying my luck to witness the entire range of the Himalayan gorgeousness from here.