Not all opulence must be forsaken when in the world’s highest mountains, thanks to a host of tour companies and hotels aware that the good life and the high life are not in opposition. Brian Noone reports
Even a decade ago, venturing into most of the Indian Himalayas meant toting a backpack and either riding a motorcycle or hoping you got a place inside the bus rather than atop it.Times have changed.The once mountaineer-only Everest Base Camp in Nepal is now frequented by those not summit-bound, and the lower elevations accessible in India have attracted a number of comfort-conscious travel companies and indulgent hotels which offer experiences undreamed of by the bearded trekkers of the 1980s.
Fortunately, the mountains – and many of their inhabitants – haven’t changed nearly as fast.The youths may wear Western clothing brands and some of the landscape has been hewn to make way for better roads, but the aura of seclusion remains the same. In part this has resulted from regulations limiting the ownership of land to natives; in part it has come from the innate stubbornness of the mountain people, mostly Buddhist, who have long been isolationist.
But the remoteness of these regions has at its root geographical origins. Sikkim, in the northeast between Bhutan and Nepal, still has no train station or airport because of the ruggedness of its terrain, and in Leh, Ladakh’s capital, flights must take off and land before 11AM to avoid the dangerous afternoon winds that rip through the valley.
This imperfect infrastructure can make the trip to these Himalayan hideaways something of a challenge, but once on site it is a conundrum ably tackled by the best of the tour companies.Take Shakti Himalaya, a six-year-old outfitter which has leased houses in Ladakh, Kumoan and Sikkim and completely refurbished them to serve as outposts for its flexible itineraries, which range from hillwalking to monastery visits to whitewater rafting. Shakti also runs 360° Leti, a spectacular four-cottage property that requires a 1.5-hour walk to access but rewards amply with breathtaking bedroom panoramas and utter isolation.
Less than a day’s drive away through the Uttarakhand foothills another kind of isolation awaits at the premier spa in north India, Ananda in the Himalayas. Its 2,230sq m wellness area offers dozens of treatments to mend body and soul among cedar forests on the banks of the Ganges.
It’s easy to become blasé about the surreal scenery in the Himalayas, but perhaps nowhere is it as untouched as the SpitiValley in Himachal Pradesh, where Spiti Ecosphere runs treks and expeditions. Its tents are more comfortable than most and its guides very knowledgeable, but in the end – as is true across the mountain range – what matters most is having time to be alone in the resplendent nature.That’s the greatest indulgence of them all.
WHO TO TRUST
Shakti Himalaya offers very comfortable accommodation – and delectable food – in remote villages in Ladakh, Kumoan and Sikkim. itineraries can be amended day by day from a massive range of opportunities. shaktihimalaya.com
Hotels With Views
Ananda in the Himalayas is housed in a former Maharaja’s palace. one of the world’s most spectacular spas. anandaspa.com
360° Leti involves just you, the mountains, a soft bed and superior food. Sometimes pure simplicity is enough. shaktihimalaya.com
Wildflower Hall oozes British colonial grandeur in a stunning virgin forest near Shimla. oberoihotels.com
Destination Himalaya specialises in off-the-beaten-path locales and adrenaline-charged experiences. trekindia.com
Mercury Himalayan explorations has the most extreme options, including out-of-this-world ski tours. himalayanadventure.com Spiti Ecosphere operates out of Manali and offers cultural as well as adventure options. spitiecosphere.com
Abercrombie & Kent arranges everything from stress-free family tours to intimate journeys for two. abercrombiekent.co.uk
Brown + Hudson plans just 15-20 fully personalised, über-luxe trips worldwide each year. brownandhudson.com
Cox & Kings can take you across the Subcontinent in high style and then up to a hill station for relaxation. coxandkings.co.uk
November 2011, Departures