For more than 800 years, Chand rajas ruled this peak-laced pocket of India’s Uttarakhand state, retreating to the cool, lofty hill station of Binsar in summer months. Today, a similarly royal welcome awaits at The Kumaon: a 10-suite minimalist mountain retreat that spies the summits of the Kasar Devi ridge. Owner Vikrom Mathur originally bought it as his private home but, after meeting investor Raghav Priyadarshi, set about creating something bigger, with help from Sri Lanka’s Zowa Architects. The result is a Himalayan hiking lodge on the doorstep of rhododendron forests and the leopard-roamed Binsar Wildlife Sanctuary, with a fire-warmed library and a dramatic cantilevered restaurant, that showcases the Kumaon region’s food alongside lofty scenery. It’s the vision of a high-end hotel with the hospitality of a homestay – worthy of any maharaja.
Get this when you book through us:
A hand-woven woolen shawl from the weavers of the Kumaon region; GoldSmiths get a free guided village walk
Noon, but flexible, subject to availability. Earliest check-in, 2pm. With advance notice, there’s free use of property and services, including the restaurant, luggage storage and even excursions, outside of those times.
Double rooms from $189.60 (INR13,500), excluding tax at 28 per cent.
Rates include breakfast, with a buffet of locally baked breads, farm-fresh eggs, seasonal jams, fresh fruits and juices, cereal and organic muesli, as well as a daily changing menu of Indian delicacies.
Investor Raghav Priyadarshi employed Sri Lanka’s Zowa Architects to craft his beach villa Kadju House in Tangalle – and they did such a good job, he got them back for the Kumaon, too. Disciplines of the late, great Geoffrey Bawa – Sri Lanka’s preeminent architect – their goal was to transport the tenants of Tropical Modernism out to the Himalayas: using materials that were directly from, and suited to, the environment; opening up walls to bring the outside in; and creating wide, open spaces to increase ventilation. The Zowa team lived on site for two years and the result is a minimalist masterpiece that lets the landscape do the talking.
At the hotel
Book-stocked library with board games and a fire; other games such as badminton, cricket and (soon) table tennis; an outdoor terrace; free WiFi. In rooms: kettle; log-burner; free bottled water; tea- and coffee-making kit; black-out curtain; Ayca bath products.
Our favourite rooms
The 10 rooms are split between five separate stone-and-bamboo buildings, spread out over the ridge and a short distance from the main house with its restaurant, library and terrace. They’re all the same in size and style: a mixture of neutral linens, wooden floors, large windows and kettle-topped log burners, blending to a bamboo wall at the back, behind which you’ll find an enveloping ensuite. Go for the top-floor bedroom if you really want to claim king of the mountain.
Settle in for Swedish, deep-tissue and aromatherapy massages – all use SOS Organics products made from local apricot-oil extract – in the two-treatment-room spa between 10am and 7pm. In-room spa treatments and yoga classes can also be organised on request: imagine saluting the sun in the birthplace of yoga against that backdrop…
The switchback roads of the Himalayas don’t make easy work for sufferers of travel sickness: come prepared if you want to focus on the views.
Its location at the end of a ridge in a relatively remote mountainous area makes the Kumaon a challenge for wheelchairs users or anyone with mobility concerns.
All welcome, but the mountainous landscape lends itself best to teenagers and older children who are willing to take on the trails. Back at base, there are books, crayons, paints and paper, toys and board games to keep them entertained.
This remote region forces the hotel to be self sufficient and resourceful. Much of the food is grown organically on site or sourced from the surrounding villages. There’s extensive rainwater harvesting, too, and all food waste is composted.
Aim for the table next to the glass. There’s no need to book: just turn up and grab it.
Casual: come as you are.
There’s only one restaurant at the Kumaon, but it’s one to remember. The Amaranth is on the upper floor of the main building, dramatically cantilevered above the library below. You enter through a tunnel of glass, lined with thin strips of bamboo on two sides, that leads to the view at the end. If you do manage to take your eyes off the peaks – including the second-highest mountain in India, Nanda Devi – you’ll find a room adorned with simple, mid-century furniture and a menu of local delicacies: thali platters let you sample a selection of vegetable curries, rice and more (hemp-seed dips and roti breads are also a speciality). Staff in the restaurant – and the hotel in general – are all from nearby villages, so ask them for recommendations if you're not sure what to try first.
Breakfast is 8–10.30am, lunch 1–2.30pm and dinner 7.30–9.30pm.
Light snacks can be ordered in the library or your room from 8am until 7pm.
Your base camp puts you in the Indian portion of the Himalayas, in Uttarakhand state, nudging the Nepalese border. You’re just south of the historic hill station of Binsar and not far from the temple-dotted Himalayan town of Almora.
The nearest airport is Pantnagar, which is well connected with Mumbai and Delhi on airlines such as Jet Airways, Air India and SpiceJet. On reaching Pantnagar, it’s an 80-mile, four-hour drive to the hotel. Transfers can be arranged for INR5,000 by calling Smith24.
Daily trains from Delhi take around six hours to reach Kathgodam, your nearest station, it's 55 miles away from the Kumaon, or three hours by car.
Only the brave would take on Himalayan roads: far better to arrange a transfer from either Pantnagar airport (four hours) or Kathgodam station (three hours), which can be tailored to include scenic stops (just call Smith24). That said, there is free parking at the hotel, if needed.
Worth getting out of bed for
Superlative views come as standard in the Himalayas: a mountain range so vast, it sprawls over five countries and includes 50 of the world’s highest 7,200m-plus peaks. Your base camp at the Kumaon places you in the Indian portion of the range, nudging the Nepalese border, from where you can head out on curatedhiking itineraries, organised and led by the hotel, lasting anywhere from a few hours to a full week. The historic hill station of Almora is to the south – summer capital of the Chand rajas, who ruled Kumaon between the 11th and 18th centuries – and is now home to one of the area’s chief attractions: the Binsar Wildlife Sanctuary. Rise early for dawn leopard spotting or head in to spot Himalayan black bears, along with 600 bird species. Don’t miss the trek to Zero Point, which reveals 360-degree views of Himalayan peaks. The terraced town of Almora is also close by, dotted with temples and fringed by rhododendron forests, with a lively local bazaar to explore in Lal Bagh market. Nearby, the hamlet of Kasar Devi and its fuschia-pink temple was made famous for attracting bohemian writers like D H Lawrence, and later musicians such as Bob Dylan and Cat Stevens, during the Hippie Trail heyday of the Sixties and Seventies. American psychologist Timothy Leary even moved here, after having been fired from Harvard for advocating the use of psychedelic drugs. Today, though, enlightenment can be sought in the hotel’s long list of activities, including horse-riding and romantic picnics on the ridge (call Smith24 to arrange).
The Kumaon is a year-round destination. The best times to visit are from early October to late November, and from late February to May; the monsoon arrives from June until September, bringing daily rains but also lush greenery. Things get cold in the depths of winter (December to February), but if you’re willing to brave the frosty nights, this is when the skies are at their clearest, the orchards are in bloom and a blanket of snow stretches from the peaks to the valley floor.
Every hotel in our collection is visited personally by members of our team, given the Smith seal of approval, and then anonymously reviewed. As soon as our reviewers have returned from this mountain lodge in Uttarakhand state and unpacked their hiking boots and Himalayan prayer flags, a full account of their Indian break will be with you. In the meantime, to whet your wanderlust, here's a quick peek inside the Kumaon in Binsar…
The India of your imagination is most likely all hustle and bustle. But up here in the Himalayas, the picture couldn’t be clearer. This timeless landscape is punctuated only by peaks and birdsong – but if you listen very carefully, you may just hear the pad of leopard paws in the Binsar Wildlife Sanctuary or the distant roar of black Himalayan bear. Still can’t hear anything? Simply sit back at the Kumaon and take in the views: this 10-suite mountain hideaway looks out across the Kasar Devi ridge and its attendant mountains. Plan an early dinner at the dramatic cantilevered restaurant to spy the sun slipping beneath the spires, then feast on authentic Indian cuisine from the Kumaon region: much of it grown on site and served by locals from the surrounding area. Next morning, head out for leopard-spotting, high-altitude hikes and village walks. Little wonder the Chand rajas – and later writers and artists like D H Lawrence and Bob Dylan – chose to retreat here…
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