Retreat from the heat

201711-INDIANHILLSThe Indian summer retreats of members of the British Raj make ideal holiday destinations for 21st century Europeans.

Retreat from the heat: India’s Hill Stations

One of the many charms of Paul Scott’s novel "Staying On” and its compelling dramatisation for television with Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson, was its backdrop of an Indian hill station as their choice of place to retire. Of course, the couple has lived through the last days of British India, but their refusal to leave sums up many people’s love affair with the country. More recently, the Channel 4 series, “Indian Summers”, set in Shimla, a hill station in the foothills of the Himalayas, showed the extraordinary lifestyle of the British living there in the 1930s. India’s hill stations are holiday destinations that offer an incredible wealth of different landscapes and cultures as they are spread around a variety of Indian regions, from the Himalayas in the north to Kerala in the south.

Hill Station History

During the British Raj, the officers, officials and their families were desperate to escape the summer heat of the plains. So they looked to the Himalayas in the north and the Nilgiri Hills in the south, and created hill stations that were versions of England. These hill stations are usually at altitudes of 1,000 to 2,500 metres (3,500 to 7.,500 feet) above sea level, and many of them also provided excellent sanatorium facilities because of their clean air. These hill stations remain popular holiday destinations, but some Westerners are looking at them as retirement resorts. There are plenty to choose from: you just need to decide whether you prefer the lush, tropical south, or the mountainous north where every view is of the majestic Himalayas.


The state of Uttarakhand has been compared to Switzerland; it is also called “The Land of the Gods” and is a centre of pilgrimage and there are numerous Hindu Temples. Bordered by the snow-peaked Himalayas, you can see why it has an Alpine feel. This increasingly prosperous state is largely agricultural and towns are surrounded by basmati rice fields and orchards of apples, oranges, pears and peaches. With its mountain landscapes and green pastures, it’s no wonder that it is home to several of India’s most famously scenic hill stations.

The sacred river Ganges flows through Rishikesh, which is also known as “The World Capital of Yoga” and it was here that The Beatles met the Maharishi. The rather lovely, luxury Ananda-in-the-Himalayas spa and retreat is the perfect destination for a special treat holiday. The British thought of Mussoorie as a ‘fairyland town’ and it is considered one of the most beautiful hill stations. Nainital, which is built around a pear-shaped lake, was a popular health resort with British Raj soldiers and officials, and now it is popular with contemporary British visitors.

Himachal Pradesh

Dalhousie, in the northern state of Himachal Pradesh that is renowned for its beauty, is named after Lord Dalhousie, a one-time British Governor-General in India. The summer retreat is built on five hills and renowned for its healing waters. The town is noted for its Scottish and Victorian architecture, plus its mesmerising scenery. The city of Shimla is another famously British retreat, and in 1864 it was declared ‘the summer capital of British India’. It is also called “Queen of the Hills” and you can ski on the slopes around Shimla, which is not an activity you normally associate with India.

The Nilgiri Mountains

The Nilgiri Mountains, also called ‘The Blue Mountains, cross the states of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Kerala states in southern India. They are part of the extensive Western Ghats range that forms the Deccan plateau. The area is famed for several hill stations, which are distinctly different to those in the north; you are unlikely to see much snow here.

Ootacamund, or Ooty, was a favourite with the British officials based in Madras. Its mountains, lakes, flower-filled fields and an almost constant, comfortable temperature all year round, make it an attractive resort to relax in. Thekkady in ‘God’s Own Country’ of Kerala, is India’s largest wildlife sanctuary. Hill station package holidays are one way to explore this beautiful area with its coastal and inland waters as well as its excellent spas that specialise in Ayurvedic treatments.

Maharashtra in the Middle

Mumbai is the capital of the state of Maharashtra and although it is the most densely populated state in India, it has some stunning hill stations. The visitor driving from Mumbai to Pune, which is an experience worth the hire of an experienced local driver, will pass through Lonavla and Khandala. These two towns are only three kilometres apart in the Western Ghats, and there are times when visitors standing on the terrace of Dukes Retreat may find that they are standing above the clouds. Lonavla is conveniently located for transport and it is one of the prime locations for a luxury retirement resort that is rather better equipped than the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel in its popular films that have done so much to make India an even more popular place to visit for an exotic holiday.

With so many different hill station locations to choose from, each with a unique and fascinating history, the traveller is spoilt for choice. Once you have visited a hill station and stood above the clouds, you will understand why they were so loved by the British.

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