As he put his oar into the water and pushed forward, the boatman looked at the descending mist on the lake and said:
“Bambai ka fashion, Dilli ka saashan, aur Nainital ka mausam, inka koi bharosa nahi. Kabhi bhi badal jaega.”
(The fashion of Mumbai, the government of Delhi and the weather of Nainital cannot be relied upon – it is erratic and can change at a moment’s notice)
This is the beauty of Nainital, the great Lake of Kumaon, ruled by the clouds.
The emerald green water of the lake is like the centerpiece of a majestic crown. It sits surrounded by mountains on all side on which the town seems to have just grown and spilled on all sides except one. The southern side of the lake has the Thandi Sarak, a walkway along the lake restricted to motored vehicles. Only a graveled footpath is available for the morning and evening walkers.
(Me, on a sunny morn, pretending to stretch!)
The mountain here is known be treacherous with its share of landslides although it has been stable for the last few years. The thandi sarak starts from the Naina Devi temple and goes all the way past the 2 temples located here to the end of the gravel path where early morning one can spot kayak enthusiasts practicing. One unique part about Nainital is the ability to take a complete walking round around the lake. It is a total of about 3.5 kms and at a leisurely pace will take about an hour. The government works very hard to keep the lake clean and alive and it is home to a number of fish from the mahseer and trout family.
Visiting the lake is and should be the No.1 item on any itinerary whether to enjoy a boat ride or to have a pleasant walk along the lake. From Tallital (south end) to Mallital (North end where the Naina Devi temple is located) is alone 1.5 kms. Numerous birds such as warblers and redstarts will make their friendly appearance besides the countless fishes of course. Next to the aged public library you will also spots some resident ducks and geese.
Once the walk is done, thirst and hunger come calling and before heading out to some shopping along the Lake, it is best to stop at Sakley’s, The Mountain Café. The café offers a wide range of main course and snacks but really it is their desserts that are worth the climb up from Mallital’s Bank of Baroda ATM (a short climb but leaves your puffing nevertheless). I always gorge on the Chocolate Truffle they offer, eating one and packing two!
For some street food, do try the snacks being sold outside the HDFC Bank alongside the lake. Plenty of soup, chowmein and momo options are available at the Bhutia market.
Bhutia market is for the discerning visitor. Shop for “authentic fakes” here. There is something for everyone in this market so long as it is related to clothes and accessories and if that is your interest then surely there is a slim chance of you leaving this place empty handed. Typical to any hill station in India, Nainital markets offers a crazy mix of products that don’t belong here but the latest trends can be spotted nevertheless. If you spot the NGO run Himjoli or Pahari Shop, do stop and have a look. The sweaters available here, are hand made by the ladies from all over the villages here and then sold through the central channel of these NGOs. There are a number of spurious NGOs present here and these two, I personally know to be authentic. Besides sweaters one can shop for almond and apricot oils as well as many flavors of pickles and preserves. Try the Buransh juice – that is rhododendron. The flowers start to bloom from late January and on the higher extremes, the glorious red and pink blooms can be seen from almost every treetop. Nainital is famous for the candles and while I don’t know how they started becoming a rage here, there is no harm to pick up one or two candles priced typically between 2- 100 rupees.
(Nope, not fruit)
My idea of going to the hills however is to have some peace and quiet away from the hustle bustle where you can gaze upon the endless mountains and marvel at their beauty. To do that, head up from Mallital towards the popular horse riding spot at Tiffin Top. Take the right just before toll barricade and go up the narrow tree lined road. This road leads up to the tiny town of Pangot via the even tinier Kilbury. These two places are paradise for those who want to indulge in a spot of birding. If you are an enthusiast then you would have definitely come with your binoculars and handbooks and perhaps even a guide. If not then there is no need to worry. You need to keep your ears open and try to her the tweets and follow your eyes to where the sounds lead you will come across a warbler or a magpie or a forktail. It is all very exciting when you peer through the leaves of the grand old oak, and spot the bird creating the racket and you are totally amazed at how a bird that tiny could make all that ruckus.
The way up to Pangot also holds a viewpoint from where one can gaze upon the snow peaks of the Trishul Himalayan rnge. Some folks sit here with massive telescopes and at a price allow you to view these more closely. I have never done that. I like the marvel that I can see unaided. From the near the Lake there is a road up which leads to a place called Snow viewpoint. As the name suggests from here one can see the snow peaks or may I say more appropriately one can see a peak. Singular. You can take the cable car up to the point as well, which is a novelty for sure. It also offers a birds ye view of the lake and one can see the kidney bean shape clearly etched into the sides of the mountains to form the lake itself. Or you can pull over on the way to Pangot and look down to see a similar view of the clearly defined full view of the lake.
Nainital is popularly visited in summers when the plains flock upwards in search of cool climes. The Mall road does get pretty crowded at that time of the year. Personally I feel there is nothing better than coming here to enjoy crisp winters sitting besides the bonfire at the Boat Club at the Mallital corner. Typically it is a Members only club and they need you to fill a form with id proof and give cover charge to enter the premises. Once in, you are transported into the British era with wooden floors, walls, and ceilings and pictures from a bygone time adorning the walls. A glowing cracking fire invites you to sit and have some rum with their pakoras and then take a walk down the deck against the cold breeze from the lake. It does snow here sometimes when the weather really comes down usually in early February. The lake does not freeze but the roads beyond do get snowed in.
Nainital has something to offer everyone. From the honeymooning couples who can go boat paddling in the lake, to the family vacations with plenty of activities suitable for all age group, the nature lover who can find a quiet spot in the oak and pine forest to the adventure junkie who can go para sailing and rappelling. It is indeed a crown jewel in the Kumaon landscape.