‘’Can this this really be India?’’ I wonder as I sit on the terrace of the most charming stone and timber built cottage, gazing out over immaculate and spacious gardens all overlooked by deodar-clad, forested hillsides? The only sounds are of the River Beas churning and gurgling by, the birds flitting between the branches of the apple orchards, and the chat of your welcoming hosts as they pour tea and offer homemade sandwiches and cakes as they familiarise you with the surroundings and history of the place. There is a chocolate-box quality about this hotel. Traditionally built exteriors give way to cosy yet spacious interiors, timber clad walls, beamed ceilings and wood burning stoves have been thoughtfully provided for the cooler winter months. There are 2 x two bedroomed cottages each bedroom having an ensuite bathroom in addition to a shared living area, kitchen and verandah overlooking the gardens and river. There are also three double ensuite rooms in a separate building which has been cleverly designed so that the rooms can be booked individually and give total privacy, or can be opened out to provide joint accommodation as one large cottage.
With immaculately clean interiors and picturesque surroundings with no car horns to be heard, other than the apple orchards one can almost believe that one is in Switzerland. Yet, this idyll is Neeralaya in Raison, in the Kulu Valley, which is renowned for its deodar and pine forests, fruit orchards and wild flower speckled, grassy meadows which give way to stunning views of lofty snow-capped peaks.
Raison is a stone’s throw from the better known, Manali yet a world away from that busy, bustling hill resort. The setting being adjacent to the Beas River ensures that, season depending, angling (the local trout are delicious) or white-water rafting can be easily arranged, as can leisurely walks through the apple orchards and visits to the local villages.
Should you wish to venture out for the day on a local trek, your hosts know the best scenic spots for you to enjoy one of their lovingly-prepared, delicious picnics. At Neeralaya, afternoon tea and cakes are served at the side of the river in the afternoon and meals are served in the open-sided dining area called The Shack. During the coldest months, one of the downstairs suites is converted into a cosy dining room with a fireplace. For those looking for thrill seeking adventures, head up beyond Manali (a 45 minute drive) where activities include trekking into the Rohtang Pass, snowboarding and skiing (from October until April/May), Zorbing (if you really do have the need to throw yourself down the hill encased in a giant, plastic ball) and mountain biking.
If you prefer a less active and more cultural couple of days then visits can be arranged to the nearby 450-year-old Naggar Castle and village, whose handful of stone and wood carved temples date back to the 15th century. Also worth visiting in Naggar is the Roerich Art Gallery and the folk museum (closed on Mondays). Nicholas Roerich was Russian and a gifted painter who settled down in the area after the revolution of 1917. Further up the valley, in Manali, visit the 400 year old ‘Hadimba’ temple built in the characteristic pagoda-style hill architecture and set amidst equally ancient pine forest, and explore the markets of Old Manali before returning to the riverside villas for a restful evening.
Should you wish to eat out in Manali then The Lazy Dog has a chilled out atmosphere and is a good place for early drinks. I recommend grabbing a table in the garden which sits on a rocky outcrop with the River Beas thundering below. The best pizzas in town are to be found at the restaurant at Casa Bella Vista, which has a traditional wood-fired oven and, coincidently is another great place to stay. Run by Giri and his wife, Marta it is a short walk from Old Manali and a good choice for those wanting to be closer to the action in Manali itself.
If you are traveling over a weekend then a must is to pre-book Sunday lunch at Martin’s. Martin is Austrian, married to a local girl and over time, and hardly surprisingly, they have developed a reputation for their signature chicken and chips. Perfectly roasted, the chicken is succulent on the inside with perfectly crisp skin on the outside and is served al fresco in the gardens of the Himalayan Sports Club. As it is only open on a Sunday, and with a justly deserved excellent reputation, it is necessary to book far in advance. Neeralaya is an ideal romantic weekend “get-away” from Delhi or a great stopping off point for going to or from Ladakh by road. However it is also a great family destination for a group travelling together.
The owners have their own children (a daughter Mehnoor, aged 9 and a son, Aadhvan aged 4). There are safe gardens to play in, a children’s play area with a tree house and gentle village walks and activities. Top Tips: My favourite cottage is Plum Cottage. My favourite room in the main building is Apple, on the top floor with private balcony with views of the garden and river. Allow a minimum of 3 nights, which gives one full day for visiting Manali and one full day to enjoy the tranquillity of the location and local walks.