Stilling views, Kumaoni thalis, and forest hikes at this heritage retreat in Kumaon.
As a child, I spent hours reading and re-reading Enid Blyton’s The Magic Faraway Tree. Like the characters in the book, I too yearned to visit the Enchanted Wood, climb up the sturdy old tree, and visit the Land of Birthdays and the Land of Dreams. This year, I met my own magic faraway tree, tucked away in the Kumaon hills of Uttarakhand. As my friends and I drove up in a jeep to the Tree of Life Grand Oak Manor in Binsar, we were greeted by an imposing oak tree that stood guard at its entrance. Its many branches fanned out, stretching to infinity, home to magical lands for birds, bees, and insects. Behind its canopy, we could glimpse the Himalayas. We were smitten.
Grand Oak Manor has ample natural and manmade heritage. Nestled in the heart of the Binsar Wildlife Sanctuary, the property was once the home of General Sir Henry Ramsay, the British Commissioner of Kumaon in the mid 1800s. About a century later, in 1931, it was bought by a gent called Rai Bahadur Harkishan Lal Sah Gangola. Since then, it has passed down from one generation to another to our hosts Sindhu Gangola and his wife Shikha, a gracious couple that made us feel at home immediately.
Living in different cities, my friends and I look forward to our annual holiday together to reconnect away from the chaos of our work and daily routines. And there was no better place to do this than the balcony of our room. On most days, cotton candy clouds stole around us, softening the folds of the surrounding hills. It was a deeply comforting place: perfect for long conversations, but also for companionable silences, where the only sound we heard was leaves gently falling to the ground. Our very own magical land, especially at dawn when the Himalayan peaks shined like molten gold.
Our mornings began with generous breakfasts of aloo parathas slathered with butter, and views of jewel-coloured minivets darting about the oak tree. With every meal, we learned a little more about Binsar’s habitat. We had bhang chutney made from locally grown plants, bottles of peach preserve made in Almora, and a Kumaoni dinner starring kathpalyo, a fragrant yoghurt broth flavoured with Himalayan spices. Almost every evening, we would leave our dining table groaning, declaring that we couldn’t possibly eat again—until the next meal when our noble intentions vanished like the sun on a foggy day.
We spent most of our time on the balcony or reading in Grand Oak’s handsome study, but occasionally, we’d venture out to go exploring. Binsar’s forest is bewitching, with its moss-covered trees, orchestra of cicadas, and abundance of birdlife. In the company of our guide, Hemjoshi, we discovered that the Kumaoni names for flora is often more poetic than their English names. Like kakudimakodi, the violet, bell-shaped flower that is named after a spider that spins her web in its hollow. When one friend and I cursed our fitness levels (it’s an easy hike by the way), Hemjoshi grinned and told us that we will go “mathu, maath”, slowly-slowly in Kumaoni.
Mathu, maath embodies the philosophy of Grand Oak: It’s a space to wind down, take deep breaths of brisk mountain air, and live deeply and significantly, if only for a few days. My stay was about the small joys: the crunch of autumn leaves beneath my shoes, the warmth of close friendships, the velvety feel of moss under my palm. It was a rejuvenating break, and a timely reminder of what American naturalist Henry David Thoreau said, “It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.”
Photo courtesy Tree of Life Grand Oak Manor
The Tree of Life Grand Oak Manor has nine rooms, on the ground and first floor. Standard tariff includes breakfast, though it’s best to book on a breakfast and dinner plan while making reservations. (Doubles ₹9,900, including breakfast and dinner; +91-9602091000; More details here.)
The Grand Oak Manor is located inside Binsar Wildlife Sanctuary in Uttarakhand. It is 380km/9.5hr from Delhi and 125km/3.5hr from Kathgodam, which is the closest railway station. Almora, 25km/50min away, is the closest town and Pantnagar 150km/4.5hr is the closest airport.
From Delhi, the best alternative to driving is taking the overnight Ranikhet Express or the Shatabdi, which leaves Anand Vihar terminus at 6 a.m. and arrives at Kathgodam at 11.30 a.m. Grand Oak can organise a taxi from Kathgodam railway station (Innova, ₹4,500 one way).
Binsar Wildlife Sanctuary
Sanctuary gates are open between sunrise and sunset so entry and exit must be planned accordingly. Entry fee is ₹150 for Indian nationals and ₹600 for foreign travellers. Vehicle charges are ₹250.