If you find yourself in Mumbai faced with its oppressive, sultry summer, an escape plan is essential. Fortunately, the reliable Western Ghats hill stations offer that much-needed sanctuary from the soaring temperatures of the city.
Known as the Sahyadris in Maharashtra, the Western Ghats run along the west coast, spread out lavishly over 1,600 kms from the north of Mumbai to the southern tip of India. Its rich biodiversity has earned the chain a spot on the UNESCO heritage list. Older than even the Himalayas, the Ghats and their tropical evergreen forests offer a welcome respite. Better yet, most Western Ghats hill stations are only a few hours away from Mumbai.
Before you set off, here’s a tip – book well in advance, the good resorts are often fully booked on weekends. Avoid the main market areas and look for accommodation on the fringes of the hill stations.
Panchgani derives its name from the five hills that surround it. With its lush greenery and sprinkling of quaint Parsi and old British homes, this Western Ghats hill station is popular with the film folk as it makes for a great location for shoots – the superstar Aamir Khan owns a colonial bungalow here. Standing tall at 1334 m, Panchgani offers views of the Krishna River on one side and the coastal plains on the other. Paragliding is an excellent way of taking in the views and Dhom dam (21 kms away) offers water sports facilities.
Once the summer capital of the Bombay Residency during the British Raj, Mahableshwar is particularly popular with the local community. Mahableshwar translates as ‘God of great power’ in Sanskrit. The focal point is Venna Lake, where you can go boating. Whether you choose to display your rowing prowess or not, visiting the strawberry fields (en route to Mahableshwar’s friendly neighbour, Panchgani) is a must.
There’s plenty to do apart from visiting the tired viewing points infested with hawkers and squealing children. Pratapgad Fort, built in 1659, is located just 24 kms from Mahableshwar – Afzal Khan, the powerful general of Bijapur, met his untimely death at the hands of Shivaji here. The fort is also known for walkways leading to trap doors that open to a 100-metre fall. Also visit Lingmala Falls, which cascade down a steep cliff at an altitude of 600 feet.
A simple pleasure offered by a visit to Matheran is the heritage toy train that chugs slowly up from Neral to the Western Ghats hill station. You might share your seat with a monkey (and there are several along the route), so make sure that your food is tucked away in your bag. There are some lovely British and Parsi homes here on the way to Charlotte Lake.
For trekkers, the most popular route is through the Garbert Plateau, starting from Bhivpuri station. Another hugely popular activity is horse riding. For accommodation, stay at the lovely heritage hotel Verandah in the Forest.
The twin hills stations of Khandala and Lonavala are very popular with locals, especially during the monsoons because of their proximity to Mumbai. Lonavala gets its name from ‘Lonavli’ which means a city surrounded by caves. Karla and Bhaja Caves are the best known among the caves near Lonavala. Also, visit the nearby Lohagad fort (or Iron fort) for some great views – be warned though, one option to reach the top of the fort involves climbing 500 steps.
Avoid the hotels crammed together near the market place at all costs, and try more upmarket, better located and well maintained resorts like Upper Deck, Fariyas and Duke’s Retreat on the periphery of the noisy hill stations.
Located 700 metres above sea level, Malshej Ghat makes for a fantastic trekking destination, particularly in the monsoon as you can see migratory flamingos and waterfalls here. Visit Shivneri Fort, the birthplace of Shivaji, about 40 kms from Malshej and Harishchandragad Fort at an altitude of 1,424 metres. Stay options are limited but try the MTDC resort, which should be booked well in advance.
Bhandardhara is a quiet getaway with a couple of resorts on Arthur Lake, fed by Pravara River. According to legend, Shri Agasti Rishi meditated here for a year, surviving only on water and air. Pleased, God blessed the rishi with a stream of the Ganga River, which is now known as the Pravara River. The other main attraction is Wilson Dam – built in 1910 on the Pravara River. The 150 metre-high dam is the largest earthen dam in India. Stand at the edge of the garden embankment if you’d like a good spray.
Bhandardhara is surrounded by the high hills of the Sahyadris. Trek up Mt Kalsubai, the highest peak in Maharashtra at 1,646 metres. For accommodation, try the upscale Anandvan and MTDC resorts.
Koroli, located besides Vaitarna dam, is a lesser-known Western Ghats hill station and thus, all the more attractive. A 30-minute drive from Igatpuri, Koroli is a sanctuary for nature lovers. Rock climbing, trekking and camping are all options here. Trekkers start from Sandhan Valley and end up at Koroli ghat. Stay options include E&G Green Courts villas.
Here lies the only lake in India created by meteorite impact, resulting in the third largest crater lake in the world. Nearly 50,000 years ago, a two million-ton meteorite impacted the earth to create a depression 1.83 kilometres in diameter and 150 metres deep. It has proved to be of great scientific interest and attracts nature lovers as well due to its population of peafowl, chinkara, gazelles and migratory birds.
Chikaldhara is the only hill resort in the Vidharba region, and also the sole coffee-growing region in Maharashtra. Abundant in wildlife, you may even come across a panther or a sloth bear here. You can also visit the nearby Melghat Tiger Reserve, Gavilgad and Narnala Fort and Semadoh Lake.
A good 180 kms from Mumbai, Jawhar with its dense greenery and myriad waterfalls, is slowly gaining popularity among locals. The highlight is the mighty Dadara Kopra falls and Shirpamal, the gateway built by Shivaji. Jawhar is also known for its local tribal art form – the Warli paintings. A souvenir for your travels!
Header image © Maharashtra Tourism
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Written by Namrata Bhawnani