In Nainital, Uttarakhand, at the heart of the Lake District of India, nostalgia is an omnipresent motif. From gabled stone houses built by the homesick British, to the Grand Hotel on the Mall built in 1872, with its high ceilings, everything has a charm of its own. Nainital has been the haunt of the rich and famous from Bollywood such as Rajesh Khanna and Dilip Kumar to politicians, including Jawaharlal Nehru and the King of Nepal.
History echoes down every corner of the hill town. Many of the old houses built by British officers and royalty have now been converted into heritage hotels. Like the Balrampur house that looks like a French Chateau, is today a hotel peppered with antiques, paintings and period furniture, or Fairhaven’s—a century old mansion in wood and stone, which is also a hotel today.
Another such heritage property is the Naini Retreat—a Tudor-style sprawl of stone and wood buildings—which used to be the summer home of the Raja of Pilibhit and was converted into a heritage hotel in 1989 by the Leisure Hotels Group. Built in 1928, with sepia images on walls, carpets on floors and steeple roofs, this is a step back into the past.
The luxury property sits majestically on the slopes of the Ayarpatta, overlooking the lake and town with a fountain in the central courtyard, begonias tumbling out of window boxes, ivy on stone walls, and winding paths at different levels of elevation. Rooms in the new Maharaja Wing are done up in muted shades of beige and russet. Nooks and crannies of the property are decorated with an eclectic collection of paintings, memorabilia and photographs from the sepia past.Nainital is set in two parts—Tallital and Mallital—with the lake separating them. There’s the oldest Methodist Church, a simple structure dating back to 1856, the Mall Road also has a gurdwara, a mosque and a temple nearby, pointing to the secular nature of the town.
The kidney-shaped, jade-coloured lake is the centrepiece of the town, which according to a legend was carved out by three sages and filled with holy water from Lake Mansarovar. It was George W Traill, the then Commissioner of Kumaon, who first laid eyes on the Naini lake but did not reveal its location. But sugar merchant P Barron tricked a local into revealing its location, and opened the floodgates of development.
A must-visit in the town is Gurney House, the colonial cottage of Jim Corbett, the famous hunter-turned-conservationist of Kumaon. A private home today belonging to the Dalmia family, it allows private tours by appointment. Many of Corbett’s belongings line the walls and shelves. Another most striking buildings in town is the Raj Bhawan or the Governor’s residence. Made in Neo-Gothic style, it is said to have been modelled on the Buckingham Palace, designed by architect F W Stevens. One can take a guided tour of turreted stone building that was built in 1897. Built over 205 acres, it has its own golf course.
Along the mall is the Nainital Boat Club, established in 1890, it is one of India’s oldest clubs. Full of old-world charm, this used to be the venue for live bands, balls and yacht races. On the history trail, one church that should be visited is the St. John. The hill station’s first church on Ayarpatta hill was for British soldiers, residents and visitors. It’s the perfect place to end the trip.