Thursday, May. 13, 2010

Run for the Hill Station

Best Alpine Escape
Simla, India

With an entire subcontinent and the world's No. 1 mountain range to choose from, the British raj settled its summer capital at Simla — the favored spot to rejuvenate its conquerors' chops and recover from all forms of fevered, microbial heat. One stroll out the front lobby of any stately hotel along the ridge of this ultimate hill station reveals the reasons: air so alpine it can awaken even the most tired lungs; magnificent stands of pine and oak barely disturbed by the history strewn to all sides.

Reclaimed by nationalist mapmakers as Shimla, its warren of streets bulging with jaunty job seekers from all tribal corners of Himachal Pradesh, this retreat, 2,205 m up, offers an overdose of fresh air along with starry nights and urban hikes with stirring vistas. Scavengers of the imperial can take in the many mansions, gardens, conference rooms and viceregal lodges. If altitude sickness doesn't strike, there's the obligatory nightly promenade down memory lane along the Mall, a surreal and very high High Street. It is seemingly carried over, stone by Elizabethan stone, complete with church steeples and small-town theater, from the English Midlands. But the healing separation from India's tumult really starts with the toy railway up from Kalka, now recognized as part of World Heritage by UNESCO. The five-to-six-hour ascent through a mint-green landscape, interrupted by 102 short tunnels, is achieved so slowly and delicately that passengers can hop down at any point — yet never want to get off.