Summer has set in.
The whole world and its cat is going on numerous trips and vacations.
Only we did not have a trip. Or a summer vacation. Or a cat.
So one fine Friday, we decided enough is enough and we too shall give ourselves a few days off from the grind. Two days to be precise. And set off for the nearest hill station - Panchgani.
Yes, Panchgani ... not Mahabaleshwar.
Of course we would give it a visit but not stay there. Over crowded; dirty; polluted ... the much abused Mahabaleshwar was not exactly what we had in mind for a quiet filled, calm weekend.
Panchgani ... nestled in the Shyadris, is much quieter, cleaner and has better views and places to stay.
And so Panchgani it was for us.
Saturday morning saw us driving down the beautiful Satara highway, NH - 4. We had started late by the standards of a long journey. But it was decided that this would be a light trip with absolutely no hard and fast rules or deadlines.
Panchgani is just 100 kms away from Pune but takes a little more time than expected due to the numerous ghats when you crossing the Shayadri range. Also, the weekend traffic was huge.
We watched with dismay at the growing number of cars rushing past each other. We knew where they were headed to. They knew where the others were headed too.
And everyone was late.
As we climbed the ghats and kept going high up, the view kept turning spectacular.
The landscape was all dry and barren though and I could not help but wonder what would the whole place look like in the monsoons.
Our aim was to be at Mapro for lunch.
But before that we needed to find a place to spend the night in.
Since it was an impromptu plan, we did not get the time to search for places to stay in Panchgani or Mahabaleshwar. A shout out on FB yielded no results too.
So we decided to leave it to luck. If we got a place, we would stay, If not, we will drive back.
I, however, did throw in a pair of change of clothes , liquid soap and shampoo, some fresh towels ( I wouldn't touch hotel towels with a pole ... not even in five stars ) and one fresh bed sheet ( another of my peeves ). And some bottles of cold drinking water.
After trying exactly one place ... only to be told that there is no hope of finding even a single room due to the peak season and weekend; so we should not waste our time looking around ... we were asked by the man at the counter if we would be interested in a home stay.
He hastened to add that it would be like a home stay and we would not have to exactly stay inside their house.
B hesitated. I suggested we have a look first.
And fell in love with the place and the room the moment we stepped inside the property.
But it was only when we stepped into our allotted room and stepped out into the balcony did we realise that we were actually standing on a slope of one of the hills. Right below us was a deep fall ... and the view was beautiful!
What impressed us most was the quiet all around.
The room was air conditioned, with glass doors to the balcony. Everything was clean. And we heaved a sigh of relief.
Going downstairs, we booked it for the night and chatted a little with the owner and his wife, both elderly people and lived in the ground floor, a little. But we were famished by then.
So rushed off to Mapro Gardens.
People thronged the place and more were pouring in.
The weekend was just starting.
Thankfully they do not have an extensive menu. You need to decide between a pizza and a sandwich. And some different kinds of shakes and desserts ... all of course laden with strawberries in different forms ... syrup, jellies, raw.
The cooking section was abuzz with activity, with everyone working in a fast forward mode.
Pizzas went into the oven fast and came out even faster. We settled on the sandwich, hoping it will be quick.
Which it was not.
But it was fresh and hot. And came with freshly fried potatoes, sprinkled liberally with peri peri powder.
Tasty, but dry.
So we got a strawberry shake and one with whipped cream too.
After all that rushing since morning, we needed it badly.
There was a cool breeze, but it was hot nonetheless. Again I wondered how beautiful this place will turn once the monsoons set in.
With the a/c on and the dark curtains blocking the glaring sunlight out, we slept for 3 hours straight.
Waking to a beautiful evening, with the sunlight turning softer, we sat back to discuss what places we can visit before it turned dark. B suggested tea and called for some vegetable pakodas and tea. "No vegetables sir, so no vegetable pakodas." Hmmm. But I wanted pakodas. So insisted. The other end relented but only when we agreed to Onion pakodas.
Within half and hour we had super hot Onion pakodas and tea in front of us.
I had never before tasted such wonderful onion pakodas. Every onion slice was seperated from the other and yet were bound together magically into one pakoda. And super crispy. Absolutely divine.
Even the ketchup was of good quality.
Forgetting our plans, we fell on it and within minutes the plate was clean.
Mahabaleshwar is only 18 kms away and the roads were beautiful. It did not take more than 20 minutes for us to reach. And it is on the outer side of Mahabaleshwar, so we did not have to enter the city actually.
One final turn and climb simultaneously and our car came to a halt almost immediately. Venna lake was immediately on our right yet could hardly be seen. The road and the whole place was filled with people and cars and horses and shops and hawkers and what not. Shouting,honking ... the place was chaos written all over. The taxi drivers would not let us park in front of the shops, inspite of there being enough space. It is reserved for taxis apparently. The hapless tourist driving on his own is left to find a safe place for his car.
There were other people too, trying to butt in and find a place ... and there were a lot of disagreements and arguments. Another reason not to come to Mahabaleshwar during the weekends.
We needed to circle the place twice before we could find a place to park the car. After that it was a good evening.
It did not take much time and soon he not only got the tickets but also had given in to a young couple's persuasion to share a boat.
And soon we were in the water ... our boatman rowing us towards the end of the lake.
I was fascinated by the Mapro floating fountain.
The boatman readily agreed and we turned back, urging him to go as close to the fountain as possible. It was much fun!
Later they started the lights in the fountain and it was a beautiful sight!
We went to the recreation center called Temptations, that fell on the left side of the Mahabaleshwar to Panchgani highway.
This place has two restaraunts, a Go Karting zone , some rides and merry-go-rounds.
Open air and spacious, this was a perfect break for us. We sat down on one of the benches in the lawn, with two cups of coffee and enjoyed the bustle all around.
But spying lightning at one corner of the sky, we decided to call it a day and return.
But not before I had two rides back to back on the merry-go-round ... the one which raises you high up in the air as it gathers speed. Awesome!
As we sped back, a storm had already started brewing. There was a high wind and leaves were already swirling all around. The power supply promptly went off and it was already beyond ten in the night. Big splatters of rain had already started by the time we parked the car and had rushed in.
And then came the best part of the evening.
We drew back the curtains and stepped into the balcony. The cold wind took our breath away. There was heavy rain pouring by the gallons.
But it was the lightning that captivated us. A wonderful real life show of nature's wonders.
In the darkness, it was spell binding. Huge streaks across the sky, sometimes thin and somethimes very thick. Dancing in its own rhythm.
All the way from heaven to earth.
We stood there for a longish while; but soon the rain was too heavy and it turned very cold too.
So we came in and shut the glass doors. And sat quietly and viewed the best light and sound show in the whole wide world.
Pithla with crisp, hot bhakris and a wangi ki sabzi and dal to go along with. It was a wonder how they delivered the food piping hot to our room inspite of that rain and wind.
But we did have a wonderful meal in the dark, with the rain outside and the thunder and lightning show on.
After a long while, we decided to retire.
Panchgani does not rise early. None of the restaurants were open. Only Vitthal's was packed with people.
We settled down and watched the woods in front of us, across the road.
In a while our breakfast arrived .... hot puri bhaji.
We filled up as we had a long day ahead.
Planned to visit a few points and hit the road for our return journey.
After checking out ( all hotels in Panchgani have 10:30 as checkout time ), we went to Mahabaleshwar. Spent around an hour just walking the streets and of course, shopping. You get some very good crocheted things in Mahabaleshwar. As well as wood crafted things. Picked up some good stuff and returned.
Went straight to Needle point and Echo point.
We then went to Sydney point, Kate's point, Parsi point and made an about turn to go to the temple in old Mahabaleshwar.
But half way into the journey we found the roads jammed with tourist vehicles. And more were pouring.
Leaving the plan, we returned to Panchgani.
Purohit's is a much recommended name there for their thalis. So we had lunch there.
After that, we wanted to go to the Table land, but were advised not to go there before at least five o'clock in the evening.
So we gave that a miss and went to another small plateau right in front of it.
And got beautiful view of the table land from there.
This early start gave us free, empty roads and we were home in no time, just before early evening.
Distance from Pune to Panchgani is 101 kms.
Time taken is 2 hrs and a little more, depending on the traffic and the number of breaks.
Route taken - National highway 4 and the Wai Panchgani road.
Tolls - yes. Both on the highways and inside Panchgani and Mahabaleshwar.
Place of stay - details on request.