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Sunday, 8 April 2007

A Villa in the Woods

There is nothing new I can tell about Shimla. The erstwhile British summer Capital and one of the most popular hill stations of the country, this place has no surprises to spring on the discerning traveler.

And yet we decided to go to Shimla... Since we were constantly scolded for going for our honeymoon along with five other people (which included two children), we almost felt pressurised to go for our 'real' honeymoon!

But, why Shimla?

Well, it so happened that during a cleaning process in my husband's office, a visiting card fell on his desk and he by chance looked at it. The card said Woodville, Shimla. Curiosity led to an Internet search and this is what he found -
Woodville Palace is one of those beautiful hotels in Shimla which the town can boast about.

But this is not what prompted us to go there. What really inspired this decision was that Swami (
Sai Baba) had also stayed there (I wonder he had sent the visiting card to us).

Back home, I was offered, "Let's go to Shimla for three days this week." Not being the instinctive decision maker type, I was apprehensive and skeptical. But promptly, the website was shown to me and I was impressed.

One call to Woodsville and the booking was made. We seemed to have got a nice room at an okay cost. Even after the tickets were bought for the to and fro bus journey, till the last minute I kept wondering, "are we really going?" It was natural, considering the way things were planned.

But in no time, I found myself in the bus comfortably seated right behind the driver's seat. The paranthas lovingly packed by mommy were gobbled down at the Delhi ISBT itself. Rest of the seven hour journey was after all, meant to be spent dozing off.

By the time, we reached
Kalka, I started getting jittery and instantly ate the Avomine I had carefully kept in my pocket (I've always hated the ride to the hill stations).

It worked and I peacefully slept straight till I heard some people shouting Shimla, Shimla. As soon as we descended from the bus, we realised we were shivering. The light woollens on our body were doing no good and we wanted to somehow reach our hotel.

Our cab fellow turned out to be a talkative man and we launched our questionnaire. "How is this Woodville Hotel?" I asked. "Arre madam woh to mahal jaisa hai," we were offered. So Internet is reliable, we wondered. But it was still too early to say what our instincts will lead to.

Woodville Palace Hotel, Shimla

The drive through the elevated concrete jungle called Shimla was what really made us greatful for choosing Woodville Palace Hotel to stay. A little further up from the Governor's bunglow was situated this beautiful haven nestled amidst acres of greenery. Very much a part of the city, but still it felt as though we left the bustling city far behind when our car wound up to the entrance.

The reception area was kept warm with the huge heater and the warmth of the people of the hotel was written clear on the faces of the minimalistic morning staff. The room we had asked for was to get free by 12 and we were offered to relax in another room till then.

No advance taken and no background check done, we walked softly through the wooden floor and reached our room. Despite knowing that this wasn't where we were supposed to spend the next couple of days, my dear husband made it loud and clear that we weren't too happy with the room.

We'll talk about that later, let's rest for sometime was my response as I snuggled into the cosy quilt. Sometime later, sitting in the dining hall, devouring the lovely eggs, sandwiches and tea, we admired the tastefully done castle. Looking at some of the pictures put up, we came to know that this place was the palace of the Jubbal royal family and had a colourful historical background.

But everything else had to wait since the most pressing task of the moment was getting into the room we want. The small walk leading to the reception gave us another opportunity to marvel at the beauty Woodville was.

We could choose between two available rooms within our budget, we were told. Rejecting a stylish and modern room on the first floor, we chose an ancient looking place on the ground floor. Our two days can be spent in the sanctity of this room, we told each other happily the moment the hotel staff walked out after dropping our luggage.

Our den was beautiful- two sets of the windows overlooking the beautifully kept garden and the hills overlooking the hotel just melted our hearts. The furnishing was exactly according to our
taste. A huge cosy cot with a bed like sofa right opposite. The dressing table, study table and the big chest were all wooden.

But the two things which gave us the ultimate glee were the tall heater and the larger than life geyser! The bath tub wasn't too big but the heater compensated for all as we excitedly anticipated the elaborate steam bath we could have.

But the Avomine that had saved me and my fellow passengers of my puking session was just not willing to let me do anything else. I was compelled to sleep and so the poor man with me was also forced to postpone his craving for exploration.

The shower after the luxurious nap was blissful. For someone who doesn't even need to walk a kilometer to catch a transport to get to work, the walk to the mall road seemed tiring but relaxing.

Both of us had vague memories of walking down this road as children with our parents. And we went on to check out the places we remembered- "Where is that Chinese shoe shop? Where's Indian Coffee House?" Childhood memories are fond, Aren't they?

No shopping today, I was strictly instructed. So I satisfied myself with window shopping and some phone calls. As the sun went down, Woodville was pulling us back. With no transport allowed on the mall road, we had to depend on our feet to get back as soon as possible.

Home sweet home was how we felt when we got back.

The staff was instructed to call us when the dinner was ready. Meanwhile, it was time to switch on the TV set. Such was the magic of the place that my husband even relented to watch a Shah Rukh Khan movie with me! And we spent about one hour seeing SRK as bhoot in Paheli.

The hotel website isn't wrong when it says Woodville is a gastronomical delight. Each and every meal of the place was a treat to our tastebuds. To add to the flavour of the already tempting meal, the dining space was almost like a private meal hall.

The hotel staff just seemed to disappear when we would start eating. And miraculously appear when we needed something. Our appetite shot up in the cold weather and the wonderful ambiance.

The vegetarian stuff like palak paneer, yellow dal, mushroom curry and much more just melted in the mouth. As far as the non-veg was concerned, it is probably Woodville that prompted Sujith to start eating non-veg again.

Even the simple cheese sandwich tasted yummy in that place. We reprimanded ourselves a thousand times when we decided to have our lunch outside the next day. But considering the walking distance and the absolutely necessary shopping, we didn't have too much choice.

It was time for a brief hotel tour before venturing out to the mall road again the next day. But it was the garden where we got stuck and the tour was forgotten. Taking a small flight of stairs down the garden, we spotted this cottage type looking place called The House of the Rising Sun.

The only source of information there was this worker who was busy painting a placard. We came to know that this is the latest addition to this hotel which was inaugurated by Amitabh Bachchan. The man was too eager to speak about the hotel he obviously loved and told us that this is probably the best located hotel in the town.

We were also told that this is where the movie Black was shot. No wonder the house shown in the movie looked so royal! We understood that we had to end the conversation which could have gone on for hours together.

This time, I was quite excited walking down to the mall. After all, it was the shopping day. We walked past a bunch of school kids walking uphill whose red cheeks reminded us of the pale looking kids back home. Instead of shopping on the mall, we took a road leading us to a local type market.

We still don't know if the rates were actually cheaper but my husband's purse was surely emptied at the shawl shop. This routine was followed religiously and on our way back, we realised that we needed another bag to carry the proof of my extravaganza!

A Tibetan shop was our refuge where we bought a bag and since we had such a huge bag now, I picked up few woolen socks also. I was scolded then for splurging but even now I'm told that I could have bought a few more shawls to gift people!

The hotel still needed some exploration and we couldn't leave it without that. The lobby with comfy sofas had some amazing collection of rare art pieces. On the one hand was the face of an animal hunted by a raja and on the other was a beautiful Maharani Gayatri Devi which was once stolen and then later restored. We thought of having a drink at the Hollywood Retro Bar which has signed photographs of the 1930's stars such as Robert Taylor, Spencer Tracy and many more.

But considering the unnecessary cost involved, we decided against it and climbed up to explore the upper floors. The nights at Woodville were amazingly calm. Even with most of the rooms occupied, as we walked down the garden, it felt as though it was our private space. Sometime in the middle of the night, we could hear tapping on the wooden floor, but that didn't bother us.

But what really struck us about this hotel was the happiness on the faces of each and every hotel staff. At a time when the word contentment is ready to be removed from the dictionary, the
Woodville staff seemed completely out of this world.

At any time of the day, we could stop a staff and they were ready with his stories of the hotel- the stories ranged from their experiences with the pricey Ajay Devgan to the fan friendly Big B. But the most colourful stories were about the hotel owners.

"Every year, some of the hotel staff is taken along with the owner for a vacation," was shared eagerly. The ever-smiling faces dripping with warmth seem obvious when we were told that the staff is given a substantial raise every year. Well, how we wish there were more Woodville in this world!

This information explained us the classy behaviour of the managers.

Settling the bill seemed like a pleasure as we dropped a hefty tip in the box. The concluding part of the journey became a little strenuous as we fell short of cash and a non functional ATM ensured that our BP's rise.

Even after collecting all the change in our wallet, we were Rs 50 short of the full taxi amount. But with God's grace, the cab driver decided to waive the amount and give us our remaining hours of peace. Back in the bus, we talked fondly of Woodville vowing to visit again...

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