The quirky, Raj-era hill station of MATHERAN, 108km east of Mumbai, is set on a narrow north–south ridge at an altitude of 800m in the Sahyadri Range. From evocatively named viewpoints, at the edge of sheer cliffs that plunge into deep ravines, you can see way across the hazy plains – on a good day, so they say, as far as Mumbai. The town itself, shrouded in thick mist for much of the year, has, for the moment, one unique attribute: cars, buses, motorbikes and auto-rickshaws are prohibited. That, added to the journey up, on a miniature train that chugs its way through spectacular scenery to the crest of the hill, gives the town an agreeably quaint, time-warped feel.
Matheran (literally “mother forest”) has been a popular retreat from the heat of Mumbai since the nineteenth century. These days, few foreign visitors venture up here, and those that do only hang around for a couple of days, to kill time before a flight or to sample the charms of Matheran’s colonial-era hotels. The tourist season lasts from mid-September to mid-June (at other times it’s raining or misty), and is at its most hectic around Diwali and Christmas, in April and May, and over virtually any weekend. There’s really nothing up here to do but relax, explore the woods on foot or horseback and enjoy the fresh air and views.
As the crow flies, Matheran is only 6.5km from Neral on the plain below, but the train climbs up on 21km of track with no less than 281 curves, said to be among the sharpest on any railway in the world. Sadly, the steam engines that once handled the demanding haul puffed their last in 1980, to be replaced by cast-off diesels from Darjeeling, Shimla and Ooty. The train ride is a treat, especially if you get a window seat, but be prepared for a squash unless you travel to first class.