The dramatic, peanut-shaped crater lake of Nainital (tal means lake), set in a mountain hollow at an altitude of 1938m, 277km north of Delhi, gives its name to the largest town in Kumaon. Discovered for Europeans in 1841 by Mr Barron, a wealthy sugar merchant, NAINITAL swiftly became a popular escape from the summer heat of the lowlands, and continues to be one of India’s main hill stations. Throughout the year, and especially between March and July, hordes of tourists and honeymooners pack the Mall, the promenade that links Mallital (head of the lake), the older colonial part of Nainital at the north end, with Tallital (foot of the lake).
Nainital’s position within striking range of the inner Himalayas – the peaks are visible from vantage points above town – makes it a good base for exploring Kumaon. When the town’s commercialism gets a bit much, it’s always possible to escape into the beautiful surrounding country, to lakes such as Sat Tal, where the foothills begin their sudden drop towards the plains to the south, or to the forested ridges around Kilbury.
Most of the activity in Nainital takes place along the 1.5-kilometre-long Mall, a promenade of restaurants, hotels and souvenir shops. A favourite pastime for day-trippers is to rent a boat on the lake by the boat club on the northeast corner; rates start at Rs100 per hour, but can shoot up to Rs200 in summer. The boat club stands on the large plain known as the Flats, the result of a huge landslide in 1880, which buried the Victoria Hotel along with 150 people. The Flats now hosts sporting events and a Tibetan Market.
A ropeway climbs from near the Mayur restaurant on the Mall to Snow View (2270m); the Rs100 return ticket covers a one-hour stay at the top. Otherwise it’s a two-kilometre hike along a choice of steep trails, which can also be undertaken on ponies for Rs200. At the top, which gets overcrowded in season, you’ll find a promenade, cafés and a viewpoint; views of the snow peaks are most likely early in the morning. Trails lead on for five kilometres to Naina Peak (2611m), one of the best vantage points around, and to the isolated China Peak (pronounced “Cheena”), the craggy rise to the west.
High Altitude Zoo
High Altitude Zoo
Overlooking the town is Nainital’s excellent High Altitude Zoo, a steep 1.5km climb from the southern end of the Mall, and home to all sorts of exotic creatures such as Siberian tigers, Tibetan wolves, leopards and Himalayan black bears. It’s well managed, with detailed explanations in English and a tiny Shiva temple tucked away at the top.