SHIMLA, Himachal’s capital, is India’s largest and most famous hill station, where much of the action in Rudyard Kipling’s colonial classic Kim took place. While the city is a favourite spot for Indian families and honeymooners, its size does little to win it popularity among Western tourists. It is however, a perfect halfway house between the plains and the Kullu Valley. It’s also the starting post for forays into the remoter regions of Kinnaur and Spiti.

Whether you travel by road or rail from the south, the last stretch of the climb up to Shimla seems interminable. Deep in the foothills of the Himalayas, the hill station is approached via a sinuous route that winds from the plains at Kalka across nearly 100km of precipitous river valleys, pine forests, and mountainsides swathed in maize terraces and apple orchards. It’s not hard to see why the British chose this inaccessible site as their summer capital. At an altitude of 2159m, the crescent-shaped ridge over which it spills is blessed with perennially cool air and superb panoramas.

Southeast of Shimla, Kasauli is a peaceful place to break your journey from Chandigarh in Punjab, while nearby Nalagarh Fort has been converted into the finest hotel in the state. The southernmost area of the state, Sirmaur, is Himachal’s most fertile area, with the major Sikh shrine in Paonta Sahib as a noteworthy sight.

Northeast of Shimla, the apple-growing centre of Narkanda and Sarahan, site of the famous Bhimakali temple, set against a backdrop of the majestic Himalayas, can be visited in a two- or three-day roundtrip from Shimla, or en route to Kinnaur via the characterless transport hub of Rampur.

Brief history

Named after its patron goddess, Shamla Devi (a manifestation of Kali), the tiny village that stood on this spot was “discovered” by a team of British surveyors in 1817. Glowing reports of its beauty and climate gradually filtered to the imperial capital, Calcutta, and within two decades the settlement had become the Subcontinent’s most fashionable summer resort. The annual migration was finally rubber-stamped in 1864, when Shimla – by now an elegant town of mansions, churches and cricket pitches – was declared the Government of India’s official hot-season HQ. With the completion of the Kalka–Shimla Railway in 1903, Shimla lay only two days by train from Delhi. Its growth continued after Independence, especially after becoming state capital in 1966.

Today, Shimla is still a major holiday resort, popular mainly with nouveau riche Punjabis and Delhi-ites who flock here in their thousands during the May–June run-up to the monsoons, and then again in October, when many Bengalis also visit. Its faded colonial charm also appeals to foreigners looking for a taste of the Raj. The burra- and memsahibs may have moved on, but Shimla retains a decidedly British feel: pukka Indian gentlemen in tweeds stroll along The Mall smoking pipes, while neatly turned-out schoolchildren scuttle past mock-Tudor shop-fronts and houses with names like Braeside. At the same time, the pesky monkey troupes and chaotic mass of corrugated iron rooftops that make up Shimla’s bazaar lend an unmistakeably Indian aspect to the town. The entire town was declared a no-smoking zone in October 2010.

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