From an offbeat hill town in the Nilgiris to a former Danish settlement by the sea, these 20 lesser-known Indian destinations will guarantee an idyllic and physically-distanced vacation in 2021. By Rashima Nagpal & Shrimayee Thakur
The village of Kolukkumalai—bordering Kerala and Tamil Nadu—cultivates tea leaves at an altitude of over 2,400 metres. Thirty-five kilometres from Munnar, Kolukkumalai Tea Estate, set up by the British in the 1930s, continues to use its original equipment. Instead of the mechanised crush-tear-curl (CTC) method, tea leaves are handpicked, weighed, graded, and dried indoors to ensure that they don’t crumble. The tea is then rolled, oxidised, dried some more, and ultimately packaged for sale. Get a hands-on experience with the ‘make your own tea’ programme at the estate.
GETTING THERE: Kolukkumalai is roughly 100 km from Cochin International Airport, which serves international flights and is connected to major Indian cities.
STAY: The Windermere Estate in Munnar makes for a plush stay option, and offers tea trails, photo walks, birding sessions, and picnics (starts from INR 9,000/USD122).
Known as the industrial city of Rajasthan, Pali has been a centre for merchant activities for centuries, and is a famous exporter of textiles such as cotton and synthetic materials. Pali offers its visitors the opportunity to learn about Rajasthan’s socio-economic history and its vibrant culture. Visit the 15th-century Jain Temple of Ranakpur, regarded as one of the largest and most sacred places for Jains, and admire its architectural splendour; or head to Nimbo Ka Nath temple, where the Pandavas are believed to have spent a portion of their exile. Drop by the Bangur Museum to catch glimpses of Rajasthan’s rich history in its displays, including a vast collection of coins from different periods, Rajasthani art, ornaments, armour, and traditional clothing.
GETTING THERE: Fly from the Jaipur International Airport to Jodhpur Airport, which is 73 km away from Pali. It takes a little over an hour to reach Pali by road.
STAY: Lakshman Sagar has 12 cottages made of sustainable, locally sourced materials, influenced by traditional Rajasthani architecture (starts from INR 19,000/USD257).
GUREZ VALLEY, KASHMIR
Kashmir is known for its surreal beauty. While Gurez Valley does justice to that reputation, it has received little attention in comparison to popular tourist areas such as Srinagar, Gulmarg, Sonamarg, and Pahalgam. About 125 kilometres away from Srinagar, Gurez is cut off from the rest of the world for around six winter months due to heavy snowfall. Once it opens for visitors around May, the road to Gurez is dotted with tall pine trees and passes through endless meadows. Eventually, the path slopes down into Dawar village in Gurez, where Kashmiri traditions abound.
GETTING THERE: A government helicopter service transports tourists from Srinagar to Gurez. Tickets for this can be booked at the Sheikh Ul-Alam International Airport in Srinagar. The chopper flight takes around half an hour. You can also drive from Srinagar to Gurez via Razdan Pass (123 km).
STAY: Base yourself in Srinagar, at Vivanta Dal View, which offers panoramic views of the valley and the Dal Lake (starts from INR 15,000/ USD204).
COONOOR, TAMIL NADU
Located in the Nilgiris in Tamil Nadu, approximately 1,850 metres above sea level, Coonoor is known for its thick foliage, myriad species of flora and fauna, tea plantations, and the toy train that connects it with Mettupalayam and Ooty. Birdwatchers can find delight in spotting cormorants, pipits, thrushes, parakeets, skylarks, and Nilgiri flycatchers. Go trekking in the mountains of the Hidden Valley, 20 kilometres from Coonoor, or take a stroll among exotic varieties of plants in Sim’s Park, a botanical park built in a ravine.
GETTING THERE: Coimbatore International Airport offers international connectivity from cities such as Colombo, Sharjah, and Singapore, and is connected to major Indian cities. The drive to Coonoor from Coimbatore takes about an hour and 45 minutes.
STAY: Gateway Coonoor – IHCL SeleQtions combines modern amenities with the charm of a 19thcentury manor (starts from INR 7,110/ USD97).
Often called ‘the temple city of India’, Bhubaneswar has developed rapidly in terms of technology and infrastructure, while preserving its historically significant sites. The gigantic Lingaraj Temple dedicated to Lord Shiva, the Rajarani Temple built out of red and gold sandstone, and the Udayagiri and Khandagiri Caves that are said to have been chiselled out for Jain ascetics in the 1st century BC are just a few examples of the city’s marvels. Nature lovers can visit the Nandankanan Zoological Park, spread over 400 hectares, which sits on the north bank of the Kanjia Lake.
GETTING THERE: The Biju Patnaik International Airport in Bhubaneswar connects the city to the rest of the country with regular flights.
STAY: The Trident Hotel in Bhubaneswar has elegant rooms inspired by traditional architecture (starts from INR 7,000/USD95).
Sitting in the heart of Assam, on River Brahmaputra, is the world’s largest river island, Majuli. It is also the first island to be recognised as a district in India. The myriad varieties of flora and fauna and the surrounding crystal clear water are just a few of its charms. The region is also a hub of Assamese culture. It is the seat of the neo-Vaishnavite movement and has long represented religious harmony and peace. The satras of Majuli (institutional establishments associated with Vaishnavism) such as Garamurkh, Dakhinpat, and Auniati are renowned as centres of traditional performing arts.
GETTING THERE: Fly to Jorhat Airport from New Delhi, Guwahati, or Kolkata. From Jorhat, take a taxi to reach Nimati Ghat, 14 km away. Ferries run from Nimati Ghat to Majuli during the day.
STAY: Thengal Manor in Jorhat is a majestic mansion where, on August 12, 1935, the first daily newspaper in the Assamese language, Dainik Batori, was launched. (starts from INR 6,500/ USD88).
Located at the confluence of three rivers—Saryu, Gomti, and latent Bhagirathi—Bageshwar is considered holy for being associated with Lord Sadashiva, who is the redeemer of all sins according to Hindu mythology. According to lore, this is where one is liberated from the cycle of birth and death. Bageshwar is also a sanctuary for adventurers with opportunities for treks, skiing, and river runs. It is the entry point for popular trekking routes such as Pindari, Kafni, and Sunderdhunga.
GETTING THERE: From Delhi, fly to Pantnagar Airport. A six-hour drive takes you to Bageshwar.
STAY: Shakti 360° Leti offers stunning views. Combine your stay with a Shakti Kumaon Village Walk through three beautifully renovated villages in the Kumaon area (price on request).
Pavagadh is a volcanic mountain that combined with the historic city of Champaner—once a majestic seat of power for the Sultans of Gujarat—forms the Champaner-Pavagadh Archaeological Park (a UNESCO World Heritage Site). From the highest peak of the mountain rises the Kalika Mata temple, dating back to the 10th or 11th century. Champaner is at the foot of the mountain and is home to beautiful Islamic architecture that captures the essence of the late 15th- and early 16th-century India.
GETTING THERE: Fly directly to Vadodara Airport from Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru, or Ahmedabad. Pavagadh is an hourand- a-half drive from Vadodara.
STAY: The Wilderness in Vadodara, 47 km away from Pavagadh, is surrounded by a forest and fruit orchards (starts from INR 7,500/ USD101).
THARANGAMBADI, TAMIL NADU
Tharangambadi translates to ‘the land of singing waves’. A six-hour drive from Chennai, the tiny coastal town, founded by the Danes in 1620 and formerly known as Tranquebar, is perfect to enjoy life’s simple pleasures. The dilapidated town gate featuring a Danish emblem is a testimony to its colonial past, and welcomes you to another era. Curl up on a hammock under a swaying palm on a beach; visit the peach-hued 17th-century Dansborg Fort; or meander through the town’s Danish ruins, colourful homes, and gardens gushing with bougainvillaea—the destination is perfect for a lazy holiday.
GETTING THERE: Fly to Chennai International Airport and take the six-hour drive to Tharangambadi.
STAY: With a 14th-century Pandya temple on the left and a 7th-century Danish fort to the right, The Bungalow on the Beach is a heritage hotel offering well-appointed rooms (starts from INR 5,040/USD69).
Picturesque tea gardens, charming villages, gushing waterfalls, and old monasteries set against the backdrop of the snowy peak of Kanchenjunga (the third-highest mountain in the world) await you in Ravangla, in the northeastern state of Sikkim. One of the most visited places in Ravangla is Tathagata Tsal, also known as Buddha Park. Located about a kilometre away from the town, it is home to a 40-metre-tall statue of Buddha. Other attractions include the Bon and New Ralang monasteries, the Ralong Hot Springs, the Temi Tea Estate that produces award-winning tea, and the Maenam Hill.
GETTING THERE: The nearest airport is Bagdogra in West Bengal. From Bagdogra, the drive to Ravangla takes approximately four hours.
STAY: The Elgin Mount Pandim Hotel in Pelling, 48 km from Ravangla, offers a comfortable stay (starts from INR 8,500/ USD116).
Known for its ancient havelis, bazaars as vibrant as its history, and streets lined with enticing eateries, the walled city of Bikaner is a delight. Begin a tour of its rich heritage with Bikaji Ki Tekri–the first home of Rao Bika, who founded the city in 1486—followed by the Junagarh Fort, his subsequent seat. The Laxmi Niwas Palace and the Lallgarh Palace, both former abodes of Maharaja Ganga Singhji, are architectural marvels. In the old town area, the picturesque 15th-century Rampuria Haveli has become Bikaner’s most Instagrammable spot. You must also visit the cenotaphs at Devi Kund Sagar, which reiterate the city’s royal history. Surrounded by the Thar Desert, Bikaner offers you opportunities for camel safaris and desert excursions as well.
GETTING THERE: The nearest international airport is in Jaipur, 340 km away. The Bikaner Civil Airport operates direct domestic flights from cities such as Delhi, Mumbai, and Jaipur.
STAY: A stay at the regal Laxmi Niwas Palace is the ideal place to bask in the royal traditions and hospitality of Bikaner (starts from INR 9,000/USD123).
DIVAR ISLAND, GOA
Beyond North Goa’s party hotspots and South Goa’s secluded beaches lies Divar Island—a lush triangular piece of land on the banks of River Mandovi. With a population of around 4,000, the island is the epitome of serenity. Visit its striking churches for a dose of peace and spirituality. The 18th-century Church of Our Lady of Compassion is located at the bottom of a small forested hill. The St Mathias Church was built by the Portuguese around 400 years ago and takes you back in time. Old architecture aside, what sets Divar Island apart is its pristine natural beauty. Glide on the river on a boat, catch your dinner with local fisherman, and go birdwatching to experience nature’s bounty.
GETTING THERE: Fly to Goa International Airport from any major Indian city. To reach Divar Island, one has to take a government-run ferry at Piedade, Navelim, Naroa, or Amboi in Goa.
STAY: The Indo-Portuguese Island House Goa on Divar Island feels like a home away from home (price on request).
HAVELOCK, ANDAMAN & NICOBAR ISLANDS
The Union Territory of Andaman and Nicobar Islands is your best bet if you’re looking for pristine beaches and incredible dive sites in India. Seventy kilometres from the capital, Port Blair, Havelock feels like a slice of heaven. While Radhanagar Beach, Elephant Beach, and Vijaynagar Beach are the best parts of the azure coastline, luxury resorts on the isle extend creature comforts. Discover the hinterlands of Havelock, where you can hop on a bike, visit the local market, join a ranger on a trek into the rainforest, go angling, or navigate mangrove channels on a kayak tour.
GETTING THERE: Major Indian airports operate direct flights to Port Blair. Private catamaran ferries take around 90 minutes to reach Havelock from Port Blair.
STAY: Barefoot at Havelock is a tastefully done resort that promotes sustainability (starts from INR 16,000/ USD218).
Nobody ever talked about Hanle. Until some physicists from the Indian Institute of Astrophysics decided in 1996 that this remote village in Ladakh was the perfect site for setting up an observatory in the Indian Himalayas. The prime reason: over 260 clear night skies in a year! By the turn of the century, the country’s highest astronomical observatory—at a height of 4,511 metres—was ready to roll. Currently the 10th-highest of its kind in the world, the Indian Astronomical Observatory is run by 25 people, including Dorjey Angchuk, the engineer-in-charge who is happy to talk to you about cosmic matters.
GETTING THERE: Set up base in Leh, where you can rent a car or a motorcycle, get the required area permits, and make the six-hour road trip to the observatory. The Kushok Bakula Rimpochee Airport in Leh serves flights to and from major Indian airports.
STAY: If you wish to stay in the heart of Leh, The Grand Dragon Ladakh is an indulgent option (starts from INR 11,999/ USD167).
A small town in Meghalaya perpetually shrouded by clouds, Cherrapunji is known for its single season: monsoon. Although it no longer holds the title of the wettest place on the planet (that honour goes to the nearby village of Mawsynram), Cherrapunji is still home to stormy weather and overcast skies. It has many natural wonders such as Nohkalikai Falls, the tallest plunge waterfall in India; Nohsngithiang Falls; and the Krem Mawmluh Cave, which is considered to be the fourth-longest cave in the Indian subcontinent with a length of over seven kilometres.
GETTING THERE: The best way to reach Cherrapunji is to take a flight to Lokpriya Gopinath Bordoloi International Airport in Guwahati, which is well-connected to all major cities in India. It takes at least five hours to reach Cherrapunji from there.
STAY: Take shelter from the rain in the cosy Jiva Resort Cherrapunjee (starts from INR 7,450/USD101).
Escape from the humdrum of urban life into the soothing greenery of Kabini. Bordering Nagarhole National Park and Tiger Reserve, this region is perfect for wildlife enthusiasts. Take a boat safari to witness herds of elephants bathing in the Kabini reservoir; majestic tigers patrolling their territory in the forest; and flocks of birds such as cormorants, cranes, and darters swooping along the river banks.
GETTING THERE: Fly to the Kempegowda International Airport in Bengaluru and then travel by road for about five hours to reach the destination.
STAY: Evolve Back Kuruba Safari Lodge, set along the banks of River Kabini, offers various ways to experience the region, such as safaris, coracle rides, and evening activities (starts from INR 33,000/USD447).
TADOBA-ANDHARI TIGER RESERVE, MAHARASHTRA
Nearly 65 years ago, an area of 125 square kilometres in Maharashtra was declared as the protected Tadoba National Park, and 30 years later merged with the neighbouring Andhari National Park along with other forest patches. Together, they formed the 1,725-squarekilometre Tadoba-Andhari Tiger Reserve in 1995. The core comprises open grasslands that are in stark contrast to the dense bamboo buffer areas known for tiger sightings. These impermeable patches give way to open meadows dotted with a variety of mammals and birds, made even more enchanting by the Tadoba and Irai lakes. This is the ideal site for a vacation in the wild.
GETTING THERE: Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar International Airport in Nagpur is well-connected to major Indian airports. Tadoba-Andhari Tiger Reserve is 150 km away from Nagpur.
STAY: TigerTrails Jungle Lodge is an environmentally conscious luxury camp in the vicinity that offers an authentic experience complete with safaris (starts from INR 19,000/USD260).
ANDRETTA, HIMACHAL PRADESH
For a long time, the quaint village of Andretta was one of Himachal Pradesh’s best-kept secrets—until Irish-born actor Norah Richards arrived here in 1920 and set up an artists’ colony. Today, Andretta is home to the oldest pottery studio in the country, and a visit is regarded as a rite of passage for ceramists in training. Paint terracotta pots, make functional glazed earthenware, or your own set of microwave-safe ceramic ware by partaking in a 45-minute pottery session. If you want to commit to the craft completely, Andretta Pottery also offers a three-month residential course that starts twice a year—April and September.
GETTING THERE: You can reach Andretta by road from Delhi in 12 hours (468 km). The nearest airport in Gaggal is two hours away (50 km) and has regular flights from Delhi.
STAY: The three-month package at Andretta Pottery includes tuition fees, food, and stay (INR 1,20,000/ USD1,664). If you’re just visiting, The Mirage – Andretta is a nice stay option (starts from INR 3,675/USD51).
MAHESHWAR, MADHYA PRADESH
Better known for its ancient temples, forts, and ghats along the sacred River Narmada, the town of Maheshwar summons travellers with its old-world charm. The town’s landscape is dominated by the Ahilya Fort complex, which houses the magnificent Maheshwar Palace and historic temples. The ghats along the fort wall are mesmerising too, especially during dusk and dawn when devotees perform rituals. Maheshwar is also known for its textile heritage. The town produces some of India’s finest handloom and is home to a community of over 2,500 weaver families. A trip here is incomplete without picking up a Maheshwari sari.
GETTING THERE: The nearest airport—Devi Ahilyabai Holkar Airport—is in Indore, 91 km away. It is well-connected to other Indian cities and serves a few international flights as well. Hit the road from Indore to Maheshwar.
STAY: Ahilya Fort Hotel has 19 rooms of character, set in six buildings from the 18th century, with modern amenities and comforts (starts from INR 21,000/USD287).
CHHATRA SAGAR, RAJASTHAN
Picture a 130-year-old dam, a sprawling lake, a nature reserve where flamingoes fly in each year, and the quietude of being surrounded by nothing but unadulterated nature. This is Chhatra Sagar—a remote pastoral location known for its eponymous reservoir built by and named after Thakur Chhatra Singh, a noble of the desert kingdom of Marwar, in the late 19th century. Located midway between the princely cities of Jaipur and Udaipur and two hours southeast of Jodhpur, it has long been a retreat for royal families. They eventually set up a luxurious camp site—one of the few permanent constructions here—and opened it for travellers. Take a tour of the nearby village, sit around a campfire, or go on a jungle trail.
GETTING THERE: Fly to Jodhpur Airport, where daily flights arrive from New Delhi, Jaipur, and Mumbai. Chhatra Sagar is about a two-hour drive from the airport.
STAY: RAAS Chhatra Sagar, with 16 state-of-the-art tents, boasts world-class amenities in a rustic environment (starts from INR 21,760/USD297).