Himalayan Boutique Farmstays of India – Auks Farm

October is a time of ‘homecoming’ and ‘reunions’.   You can smell October in these parts of the Himalayan towns and villages. The familiar overcast begins to clear away with promises of bluer skies and blooms of ‘saipatri’ (marigold) lighten up happy patches and rows. A slight nip in the air whispers that winter is just around the corner and a warm sense of revelry quietly starts to stir.

The festive month of  October in 2014 started off somewhat this way for the Subba family until the patriarch unexpectedly passed away.  He had recently invested in a farmland and started the construction with dreams to develop the place and live his post-retirement days amidst the local farming community.

Committed to fulfil and realise her dear father’s wishes Sushmita decided to give up a long-standing career in New Delhi and joined her brother Ashish around a month later. They worked tirelessly to come up with a plan before the close of the year.

Origin

‘Auks Farm’  – a dream at a time, was borne in commemoration of their beloved father’s unspoken dream and his penchant for the great extinct bird by the same name. The Great Auks was a large flightless species of a penguin who eventually became extinct in the middle of the 19th century due to excessive hunting. AUKS Farm is a personal project of a family and a glowing tribute to the man and all those exquisite extinct birds that would never be seen again.

A quaint, non-touristy, Agro Tourism Farmstay, Auks Farm offers a homely experience in a comfortable farm-house set up. Definitely more than just a homestay or a bed-and-breakfast, the farm enriches your travel experience with their variety of offerings for every traveller visiting these parts of the Himalayas. Built with love, the name AUKS also stands as an acronym of the initials of the former family of four.  This bunch of AUKS farmers joined by Bijaya, the sister-in-law opened up their ‘dream farm’ with two spacious rooms – Laughing Owl and Paradise Parrot in the cold winter of January 2015.

Location

An open countryside nestled amidst soaring dark blue hills.  Orange orchards and the wide variety of flora to greet you with an explosion of colours everywhere.  As you breathe in the clean mountain air,  distinctive sounds of a variety of birds reverberate. Butterflies flutter around fearlessly and all the while a consistent low hum; a deep and soulful chanting resonates all around.   This is a different realm altogether.  Auks Farm is located in a small and peaceful Eastern Himalayan village of Soreng at the outskirts of Darjeeling, West Bengal, India.

It comes as no surprise that such a serene environment would have inspired an old monastery that exists in the area and dates back to 111 years. This Monastery houses a museum displaying age-old manuscripts and artefacts from the 17th century and makes for an interesting agenda for a daytime itinerary.

Connectivity

The Farm can arrange transportation for guests travelling from Bagdogra airport (3 hours) or from New Jalpaiguri Railway station (2.5 hrs) to the town of Darjeeling. From here, there are two routes;  via the bustling Teesta Bazaar or the scenic forests of Takdah. If you are travelling from Sikkim or Bhutan you only have the first option.

About

A variety of farm activities and regular workshops are infused into the daily itinerary to ensure that guests get a first-hand feel of a farm-life.  Take a pick out of the popular activities and workshops at the Farm.  You can learn a bit about traditional local cuisines & spices,  dabble with the potter’s wheel, soak in the subtle fragrance of soap-making or surprise yourself with the local art of wine-making and Pickle-making to name a few.  Auks Farm stands-out as an exclusive and comfortable  ‘Boutique Farm stay’ experience in a non-hotel format.

Rooms

The Farm offers uniquely charming room options.  Local workers and natural resources have come together here to build upon a simple mantra of ’natural-sustainable; homely & warm’.

LAUGHING OWL is tastefully done-up in a Nepalese theme decor. An intricate ‘White Tara Studio’ artwork adorns its wall and the room boasts of a brilliant view of the sunrise. High bamboo ceiling with a skylight adds to the vibrant brightness of the room much like an exotic bird.

PARADISE PARROT sits adjacent to the Laughing Owl and is more suited to late risers and deep-sleepers with its calm & dim lighting.

DODO is an exclusive cottage built with indigenous materials and has been the guest’s favourite till date. It is perfect for a group of 4.

MOHO was built with the idea to create a marriage of modern styling and organic materials in a rustic theme. This cabin has an additional porch and a private Barbeque area which also serves as an ideal reading space during the day or a star-gazing arena at night. High ceilings made with pine and teakwood enhances the already stunning view of the countryside.

Besides the cottages, the Farm also offers Tents on request.

Dodo

Food & Dining

Food is the main feature of this Farm as they prepare meals from their own organic garden. Both vegetarian and non-vegetarian fare is served for a wholesome farm to table experience. The menu is created after thoughtful conversations with the varied mix of travellers and regularly curated keeping every guest’s meal preference and palette in mind. Care is taken to dish out daily variations for long stay groups. Overall the cuisine is a merry amalgamation of traditional Nepalese thalis and Auks Farm specials.


With a distinctive smoky wood-fire cooked flavour Auks Farm offers a range of delectable baked items and barbeque delights from its kitchen. Also known for their variety of salads, smoothies and slow cooked woodfire food, the style varies from homely Himalayan to tribal and refined world cuisine. You will either find Bijaya, Sushmita or their mother in the kitchen toiling happily along with a special ingredient called ‘love’.

The common dining room features a Library corner and the collection of books is surprisingly good here. The dining area is also used in between meals and during rainy days for sessions of board-games, a guitar jam-up or to simply unwind and listen to music.

HOLY SMOKE or the common Barbeque area is the heart of all evening entertainment with a welcome bonfire and music to taste.

BOZO, the picturesque Gazebo made with local bamboo is an exclusive area, perfect for a special dinner set up or a secluded group table.

THE POND is your answer for that sultry, solitary moment swinging in the hammock.

Growing Together

The  Auks Farmers and the Farming community jointly work to overcome challenges of quality over quantity and the crucial need for organic & chemical-free agriculture.

In the past 3 years, Auks Farm has been actively involved in helping the local farmers learn from experienced woodworkers, Designers and Architects. The Farm also funds education for few of the local underprivileged children. With their humble endeavours being so well-received the Auks Farmers now look forward to having their own coffee in the coming years.

Auks Farm currently makes and sells various types of pickles and farm preserves, sundried tomatoes, dried herbs and flowers. They also make soaps for various skin types under the brand name – SumiSO – an Auks Farm Production.

Events

An Art therapy camp – ‘Art in the Mountains’ (AIM) was held as an endeavour to create an environment that fosters self-awareness through any form of Art.  The first event of AIM was held in 2016 in association with ‘Learn Something Different’ (LSD),  a renowned pottery studio in Delhi.  This camp is open to teachers, homemakers, entrepreneurs, professionals, and Artists alike and provides a much needed local activity reprieve; a rare phenomenon this side of the country. The overwhelming success of AIM has prompted the arrangement for the next one which is scheduled for December 2018.

Auks Farm also held its first pop up dinner event in Gurgaon this July. This was a thematic Himalayan Feast in association with Café Lungta and presented as ‘Table for 24’. This was a collaboration for a farm-to-table experience and showcase of the Himalayan cuisine. The Auks Farm specialities were served here along with the Dessert. Cafe Lungta prepared the dishes from their own menu and skilfully paired them up with the Auks Farm specialities to unravel a feast that was one-of-its-kind; a perfect fusion of Darjeeling and Nepali food cooking techniques.  

Guests at the ’Table for 24’ got a chance to taste the Auks Farm pickles and take home brochures with details of the Farm. The event was a super success and led to an ongoing collaboration with the popular restaurant ‘MOMO I am’ in Kolkata.  You can pick up Auks Farm pickles or preserves from any of the four outlets if you are in Kolkotta next. A similar event has been scheduled in December. This time around the meal pairing would be done with any other similar authentic restaurant.

General Response

Just a month post its opening Auks Farm started receiving guests.   One of the first guests was a Canadian writer and over the past few years, Auks Farm is proud to have hosted various International writers, filmmakers, movie producers, literary professors and artists.  Lady Sorrel Bentinck of Scotland recalls fond memories of her stay at the Farm and has talked about it in the UK Sunday Times. Few University students from Warton School Pennsylvania followed by medical students from Cardiff University have included Auks Farm as one of their Indian experiences during their Culture Experience tours. The Farm is thrilled to have hosted more than 200 satisfied groups in a span of just three years and looks forward to welcoming many more.

Read what travellers have to say about Auks Farm on TripAdvisor.  You can follow them for regular stories, events and updates on their Facebook page  Auks Farm – A Dream at a Time and their Instagram handle @auksfarm.   Auks Farm is registered on Air BNB for bookings and can also be booked through  Himani Himalaya Treks and Tours.  For more information on Auks Farm, you can visit their website  www.auksfarm.com

The Auks Farmers agree that it is indeed a great feeling when guests actually send their family members and friends after they experience the Farm. This, they say is the best response!’

Thank you for reading!
Stay tuned to Sketchywanderer for more vignettes of hidden places and spaces. I would love to hear your thoughts and feedback on this blog.

Experiential Himalayan Farm Stays in India – PaliGhar

Origin

The ideals of community service and a deep-seated regard for family tradition stirred early in the mind of this young boy, while still at school. It was no big surprise that the need to safeguard and promote local heritage came embedded in his DNA as we trace a lineage back to an erstwhile ancestor bestowed with the illustrious title of ‘Rai Sahib’ by the British Government back in 1941 for his generosity during dire times.

What was a searing spark gradually bloomed into a flickering flame as Kabir traversed remote regions and lesser known cities across the country through 2007 while in the employ of a reputed travel company.  What struck him most during his travels was a stark realisation that the appeal rested in the fact that the local cultures were always given precedence to. These rural areas held on to their ethnic traditions in every facet of their daily lives giving the overall authentic character to the place itself.

That summer, Kabir returned to his hometown, Kalimpong a little wiser.

PaliGhar was thus borne out of an inherent need to preserve a family’s history, pay respect to the rich cultural flavours of their Nepali heritage while aiming to promote rural livelihood, protect local wildlife & provide education for the less privileged. With acres of ancestral lands to work with, the PaliGhar venture officially commenced in October 2015 and by January 2017 they opened their gates with a flourish.

Location

Approximately 3 hours of uphill drive from Bagdogra Airport along typical winding narrow roads will bring you to the hill-town of Kalimpong in the Eastern Himalayan foothills of West Bengal. Once a critical part of the famous ’Silk Route’, Kalimpong is now another bustling town perched on a ridge above the river Teesta. If you push just a little further and brave an additional 30 mins drive beyond main Kalimpong town you will notice the terrain blending into verdant terraced paddy fields surrounded by dark blue hills. Gradually the fields open into a village called ‘Echhey’ – a panoramic open countryside stuck in time.

PaliGhar – An Experiential Farmstay beautifully merges into the picturesque backdrop, awaiting with its bounty of natural offerings from this side of the Himalayas.

Hawa Ghar overlooking the cottage at PaliGhar

 

About

A holistic experience in its purest form, PaliGhar offers a buffet of experiential travelling like no other with its range of authentic farm-life activities, quaint trekking trails along the Relli River and remote villages. Amusing sights & sounds greet you at every nook and corner with friendly villagers eager to share a cup of tea or a familiar tale.

Set against the scenic backdrop of a rural Himalayan countryside, this place celebrates local craftsmanship and the abundance of unique horticulture and floriculture found only in these parts of the region. Rustic and rural lifestyle merges in this world to occasionally spring up contemporary surprises like a hidden picnic spot, renowned floral nurseries and a glimpse into the nearby Himalayan Trust for Natural History of Art Institute.

PaliGhar offers travellers 02 guest cottages inspired by the traditional indigenous style of Himalayan architecture. Designed to complement the surroundings, the building style involves the use of all familiar natural materials available in the area and is constructed by workers from the community. While one of the cottages comprises 02 guest rooms, the second one comes along with an in-house kitchen and a common dining cum living space.

In keeping with the feel of a genuine Farm-life experience the PaliGhar kitchen dishes out authentic local Nepali cuisines sourced from their own organic kitchen garden.

Be prepared for your senses to be assailed with a heady mix of fragrant homegrown rice and a plethora of fresh seasonal produce lovingly prepared with traditional combinations of local spices.

While their Lunch and Dinner are simple set-menu-affairs offering homely Nepali food, they maintain a comfortable continental theme for Breakfast with few thoughtful options of local fare for the occasional guest request. For the eager culinary enthusiast, the PaliGhar kitchen is happy to demonstrate a detailed ethnic Nepali cooking routine and share a secret tip or two to take home.

General Response

The PaliGhar team have been pleasantly surprised with the turn-over of guests so far. It has been established that age is no bar when it comes to experiential adventures for the discerning traveller in search of unadulterated outdoors and nature. From single woman traveller to families & friends and elderly people, the guest list boasts of a delightfully mixed clientele stream. It is also interesting to note that many of these guests have arrived at the region and zeroed in on PaliGhar as a destination itself. The average stay for a guest at PaliGhar appears to be 04-05 nights, during which every activity in the farm is curated to suit the mood of the traveller. Guests leave PaliGhar with rejuvenated minds, wholesome bodies and refreshed souls to dive back directly into their busy lives.

It is heartwarming and a common sight here to find parents familiarising their children with the goodness of farm-life and encouraging them to participate in outdoor activities during their stay.

While a few local travel agents support this homegrown venture, it has mainly been ‘by word of mouth’ and traveller recommendations that have made PaliGhar the Farmstay Destination of choice in recent times.

Connect with PaliGhar

You can log into the PaliGhar Website for more details or tune into their Instagram handle @palighar and Facebook page for regular updates & enquiries. PaliGhar reservations may be reached via Air BNB, Booking.com or TripAdvisor.

In the recent past PaliGhar has also had its fair share of social coverage and has featured in a few prominent travel journos, each brimming with their own version of the delight in store at this place. Take a look :

Outlook Traveller
Roots & Leisure
Imagine Travel

Tripadvisor has been abuzz with positive traveller feedback for quite a while and you can tap into the link below to read more:

TripAdvisor for PaliGhar

Thank you for reading!
Stay tuned to Sketchywanderer for more vignettes of hidden places and spaces. I would love to hear your thoughts and feedback on this blog.

Urban Himalayan Homestays in India – Weaving lives, one ‘reyso’ at a time!

This spore of an idea spins its own tale in a quiet semi-urban rural area; at the outskirts of the hill-town of Darjeeling!
REYSO (‘a strand’ of spun yarn or wool) first threaded its way into what it is today, as the brainchild of a young working mother who had a keen interest to pursue her passion for ‘knitting’ and ‘crochet’ along with few of her friends.

 

A motley gathering of local womenfolk would come together with dreams to create and sell regional handicraft and gradually formed a small-time cooperative society by the name of Adarsh Kala.  However, afflicted by the lack of economic resources and structural planning this little-known society failed to thrive as an independent body,  but what it did was succeed in sowing the seed of a noble idea. Little did they expect that this ‘seed’ would eventually take root and grow into a social campaign called ‘REYSO’ a few decades later with the joint effort of a small team of like-minded individuals.

 

With a conscious effort and sincere passion to bring about a much needed social initiative, REYSO was registered as a society in 2014 and it started off with a small store.  Every Saturday since then, this store welcomes an excited conglomerate of local women here. Most of them are unemployed womenfolk from around the area and also includes a few financially impaired Tea Garden workers.  For them, REYSO offers not only a much-needed source of additional income but also a meaningful way to spend an afternoon with friends and like-minded associates over a cup of ‘Chiya’ (tea), while they deliberate over a new stitch or pattern for their latest knitting venture.

 

You can visit https://www.facebook.com/reysohandmade/or take a quick peek into the delightful world of authentic REYSO products on Instagram @reyso.handcraft.  Every item ranging from a crochet Tea-cozy,  a bedspread or cushion cover comes along with a guarantee to add colour and warmth to your personal space. Every REYSO handicraft that you purchase adds just another ray of hope for many in this local community. So, head over to their store if you find yourself in these parts during your next Himalayan adventure. A mindful souvenir and a cup of Darjeeling tea may just be waiting for you at the REYSO store.
Now, what is fascinating about this enterprise is that it does not just end here. Realising the potential of the abundant local natural resources and the appeal of simple rustic lifestyle for a world traveller, REYSO  recently opened the doors of their boutique urban homestay to a heartwarming response.
Imagine a private natural haven just outside the bustling town of Darjeeling and yet not quite in the rural villages and tea gardens? The REYSO urban homestay promises an interesting mix of experiences.  It is a mere 10minute drive from the main town of Darjeeling where you can easily rent a local taxi after which it is a 5minute walk along indigenous narrow lanes and steps. The location is perfect for those who love to walk and seek to experience the actual, non-touristy lifestyle of Darjeeling
Garden and main courtyard at Reyso Urban Homestay
The main courtyard with its plethora of local flora greets you warmly as it leads you to the Homestay that has been tastefully renovated into a traveller’s dream-stay in the hills.
You can take your pick of the room options from the  ‘Attic Suite which comes along with an attached bathroom and a balcony garden.  The ‘Family Suite’ has two adjoining rooms with a twin set in the second room while the ‘Backpacker room’ is another option for the traveller. The Family Suite and the Backpacker room have private bathrooms but they are not attached.
There is no television in the rooms and this offers a purposeful ambience to relax and unwind in natural surroundings. For practical reasons, wifi is available upon request.
The lounge serves as a Dining room for the Homestay and is common for all guests.  All meals are cooked in the main kitchen and the produce are mostly organic, sourced from local farmers.  The food is vegetarian traditional Nepalese and prepared with a mix of local ground spices that have a distinct flavour of their own.
In tune with the inherent motive to contribute towards local livelihood and promote Responsible Tourism, a range of handmade products are showcased at the REYSO Homestore too https://www.facebook.com/reysohomestore/
And just in case the serene environment, refreshing greenery all around and clean organic food inside manages to call out the artisan or the creative diva in you, head over to the Homestay’s small ‘Art Studio’ that is replete with basic paraphernalia for some craftwork or painting.  A fine water colourist himself, the owner, Ujjawal Chettri and his Homestay team look forward to encouraging travellers who share a passion for art, craft and music. The place indeed is an ideal retreat for Artists, Musicians, Writers and Photographers any time of the year.
The Homestay is very exclusive and caters to those who appreciate the concept of natural, responsible tourism. They are yet to link up with Travel agents and portals as the initial reviews have been very positive with guests directly calling to book through word of mouth.
For quick snapshots and reviews of REYSO Urban homestay tune into @reyso.urbanhomestay on Instagram.
Stay tuned to Sketchywanderer for more vignettes of hidden places and spaces. I would love to hear your thoughts & feedback on this blog.

Royal Weekends at The Hill Fort Kesroli

Kesroli Hill Fort

If like me you are a goner for heritage destinations steeped with intricate tales of yore and colourful weaves of antiquity, then this is one of the many that will catch your eye already.

 

This charming 14th-century old Kesroli HillFort Palace reins a high order in my list of favourites. Even though the last time I stayed here dates quite a while ago,  I eagerly recall all details of every quiet niche and corner of this resort as if it was just yesterday.

one of the many corners at Kesroli

 

Claiming to date back over six centuries to the time of the Yadhuvanshi Rajputs,  this fort has been reported to have withstood the tumultuous Mughal and Jat takeovers until the princely state of Alwar came into existence around the 18th century.  Lucky us that Neemrana cluster of non-hotels took over the renovation and reopened its doors for a glimpse into the old Rajput culture, value and heritage to the discerning traveller.

 

Every room is a different experience with its own regal name and distinct character. Having had the pleasure of experiencing these first hand over my three visits I can personally vouch for this.  The main dining room does not disappoint with their fare of local and comfort-continental cuisines. Apart from the burning embers of the evening bonfires,  I especially remember the quiet afternoons. Those deafeningly silent afternoons on the low terraces where one could sit and read or enjoy a cup of tea and gaze at the shocking yellow mustard fields all around as they glowed in the foggy haze of the North Indian winter.

 

If you are somewhere in Delhi, Jaipur or Agra and in want of a quiet reprieve away from the bustle of everything else, this is one place where you should be. The ideal time to visit is, of course, the wintry season but I leave it up to your personal sense of adventure and preference of mood.

 

Once upon a time at Kesroli Hill