When most people think of India, they rightly imagine a place very different from Nainital, an alpine town high in the country’s Himalayan peaks. They imagine a clamor of rickshaws, women in garish colors, raucous excitement, and, above all, a cloying heat, which pervades most of India. But Nainital’s dreamscape of cloud is India, too. Just 73 miles (117 km) from the edge of Nepal, its clean cobblestones reach up into the Himalayas and distinguish Nainital from the India that many travelers know and love.

Explore a Labyrinth

Nainital’s market stretches along stone pathways, up through steep hills, and into stone-carved balconies of restaurants that pour out the scents of otherworldly foods. Alluring steams of curries are so powerful they might at any moment lift an unsuspecting traveler into the cloud bank. The twisting paths reveal shops of items out of place in most of India: plush sweaters and intricately woven blankets, tidy wool vests and berets (peculiarly, worn only by old men). As the roads lead past the shops and into the mountains, travelers who are game for a long climb can follow them to find scenic picnicking spots overlooking the valley.

Float in a Cloud 

Through the center of Nainital, colorful wooden boats slip trancelike across the glassy lake. Visitors can take a boating tour of the town for 150 rupees (about US$3) each. At one end of the lake, warm sandalwood smoke rises from the Hindu temple; at the other end, a white-tiled mosque stretches out languidly along the shore. Between these two, a cliff defines the long edge of the lake. An ethereal canopy of trees rises majestically out of the rock, obscuring both colorful homes and the pathways darting back and forth to connect them.

Savor a Mountain Retreat 

Relax at the Hotel Anamika, one of Nainital’s most hospitable inns, nestled on one side of the mountain valley. From a warm room on a frosty morning, guests can overlook the glacial lake and the colorful town that springs out of the mountains surrounding it. Many visitors are writers and artists seeking inspiration or hikers scaling a nearby peak. Others include couples and friends enjoying an escape from the ordinary on romantic holidays, where nothing but room service will interrupt their reverie.

Catch Your Breath 

A train will get you close to Nainital, but the last leg of the journey is by car or horse. Roadside tour guides offer the chance to ride horseback into the surreally beautiful valley, and in the crisp morning air, this opportunity is impossible to resist. When the horses clip–clop beneath the cloud bank, the fog shrouding the town rolls back dramatically like a curtain. The riders gasp, their hearts pounding at the steepness and beauty of the valley below.

India is sometimes sensationalized as a bizarre, riotous place, but Nainital shows an ethereal side to the country’s infinite variety. This transcendent landscape of cliffs and clouds is the perfect place to escape reality for a little while and to wake up refreshed and inspired.


Coleman Bonham