Ideal for adventure lovers, Banjara Orchard Retreat occupies a commanding position in Thanedhar village, in the heart of Himachal Pradesh's apple country. It's just over two hours (80 kilometers) drive northeast of Shimla, off National Highway 22 (also known as the Hindustan Tibet Road). Walk down the steps from the road and you'll be swept away by far-reaching views over the orchards and Satluj Valley, at 7,250 feet above sea level.
Thanedhar forms part of the Himalayan Golden Triangle, a route that also encompasses relatively unknown and unexplored Sangla and Sojha, deep within the mountains. Banjara Camps strategically has properties in all three places, which it promotes to travelers. Banjara Orchard Retreat is a popular stop for those on the way to Sangla.
The Retreat is the ancestral property of Mr Prakash Thakur. He has completely modernized the existing building and converted it into guest accommodations. In addition, he's constructed two log cabins for guests to stay in, and another separate building that houses the dining and games rooms.
Apart from the magnificent views, the service also stands out at Banjara Orchard Retreat. It's friendly property, with attentive and efficient staff. The affable Mr Thakur is always around to personally welcome and interact with guests, regaling them with many interesting stories. Having traveled abroad a number of times, he's sensitive to the requirements of both Indian and foreign guests. His extensive local and botanical knowledge is admirable as well.
All meals are buffet style, served in the dining room. There's no room service but the exceptional views from the dining room ensure that meal times are a highlight. While I was there, the menu consisted totally of Indian cuisine, although this does vary to include Continental cuisine when many foreign guests are at resort. Pleasingly, I found the food to be not too spicy or oily.
On offer at breakfast were south Indian specialties (idli, sambar) and eggs made to order, accompanied by apple juice and tempting bowls of seasonal fresh fruit (apricots and cherries) from the trees. I chose bhurji (scrambled eggs Indian style), which was delicious with parathas.
Banjara Orchard Retreat will appeal to active people who love walking and trekking. There are numerous walks, guided by staff, of various lengths and degrees of strenuousness that can be undertaken. These include a two hour walk through Saroga forest, a 45 minute fruit and village walk, and walks to historic Kotgarh church, Tani Jubbar Lake, and Parmjyotir Temple. Trekkers can head to Hatu Peak, the highest mountain in the region.
When to Go
The weather starts warming up by April. Peak season for Indian holidaymakers is May and June. Pre-monsoon rain usually begins to arrive by the last week of June each year. It rains on and off until the end of September, with July and August being the wettest months, and some of the walks may not be possible during this time if it's slippery. The apple season lasts for six months, from flowering in April to harvesting in August and September. October and November are ideal for a peaceful off-peak experience (avoid Diwali school holidays though). In December, winter sets in, bringing cold weather and possibly snowfall.
Banjara Orchard Retreat isn't a large property although its grounds are quite substantial. All up, guest accommodations consist of eight rooms and suites, and two log cabins nestled into the fruit trees.
The airy log cabins are a standout feature. They're thoughtfully constructed in chalet-style with lofts (where children can sleep), and glorious balconies that merge seamlessly with the interiors when the doors are opened up. Inside, the log cabins have been invitingly decorated with classic, quality solid wood furniture -- bed with super comfortable mattress, chests of draws, chairs and coffee table, large mirror, and coat stand. The bathrooms are big and with plentiful hot water, although they're the typical Indian-style wet bathroom without shower screens.
What's important to note is that the log cabins are located at the opposite end of the property to the rooms and suites. This provides seclusion and privacy away from the other guests. You'll treasure it because Banjara Orchard Retreat does receive large domestic tourist groups that tend to be noisy.
I was fortunate to stay in one of the log cabins and loved retreating to the serenity of it. I never grew tired of drinking in the view, undisturbed.
On the afternoon of my last day there, the brilliant sunshine was consumed by misty clouds.I sat transfixed on the balcony, watching them roll in and envelop the surrounding mountains as thunder roared in the distance. Eventually, as the sky grew darker, I felt the sparse splash of rain on my forehead. It was followed by more insistent drops and the thick heady smell of moisture-laden air. The end of June was approaching, and with it the monsoon rain. Such a divine experience!
Expect to pay 7,900 rupees per night for a double in a log cabin, with all meals included. It's worth it if you seek solitude! Rates for rooms range from 5,900 to 6,400 rupees per night for a double, including all meals. Suites (with two double beds) cost 6,900 rupees per night with meals. Singles can expect to pay 4,900 rupees per night upwards.
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Saroga Forest Walk
The two hour Saroga forest walk is one of the most popular walks conducted at Banjara Orchard Retreat, and understandably so. This dense, untamed forest occupies the hill opposite the property and it's there that you'll discover the exotic flora of the inner Himalayas (4,500 to 13,500 feet above sea level).
Mr Thakur accompanied me on the walk and unveiled a magical world of medicinal plants. I was fascinated to see and learn about an endangered species of Himalayan yew tree that's used to produce Taxol, a drug that treats cancer.
The main type of tree in the forest is the towering devdhar (deodar), also referred to as the "God tree". Revered in the Himalayas, its wood is used in performing puja (worship) and also acts as a repellent for termites.
Other trees that can be found in the forest include high altitude blue pine (with bundles of five needles, as opposed to the usual three, tinged with blue), spruce trees, and ferns.
I didn't see any wild animals, although there were a few small spiders and webs to watch out for!
Fruit and Village Walk
Thanedhar is famous for its apple orchards. Commercial apple growing was introduced there in the early 1900s when an American man, Samuel Evans Stokes, built an estate and imported a variety of apples.
The fruit and village walk is an easy 45 minute walk through the orchards below Banjara Orchard Retreat. It follows a scenic, narrow path that winds past local homes and a temple. The route is lined with flourishing apple and cherry trees, wild strawberries, eye-catching flowers, and even the odd wild marijuana plant.
The apple trees come alive with a canopy of white blossoms in April and are laden with ripe apples in August.
Apple picking is possible!
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As is common in the travel industry, the writer was provided with complimentary services for review purposes. While it has not influenced this review, Tripsavvy believes in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest.