Sunlight streamed in as I parted the window curtains of the double-decker luxury bus my husband and I were taking from Mumbai to the popular summer destination of Mahabaleshwar, 264 kilometers East of India’s biggest city. Outside, low-hanging tufts of clouds touched the opulent carpet of green that rolled down the hills. Sun rays penetrated through the clouds creating a deceptive patch of fluorescent green on the grassy valley floor.
During the British era, Mahabaleshwar was the summer capital of Bombay province. Nowadays, the cool climate and evergreen vegetation of the terrain attracts tired city dwellers from Mumbai and Pune for weekend getaways. Due to the multitude of strawberry farms, Mahabaleshwar is also called the strawberry capital of India.
Immediately after we arrived, I treated myself to a sumptuous plate of corn patties, a specialty of the region, followed by a full-course vegetarian meal: rice, daal (lentil soup), bhakri (flatbread made with rice) and byangan- ka-bharta (spiced roasted eggplant).
A Driving Tour Through the Curvy Western Ghats
After lunch, I hired a car and we darted through the serpentine hill roads of the Western Ghats, a mountain range along the west coast of India. The driver parked the car near a cluster of viewpoints. The cool breeze ruffled my hair as I followed a looped walkway running by the edge of a cliff to “Eco Point.” As I fretted with my camera, trying to capture the perfect view, I shouted my name out loud and the hills said it back, confirming its apt name.
Further along the looped trail, a grassy hillock shaped like an Elephant’s head rooted itself into the cliff. A sign read: ‘The Elephant’s Head Point.’ The layered, jagged outlines of the mountain peaks stretched into the horizon. When a mass of dark clouds hovering over the hills suddenly broke open, we ran to our car and sped off to our next stop.
Misty Venna Lake
The pre-monsoon clouds chased our car along the road as it cut through a thick forest to Venna Lake. The lake, surrounded by lush hills, was constructed in 1842 by the king of the district, Shree Appasaheb Maharaj. I sat by the shore of the lake, watching the boats loaded with tourists floating in the water. As the sun set, the sky changed colors from tangerine to purple and a curtain of mist gradually sheathed the lake.
Back in Mahableshwar, in the intermittent drizzle of evening, we set out to enjoy the buzzing market of Mahabaleshwar. Stationery, clothing and gift shops lined the main market street. Couples snuggled under their umbrellas under store awnings as they waited for the rain to stop. Kids fought over toys near the stores that line the main market. I gave in to my urge and bought a pair of Kohlapurichappals, a kind of Indian handcrafted footwear with origins in the neighboring city of Kohlapur. The clacking of my shoes soon changed into a squelch as the drizzle morphed into a full-blown torrential downpour. I took cover at Elsie’s Dairy and Bakery, a family run shop, where I indulged in gooey brownies. Under the glow of the street lights, mist swirled and billowed in mesmerizing patterns.
Plato Point: On Top of the Forest
The next day, an azure sky brought tidings of good weather. We drive 5.5 kilometers from the city center on the Mahabaleshwar-Satara road to a temple nestled in the foot of a forested hill. A young village boy deftly guided us through the woods under canopied, leafy trees to a plateau area, popularly known as ‘Plato Point.’
Plato Point is an elevated monolith emerging out of the dense forest. It offers panoramic views of the crests, topped by swaying trees that inhabit the forest. A makeshift stall at Plato Point serves tangy lime water to thirsty travelers. The earthy aroma of woods and the recurring song of the Malabar Thrush captivated me in its tranquil charm. As we trekked back, our guide asked me to keep a cautious eye around as these forests are home to leopards.
Strawberries & Cream
Mahabaleshwar is famous for its strawberry gardens and the related dessert — strawberries with cream. October through November and April through May are the fruit-bearing seasons. Mapro, a leading brand of fruit juices, have their strawberry farm and processing factory in Panchgani, 11 kilometers from Mahabaleshwar. We were unable to visit it, but we did visit a smaller strawberry plantation. The farm served us each a mug of strawberry-with-cream. The layers of whipped cream complimented the tartness of the strawberries. The frothy topping was a balance of the two flavors, red from the strawberry and white from the cream.
We engaged a new driver, who, with screeching tires snaked along the steep curves. Even under the afternoon sun, there was a nip in the air, so we layered on warmer clothes. After an hour of arduous driving, along the picturesque Sahayadri hills, we arrived at the final stop of the day — The Pratapgarh Fort.
History Comes Alive: The Pratapgarh Fort
Shivaji Maharaj erected the Pratapgarh Fort in 1656 and it lies 20 kilometers away from Mahabaleshwar’s city center, in the opposite direction of the Mahabaleshwar-Satara road. The Battle of Pratapgarh is one of the most noteworthy historical events in the region. In the battle, the ruling Adilshahi dynasty’s army general, who also murdered Shivaji Maharaj’s brother, led an attack on Shivaji’s forces. Shivaji Maharaj won the battle and subsequently founded the Maratha Empire.
Families of baboons populated the tall stairs of the fort. On the flag bearing level, the top level, groups of visitors sang songs praising the valor of Shivaji Maharaj. We climbed to the top, which overlooked winding roads hidden by luxuriant foliage. In the distance, bands of white water, foaming in its rush, poured down in torrents from the nearby hills. The water of the cascades sparkled in the golden twilight.
Our weekend ended, but we had experienced only a teaser of Mahabaleshwar’s sights and activities. Only seven hours away by bus from Mumbai, we look forward to returning to Mahabaleshwar to feel nature from close quarters once again.