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A Perfect Mountain Retreat

By Vir Sanghvi

I sometimes feel as though the legacy of Lord Kitchener has pursued me all of my life. I studied his career in history class at school.

I learned that he was the hero of Khartoum and the Boer War. He was Commander-in-Chief of the Indian Army in the early years of the 20th Century and was a celebrated military figure throughout the British Empire.

But while the school text books made him seem boring, Lord Kitchener underwent a strange, retro revival in the late 1960s and the early 1970s. In the heyday of Swinging London, somebody rediscovered the old recruitment poster in which the noble Lord asked Brits to “Join Your Country’s Army! God Save The King”.

It turned up on the walls of every student hostel or bedsit as a jokey reminder of the empire that had once been. As a child, my primary fascination was with Kitchener’s moustache. It was thick, luxuriant and extended far out of the contours of his face as though it had a life of its own.

By then Lord Kitchener had achieved another milestone. The trendiest boutique in Swinging London was called “I was Lord Kitchener’s Valet” and offered modern takes on the great man’s uniform redesigned for hippies, rock stars and trendies. In the process, Kitchener became famous all over again though perhaps not in a way that would have gladdened his heart.

(There even was a hit song called I was Lord Kitchener’s Valet! The lyrics went “Oh, Lord Kitchener, what to do, Everyone is wearing clothes that once belonged to you If you were alive today, I’m sure you would explode”.)

I mention all this by way of background so you will understand my excitement when I arrived at the fabulous Wildflower Hall near Shimla and discovered that my room was named after—who else? —Lord Kitchener. Photographs of the old boy hung all over the hotel. Was there no getting away from Kitchener?

Intrigued, I looked up the history of Wildflower Hall. It turned out that when Kitchener was Commander-in-Chief of the British army and Shimla was the summer capital of the Raj, he was obliged to spend a lot of time in the area.

Shimla was boring and stuffy so aristocrats like Kitchener looked around for beautiful locations where they could build themselves large country houses. By that time, Kitchener, a man with an elevated sense of his own self-importance, had begun a feud with Lord Curzon, the Viceroy of India and Kitchener’s boss.

Curzon was no shrinking violet either. A famous doggerel about him begins “My name is George Nathaniel Curzon/I am a most superior person.” So a clash with Kitchener was inevitable. (Eventually, Kitchener won and Curzon went back to London.)

But when Curzon and Kitchener were not fighting about matters of state, they were engaged in the war of the country houses. Curzon had built himself a lovely home in the hills of Mashobra, near Shimla. So Kitchener was determined to outdo him. He looked for a location that was even lovelier and found it a short distance away from Mashobra. It easily overshadowed Curzon’s estate and Kitchener bought 22 acres of forest on which he built the original Wildflower Hall, his glorious country residence in 1902.

But Kitchener was too important to stay in one part of the Empire for too long and soon he was off to take up a new posting in Egypt and had little time for Wildflower Hall, leaving his magnificent home unattended.

Eventually, in 1925, the property was razed. It was too vast (and probably too expensive) for anyone to consider turning it into a private residence, now that the era of Curzon and Kitchener has passed. So it became a hotel, a solution that allowed for a small army of gardeners to look after the vast grounds and woods.

In the 1990s, a fire destroyed the hotel and the Oberoi group was called in to build another hotel on the site. The Oberois remained true to the original desire of Lord Kitchener and built a huge mansion that would easily outshine anything that Curzon or any other of Kitchener’s rivals could ever have built.

That is the modern Wildflower Hall, the finest hotel north of Delhi.

The exteriors recall the Raj with their turrets and a typically Himalayan roof. There are four floors of rooms (85 in all) with the public and service areas on the ground floor and lower ground floor. A part of the structure extends into the forest on the south side.

The lavish interiors would have done Kitchener proud. Generously upholstered lounge chairs, tufted sofas fill the rooms and there is masses and masses of Burmese teak on the walls, ceilings and everywhere. The levels of luxury are simply stunning. Though I was in the Lord Kitchener suite, obviously the eponymous lord had never actually stayed there. On the other hand, it was considerably more luxurious than anything they could have managed in his era. Whenever he was gazing down at us (or looking up at us), from wherever he is now, the old boy must have given his impressive moustache a satisfied twirl, pleased that, in this respect at least, his legacy had outdone all his Raj contemporaries.

But as lovely as the mansion is, it is worth remembering that Kitchener was originally drawn to this estate because of its external beauty, not the elegance of its interiors. And the point of Wildflower Hall (despite my curious obsession with Kitchener) is the stunning location.

Each morning when I woke up, I would draw the curtains and inhale sharply. The view was simply stunning. The bluest skies, wisps and puffs of cloud, green forests, densely wooded mountains and the hotel’s own manicured central lawn. It is hard to think of another Indian hotel that offers such a spectacular view.

You can, if you like, enjoy the luxurious rooms at Wildflower Hall but we were escaping from the heat of the plains so we launched ourselves into the cool outdoors. Every meal was either alfresco or something like it. We ate lunch on the terrace overlooking the mountains and eventually we loved it so much that we spent all our afternoons there. We would read, I would write and every now and then, I would look at the view and pinch myself to check if I was dreaming.

We had dinner one night in a gazebo on the grounds of the hotel, enjoying kababs that were grilled in front of us by a team of chefs. This made us feel very spoiled and pampered so we asked if we could do something a little less fancy.

The hotel suggested that we went for a bracing walk in the forest that is adjacent to the main building. A very knowledgeable local guide arrived and took us through the hills, pointing out local trees and telling us about the heritage of the area till it was time for our picnic lunch. I had visions of roughing it out (well, sort of, anyway) but when we came to a gap in the woods, I was staggered. The hotel had set up a lovely picnic table with chairs. In case it rained (which it did not) there was also a little tent for us to find shelter. The food, served by an Oberoi butler, was terrific. And it made me realize that there are picnics, and then there are Oberoi picnics.

We were so taken by the idea of the luxury picnic (I say this with the appropriate amount of shame) that the hotel arranged for us to go, on another day, to a wonderful century-old cottage in the village of Mashobra. The cottage was perched at the edge of the cliff and we had fabulous 360º views of the landscape, that distinctive mixture of hills, valley, forests and very blue skies.

Through all our time there, we tried to enjoy a judicious mix of activities, both indoor and outdoor. It made no sense to go to such a beautiful location and spend all our time indoors. On the other hand, it made even less sense to treat the stunning hotel as just a place to sleep at night. So we made the most of the hotel too. We were delighted to discover a working fireplace in our room and lit a crackling fire one evening, conscious that this was one of the few places in India where you needed to light a fire in June.

When it was time to go, I looked out of the window one last time and took a mental photograph of the view. Then I look in the walls of solid teak, the lush furnishings and thought back to the time when Lord Kitchener lived on this site. Raj food was usually disgusting and the plumbing was rudimentary. Obviously, the victor of Khartoum had never enjoyed as wonderful a stay as we had. His Wildflower Hall had outclassed anything Lord Curzon and his contemporaries had built. But this Wildflower Hall easily outclasses any residence that any of the lords and Viceroys of the Raj built or lived in during the heyday of their Empire.

And this one is hundred percent Indian!


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