Guest post and photos by Sarah Mangelsdorf
Why you’ll love Hotel Highlands Park
The hill station of Gulmarg has long been a favourite summer retreat for those seeking cooler climes. In recent years, however, it has gained a new reputation as one of Asia’s top ski resorts, home to waist-deep powder snow, near-empty ski runs that go for miles and miles and some of the most affordable skiing in the world.
Located at the heart of the snowy action is Highlands Park Hotel, offering unparalleled comfort and service. First opened in the early 1960s by fifth generation hotelier and retired cavalry major, Benjie Nedou, the hotel has played host to Presidents, Prime Ministers and visiting royalty. Today it’s run by Benjie’s granddaughter Aiyesha and her husband Khaver.
Highlands Park is made up of several wooden cottages, each with dedicated staff to look after you (they also serve you ‘bed tea’ in the mornings). The décor is very much one of a glamorous yesteryear; plaques and memorabilia from various army regiments decorate the walls as well as snapshots of Bollywood personalities on location at the hotel. It’s homely, charming and great fun, and regarded by many as the place to stay in Gulmarg.
Why the kids will love Hotel Highlands Park
Winter or summer this is a great place to come with children although it’s more for the setting than the hotel itself. That’s not to say that Highlands Park doesn’t look after kids (they love them!), rather that Gulmarg has so much to offer kids of all ages.
During the winter months the hill station is truly a winter wonderland, covered in a thick duvet of snow that’s perfect for skiing, snowboarding, sledging and snowman building. For beginner skiers there are a handful of nursery slopes right next to the hotel and lessons on offer. For more advance skiers and boarders, the options are endless. If you really want to explore the area, hire a guide and spend the day carving through deep, fresh, glorious powder.
Summer is equally convivial with pleasant climes and plenty of activities. Walking is a big favourite here, as is golf (Gulmarg is home to the world’s highest golf course), horse riding and fly-fishing. Highlands Park also has a kids’ TV room, perfect for taking some time out.
Parents should be aware that Gulmarg sits at 2650m. Altitude sickness at this height is rare but the gondola travels to just short of 4000m, a height at which altitude sickness may occur.
The hotel accommodation is spread over nine huts or cottages and offers 29 rooms and 10 suites in summer and 25 rooms and 9 suites in winter.
The most famous of the accommodation options is the Bobby Hut, named after the 1973 Bollywood movie Bobby that was filmed in Gulmarg and at the hotel itself.
The accommodation has all been recently refurbished, however the rooms don’t seem to have changed much since the hotel first opened; wood panelled walls and ceilings, floral curtains and thick, plush carpets. The large rooms boast comfortable beds (that come with electric blankets in the winter) and are very warm courtesy of a bukhari (the traditional Central Asian wood stoves).
The newly renovated bathrooms have rain showers, bathtubs and a reliable supply of hot water. The suites have an extra sitting room and two bathrooms. All the rooms have satellite TV, which should keep younger (and older) children happy after a day in the mountains.
Each cottage has a couple of dedicated uniform-clad staff (their burgundy wool uniforms are modelled on the army officer’s batman attire) who stoke up the bukhari and serve ‘bed tea’ in the mornings.
Best Rooms For Families The rooms can accommodate an extra bed and will comfortably sleep three people (with space leftover for a baby cot). For larger families or those with older children then the suites are definitely the better option. These offer more space and easily accommodate two extra beds.
The wood panelled lounge / bar and dining areas are where everyone congregates, both to eat and swap skiing stories. Large windows afford fabulous views and inside the walls are adorned with trophies, watercolours and souvenirs from Benjie’s hunting trips, when hunting was still legal. You can’t fail to notice the bearskin hanging in the dining room – Benjie shot it after it attacked someone in the village. A sign outside the dining area politely asks guests to leave weapons at the door.
Breakfast ‘Bed Tea’ is served in your cottage along with warm milk for kids. The breakfast buffet features cereal, pastries, toast, fruit and juices and eggs can be cooked to order. Simple Indian breakfasts are also available.
Lunch & Dinner The hotel serves continental, Chinese and Indian food and their Kashmiri dishes in particular are superb. The food is always fresh and made from local produce wherever possible. Both lunch and dinner feature a three-course set menu, which is changed daily. An à la carte menu is also available.
Kids’ Menu Although there is no dedicated kids’ menu, there are child-friendly dishes on offer and kids will no doubt love the excellent chicken cutlets, baked beans on toast, grilled cheese sandwiches and French fries. The delicious syrupy fried Catherine Wheel desserts are justifiably famous and steaming mugs of hot chocolate are on permanent order in the winter months. Meal timings are also flexible for children with advance notice. It’s worth noting however, that service isn’t always snappy.
Afternoon Tea There is no dedicated ‘tea time’ but you can (and must) try the kahwa, a delicious aromatic Kashmiri tea laced with spices and served with slivered almonds. This is available throughout the day.
All Day Dining Menu: Snacks are available all day in your room or in the bar. Options include sandwiches, French fries, pakoras and paneer and chicken tikkas. Make sure to try the masala peanuts, which live up to their name. Snacks can also be delivered to your room.
Activities for Parents
Go skiing or snowboarding; Gulmarg is fast establishing itself as the place to ski the Himalayas with runs to suit all levels.
Hire a guide and discover mountains of untouched powder, or jump in a helicopter for the ultimate heliski experience.
In the summer months enjoy long walks through picture-perfect meadows and pine forests, along mountain streams and over snow-capped peaks for incredible Himalayan views.
Horse riding, fishing and golf are popular summer pastimes; Gulmarg is home to the world’s highest altitude 18-hole green golf course. It also happens to be the second oldest in India.
Activities for Kids
Go skiing or snowboarding. Novice skiers can take lessons on the beginner slopes while experienced skiers and boarders can head up the gondola for more challenging runs.
Hire a sledge for a race down the slopes; be thankful that there’s someone else who can pull the sledge back up the mountain for you!
Take a ride on the Gulmarg Gondola, one of the world’s the highest ski lift at 3950 m (12959 ft) for awesome Himalayan views – non-skiers can return in the gondola.
Lace up your skates and glide or tumble around Gulmarg’s ice-skating rink (but be aware that you may have to provide your own skates!).
Build a snowman, pelt your parents with snowballs and then watch a movie with a cup of steaming hot chocolate.
In the summer months you can go horse riding, walking and fishing as well as look out for Gulmarg locations used in a number of hit Bollywood films, including the ‘Bobby Hut’ at Hotel Highlands Park.
Central heating (traditional Central Asian wood stoves), common room, baby cot, doctor on call and small clinic in Gulmarg (nearest small hospital is 30 minutes away), 1 extra bed per standard room, 2 extra beds in the suites, laundry, travel desk, WiFi in the bar and dining areas.
When to go:
Winter runs from November to February and the ski-season runs from roughly mid-December until late March / mid-April. Winter temperatures range between 2C – 9C. From March onwards the weather begins to warm up and in summer (March – May) temperatures can range between 13C – 29C. The monsoon rains fall in July and August but the rainfall is very moderate and this is still a lovely time to visit
Location & Travel:
Hotel Highlands Park is located at 2650m in Gulmarg, Jammu & Kashmir, India. There are regular daily flights in and out of Srinagar to Delhi, Mumbai and Jammu. Domestic airlines servicing Srinagar Airport include GoAir, Air India, Jet Airways and SpiceJet. Security is very tight flying to and from Srinagar so make sure to allow plenty of check-in time and be warned that hand baggage is restricted.
Gulmarg is 56km west of Srinagar, roughly a two-hour drive from the airport. This includes time required changing to a 4×4/chain vehicle half way up the mountain if necessary. Highlands Park can arrange airport transfers for you for an additional charge.
The nearest major train station is Jammu Tawi, in Jammu, 300km away from Srinagar. Overnight trains run from Delhi to Jammu Tawi from where you can get a car or a bus to Srinagar but this is by no means the quickest and most reliable way of reaching Gulmarg! From Srinagar, Highlands Park can arrange transfers for an additional charge.
There is a long history of conflict within the state of Jammu & Kashmir. Remember to consult your own government’s travel advisory for safety advice such as www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice/india
1) Proper ski attire is essential. Whilst clothes and skis are available in most sizes, availability can’t be guaranteed.
2) It’s well worth investing in a good pair of snow boots and gloves, particularly for little kids who feel the cold more.
3) Put any toilet training on hold and bring nappies! You don’t want any accidents to happen in your child’s one snowsuit.