Nestled in breath-taking natural surroundings of a wildlife sanctuary, with the intoxicating perfume of fresh pine, musky deodhar (cedar) and aged oak trees serving as a sort of olfactory leitmotif, the quaint and ultra-exclusive Mary Budden Estate seems to have it all. An idyllic haven that’s even older than the Binsar Wildlife Sanctuary that it now finds itself wedged into, this is the perfect place to hit that much-needed ‘reset’ button on life.
As one of the last virgin expanses of wilderness in the mighty Himalayas, this sanctuary is a place of awakening and of self-discovery in the primeval forests of Binsar. All this, in the high north Indian state of Uttarakhand. A place that offers a great vantage point to be mesmerised by the rugged beauty of Himalayan peaks like the Chaukhamba, Panchachuli, Nanda Devi, Nanda Kot, and one of Hinduism’s most holy sites, Kedarnath.
Oozing charm that belies any hyperbolic praise one may attempt to bestow upon it, the country cottage styled Mary Budden Estate has an interesting story of its own. It was bought in 1899 by a British missionary named Mary Budden, who soon converted it into a school for local orphans. This went on for a couple of decades, until Budden’s passing in the early 1900s.
Sadly, for almost a century, the estate lay derelict and in complete disrepair. It was years later when Serena Chopra, a New Delhi-based photographer and writer, purchased the property and turned it into her mountain home that the estate began to resemble what it might have looked like in the late 1800s.
Spread over five acres of land, the estate is made up of the main Mary Budden cottage and four lodges at the far end of the property each with double rooms. In its careful restoration, the main cottage now includes three luxurious en-suite bedrooms, with warm and spacious drawing and dining rooms.
A modern addition to the Mary Budden Estate, the Lodge is built in harmony with the older colonial cottage. It offers four separate en-suite rooms with two separate dining and sitting areas, all equipped with cosy fireplaces.
All accommodation at the estate offers tastefully appointed rooms with logwood fireplaces (called bukharis in the local Kumaoni language) and stone patios. Each dwelling also features several open sit-outs, where the estate’s attentive staff are only too happy to set up an outdoor bonfire for you to get all toasty and snug. Hand-picked antique furniture, upholstery and furnishings reflecting the local Kumaoni fabrics and embroidery and expansive mountain views complete this elegant mountain hideaway.
One is almost thankful for the crisp mountain air that does its best to keep you perpetually ravenous here. Recognising this all too well is chef Naveen Adhikari and his brilliant kitchen team who whip up all sorts of multi-sensorial feasts for you during your stay.
Named The Wild Cat Brunch, this nuanced dining experience is a tribute to the majestic leopard that calls the Kumaon region its home. Here, live grills offer a prelude to an exotic Far Eastern style hot-pot accompanied by the forest’s best of season produce like gucchi (morels) and mountain spinach.
Offering dishes from across the various regions along the Himalayan belt is the outdoor Himalayan lunch. This feast features everything from Bhutanese steamed ragi (finger millet) buns called tingmo, that are served with the cheese and vegetables stew called ema datsi, to spiced goat smoked with pine and a post-lunch cheese board laden with the local Darima cheese.
But the piece de resistance at The Mary Budden Estate has got to be The Milky Way Dinner. Here, a candlelit dinner is served to you exquisitely, atop a horizontally cut tree trunk, under a constellation of stars and the cloudy arch of the Milky Way, suggesting a perfect finale to your day. Blazing bonfires, convivial company, and nature dressed to impress are some of the joys that are certain to make this experience memorable, as are the dozens of tea lights strewn across the floor, mirroring perfectly the night sky above.
And not to mention the food that takes cues from a range of world cuisines. With dishes like a creamy horse gram soup, mushroom linguine in truffle sauce, chicken a la Kyiv and a sinfully rich single origin chocolate mousse for pud.
It’s important to note that as it is housed in a wildlife sanctuary, the estate cannot officially serve any alcohol, but this doesn’t mean that guests can’t bring in their own stash for some liquid warmth under the stars!
One of the greatest outdoor activities that’s almost militantly encouraged at the estate is an invigorating morning hike with the resident guide. And there are plenty of hikes to suit all fitness levels on offer here.
To begin with, there’s the easy Darwin’s Walk. Curated along the lines of Darwin’s walk of light and shadow which defined his famous Theory of Evolution, the estate says that they were inspired to create a morning constitutional, a walk through dappled sunlight and evergreen trees in the wooded Rhododendron forest that surrounds the estate.
Another, more challenging one, is called Ramsay’s Way. In 1840, Henry Ramsay was appointed assistant commissioner of Kumaon. A man keenly observant and sagacious, of clear judgment and strong will, tempered by oodles of Scotch whisky, he was a much-loved character in his days. This hike is said to be in tribute to the grand old man of Kumaon.
Here, one gets to amble along on old weather-beaten paths through the forest, on one of the most beautiful trails in the Binsar forest. The Mayolikhan trail meanders through deodhars and oaks, through little waterfalls and rocky outcrops, and eventually terminates in a quiet, hidden village, almost lost in time.
If all that hiking doesn’t particularly stoke your interest, there’s heaps more that you can do in and around Binsar. The estate’s activity team is only too eager to put together something special.
Fancy a visit to an ancient Hindu temple that’s shrouded in mystery? Perhaps one of the most iconic temple complexes in northern India, Jageshwar has 101 temples dedicated to Lord Shiva made entirely of local stone. And as the legend says, apparently all were constructed overnight.
But hang on! That’s not all. On the way to Jageshwar are the last vestiges of prehistoric cave-art with ancient rock paintings including handprints from the caveman era, apparently.
If you’re still craving a spot of spirituality, it’s suggested to undertake the Lama’s Path. Lama Govinda, an extraordinary scholar and mystic, was a remarkable pioneer and a prophet. His insights were both timely and timeless and his inquiries sought answers to beliefs and theses such as transpersonal psychology, meditation, Christianity, Theravada Buddhism, Zen Buddhism, and the I Ching. Kumaon was his home in the 1950s.
Referencing the great Lama, the folks at Mary Budden Estate have curated a spiritual path, with spectacular sunrises on clear days, that takes guests up to snow-capped peaks. As you meditate upon the mountain deities, pause to sip on single-origin hot chocolate, and then return, sated, for a full English breakfast at the estate.
In a nutshell
The Mary Budden Estate is a place where some of life’s greatest paradoxes intermingle and blend into each other seamlessly. Yes, there are often hours of almost deafening silence here. But then, there’s also sporadic bursts of sonorous birdsong and calls of the local langur monkeys that puncture the stillness. It’s remote, yet reachable. Offering the luxury seeker the rarest of luxuries; that of time and of space, and the enviable opportunity to disconnect in order to connect even more deeply.
Getting there – The nearest airport to Binsar is at Pantnagar from where it is a five-hour drive to reach Mary Budden Estate. Pantnagar is connected to most major Indian cities via airlines like Spice Jet and IndiGo. Alternately, one can also take a helicopter to reach the helipad in Dinapani which is a 45 minutes’ drive away from the estate.
Rooms start from INR 26,000++ (£260++) per person, per night for full board with all three meals included.
Address: Binsar Wildlife Sanctuary, P.O. Ayarpani District, Almora, Uttarakhand-263601, India
Photography courtesy of Mary Budden Estate