Dharamsala is 253km (157 miles) W of Manali

Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, chose Dharamsala as the capital-in-exile of the Tibetan people after fleeing Chinese oppression in 1959, and whether it's the endless spinning of Buddhist prayer wheels, the magnificence of the surrounding mountains, or simply the divine presence of His Holiness, the Tibetan enclave at Dharamsala draws seekers of spiritual enlightenment from all over the world.

Admittedly, a visit to Everyman's spiritual center of the universe seems like the ultimate New Age cliché, but the town and its environs have much more to recommend than the fervent chanting of Om mani padme hum ("Hail to the jewel in the lotus"). The natural beauty of Dharamsala's snow-tipped mountains and mist-soaked valleys compares favorably with that of any of Himachal's best-loved resort towns, and for those not single-mindedly wrapped up in a quest for spiritual fine-tuning with Buddhist lectures and meditation courses, this is an ideal base for walks and treks into the Dhauladhar range. It's also a good place to simply experience a toned-down India at a more leisurely pace.

The hillside town stretches along a spur of the Dhauladhar mountain range and is divided into two very distinct parts -- Lower Dharamsala and McLeod Ganj (often called Little Lhasa). Only the latter is worth considering as a place to stay and explore; it's an intriguingly cosmopolitan mix of brightly robed Buddhist monks in their Oakleys and Crocs (with thick woolen socks), traditionally attired Tibetan women reciting holy mantras, and spiritual tourists in search of enlightenment. It's also become increasingly popular with Israeli travelers who tend to install themselves in the concrete village of Bhagsu, a short drive from the main bazaar; many long-stay visitors now congregate here and participate in myriad courses and workshops, from reiki to jewelry making, and there are scores of teachers, healers, and artists offering their services. A former British hill station rocked by an earthquake in the early 1900s, McLeod Ganj today harbors several institutes and organizations dedicated to raising funds for the Tibetan people and promoting and preserving Buddhist culture. Among these is the government-in-exile's administration complex, or Gangchen Kyishong, where you'll find the fascinating Library of Tibetan Works and Archives.

Higher up the mountain, above McLeod Ganj and Bhagsu, is the more salubrious, uncrowded area of Dharamkot -- more country village than suburb -- where it's possible to escape the activity along McLeod Ganj's Temple Road, always lined with Tibetan vendors and a nonstop shuffle of people from all over the world. Dharamkot is the starting point for many excellent hikes into the Dhauladhar mountains that loom over Dharamsala, and in the uppermost part of the village, far, far from the maddening crowd is Eagles Nest, Himachal's coziest, loveliest guesthouse.

North of Dharamsala are spectacular mountain-hugging drives to the remote towns of Dalhousie and Chamba, while farther south you can visit (and stay in) the charming heritage village of Pragpur and explore the tea-covered valleys around historical Taragarh Palace Hotel, not far from the scruffy town of Palampur.