The Kangra Valley
If you have the time and want to veer slightly off the beaten track, definitely head southeast of Dharamsala toward the gently undulating tea-covered hills of Kangra Valley. Although it lacks any particular charms of its own, Palampur is a popular starting point for Kangra Valley. Nearby is Tashijong Monastery, a colorful gompa established in the years after the Dalai Lama made his home in Dharamsala. The neighboring town of Baijnath is the site of the beautiful Saivite Vaidyanath Temple complex (Baijnath Main Rd.; daily 5am-9pm in summer and 6am-8pm in winter), one of the more interesting and best-preserved Hindu shrines in Himachal Pradesh, dating from the early 13th century. Surrounded by a wall decorated by fine carvings, the main temple enshrines a squat Shiva lingam protected by a five-headed metallic cobra; devotees usually cover the lingam with flowers and other offerings. A half-hour drive in the other direction will take you to Andretta Pottery and Craft Society (tel. 01894/25-4243; www.andrettapottery.com), where the extremely passionate Jugal Kishore will be happy to explain the objectives behind this training school -- modest accommodation is available for those who feel like attending short-term classes.
Pragpur (6 hr. from Shimla; 7 hr. from Manali; 2 1/2 hr. from Palampur) is a time-trapped village with mud-plastered, slate-roofed houses, elegant havelis (mansions), Italianate buildings, and narrow cobblestone roads. Designated India's first official "Heritage Village," this tiny hamlet was founded as a memorial to a brave warrior princess who led a resistance against invaders in the 17th century. Pragpur is wonderful to explore, a veritable warren of tiny lanes and old, atmospheric buildings. Sadly, though, some of the luster has begun to disappear since the village first landed on the map; among other bad planning decisions, some idiotic council allowed a ghastly telecommunication tower to be constructed in one part of town (right at the edge of the Judge's Court, in fact), which dramatically detracts from the "heritage" concept. Nevertheless, you still get a very good out of time feel here, and the surrounding landscape offers opportunities for nature walks, cycling, bird-watching, and fishing. Upper Pragpur is known for its home-weaving industry, so this is the place to look for good deals on local crafts. Best of all, you get to spend the night in Pragpur's beautiful Judge's Court, one of Himachal's most enchanting hotels. Near Pragpur is the strangely named Pong Lake, officially known as Maharana Pratap Sagar -- a reservoir that attracts local and migratory birds, mostly from Siberia (best time to visit: Oct/Nov-Mar/Apr). Some 1,300 hundred species of birds are found in the Indian subcontinent, of which more than 500 species are present in Kangra -- if you're interested it's worth picking up a copy of the Birds of Kangra by Jan Willem den Besten, a very comprehensive book on the extensive birdlife of this region.
Digs for the Time Traveler -- If you want to stay in the heart of a pretty, well-preserved medieval village, look into the availability of one of the two semidetached 17th-century houses in Pragpur's highly atmospheric Kuthiala Courtyard. They're operated as annexes to the lovely Judge's Court hotel, and can be rented for short or long stays: Accommodations are fairly basic, giving you a truly hands-on insight into more or less how these villagers live. Marble floors are offset by mud-themed walls, an ancient gas-powered kitchen, and big bedrooms with tiny shuttered windows. And when you leave the house, you get to experience life along the narrow lanes and cobbled walkways, meeting and perhaps befriending neighbors -- an experience you'll never get from a hotel populated by other foreigners. While this is an authentic experience don't expect any luxuries beyond the normal conveniences of a home trapped in another age; when you need a bit of pampering, though, you can trundle off to the restaurant at Judge's Court and enjoy kid glove service before scurrying back to your village nest.
Where to Stay -- Taragarh Palace, Palampur's famous heritage hotel has now become something of a sprawling resort catering to groups; if you'd prefer to be in the midst of a tea plantation, rather than encountering busloads of tourists, consider holing up at the family run Country Cottage (Chandpur Tea Estate; tel. 01894/23-0647; www.countrycottageindia.com; Rs 2,800-Rs 4,000 double), set in the cantonment area of Palampur amid a 20 hectare (50-acre) organic tea garden. It's a simple, unpretentious, low-key operation with just a handful of cottages and the emphasis firmly on appreciating your surroundings rather than on exciting accommodations. At press time, two brand-new cottages were due to open, and these (more expensive) units with the best location will be the ones to book. The owner is a veritable font of information (on tea, among other things -- with a couple of days he'll even let you make your own), and puts together all kinds of interesting excursions, including an innovative anthropological tour that investigates various tribes in the Kangra Valley; he'll also point you towards some wonderful local treks and organize mahaseer fishing expeditions. Besides staring out into the gardens and trying different teas, there's not very much to do at the cottages -- definitely bring books.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.