November 25, 2022
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
The scent of pine trees mingle with fresh soil and the plummeting temperature is directly proportional to the fading sun. I’m in the Skyview Gondola—supposedly India’s highest at 65 metres of ground clearance—from where I watch tops of fir trees, people the size of sparrows, corn and barley fields, narrow hiking trails, village homes, and school grounds flicker past over a distance of 2.8 kilometres in the next 10 minutes. Thick forests surround formidable mountains straight ahead, while a glance at Patnitop—the cable car’s destination terminal at an altitude of 1,343 metres in the opposite direction—reveals a cluster of hillside boutique properties. It is easy to mistake the landscape for a European countryside if not for the looming Himalayas in the distance.
A two-hour drive from Jammu Airport brings me to Skyview by Empyrean—a leisure accommodation-cum-adventure station in Jammu’s Sanget Valley. It is my maiden encounter with India’s northernmost Union Territory. What started out as a recreational initiative in 2014, eventually expanded to include 10 rooms over the years, drawing pilgrims attending the Vaishno Devi yatra from Katra, and locals on day-trips from nearby towns and even Delhi. The project, spread across 22 acres, had officially been granted permission to fell 25 trees, but the management prides itself on having executed the task without incurring any damage to nature, Dinesh Gupta, the group’s marketing lead informs me. “Sustainability has always been at the core of our planning,” he states. “The gondola cuts down road journey by 45-60 minutes, thereby encouraging green mobility in the region.”
An arduous first day ends with a sumptuous feast at Banana Leaf, the property’s main restaurant that serves Indian, Chinese, and Continental fare alongside valley views. I spend hours drawing up a list of local grub that I wish to devour during my visit, and nadru yakhni—a Kashmiri lotus stem preparation—features right on top. But I learn that the two regions of Jammu and Kashmir do not necessarily follow similar diets. Lotus stems aren’t widely consumed in the area and so, aren’t always readily available in the town’s market. Instead, I turn my attention to the most succulent rogan josh that more than makes up for the absence of the vegetarian dish. While a barbecue dinner at the al fresco Skyview Cafe is every bit inviting, the relentless September heat coupled with a local preparation of the ghee-bathed rajmash chawal at a roadside dhaba costs me my appetite. Needless to say, a hot bowl of tomato soup becomes my trusted choice of order for the remainder of the trip. I waste no time in retreating to my accommodation—a humble mountain-facing room—and retire for the night.
I give the cycling trail and the tubing sledge a miss the following morning and instead try my hand at the on-site zipline that stretches 580 metres in length over nine levels across a neatly manicured slope. I’m warned that once I embark on the excursion, my only way out is zipping to the end, unless I wished to risk a mid-task rescue. It takes a few rounds of training sessions, some concentration, and impeccable hand-eye coordination to nail the feat for which I’m assigned a completion certificate at the finish line.
The rest of the day is relatively laidback and involves long hours on winding roads that overlook deep gorges and tiny village settlements. In the neighbouring Kud, I meet the fourth-generation owner of the family-run Prem Sweets, a 1925-established shop, and sample the decadent patisa—a flaky sweet doused in ghee that is a distant cousin of the soan papdi. In Nathatop, 14 kilometres from Patnitop, I set out on a short hike to the summit, which showcases a blanket of deodar trees below and vanilla-scooped clouds above. Unfortunately, the site is marred by the troubles of overtourism. So, I soak in the vistas and move on to the hill station of Sanasar, named after twin lakes called Sana and Sar, where I snap up a seat by the lake front and gaze at the lone shikara doing the rounds from one end to another, before shifting my focus to the tulip field that is being readied for harvest on the other side. Come winter, I’m told that the waterbody is tucked under a veil of snow.
My lunch venue is a meadow-side treat. The staff sets up a tent in the middle of a breezy open field, a little further from the lakes. Boxes of kathi rolls, masala-fried idli and chutneys, salad, and fresh fruits are carefully arranged on our makeshift table and I’m instantly nostalgic for childhood picnics. A sip of warm kahwa hits me like epiphany: life’s greatest gratifications often stem from the simplest moments.
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This feature appeared in the print edition of National Geographic Traveller India November-December 2022.
Empyrean by Skyview offers two types of rooms—mountain-facing and gondola-facing—of varying categories. Doubles from ₹9,400 inclusive of breakfast and a gondola ticket. skyviewbyempyrean.com