Why a mountain village experience is unbeatable
Some of my favourite travel moments have been witnessing rural communities at the start of a day or in the early evening – particularly when the light is just right and you are armed with a camera. It is when a place bears its soul.
I remember decades on, and long after I have misfiled the photograph, the glimpse of a man shaving as I walked through the little village of Deogarh in rural Rajasthan. I can still recall the early-morning tea, shared with a school teacher on a doorstep of his classroom in Sikkim, as we watched his smartly uniformed pupils drift like rivulets from different hillside houses into the lowland. On reflection, in fact, most of these morning memories have been in Asia and many in the mountains.
Likewise, still with me are the calls of welcome in the early evening as family members get home at the end of a working day; and the gentle, domestic sounds as dinner is prepared, the heat falls away and the light fades. They are reminders of how unchanged life can be. Two such evenings come to mind – one in Peru’s Colca Valley about 20 years ago and the other on the island of Kyushu in Japan. I remember them both like yesterday.
Mass tourism doesn’t sit well with remote mountain people. A big hotel in a small village just makes too much impact – culturally and aesthetically. With the youth drifting into the valleys and further afield to the big cities, there is, however, a huge need for income and there are some groundbreaking, high-end travel initiatives that make access and luxury work in an appropriate way for the long-term residents and the economy.
Almost 20 years ago, my friend Jamshyd Sethna set up a walk from village to village in the Indian Himalayas, not far from the hill station of Almora. He leased traditional houses from families and made them hugely comfortable, installing great chefs and guides. This made them private and luxurious but, at the same time, sustainable and integrated. Providing jobs, using existing infrastructure and sourcing local ingredients, they are an inspirational model yet also have an incredible level of service and quality. The Almora experiment has been finessed and is now possible in Ladakh and Sikkim. These journeys are among cazenove+loyd’s best experiences in India.
Since Jamshyd’s entry into high-end but sustainable tourism in India’s mountains, we have found partners in Sri Lanka who have opened up the hill country and jungle to exploration on foot and on two wheels, usually from converted tea planters’ bungalows but also from a new breed of owner-run lodge, which has begun to spring up in the rural areas. The Sri Lankan countryside is up there with the best, both in terms of low-key luxury and landscape.
My most recent mountain foray was not in Asia but Africa: in Morocco’s Atlas Mountains. I had trekked in the Toubkal area before and had driven extensively in the country but had never found the understated yet luxurious village house experience that I have so loved elsewhere. It took Thierry Teyssier, owner of Dar Ahlam, my favourite hotel in Morocco, to come up with the right balance of comfort and authenticity.
On an adventure in Morocco’s secret south, we can arrange for you to stay in two mountain village houses, a house in an oasis and a desert camp deep in the Sahara. I was lucky enough to experience this trip – and in a week on the road with a private guide and vehicle, we ate locally but extravagantly in the splendour of our exclusive residence. We explored villages and coastal spots with no danger of bumping into other tourists and enjoyed the theatricality, style and attention to detail that keeps aficionados returning to Dar Ahlam again and again, despite its inconvenient location.
I have always heard that people with a view of a mountain from their homes are statistically happier and it is easy to see why monasteries cling precariously to hillsides from Greece to Ladakh to Tibet. Such is the air, solitude and purity of their location. A community in the mountains makes the spirit soar, if only for a few days at a time.
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