Take your creature comforts with you on this stunning hike in the Indian highlands.
Already this morning we have passed rows of brightly-coloured prayer flags fluttering in the breeze, lush fields of cardamom, and ancient Hindu shrines almost hidden in the forest. We have walked through sunlit valleys and soaring forests, accompanied part of the way by a friendly local dog who lopes ahead on the steep slopes and waits for us at the top, perhaps wondering what is taking us so long.
Nothing that we have seen, however, compares with the view that awaits when we stop for our midday meal. Sonam, who is in charge of lunch, has set up a table and chairs overlooking an exquisite alpine panorama: a picturesque valley protected by a series of mountain ridges, each one rising slightly higher and darker than the one in front.
It’s an image just made for Instagram, but the vista is not the only eye candy on offer here. The spread on the dining table looks pretty good, too. As ever, Sonam has furnished us with a feast, which today includes caramelised onion and beetroot tart, green salad and vegetable rolls.
However, my guide Pujan is not happy. Something is missing. He gazes across the hills with a frown on his face.
“You should be able to see Kanchenjunga,” he says.
The snow-clad slopes of the third highest-peak in the world are supposed to provide the most dramatic feature of our lunchtime view. Today, however, an unseasonal haze hides the mountain from view. But I’m not going to let such a little detail spoil what is otherwise turning out to be close to a perfect day.
We are on the second day of our Shakti Himalaya hike through Sikkim, a scenic section of the Indian Himalaya wedged in between Nepal and Bhutan. Apart from the spectacular scenery, what makes this hike memorable is how non-strenuous it is. No need for heavy boots and backpacks; the gentle trails we are following require nothing sturdier than a good quality walking shoe. Shakti Himalaya trips, I have quickly learned, reimagine hiking in remote places as luxury experiences.
Founder Jamshyd Sethna says that he wants his clients to experience the idyllic Himalayan landscapes he explored in his youth, while still enjoying all the creature comforts that today’s traveller takes for granted. His most brilliant stroke was to transform typical village houses into cosy guest retreats, complete with ensuite bathrooms, wood-fired stoves, and king beds warmed with hot water bottles. You sleep in a different house each night, walking from one village to the next.
Each house is all yours; you never have to share your lodging with strangers. Some people travel with their families, the experience is equally popular with couples and even singles. Whether you are travelling in a gang or flying solo, there is a full team looking after your meals, your transfers (should you get tired, the car will meet you and take you to your lodgings) and your accommodation.
The walks are tailored to each guest’s abilities and all arrangements are flexible. If you’d rather spend a day doing a cooking class with chef Tika, while your partner goes hiking – no problem. Personally, I’m not going to miss a moment of these walks. I’m loving the fact that there is always something different to look at, from rhododendron trees laden with heavy blossoms to tiny wild orchids, from rushing mountain rivers to tidy villages where every porch is covered with potted flowers.
Although every day is different, each one starts the same way: with freshly-brewed coffee delivered to my door. A cooked breakfast follows, before we head out for our walk, knowing that, at the end of the day, a delicious dinner awaits.
One of the joys of these hikes is the chance to meet the locals along the way. Shakti’s guides all come from the region. Pujan seems to know everyone that we cross paths with. At one village, Pujan interprets as I chat with a 69-year-old grandmother, who tells me in detail about her eight children and about the magnificent traditional jewellery is wearing. (Pujan later tells me that, according to tradition, she should have stopped wearing her chunky necklace, a gift from her husband, after he died. This feisty lady scorns that tradition. She’s got it, and she’s flaunting it.)
My most unexpected encounter, however, comes one night, when I am woken by the sound of loud singing. Sleepily, I presume that a villager has had a few too many and is making his way home. I’m impressed by the quality of his melodious singing, and a little confused by the fact that he seems to have a horn-playing friend with him, but I soon fall back to sleep.
When I ask about it in the morning, I’m told that the late-night visitor was in fact a shaman who works his way through the area by night, blessing each house to keep it safe from evil spirits. Now that’s full-service touring.
The all-inclusive five-night Shakti Sikkim Village Walk starts at US$4868 per person, which includes all activities, accompanying English-speaking guide, private chef, support guide and porters as well as transfers between Bagdogra Airport or Darjeeling.
Available October to late April.