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Ancient cave temples and a modern vineyard near Mumbai

Mumbai

With its round-the-clock gridlock, Mumbai can feel like the world’s biggest car park. Leo Mirani seeks sanctuary from the hordes in some of the locals’ favourite haunts

With its round-the-clock gridlock, Mumbai can feel like the world’s biggest car park. Leo Mirani seeks sanctuary from the hordes in some of the locals’ favourite haunts

Leo Mirani | October/November 2017

1 ELEPHANTA ISLAND
1 HOUR 

For an Indian city, Mumbai is not long on history. Until the East India Company moved its base from Surat to what was then Bombay, in 1687, India’s commercial capital was little more than a string of malarial islands populated by Koli fishing tribes. But hidden in the harbour, on an island once called Gharapuri and renamed Elephanta by Portuguese colonists after a massive stone pachyderm they found there (and which now sits, fittingly, in the Mumbai zoo), lie a set of ancient cave temples that rival anything the religious centres of north India have to offer.

A brief ferry ride from the British-built Gateway of India takes you to the jetty, from where it is a short walk to the base of a hill. A wide pathway with souvenir stalls on either side leads up to the caves. The temples themselves are magnificent: commissioned by a king of the Chalukya dynasty and carved out of the hillside by Hindu monks in the seventh century AD, they are covered with intricate reliefs of gods and goddesses. The highlight is a 20-foot-high Maheshmurti, showing the three faces of Lord Shiva. Once you’ve finished exploring, drop by Chalukya, a government-run restaurant by the entrance, which serves simple Indian meals and cold beer – with a fine view of the Mumbai skyline. But beware of chapati-thieving monkeys, and don’t miss the last ferry home (5pm): there is nowhere to stay on the island.

2 SANJAY GANDHI NATIONAL PARK
1 HOUR 10 MINUTES 

Most of Sanjay Gandhi National Park’s 100-odd square kilometres lie within Mumbai’s municipal limits, making it not so much an escape from Mumbai as an escape within Mumbai. But take the train up here, to a place once far outside the city but now a bustling commuter suburb, and it feels like another world. The temperature drops several degrees. The pollution and noise fall away too. As you enter the park gates, a ten-minute autorickshaw ride from the railway station, the concrete jungle is replaced by a genuine tropical one. Within the park’s boundaries are two lakes, Vihar and Tulsi, that provide fresh water to Mumbaikars and picnic spots and boat rides to park-goers, a delightful “toy train” that toots a small circuit within the park on a narrow gauge, and a “tiger-and-lion safari” ride that promises big cats – as well as monkeys, deer, peacocks and snakes, 5,000 insects and 150 species of butterfly. (Some of the park’s panthers occasionally venture out of its boundaries and attack unfortunate stray dogs.) Don’t miss the 100 or so Buddhist cave temples, called Kanheri, which are 2,000 years old and feature magnificent stupas and a pair of 60-foot Buddha statues.

3 ALIBAUG
1 HOUR 45 MINUTES 

Across the harbour from the southern tip of Mumbai, Alibaug is one of a strip of settlements that are to Mumbai what the Hamptons are to New York. The best way to experience Alibaug is to be invited along by a well-off Mumbai family, many of which have over the past two decades colonised beachfronts and built palatial weekend homes in which to relax, mingle and strike deals. If no invitation is forthcoming, take the ferry to Mandwa jetty on the mainland. Stop off at Boardwalk by Flamboyante, a new restaurant and bar which tries, with some success, to create the atmosphere of a Mediterranean café. Once suitably refreshed, catch a bus or autorickshaw to Alibaug proper.

The Radisson Blu is an old favourite with Mumbaikars (rooms from 6,000 rupees; $90). What it lacks in beach frontage it makes up for with attentive staff and a vast swimming pool. Close by are the popular Varsoli beach, and the 17th-century Kolaba fort, set a mile out in the sea. For something lower key, try Bohemyan Blue Stay, a boutique resort near Kihim beach made up of luxurious tents and a cosy café. To get away from it all properly, Kashid, about 35km down the road, is a near-deserted beach with soft, fine sand. And if you find yourself tiring of the sea, the Karnala bird sanctuary, an hour’s drive inland, is home to some 200 species of bird and, inevitably, an ancient fort.

4 MATHERAN
2 HOURS 

To escape the noise, pollution and heat of the traffic Mumbaikars go to Matheran, a hill station in the Sahyadri mountain range, where all forms of motor vehicles are banned. To get here, take the Central Line local service from the magnificent Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus towards Karjat, alighting at Neral. A quick – if hair-raising – taxi ride from the station takes you up 800 metres to the gates of Matheran, where visitors must pay a small fee to enter. The way into town is a pleasant stroll or horseback ride along unpaved red-soil paths. Alternatively, a “toy train” from Neral takes around two hours to chug into the heart of Matheran – when it’s running, which it often isn’t.

Don’t expect to find much by way of shopping (though the shoe stalls in the main market are worth a visit) or restaurants. Matheran’s biggest draw is the peace and quiet it offers, and the clean air (albeit tinged with the scent of horse dung). There is little to do once the sun sets. By day there are lovely walks through the forest and spectacular views from its many look-out points. Neemrana’s Verandah in the Forest is a magnificent old colonial bungalow restored as a heritage hotel (rooms from 4,000 rupees).

5 NASHIK
3 HOURS 45 MINUTES 

Just under 200km from Mumbai is India’s thriving wine-producing region. The best of the country’s two dozen or so producers is Sula, which was established 20 years ago (its first wines hit the market in 2000). Frequent trains depart from Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, taking three hours to reach Nashik, from where a cab will take you the last 45 minutes to Sula Vineyards (sulawines.com).

The estate has two resorts: the striking, modernist Beyond villas (rooms from 7,000 rupees) perched beside the lake, and The Source, a Tuscan-style complex which started life as Sula’s first winery and has recently been refurbished with a pool and tennis courts. Set on a plateau overlooking the Western Ghats (a mountain range that runs along the coast), this would be a great break from Mumbai on its own. But a visit comes with tours of the winery as well as trips to a well-stocked tasting room that ensure a merry time for all. A word of warning: the state of Maharashtra occasionally declares “dry days” when alcohol may not be served. These tend to be well advertised by liquor shops and bars in Mumbai but they occasionally sneak up on you, for instance on election days. Check before going. 

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