Staying home: The new travel option
Skip impersonal hotels and enjoy your next India holiday from the comfort of a home, says Puja Banta
A pleasant two-hour drive from Mumbai takes you to Hide-out, a lovingly created organic farm stay in a tribal village. As you touch the grounds here, the joys of nature make life slow down to a rustic rhythm and the mad rush of the city life is forgotten in minutes. Here you can sleep in cool mud houses or simply camp under the open sky. Delicious vegetarian food is cooked over a wood-fire and served in earthen pots. You can start your day by ploughing the field with a bullock and end it by building a campfire. It is an experience that shocks the city slickers out of their urban stupor and helps them get in touch with their souls again.
Moving down south to the state of Tamil Nadu, Oland is a 140-acre tea, coffee and spice plantation in the Nilgiris or the Blue Mountains. Surrounded by hills and valleys, rivers and rivulets, Oland offers eco-friendly accommodation in idyllic surroundings. Wildlife experiences, community activities, hiking , mountain biking and swimming in natural pools are all part of the package.
The Indian travel landscape is changing and so are the demands of the Indian traveler. Experience-based holidays are becoming more sought after rather than just visiting destinations. Planning to take a holiday in India? Would you like a jungle retreat or a farm stay, a plantation home or a beach villa or maybe a heritage stay with an erstwhile maharaja's family?
Playing a big role in bringing about this change are the variety and number of 'non-hotel' accommodations becoming available in the country today. These alternatives to hotels are not only more charming and unusual, they are also much more affordable.
Image: Cooking on wood fire at Hide-Out
The smiles are genuine and the conversation natural
One option in the non-hotel category is a homestay where the owners live on the premises and welcome you as a guest in their family home. Here you have an opportunity to learn about the local culture and cuisine, get tips and ideas about what to do around the place and feel like an extended family to the owners. The smiles are genuine and the conversation natural. Wouldn't you prefer an indulgent mother figure to the business- like hotel staff as your hosts?
Examples of the kind of accommodations on offer are a cozy homestay overlooking a picturesque stream in Dharamshala ; a charming home in Coonoor nestled in a quiet hillside that feels like a pocket of paradise; a tranquil retreat by the river in a coffee plantation in Sakleshpur in Karnataka; an idyllic home tucked below the oak trees of Niglaghat in Uttarakhand and a colonial villa set in 40 acres of forests and almond orchards near Dal lake in Kashmir.
Included in this category are also a number of heritage stays around the country. Fancy a 100 year old majestic haveli in Mewar or an 18th century warrior's royal mansion in Jodhpur? What about a 170 year old Kodava home in Coorg or a colonial villa in Ooty that still retains its old charm - from the impressive period furniture to the polished wooden floor?
Image: Meenachil Enclave, Kottayam
Homestay gives you a more personal experience
Bed and breakfast options in India today are varied and abundant to suit the demanding traveler's needs. Says Rekha Goyal , the co-founder of Namastay.in an online network of homestays in India , "The Indian traveler's expectations from a holiday are changing. For example, we have parents of young kids asking for homestays in a rural environment because they felt that their children are getting too urbanised."
Compared to a hotel, homestay gives you a more intimate and personalised experience. Here you can indulge in activities like tours of organic farms, plantations, tea-tasting, tea-plucking, safaris, farming, cheese-making, local handicrafts, bird-watching, treks and walks. Another big draw of these homestays is the authentic local cuisine which is mostly prepared by the hosts themselves in their kitchen. In many cases, if you are visiting a place whose cuisine you are not familiar with, you can take cooking lessons from the lady of the house.
But if you need more privacy and flexibility, an Independent stay is what you should pick. This one is more like a Holiday rental where you rent an entire villa, house or apartment and there is no one else staying in the house except you and your family and in most cases, a caretaker. These types of accommodations are great options for family bonding.
Imagine holidaying with your parents, spouse and kids in a beautiful 3 bedroom villa where you can have your masala chai just the way you want it because you get to make it yourself in the fully equipped kitchen. . And then there's the cozy living room for the family to get together over Scrabble or Antakshari that goes late into the night. No worries about getting up in time for breakfast. You can cook your breakfast at lunch time if you wish.
Image: Restored Portuguese villa in Aldona, Goa
Independent houses are suited to long stays
Depending on the place and season, bonfires, barbecues, house parties are all possible when you chose to stay in an independent accommodation. Or if you are looking for a romantic break, open that bottle of wine and whip up a special meal for her combining the comfort of a home and the freshness of a restaurant.
Another benefit of these independent houses is they are suited to long stays. Says Roshan D'silva, founder and webmaster of HomeStaysDOS.com, "Independent Holiday Rentals offer the convenience of a fully furnished home with a functional kitchen, living room, multiple bedrooms etc. all at a very economic price. Typically the price is similar to renting an apartment as compared to the price of staying in a hotel room."
In many cases where you can rent the entire property, the properties tend to be the second home of the owner and are set in scenic locations away from the city. With many Indians in urban areas opting to buy second homes that are away from it all, these kinds of properties are becoming increasingly available. Since the owners don't use these holiday homes for more than a month in a year, the other 11 months give them an opportunity to generate extra income by letting these out as holiday homes.
You can chose from independent holiday properties like a 5 bedroom villa in Manali with amazing views of the valley ; a 4 bedroom bungalow with a lovely garden hidden in a quiet corner of Lonavala ; a restored Portuguese home in the quaint little village of Aldona in North Goa or a secluded private home in Dalhousie facing majestic forests and mountains . The choices here range from small cottages and apartments to luxury villas with private swimming pools.
Image: Independent villa by the beach and backwaters of Karnataka
Pack up and get ready for the real Indian vacation
If this tempts you to book your next vacation right away, you can go to one of the many online networks that will help you with the planning and booking these non-hotel stays. Some of the prominent ones are -- HomestaysDOS.com, Namastay.in, Mahindrahomestays.com and Heritagestay.com
And if you would like to host travellers in your home or give out your second home as a holiday rental, you can contact these companies. They will do the due diligence and if your property meets their criteria, they will list you on their websites. You can also do this independently by starting your own website but there are several challenges like the cost of marketing, online payment and credibility that you have to take care of.
The concept of homestays or independent stays is not new in India. But earlier it was restricted to the three tourist hotspots of Goa , Kerala and Rajasthan and targeted mainly at foreign travelers. But with the Indian traveler warming up to the idea, the non-hotel phenomenon is now spreading to other parts of the country. According to Goyal, there are at least 15000 such properties available across the country today.
So go ahead, pack your bags and get ready for the real Indian vacation! Redefine your holidays and immerse yourselves in soul- refreshing experiences that can change the way you look at life.
Image: Rural homestay by the backwaters in Kerala