RACE YOU TO THE TOP
It is easily forgotten that the tiny kingdom of Nepal was once of the most fashionable and advanced travel destinations in the world, From the mid-Seventies to late Eighties it was constantly in the news: the first country with tiger reserves and eco-minded wildlife parks, the first civilized jungle lodges, the first to invent organized mountains treks. The Royal Family were regular visitors and many of the hotels still display silver-and-velvet- framed photographs of the prince of Wales, the princess Royal and Princess Margaret in their lobbies.
Over time, Nepal faced stiff competition from waves of new, frequently luxier Asian and African contenders; safari lodges with private Jacuzzis and sushi, treks with an-conditioned tents and wi-fi.And to make matters worse, the Nepalese Royal family were massacred over pasta dinner one night in their kathmandu palace by the Eron-educated crown prince. None of this was great news for tourism. And yet there is something inspiring and charming about Nepal; a country of spectacular mountains (its portion of the Himalayan ranges has eight of the world’s highest peaks, including Everest and Annapurna), unspoiled rural village, deep forests and white water rapids. The Nepalese people are uniformly delightful. I was frequently reminded of India 30 years ago; India Lite,with less hassle and buzz.
It was the chance to go trekking that drew us to Nepal. For some reason, we had a notion that our largely urban family (four children aged 14 to 21) would like to skip Christmas at home and instead have an outward-bound adventure in the foothills of the Himalayas,sleeping,I don’t think we realized that night-time temperatures in December drop to well below freezing. Nor were we certain we’d all be able to keep up: the terrain can be steep and challenging, and we aren’t an especially sporty lot.
WAS IT THE YETI OUTSIDE THE TENT COME TO STEAL OUR APPLE FRITTERS?
Our sirdar (chief sherpa), named Karma, was reassuring. He informed us that the tour day trek around the Annapurna circuit was named The Prince’s Trek’ after the Prince of Wales, who had done the selfsame route from Pokhara 32 years ago. The menus for every meal are entirely unchanged,’ he promised proudly.’Not one dish has been altered.’ Our enormous ream of sherpas and porters, cook and cook-boys, numbering 21 people ,five of them carrying tents,tables,chairs,lavatory seats,cooking pots,food and wine in giant panniers strapped to their foreheads. An initial two-hour climb to attain altitude delivered us to a stunning ridge path with views if snow-capped peaks,rice terraces,hilltop shrines and remote villages, The sun came out and it turned quite hot. Another hour or so and we rounded a corner to find a picnic set out beneath a shady tree, with rugs and cushions and smiling sherpas,A further three hours of afternoon trekking and we arrived at camp in an idyllic meadow with mountain views.
Thus was set the routine of the treks: five or six hours ‘walking a day, interspersed with picnic, tents erected and campfire lit for our arrival each night. It was perfectly planned. It was hot enough to sunbathe by day but bitterly cold at night-we slept inside two sleeping bags, with two hot-water bottles each. The menus, devised by a British army colonel in the Seventies and faithfully adhered to by Gurkha chefs, would be familiar to anyone who attended an English prep school long ago: apple
Fritters, custard and tinned spam all featured. On Boxing Day night, we were served a festive plate containing a slice of pizza, a dollop of spaghetti and a fishcake, and wondered what the Prince of Wales had made of it all. But the children relished it, and there was a definite Enid Blytonish charm, with not a curry or lentil in sight.
It was exhilarating and liberating to stride along so far from civilization in such a beautiful place:rhododendrons flourished on the hillsides and exotic butterflies fluttered about in the sunshine. At teatime we were served homemade cake. The whole family kept up without complaint, and it was amusing and bonding to play cards in the legendary Yet, come to steal our apple fritters and custard, On the last night we crouched in our tents sorting small motes into 21 envelopes as tips to distribute to our delightful team, who had earned every rupee. As we yomped back down the final slope , fitter and leaner, we played a game discussing which of our Tatler- reading friends would have loved the trek(as we did) and which would have found it all a bit resting. We decided it was about half and half, and felt smug to numbers ourselves among the intrepid good guys.
It was nevertheless a distinct pleasure to reconnect with a comfortable bed after several nights under canvas, and the place to recuperate is Tiger Mountain Pokhara Lodge, with in an easy drive of the trekking route. It is a part of the famous Tiger Tops group, which owns many of their nicer hangouts in Nepal, and has a happy , laidback vibe , with roaring fires in the public rooms, and views from the terrace of the soaring fishtail spire of Machapuchare,We kicked back round the pool and enjoyed exceptional massages on our post-trek leg muscles. Our fellow guests were predominantly hip, young and affluent Indian couples, plus the Prada and Chanel supermodel Saskia de Brauw, who has chosen the hotel as some you would never meet anyone form the fashion or magazine worlds.
Even more glamorous and remote was Karnali Lodge, at Bardai, then the showpiece Tiger Tops property, since their more famous lodge at Chitwan was temporarily closed at the time. Posotioned in a jungle clearing on the edge of a national park in far south-western Nepal, close to the Indian border, it belongs to the charismatic half-British, half-Iceland Kristjan Edwards and his beautiful Danish wife Stine.Kristjan is a son of the legendary conservationist Jim Edwards, who practically invented eco-tourism, and Tiger Tops is undergoing a renaissance, with new rooms and big ambition.
A dozen elephants live at the camp, and these can be ridden sedately along the jungle paths or washed in the river, and are available for elephant polo at a moment’s notice; the Old Etonian polo team had recently played at Karnali,as would the Coleridges. A fleet of jeeps is on stand by to bumps guests round the national parks (tigers,leopards,numerous monkeys)or on village safaris. In-camp action takes place in a thatched central sitting rooms, somewhat minimalist in style and chic; the food in impressively good for this remote spot. The lodge has a strong eco vibe: solar power, organic veg straight from the garden and low-wattage eco-bulbs in the bedrooms, which make it hard to read. A highlight is a boat trip down a stretch of the Karnali River, which runs from Tibet into India and eventually feeds the Ganges. It was magical to be rowed along this mighty waterway, past flocks of cormorants, crocodile and freshwater dolphins, to arrive at a glamorous Raj picnic set up on a sandy river-beach, with half a dozen beaming lodge waiters standing on attention.
Katmandu, the capital, is a sprawling city these days – it has doubled in population in a generation. Its architectural treasures are being encroached an buy ugly development; as at the pyramids at Giza, you simply have to blank out the white noise of progress and suck it up. The palaces and Buddhist stupas remain stupendous, for all that, and the World Heritage wonders at Patan,a short drive away, are utterly unspoilt.In Kathamndu, the place to stay is the Dwarika’s, a faux-heritage hotel built from reclaimed architectural fragments of old buildings, artfully done so it feels authentic. It’s the de facto meeting spot for anyone passing through town. It also contains Kathmandu’s only Japanese sushi restaurant, a remarkably convincing venture for a landlocked nation ringed by impassable mountains a thousand kilometer from the nearest sea.
BOOK IT Cazenove + Loyd(cazloyd.com;020 7384 2332) offers 12 nights in Nepal from £3,360 a head, including: private transfers: domestic flights: three nights ’B&B at Dwarika’s a day with a private guide in Kathmandu: three nights on an all- inclusive private-tented and sherpa-supported trek with an expert guide: two nights, full board, at Tiger Mountain Pokhara Lodge; and four nights, full board, at Karnali Lodge.Jet Airways (jetairways.com) flies from London to Kathmandu £750.