Although there are numerous points from which you can admire the Himalayas at a distance of 50 miles or so — the view of Kanchenjunga from Darjeeling is a classic example — seeing the giant peaks and glaciers up close invariably requires a trek.
We have long thought that there must be somewhere an enterprising hotelier could build a small, upscale lodge that was relatively easy to get to and that offered a really dramatic Himalayan view. It was therefore with considerable interest that we read flattering reports in both a leading financial newspaper and a prominent U.S. travel magazine about 360° Leti, a lodge situated at 7,700 feet in the Kumaon region of the Indian Himalayas. 360° Leti was said to combine a memorable location and a high level of creature comfort with a refined design by the prominent Indian architect, Bijoy Jain.
The easiest way to reach the lodge is by a one-hour charter flight from Delhi to Pithoragarh, from where it is a four-hour drive to the village of Leti. However, we had opted for a walk in the foothills near the old hill station of Almora, so we proceeded the whole way overland. (For a full account of our walk, visit Hideaway Report Online.)
Our five-hour drive from Almora to Leti passed through an idyllic landscape of pine forests, terraced fields and precipitous gorges. It was only when we drew within a few miles of Leti that we realized things were not going to turn out as expected. Recently, the Indian government has become paranoid about the intentions of its newly self-confident Chinese neighbor. As a result, it has begun a manic road-building program in order to tie remote mountain regions more securely to the Indian plains. The single-track roads themselves may be insignificant, but they have to be blasted out of the hills, which has a horribly disfiguring effect on the landscape.
360° Leti itself turned out to be an island in the midst of a temporary construction site. Swallowing our disappointment and frustration, we followed our guide to one of the three guest cottages. These are built of glass and an attractive gray stone, and somehow manage to appear both traditional and vaguely modernist at the same time. Each has a grass terrace and a sunken fire pit. The interiors come with duvet-covered king-size beds, pashmina blankets, slate floors covered by sheepskin rugs, and woodburning stoves. The spacious baths have copper basins and excellent showers with abundant hot water, but no electricity. Overall, our cottage struck us as comfortable and, in a minimalist way, stylish. But luxurious it certainly was not. It also seemed to us that maintenance might currently be on hold awaiting completion of the road, as our canvas roof was badly stained and the exterior woodwork in dire need of a coat of varnish.
Dinner that evening was served in the main lodge building, another austere stone-and-glass structure. However, the flames of a log fire augmented the glow of flickering candles, a smiling Tibetan chef had prepared a meal of delicious Indian food, and the service proved charming and surprisingly professional. 360° Leti, we decided, was turning into one of those infuriating places that is disappointing and delightful in turn.
Dawn did nothing to dispel this judgment. At 6 a.m., we rolled up the blinds to discover a cloudless sky and a mountain view that was, well, rather underwhelming. The only Himalayan peak visible from the lodge itself is Dangthal, which at 19,850 feet barely counts as a mountain at all in the Himalayas. To see the main range, it seemed, would require a strenuous hike up a steep hill behind the lodge. So, accompanied by a Nepalese guide, we set out. Having not been in the Himalayas for some years, we had forgotten just how much effort is required to ascend from 7,500 to 11,000 feet in just over three hours. But we made it, and slumping down onto a patch of dry grass, we gazed across at the sensational line of giant peaks and glaciers centered on the 25,643-foot summit of Nanda Devi.
To the end of our stay, 360° Leti remained an enigma. Currently, it cannot be recommended. But when the scars of road construction have faded — which will take at least three monsoons — and assuming the owner provides the funds for needed refurbishment, it could be a candidate for a return visit. Meanwhile, we have resolved once again not to believe everything we read in glossy travel magazines!
360° LETI 84 Cottage, $1,825 per person for a three-night minimum stay (All meals, beverages, activities and car transfers to Almora included). Tel. 91-124-456-3899.
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