“ Location: Patel Nagar, Niranjanpur, Saharanpur road, Dehradun Uttarakhand, India / Hotel in the Himalayan city of Dehra Dun. „
~I'm a Mountain Girl at Heart~
When my sister Aileen and her girlfriend Joyce decided that the only way they'd go to India was if my husband and I took them with us, the gauntlet was thrown down to me to come up with an itinerary that would work for all of us. The obvious thing would have been to drag them round the well-worn route of the so-called golden triangle - Delhi, Agra, Jaipur - or further into Rajastan. However, we'd done that all before (I'd done bits twice over) and I knew that the extreme 'in your face-ness' of Rajastan would be more than they could handle. Instead I came up with a pretty weird route that would take us into Delhi, up to the foothills of the Himalayas, back to Delhi and down to Aurangabad, the closest city for visiting the ancient cave temples of Ellora and Ajanta. Then of course we have a few days back in Delhi for some retail therapy.
Getting to the mountains is always a bit of a challenge. We'd been to Shimla three years ago and had pretty much covered all there was to do there. Then two years ago we'd gone to Darjeeling - one of the most fantastic cities on earth but expensive to get to and quite time consuming. I checked my guidebook for Himalayan India went for the easy option and booked trains to Dehradun. It's not actually 'in' the Himalayas but a good jumping off point from which to access the hill station of Mussoorie.
~What's in a Name?~
I was a little bit in love with the name. Dehradun sounded like a mystical town clinging to the banks of a Scottish loch. Perhaps I'd got it muddled up with Brigadoon - even the locals call it by the nickname 'Doon'. The lilting sound of the name was decidedly enticing. I knew it was the home of India's finest military academy and also the place where well-to-do Indians send their children for exclusive and expensive private education. I was thinking 'Sandhurst meets Eton'. It was only when I'd already booked our train tickets that I set about finding a hotel and realised that the same accessibility that drew us to the city has probably destroyed whatever charm the place once had. When I was trying to find out where the hotels were, I realised (thanks to google maps) that this was no small town. I'd just booked us a trip to a sprawling messy monster with a population of nearly half a million.Dehradun calls itself the Queen of the Hills which is hard to see today. It's barely even worthy of a minor money-grabbing royal like Princess Michael. It's big, noisy, dirty and - so far as we could tell - almost entirely lacking in charm.
I narrowed down the choices to four hotels. One ignored my enquiry, one came back so cheap that I was concerned for the quality, one was a tad on the pricey side for what was on offer and that left the Doon Castle. I'd already learned from Tripadvisor that this was their top user-rated hotel in Dehradun. That seemed good enough for us.
~Not like Windsor Castle~
As hotel names go, Doon Castle fits nicely with my imaginary Scottish location. And just as my imaginary little town is actually a sprawling, noisy, scruffy place, my castle is far from castle-like which is OK because I booked it with my eyes wide open. I knew that it was a modern place located on a rather noisy T-junction in the south of the city. The traffic is pretty bad from about 7 am until around 11 pm, especially if you are on the road-end of the hotel. However, it's fair to say that most of metropolitan India sounds exactly like this and soon the duck-quacks of auto-rickshaw horns, the revving of motorbikes and the general hustle and bustle become no more intrusive than the sound of your ceiling fan or air con unit.
If we made a mistake it was perhaps in booking in this part of town when our prime reason for visiting the city was to go north into the mountains. It took about 40 minutes just to get across Dehradun to the road to Mussoorie. Also there was very little around our hotel itself - a scruffy looking market, a shop flogging snow-white chickens from little cages and a unisex hairdressers in a lock-up over the road.
We arrived at the railway station at about 9.30 on a Sunday evening. The area in front of the station was filled with taxis and auto-rickshaws but nobody seemed particularly interested in us. That's unusual - not that we consider ourselves spectacularly interesting, but tourists are usually viewed as wallets with legs. Perhaps not in Dehradun.
A pair of young guys approached us smiling and waggling their heads in greeting. I asked them if they knew the Doon Castle hotel. The one who seemed to be in charge said something back to me that left me baffled and waggled his head in that uniquely Indian 'maybe I do, maybe I don't' sort of way. I asked again - he repeated back 'Hotel' and I thought to myself that he could be about to take us just about anywhere. I got out the booking details, showed him the address, established that the hotel was already booked. He repeated parts of the address, nodded more clearly and smiled. "How much?" I asked and when he said 100 rupees (about £1.30) we agreed to go with him and loaded our bags and ourselves into his Piaggio auto-rickshaw.
Fortunately, Dehradun is a town of big autorickshaws that will take four European-sized adults and four big bags. Less fortunately, this chap's vehicle had a back seat that wasn't properly attached and no suspension. We hared through the late evening streets bouncing up and down and banging against random bits of sticky-out metal. I was very pleased to arrive.
It's quite a small hotel with just a ground floor and two more above. I doubt they have more than 2 dozen rooms. The hotel stands on its own plot with a small car park at the front. I've read reviews that say it has a nice garden - I think the person who wrote that was somewhere else or thought a dozen pot plants on the terrace constituted rather more than we did. It's a clean looking place with a smart little reception and smiley reception staff whom we more or less understood and who more or less understood us. We went through the usual check in rigmarole with passports and lots of paperwork and were issued with keys for rooms 201 and 202 on the second floor. At the moment this is the top floor although there's an intriguing staircase at the end of the 2nd that leads up to.....nothing at all. Perhaps one day there will be a 3rd floor but for now the flat roof above the 2nd floor is giving them some serious problems.
The hotel is in the middle of a renovation - or perhaps more accurately a repair - programme at the moment and we passed lots of small men squatting in the ground floor corridors repairing the walls and glimpses through slightly ajar doors to some of the rooms showed that work was going on inside. Despite this we weren't disturbed by noise inside the hotel from any ongoing work.
A porter grabbed two of our bags and we carried the others up to the second floor. If you don't travel with a manageable quantity of luggage, it's worth being aware that there's no lift. Our rooms were right on the front of the hotel and I suspect this was because we'd booked 'king-sized' rooms and these were all at the front. There was awful music piped into the corridor which gave me some cause for concern but they turned it off when my husband asked for it to be turned down later in the evening.
Our room was large with a laminate floor (much easier to keep clean than carpet) and decorated in shades of brown and beige. The bed was so enormous that it was like my husband and I were sleeping in different time zones. It came with clean sheets both on the bottom and above (believe me - not something you can take for granted) and was decorated with a brown and gold shiny bedspread over a thick woollen blanket. There was a wooden headboard and two matching bedside tables, each with a fairly dodgy looking fringed lamp with an even dodgier electrical connection. The curtains were in a shade of oatmeal and covered a large window that overlooked the street outside and was great for people watching - or more accurately people, traffic, goats and pig-watching,.
We also had a small coffee table and two chairs which came in handy at breakfast time since this was only available in the room. Additionally there was a desk with a large TV set, a mirror over the desk, a tea and coffee tray and a fridge-sized cupboard (without a fridge inside). A small wardrobe was squeezed into a corner of the room. The air-con unit blew straight over the bed and rattled like only a developing world A/C unit can. The ceiling fan was much more to our taste and didn't wobble, which is always a bonus when you're lying underneath wondering what damage a rapidly rotating blade could do if it fell off the ceiling.
The bathroom was clean but a bit warm. There was a proper bath with a well powered shower over it and ample hot water day and night. The sink unit was surrounded with an attractive red granite work top which offered lots of space. Shampoo and soap was provided as well as a branded Doon Castle comb. Toilet paper ran out on the first evening and we used our own tissues after that. The lighting was OK but a bit tricky to fathom out where the main switch was. Towels were small but clean and bright white.
~Damp, Damned Damp~
The hotel has a big problem with damp on the 2nd floor especially on the even-numbered rooms. Luckily we had room 201 and although we could pick up a slightly damp smell (what I think of as the 'smell of India' since it was pretty much all I smelled on my first visit to the country 14 years ago) it wasn't enough to really impact on our ability to be in the room. My sister's room - 202 - was awful. It really did stink and even the bedding felt moist. The menu that had been left on the coffee table have visible dampness on it and the cupboard in the corner of the room had both black mould (which was on a lot of the walls) and even MUSHROOMS growing inside. After we'd had our dinner I urged her to ask the hotel to give her another room. She should have tried earlier because it was almost midnight by the time she was trying to negotiate a move and it was a local holiday too, so nobody really wanted to be there so late. They didn't have another room ready and available but promised to move them the next day.
~Food and Drink~
We arrived around 10 pm and had been told that dinner service ended at 11 so we dropped our bags and headed straight down to eat. My sister's face was a picture when she asked the waiter for beer and he gave her a 'does not compute' face and offered her mineral water. We later discovered that the restaurant doesn't have a license, but if you ask the manager nicely he'll send a 'boy' out to the off-license to get some for you. You just have to keep the bottles under the table and not get too rowdy. If offered a beer collection service, it's worth knowing that the local brand is called Godfather - it's guaranteed to make you wake up feeling like there's a horse's head in your bed - and comes in two strengths. The true Godfather is about 8 or 9 % alcohol so I recommend to ask for the 'Light' beer which still packs a 5% punch.
On the first night we ordered starters, rice and garlic naans and four different vegetable curries. We also had lime sodas and lassis. The service was 'far from elegant' as my sister commented when the waiter threw a fork at her but luckily the food was more reliable. My husband and I had tomato egg-drop soup to start which he loved but I found a bit disappointing. It was like Heinz tomato soup with scrambled egg in it. My sister and her girlfriend went for a mixed vegetarian tandoori platter which looked great and included tandoori mushrooms, paneer, stuffed potatoes and some rissole-like things.
Our four curries included palak paneer (spinach and cheese - I always order that), Dal Tadka (I usually get that too), a stuffed potato Kashmiri dish which was new to all of us and was served in a tomato-rich gravy and a Navratan korma which looked like vomit and tasted like slightly curried fruit salad. If I'd have cut one dish, it would have been the korma as the other three were all excellent. The two portions of rice were more than enough for four of us and we had two very tasty garlic naans with so much garlic on them that we thought we'd died and gone to garlic heaven. All of this plus a couple of bottles of water and the drinks came to 1250 rupees - a shade under £20 split four ways.
Whilst this might have sounded like a bit of a bargain, our dinner on the second night cost just 550 rupees (about £8 - again split four ways) for two biryanis - one mutton, one veg - and two dals with three garlic naans and a couple of bottles of water. Portion sizes were the most generous we found anywhere during our first week in India. The beer hidden under our table had cost us 80 rupees a bottle which we knew to be the going rate since my sister had bought some earlier at a liquor store (and caused a bit of a commotion by doing so - nice ladies, certainly 'pinkie' ladies don't go to liquor stores). We tipped the chap who went to the off license with enough for an extra bottle.
As promised, when we got back from our day trip to Mussoorie (organised for us by the hotel for £30 for the day for a car and a very good driver), they had a new room available and my sister moved to 101 which turned out to be a very nice room and not the place where all the things you most fear are kept. They were delighted with their new room and any bad feeling about the mould-palace of the night before were soon forgotten.The hotel arranged a car to take us to our next destination, offering a choice of whether we wanted to go straight there for 1700 rupees or go sightseeing on the way for 700 more. We opted for the latter but the driver - who never did seem to spot that we didn't understand a word of whatever language he was speaking - was stressed from losing his driving license. We only found this out after he took us to a petrol station where my husband found someone who understood both him and the driver who helped by explaining that the guy was scared silly about being caught driving without his license which he'd left somewhere earlier in the day. As it happened the sightseeing didn't materialise because the driver was so stressed but I think it was probably for the best since there was no way he could have told us what he was showing us.
Mussoorie was lovely and well worth a day trip and in terms of getting there, driving up from Dehradun was a solid option. The hotel was on the wrong side of town for going up into the mountains, but conversely the perfect side of town for our onward journey to Rishikesh - you win some, you lose some.
The hotel is clean, friendly and the rooms are of a good quality - but I suggest to write ahead and tell them you absolutely don't want any of the even-numbered rooms on the second floor. We paid a little extra for our king-sized rooms but the doubles also looked to be a good size so there's probably no need to pay the higher price. Our room rate worked out at about £25 a night for each room and I booked directly with the hotel on a deal where the second night was charged at 40% less than the first. We felt that was a good price for the quality involved.
Whilst I'm going to struggle to recommend going to Dehradun for more than a day or two (and only then for escaping to the mountains) if you do need a room in this city, the Doon Castle is a good choice.