“ Address: Left Bank / Aleo / New Manali / 175 131 / Himachal Pradesh „
~It's a Long Way to Tipperary - but not as far as to Manali~
Manali is not the sort of place you find yourself in accidentally. It's so cut off from the rest of the world that you have to make a very conscious decision to go there. In our case it was a two day drive from Delhi and one of the highlights of our trip to Himachal Pradesh. We drove one day to Shimla, spent two nights there and then headed on to Manali.
After an eight hour drive from Shimla to Manali we were happy to eventually arrive at the hotel but perhaps slightly disappointed when we realised that the company who'd arranged our itinerary had succeeded - yet again - in putting us in a hotel which was quite a long way from the action. The town of Manali sits in a high altitude river valley with most of the town's buildings and attractions on the Right Bank of the river (as the water flows downstream). We of course, found ourselves on the Left Bank considerably more than a stroll from the town. We were less bothered when we realised that it was going to be SO cold at night that wild horses probably couldn't have dragged us out of the hotel to go in search of entertainment.
Things were not as bad as we'd expected. The BBC weather channel can be blamed for warning us that the temperatures could dip as low as minus 10C at the end of October. Thankfully that was an exaggeration - although it might have been true in the mountains around Manali - but it was certainly cold and the hotel was not well set up to deal with cold. I find this remarkable considering that it's a fact of life for many months a year. In a town where the peak season is the summer when people are actively hunting down somewhere cool, we were disappointed but not too surprised to discover that the hotels had no heating. No fear, we were prepared - not one but two hot water bottles had found their way into the bottom of my husband's bag. He even thought to bring our rather bulky furry hot water bottle cover, a young bear by the name of Mohammed (named after the bear who caused the scandal in the Sudan when a school teacher gave him that name). In Manali, Mohammed would be our best friend.
We arrived shortly before dark, driving up the river valley and passing the white water rafting sites, the weavers' cooperative superstore, and the angora bunny farms all of which were about 40 minutes from the town. I wish we'd been paying more attention to the last of those three as we were to be plagued by women with bunnies during our stay and it would have been nice to see how they were being treated in their homes. We drove into Manali, eyeing up the streets with shops and restaurants and plenty of hustle and bustle. Then the driver took us straight past them, drove the wrong way over a one-way bridge and started heading down the other river bank, eventually delivering us to the hotel. The drive meant we knew there was nothing around the hotel for us to wander off and explore.
We pulled up a side road and into the car park at Sun Park Resort. As a brief aside, I still have absolutely no idea what features are required for an Indian hotel to style itself as a 'resort'. There has been very little in common between the many 'resort' hotels we've stayed in and this one did seem the least resort-like of the lot.
The hotel stands on a flat plot of land set back from the main road which keeps road noise at bay but right next to a building site which has the potential to disturb the peace. Fortunately we barely noticed it as we were out and about most of the time when the builders would have been working. On the other side was a muddy field that had the potential to also become a building site. If that did happen, you could forget bothering to stay at the Sun Park since it would most likely block out the main reason for being there - the very lovely view. Well it's a lovely view if you look up, and a not so lovely view if you look down at the mud and piles of rubble and the row of hovel-like homes where the builders appeared to be living. Call me weird if you like, but I love to be able to sit and watch the local families going about their daily lives, washing the kids under a freezing cold hose-pipe, cooking their dinner on an old stove and things like that.
The hotel has a second building just on the other side of a narrow lane and this didn't seem to be occupied during our stay. I would guess they huddled all the guests into one building in the hope of us not freezing to death.
Just outside the entrance to the reception there were some swing chairs and tables and chairs for soaking up the sun but in early November, there wasn't too much of it. The weather was cold but the reception from the front desk guys was warm and friendly and we more or less understood each other. At this point we were on day 3 with Mr Singh the driver and were still communicating by grunted monosyllables. The desk guys helped him to explain to us that he couldn't take us to the Rohtang Pass the next day because only cars with local Himachal Pradesh number plates were allowed on the road but he would arrange a driver for us. He suggested we left at 5 am and I suggested he reconsider his suggestion - well that's probably how he interpreted my explosive noise of disbelief. The front desk guys explained that the barrier that closes the road to traffic at night would not be raised until about nine in the morning and suggested we leave at 7.30 am instead. The deal was done.
Check in was quite straightforward. We handed over our passports and got our room key. A little old man who was tough and wiry grabbed Tony's bag and headed up the stairs before running down to get mine. The hotel has no lift so if you aren't too good on stairs, have pushchairs or any other complications, you might want to choose another hotel. Keep in mind that two flights of stairs at 2000m above sea level feels like a lot more than it does at home. When Tony realised that he only had quite a high denomination note with which to tip the porter, he decided to get him to run a few extra errands before tipping him. He sent him to fill Mohammed the hot water bottle, bring back our passports and arrange for a couple of bottles of water. Jobs done, the porter left us with a big tip and an even bigger smile.
Mentioning the stairs, I should admit that I was very taken with the use of decorative stone on the staircase. As an ex-geologist, I notice such things. The stairs between reception and the first floor were a rather uninspired pink granite whilst the next flight were a fabulously swirly pink and white marble. I was tempted to head up to the top of the building and see if each flight had it's own stone but not enough to actually do it. I also noticed that all the pictures hanging on the staircase and in our room, were without exception hung crooked. Indian pictures are almost always struggling with the horizontal and I am like a one-woman frame-straightening zephyr.
~Most definitely a room with a view~
Room 204 was on the corner of the building with a balcony overlooking the car park (not so exciting) and enormous windows overlooking the hills (and the previously mentioned slum and piles of mud). I was really happy to have a view and we spent a lot of time enjoying it. The room was large and had clearly been recently redecorated with a rather distinctive style which mimicked something the Changing Rooms television show might have churned out in the mid 80's. Outrageously flouncy curtains with swags, tails and tassels? Check. Single wall with 'feature' wall paper? Check. Ridiculously dark lampshades on the bedside lights through which light could barely fight its way out? Check. Only one available electrical socket in the entire room? Check that too. We had giggle fits which had to be suppressed whilst the porter was in the room but erupted out as soon as he had gone.
The bed was large and surprisingly soft but very comfortable. Each side of the bed had a good sized table with a pink granite top. On the wall adjoining the bathroom there was a dressing table with a big mirror over, again with a pink granite top. Two arm chairs and a coffee table were placed in front of the picture windows and if we'd been strange enough to want to look out over the car park instead of over the mountains, there was a small balcony with table and chairs. A small shelf held a flat screen television with a wide range of channels including several in English. If we'd been inclined to unpack our bags, there was plenty of wardrobe and drawer space.
The bathroom was clean but had a slightly damp odour. We were surprised that for the second time in a row, we had a hotel bathroom with a bath rather than just a shower. That was nothing compared to the surprise at discovering that there was actually a plug in the bath. Admittedly the water looked like it had already been used probably due to the local vegetation, but it was piping hot at all times and the pressure was good. The vanity unit was large and made of grey granite.
~Cold, damned cold~
Shortly after we arrived the sun went down and the temperature started to drop. We quickly realised that even Mohammed wasn't going to be able to keep us warm and we'd need an extra blanket. I'd read reviews of the hotel before we arrived and I knew that other guests had moaned about two key things. One of these was being charged for a room heater and the other was only having one socket - which of course meant if you plugged in a heater, you had no spare socket at all. We decided not to ask for a heater but we did manage to get an additional big thick fleecy blanket which was exactly what we needed.
~Feeding our faces~
We ate in the restaurant each evening, partly because our deal included dinner but mostly because we were a long way out of the town and didn't think it would be easy to get out. The restaurant was really cold on the first night which wasn't surprising as the main doors to the reception area stood wide open with the staff behind the desk shivering as they stood there. Quite why anyone thought the place might look more welcoming by turning reception into a cold storage room was anyone's guess.
We were on a scheme which Indian hotels call MAP - or Modified American Plan. That's a fancy expression for what we would call 'half board'. In our first hotel we'd been given a restricted menu but at the Sun Park we had absolutely no idea what we could or couldn't have and even by the third night we still didn't really understand what was going on. When we asked for things that we didn't actually get, we weren't sure if they'd just not understood us or had taken a decision to not let us have them. Who knows? I can only say we didn't go hungry. The waiter who looked after us most of the time seemed quite concerned that we hadn't ordered enough food and also seemed surprised we didn't want any meat dishes. On the first night we had a spicy soup, followed by Aloo Gobi and Paneer Sagwalla with boiled rice and a hot crisp butter nan and finished things off with hot Gulab Jamun. Indian food lovers will be saying to themselves "That was pretty predictable" and I'll admit it was. My husband had fallen in love with Aloo Gobi in the previous hotel and was on a mission to compare the two restaurant kitchens. On the second and third night we skipped the soup and went for dishes off the Chinese menu with a really good vegetable Manchurian (one of Indian Chinese food's real classics - basically vegetable dumplings in spicy sauce) and spicy crisp cauliflower. The hot Gulab Jamun was trotted out and consumed every night - how can you resist?
Most evenings only one or two other tables were taken and we observed that the local guests seemed much keener to eat in their rooms than in the restaurant. We also observed that turning up in all your outdoor clothes in order to avoid freezing was entirely acceptable.
Breakfast each morning was pretty good although we did fall back on the standard Indian holiday tactic of omelette every morning. Even if we thought we wouldn't, the waiters seemed so keen we should have omelettes that we just gave in and went with the flow. On the second and third mornings there was a breakfast buffet (I think on day one we were just in too early and they hadn't set up). Indian breakfast takes some getting used to but we rather enjoyed the puri bhaji and there were bottles of spectacularly gorgeous apple juice on the buffet. My morning requests for a flask of boiling water (to make my own coffee) were dealt with calmly and without any raised eyebrows. Maybe that's not surprising when they'd already got used to us asking them for hot water to fill Mohammed.
The location was not really where I would have chosen to be but being out of the centre meant it was very quiet and peaceful. The hotel was cold a lot of the time but so's my house most of the time so I'm quite used to that and once we had the extra blanket we were fine. The staff were great throughout our stay and I really couldn't fault the service we received, none of which was of the 'loitering around waiting for a tip' type. The restaurant menu got a bit dull by the third night but that would happen in most hotels. The quality of our room was good, there was plenty of hot water and I really enjoyed our three night stay. There were enough quirky things to keep us amused and I would happily recommend Sun Park Manali.
I don't know what our three nights cost as they were part of a ten night package that we arranged with a local company. My best guess is that most of our hotels were around £30 to £40 per night including dinner and this was probably also in that range.