Unwind, Vehicle Free in Matheran, India

Fresh air abounds at this historic mountain village near Mumbai where all mechanized transport is banned.


Mumbai’s heat and blaring traffic can be wearing. But in Matheran, India, a jungle-covered mountaintop community 60 miles away, there is no mechanized transport. Not even bikes are allowed, and even the Ferris wheel in its park is powered by human muscle. This British colonial-era hill station resort has breathable air, blissful quiet, heart-stopping views and something else I love—fabulous old houses.

When I went to Matheran, instead of horns and motors I heard drums and chants from distant villages, and the howls of monkeys. As I strolled, I feasted my eyes on the huge, gloriously ornate bungalows. Mostly ruins now, these were once holiday homes for the elite of Bombay, long before it was called Mumbai. I even stayed in one that had been beautifully restored.

Up the Mountain on a “Toy Train”

Since 1907, the preferred way to get up to Matheran has been on the Matheran Hill Railway, a narrow gauge train from the town of Neral. It’s only 12 miles, but with the steep slope and numerous switchbacks, the scenic ride takes two hours. You can also go by car, but no farther than the Dasturi Car Park down the hill (about a 40-minute walk to town).

However you arrive, you’ll be surrounded by touts offering your choice of horses, bearers, luggage carts or rickshaws. I chose a rickshaw, and haggled for a fare of Rs250 ($5) to my hotel, the Verandah in the Forest. I had no idea how far that was. In fact, it took two men a full hour to get me there—one pulling, one pushing.

I quickly forgot the challenges of travel in India when I finally arrived. Built in 1852, the house has soaring interiors with French doors, intricate fretwork and stained glass detailing. I stepped onto a long, wide, tiled veranda furnished with ceiling fans and planter’s chairs. I was handed a cold, gingery lemonade and an antique ledger book into which I entered my personal details.

Just below, a stony garden sloped away, set with curlicue iron chairs and marble-topped tables. I could hear birds and the calls of families playing at a nearby lake hidden by surrounding trees.

Under Cover of Jungle

Matheran, with a population of fewer than 6,000 people, is located at an altitude of about 2,500 feet, in the Sahyadri Mountains. The place is less a town than a settlement strung along a forested ridge. There is a village center, where the lanes are closely lined with restaurants, shops and small hotels.

A skein of rocky, unpaved paths loop away through the woods. They lead past the crumbling entry gates to the old bungalows. On gateposts were names like “Belle Vue” and “Mon Repos.” Some houses were out of sight in the woods, but many of those I could see were derelict. Only a couple of them operate as hotels.

Eventually the lanes lead you out to some two dozen view points, where the terrain drops off sharply. In some directions, you see only the pinnacles and blades of eroded mountains, green valleys and plains, terraced rice fields and tile-roofed villages. Far to the west you can glimpse the snaking estuaries that flow into Mumbai’s bay. It’s said that at night the glow of the huge city is visible. But I declined to venture through the woods to the cliffs in the dark.

After two restful days, I departed the Verandah in the Forest as I had arrived, by rickshaw. This time I had three guys pulling and pushing, with a fourth balancing my suitcase on his head. At the parking lot, I hired a taxi back to Mumbai. That was a three-hour trip, down the twisting mountain road, across verdant lowland countryside and through increasingly dense suburbs into the throbbing city. But my repose in Matheran kept me mellow until I left for home four days later.

If You Go

For the Matheran toy train schedule from Neral Junction, visit the Indian Railways Web site.

There are several small Mathern hotels, but none as classy as the Verandah in the Forest. Its scrupulously clean rooms range from Rs2000 ($40) to Rs6000 ($121) per room per night. A lavish breakfast buffet and excellent Indian lunch are each Rs300 ($6). Dinner, by candlelight at a long table seating 18, is Rs700 ($14). The menu is generically Western, but you can request Indian food instead.

Barr House, Matheran 410 102, District Raigarh, Maharashtra. Tel. +91-2148-230296. 

Lord’s Central Hotel, in the village center, has lovely gardens and a pool, and a cliffside location with amazing views. Lodging is Rs1600 to 2300 ($32 to $46) per person per day, including all meals. (Non-guests can arrange to dine there, and the food is excellent; stop by beforehand to reserve.)

Lord’s Central Hotel, Matheran 410102, Maharashtra. Tel. +91 2148-230228.  

Destinations: India

Themes: Mountain Vacations, Outdoor Adventures

Activities: Hiking, Sightseeing

User Comments

Matheran great and most preferred Hill station by Mumbai and Pune Tourist..I recently visited this beautiful place on Bike..Though vehicles are not allowed in main Matheran town, they are allowed till the entrance of Matheran.The ghats to Matheran is really amazing to ride, which take us to Matheran through beautiful green mountains and rolling waterfalls.. _india/maharashtra/hill_stations/matheran.html

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