I went to Mahabaleshwar this past weekend and stayed at the Dina Hotel, a Parsi-run inn with pretty gardens, impeccable service, and antiquated charm. A wooden wall calendar hung in the dining room and classical music was the soundtrack for every meal.
Mahabaleshwar in the mist is what we went to see, hoping the hill station would have emptied out, the rain turning the town upside down, causing people to flee from the heavy, cloudy sky.
But though the days were wonderfully gloomy, the red earth remained dusty and dry, keeping the town relatively active for this time of year. When we walked into the reservations office of the Dina Hotel, a man, his wavy gray hair combed to the side, peered up at us over his glasses, grunted, and then leafed through a large reservations book, its pages furled by damp.
The enclosed balcony in front of our room overlooked the carefully tended gardens. On our right was a playground with a few pieces of happily painted equipment; my favorite was the forlorn swingset with its lonely bucket seats.
We ate a few decent meals at Dina (breakfast, lunch, dinner and tea were included in the price of the room) but didn’t agree with the assessment of our neighbor, Paras, who, after extending an invitation to partake in his evening balcony spread of whiskey and “bites,” told us that he and his wife found the food at Dina “awesome.”
We did have a remarkably light chole one evening, and on our first lunch, the snowy dahi vadas sprinkled with freckles of the brightest red chili powder were nutty and airy. We also enjoyed the racier version of the traditional baked beans on toast, spiked with onions and spicy like pav bhaji.
Chai, unfortunately, was not Dina Hotel’s strong point. When we stirred milk into the weak English tea, flat, glossy fat bubbles skimmed the surface of our cup. We asked for tea boiled with milk but even that tasted insipid, though infinitely more palatable than the other watery concoction.
At Brightland Holiday Village’s restaurant, The Olive Garden(!), we ate delicious thin crust pizzas, both topped with our choices: one olive, mushroom and garlic combination and one green onion, tomato and green chili pie.
We sat outside both nights we had dinner there and the patio, slick with the sheen of rain, reflected lights in a blur. The hotel, busy during the day with screaming kids splashing in the pool, was much more pleasant at our 10:30 dinner time.
The paneer tikka that we got as an appetizer one night was served on a portable tava (stove) with skinny loops of red onion and a fresh mint chutney. Our pesto pasta was cooked with an over enthusiastic amount of garlic, but the pine nuts, Parmesan and sun dried tomatoes helped balance the dish.
At the Gymkhana we played table tennis and, along with the flies that settled on every available damp space, enjoyed a hot afternoon snack of chips (fries, but apparently not as good as they usually are) and spicy ketch-up with our chai.
Despite the rain outside, a few men insisted on playing tennis on the puddle stained courts. Hm, wet balls.
We wandered through the Mahabaleshwar market, stumbling across gems like Elsie’s Bakery, where the pastries resembled the ancient cake collages framed on the walls.
We also walked past a game where the grand prizes included a gigantic boombox and a boxy portable television for those kids skilled enough to roll the ball into the right slot.
My favorite among the places we ate was the Bagicha Corner, a strawberry and corn farm with covered outdoor seating and a store that sold bizarre glass figurines.
We shared a Makkai Frankie (Makkai=corn) and a Makkai Cheese Frankie, crispy, flaky rolls oozing with sweet corn, onions, green pepper and garlic. I preferred the plain frankie because the cheese was too buttery and salty and overrode the fresh corn taste.
For dessert we shared a tall glass of strawberry juice and one of strawberries and cream, in which sliced strawberries were tucked between scoops of strawberry ice cream and fluffy sweet cream.
Such meals can make me fall in love.