Winter is, undoubtedly, the best season to tour and discover India. If oppressive heat and downpour hinders travelling in summer and monsoon, winter beckons with its agreeable clime and rain-free allure. It also holds the ticket to ride a perfect vacation - and, revitalise your mind, body, and soul.
Auli, India's premiere ski resort, is located at a height of 9,500-10,500 ft in Uttaranchal. It is laden with snowy slopes against the breathtaking backdrop of azure skies. The cold and fresh mountain air is sweetly scented with pine. Swoop down the slopes on skis to be hauled up by the ski lift for a great, exciting ride down the mountain. Skiing courses are available for beginners, just as much as skis for kids, who also love building their own snowman. Check out Auli's temples and hot springs, and enjoy its spiritual ambience. Legend has it that the great sage, Adi Shankaracharya, attained enlightenment [moksha] here.
This archetypal hill station, though bone-chillingly cold in winter, is the ideal place if you want to "capture" snow. The snow generally sets in December draping Shimla in white for the whole of January. Spend your vacation exploring Shimla's temples, churches, colonial mansions and markets.
McLeod Ganj, located in close proximity to Dharmasala, is the headquarters of the Tibetan government in exile and the residence of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama. This tourist hub has friendly Tibetan monks, Buddhist meditation centres, and health clubs offering alternative therapies, quaint gompas and Tibetan handicraft. An added winter attraction is the Tibetan New Year celebrated in December, or January, with the Dalai Lama presenting week-long teachings.
This Assamese terrain of blue hills, green rivers and waterfalls goes through its "fruitful season" between October and February. Indeed, winter is the time to explore Haflong's orange orchards and pineapple gardens. Wild orchids bloom in the jungles and leopards prowl in its surrounding forests.
Well-known for its crispy cold winters, this Rajasthani hill station is a unique destination for pilgrimage, trekking, boating and bird watching. For panoramic views head for Sunset Point, or the Guru Shikhar [the highest point on the Aravallis]. The Nakki Lake, apart from being a boating resort, is renowned for its strange rock formations with the Toad [Rock] just about to hop into the lake. The marble Jain Dilwara Temples are, of course, the main tourist attraction. If you want to master raja yoga meditation practice head for Brahma Kumari's Spiritual University. Another big draw is Mount Abu's Winter Festival [December 29-30] which showcases Rajasthani music and folk dance.
Nicknamed the Golden City because of its honey-like tint, Jaisalmer presents itself in the form of a giant sandcastle carved out of the Thar Desert. Agreed the scorching summer heat may make Jaisalmer unbearable for many tourists, but when the temperature hovers between 10oC and 14oC in winter, you have a coveted destination. Within the walls of the Jaisalmer are winding labyrinth streets, colourful bazaars, temples and havelis. Don't forget to venture on a camel safari. Or, the Annual Desert Fest [February] featuring exotic turban-tying competitions as well as moustache-twirling hopefuls trying to win the prestigious Mr Desert title.
A bird watcher's paradise, Lake Chilka, in Orissa, is noted for a million or more migratory birds that swirl their way, in winter, from Siberia and Iran.
You'll be able to spot osprey, grey-legged geese, herons, cranes and flamingos here. Lake Chilka is probably the largest congregation of aquatic birds in the Asian sub-continent. Yet another attraction is the dolphins near the Satapada Beach in close immediacy to the lake. The Kalijai Island, in the lake, hosts the popular Makar Mela Festival in January.
Corbett National Park
India's first national park founded in 1936 by the legendary Jim Corbett is the home to over 50 mammals, 580 birds and 25 reptile species. Though tiger sightings are rare, no visitor will leave disappointed as the park has leopards, jungle cats, fishing cats, sloth bears, Himalayan bears, black bears, jackals, yellow throated martens, Himalayan civets, mongoose, otters, hares and elephants roaming all over the park.
Backwaters of Kerala
If you want to avoid the winter chill and enjoy a tropical winter head for the Kerala backwaters. Innumerable lagoons, lakes, canals, estuaries, and river deltas make up the 900 km backwater network of God's Own Country, covering the districts of Kollam, Alappuzha, Kottayam, and Kochi. Cruise along palm-fringed waterways in a luxurious houseboat. Or, skim past the ancient Chinese fishing nets, water lilies, lush paddy fields, coir villages, rustic homes, temples and coconut groves.
Go for the sun, sand, sea and hedonism of Goa, if you want to enjoy a partying experience of a lifetime on Christmas and the year-ending week. Goa also has a plethora of winter celebrations. These include the Feast of the Three Kings, the Goa Heritage Festival, the Konkani Drama Festival, and the Feast of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception.
[Additional inputs: Bhavana Shinde, Tourist Officer, Ministry of Tourism, Government of India].
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