Domestic Focus: Saputara: A Hill on the Rise
Going beyond the conventional idea of a ‘hill station’, Saputara offers clean, green and serene experience. Maansi Sharma shares what made change her opinion of what a hill station can be
Being born and brought up in Maharashtra, you expect the approach road to a hill station to be clogged with traffic, the streets to be full of vendors and the picnic and tourist spots strewn with garbage. When the Tourism Corporation of Gujarat Limited (TCGL), in an attempt to promote the ‘Monsoon Festival’ being celebrated from July 30 to August 30, 2011 at Gujarat’s only hill station, Saputara, invited media professionals to a FAM tour of the destination, what I expected was pretty obvious. However, Saputara has completely changed my opinion of what a hill station can be.
Saputara, no more than four km from the Maharashtra-Gujarat border, saw us arriving by road. As we entered Saputara, the first thing that caught my attention was a sprawling lake dotted with boats shaped like swans and a big balloon with ‘Gujarat Tourism’ and ‘Satputara Monsoon Festival’ printed on it. It was the first sign to what I eventually learned: Saputara was specifically and beautifully planned only for tourism.
What it offers:
We were first taken to see Governor’s Hill – the destination’s table land. Unlike Panchgini’s Asia plateau, Saputara’s hills are not too high at 1000 meters. It was not until we reached the top and saw a panoramic view of Saputara before us that we recognised the area’s untouched beauty. With a view of the city straight ahead, and the lake and the surrounding hills to the left, Saputara has a few structures, all of which were hotels, resorts and recreational facilities. Saputara is surrounded by the Sahyadri range and we spent an hour, tirelessly walking from one end to the other and clicking pictures, unable to get enough of the place’s beauty or a picture that did the sight any justice.
HOW TO GET THERE
Air: Surat is the nearest airport 172 km away.
Rail: Billimora station 80 km away.
Road: Easy accessibility from Chikhli, Billimora, Nasik and Surat.
The road had but a few cars driving smoothly into the region. The city was not overcrowded with houses as in Shimla, and the road was not chock-full of cars, a common sight in Lonavala. And, as I was soon to realise, there was not one piece of garbage strewn about.
We then headed on to the cultural show that TCGL has organised for tourists to get a glimpse of how the local Dangi tribe celebrate the Monsoon Festival. The evening was full of colourful dances performed by tribesmen and women. They went on to leave us open-mouthed while they made multiple formations of human pyramids in different shapes and sizes till the finale where the structure was tall enough to touch the roof of the tent, and it was no small tent at that. However, the most surprising revelation of the evening for us was when we discovered that not a single one of the performers was below 40!
Shopping was fun in Saputara too. Although the market is small, a confined area with about eight shops, the options are endless. Apart from everything available across the country, there are also jute bags and pouches that have that ethnic touch to them. However, the real shopping treat was at the Monsoon Festival photo gallery and souvenir store with the gallery full of photographs of sights around the state of Gujarat. TCGL has put up this temporary structure for tourists visiting during the season. A make-shift background of an aerial view of Saputara has been set up for pictures to be taken with the scene as the backdrop. The souvenir store is full of Saputara’s local handicrafts which included bags, purses, ash trays, picture frames, accessories, and even clips made in jute, wood and bamboo.
We spent the next day visiting the vivacious Girmal Falls. The Girmal Falls are a little over 80 km from Saputara and while the drive was longer than we cared for, the wait was well worth it. The falls have a fierce beauty that keeps you captivated, no matter which of the three provided view points you choose to look from. The water falls from a considerable height with the strength of, what I can imagine, would be about ten smaller falls, into a beautiful alcove and tapers into a thinner formation, flowing into the horizon.
On our way back, we decided to visit Shabari Dham, a temple built in the spot where Lord Ram of Hindu mythology is said to have stopped during his exile and fed fruit by the villager Shabari who had patiently awaited his foretold arrival for years.. Shabari Dham is not a big temple, but can stir within you a feeling of peace that a lot of bigger ones may be unable to do so.
My favourite part of the day however was the drive. The road stretches entirely through a forest which gets denser as you go deeper. Although wildlife here pales in comparison with the famous Gir National Park, the tingling excitement that comes with being inches away from a jungle is definitely stirred within when you look out the window at the forest.
Saputara offers basic accommodation: three-star hotels and resorts besides TCGL’s own Hotel Toran. We were put up in Saputara’s best three-star resort, Shilpi Hill Resort, and were treated to delectable Gujarati cuisine at Hotel Toran. The resort was beautiful along with being comfortable. Our rooms had large French windows that opened up early in the morning to let in a cloud of mist that seemed to always encircle the hotel. Each room seemed to offer a unique factor.
The cherry on top was the spread we were met with at Hotel Toran at meal time. The cuisine we experienced there was prepared in a way only the Gujaratis have mastered. In places where the air did not do the trick, the sight and aroma of the spread unfailingly reeled me in.
TCGL has formulated a master plan to develop and maintain Saputara. Development of Saputara was planned in two phases – components A and B.
Component A Key features
Town centre: Tourist facilitation centre, Interpretation park, Shopping street, Town Hall
Sunrise Point: Food court, Yoga and Meditation Centre, Panchkarma Centre, amphitheater and play area, Paragliding, viewing platforms and other tourist infrastructure
Sunset Point: Food court, viewing platforms, Gazebo, walking track, Cantilevered Deck, etc.
Governor’s Hill: Sky-Walk, Planetarium and Sky Viewing, Food Court, viewing platforms, Go Carting, Wind Farm, Camping Facilities, Animal Rides and Viewing, Bungy Jumping
Existing Lake: Boating Deck, Gardens, Picnic Spot, Cultural Centre, Suspension Bridge, Toy Train, Museum, Underwater Aquarium, etc.
Component B Key features
New lake: Floating restaurant, Water Curtain, Dam, recreational parks
Tribal experience trail: Tribal Village Model, Accommodation Cottages, Tribal Healing Centre.
Wildlife Park: Tourist Orientation Centre, Bird Park, Rabbit Park, Underwater Aquarium.
Theme parks: Harry Potter, Disneyland, various cartoon characters, outer space etc.
First phase of the master plan has commenced development. The state government is investing Rs 150 crore in the first phase and is looking at attracting investment from the private sector. Rs 7.55 crore has been invested in Saputara Lake and Sunset Point development.
In the second phase, Rs five crore will be invested for the new lake at Navagam – three times the size of the Saputara Lake. Future projects worth Rs 60 crore for the development of Sunrise Point, Butterfly Park, two entrance gates, public utilities at six different places and an ethnic restaurant called Visamo, are in the offing at an estimated cost of Rs 60 crore.
Apart from the spots we visited, Saputara has a myriad options for travellers. It offers recreational amenities like parks, a boat club, the Lakeview, Rose and Step Gardens, and a Botanical Garden. The Mahal Bardipara Forest Wildlife Sanctuary, Vansda National park and Purna Wildlife Sanctuary are within a 60 km radius from Saputara. For the more active traveller, a trek to Gandhi Shikhar is highly recommended.
For those who cannot get enough of a waterfall, the Gira Falls and Pampa Sarovar which are at approximately 52 km and 45 km distances respectively. And for those with more of an inclination to shopping, the Gandharvapur Artist Village offers a variety of handicraft and gift items.
All in all, Saputara can double as a year-round attraction, despite it being promoted currently only for the Monsoon Festival. This pushes Saputara tourism forward are TCGL packages which allow tourists to visit and experience the destination in a comfortable and economical way. Various tours have been chalked out ranging from one day to four days, each day touching upon at least four attractions in and around Saputara. The tours are specifically designed to promote the Dang tribal life, religion, and, currently, the monsoon season. Lush landscapes along with a glimpse of well-preserved and showcased tribal life make it unique and attractive to any visitor. For transit tourists travelling between Gujarat and Nashik or Shirdi, I doubt that there could be a more peaceful rest spot on the way to visit God.
Although Saputara has several attributes, its biggest plus point is the most obvious one – that it is a hill station. Despite statistics showing a large number of Indian tourists travelling abroad, a weekend getaway to a hill station is something that domestic travellers never seem to get enough of. Mahabaleshwar, Lonavala, Ootacamund and so many other hill stations are thriving on such tourists. However, Saputara has virtues that these destinations have lost a little over the years – serenity and cleanliness. These, along with scenic beauty, good food and great company have made my visit to Saputara one that I will be praising for years to come