I remember the exact moment when I realised that my guide, Pujan, had ruined trekking for me forever. I was dangling my feet in an icy mountain stream, nursing a glass of fresh lemon juice. We were halfway through our hike through remote Himalayan forest; at the end, I knew, a cosy room heated by a log fire awaited me. I suddenly realised that anything less than this would never make the cut again.
It wasn't all Pujan's fault, of course. The rest of the team was just as responsible for the spoiling. Prabat our driver, was always on standby, ready to pick us up in case we got tired of walking. Tika, our cook, conjured up multi-course feasts mornings and evenings. As soon as we started to think about lunch, Sonam would be waiting for us in a scenic spot with a luxe picnic, served up by Yogesh, who also bounded down forest trails with us.
At first it seemed an excessive amount of support staff for just one person, but Pujan reassured me that that's precisely the point of Shakti Himalaya. "You never share your experience with strangers," he said. "Most of our guests are couples; we get plenty of single travellers too."
Shakti lets travellers enjoy hiking the Himalaya without depriving them of creature comforts. It operates in three different venues, from the Alpine forests of Kumaon to the high-altitude moonscapes of Ladakh; my trek winds its way along the subtropical slopes of India's Sikkim province. Shakti follows the same formula in each area, refurbishing houses in local villages to the level of a comfortable lodge, complete with generous bathrooms and, in most cases, balconies with views across the dramatic landscape. Guests can walk from one house to the next while their bags are transported by car.
There is no set route. "We tailor it for your fitness level and enthusiasm," Pujan explains. "If one person wants to keep going after lunch, and their partner wants to return to the house, we can do that. If you don't feel like walking one day and would rather have a cooking lesson, we can do that too."
Our walks are different every day. We pass through forests of soaring chestnut trees where tiny Himalayan chestnuts litter the ground, through stands of purple-stemmed bamboo and past rhododendron and magnolia trees. We see tiny wild orchids and lush fields of ginger, turmeric and cardamom, the local cash crops, and visit small mountain monasteries and hidden forest shrines. We wander through villages where passionfruit vines and fig trees grow and where every house displays an impressive collection of potted flowers on its front porch.
The food is superb, with a different Indian cuisine served up every evening, along with Indian wine (surprisingly palatable) and, on one memorable occasion, fermented red millet beer – sort of like grain-flavoured hot apple cider.
On our first day, I tread hesitantly on the rough paths, particularly when they slope steeply. By the last day of the trip, I am happily clambering along narrow ledges and scrambling up rocky slopes. "Three more days and you'll be a mountain goat," Pujan says approvingly. "Come to Ladakh and we'll make it happen."
I think I'll take him up on the offer.
Several airlines including Qantas, Singapore Airlines and Sri Lankan Airways offer one-stop flights to India.
The all-inclusive five-night Shakti Sikkim Village Walk starts at US$4868 a person, which includes all activities, accompanying English-speaking guide, private chef, support guide and porters as well as transfers between Bagdogra Airport or Darjeeling. Available October to late April.
Ute Junker travelled courtesy of Shakti Himalaya.