Escape the mayhem of Mumbai by heading for the hills, writes Nina Karnikowski.
It is not what you would call a comfortable experience. In fact, watching the sweat-drenched backs of two teenage boys as they lug a wooden rickshaw - with you and your bulging suitcase atop it - up Matheran's dusty red slopes just might make you feel like a terrible person.
It certainly did my husband and I. Yet, it had seemed like a wholly charming idea when our taxi, having driven two hours east of Mumbai, deposited us at the base of the hill station. Motor vehicles are banned from that point, leaving hand-pulled rickshaws, horses or a toy train to get visitors to their hotels. We chose the former, imagining our hotel to be a mere five minutes away. But 40 minutes later, we are waiting for Lord Shiva to strike us down for putting these poor boys through such misery.
With great relief on all sides, we arrive at our destination, tip our dripping helpers handsomely, and walk through tree-flanked wrought-iron gates to our hotel.
The Verandah in the Forest, a colonial-era mansion that has been elegantly restored by Neemrana Hotels (an India-based company that revives bungalows, tea planters' cottages and hill forts around the country), immediately whisks us back to a more majestic era. On the deep verandah that hugs the main house, lazy fans shuffle the air down from the 12-metre-high ceilings, while antique plantation chairs beckon.
We settle into them with a cup of masala chai and a wedge of sticky chikki, a traditional Indian peanut toffee, before moving into our room. It is an awkwardly proportioned space, much longer than it is wide and with not much natural light. But nods to the mansion's history in the form of a four-poster bed, woven rugs and antique portraits on the walls ensure the space has charm.
After the requisite second cup of masala chai, a stroll through the forest is in order. After all, this is why most visitors come to Matheran - to escape the grime and chaos of Mumbai, mainly, as well as other parts of India, and to get close to nature as they might never have seen it before.
Matheran has deep-red, dusty soil that casts a rusty haze over just about everything.
We visit in summer, but are told that monsoon season - June to September - is when Matheran is at its most beautiful. The monsoon rains bring fresher green foliage, brighter red walkways, mistier valleys and more dramatic waterfalls.
The red soil is distinctive to the Sahyadri mountains, otherwise called the Western Ghats, which stretch along the western side of India and are home to a clutch of hill stations, of which Matheran is said to be the most elegant. These stations were founded by the British in the 19th century as refuges from the summer heat.
Matheran is certainly doing the trick for us. Its altitude of 800 metres makes for cooler temperatures, cleaner air, peace and quiet, and utterly majestic scenery. There are 38 lookouts throughout Matheran, all with breathtaking views of the snaking Ulhas River, the neighbouring craggy peaks, as well as yawning valleys and gorges.
Some of them play host to small stalls selling local favourites including vada pav, a popular Mumbai roadside snack of deep-fried spicy potato wedged into a bun with hot and spicy garlic chutney, and the deliciously refreshing kokum "sherbert" drink, made from kokum fruit, cumin, salt and ice.
The foot trails that criss-cross the forest are lined with cheeky (and often downright scary) monkeys, crumbling vine-choked colonial mansions and well-trained horses clip-clopping through the red dirt with smiling Indian families perched on their backs.
And herein lies one of Matheran's greatest appeals - its lack of Western tourists. We spot a mere handful during our two nights here, and they were mostly in Matheran town, which, apart from a few cute handicraft stalls selling leather belts, bags and sandals, and bags of that delectable chikki, is not worth more than a quick visit.
The rest of our afternoon is divided between swinging in a dusty red hammock in our hotel's garden, gazing at the pre-monsoonal clouds shifting overhead and adorable palm squirrels, and sipping local Sula shiraz (India's premier wine label, which is actually quite decent) in comfy wicker chairs in the bar, which is basically a big, posh treehouse set among the foliage.
The highlight of the day, however, is the communal dinner in the Verandah's elegant dining room. The long mahogany table is set with fine antique crockery and flickering candelabra.
And as the Sula continues to flow, conversation among the guests warms up, so that we are all rather chummy by the time we are halfway through our entree of spicy tomato soup. The rest of the meal, which includes a jackfruit tart accompanied by a fresh, crispy salad, handmade gnocchi with tomato puree, creamed spinach and spiced carrots, and a decadent chocolate mousse, is superb - which is lucky, really, since we are in the middle of the forest with a scarcity of alternative dining options. We tumble into bed sated and relaxed.
The following morning, we rise early and brave a pre-breakfast ride on one of those handsome stallions. It is a slightly surreal experience, our horse clomping through verdant, misty corridors that leave us feeling as though we have stumbled into a land time - along with most of India - happily seems to have forgotten.
The writer travelled at her own expense.
Singapore Airlines flies from Sydney to Mumbai daily via Singapore from about $1250 return. See singaporeair.com.
From Mumbai, it is a two-hour taxi ride to Matheran.
The Verandah in the Forest offers restored colonial rooms from $65 a night in the low season, including breakfast.
In-room massages can be arranged, and sumptuous lunches and dinners cost about $9.