Venture into the highlands of Southeast Asia or the Indian subcontinent and sooner or later you’ll stumble upon a hill station. These lofty, purpose-built settlements offered imperial administrators, military officers and planters a home away from home where they could rest, recuperate and socialise when summer temperatures at sea level became unbearable.
The colonials are long gone but close one eye and you could still be in Europe. Cream tea and a game of billiards, anyone?
1 Shimla, India
In the 1820s, the only way for hot-under-the-collar colonials to reach Shimla was by elephant. The construction of a narrow-gauge railway in 1898 made the journey easier and today’s tourists can also hop on a bus. The venerable Clarkes Hotel; the Gaiety Theatre, where Rudyard Kipling once performed; and Christ Church, with its brass plaque marking the Viceroy’s pew, all hark back to a time when Shimla was the summer capital of British India. The Queen of the Hills is still a popular destination, particularly with Indian visitors curious to experience cedar-scented air and snow. Sooner or later every visitor gravitates to the pedestrianised Mall Road – a sepia-tinted mix of colonial and contemporary architecture where vendors serve up spicy snacks, bakeries churn out sugary treats and (from December) ice skaters have the only natural rink in India at their disposal.
2 Baguio, The Philippines
The Spanish first set up a military garrison and sanitarium in the mountainous district that would become Baguio in the mid-19th century and, when the Philippines was ceded to them, the Americans were also quick to appreciate Baguio’s potential as a refuge from the heat. A road was built at great cost, both financially and in term of lives lost, that linked burgeoning Baguio with the lowlands, and by 1900, the only US hill station in Asia was up and running. During the second world war, the Japanese bombed, occupied and eventually surrendered at the US High Commissioner’s Residence in Baguio. After independence, the City of Pines retained its summer capital status until 1976. The Supreme Court still holds sessions in the city.
3 Pyin Oo Lwin, Myanmar
Formerly known as Maymyo (“May town”), after Colonel James May, of the 5th Bengal Infantry, breezy Pyin Oo Lwin is a bone-jarring bus or train ride from furnace-like Mandalay. Wander along Downing Street and Charing Cross Road past mildewing mansions from another age. Colonial-era churches stand toe to toe with Burmese temples and Chinese shrines, and the meticulously manicured botanical gardens are modelled on London’s Kew Gardens. Markets brim with cold-climate produce and a large Indian community means you can round off a curry supper with fresh strawberries and cream.
4 Maubisse, East Timor
At 1,400 metres above sea level, misty Maubisse was where Portuguese administrators would flee to escape the heat. Evidence of East Timor’s former coloniser can be seen in the fortress ramparts and mountaintop pousada (guesthouse), which was built as the governor’s residence. In 1999, the scruffy settlement became an R&R base for high-spending United Nations employees grateful to escape escalating conflict in the capital, Dili. The pousada has since fallen on hard times – the rose gardens, cable TV and fine Portuguese wines have all gone. Despite being an area of considerable scenic beauty, few tourists make it to Maubisse these days, and coffee cultivation is once again the villagers’ main source of income.
5 Cameron Highlands, Malaysia
In 1885, British surveyor William Cameron mapped what he described as “a fine plateau with gentle slopes, shut in by loftier mountains”. Forty years later, British civil servant George Maxwell set about developing the dense rainforest. Tea planters and vegetable farmers attracted by the fertile soil were among the Europeans who settled what became known as the Cameron Highlands and they were followed by other Britishers based in Malaya. Since the 1960s, the region has been promoted as a tourist resort. Kok Lim Farm is one of the few places in Southeast Asia where holidaymakers can pick their own strawberries and the mock Tudor Smokehouse restaurant, built in 1937, is as popular as ever.
6 Da Lat, Vietnam
Domestic and foreign tourists flock to the former French hill station of Da Lat, in Vietnam’s South Central Highlands, to enjoy its broad boulevards, bakeries and mini-me version of the Eiffel Tower. The City of Eternal Spring is recognised throughout the country for the quality of its fresh vegetables and cut flowers. Honeymooners love Da Lat’s European ambience and golfers appreciate the invigorating air. Many visitors take a scenic train ride or a guided motorbike excursion. The reclining kind prefer to pick up a baguette, some cheese and a bottle of French wine and find a secluded picnic spot overlooking picturesque Xuan Huong Lake.
7 Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka
Nuwara Eliya shivers in the Sri Lankan highlands, a region corduroyed with tea bushes and estates with names such as Edinburgh and Sussex. The antiquated but charming railway network that connects Kandy with the hill country is not to be missed. One of the world’s great train rides can be enjoyed from a seat in the observation car. Waterfalls gush in torrents across overhanging rocks and pine forests punctuate a four-hour climb of almost 1,400 metres. The time-warp town’s half-timbered post office is probably the most photographed on the subcontinent and the golf course, annual horse races and chilly breeze are all reminiscent of another continent altogether. And how often do you get to sit beside a log fire so near the equator?
8 Bogor, Indonesia
Located 60km south of Jakarta, Bogor was the summer residence of the governor-general of the Dutch East Indies and the most important Dutch hill station. The City of Rain is situated only 290 metres above sea level but the air is noticeably cooler. Roads and railways were built to connect the tea, coffee and spice plantations with centres of population and ports. With more than 15,000 species of trees and plants, Bogor’s world-renowned botanical gardens remain a model of research and conservation.
9 Murree, Pakistan
Derived from “marhi”, meaning high place, Murree was originally set up in 1853 for British troops garrisoned on the Afghan frontier. It was later developed into a summer base for civil servants working in the British Punjab territory, who would arrive from the city of Lahore and the commercial centre of Rawalpindi after an arduous five-hour horse-and-cart ride. Until 1947, access to Mall Road was restricted for non-Europeans but locals are having the last laugh – the former Himalayan hill station is currently enjoying a boom in domestic tourism. Some of the grander colonial properties now serve as hotels and – how times change – the Holy Trinity Church boasts a loyal congregation who can check ecclesiastical announcements on a dedicated Facebook page.