Himachal's main tourist resort, MANALI, stands at the head of the Kullu Valley, 108km north of Mandi. Though at the heart of the region's highest mountain range, it's easily accessible by road from the plains; after one hour on a plane and a short hop by road, you could be staring from your hotel veranda across apple orchards and thick pine forests to the snowfields of Solang Nala, a tantalizing stone's throw away to the north. With the continuing troubles in Kashmir, Manali is increasingly popular with domestic tourists, welcoming an eclectic mix of honeymooners, holiday-makers, hippies, trekkers and traders.
The Manali that lured travellers in the 1970s has certainly changed, although the majestic mountain scenery, thermal springs and quality charas can still be enjoyed. Old Manali retains some of its atmosphere, and the village of Vashisht across the valley has become a popular place to chill out. For those preferring to venture into the mountains, Manali makes an ideal trekking base for short hikes and serious expeditions, and countless agencies can help put a package together for you. The relaxing hotels in Manali's cleaner, greener outskirts, and dozens of sociable cafés and restaurants ranged around a well-stocked bazaar, provide a welcome relief from the rigours of the mountain trails.
Manali's main street, the Mall, is a noisy scene of constant activity, fronted by the bus stand, several shopping markets, travel agents, and a line of hotels and restaurants. It's a great place to watch the world go by – locals in traditional caps, Tibetan women in immaculate rainbow-striped pinafores, Nepali porters, Buddhist monks, the odd party of Zanskaris swathed in fusty woollen gonchas, souvenir-hunting Indian tourists and a curious mix of Westerners.
Manali's days as an authentic pahari bazaar ended when the mule trains were superseded by Tata trucks, but it's still great for souvenir shopping. Woollen goods are the real forte, particularly brilliantly patterned shawls. Genuine pure-wool handloom shawls with embroidered borders start at around Rs500, but those made from finest pashmina cost several thousand rupees.