Jaisalmer, Rajasthan

When you think of a desert, it’s natural to conjure images of a blistering sun, endless barren sea of sand, where the only trace of life are thorny cacti that seem to drink all of desert water rather selfishly and shiny black beetles with pointy stings digging in and out of sand. I remember these from the movie “The Mummy”. But, the Arabian Nights paints a rather subtle and dreamy picture. I’d like to envision Jaisalmer as the desert from The Arabian Nights and imagine myself on a magical carpet gliding over shimmering sands underneath the starry skies.

When you first lay your eyes on Jailsalmer, you will at once know why it is also known as The Golden City. The name owes its gratitude to the golden honey-hued sandstone used in construction of architecture and houses alike. But, the city has earned this moniker after its Rajput ruler, Rawal Jaisal, who founded it in 1156 AD.
This desert city is wrapped in layers that once peeled back reveal more secrets than you thought it kept. Allow them to unravel slowly, one after the other.

Jaisalmer Fort: The city is built in and around this imposing fortress, rising above the desert lands like a mirage from the bygone era. This fortified structure also known as Sonar Kila or Golden Fort follows you in every lane, every historical monument and from balconies or windows of almost every restaurant you park yourself for a meal. This breathing fortress that was once a focal point of battles fought between the Mughals, Bhatis and Rajputs is now home to around 4000 residents, which is almost one-fourth of the entire population. Built with an amalgamation of Mughal and Rajput style of architecture, the fort is no less urban from the inside.

Before you take yourself out for this fascinating tour, I suggest you charge yourself up in Trikaal Street Cafe that sits right at the foot of the gate. Ritesh, the amicable owner of this quirky little cafe, will regale you with his journey as you watch him whip up his star attraction, the Tandoori Chai, that’s served in terracotta cups with steaming hot Maggie for company.
There are bikes on hire if you want to avoid taxing your legs coz it’s a real steep climb up there.

Four massive gates open up to winding alleyways lined by houses, temples, restaurants and plenty of handicraft shops. One shop in particular sucked us in. Tees hung outside in eye-catching colours and nostalgic prints that seem too real to be painted by wrinkled but expert hands of Mr. Premdas. An artist par excellence and fabulous repute, he’s also well traveled and has the anecdotes of his celebrity encounters captured in his elaborate photo album. It’s a different thing to buy a ready made one over the counter or online. But it’s overwhelming to witness the print of your choice come to life right before your eyes.

Life inside the ramparts is a living relic of the past with teeny bit of present garnished over. Men, young and elderly, assemble at the temple porches for a chitchat and to play cards, while kids frolic around. Bikers appear out of nowhere gearing up the incredibly narrow lanes, leaving you wondering how they pull off this circus with such ease. It’s nice to see and relive this kind of old-school entertainment far away from the faces being buried in cellphones.

Reach to the top and you’ll be rewarded with views like this.

Jain Temples: Situated inside the fort are a cluster of 7 temples that were built in the 12th and 15th centuries, dedicated to various Jain Tirthankars (hermits). These painstakingly carved temples are perfect embodiment of the fascinating architecture that’s also a place of worship.

Patwon Ki Haveli: Surprises often pop out from places you least expect them to. Patwon Ki Haveli is one such. This stunningly traditional and ornately decorated residence of the five Patwa brothers of Jaisalmer, looks like a honey-coloured lacework of stone towering over the narrow alley and staring down over the peddlers of beautiful handicrafts.
The riches-to-rags story of the haveli dates back to eighteenth century when the immensely successful businessman, Ghuman Chand Patwa, decided to gift each of his five sons a separate and grandiose mansion facing the Jaisalmer Fort. Unfortunately, the fortunes of the family started dwindling to an extent that led the once affluent brothers to abandon not just their paradise, but the city as well. Out of these five grand structures, only the first one was bought by another rich man, Jeevanlalji Kothari. This particular haveli, owes its current glory and splendor to him.

No sooner do you step into the lane, you’ll be swarmed by the tour guides eager to take you around the building. The usual reaction of every tourist is, “why do we need a guide for a building?” But believe me, for this one you do. Inside the mansion, there’s museum and a shop for antique furniture. The walls are adorned with exquisite mirror works and fascinating paintings. The lattice or jali carvings let the sunlight stream in and illuminate the place in beautiful patterns. There are around 60 balconies and numerous archways, each designed uniquely. With so much of art and history on display, you do need someone to enthrall you with its anecdotes, don’t you.

We were lucky to have met Sachin who’s not only a treasure trove of information but also a very talented photographer. “Take a guide, madam. If not the information, you will need someone to click your pictures. There are lot of photo opportunities in there”. Sachin was way too modest in saying this. There can be no match to his photography, knowledge, amicability with total strangers and immense love for his place. Speaking to him, I realized that 100 bucks could buy us a souvenir or a beverage in some restaurant. But to them, it feeds their families.

Salam Singh Ki Haveli: Did you know the word Haveli is derived from two words – Hava means breeze and Veli mean light? Me neither. It was the grouchy but immensely knowledgeable Mr. Tiwari who explained this to us.
Salam Singh Ki Haveli is another engineering and architectural marvel that’ll leave you awestruck one floor after the other.  The haveli sits in a busy street, so parking is few feet away. All that frustration of braving the sun dissipates once you buy the ticket and have made your acquaintance with that storehouse of information. Be warned about the ticket though. All this knowledge transfer is for those privileged few who shell out the buck. You will be shot with stern looks and dismissive answers if you try to extract information unpaid. And believe you me, those 20 bucks are worth it. Every word coming from his mouth is like a valuable pearl you’ll want to weave into a necklace and carry back home. The man’s a genius and a warm friend when you spend time with him. We spent close to two hours while our driver kept ringing reminders. But we just couldn’t let this iota of knowledge slip away.
So, the haveli…
Brace yourself because this piece of information is going to knock your head right off. This three storeyed building can be unscrewed, dismantled to its last bit and rejoined again. Engineering marvel indeed! The staircase is fascinating too. Every step of it is built with an ascending height and a ceiling that drops down when you least expect it. You know why? It’s a trap for the thieves, the entire structure is. So that when the thief is climbing up, he keeps on climbing up without knowing that he is about to bang his head on that drop. And if vice versa, descending height catches him off-guard making him lose balance and get tossed down. The windows of the Haveli are even more intriguing. In those days, the kings had many wives. Of course, there used to be a favourite one. Talking in open was considered a blatant display of rudeness and audacity. So, when the king did want to have a chit chat, he’d sit in one window and the queen in the opposite. They’d then share sweet-nothings… gesticulating. No wonder we Indians are so expressive…Everything about this Haveli is awe-inspiring. Even the bathrooms were built to recycle water and ensure zero wastage. Water was equivalent to gold back then. Women folks would tread kilometers of the merciless desert on foot to get few litres of it back home. Even small kitschy stuff like incense holders were designed for multiple purposes. I’d go on and on about everything I learned there. It’s really magical how people survived such unforgiving conditions in those years with such genius techniques. We are indeed privileged.

Vyas Chhatri: Rajasthani architecture is ever so beautifully imprinted on these intricately carved golden sandstone Chhatris or cenotaphs, knows as Vyas Chhatris. It’s a cluster of chhatris that used to be a memorial ground for the Brahmin class of people. The name is eponymous with sage Vyas who had penned the ancient epic, Mahabharata. It’s a brilliant point to catch the view of the fort; and the sunset from here is breathtaking.

Kuldhara Village: A village that was…
Kuldhara, an abandoned village 19 kms to the west of Jaisalmer, was established in the thirteenth century and was inhabited by around 1600 villagers. This once-upon-a-time happy and prosperous hamlet was abandoned in the early nineteenth century for the reasons yet unknown. Folklore has it that people left due to an earthquake that rattled them and perennial scarcity of water. If there exists a bunch of people that have a pragmatic approach to causes, there also exists a bunch that believes in myths and legends; which I personally feel provide a larger scope for the imagination.


What’s left now are the ruins of the houses that were once alive and temples that echoed chants and prayers. No wonder people call it a haunted village. The mystical scene is bound to haunt you for days to come. But to me, it was pure nostalgia.

Gadisar Lake: Oasis in the heart of the desert, literally. Relive history while floating on the placid and azure Gadisar Lake, a man-made reservoir built in the 14th century by Maharawal Gadi Singh.

This lake was the only source of water for the people of Jaisalmer. Today, this pristine lake turns into a spectacle at dusk; the rays of the sun appear to be bouncing off the golden Shiva temple – that appears to have risen from the waters – before diving into the lake and spreading shimmer all around. The drama is completed by the setting sun who makes the sky turn orange, then pink, then red before it’s completely out of sight. The silence is punctuated by chopping of oars and few stubborn birds that just refuse to return home.

Sam Sand Dunes: You can’t claim to have seen a desert unless you’ve actually gotten under the skin of it, you know, when the desert winds ruffle through your hair and the grains of sands stick to your face, and when you are forced to drag your feet up the dunes while dusting the sand off your shoes. I am almost reliving each of those moments while writing this.
Sam Sand Dunes is an experience of a lifetime.

It’s a 41 kms drive to the west of Jaisalmer; and you wont mind the distance as you lay back in the seat listening to Rajasthani folk music, while the city is left far behind and all you see on both sides are trees that seem to have a curse of never bearing a flower upon them and a long black ribbon of tar road ahead. On the way, you will pass Kanoi, a smaller version of Sam, where you’ll see the parachutes making an unsuccessful but desperate attempt to fly, one end tied to the jeep that also makes an unsuccessful attempt to make them fly, while the tourists stand by hopeful of the paramotoring experience. The area up to 500 metres from Kanoi looks like a graveyard of butchered parachutes.

Dunes Activities: The desert adventures start after 4 pm and continue until late night.
Start off with a Quad Bike; it’s like a trailer before the real movie. An expert accompanies you until you get the hang of the macho vehicle; after which you can take it for a long drive or move around in circles. Get pictures clicked or a video made which you can show off big time everywhere on social media.

If you’ve grown up watching Dune Bashing on TV shows or heard stories about them, and wondered if it’s really the way it is. Yes, Dune Bashing is everything you’ve ever imagined it to be. I wonder why they call it that, when it’s actually the dunes that bash your backside and bones without mercy. The drivers have mastered their craft really well. They know exactly when to make you hold on to dear life and when to make you scream your lungs out. It is when another jeep full of screaming passengers passes by, that you stand upright, all confident and show off like you are another Lawrence of Arabia. What really makes your blood rush through your veins is when they park the vehicle in a nosedive position in one of the steepest dunes and get off to click your pictures.

Camel Safari: This is how you conquer the sands. By riding the ‘ship of the desert’.


What better way to explore this unending ocean of sands, sitting atop the magnificent animal, bobbing up and down with every graceful step it takes. Its walk is so graceful and stylish, it reminded me of myself walking the ramp in that heavily embroidered traditional Indian wear. Admiring the dunes from height is a wonderful experience. Plus, the camel can take you to places where even the sturdiest of vehicles cannot go. Picture yourself on the camel standing on the top of a very tall dune, looking to the horizon. You get the exact same experience you just imagined.

By the time you’ve had the fill of these heart thumping adventures, the day comes to a close. This is when the guide leaves you to yourself for that slice of solitude; to soak in the most enchanting scene you are about to witness. Plonk yourself down in the sand that has now started to cool. Winds carry along with them the songs of folk artists that are performing for a bunch of people at a distance. You’ll be glued to the horizon as dusk washes over the desert sands in a rose tinged glow. Motes of sand change colour from shimmering gold to a matte dark chocolate. There’s a different kind of peace to the desert. And you’re one with it.

Romance of the desert is deeply felt living in the desert itself. I strongly recommend you spend a night in one of the desert camps. Believe you me, the experience is enrapturing. Also, the camp provides a base for all the activities you can do until late night without having to think about driving back to your hotel in Jaisalmer.


Besides, staying in a mud or a Swiss tent is gratifying; what with all that exceptional Rajasthani hospitality where you’re treated like royalty.


After the sun disappears below the horizon, bonfire is lit in the centre of the camp, mattresses laid out to stretch your legs and the aroma of kebabs being barbecued is carried by the breeze straight to your nose. Rajasthani folk artists captivate you with their mellifluous singing and ever so graceful moves, while the mouthwatering servings of crisp onion pakoras, manchurian with a local twist and piping hot beverages keep coming until you plead them to stop.

So much of everything is on platter that you don’t realize night has fallen and it’s time for dinner. Looking at the scrumptious Rajasthani spread replete with Lal Maas, Dal Baati Churma and more, you wish in your head, that it would be nicer to have controlled your gluttony earlier.


It is here, in these camps, that you get an experience of peering into the stars for hours and spotting a constellation like never before.
We loved our stay at Joggan Camp. Hit https://www.jogganjaisalmercamp.com/ for inquiries and bookings.

Shopping: Craftsmen and artists constitute a major portion of the city’s population. Therefore, shopping in Jaisalmer is quite unlike high-end boutiques, malls and designer labels we are used to. It’s real and rustic, which is why tourists from all over the world flock here for artisanal products that are a result of days of manual labour. Bhatia Bazar, Sadar Bazar, Pansari Bazar, Sonaron ka Bas and Manak Chowk are a shopper’s haven. There’s everything for everyone; you just have to loosen your purse-strings and be ready to wander around tirelessly.
What best to reflect the soul of Rajasthan than the intricate mirror-work painstakingly embroidered on vibrant fabrics and hand bags. Bandhani print dress materials and camel wool duvets are an excellent take-away.


Camel hide products like laptop bags, wallets, diaries, hats and shoes are omnipresent and a great buy.

The hand-carved furniture is exquisite.

The product that is rare and indigenous to Jaisalmer is the Fossil Stone or the Hadur Stone.  It is said that the stone can be used to ferment milk into yogurt without the aid of a starter culture. Only other place that’s home to the Hadur is Fatehpur Sikri in Agra. The smallest size producing few grams of curds can be really costly, but is definitely something to boast about back home.
Eye-catching souvenirs like kathputlis (wooden dolls), brassware, rugs, shawls, carpets, carved wooden boxes, antiques, lamps, trinkets and others are found almost everywhere in Jaisalmer.

Stay: Luxury of waking up to a birdsong and a feel of the bygone era is only possible if you’re in a place that was built using the bit and pieces of the bygone era, of course. Just 20 minutes drive from Jaisalmer Airport, this colossal hotel leaves you awestruck with its regal opulence, every nook and corner demanding your attention. Brace yourself to experience the love, warmth, hospitality and majestic grandeur like never before in this beautiful oasis of tranquility, Hotel Fort Rajwada.
Click here for my post on Fort Rajwada.
For further inquiries and bookings visit their site: http://www.fortrajwada.com/

Food: is an obsession here; and people of Jaisalmer seem rather happy with their tastebud-tantalizing dishes, the recipes of which have been passed down through centuries and have barely altered. Some of these dishes include the Ker Sangri Ki Sabzi which is a traditional Rajasthani dish made using dried Ker Berries and Sangri Beans that grow nowhere else but the desert. Also, the combination of secret spices and method of cooking are unique to the land and difficult to replicate anywhere else. Thus, savoring them in their birth place is worth all the efforts your tummy has to make.
Almost every household in Jaisalmer rear goats and cattle. Thus milk and milk products form a major source of livelihood, apart from tourism. Take a stroll down the market and you’ll find huge cauldrons of fresh milk boiled, mixed with saffron and served with a fat layer of cream, nuts sprinkled on the top.

Many hip and trendy restaurants are mushrooming, but it’s the old-timers that win hands down.
Dal Baati Churma, a local favorite and mine too, is Dal – lentils curry, Baati – ghee coated dough balls, served with a generous drizzle of ghee (clarified butter) and Churma, which is crumbs of Semolina Laddoos at the side. Monica Restaurant, at an earshot from Jaisalmer Fort serves the best in town. Wash it all down with their creamy Cold Coffee.

Cafe Da Kaku is an 853-year-old bastion that offers magnificent views of the city. Their menu boasts of Chinese, Mexican, Indian and Japanese dishes. Have dinner here. The rooftop sitting, candle lit tables, soft music and the city below lit up with yellow light bulbs, is an experience that’ll stay with you until you return to Jaisalmer once again.

Want to taste a lot of variety in a single sitting? Ask for a Rajasthani Thali at Natraj Restaurant. They make the best Thali in Jaisalmer. The super-long queues and wait time suggest that too.

Craving for a break from the rich ghee-soaked food? Just inside the Fort’s first gate, Jaisal Italy has delectable Italian and Indian dishes including bruschetta, antipasti, pasta, pizza, salads and desserts, plus the Spanish Omelettes and pancakes. All this is served in an exotically decorated indoor restaurant and also the Dastarkhwan seating on the rooftop that offers unobstructed views of the fort.

Jaisalmer is a place where even the time has paused to rest a while. November to early March are best months to pay a visit. Winter has arrived, air is crisp and weather is welcoming.

After a blissful day full to the brim with culture, conversations and food, as I try to wash this city off my face, I hear the desert winds whispering to me the song that by now had dissolved into my soul “Kesariya Baalam Aavo Sa, Padharo Mhare Des”…

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Nice

I’ve started making a list of places I want to settle down after I’m old, and it only keeps growing. Making a list is a good idea. That way, when I’m old and toothless, I can do eenie-meenie-miney-mo and just pick one. Hopefully, I must have made bags full of money by then.

So, Nice…this small French wonder, has made its way to my old-and-toothless list. It is a packet full of hypnotic surprises that pop out from every nook and corner to make your jaw drop to the ground and explode your mind. Located in the south-east coast of France on the Mediterranean Sea, with prefect balmy weather, inviting promenade, old-world opulence and vibrant street life, Nice is a place you just can’t miss when you are in France. Thirty minutes bus drive from the airport to the hotel offers you the preview of Nice’s ochre-hued buildings to the left and transparent aquamarine waters to the right.

We had only two days in Nice. And in those two days we not only strolled its old streets packed with nostalgia, but also waddled over to the beautiful sleepy mountain village called Eze, drove to the fancy Monaco and Monte Carlo and then took a train to Cannes.

Reaching there: Reaching hotel from the Côte d’Azur Airport is super easy. Take Bus 99 that drops you at Gare de Nice-Ville Train Station.  We stayed at Hotel Ibis Nice Centre Gare which is a mere 5 minutes walk from the station. There are host of luxury and budget hotels as well as BNBs within earshot of the station as well.

DAY 1: When you have a schedule that’s full-to-the-brim, you waste no time napping. You toss the luggage into your room and take to the streets. That’s exactly what we did.
Talk to the locals and you’ll know how this city blessed with two winning factors – the sea and the Mediterranean climate – became a holiday magnet to the European aristocrats who were tired of those chilly winters back home. Take a look around and you’ll imagine yourself in the seventeenth century when the horse-drawn carriages tapped their way by the sea.

The half day hop-on-hop-off bus tour lets you enjoy all the benefits of a guided tour, including hassle-free transport and on-board audio commentary, and still explore the sights at your own pace.  This open-top bus offers unrestricted views of the enchanting surroundings. So gorgeous are the views that you’ll be in a dilemma whether to angle your camera for a perfect shot or to let your naked eyes drink in the beauty. You’ll be grinning all by yourself when sun makes you wince, the wind flirts with your hair, you stand in style to see the ocean, lose your balance and fall back on your seat, cheeks red having made a fool of yourself.


Get off the bus to explore attractions such as the Promenade des Anglais, Mont Boron, Matisse Museum, Chagall Museum, Cimiez and old Nice or remain seated as the bus takes your around.
This eye-catching building below houses host of IT companies.

You will pass by the tall buildings painted in charming pastels shadowing the narrow streets.


Am I wrong if I dream of living here? The photograph paints such a peaceful picture, does it not…


What should I gawk at? The architecture or the bluest of the blue skies…
Cutesy houses share the neighborhood with such illustrious hotels.


You’ll also see senior citizens fresh as daisies, walking their dogs and stopping by for a chatter as the furballs keep tugging at the leash.

The Promenade des Anglais:  can be best experienced around 4 in the evening. This is the time when the sun decides to be merciful and the place looks utterly glorious.
This 4 kms long stretch flanked by white-washed sands and the famous blue-and-white beach chairs, also has a dedicated lane for cyclists, skaters and the electric segway.  If you fancy joining them, rent one from the stations closeby.


With the sea lapping up at the promenade, settle back and relax as the sun is about to drown itself into those glistening blue waters. Some pictures are made by camera, few like these are made by the heart. They are the ones that never get erased. They just pop as soon as you close your eyes, regardless of the corner of the world you are in.

Vieux Nice: Immerse yourself in the local culture with a walk through Old Nice. The Old Town of Nice or Vieux Nice as the locals call it, is something you do not want to miss. It would be unfair to term it as site-seeing, because it’s really the beating heart of the city. It’s a gorgeous little town of winding alleyways, cobblestoned streets, petite butterscotch coloured houses, pretty little delis with chequered table-cloths and homely stores.


Cours Saleya: All this has hardly changed since the seventeenth century. But the centerpiece remains the Cours Saleya, a massive market square that’s permanently thronging in spring and summer. The mornings in Cours Saleya turn the place into a fragrant and colourful market teeming with fruits and flowers. Flea market is put up on Sundays. With the streets all lined up with souvenirs, paintings and loads of other stuff, you will get a lot of shopping out of the way as well.


Place Massena: Every city, no matter how big and modern, has a spot that its inhabitants hold dear to their heart. Place Massena is this enchanting square with a vibe so postcard perfect, you’ll  have to peel yourself out of here. It is one of those sites which concentrate the most stunning Neoclassical structures in the city and is bordered by buildings with impressive red facades and white-framed windows. Those men sitting atop the tall poles, they keep rotating and changing colors. Chill in the air, festooned with lights, the mist-blowing Fontaine du Soleil and buskers serenading at the road-side, this place looks spectacular and achingly romantic when night falls.

After a long day of excursion, when your tummy yells food, head to one of the many sit-out eateries in the old town.

Nice’s cuisine is a real surf-and-turf kind of deal, with an assortment of glistening fish, lobsters and lurid crabs on the display – all fresh from sea to the table. Not just the sea food, but there’s also incredible meat varieties that sit on the menu. If hunger pangs haven’t taken a good bite of you yet, grab a seat at one of cafes and dig into their buttery croissants, luscious pancakes and a frothy Macchiato.
But, if the tummy starts to rumble, get your hands, mouth and clothes dirty with an order of mussels with rice. They arrive like a mountain-on-a-plate, as if to mock your appetite and look gorgeous at the same time. But once you start, you won’t stop, except to wipe your smeared mouth. The server attaches a bucket at the side of the table for leftover shells. I love the sound of their clanking when each one of those hits the bottom. It’s fun and great way to kill time.

DAY 2: After a really early breakfast of fresh baked goodies and coffee, you will be picked up in a private AC vehicle for a half day tour to the mountain village of Eze and from there to the the world’s second smallest country that is Monaco. Fascinating eh!

EZE: While driving to Eze, your driver, who doubles up as your guide, will pull over at a vantage point from where you will have the spectacular view of Nice down below; also a vital spot for a selfie.


Isn’t this mesmerizing!

Drive further and you’ll find yourself going up a winding path, gawking at an imposing cliff on which the village of Eze is perched. The vehicles are parked just before the climb and you’re left with around 40 minutes to explore on your own.


Be seduced by the marvels of Eze – occasional archways, shady squares, tiny caves and ancient fountains which seem to be lifted straight out of a movie set and placed here. The rocky path that leads you up, is lined on both sides with restored stone houses and boxed colourful widows.


Flowered plants sit pretty on the window sil, giving the cobblestoned lane a charming look.


Wonder if all the mountain villages are this pretty…


Numerous small boutiques that sell arts and crafts suck you in like magnets. The handcrafted aromatic soaps that look like coloured pebbles are a winner. Lay your hands on as many as you can.


On the top is an exotic botanic garden, where an impressive collection of cactus, plants and rare vegetation surrounds the remains of an ancient chateau. Reach the vantage point for the sweeping views of the Riviera.

While on the way back, drop in for a private tour of the Parfumerie Fragonard – L’usine Laboratoire Èze. It’s actually at the entrance of the village.


Ever heard of a Nose? Not the one that pokes out of our face. This is a rather fascinating one without which, rather whom, the perfume industry will be like a fish out of water. A Nose is the industry jargon for an expert who’s spent years mastering the art of distinguishing fragrances in the snap of a finger.
We were given an activity where we had to put our olfactory system to test – identify the fragrances on testers. I got 9 correct out of 10 . Our guide declared that theirs could retire now that they had one in the making… me 🙂 . Guess I have an alternative career already.
You’ll be showed around and offered insights on the life cycle of soaps and perfumes. The lurid colors and aromas are hypnotic. Do not be surprised if you walk away with a bag full of them. I came home with Belle Di Nuit. It’s my very priced possession from France which I leave no chance to show off.


MONACO:
Prince’s Palace of Monaco
is a short drive away. Pace up to make in time for The Ceremony Of The Guards which takes place at 11:55 am everyday. Even if you do make in time, it’s a monstrous task to find a spot for the view, craning your neck and all.


Take a walk around the market, window-shop or just let your eyes devour the gorgeous hillscape of Monaco.


Circumambulate the Monaco Formula 1 Grand Prix Circuit, the much revered race track for the F1 Grand Prix of Monaco. Feel the adrenaline rush as you speed through the start line, cover the entire race track and then reach for the finish line, just like a pro.

Casino de Monte-Carlo does make a luxurious backdrop for an Insta-worthy selfie, doesn’t it.


CANNES:

It’s a short forty minutes train ride from Nice to Cannes. And if you happen to be there in the second week of May, you have a cherry on the cake. It’s that time of the year when the French Riviera is stuffed with glamour and glitz, when the stars descend the earth and sashay the red carpet in their resplendent best. It’s the Cannes Film Festival, which I’ve been following very closely for more than a decade, to see which celebrity’s worn what – an extravagant display of exquisite couture.

Take a walk alongside the promenade for some celeb spotting. You’ll see them up and close striking their perfectly rehearsed poses for the shutterbugs.


And sometimes the photographers love to be clicked too…


Waddle around and the Riviera will reward you with such breathtaking views you’ll remember for a long long time.


When your feet protest, make a dash to the station and board the next train to Nice; to be back in the arms of warmth, comfort and realness that no amount of showbiz will offer. It’s nice to be home.

Paris

It takes centuries to write a history as breathtakingly beautiful as that of Paris; and the monuments, opulent palaces and museums stand tall with pride to tell it all. We spent two days and we barely managed to scratch its endless surface. No wonder Carrie kept gushing about her dream city and finally made her way there. You know Carrie Bradshaw…from Sex And The City. Her epic reaction when she sees the Eiffel Tower for the first time, mine was exactly the same…a complete melodrama replete with facial and hand gestures 🙂
So, Bienvenue a Paris – Welcome to Paris!
The land desperately coveted by the vikings centuries ago, the land of King Louis the XIV, the land of souffles and champagne… But above all…the mecca of fashion.

Autumm and Spring are the best times of the year to visit France. We chose the latter. The crowds are sparce, prices are low and nature is welcoming.
We didn’t really have that good of an experience from the airport to the hotel. We were duped of 100 Euros by the cabbie. He spoke Spanish. I know little Spanish. Thus, instead of being friendly, atleast with a language in common, he duped us. Haha. Unforeseen costs. Shit happens. Nevertheless, that was a good sign…good sign to all the memories that Paris had in store for us.

We reach the hotel, throw our bags and have a quick nap. In the evening, we head to the object of my fascination, ever since SATC…the Eiffel Tower. Our tour to the tower is actually scheduled for the third day. But there’s a kind of pull it has you just cannot resist. It pops up from every place, stalks you in almost every lane, and also plays peek-a-boo from your hotel window. Since we have the entire evening and no plans, we put it to good use – acquaint ourselves with the public transport system. Paris and its places are well-connected with Metro, the RER line, buses and trams. Buy a pass as per your necessity and number of days of stay, and you’re good to go. It’s hassle-free, economical and comes with few freebies too.

As a first-timer to Paris, the best option to explore this magnificent city is to book a HOHO (hop-on-hop-off) bus tour. With this tour you can explore the city at your own pace. It gives you the freedom to plan your own itinerary and explore the best of Paris’s landmarks for as little or as long as you like for the duration of your ticket. Ah! and you get a free poncho to take the unruly rains head-on.

I just love Europe for the food-on-the-go options it has. We pop into the supermarket adjacent to our hotel and pick up quick dinner – sushi, quinoa salad loaded with plums and nuts, pork sandwiches, crab mayo, chocolate muffins and cold coffee. Did I miss anything? Gosh! these could easily last our entire stay. It’s 9.30 and dark. The Eiffel has started to light up. So, we switch the light off, plonk on the jumpy bed and ogle at the magnificence and magnitude of the monument of my fascination. I could sit there and gawk all night, but my body has started to tire and eyes are closing.
Every late evening, the Eiffel Tower turns into a nocturnal spectacle, when the beams of light illuminate the monument into a gilded masterpiece, while its beacon shines over Paris. This is truely a sight to behold.

Palace De Versailles:
Who’d believe that this enormous and magnificent masterpiece sitting amidst the sweeping, picturesque gardens was once upon a time a humble hunting lodge. Louis the XIV visited these grounds as a little boy of 12. Then returned again in his youth only to fall in love with it. That’s when he envisioned an imposing, opulent and ornate masterpiece that would project the absolute power of French monarchy and seal his position as Roi Soleil, the Sun King.


Around 30,000 soldiers and workers toiled towards making the king’s dream come to life. Its 700 rooms are replete with frescoed ceilings and carvings. Light streaming in through the gold-framed windows in the Hall of Mirrors is divine, while the Versailles Gardens (Jardins de Versailles) brim with geometrically designed walkways and fountains. No visit to Paris, or France for that matter, is complete without experiencing the grandeur of Versailles.

With this kind of enormity, it’s difficult to cover every room and corner in just one day. This is where the skip-the-line audio tour helps. There are tours that offer hotel pick-up and drops. I feel, it’s best to reach there on your own. The palace is located in the small township of Versailles, about 21 km outside of Paris, and is easy to reach by train. Catch RER C from Paris to Versailles Rive Gauche station. It’s just 10-15 minutes walk from the station through a quite lane dotted with dainty cafes, you’ll otherwise miss if you take the pick-up.
Book the skip-the-line tour in advance which also includes breakfast at Ore restaurant. Stuff yourself with their freshly baked buttery croissants, smoky sausages and steaming hot coffee before you start the tour.After shaking ourselves off the palatial dream, we take a train back to Paris.

Notre Dame Cathedral:

The HOHO bus drops us off to another historical monument – The Notre-dame de Paris also known as Notre-dame Cathedral, visited every year by whopping 14 million people, and the count only continues to move north. This medieval structure is a finest example of French Gothic Architecture. The construction spanned two centuries from its conception to completion. Stained glass windows were a major attraction until they were replaced by the rosewood ones in the 18th century, and, these are equally stunning.

Move over from the windows and exquisite interiors to treasury and bell towers that soar to the skies. The top of the North Tower can be reached by climbing the exhaustive 400 odd steps, where you’ll come face-to-face with frightening gargoyles and a spectacular view of Paris. Also, among the treasures stashed here is the Ste-Couronne, the ‘Holy Crown’, which is purportedly the wreath of thorns placed on Jesus’ head before he was crucified, brought here in the mid-13th century.
The best part about visiting Notre-Damne is…eating.  There’s a host of upscale as well as pock-friendly cafes just a stone’s throw from the Cathedral. While you’re tired already touring the monument, tire yourself some more while waddling the street, glancing at each of the cafes and their displayed menus – although you’ll barely understand, and then you’re sure to settle down with anyone, irrespective of the cost.

Hop on to the bus and settle on the top side to get the best views of the city as the commentary runs on. The bus, leisurely makes its way over Pont Neuf – the oldest standing bridge over river Seine, the history of which you cannot afford to miss. The bridge is more than 400 years old and has a fascinating story to tell – a story of crime and commerce. Do keep your ears on the audio, eyes on the bridge and sites that surround it.

Soak in the magnificent architecture and history as the bus moves from one stop to the other. You’ll pass the Musee d’Orsay, that houses the earlier 19th century masterpieces by legends such as Monet, Cezanne and Van Gogh to name a few.

Palais Garnier: Hop off the bus if you wish, at the awe-inspiring Palais Garnier also known as Opéra Garnier, perhaps the most famous opera house in the world, as it provided a setting for the famous 1910 novel ‘The Phantom Of The Opera’, which was then adapted into numerous films. Designed in 1860 by Charles Garnier, who was then an unknown 35-year-old architect, the building is a perfect blend of the Renaissance and Baroque styles.

Louvre Museum: You can’t claim to have visited Paris unless you’ve paid a visit to Mona Lisa. This mystical and mysterious painting by Leonardo da Vinci is said to be the most visited and the most parodied work of art and takes centre-stage in the museum. Spread over 60,000 square meters of exhibition space, the Louvre hosts over 35,000 pieces of artwork, the Mesopotamian, Egyptian and Greek antiquities to masterpieces by artists such as Da Vinci, Michelangelo and Rembrandt. Take the skip-the-line small group tour or audio guide and devote time learning about the much revered pieces on display.

The Mona Lisa:

Winged Victory of Samothrace:

Venus de Milo:

Sleeping Hermaphroditus:

Coronation of Napoleon:

La Pyramide Inversée (The Inverted Pyramid):

Marveling at these masterpieces, you lose track of time. Literally. There’s so much to gape, so much to read, so much to soak in. You’ll have to peel yourself out of this spectacle. Literally. No wonder this is the most visited museum in the world.

Eiffel Tower: It was a darling of controversies, a subject to be written, drawn and sculpted, a mere metal object people loved to hate. It was a debatable relationship between architecture and engineering. But that did not stop Gustave Eiffel from turning his vision into a almost 1000 feet tall structure that was supposedly useless and inimitable yet incessantly imitated over years to come.

Book a skip-the-line guided tour and you wont have to brave the queues. The guide will escort you to the entrance from where you can take the elevator to the second level, where the winds are freezing and the views of the cityscape are jaw-droppingly sublime. Better have your batteries loaded, because you may want tonnes to pictures to make.
The giant wheel to the extreme left is Place de la Concorde. While the shimmering golden dome to the right is the Hotel Les Invalides.

Look how mesmerizing does River Seine look from the top:

And when you’re chilled enough, you may want to dethaw a bit with a steaming hot cappuccino, buttery croissants, gooey muffins among other warm and delish baked goodies. There’s also cutesy souvenir shops to take a replica of the tower that can easily fit inside your purse.

Place de la Concorde:
 The major public square in Paris, it was the site of many notable public executions during the French Revolution. It was this place where a guillotine was first erected by the new revolutionary government for execution of King Louis XVI by beheading.

Champs-élysées: You pronounced it as ‘Champs Elysis’, didn’t you? No no. It’s actually – Shawns Ely-say. We kept mouthing the former and made utter fools of ourselves. Multiple times. Gosh the French pronunciations! The name translates to “Elysian Fields” from the Greek mythology, meaning resting place of Greek gods and dead heroes.
Champs-élysées is the most beautiful, famous and fashionable avenue in Paris.

This beautiful tree-dotted avenue that once housed the nobility and was the famous meeting point for the politicians and intellectuals, is now a lot commercialized. Its buildings now house high-end fashion stores, chic cafes, cinemas and elegant offices. Take a stroll down the straight, long lane and you’ll know how far it has come from where it once started.

That’s me at my beloved brand. Hope to swing my very own LV someday. Not the first, second or third copy. The original 😛

Arc de Triomphe: 
Looking to the azure Parisian skies with utmost pride is Arc de Triomphe, the magnificent monument that honors those who fought and died for France in the French Revolution and Napoleonic wars. 
Beneath the Arc is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier from World War I and the eternal flame that burns in memory of the dead who were never identified in both the World Wars.
The Arc is located at the culminating west end of Champs-élysées and on the right bank of River Seine.
Inscribed on its inner and outer surfaces are the names of all French victories and generals.

Seine Cruise: Save the best for the last, is what I always do. Book a skip-the-line tour and hop aboard a boat with glass canopy that takes you leisurely through the beautiful Parisian boulevards. Put on your headphones and lose yourself to the hypnotic voice of River Seine as she takes you centuries back when it all began and Paris slowly but steadily became what she is today. Keep your eyes peeled as the boat glides past many of the major attractions of Paris like the Notre Dame and the Louvre. Pass through tunnels, locks and under the bridges as you cruise through some of the old and exotic Parisian neighborhoods that you don’t get to see by road. Evening I believe, is the best time to take the cruise. You know why? Because, witnessing the illuminated Eiffel shimmering in gold, like a flame burning in the dark, so up-close from the still waters is an experience of a lifetime.

Paris stands as a living, breathing reminder of its opulent heritage. Its allure lies in its ability to seamlessly blend a rich, cultural past with its new, vogue avatar, while promising us a unique sense of je ne sais quoi that’s tough to say good-bye to…

Giethoorn, Netherlands

Something that was supposed to be only the part of a post, ended up being an entire post itself…this charming, idyllic waterfront village called Giethoorn. Read on, have a good look at the pictures and you’ll know why.

So… Giethoorn…

I’d sell kidneys – mine or whose-ever, loot a bank, do whatever it takes to live in this land of dreams forever. I’d gladly bake croissants and brew coffee, even breed chicken to make a living. Yes… these and such other inane thoughts entered my mind right from the moment I hopped out of the bus. They followed me all the way through the boat ride, through those meandering lakes snaking through the lush greens on either side, through those gorgeous thatched roof houses straight out of fairy tales and through that flapping of ducks who seem know the real meaning of cohabitating, even better than us humans.
Giethoorn is that beautiful.

Look at her. Isn’t she pretty!

It’s a typical Dutch village, far away from the city conundrum, where lakes are plenty and people are few. Around three thousand max. And for a change, it’s the humans who’ve gleefully learnt to live with, on and around water and not the other way round. The only means of transportation is canoes, punts and whisper boats – because they have silent electric motors. No wonder, nature smiles in all her magnificent glory here.

Giethoorn is located in the province of Overijssel in the east of the Netherlands. This quaint little village thrives on its waterways, canal system and over 170 gorgeous bridges. Its name originates from “Goat Horns”, which were discovered by its earliest inhabitants in the tenth century flood. Now there are no goats and no horns, but something like ensures they aren’t missed.

Best way to explore Giethoorn and its myriad of lakes and canals is by taking a canal cruise. Spend an hour or two on the boat with a local guide who’ll spin yarns and yarns of tales and you’ll realize how exquisite a place you are in.

When the boat gently maneuvers from under the beautifully arched bridges, slicing through the quiet, glistening waters, you hastily adjust the settings of your camera to capture every bit of this dreamy place in your lens. All this while trying your best not to tumble out of the boat and into the water.


Here, the boats have houses too…

A spray of mist, a drizzle of rain and a dash of nip in the air. Perfect recipe for a memorable ride on the lake.

After you’re done with the ride and your tummy starts rumbling, stuff yourself in one of those restaurants that sit beautifully on the water’s edge.


Sink you teeth into their delectable pizzas or how about some steaming hot chocolate while the errant cold winds peck at your neck.

Later, pay a visit to any of the three canal-side museums or take a stroll past the 18th and 19th century houses, ancient churches, while dodging the cyclists and submit yourself to the sweet melancholy of nature.

Some cutesy stuff at the museum you can bring back home.

Couldn’t help posting pictures of these gorgeous houses, each one plonked on a carpet of various shades of greens and with a view to die for. They all look so pampered to me.




This is how you kill time in Giehoorn. Transform into a tiger, park your backside on the edge of the lake, smile and wave at every passing boat and wait for fishes to catch your bait. And this at 11 in the morning. Wonder how rest of the day goes by.

When a house feels cold, this is how it insulates itself…


This one looks straight out of a Harry Potter movie, doesn’t it…

In circa 1900, a milkman would come sailing and pour milk in these cans that were kept waiting outside the house. Now they just sit here, reminiscing the good old days..

You come in. Vehicles stay out…

As the trip comes to a wrap, and you are about to board the bus, every bit of you will crave to be frozen in those moments, in that achingly beautiful place and wishing and hoping that time stands still forever. This is the magic of Giethoorn.

People say it’s the journey that’s more important than the destination. But sometimes, it’s the destination like this that really matters…

Ooty, Tamil Nadu

Ooty! Melodious little name, no? Now, let’s test your phonetics…Say Udagamandalam in a go.
Pat your back if you did. Well, that’s the original name of this quaint hill station, the British discovered, back in the early eighteenth century. So captivating was its beauty that they couldn’t help but compare it to Switzerland and soon after made it their summer abode. Udagamandalam proved bit of a tongue-twister, which is why they fondly rechristened it to Ooty. And, we absolutely love it.

90 kilometers from Coimbatore airport and a three hours snaky drive up the verdant mountains, Ooty is nestled in the Nilgiri district of Tamil Nadu. Nil-Giri means Blue Mountains in Tamil. You know you’ve entered the Nilgiris when you roll down your windshields, stick your nose out and inhale the earthy aroma of Eucalyptus trees strewn around. That’s the beginning of your journey to the spellbinding destination of breathtaking vistas, never-seen-before magical lakes, mystical pine forests, glorious colonial bungalows that still stand tall and proud of their British Raj history, the overwhelming not-to-be-missed ride in heritage Nilgiri Mountain Railway, the diversity of teas that’ll make you go berserk…. All of these and you’ve barely scratched it’s surface.

Rose Garden:
Perched on the Elk Hill and spread across massive 4 hectares, the Rose Garden is the largest in the world boasting more than 20,000 varieties of stunning, blooming and blushing roses in colours and sizes you’ll wonder even existed.

Ooty Lake:
John Sullivan, the erstwhile Collector of Coimbatore constructed this artificial lake way back in 1824. This pristine fuggy lake is hemmed by a thicket of Eucalyptus trees, making for a picture perfect backdrop.

The boat house at the lake offers various options like paddles, row and motor boats. The queue is insane. But, the experience is worth all the wait. There’s also a garden, amusement park and a canteen for when you’re peckish.

Government Botanical Gardens:
The Brits indeed left no stone unturned in developing and beautifying this place. In 1848, a British Architect was summoned to contruct this garden. The purpose was to supply the European residents with vegetables at a reasonable cost.
The Gardens are a horticulturist’s delight and a picnicker’s haven. Aroma of the greens wafts through the air and follows you all through the park.

Shooting Point:
Bollywood-ies couldn’t be happier. Many many movies have been shot here.  ‘Raja Hindustani’… ring a bell?
Tall, handsome horses trot around, beckoning you to saddle up for a breezy ride up this gorgeous hill.

Pykara Lake:
How I wish I’d taken a video. This post-card perfect lake is a pure sensory overload. Go boating for 20 minutes. There’s nothing else you’ll hear, except the invisible chirping of birds, the splashing of water against the boat and the oars slicing through. And, if you are lucky enough, the raindrops may fall from the heavens above adding to the unforgettable drama. Lastly, there’s yummy food, ice-creams, coffee and homemade chocolates upstairs to satiate your rumbling tummy.

Dodabetta Peak:
Normal people do the regular. We being the intrepid kinds, did the offbeat – We took a hyperbumpy, nose-chilling, cheek-numbing yet super-fun auto-ride to the top.

The mountains here have their own way of weaving a very special magic. Doddabetta is the highest at 8600 feet. It’s captivating up there. Cool cottony clouds coming right at you. Where do you ever find that? The chill is numbing and the feeling…it’s profound. Take a deep breath, marvel at the spectacular panoramas of Ooty and forget the cacophony of the other world for a while. Mountains do help us understand… the place, its beauty and many times… ourselves.
Squeezing in a bit of snooze:

Kamarajar Sagar Dam:
Come on. Let’s sit down, only for a few minutes. Let’s just sit and glare at the still waters of the deep blue lake, the rhythmically swaying pines, the mystical blue skies, the floating clouds…  Let’s breathe in the silence. Can you hear that? Can you actually hear silence? The answer is, you can. Right here. The land gently breathing in and out, that’s silence. When you are able to dive deep into your soul, that’s silence. When you feel the world is frozen in your moment, that’s silence. And it’s right here, at the Kamrajar Dam.

Tea Factory:
I still remember that triumph on my grandpa’s face when he’d taken that first slurp of the tea I made. It was my maiden dish, beverage rather… at the age of 6. Surprisingly, I’m a coffee aficionado.
4 kilometres from the City Centre, the Ooty Tea Factory is a tea-lover’s haven. 40 minutes tour around the factory and you have a complete lowdown on the entire history of tea and the tea-making process. You can actually witness the fresh green leaves being subjected to a series of processes, the CTC (cut, twist, curl) machines and lastly the packaging too. The aroma is intoxicating. It’s educational, insightful, and inspiring and you are sure to love and appreciate your cuppa all the more. After the tour ends, you are rewarded with a steaming hot cup of Masala Chai, the product of the factory itself. At the counter, you’ll be spoilt for choice and price. Parcel home some of these aromatic infusions for your mandatory morning fix.
From shrub to cup:

Adjacent to the Tea Museum is the Chocolate Factory, where you can sample the dark homemade beauties in rum and raisins, roasted almonds, fig and honey, coffee chocolate and many others. They’re sure to make for some amazing gifts for your folks back home.

Pine Forests:
Bollywood has had an age-old love affair with the Pine Forests of Ooty. They’re painfully romantic and stunningly eerie at the same time. This is that one place I’ve been craving to visit, since the time I watched the horror flick, Raaz, way back in 2002.
Posting a clipping for you from the movie and you’ll know what I mean.

Walk till the end, and you are rewarded with spectacular views of paradise. Swathes of lush greens and spotless blue skies, as far as your eyes can see.

Mudumulai Tiger Reserve:
They say, “it’s all about the journey, not the destination”. I feel, it’s about both, and in this case specially. A magnificent 4o km narrow, winding stretch of extremely steep ghats, laced with a whopping 36 hair-pin bends, is something you’ll never forget.
Does the name “Veerappan” ring a bell? Yes, that ruthless murderer, the unrelenting sandalwood and ivory smuggler and an incessant menace to the police and the civilians alike. These verdant hills were his abode for more than a decade, until he was finally ambushed and killed. Now, that’s quite a journey, isn’t it, seasoned with such hair-raising anecdotes.
Look at all that he has for company 🙂 :

Well, it doesn’t end here. When you finally touch the plains and heave a euphoric sigh of relief, the driver suddenly slows down, his eyes peeled on the road-sides, and you wonder, why?
That’s exactly when he yells, “a boar. Look, a wild boar…to your left…”
Now, you join him in the search too. An elephant (his rear, actually), on the left hill, handful of deer to your right, a peacock little farther. All of this has already set the tone for what might lay ahead. I’m now expecting the big cat to pop out from somewhere. How ridiculous of me! But there’s always a hope, isn’t there 🙂

One hour thirty minutes of an eventful drive later, we arrive at the reserve. Book tickets to a jeep or bus safari and you are off on a 45 minutes adventure deep inside the jungle.

About 50 tigers are reported to live here apart from deer, peacocks, wild boar, langurs, jackals, Malabar giant squirrels, wild elephants and the Indian Bison.
Here, you’re bound to see a lifetime supply of deer. Magnificent and graceful, lounging, sunbathing, strutting their stuff…
Lazy tiger! Where was he?

Wax Museum And Chocolate Market:
Well, this isn’t exactly Madame Tussauds, if you so expect. But, it definitely is a work of art. You have to appreciate the efforts of Mr. Shreeji Bhaskaran, the sponsor, owner and creator, who’s put his heart and soul into the making of these marvelous pieces. Mr. Veerappan in the picture above, sits right here.

The chocolate and spice shop is just next door:

Nilgiri Mountain Railway:
In 2005, this heritage toy train was added by UNESCO to the list of World Heritage sites. Built by the British in 1908, this royal blue beauty takes you through a time warp more than a century ago.

An old steam locomotive plinthed outside Coonoor Station:
There’s something inexpressibly romantic about train journeys. Chugging through numerous curves, tunnels and bridges thrown in for a good measure, the one hour fifteen minutes joyride from Ooty to Coonoor is something you should not miss. Clinging to the mountain sides, the train maneuvers the sharp turns, huffing and puffing all the way. Towering pines and firs hem the tracks. And, when they are not, it’s the panoramic vistas of rolling hills and sweeping tea estates that leave you gasping for breath and grabbing your cameras.
If that’s not all, quaint little stations with colonial names like Runnymede, Hill Grove, Adderly, Wellington and Lovedale reminisce you of being a part of the British history.

Ensure you book the window seats, at least a month in advance, so you don’t miss out making some wonderful memories.

Coonoor:
The heritage train ride sets just the right pace for an amazing holiday that awaits in Coonoor. Earmark a day at least to explore its sights and surrounds. Coonoor is one of the three hill-stations of Nilgiri. The other two being Ooty and Kotagiri. It’s smaller, quieter and a little less touristy than it’s famous sister. You can still do the exact same things here, like, visit tea plantations, soak in those splendid mountain views, among doing hordes of other touristy stuff. But, when you do decide to hit the tourist spots, pick quality over quantity. It’s a whole lot different to actually be in a place than to just see and tick it off your bucket list.

Shopping is crazy in Coonoor. Loosen your purse strings for those rare and indigenous ayurvedic oils serving various purposes like medicinal, beauty, aromatic and massage. Make pit stops to sample teas in diverse flavors at the countless factory outlets. Stock up on some incredibly fresh and aromatic spices, that you won’t find in the cities.
Few outlets even give you a glimpse of their factory-like setting where the extraction of Eucalyptus oil takes place:

Park yourself in one of those gorgeous heritage hotels or return to Ooty, taking the last toy-train back home.

There’s nothing like planning a perfect holiday for that perfect experience. Or, may be there is. But, in a place like Ooty, bursting with captivating landscapes, steam-puffing lakes and brilliant blue skies, you’re better off throwing your plans to the wind and just pace yourself. There’s something hypnotic about it’s tranquil air… it’s gentle nonchalance that is just as enticing as it’s natural beauty that’s here to stay, year after year…season after season…whether we are here to witness it or not…

Where To Stay:
Ooty’s got a whole bloom of gorgeous heritage villas and hotels scattered all over. Glancing over the misty mountains and perched beneath the sun-kissed pines, they are sure to hark you back to another time.

We stayed at Sherlock:
It’s a perfect bubble of calm to be nestled within. With a cluster of 9 spacious rooms, each with stunning views, a Victorian mantelpiece, period furniture, spacious bathrooms and a bed so soft, you won’t want to move out.

Menu is impressive with an assortment of cuisines to choose from. Of course, the chefs showcase the flavours of South India with equal flair. Food is hearty and flavorful enough to lull you into food coma.
Click here for my post on Sherlock.
For further inquiries and bookings visit their site: http://www.littlearth.in/sherlock

Where To Eat:
Nahar Sidewalk Cafe: Attentive service, vintage decor and fresh pizzas doled out from their wood-fired oven are the hallmarks of this quaint cafe on the Commercial Street.

Shinkow’s Chinese Restaurant: This one’s an institution in itself that has been dishing out lip-smacking Chinese fare. Dim lighting, scurrying waiters and chequered table-cloths are perfect appetizers to the much anticipated main course that’s super quick to arrive. We loved the nutty Chicken in Almonds, Chilly Beef, Soft Fried Noodles With Prawns and Young Chow Fried Rice.

Hotel Junior Kuppanna: Work up an appetite for an authentic South Indian experience, specially the Chettinad style. Food is super fresh and is served on banana leaves. Chicken Chukka, Mutton Pallipalayam, Vanjiram Fish Tawa Fry along with crisp Parottas are something you must try. The fiery dishes might give you hot flashes, but the food is so flavourful, I’m sure, you won’t mind the post-meal fireworks.

Hyderabad Biryani House: HBH in the local lingo, known for their Biryanis and Kebabs. The place is tad over-rated compared to their food. But then, it’s the only restaurant that caters to your Biryani cravings. They have their branch in Coonoor too, stone’s throw from the railway station.

Singapore – Malaysia – Singapore Cruise

Cruise is an experience in itself. Something enchanting, something mesmerizing, something unknown and with tonnes of anticipation. We’d never been on a cruise before. This made me anticipate a lot more, right from the time of deciding on a cruise, to booking right till the moment we embarked and even after that.

We landed in Singapore in the evening and headed straight to Singapore Harbourfront Cruise Centre. Its a 30 minutes drive from Changi airport. You need to be there at least 3 hours before the scheduled time considering the crowd and the lengthy clearance process. Ours was to disembark at 11.55 pm. The place was flooded with cruise enthusiasts. A lot more than we’d imagined.
harbourfront
Superstar Virgo – The ship of my dreams. I took this pic when we were transferred to a small ferry for our Melaka excursion.
Virgo3
After clearing all the embarkation steps and mandates, we were escorted to our cabin. We had booked the Oceanview Stateroom with Window on Deck 9. It was a comfortable room with 2 parallel beds and one pull-over bed, a dressing table and toilet/bath, enough to accommodate 3 people. A goody bag of Chinese Tea was kept on the table before we entered. I’m always thrilled about the goodies, no matter whats there in it.
Room
There’s an assortment of activities to explore on a Cruise. It was 12 am when the ship disembarked. Two nights and a half day was all that we had to explore the ship. That’s because, we had opted for an excursion to Melaka, Malaysia the next day.

I will first take you around the ship with me. Will put in my Melaka Excursion later.

Tour de Virgo: This pic, though a bit blurry, will give you an idea of what every deck has to offer.
DSC_4794
The Grand Piazza – A grand spot for a great photo op. There cannot be a single passenger on the ship whose lenses mustn’t have captured these 3 royal golden horses.
Grand Piazza
The Galaxy of Stars – It was amazing to see the gorgeous Chinese girls effortlessly croon our very own Bollywood numbers. Never knew Bollywood was such a hit in China and Singapore too. All was so very interactive.
HDRtist Pro Rendering - http://www.ohanaware.com/hdrtistpro/
The Lido – The famous shows here are the Jewel of Atlantis, the Magic show, the Comedy show, etc. Show timings are fixed. You need to rush to grab a prominent front seat.
Lido
The Celebrity Area –
HDRtist Pro Rendering - http://www.ohanaware.com/hdrtistpro/
The Video Arcade – the gaming section
Video Arcade
The Mediterranean Terrace – You can see a live band performing by the pool.
DSC_4994
The Taverna – the roof-top cafe
Taverna
The Captain’s Den –
men in white and at work
Captain
The Captain’s Gallery –
stand behind this wheel and you are bound to get a feeling of controlling the ship… Just a feeling… a great spot for a memorable photo.
Gaptains Gallery
The Observatory –Observatory
The Deck – 
Wanna set your mind free, the desk is the place to be. You can sit here for hours, doing absolutely nothing. Just let go of yourself and let the wandering sea-breeze take you wherever she wants to… DSC_5098
Or just stand by the railings gazing at the sparkling blue sea, sometimes calm, sometimes naughty, while its unruly waves hit the ship and then disappear. It may sound funny, but I did try my luck at spotting the dolphins, although I didn’t succeed. May be there weren’t any. 
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The View Point –
Extreme end of the ship, reminiscent of the super-famous Titanic pose.
View Point
The Megaslide –
only for the brave hearts. That’s because, the transparent part of the slide which curls, is out of the ship. So you can find yourself sliding down straight out of the ship.
Megawaterslide
The Neptune Pool – for all age groups
Swimming pool
The Child Care Centre – 
Child care centre
The Library – Who has time to read when there’s so much to explore. We visited library only for a click 🙂
Library
Mediterranean Buffet – 
There’s nothing like eating your first meal of the day, sitting besides a window that offers an unobstructed view of the sea.
Mediterranen buffet
Bella Vista Restaurant – 
specialises in Italian cuisine this one. There are also others like the Taj, Blue Lagoon, etc.
HDRtist Pro Rendering - http://www.ohanaware.com/hdrtistpro/
The Tea Corner –
I knew nothing other than Barrista and Starbucks until I came to this place.
Tea corner
The Duty-free Shoppe – 
Over-priced stuff. Makes for a good memorabilia from the mighty Superstar Virgo.
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Excursion to Melaka, Malaysia:

There’s a dedicated customer service desk at the Piazza which takes care of the excursion bookings and all the other customer related services. You need to book the excursion in advance, i.e., the night you embark the ship. There’s an array of shore excursions to choose from. We rounded off on the Half Day Historical Tour of Melaka which also included lunch at a local Nyonya restaurant.

We were asked to report at the Lido at 8.30 am sharp, which we did after hurrying up with the delicious breakfast spread.
We were given stickers bearing our group number which we had to stick in a way they could be visible to our tour guide. There’s also a procedure with the documents which needs to be followed before proceeding with the excursion.
From a big ship to a small one, we were transferred by a ferry to Melaka.

Our Tour Guide – Mr. William was our tour guide for the day. Being 72 years old (or young) and a grandfather of 6, didn’t stop him from guiding, managing and keeping intact a group of 22 youngsters or may I say, bundles of energy. He was incredibly vivacious, loaded with knowledge about the place, true sense of belonging and so very enthused to impart all of it to us. I’m mentioning so much about him as I was completely in awe of him. I was all ears for each and every word he said. Yeah, and he’s also a huge storehouse of jokes…jokes for every occasion. I did have a personal conversation with him over a bowl of Cendol (a local sweet delicacy, which I’ve described later), when he told us about his youth, his schooling and his grandchildren. Each time our group split for sight-seeing, that many times he would do a headcount…literally… count our heads 🙂 .  Salute to Mr. William for being the person he is! Always smiling!T his pic is all that I have of him as a memory.
William
Porta de Santiago – is one of the four main gates of the A Famosa fortress, and is the best evidence of Portuguese occupation hundreds of years ago. It was built by the Portuguese in 1511 under the command of Alfonso de Albuquerque.
Famosa
St Paul’s Church – the Portuguese built this church in 1521 and called it “Our Lady of the Hill.” It acquired its present name from the Dutch, who built a new Lutheran church down the hill, while St. Paul’s became a funereal ground and a white-washed navigational marker for passing ships.
Melakachurch1
Stadthuys – a piece of artistry built circa 1650, with traces of Dutch masonry and carpentry. Find it in the walls, the doors and windows, the iron hinges and floral-engraved wooden ceiling.
Malaysia
The Trishaws – The three-tire cycle-rickshaws all decked up, look like a festival of colours and cuteness. You can have a joy ride of 15 minutes, if its included in your excursion.
Cycle
Cheng Ho Cultural Museum
– It was built in the honor of a Chinese Ming Dynasty admiral called Cheng Ho or Zheng He. Cheng Ho was a famous Chinese explorer, who went to the Middle East, Africa and South East Asia between 1405 and 1433. He is credited with the honor of discovering the Melaka Port for the Chinese. They have a high-octane 20 minutes slide presentation which takes you through his journey.
chenghomuseum
J
onker Bird House – This is the first and only walk through exhibit that comprises of heritage dating back to 300 years ago and the famous bird nest products.

Bird nests
See for yourself and understand the nestling area and the process involved in the edible bird nests which are loaded with nutrition. Its an industry in itself. This house is declared as World Heritage Site by UNESCO. In the pic, the light-brown cone-like things are the bird nests.
bird nest
Jonker Street – was once renowned for its antique shops, however over the years it has turned to clothing and crafts outlets as well as restaurants.

jonker street
Melaka Houses – love the celebration of colours here
houses
Cendol – 
Cendol is a refreshing Malaysian dessert. Made of shaved ice, coconut milk, coconut sugar, kidney beans and cendol, which is made out of flour.
Chendol
Friends for Life – My trip to Singapore did not end here. I took back home a lot more than the memorabilia I gathered from each place I visited. I made 4 new friends from different parts of the world – Lily, Doreen from Singapore with their aunt, and Julie from Australia. I could be with Julie only for those 2 days of cruise. But Lily and Doreen are still with me…thanks to social media. We are friends forever…

That’s Lily and Doreen
Friends1
That’s me with them…
Friends 2
We met as strangers during our excursion. Who knew we would bond for life….

Singapore City Tour

A mecca of shopping, sightseeing, food and fun, Singapore is the microcosm and the island country in Southeast Asia.
Singapore also known as the “Lion City”, is one of the world’s major commercial hubs, with the fourth-biggest financial centre and one of the five busiest ports. It has a rich social mix of Singaporean, Chinese, Malay, Indian and the European cultures.
Singapore’s Changi airport, rated as the world’s best, proves every worth of its sash. If you have enough of time at your hands, you can easily spend half a day just exploring the airport.

Enter Singapore and you are sure to get more than what you bargained for. We were received at the airport by Raj, a Tamil and a third generation Singaporean. Speaking to him we realised, not only does Singapore, but its citizens too have their own history to tell. He was friendly enough to explain some of the important rules and regulations of Singapore which run in the blood of every resident of this Lion City.

Day 1: We were transferred to our Hotel Aqueen Lavender in Little India. As the name suggests, Little India houses lot of Indians, which is why the tour operators press a lot on this one. With so many fellow Indians around, it makes you feel at home even in a foreign country.

We reached our hotel at 3.30 and had a nice little snooze. We were booked at 6pm for Night Safari, the world’s first ever night wildlife adventure. When they say 6, you gotta be there by 5.45. Singaporeans are very particular about the time. From 6 to 6.45 is the animals show. The Safari actually starts at 7. Due to heavy traffic in the evening, we missed the Animals Show, but luckily got the Safari.
NightSafari3The guided open tram-ride is fascinating and the close encounter with wild animals… spectacular. Lions, tigers, tuskers, wild boars, leopards, deer… all in their natural habitat and less than few metres away from you. Its breathtaking !
You are not allowed to use the flash of your cameras, which made it difficult to click.
NightSafari1There are walking trails like the Leopard Trail and the Wallaby Trail. We did the latter one.
NightSafari2There are lot of food counters to stuff yourselves after you are done with the wildlife rendezvous.
Later, we returned to our hotel, only step out again and explore the place. We dined at the nearby hawker street and took a stroll down to explore further.
Singapore Street
Clark Quay:
To explore the high-end night-life of Singapore, pay a visit to Clark Quay. Clarke Quay, Singapore’s choice dining and entertainment destination, is a colourful kaleidoscope of buildings housing antiques, restaurants, hip cafes, jazz clubs and more. At night, the entire zone is a sight to behold with all five blocks of restored warehouses lit up and beamed with an array of quirky alternative to mainstream clubs.

Day 2:
was reserved for guided City Tour. We were booked on a seat-in-coach basis. Our guide was Mr. Jack who has claimed to have guided the likes of Priyanka Chopra, Kareena Kapoor and also our respected PM, Mr. Modi. He is a Chinese settled in China Town area of Singapore. So you see, there is an array of cultures and people whom Singapore has sheltered with open arms.
ChinatownFurther down is the Haji Lane which houses Singapore’s Muslim community. It is also a haven for fashion fanatics, where local designers and entrepreneurs have set up their boutiques.

SIC experience is way different than a private cab one. Everything is timebound. This was the reason we had no stop-over at Haji Lane.
We were then whisked to Singapore’s major attraction – The Singapore Flyer. The 165-metre-high flyer is Singapore’s answer to the London Eye—with the title of being the world’s largest ‘Ferris wheel’ up until March 2014.
SingaporeFlyerThe 30-minute ride offers stunning views of the Colonial District, Marina Bay and the South China Sea extending all the way to parts of neighbouring Malaysia and Indonesia.
SingaporeFlyerView
Marina Bay, situated in the heart of the city is the island’s largest and the most urbanised catchment. You have a lot of photo-ops here.

The iconic Marina Bay Sands hotel is the star attraction.
MarinaBaySands
The ArtScience Museum
is one of the attractions at the Bayfront. The lotus shaped architectural marvel is also referred to as “The welcoming hand of Singapore”.
Flower
Merlion
is the national mascot which is the head of a lion and the body of a fish. This is the marketing icon and the national personification of Singapore.
Merlion
It was noon and we had to break for lunch. We were told to gather at a specified point at 2.30 pm to continue our sojourn to the very famous Sentosa Island.
Getting to Sentosa is a memorablia in itself. Its a 15 minutes cable-car ride which takes you to the top. Pay a visit to the Butterfly Park and the Insect Kingdom.
And then time for some adventure – The Luge Ride and the Sky Ride

The Luge Ride, something you might have never done before and will wanna do again and again.
lugeride
The Sky Ride
– I got stoked the moment I got into it…as if I was possessed by a child’s soul. And that over-excitement led me dropping one of my slippers down somewhere in the woods. But the staff were kind enough to search and get it for me. Such courteous behaviour is a rare find. The best part is when you get clicked in all your natural expressions by the unnoticeable cameras here and there.
skyride
The Dolphin Lagoon
– adorable pink dolphins performing their antics alongside the black seals. We were booked in the VIP lounge. Its time-slotted so better rush before time.DolphinLagoonDolphinLagoon2
The Underwater World-
You have an up, close and personal rendezvous with the aquatic world. Its an underwater glass tunnel with automatic walk-through which offers a super-close view of the sharks, sting rays and many others swimming right above your head and all around.
UnderwaterWorld2
Songs of the Sea – One day visit to Sentosa comes to a closure with the spectacular Songs of the Sea show located at Siloso Beach on the Sentosa Island.
This show is one stupendous feast to your eyes with  the mindblowing pyrotecnic displays, water jets that shoot up to 40 meteflrs, laser show, flame bursts, a live 7-person cast, and an open-air viewing gallery. Be sure to choose the seats at the centre to have a direct and undisturbed view. This show is ought to leave you spell-bound.
SongsoftheSea
Day 3: We chose to be on our own with a quest of exploring the city. As per me, the best way to explore a new place is grab a map, be on your own, get lost, speak to the locals, ask for directions, hop on the metro, bus or just keep walking. This is exactly what we did and made our way to Jurong Bird Park.

Jurong Bird Park – Its is one of the most renowned bird sanctuaries with the largest free-flying aviaries.
JurongBirdPark3Take a guided hop-on hop-off tram tour or just walk it out and take your own sweet time to explore the place. There’s multitude of birds you can ever imagine – flamingoes, pelicans, eagles, kites, scarlets, swans, macaws, penguins, spoonbills… the list is never-ending.
JurongBirdPark4Can anything be more beautiful…
JurongBirdPark5They also have various shows lined up like the Kings of Skies show, the High Fliers Show, etc. These are very informative and interactive.
JurongBirdPark1You have to have one full day at your hand to explore the entire park and be one with nature.

Day 4: We were on our own to explore.
Gardens by the Bay – 
Enter a world of perpetual spring, where unique plants bloom in an ever changing display of flowers.

Flower Dome: Step into the Flower Dome and you’ll be standing in awe of nature.
FlowerDomeIt replicates a mild, dry climate and features plants found in the Mediterranean and other semi-arid tropical regions (e.g. parts of Australia, South America, South Africa).
GBB1
The Supertree Grove: Supertrees are tree-like structures that dominate the Gardens’ landscape with heights that range between 25 metres and 50 metres. There is an elevated walkway, between two of the larger Supertrees for visitors to enjoy a breathtaking aerial view of the Gardens.
Gardensbythebay3
There’s also the Cloud Forest which replicates the cool moist conditions found in tropical mountain regions between 3,300 ft and 9,800 ft above sea level, found in South-East Asia, Middle- and South America. We could not make it here as it was closed for the day.

Shopping in Singapore:
China Town: Chinatown is Singapore’s largest historic district, nestled close to the bustling business hub. The best time to visit Chinatown is during Chinese New Year, when the Chinatown Food Market is abuzz with activity, from lion dances to Chinese opera performances. Here you will find everything from fine silk and jade jewellery to traditional handicrafts.

Kampong Glam: To explore Kampong Glam, hop on the MRT and alight at Bugis MRT Station. A stone’s throw away from Bugis MRT Station, you’ll find shopping haunts such as Bugis Junction, the bustling Bugis Street Market, and of course Kampong Glam. Its also line with  restaurants, caterers, art galleries, and craft and curios shops.

Little India: As its name suggests, Little India is Singapore’s foremost Indian enclave. Look out for stalls selling Ayurvedic massage oils, gold, incense and fabrics in a variety of textures.
No trip to Little India is complete without an all-night shopping spree at the 24-hour emporium, Mustafa Centre, located at the corner of Serangoon and Syed Alwi Roads. Despite its modest exterior, Mustafa Center is a treasure trove of household knick-knacks, decorative items, foodstuff, Indian spices, apparel and textiles, electronic items and more–at some of the lowest fixed prices in Singapore. Legend has it that Mr. Mustafa, a hawker from Hyderabad, started off with just one stall in Singapore which is now an empire in itself.

Dining In Singapore: Old airport road hawker centre, Singapore food trail near Singapore flyer, Maxwell Food Centre in China Town, Newton Food Centre near Orchard Road are some of the places to enjoy Singapore’s best street food. Do not dare miss these places when you are in town.

Cuisines: Singapore is a hot pot of cuisines, incorporating a rich heritage of food dishes consisting of Chinese, Indian, Malaysian and Indonesian influences. Here are some of the must-try delicacies you cannot afford to miss. Walk down any of the hawker centres and see for yourself. Its pocket-friendly and delicious.

Chilli Crabs: The sight of it is enough to get you drooling. The crabs are cooked in a sweet, spicy tomatoish chilli sauce or with black pepper sauce.
Chilli crabs
Laksa:
Its a traditional Singapore Curry which uses vermicelli, coconut milk, tau pok (beancurd puffs), fish slices and shrimp.
LaksaCarrot Cake: No, this isn’t a dessert and is far from being one. The Fried Carrot cake is made with eggs, preserved radish (chai poh) and white radish flour cake, which resembles a ‘white carrot’ and how the name comes about.
carrotcake
Chicken Rice:
This is one of Singapore’s most well-known and celebrated dish. No coffee shop in Singapore is complete without a chicken rice stall.
chickenrice
Satay: 
Satay is a dish of skewered, Turmeric marinated meat that is grilled on an open fire. Typical meats include chicken, beef, mutton and even pork. A spicy peanut dip is also provided for the Satay and sides as well.
Satay
Hokkien Prawn Mee:
Its a combination of egg noodles and rice noodles in a rich prawn stock with cubes of fried chicken, prawns, fish cake and squid.
Hokkien prawn mee
Culture, food, shopping, sight-seeing… 3 days were just not enough to soak in the whole of Singapore. Looking forward to a longer stay to experience all that we missed.