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”…

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.

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.

Mussoorie, Uttarakhand

It was 5 at dawn when my phone alarm squeaked underneath my pillow. I hadn’t quiet slept the night. Nandadevi Express was racing at an alarming speed. The wobbly, bumpy ride had got my tummy rumbling with fear. I was more than waiting to officially wake up.

We dragged our behemoth luggage from every place we’d shoved them into. It was 5.30 and freezing when we stepped on the Dehradun platform.

Hailing a cab is a cakewalk in Dehradun. Right outside the railway station is a taxi stand, a ticket window, cabs queued up and topping it all, benevolent locals. The rates are fixed, so no haggling or fear of being over-charged. All you need to do is pay at the counter, load your luggage and set off.

The sun was yet to peep and Dehradun was still asleep under the freezing blanket of mist, except for few shops and tiny stalls puffing out smoke of the boiling tea. Couple of hours later it would be a busy day just like anywhere else.

A little more than an hour of the picturesque cab-ride later we arrived in Mussoorie. I knew a wonderful holiday in the misty, sleepy, dreamy hills awaited us.
We somehow dared to peel ourselves out of the cab to check-in our hotel. By now the sun had shrugged off his sleep, wiped his eyes clear and was already there basking in the resort’s garden.

I’d booked a room with views….of the Himalayas… Luckily, the air was clear and I could see the pristine snow-capped mountain range peering at me from my window. My tired body had given up and the warm bed lay there beckoning me. What if I ran out of luck and this magnificent view disappeared the next day or the day after? I wasted no time to reach for my camera and spent the next couple of hours capturing this panoramic view in my lens.
Did I mention Oniel anywhere? Well, he had cosied himself under layers of soft warm quilt, with couple of heaters at his service and was fast asleep 🙂

A hearty breakfast of butter-laden Aloo Parathas, fresh cut fruits and a cup of piping hot Mussoorie special coffee later, it was time to plan the day.
So we did and set out at 11.30 to explore Mussoorie – “The Queen Of Hills” as she is fondly known. A five minutes drive from the hotel brings you to the Mussoorie taxi stand. Here they have packages with fixed rates and also the customized ones. You can pick and choose your destinations and you’ll be charged accordingly.

Day 1:
Jwala Devi Temple: This beautiful temple is a place of worship of Goddess Durga. It can be accessed by trekking up 2 kilometers. Surrounded by the verdant Oak and Deodar trees, it’s a blessing to the devotees and nature lovers alike.
Owing to my heart disorder, I couldn’t make it to the top. But did manage to snap few wonderful glimpses of it from the rear end of a teeny little tea-shop.
Jwala Devi Temple

Kempty Falls: 45 minutes drive from the Mall Road, this waterfall can be reached by a ropeway cable car. Legend has it that the stream of water flows throughout the year from the place where it originates and dives into the pond below at a massive height of 40 feet.

Area around the falls is strewn with stalls selling everything from stylish hats, clothes, kitschy jewelry, decorative items to swim wear that ensure you are fully covered 🙂 . Fragrance of steaming hot Pakodas and Maggie follows you everywhere.
A little birdie whispered that Maggie is a staple all around Mussoorie, right till the highest point you may scale (Well, back home, it’s my saviour too, whenever my cook bunks 😛 ). It makes a wonderful companion with tea or coffee and wards off the evil biting cold. It really works 🙂

Nothing seems to deter these enthusiastic swimmers from taking a dip even in that freezing waters.
Kempty Falls
Shedup Choepelling Monastry: Sitting in the lap of verdant mystical hills and facing the Happy Valley is this quaint, serene yet splendid looking Tibetian monastry.  A chilling breeze blows across your face while you walk towards the temple. Prayer flags flutter in the blue-grey skies, fragrance of the incense fills the air, while the monks in their deep red robes amble around chanting prayers.

It’s mandatory you remove your footwear outside before entering the temple. However, bitingly cold the floor may be, nothing can stop you when the divinity beckons.

Company Garden: Verdant surroundings, blooming flowers, mini lake with an artificial waterfall, paddled boating, shikara ride, a well-maintained food court all build a perfect set for a pickniky atmosphere.
Company GardenIt was here that I got my first experience of hails. Absolutely loved the clattering of the icy little droplets against the roof.
Steaming hot coffee against a perfect mountainy backdrop!
Company Garden Food Court

Day 2:
Lal Tibba: Seated at around 8000 metres above the sea level, Lal Tibba is the highest point in Mussoorie. During sunrise and sunset, the sky paints itself in an assortment of deep red hues, a picture that’s worth million dollars and which is why the name.
A Japanese telescope has been mounted on a 20 metres tower to offer views of the pristine Badrinath, Kedarnath and other Himalayan ranges.
Lal Tibba

Mr. Rawat helped us locate the old colonial houses and architectural schools of the British era. He’s a guy in his late forties with a heart and glow of the twenties, who loves flaunting the bunch of pictures he’s clicked with the glitterati from Bollywood to Cricket. He’s more than happy about clicking us too. He proudly pointed the telescope to his laid-back two storey house that sits right in the middle of the oaks and deodar laden hills. Gosh! I so envy him.
The man walks the entire mountain 2 hours to reach his work place and 2 hours back home – a secret to his health and youthful look. He sells these homemade pickles made of pahadi or mountain chilies, lemons, etc. – Rs. 250 onwards for 500 gms. Don’t miss buying the purest honey you can ever find.
Give him a shout at +91 9761065524 and he’ll even have them couriered at your doorstep.
Selfie with Rawat

Dhanaulti: Around 30 kilometres from Mussoorie, it’s a one hour thirty minutes drive from Lal Tibba to Dhanaulti. Situated amidst the Pine, Deodar and Rhododenron forests, Dhanaulti is a lot quieter and less commercialized than its more famous neighbor.  Little children in their school uniforms sell bunches of bright red rhododendron flowers which are known for their medicinal properties. Bottled juices are also sold in plenty.

Eco Park is the main attraction of this place. The Forest Department has employed around 60 local youth in various capacities in order to provide them a means of livelihood.
There’s also a facility to plant a sapling in the memory of your beloved known as The Memory Sapling Plantation.
Dhanaulti Eco Park

Gun Hill: Taxis drop you to a point where the Mall Road begins. Take a cycle-rickshaw to a point where you hop on to a rope-way cable car and glide up to the Gun Hill.
Reach up there and you’ll find a sprinkle of activities like balloon-shooting, archery and few others for the kids. Try your luck at those magic games, click pictures with your beloved in the traditional pahadi wear or just grab the best seat at one of the precariously located tea stalls. They are a vantage point offering panoramic views of the valleys, twinkling little houses and glimpses of entire Dehradun.
Prod the stall owner and you’ll learn how in those pre-independence and pro-British days, a canon used to be fired from this point at 6 every evening, so the locals adjusted their watches accordingly.
Gun Hill

Camels Back End: Ever experienced what they call ‘a walk in the woods’? This is that. Hold your hands and take a long long walk on this long winding corniche that clings on to the mountain on one side and a deep Doon valley on the other. There’s a rock that looks exactly like the camel’s hunch which is why the name.
Towering pine and deodar trees, mist settling in the valley, delirious monkeys, bunch of noisy dogs and beautiful chirping birds is the only company you have. Lift your head up and you’ll spot gorgeous colonial bungalows which are still occupied by the British people. The Brits have left us quiet a history, must say!
Cycle-rickshaws and horse rides are available for those who cant do long walks. They charge Rs. 600 both ways.
A most stunning backdrop for making those romantic moments utterly unforgettable…
Camel's back end
Where To Stay:
Staying options are proliferating by the day. Resorts, heritage bungalows, eco hotels…you’ll find all kinds of them and suiting all budgets.
We stayed at Tullahmore Estate, a century old colonial bungalow which is now renovated but still retains its past grandeur.
We absolutely loved the rooms offering stunning views of the Himalayas. Full marks to the food and service. The hotel offers free pickup and drops to the Mall Road and taxi stand. Speak to Mr. Rakesh Rawat for the booking and be assured to get the room you are promised.
Read here for my reviews on Tullahmore Estate.
(http://www.tullahmoresuites.com; +91-7830154154; +91-135-2631265)

Where To Eat:
Mall Road is laced with stalls and eateries rustling up dishes from Pakoras to European and authentic Tibetian food. All you need to have is a manimalistic appetite and pockets ringing with dimes.
Lovely Omlette Centre: Have an omlette here and you’ll forget all of those you’d had earlier. It’s a one-man-show being run in an incredibly tiny shop. A highly recommended one, we scoured the whole of Mall Road for this ‘world-famous’ eatery, cooled our heels for 45 minutes and believe me you, it was all worth it. They are super yummy! I tried to stick my neck out and see the recipe, but 😦 . Their cheese and chocolate omlette are must-haves.
Lovely Omlette Centre

Kalsang Friends Corner: Run by a bunch of hip,  funky haired youngsters from the North-East, this eyeball-grabbing eatery boasts of authentic Tibetian food. Chinese-Tibetian ambience, soothing music, hearty food, quick service and friendly fellas call for a wonderful dinner after a tiring day.
Kalsang Friends Corner 1

Chick Chocolate: Cafe with a European touch – the interiors and the customers alike. Chick Chocolate does have chocolates, and lots of them. Homemade ones too. Apart from chocolates, it also serves juices, coffees, pizzas and other cafe items. It’s a place the Europeans love and frequent. We loved loved loved the Banofee Pie and came back here for just that. Do parcel their chocolates back home.
Chick Chocolate

Where To Shop:
The Mall Road which ends at Library Bazaar is a shopper’s haven.
It’s crowded and buzzing. Which market isn’t? I absolutely loved the place; mainly because no irritating vehicles and secondly because lots and lots of stuff you can’t take your eyes and hands off.
Mall Road 2You’ll find various items that are very typical of Mussoorie – like the wood-carved decoratives, Oakwood walking sticks, brass items and handicrafts. Nirankari Cottage Industries, located at the Library end is famous for these.
Victorian clocks come in unthinkable shapes and sizes, elegant Ladakhi shawls, souvenirs and loads of other geegaws to grab.
Mussoorie Market
There are road-side stalls that sell beautiful, stylish sweaters and thermal wear at a negotiable price. There are also high-end shops that sell the designer and more sophisticated ones and at a higher cost. I bought one and am waiting to take it out of my closet for my next trip. I just love flaunting fashion 🙂

Two days got over too soon. I was barely content to move out of Mussoorie. It’s a totally different world out there. The one where hails come sliding down, where glimpses of the English past still linger amidst the hills, where memories are built planting saplings and where you happily realize just how perfect an escape to the Queen Of Hills can be.

Velankanni, Tamil Nadu

Last time I’d been to Velankanni was in 2006 to celebrate Christmas along with the family. After that we’d been planning since last two years or may be even more to visit again . I had made a vow which I had to fulfill. For some reasons, the trip kept getting delayed. Finally it was in October that the divinity came calling. Long weekend in the first week was the best bait.

Velankanni, situated in the Nagapattinam district of Tamil Nadu, is home to one of India’s biggest Catholic pilgrimage centres. It is the Basilica devoted to Our Lady Of Good Health… to me, she’s simply Mumma Mary.

We checked-in in the wee hours. Couple of hours rest, freshening up and a South Indian breakfast later, it was time for church. It was 11 am and sun was already at its beaming best. Gosh! it was blistering hot! Armed with umbrellas and scarves, we hailed a pre-booked auto and headed to the church.

The sun was killing and the crowds were maddening. There was queuing, jostling and shoving in every place. In such conditions, there was no way we could hold up our umbrellas.  It was a long weekend and people from nearby states like Andhra Pradesh and Kerala had also flocked in. There was no way we could have survived the burning heat. So after getting kebab-ed and sandwiched we decided to give up and returned to our resort.

Plan B was to visit in the evening and so we did.
The impeccably beautiful Basilica is built in Gothic style of architecture. It contains three Chapels, Our Lady’s Tank, Church Museum, Priest’s Residence, Offering Centre, Stations of the Cross, Stations of the Rosary and Shrine Mega Mahal. The Church is pristine white, except for the roof that is striking red in colour. You can feel an explosion of rapture, faith, hope and divinity everywhere!
Velankanni church

We attended the 6.30 pm mass in Tamil, a language completely out of my world. I didn’t understand a word of what the priest was saying. But the hymns were divine. I’ve attended the Malyalam masses before, whenever I missed the English ones. And I’ve always loved their exotic hymns. Although Tamil and Malyalam are the languages beyond understanding, the sound and the rythm of their hymns touches the heart .
Cameras are banned inside the church. So couldn’t manage to click.

Hotels and lodges are generally packed, specially on weekends and public holidays. Room availability is sub-zero. With no options left, people put up in the church premises with their families and belongings. Anything for God, literally!

Offering are made for wishes to be blessed. Offering are also made after the prayers are answered. The locks, hankies and orange colour threads were tied to a sacred spot outside the church and also to some trees in the vicinity.
The Way Of Cross:
Its amazing how faith makes us do the unthinkable. Even if its hurting our own selves….it doesn’t matter as far as the Lord hears our prayers, cries. Here, people walk on their knees in the sand, chanting prayers, some alone, some in groups. Some of the men even had their kids on their shoulders while they waddled through the blistering sand, exhorting the Lord. Its a kilometer to the church. Oniel, my husband, did half the distance. His knees were totally bruised and took a week to heal. Wonder what must be happening of those people who do the entire stretch!

Wayy of Cross

Our Lady’s Tank:
Our Lady's Tank

The Adoration Church :
Was built as a memorial of a historic event. Its this place where the Blessed Mother Mary is believed to have appeared to a lame boy.
Adoration Church1
There are various shops that sell stuff from photo frames, threads that are said to be blessed by the priests, lockets, candles, idols, CDs of hymns, etc.
After taking a tour of the church surroundings, we headed to the market. Extremely crowded and abuzz with people from in and around Velankanni, the market is famous for each and every element it has to offer. Lets get started….

Local belles selling fresh fried fish on the road. Look at that! Doesn’t that look inviting! 🙂
Countless salons where people (ladies included) shave off their hair as an offering to the Lord.
TaklusAlso there are pint-sized photo studios where you can click a picture alongside an idol of Mother Mary and get an instant print-out of it. I took one as a souvenir.

Shops selling spices, sweets, South Indian style earthen ware, handis, toys, clothes.  The shopkeepers have their Pandora’s box of stories to tell about the Tsunami that hit Velankanni the most in December 2004 and how they managed to survive and hit back.
CrowdThis way goes straight to the beach. Take a glimpse at the sea of people!

Tired shopping? Gorge on the traditional deep-fried wonders – Raw Banana Fritters or Daal Vada with the spicy chutney. Or gulp down some fresh, cold fruit juices and lassi.
Move ahead to the stalls that are screaming for your attention. Crabs and fresh fish drenched in colourful spices on display. Isn’t that glorious!!! All I could hear was, “come, eat me!” 🙂

Fainting was the last thing we could have on the menu. So we decided to eat.

Baskar Hotel at the end of the street offers an unobstructed view of the sea. The place is quiet extensive with a humble seating of plastic tables and chairs.

We ordered for Fried Prawns, Fried Mackerel, Fried Surmai, Flaked Parathas and Chicken Gravy. Yeah, you heard it right…fried, fried, fried… Whats wrong in cheating with the calories when there’s such glamorous food on the platter! Prawns were succulent, fish was fresh and the spice mix was awesome. Mind-blowing, super-delicious, super-yummy…all super super super…including the service!!! And that picture, is my plate 🙂
Fish thali
All stuffed, exhausted and happy, we headed back home. It was a perfect end to a perfect day! 🙂

To me, visit to every place is a journey, not a destination. And this journey continues with Sujata, a friend I made here. We stayed at the same resort. And how we became friends, that’s an interesting story! Chances of meeting again are rare…but you never know…We do keep in touch on Whatsapp 🙂

I went to Velankanni, hands empty and heart full of prayers. But came back with a bag full of spices, sweets, souvenirs… and a friend… 🙂

Getting there:
Nearest airport is Tiruchirappalli International Airport, 165 kilometres away and Chennai International Airport, 300 kilometres away. We took a flight from Mumbai to Chennai.

Alternatively, you can take a train from CST, Mumbai to Chennai. It takes anywhere between 23 to 25 hours.

From Chennai, its a distance of 325 Kms, i.e. around 6 hrs 30 mins drive on NH45. We liked the bus service of Rathimeena Travels. You can log on to www.rathimeena.co.in for bus timings and online booking.
Another option is you can pre-book a cab.

Staying There: There are all kinds of hotels to suit all kinds of pockets. Hotel Picnic and Hotel Seagate are at a stone’s throw distance from the church and offer good rooms and rates too. Others are VPN Residency, MGM Velankanni, Clinton Park Inn, etc. We ran out of options so booked ourselves at GS Resorts which is a bit farther.
Booking a hotel closer to the church is a good option…cuts down on travel time and cost too. Commuting is very expensive here.

Getting Around: Your hotel can help in booking an auto or a cab. Its better to pre-book and decide the cost rather than heckling with the drivers later. Language is a major barrier here so communicating with the drivers is like verbal-wrestling with all that sign-language and stuff.

Eating Out: Clinton Park Inn has a good restaurant of its own where even outsiders are allowed. Market area and the sea-side are loaded with small restaurants and eateries.

Shopping: Velankanni market is the best place to shop for sovenirs, spices, sweets and earthen utensils. The Beet-Root Halwa is a must-try.

All About Loos:
Bus doesn’t halt between Chennai to Velankanni. So make sure you use the loo at the airport or railway station before starting your journey.

Few Tips: Try to plan your trip on weekdays to avoid crowds. Also plan in colder months to avoid the blistering heat.

South Goa

Aroma of burnt firewood wafting through quaint villages, houses that are a gift of the Portuguese, bike rides through the long, meandering alley-ways, slower than slow laid-back life and food that’ll make you thank your Gods….Well, I can gab on and on.
South Goa is mesmerizing, although little bit conservative when compared with its Northern brother.

We reached our resort at 3.15 pm. Tiredness had totally consumed us. Freshening up and an hour of quick nap later we scooted out to reach before time for the Benaulim sunset.

Getting into into the skin of a true photog, I pulled out my DSLR, balanced myself on the rear seat of the bike and grabbed a quick click of the setting sun glaring through the palms. And boy! was it stunning!

From Benaulim we vroomed to Colva. Its only 15 minutes ride away. Pristine white sands blanketed the beach.  The sky looked like an enormous canvas while the dissipating sun painted it pink and orange and all sorts of those dusky, twilighty colors before finally returning home. I ain’t that good with visual merchandising, so letting the picture speak…
Colva Beach

Within those few hours we’d done quiet a lot. A yummy dinner of Shark Amotik, Fried Fish and Rice at Martin’s Corner and we headed back home.

Day 2:
Day twos and threes are mostly the busiest days of our trips. There’s so much to do and see, factoring the limited time we have. If you really wanna get under the skin of the place, there’s nothing better than talking to the locals and becoming one of them. Many of whom eventually get added to your WhatsApp list 🙂

Mr. Marcus, a quirky Goan fella, was our driver for the day.
He drove us to the Dudhsagar Waterfalls. Number of stories were shared and number of cats were let out of the bag during that one hour drive. Some jaw-dropping revelations included smuggling of deer meat for Rs. 5000 a kilo, sold to some bigwigs. Are the Forest Officials listening?

Marcus dropped us at a particular spot. Further, we hired two bikers (Rs. 500 each) who rode us to the waterfalls. Jeeps were the other option, but we being the intrepid sorts, opted for the bikes. The ride is epic and seriously not for the fainthearted.

I’d piggybacked Deepak, the sole bread-earner of his family. His brother was a miner, who is now jobless since mining is banned in Goa. Talking to Deepak somehow diverted my mind off the scary, bumpy road…atleast for a while. Oniel had scarier tale to tell. His bike had dysfunctional brakes. His rider revealed this to us after we returned back safely from the falls.

Our efforts seemed rewarded after the first glimpse of the falls. We clambered and sat on one of those huge rounded rocks, resting our feet in the cold waters and glaring at the majestic milky white waters that came splashing down. The Madgaon Express cutting through the falls, brought back Oniel’s childhood memories and there was nostalgia all around.
Dudhsagar Falls

From waterfalls to spices… Marcus drove at an incredible speed to reach the Tropical Spice Plantation (www.tropicalspiceplantation.com) in time for lunch. I’d been to one of these in Kerala and also during one of my earlier trips to Goa. I’m always game to visit these precious little kitchen beauties in their natural habitat. But this time I was too famished to pay any attention to what the spice guide was speaking. All I could see was the exquisite Goan lunch that sat there in earthen pots in the open air restaurant.
Spice Plantations
This is how Goa’s beloved drink, Feni is brewed…
Feni Making

Elephant rides, bird watching in paddle or row boat are some of the other activities that can be done here.

It was 3, so we bid adieu to the spices and drove to the Bondla Wildlife Sanctuary, better known as the Bondla Zoo. Deer, Sambhar, Tiger, Lions, Leopards, Fox, Snakes are few of its wild inhabitants. The sanctuary also boasts of Deer Safari, Botanical Garden, Nature Education Centre and Nature Trails. There are also tourist cottages run by the Forest Department.
Bondla Zoo

After a hearty tour of the wild, in the wild, we returned home. The muscles were in revolution already. So we rewarded them with a spa so relaxing that we were almost lulled into stupor.
That was a perfect end to a perfect day!

Day 3:
All great journeys ought to begin with a hearty breakfast. That’s exactly what we did before herding our nerds to Old Goa… All by ourselves on the bike.

Riding parallel to the river, lush green grasses swaying by, while the cool breeze rustles through every strand of your hair… its a mesmerizing experience altogether. You just have to sit back, close your eyes and soak it all in… while the rider concentrates on the road 🙂

Old Goa! Whispers of the past grandeur linger in this place… in those beautiful ancient houses which the Portuguese left behind for us. Many of them are in a dilapidated state and leave you teary-eyed. Those are the heritage that need a healing touch. Else, we’ll never realize when they fade into oblivion.
Old Houses
Se Cathedral:
one of the oldest and most celebrated religious buildings in Goa with a typical Portuguese architecture.

Se Cathedral
Basilica Of Bom Jesus:
the UNESCO World Heritage site which also has the mortal remains of St. Francis Xavier. The body is on exposition once in a decade and millions of pilgrims from all over the world throng to get a glimpse of this great disciple of Christ.

Basilica of Bom Jesus
While scouting the place, we stumbled upon this hidden treasure, a Church that even the locals dint know existed, but has featured in many of the Bollywood movies. Mr. Rohit Shetty, we got u! 🙂

Hidden Church
Our Lady Of Immaculate Conception Church:
this pristine looking church in Panjim has been in existence since 15th century.

Immaculate Conception Church
Mangeshi Temple:
Eponymous with the revered musical family of Mangeshkars, this beautiful temple is a must visit.

Beach Activities:
Of the various beaches in South Goa, Benaulim, Colva and Palolem are most active of the lot. By active, I mean the beach activities, nightlife and food.

There are numerous water-sports that you can try your hands on like parasailing, jet ski and speed boat rides. Or just take a leisure walk on the golden sands by the sea. We did parasailing in Colva and it was mindblowing.

At Palolem beach you can try your luck at spotting a dolphin or two. Whereas, the lesser known Galjibag beach is a breeding ground for Olive Ridley Turtles.

Where To Stay:
There’s a whole lot of options to explore and suiting all pockets.
We stayed at Raj Resorts located just a kilometer away from Bogmalo beach (http://www.rajresorts-goa.com/).
Check out the “Hotel Reviews” section to read more about our experience.

Soul Vacation, a boutique resort is few minutes away from Colva beach. Great rooms, food and hospitality (www.soulvacation.in)

Where To Eat:
The list is endless.
Beach Shacks: strewn around beckon you to take a bite or two. The sea-food you just cannot resist. There’s cut-throat competition which only benefits us tourists. The food is lip-smacking in any shack you go.
We visited Sam’s Goan Beach Shack (Majorda Beach). Its pushed farther from its original place. You can dial Sam and he’ll guide you to it. Speaking to him we understood that it was the competition-turned-jealousy-turned-ugly legal matters that made him shift. We loved their Fried Red Snapper and the service.
Calamari Beach Shack (Dando Beach) and Sasha Restaurant (Varka Beach) are great dining options too.

Restaurants: 1. Martin’s Corner (Betalbatim) – a famous and snazzy joint peppered with bit of glamour. Mind your dress code here.
2. Sheela Bar And Restaurant (Vasco) – They don’t have a menu. Chicken Rosemary, their specialty dish, is a tribute to the owner’s mommy who invented this recipe in her home kitchen. Her name is Maria Rose!
3. Chef Fernando’s Nostalgia (Madgaon) – famous for its Sorpotel, Sannas and Stuffed Crabs.
4. The Upper House (Panjim) – their Fish Thali is a must-have. I’m slobbering just remembering it

Upperdeck thali5. Fisherman’s Wharf (Cavelossim) – try their fried King Fish and Crabs. Finger-licking good!
6. O’ Coqueiro (Bardez) – Charles Shobraj, the infamous gangster was arrested while dining here one evening. They even have a figurine of him sitting in the balcony.

Where To Shop:
Shop for clothes, shoes, bags, souvenirs, etc. at one of the many roadside stalls strewn around whichever beach you visit. All you gotta have is Negotiation de Excellence and a whole lot of cash. Seriously! You’ll shop till you drop….

Market: Madgaon Market is a shopper’s haven.
Spices: Did you know it was the Portuguese who introduced Goa and even India to chillies? The aroma is enough for the spices to land in your shopping bags. Buy the Reshado Masala, Shakuti (Xacuti) Masala, Ambotik Paste and Vindaloo Paste so you don’t miss these flavors back home.

Jaggery: The dark brown colored jaggery is made from the coconut palm juice. Its healthy and an excellent substitute for sugar. Oniel substitutes this for chocolates 🙂

Sausages: How can you forget the dark, red, bursting-with-flavors Goan or Churiso Sausages! They are hung in huge clusters and are very much homemade. Try the elusive Sausage Pulao or devour them fried with chilled beer.
Pickles: Don’t you dare forget to buy the famous spicy, tangy seafood pickles. Molho (pickeled prawns), Para (dried mackerel), Bombil pickle (dried Bombay Duck) and the Tendli pickle(Ivy Gourd). I love the Para and the Tendli ones.

Dried Fish: Go for the sun-dried Bombay Duck (Bombil), Mackerel (Bangda), Prawns, etc… but only if you can bear the smell. They can be cooked in many many ways and taste delicious.
Bombay Duck
Feni: The liquor exclusively produced in Goa is made either of Coconut or Cashews. Yep. It ain’t sold elsewhere apart from Goa.

To be in Goa, you really need to have a voracious and a monstrous appetite. An appetite for places, people and food. You can’t have Goa in just one bite. You need to come here again and again and again and yet there’ll always be something new to be discovered.

For me, there’s no other place in this world which makes me feel so much at home…

Mahabaleshwar, Maharashtra

Soaring peaks, breathtaking valleys, lush flora, cool, crisp mountain air, simple and friendly people and the spicy and delicious food! This is Mahabaleshwar, Maharashtra’s most popular hill station.
Mahabaleshwar in Sanskrit means ‘God of great power’. This place is indeed rewarding with a mix of old-world charm, natural beauty and modernity.
To me, its more like a weekend getaway… to bask in the lap of nature in monsoons, to relish the juicy strawberries and enjoy the biting cold in winters and a grand escapade from the city heat in summers.
Mahabaleshwar is located in the Western Ghats of Maharashtra at an elevation of 4,440 ft above the sea level. It is at a distance of about 120 km southwest of Pune and 285 km from Mumbai.  Though the distance can easily be covered by car, we always prefer travelling by bus which is a good 7-8 hours journey. This is our way of saving energy to have a chilled-out, relaxed holiday rather than exhausting it driving from one place to the other.
MahabaleshwarThe town itself is quaint and charming but bit overcrowded. Some of the establishments are really old and trace their origin to the 19th century.

Stay: In Mahabaleshwar, you can get hotels suiting all pockets, i.e., from budget hotels to 3 Stars ones. You can get a hotel from where you can enjoy the lake’s view or even in the midst of the Mahabaleshwar’s famous market.

The market is loaded with small shops selling shoes, Kashmiri wear and the famous Pashmina shawls, bags, clothes, handicrafts, artifacts and locally manufactured jams, jellies and fudges. It is mainly famous for shoes and you also get a good bargain. People go crazy buying shoes. Literally!!
mahabaleshwarmarketTired after shopping and hungry too? Do not worry as the market has something for every appetite. There are these juice and icecream parlours which serve fresh strawberry juices (or frozen depending on the season) and creams with a dollop of whipped cream on it and a variety of other flavours too.
I always avoid the creamy dollop. This seems to be a clever move as they add an extra spoon of strawberry pieces in my glass while making 🙂
Strawberry with creamThere are Chinese and Indian restaurants if you wish to have a complete meal. There are also carts that serve corn frankies and crispy, out-of-the-pan corn patties with green chutney and tomato sauce. These are the ones which keep calling you for more. And they did keep calling me again and again. I kept eating them as if there was no tomorrow. The cold and rainy weather and smoking hot crispy patties – the combination is incredible!
corn patti1
Venna Lake
 is one of the major tourist attractions in Mahabaleshwar. It is surrounded by trees on all sides. There are a whole lot of activities going on. You can go boating, horse riding or just laze away by the lake, relishing the yummy bhel, roasted sweet corn, gorging on the crunchy, red, fresh out-of-the-field carrots or just sipping the steaming hot coffee.
LakeMahabaleshwar lake
Mahabaleshwar has its own history. Shivaji, the great Maratha warrior king, had one of his base here. He constructed Fort Pratapgarh in 1656 which still stands tall. Tourists flock to take a glimpse of this mighty historical marvel.
Besides the town itself, what adds to the beauty of Mahabaleshwar are its rugged mountain ranges and various points. Locals say there are more than 20 points in Mahabaleshwar.
Table-top Point
 boasts of various Bollywood movies shot there. And it does look like “table-top”. There’s also horse riding and cart riding. Even the kids here have tamed their horses so well. The energy and interest with which they narrate the stories of the movies shot here is phenomenal. And the speed that they ride their carts and the control they have over their horses, is incredible!
Maha ride
Needle Hole Point / Elephant Point
 is a natural rock formation with a hole in between. Thus the name. Also, the point if seen from a particular angle, looks like an elephant’s head.
Elephant head point9
Wilson Point 
is named after Sir Leslie Wilson, the Governor of Bombay from 1923–26. Wilson Point is the highest point in Mahabaleshwar. It is the only place from where both sunrise and sunset can be seen.
Wilson PointThe path to the point is really rough. We had to go horse-riding to avoid spraining our legs and moreover, to reach in time for the sunset. The pic below says it all, doesn’t it!!
SunsetpointApart from these, there are also Monkey point and Arthur Seat point which are famous among the many other that adorn Mahabaleshwar.

We’ve visited Mahabaleshwar in all the 3 seasons. In winters, it is that coy beauty with beaming rosy cheeks… this is a metaphor for the red juicy strawberries that add to the beauty of this hill-station. The sightseeing packages also offer farm visits.
strawberry garden
Mapro Foods i
n Panchgani, seems to dominate the local economy, with every street and corner having a Mapro sales counter. The tour operators also include a Mapro visit in their package. They have a whole array of products like jams, jellies, dessert toppings, crushes, fudges, etc. It has become more like a picnic spot with a lot of snack counters dishing out a variety of sandwiches, pizzas, milk shakes and more to serve your appetite.
Giving a cut-throat competition to Mapro is Mala’s which also runs a parallel market with its products. A visit to Mala’s, and you also get a peek at its jams being manufactured right in front of your eyes… although from a small window.

It’s monsoons and Mahabaleshwar seems to be calling already. It has so much to offer! During every visit, in the battle of my tummy and eyes, my tummy always wins. I always get so stuck treating my palette, that I miss out on the other points and places that I’m still yet to see.
This visit, I’ve promised to do justice to my eyes. Hope I live upto it!


Kerala, popularly known as God’s Own Country is arguably one of the best tourist destinations in India today. It is the land of exotic backwaters, beautiful hill stations, palm fringed beaches and rich flora and fauna, not forgetting the traditional houseboats and divine cuisine. No wonder, vacationers from all parts of the world flock to this South Indian beauty all through the year.
I dint want a hush-hush trip. I wanted to be there and soak Kerala within me. So we decided to dedicate one whole week of our ever busy year to our beloved abode.
Kerala sunsetWe took a flight from Mumbai to Kochi airport and headed to Munnar by car. It took us 5 hours to reach Munnar. But when we set our foot in there, all the tire was worth it. Munnar is serene, cool and peaceful. We stayed at the Edassery Eastend Hotel. The hotel has all the necessary amenities and an array of rooms to select from.

Munnar: The next day was dedicated to sightseeing, where we were whisked to the famous tea-plantations and tea factory. We couldn’t stop ourselves from buying a whole lot of variety of teas and the home grown coffee. The Echo point is worth visiting and so is the Matupetty Dam.Tea plantations
  Its a 5 hours drive from Munnar. Thekkady is famous for its spice plantations, ayurvedic massages and the Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary. PeriyarWe experienced all of it. We made a nice boat trip in Periyar. It is a man-mad lake. The backwaters of Mullaperiyar Dam built in 19th century, form this lake which is enveloped by lush green forests. In this hour-long boat trip, tourists with all their might, try to sight the animalin their wild. We were in luck as a group of elephants had come quench their thirst.

Wayanad: After 2 nights in Thekkady, we proceeded to Wayanad which has a repertoire of being a rain-forest, studded with lush green flora and equally beautiful fauna.

We checked into the Green Gates hotel which is just a few minutes away from the main market area. The staff here are very friendly and ever ready to help. That night it rained heavily… literally!!GreengatesPookode is a natural fresh water lake nestling amid evergreen forests and mountain slopes. Boating facilities, children’s park, handicrafts and spices emporium and fresh water aquarium are some of the tourist attractions here.
Wayanad lake
Vythiri Resort! This was our next halt in Wayanad. We had heard aBridgell good things about this resort which compelled us to spend one whole day only to explore the resort. ‘Seeing is believing ‘stands true here. They have their own Malabar Squirrel and the sound of insects, birds and the flowing river soothes all your senses. An exquisite eco-friendly jungle getaway in  the heart of Wayanad, its in perfect harmony with nature. They have a mindblowing spread of lunch and dinner buffet… it seems like cuisine from every corner of Kerala is brought under one roof. One day was truely not enough to explore Vythiri.

Allepy: Allepy was the last leg of our trip. It is undoubtedly “the Venice of India”. A trip houseboatto Kerala is incomplete without a houseboat stay. It is the most relaxing experience for any age, size or type of people. The boats are extremely eco friendly, merging smoothly into the panorama. We had us booked on a one bedroom houseboat which was comfortably furnished with an open lounge, one bath attached bedroom and a kitchenette. It was manned by an oarsman and a cook.
The not-to-be-missed spectacle in Alleppey is, of course, the Nehru Trophy Boat RaceIt is now a major event held on the second Saturday of every August and features the gigantic snake-boats of Kerala, the chundans.

Kerala is every food-lover’s paradise. Kerala cuisine offers a multitude of dishes, ranging from the traditional idli-sambar to seafood delicacies.
With its coconut tree loaded coastline, the cuisine of Kerala is characterized by the use of coconut, either chopped or grated and used as garnishing, coconut milk or paste is used to thicken gravies and coconut oil is used for Kerala Foodcooking. Breakfast includes the mandatory likes of idli, chutney, sambhar, dosa, puttu and appams.
The main course includes the local rice served along with sambar and ghee, kichadi, aviyal, a couple of vegetables, a sourish rasam, pappadam, pickle, raita.
A divine but humble dessert, called payasam completes the meal. Unniappam, vatalappam and palambari (fried bananas in flour) are some of the other famous sweets here.

There is so much more to Kerala… its people, places, culture and cuisine. One trip is just not enough to explore this God’s Own Country!!!