16 in ’16

2016 was a blockbuster travel year for me, where I got to visit eight countries – of them six new ones, and most excitingly for me, both North and South America for the first time!

I also got to tick a couple of adventure activities from my list, including paragliding in Uttarkhand and underwater walking in Dubai, stayed at a few gorgeous boutique hotels / homestays across India on work and leisure.

So, a quick look at the year that was, in images…

Began the year with a ten day trip to beautiful Myanmar with the husband

Seychelles in April for the Victoria Carnaval

The stunning isolation and magnificence of the Rockies, walking on Athabasca Glacier and being moved to tears at Niagara Falls – Canada in May

Many usual and some unusual suspects ticked off during a visit to Dubai for a stay at the new Taj, with a spectacular view of Burj Khalifa

My first trip to the USA (yeah really, can you believe it?) – two weeks on work in Louisiana and Nevada and then two weeks on holiday in California, Boston and NYC. What an incredibly spectacular country!

A dream trip for any travel enthusiast – and the delight of discovering there is so much more to Peru than Machu Picchu

Another unexpectedly delightful and beautiful country – who thought Oman would be so blue?!

Ended my international travels for the year with a wildlife trip to Victoria state in Australia – think kangaroos, koalas, penguins and platypus…

Then, there was the usual travel within India – went to the North East for a relaxed holiday (the last time I went was when I was 11!), a few hotel reviews and more chilled out weekends at luxury resorts too.

The second big trip of the year with the husband, after Myanmar in January – Meghalaya and Assam in November

A post-graduate class reunion in Ahmedabad and then a couple of day trips to Patan for the gorgeous Rani ki Vav stepwell and Nalsarovar for the flamingos

The Grand Dragon Hotel in Ladakh – in the middle of a frigid winter in January, the Gustor festival at Spituk monastery and a trip to Lamayuru along frozen roads…

The new and opulent Orange County at Hampi – for a review for Outlook Traveller

A visit to Freddy’s Bungalow in Bhimtal and Mary Budden Estate in Binsar, in February

The long weekend in mid August – a semi forest homestay in Masinagudi, lots of elephant sightings from closeby and this walk in the clouds near Ooty

Indulging at Ibnii, the beautiful new ecoresort at Coorg

Bumper sightings of Maya with her three cubs at Tadoba, once again staying at the lovely Svasara

I also managed a lot of wildlife related activities during my travels (even when they were not specifically wildlife focused) – look out for the next post coming up on this topic.

Wind beneath my wings

paragliding1

The takeoff itself wasn’t particularly tough; it was the decision to board that took courage. This happened on a recent whistle-stop tour of Kumaon’s “lake district,” with Bhimtal as my base. Stopping on the hill roads one evening to stretch my legs, I was drawn to the bustle of people milling around a large parachute spread out on the flat surface of the cliff-top. And in front of my eyes, a young couple took wings, each tethered to an instructor who would help them stay in the air for the next few minutes of their paragliding adventure.

I knew that paragliding was popular in Himachal Pradesh, but I hadn’t expected to find it in this remote corner of the Uttarakhand hills. After a few minutes of watching, as I was ready to get back into the car, my cabbie fired the first salvo by inquiring if I had done this earlier. I mumbled sheepishly under my breath, hoping he would drop the subject, but that was not to be.

A moment of hesitation – rightly interpreted by them as a sign of weakness – was all it took for the paragliding team itself to take his suggestion forward. And they went at it non-stop, slyly suggesting that it was silly to be afraid, when even a five year old child could do this easily.

The clinching argument was made as a joke by the instructor who would fly with me – “Oh madam, remember, it is my life also.” So, before I knew it, I went from curious bystander to intrepid paraglider, all harnessed and ready to soar. One, two, three, four steps forward – and the wind force carried us up into the air.

Courage on the ground was all fine, but my first minute up in the air was one of sheer terror. I confronted that with a volley of questions to Vir Singh, who hailed from Himachal and had been doing this for seven years. Vir was remarkably patient as he explained – yet again – that he had all the controls in his hand, direction, altitude and speed included.

paragliding2

I closed my eyes for a moment to take a deep breath; perhaps it was the feel of the wind on my cheeks or the sound of absolute silence, but when I opened them again, I had begun to actually enjoy the ride. There may have even been a brief moment when I let go of the straps and spread my hands in the air a la that classic scene from Titanic. I had been on a hot air balloon ride a few years ago but this exhilarating sense of flying, strapped on to a massive parachute and perched on a makeshift canvas seat was like nothing I had ever experienced earlier.

When it was finally time to land, Vir decided to test my nerves one final time with a few trick moves – and whoosh we went, swinging treacherously to a side, dipping low and high, and almost upside down. Forgive me for not describing it in great detail, for all I remember is holding on tight and pleading for my life to be spared. And unlike the ride itself, I didn’t have time to get used to this and begin enjoying it. But by the time we landed, I had managed to rustle up a halfway genuine smile for the camera that was capturing the flight all the way.

paragliding3

That night, I had adrenalin fuelled dreams of sprouting wings and flying high. My last coherent thought before I fell asleep was that I couldn’t wait to try paragliding again.

TRAVEL INFO

Distance: 307 km from Delhi

Time: 7 hours

Route: Take NH 24 from Delhi towards Ghaziabad and Moradabad. Connect to NH 87 going up north towards Haldwani and Nainital. Or take the overnight Ranikhet Express to Kathgodam and hire a cab for an hour’s drive (Rs.1000) to Bhimtal

Stay: Fredy’s Bungalow; tariff for double room starting from Rs 6053, inclusive of breakfast and taxes.

Essential Details: My flight was with Eagle Eye Adventure (http://www.eagleeyeadventure.com/; Rs. 1500 for the flight from a height of 1500 feet). There are dozens of local operators, so ask around before signing up.

Published in the ‘Weekend Vacations’ section of Mint

The Bungalow on the Beach

Dusk

A few months ago, we went on a road trip through Thanjavur and Kumbakonam, then going up north towards Tranquebar, before finally fetching up at Pondicherry. By the time we – we were tired of the hectic temple visits in and around Thanjavur. And all we wanted to do was put our feet up and listen to the song of the waves.

And Tranquebar is really the perfect place to do, given that there is really nothing much to do there except enjoy the rhythm of the sea, explore the Dansborg fort and walk aimlessly around its neatly laid lanes.

Fort

Steets

Boats

What made our visit special was our stay at the 17th century bungalow of the British Collector, now a “non hotel” from Neemrana – The Bungalow On The Beach. This property is just that – a lovely bungalow right by the beach, overlooking the Danish fort on one side and the Shiva temple on the other. With its graceful white facade, tall white columns and arches, cheery bougainvillea trees and bright, airy rooms, this property alone makes a Tranquebar visit worth it.

Panorama

View

We were staying on a room on the first floor and spent most of our time on the cane chairs on the wide verandah outside our room. There are only eight rooms in all, each named after a Danish ship that docked at this port in the centuries past; our room was the very regal Queen Anna Sophia.

Verandah

The room itself was a throwback to the past: four poster beds, high ceilings, a planter’s chair and elegant wooden fixtures. We found the staff particularly friendly and helpful, one of them even taking us on a tour of the village after showing us Neemrana’s other property there, The Gatehouse.

If The Bungalow On The Beach had a European, colonial feel about it, then The Gatehouse was entirely a Tamil mansion renovated, showcasing that way of life. The decor and accents were all typically Tamilian, again redolent of a past era.

Gatehouse1

Gatehouse2

True to its location, the seafood at the Bungalow is supposed to be excellent, but the two of us vegetarians stuck to the dosa and vegetable stews, with endless cups of tea to battle the rains. Just remember to ask for extra spice (or masala!) to suit your Indian palates. We could not use the swimming pool but really, who felt like swimming in all that rain?

Pool

In all, Tranquebar plus The Bungalow On The Beach is the perfect combination for a totally chilled, battery recharging holiday. What are you waiting for?

***
Also read: my piece on Tranquebar for Mint’s Weekend Vacations column – A slice of Danish history

Conservation, at what cost?

A quick glimpse at a couple of small temples, to continue my series on the recent Tamil Nadu road trip. Our host at the Swamimalai resort, knowing our interest, had recommended them highly for their architectural details (temple carvings mainly). So that evening, we headed to the Pullamangai temple near Ayyampettai, half an hour’s drive from Kumbakonam – and what a delight that was. Predating the Thanjavur Big Temple, Pullamangai has one of the most exquisite statues of Parvati (as Mahishasuramardhini) I have ever seen. Beautiful, confident, sexy.

Durga

At first sight, the temple was not very promising, with the outer gate painted in “modern” colours and a priest who could only be called to the temple with a special appointment over phone. The interior of this Shiva temple was dark and dank, the smell of lamp oil and years of neglect hanging in the air. The husband and I exchanged puzzled looks: were we at the right place? what was so special about this temple?

It was only when we walked around this diminutive temple that its beauty became apparent – rich carvings from Ramanyana, Shiva Puranam and Vishnu Puranam on every inch of space on the outer walls, and finally, around the corner, the Durga statue we had come to see.

Pullamangai

Nataraja

A total worthwhile excursion.

In contrast, the second one, the Nageswaran temple inside Kumbakonam was a serious disappointment. While Pullamangai was not maintained well and did not attract hundreds of devotees, there was still a sense of history and (dare I say it?) piety there. Nageswaran temple, built in the shape of a chariot, does have its regular worshippers but any history or beauty had been coloured into a senseless and garish mass. All in the name of conservation.

What a sad state, when the trustees of such temples cannot recognise the inherent beauty of the brown stone and detailed architecture.

Kumbakonam

Memories from the road trip

It’s just over a week since we returned, but the eight day road trip in Tamil Nadu is already a distant memory. It was a whirlwind (but great) tour with a bit of everything: starting with the temple circuit of Thanjavur and Kumbakonam, a beachy time at Tranquebar, a bit of wildlife at Point Calimere, nature like nothing else in the form of mangroves at Pichavaram and finally, the French Connection at Pondicherry.

Since the husband and I kept putting up regular updates on social media, this was an itinerary that interested a lot of friends. I am going to be blogging about each leg of the journey in detail, but here, as a starting point, a snapshot (or several snapshots, really) of our trip.

Have a look at the highlights of our road trip and do let me know in the comments if there is any part of it that is particularly interesting to you or you would like more information on.

Happy travelling with us!

Our first stop was Thanjavur (Tanjore, to the more anglicised among us), an easy seven hour drive from Bangalore. Several pitstops later, we pulled up at Svatma, a spanking new heritage hotel close to the big temple. Svatma was a delight in many ways, but the highlight was the food, easily among the best I have eaten at any hotel.

Tanjore1

This is from an evening at the Brihadeeswara Temple, known locally as Periya Kovil (or the Big Temple) – all decked up for the occasion of it’s builder, Raja Raja Cholan’s 1030th birthday.

Tanjore2

One of the most amazing discoveries in Thanjavur was the area around the palace, especially the art gallery – what I expected to be a modest display of paintings turned out to be a stunning collection of bronze and stone idols, all the way from the 3rd century on. There was a special Nataraja gallery, filled with beautiful bronzes of the “dancing god.”

Tanjore3

Then, the two other points in this Chola triangle – Gangaikondacholapuram (built by the son, similar to the Thanjavur temple but smaller in scale) and the diminutive but exquisite Darasuram (built by a later day Chola, and my favourite among the three).

GKC

Darasuram

Another surprise discovery came in the form of the Pullamangai temple near Kumbakonam. We had never heard of it before (nor have any of our friends or family) but this was recommended by someone at the resort we were staying in. And I am glad we made the long detour to Ayyampettai. At first glance, it looks like any modern day temple with garish colours, but the inside was another story, especially the carvings along the outer walls. This statue of Parvati – in the form of Mahishasuramardhini (the demon slayer) – was one of the most beautiful, graceful I have ever seen.

Tanjore4

After the serious bout of temple hopping, it was time to chill out by the beach at Tranquebar. We stayed at the 17th century The Bungalow On The Beach (which was literally that), the Neemrana property there. Hours and hours of sitting on the balcony outside our room, feeling the cool breeze on our faces, watching the waves crashing against the shore, seeing the fishermen venture out into the sea, wondering what brought the Danes all the way here…

Tranquebar1

Tranquebar2

From here, a side trip to Kodikkarai, also known as Point Calimere, a lesser known habitat for the blackbuck. This being the beginning of the migratory season, we were also lucky enough to see dozens of flamingos, cranes and other such avian fauna in Kodikkarai.

Kodikarai

Leaving Tranquebar with a heavy heart, we made our way up the coast to Pondicherry, stopping for an hour long boat ride at Pichavaram. After the Sunderbans, it is the second largest mangrove forest in the world, a surreal experience in a maze of narrow canals and arches created by water plants.

Pichavaram1

Finally, the last stop on our trip – Pondicherry of the colourful buildings, with its filter kapi and French pressed coffee sitting side by side.

Pondy1

Pondy2

Alas, all good things must come to an end; on our way back to Bangalore, we stopped for idli and coffee at Vasantha Bhavan and found it offering paw bachi and thai poori too.

Road1

Road2

So, until the next post, ta!

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