San Fran’s Famous Five

In this small city by the bay in the west coast of the USA, many believe that dreams come to life. And that has certainly been true of entrepreneurial dreams, beginning from the mid 19th century, when gold hunters from all over the country came here lured by the city’s special sparkle.

Almost 150 years after the excitement of the Gold Rush abated, San Francisco retains that stardust quality, providing a haven to hopefuls with quirky start-up ideas. No surprise then that the very air here seems to carry a whiff of optimism and dynamism.

Long before the city came within the fold of the United States of America in 1846, the region was owned by the Spanish and then the Mexicans. As a result, San Francisco is today the proverbial melting pot of cultures, with dozens of ethnic communities calling it home. Within the larger cosmopolitan weave, specific localities serve as hubs to specific ethnic communities, like Chinatown for the Chinese, North Beach for the Italians, and Mission for the Latinos.

As a result, San Francisco is undoubtedly one of the most interesting cities in the USA, and it is also one of the most pedestrian-friendly. And although you could explore its lanes and hills for weeks on end and still not know it fully, here is a quick guide to help a first-time visitor get the best out of the Golden City through its most interesting neighbourhoods.

The Haight

Located at the intersection of the Haight and Ashbury streets, this district of San Francisco was the epicentre of the Flower Power movement that bloomed in the late 1960s and 1970s. Traces of that Summer of Love (1967) still linger on these roads, where the hippies once congregated to talk dreamily about an ideal world.

Today, these streets are lined with vintage clothing shops, chic boutiques, vegan cafés and organic food stores, and music stores like Amoeba that stock an astonishing collection of CDs, vinyl records and audio cassettes. Although hippies no longer roam Haight and Ashbury, this neighbourhood still carries the open vibe from several decades ago that welcomes all communities.

Don’t miss: The Painted Ladies, Victorian rowhouses at Hayes and Steiner Streets, built between 1850 to 1915 and painted in multiple colours to enhance their already flamboyant architectural details.

Chinatown

If there is one neighbourhood in San Francisco that belongs as much to the locals as to the tourists, then it is Chinatown. The best bit about the warren of lanes that make up this old area is that it is possible – indeed necessary – to explore them without a definite plan, discovering new things as you amble along. Chinatown wears a different character at different times of the day, so go prepared to be surprised at each visit.

Entering through the grandly decorated Dragon’s Gate feels like stepping into another world, one where the exotic east has made its way into the farthest corner of the western world. From the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory to the elaborate temples on Waverly Place, this one has something for everyone.

Don’t miss: A 90-minute guided walking tour with Free Tours by Foot, that lets you in on the fascinating history and secrets of this area.

North Beach

This area is SF’s Little Italy, home to a significant Italian (American) population, and therefore, delicious Italian food. This is where San Francisco’s throbbing nightlife scene originated, and it still remains one of the most of the liveliest neighbourhoods to catch up over a drink in the early evening, or late in the night.

For your own bit of urban oasis, just pick up a pistachio gelato at one of the numerous family-run gelatarie dotting the streets and make your way to the leafy expanse of Washington Square Park. Or peep into the North Beach Museum, tucked away on the second floor of the Eureka Bank building, to learn about the history of this community.

Don’t miss: The City Lights Booksellers & Publishers, founded in 1953, is one of the original landmarks of this area, with a remarkable collection of books.

Fisherman’s Wharf

Nearly every single visitor to San Francisco heads to Fisherman’s Wharf, with its tacky novelty museums and souvenir shops, making it the most popular tourist attraction, even ahead of the Golden Gate Bridge. It is really impossible not to be charmed by the constant buzz around this waterfront area, most of it centred around the touristy Pier 39. After all, 12 million annual visitors can’t be wrong.

This is also among the best places in San Francisco for kids, with attractions like the Sea Lion Centre, the Aquarium of the Bay and the Madame Tussauds Wax Museum. Grab a soup in a traditional sourdough bread from Boudin Bakery or sit down for a fresh seafood meal at one of the specialty restaurants on Pier 39.

Don’t miss: A cruise to Alcatraz Island that served as the infamous prison for characters like Al Capone; of the 14 inmates who ever tried to escape, none were successful.

Union Square

It is said that when the going gets tough, the tough get going – to Union Square, primarily to shop. This part of San Francisco, close to the commercial heart of the city, calls out to everyone with its open-air plaza and vibrant arts scene. From swanky designer labels to sprawling department stores like Macy’s, this is also the ultimate shopaholic’s heaven.

With its rich history, Union Square still plays host to many public events, including the city’s annual Christmas tree. Even those not inclined to spend money on retail therapy will have enough fun window-shopping and gawking at the beautiful art galleries.


(image credit: By CarolinaCABoy64Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link)

Don’t miss: ‘The Hearts in San Francisco’ art installations, started in 2004 by the San Francisco General Hospital Foundation, with the idea of fundraising. Like Tony Bennett song this project was inspired by, you too are sure to leave your heart behind in San Francisco.

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(Published in the July issue of Jet Wings magazine)

Kaziranga Chronicles

Woken up at an ungodly hour in the morning by a shrieking alarm clock, I shivered in the icy winter air of Northeast India. My mind entirely focused on the warm bed that stretched out invitingly, I wondered aloud why were we going out into the cold morning in search of the rhinoceros, of all things. And then I remembered – was reminded by the husband actually – that we had travelled across the country, all the way to Kaziranga in Assam, just for a glimpse of these animals in the wild.

The one-horned rhinoceros once thrived across the flat plains of north and northeast India, but uncontrolled poaching has left it endangered, almost at the brink of extinction. Today, the best (and possibly only) place in the country to spot the Indian rhino is the Kaziranga National Park, just a few hours drive from Guwahati.

This forest had been on our travel list for years, but somehow every time we planned a wildlife holiday, it was the siren song of the tiger in the Indian heartlands that prevailed. This holiday, we had set aside sufficient time for this pursuit, after which we were to make our way across other parts of the state. Funnily enough, this forest is also officially known as the Kaziranga Tiger Reserve, although the hero here is undoubtedly these thick-skinned mammals that have survived several rounds of evolution that eliminated other weaker species.

A grey mist hung low in the air as we drove up to the Bagori Gate of the Western Range in the semi darkness. There was already a large crowd waiting at the watch tower from where the elephant safari begins; a scene of utter noise and chaos despite everyone holding prior bookings for a specified time. “I hope we don’t end up sharing this safari with people who think it is fun to play music in the forest and yelp at the sight of animals,” I muttered wearily, thinking of the bane of wildlife enthusiasts who go out regularly into the Indian jungles.

Fortunately for us, we had a quiet morning in the forest, with birdsong as the only background noise. Kaziranga is not really a dense forest in the way of those of central India, but almost entirely flat. While the grasslands make it the perfect habitat for the rhino, it also sometimes grows tall enough to hide the entire animal. Luckily, the grass was still short and dry in parts when we visited, making it easy to spot the animal even from a distance. And we were anyway on elephant back, which meant both a vantage point of view as well as access into the grasses and marshes where jeeps cannot go.

Crossing the shallow stretch of water a few minutes into the safari, I turned back to capture a picture postcard moment; half a dozen elephants silhouetted against the golden rising sun. Up ahead, there was a minor commotion, with all the mahouts guiding their elephants towards the cluster of bushes, a sure sign that a rhino had been spotted.

As it turned out, it was not one but three rhinos grazing peacefully, ignoring the admiring crowds with great aplomb. Eager tourists around us were urging their mahouts to get closer and closer, but nothing seemed to faze the trio. There was a tree in full bloom right behind them, and for a moment, framed against the pretty pink flowers, it was almost possible to think of the rhinos as beautiful animals. And then one of them turned around to show his back to us, and the spell was broken.

The rest of the safari was a vain search for more of these mammoths, with the mahout claiming that we had been lucky, since sightings had been low this season. By the end of it, I was lulled into sleep by the gently rocking motion of the elephant. Unlike the thrill of the tiger chase, where every moment holds a possibility, and every animal noise sounds like an alarm call of the deer, this safari was a mellow and slow affair, with enough time to admire the stunning landscape, bounded by the mighty Brahmaputra river.

It was only on the way back to the guesthouse that I noticed how the roads were lined with lush tea estates, from where Assam tea was possibly exported to the world. The sun was up and workers had already begun their tasks for the day, wicker baskets hanging on their backs, into which the tea leaves went steadily. The plan was to head to the village of Panbari, a few kilometres away, for a glimpse into rural life in this part of the country.

On the way, we stopped for a quick look into the CWRC (Centre for Wildlife Rehabilitation and Conservation) campus to see the way injured animals, including elephants and rhinos, are given medical care. Over the last 14 years, CWRC has treated over 3500 cases of animals (over 230 species, they say) in various kinds of distress. The sight of a baby rhino being given milk through a feeding bottle was particularly endearing, one that left me smiling for the rest of the morning.

After lunch at a local home in Panbari, we headed back to the forest for an afternoon safari, this time on a jeep from the Central Gate at Kohora. This ride was an exercise in bounty, where we spotted over 25 rhinos in the course of two hours. “This rarely happens,” our driver Uttam exclaimed, adding, “sometimes tourists have even asked me for a refund because we did not come across any rhinos!”

In our case, we saw them solitary and in small groups all along the route, resting, grazing, taking a dip in the cool water. And right at the end, when the sun was about to set, and I had put away my camera, we had our best sighting for the day; a mother and kid rhino frolicking together in the grass, the adult making mock charges with the horn pointing at the little one. “Madam, this is a lucky day for me also,” Uttam smiled warmly, as he dropped us back at the main gate.

Kaziranga has been on the UNESCO World Heritage list since 1985, one of the seven natural sites in India, the continued status of which is dependent on the conservation activity in the park. This forest has an interesting history, from the time Mary Curzon, wife of the then Viceroy of India, Lord Curzon, returned disappointed from the Kaziranga area without sighting a single rhino in 1904. As a result, she urged her husband towards rhino conservation, thus leading to the formal creation of this forest spread over 232 square kilometres in 1905.

It was only seven decades later, in 1974 that it was extended to cover 430 square kilometers, and given protected National Park status. It somehow feels fitting that over a century after Lady Curzon’s visit, British Royalty, in the form of Prince William and Princess Kate chose to visit the far-flung forest of Kaziranga, listening to stories of wildlife conservation efforts in the area.

Whenever we head to the forests, the husband and I keep our eyes peeled for not just the big fauna but also the smaller ones that form a significant part of the ecosystem, and the birds. This time, however, the attention was all on the one-horned rhino, which graced us with its presence several times in the day. May its tribe increase!

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Published in the Weekend supplement of Khaleej Times in May as ‘In search of the one-horned rhinoceros’

In love with Lucerne

It is still bright and sunny when I head out for an early dinner at seven in the evening. My handy phone map shows the restaurant is just around the corner from where I am staying in Lucerne. So I stroll out of the doors of my charming ‘Romantik’ hotel – as many of the country’s old, boutique properties are known – with just enough time to get there. Big mistake.

The sight of Kapellbrücke (Chapel Bridge) bathed in the warm glow of the Lucerne evening is spellbinding, stopping me in my tracks. It is certainly not the first time I am seeing this picturesque covered wooden bridge – Europe’s oldest, built in 1365 – across the River Reuss. With the octagonal Wasserturm (Water Tower) seeming to prop it up towards one end, the Kapellbrücke is indeed one of Lucerne’s landmarks, quietly connecting the new and old parts of town.

But as I said, this time is special: the mellow spring sunshine makes the wild flowers everywhere seem cheerier, the swans gliding by on the river more content, the clang of church bells from somewhere far away full of hope, and above all, the tourists (like me) fall in love with Lucerne just a bit more.

There can be no doubt that in a country filled with blockbuster vistas and experiences, Lucerne is a quiet charmer.

With all those photo stops, I arrive a few minutes late for dinner, but despite being sticklers for punctuality themselves, the Swiss are a friendly and forgiving lot. Sitting by the water at the Des Balances restaurant, housed in a 13th century building in the AltStadt (Old Town), I watch dusk fall slowly upon Lucerne, sweeping its ancient buildings in a stunning palette of oranges and purples.

Even as the town hovers between day and night, it continues to buzz with an incredible energy that is impossible to resist. The liveliest places at this time of the day are the plazas in the Altstadt, each of them throbbing with al fresco cafés and bars located between the older buildings with their brightly painted façades, and the numerous water fountains that once acted as social hubs for the local women.

Not surprisingly, Lucerne (also Luzern) is still referred to as the ‘city of light,’ a rough translation of its old name of Luciaria (dating back to the mid 9th century). Thanks to its location in central Switzerland, right on Lake Lucerne and River Reuss, and its proximity to tourist attractions like Mount Pilatus and Mount Titlis, Lucerne remains a perennial favourite among visitors.

The next morning, I set out for an excursion to the “dragon mountain” of Pilatus, so known for its many local legends of fire-breathing dragons that once roamed these craggy peaks. Being in proud possession of a first-class Swiss Travel Pass, I decide to go for the complete experience, which begins with a cruise from Lucerne to the tiny village of Alpnachstad.

For an hour, we float pass postcard pretty villages and low hills covered in mist, finally pulling up at the place where the jaunt on the world’s steepest cogwheel train begins. The journey here on this train ride up to Mount Pilatus is truly as much fun as the destination, as the gentle, green slopes fall behind, and rugged cliffs with dark tunnels take their place.

The top of Mount Pilatus – on the northernmost branch of the Alps – is shrouded in a thick layer of cloud when I reach, the sun playing hide and seek for the next couple of hours. In those rare moments when it does manage to make a bid for freedom, I can barely make out the fuzzy outlines of a couple of neighbouring mountains (over 70 alpine peaks are visible on a clear day), and down the valley on one side, with Lake Lucerne glimmering at a distance.

The sound of an alphorn suddenly breaks into the peaceful silence. This music is as primeval and profound as the mountains themselves, and the old man playing it is as much of a tourist attraction as the viewpoints on top.

The return to Lucerne is by a different route and mode; first the aerial cableway to Fräkmüntegg and then the panorama gondola down to the village of Kriens, from where I take the bus for the last leg of the journey back into town. In the winter months, when the cogwheel railway is not functional, this is the only access to Pilatus.

Back in the Lucerne twilight, I pick up a gelato and settle down for a spot of people-watching by the lake. A sudden flash of light in the horizon catches my eye; is it a bolt of lightning, or are the dragons up and about for the evening? In Lucerne, it is impossible to tell.

TRAVEL

Fly SWISS from Mumbai into Zurich, from where Lucerne is an hour away by train. Buy the Swiss Travel Pass that allows unlimited access on trains and buses, as well as free entry to museums.

STAY

The Wilden Mann is a charming and friendly midtown hotel, located in a 500 year old building.

Fifty shades of white

Provence, of course, I knew well – I had driven around the villages in the footsteps of Peter Mayle, whose sardonic, yet affectionate look at life in those parts had left me wanting to worship at his feet. And the hillslopes of Tuscany, with their quaint villages, had come to be my secret “when I retire” place, thanks to Frances Mayes’ book ‘Under the Tuscan Sun,’ which is about finding home where the heart is.

So, why had no one told me about Spain’s pretty Pueblos Blancos, the White Villages dotted through the pretty Andalusian landscape? These villages get their collective name from the limewash paint used on the outer walls of homes to keep them cool in the scorching summers. I discovered this charming region in the south of Spain very recently on a road trip with the husband.

Ronda was the first major stop in this circuit, and after battling with the touristy hordes who insisted on photobombing my every image at Cordoba and Granada earlier, it was a welcome relief to see Ronda almost devoid of visitors.

This village is home to the Plaza de Toros, Spain’s second oldest bullring that has been immortalized in several of Hemingway’s books. And that is where we headed first, on the off-chance of watching an actual bullfight that evening. The season, however, did not start till after Easter, and so we had to settle for a tour of the bullring and the museum with its collection of fascinating objects that added a dash of romance to this otherwise gory sport.

Ronda’s other big attraction is the Puente Nuevo (New Bridge) high over the floor of the canyon, connecting La Cuidad, the heritage part of town with El Mercadillo, the modern market quarter. We got a sense of this town’s history only when we learned that the “new bridge”- offering stunning views of the countryside for miles on end – was built in 1788. But more than anything else, the village itself was a stunning sight, clinging proudly and precariously to a clifftop, the shiny whites of its buildings a perfect foil to the deep browns of the land.

It was only the next morning, when we headed out of Ronda towards Seville, with the vague plan to “stop at a white village or two on the way,” that we realized how much time and attention this part of Spain deserved. The friendly tourism officer at Grazalema was shocked when we told him our plans; only two hours in his gorgeous village? he shook his head in despair before proceeding to mark out the most significant attractions on the map.

He then went a step further, plotting the rest of our day for us. Clearly, every single village was worth a detailed exploration but how were we ever going to manage that? Grazalema itself was a charmer, every corner throwing up a new vista of the lush limestone hills of the Parque Natural de Sierra de Grazalema that surrounds this village. Add to that an ornate cathedral here, a bustling square there, each and demanding attention like a particularly eager child

Spring was in the air, with clumps of wild flowers along the roads and homes sporting earthen pots of cheerful flowers on their tiny balconies. Every narrow alleyway held the promise of new and exciting finds – such labyrinths are characteristic of this region – a throwback to the time when it was under Moorish rule, giving it the name Al-Andalus.

After this, Arcos de la Frontera and Medina Sidonia – both boasting a checkered mix of Roman, Moorish and Christian origins – went by in a bleached blur. We stopped for lunch at the former, where preparations for Easter were on in full swing at the beautiful Basilica of Santa Maria de la Ascension, rising tall amidst squat white buildings. Unfortunately, we reached Medina Sidonia when the village was enjoying siesta time and not a leaf stirred on its streets.

Another unexpected delight – we had read about it only a couple of days ago in our trusty guidebook – was Setenil de las Bodegas just before Ronda. Setenil turned out to be a unique detour, with its modern structure seeming to be hewn into the craggy rocks, or sprout from its ancient cave dwellings, depending on where you see it from.

Every whitewashed café and shop along the narrow lane I walked on, had an overhanging cave for a roof, keeping it cool even on that muggy afternoon. The ‘bodega’ in the name suggests that these caves were probably once used to store the local wines in moderate temperatures.

I could not think of a more fitting end to this drive than a pitcher of the regional Tinto (red wine). We settled down at an uncrowded bar to watch the sun go down on this ancient village, wondering what living there would be like.

Flight of the angels

One minute I see it, the next I can’t. At the Victoria Falls in Zambia, the spray is so strong that it covers the entire landscape in a thick, impenetrable blanket. It begins as a gentle mist that caresses my face at the first viewing platform, and by the time I finish a round of the marked vantage points, it has turned into a shower. The poncho and raincoat rented from the vendor doing brisk business near the entrance may have been not there, for all the difference they make.

Clearly, Victoria Falls is determined to live up to its local name of Mosi Oa Tunya – the smoke that thunders. Indeed, the spray looks like a plume of smoke rising way up into the sky, mingling with the low, dark clouds. Our local guide Sims takes us from viewpoint to viewpoint, each of them offering just a tantalizing glimpse of the waterfall.

At the first stop, the view of the falls is framed by lush green trees and the Zambezi river from where the plummet into an invisible gorge way down below begins. This is only a teaser of what is to come, every point opening up just a little more of the vista. We gingerly make our way across the wet Knife Edge Bridge leading up to the dramatically named Danger Point, that gives the closest as well as the most expansive view of the Vic (as I have begun to think of it fondly).

Of course, given that the falls stretch over 1.7 kilometres, it is impossible to see more than a tiny slice of it from any place. It finds a place in the UNESCO world heritage sites list. And along with worthies like Mount Everest, the Great Barrier Reef and the Grand Canyon, Victoria Falls is one of the seven natural wonders of the world. As I watch the curtain of water play hide and seek with the mist, there is no doubt in my mind that it is every bit as spectacular as this status indicates.

The gorge creates a natural international border between Zambia and Zimbabwe, with each country proudly claiming the best views. And in modern days, there is the Victoria Falls Bridge that connects the two neighbours, also attracting adrenalin junkies for a bungee jumping experience that has them plummeting head-first towards the Zambezi.

Soaked to the skin – but not bothered a bit – I make my way back, heading to the upstream area from where the Vic begins its descent. On the Knife Edge Bridge, a group of young boys is having a rollicking time, taking selfies and pushing each other in jest on that slippery surface. Families are out in full force, mothers carrying their babies on a back sling. The slightly bigger tots are walking on their own, completely submerged under their wet ponchos. I carry on with a huge smile on my face; in this special place, where there is a rainbow at every corner, it is impossible not to smile all the time.

One of the stories that Zambians are proud of sharing is about their favourite Scottish missionary David Livingstone. The first European to see the falls in 1855 – earlier unknown to the world outside the local tribes – he rhapsodized that “scenes so lovely must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight.”

These words ringing in my ears, I clamber into the tiny microlight flight later that day for a bird’s eye view of the Vic. While this activity is not as challenging as some others possible in this area like bungee-jumping or whitewater rafting, it does require nerves of steel. From a distance, my microlight flight looks like a large auto-rickshaw about to take to the skies.

On this two seater plane, I am right next to the pilot, the quiet but friendly Pascal from Zimbabwe. Why do you want to hold on, he says in reply to my nervous question about the handrail. I wear my headphones and settle in to relax and enjoy as ordered. Pascal starts chatting from the minute he turns on the engine for that short taxi before takeoff. And he keeps up a steady commentary through the fifteen minutes of our flight, partly to make sure I did not miss anything and partly to keep me calm.

We fly towards the thick veil of vapour visible ahead, and within seconds, are cruising over the hero of this story. Pascal flies on towards the Zimbabwe side for a full loop around the falls, before flying over the Zambezi, which looks perfectly still and gentle from up above, with no indication of how forceful its plunge really is. There are two more loops over the Vic, adorned by multiple rainbows that glitter in the winter afternoon sun.

All too soon, we move away from the main canyon and when we land at the base, it feels like the wind is still caressing my cheeks and the roar of water is still echoing in my ears.

TRAVEL INFORMATION

How to reach

Fly to Lusaka from Mumbai on Kenya Airways or Ethiopian Airlines, connecting on a domestic flight to Livingstone, the nearest airport to Victoria Falls.

Where to stay

The Avani Victoria Falls Resort and The Royal Livingstone Hotel are both luxury properties, within walking distance of the falls.

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