Tuesday, February 9, 2016

A tale of crafted rocks - Lesser known Thai islands Bida Nok, Bida Noi, and Bamboo Island (Ko Mai Phai)

The picturesque Thai islands of Bida Nok, Bida Noi, and Bamboo Island (Ko Mai Phai), are not much more than large limestone rocks jutting out of the sea. But they are a museum in themselves, with rocks in various hues and shades, chiseled by the craftsmanship of erosion, into amazing formations overlooking the turquoise green waters. The more lucid you get, the more relics you find.

Reachable by speed boat or long tailed boats from Koh Phi Phi, these islands are remote extensions of Krabi district of the Kingdom of Thailand. Some of these islands are so tiny, that they get submerged by the high tide, while some are merely 100 meters wide, making it appear like a large sandy canoes floating on the waters, from an aerial view.

Typically boat tours which explore the Phi Phi islands, often club 2 or more of these islands in their itinerary. Some of them may not have names but are greater treasures to be explored. Climb around on the rocks, find pearls, unique shells and starfish, and snorkel  along the metre-deep waters, pausing along the way, only to have colorful fish eat away at your toes. Play some beach volley (this is an exciting game when played across the breadth of the narrow islands; the ball lands on the sea on both sides when hit really hard! When you tire out, laze on the golden sands or perched on top of a high ledge of a rock that gives you a 360 degree view of the pristine Indian Ocean. 

Do it now: This trip can be done as a day excursion from Phuket.

Season: All year round

Best done with: Friends / Spouse

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Live the "other side" of Goa - Divar Island


Image: Makemytrip

Image: Tripadvisor

Dates to visit: August/September
Cost: INR 30000 per person on twin sharing basis (ex-Delhi)

Travel story

As soon as you step onto beautiful little Divar Island, you have the distinct feeling of entering the land that time forgot. Surrounded by marshy waters and networked with muddy single-lane roads, the island makes for lovely, languid exploration, and though there’s not much particularly to see, it’s a serene and seldom-visited place to take in the atmosphere of old-time rural Goa.

Divar Island can be reached by vehicle ferry services from Old Goa or Ribandar. Ferries run frequently from around 7am to 8pm.

The Island is covered with greenery and paddy fields surrounded by the green Ghats in the horizon. Be sure to visit this place in monsoon and stay at a hotel that overlooks the exotic views. You can choose to soak into the scenery from the comfort of your room, or venture outside to take a stroll among the fields. Keep your footwear aside and feel the moisture of the grass under your feet. Watch the rain drops drip along the bright green stems and splash themselves off from the leaves. Stand at the edge of the paddy plantations, and gaze at the cloudy skies that scallop the peaks of the Ghats.

Saunter along the meandering village roads, stopping by at a tiny tea shop or 2, feasting on the earthen-pot Chai and the local-special rum-cake.

The Devaaya Ayurveda Resort is a peaceful and refreshing abode, which in itself could be reason for your visit to this much underestimated island. The resort houses spacious wooden-interiored rooms, flanked by large balconies giving you generous views of Mother Nature, which is what you are here for. You can choose to opt for an Ayurveda Spa treatment which can make your trip even more rejuvenating.

So next time you head to Goa, ditch the beach and embark upon this journey to another world!

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Assam & Meghalaya - A relaxed sojourn

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My travel story

It was end of the financial year and my friends and I were looking forward to a much awaited spring break. After having slogged on corporate projects for months on end, we needed our trip to be essentially relaxed. Assam and Meghalaya was the perfect choice! It gave us the calm we wished for , and fed the adventure seekers in us that were also keen for a treat! There were many "perfect" moments that we found among nature that made it a rejuvenating sojourn and a memorable trip for all of us...
Trip details:
Dates traveled: 11 March to 15 March 2015 (plan during August / Sept if you wish to enjoy the greenery, but be prepared for the rains)
Cost: INR 25000 per person
Day 1- Land at Guwahati and onward by road to Shillong. Reach Shillong by 4 pm. Time taken to reach Shillong from Guwahati is 3 hrs non stop. Shillong is a convenient location for base, while exploring the places around through day trips. It is also a good location for a wide variety of food availability.
Photos of Shillong by Amrita Kapoor
Homestay at Shillong
Day 2- Visit Shillong view point and Mawphlang sacred forest for some Serene, Tranquil, and amazing nature views. Back to Shillong for the night.
Photos of Mawphlang by Amrita Kapoor
A tranquil sunset by the Mawphlang Sacred Groves
Day 3- Visit Cherrapunji and Mawsmai caves. Root bridge trek is a must-visit, which we missed out because we left late from hotel.
Photos of Mawsmai by Amrita Kapoor
Nature chiselling away at Mawsmai caves
Day 4- Check out and leave for Kaziranga. We left at 5.30 am to avoid much traffic. Reached Kaziranga by 1 pm. Stay at Kaziranga National Park. Jeep safari to National park at 1.30 pm.
Photos of Kaziranga National Park by Amrita Kapoor
Up close and personal at Kaziramga
Day 5- Check out and leave for Guwahati by 7 am. Reach Guwahati by 10 am. Visit the Kamakhya temple. Darshan would take 2 hrs approx. Proceed to airport.
Photos of Kamakhya Temple by Amrita Kapoor
The abode of the powerful "bleeding" Goddess by the Brahmaputra
If you can accommodate another day in between, it is worthwhile visiting the Dawki river which is known for its crystal clear waters, giving your boating experience a heavenly touch! It is situated close to the Bangladesh border, and can be done from Shillong by road.

In Shillong we stayed in Laitumkhra area which is centrally located, near the markets. Our homestay was Lachumiere house.
In Kaziranga we stayed at Bon Habi resort.
While in Shillong we enjoyed the food at Cafe Shillong, Little Chefs bakery, and our regular roadside junk at the markets. Do try the Bamboo based chicken curry if you are little adventurous with food, but if you prefer to stick to regular Indian tastes then suggestion would be to stay away. Also try the Thukpa which is the Ladakhi speciality.
Some tips to make your life easy:
  • Once you land at Guwahati airport, book a full time car for your entire stay in northeast. You will get good deals at the airport itself. There are so many picturesque places around , that you may want to stop by every now and then, and having a chauffeur driven car is a blessing.
  • If you are booking any homestay through websites, then be sure to call them and confirm with your specific requirements. We booked through Saffronstays, but realized later that we should have validated our requirements , exact room location (like upper or lower wing, front or back facing, availaility of room service, etc) before booking
  • Try to start your days early (by 8 am latest). We always started our day late and missed out on spending more time at the locations we wanted to.
  • Try to catch the early morning safari at Kaziranga, we were promised that its better than the afternoon one (although we couldn't make it)
  • If you can, and if rains do not bother you, then best time to visit these places would be June to December as the greenery would be at its best. And greenery is one of the key highlights of this region!
Happy traveling!

Visit Singapore – With little ones in tow

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My Travel Story 

Scroll down to read the travel story...
Fun at Singapore Zoo

Bird Show at Jurong bird Park
Scaring the Tiger - at Sentosa
Museum at SEA aquarium
Orchard Road walk
Singapore Zoo
Singapore Zoo
Singapore Zoo
Palawan Beach - Sentosa
Touch and Learn - SEA aquarium
Chilly Crab
Octopus Fried rice
Elephant show at Zoo
at Zoo
Fun on Orchard Road
With the mascot at SEA aquarium
Deep in thought - Singapore Zoo
Flamingo show - Jurong bird park
Jellyfish wonderland - SEA aquarium
  Traveling internationally with children can sometimes be overwhelming. But a little care during planning can go a long way in enjoying your vacation as a family. Here is how my Singapore trip was planned with my 5 year old and I would like to say that it couldn't have been more fun!
First off, selecting Singapore as your holiday destination has many benefits for you and your little one.
  • It is just 5.5 hours away from India (in case you are traveling from India), and you get direct flights thereby avoiding the restlessness of long-haul journeys and layovers
  • The time difference is only 2.5 hours, and it does not mess too much with the bio-clock of the child. You have only limited number of days and you don't want to deal with jet-lag along with another 1000-odd things
  • Singapore offers a wide range of entertainment and educational activities for children and adults alike, making it a good composition for a family audience. Let the kids learn about animals, birds, marine life, food, culture - all in a child-appealing way, while you refresh your lessons from school!
Ideal Dates: Feb, Mar, April
Cost: INR 150,000 for a family of 3
Day 1- Land at Changi airport and transfer to hotel. We chose a daytime flight as it was convenient for us, and transferred to hotel by 6 pm local time. We stayed at Concorde Hotel on Orchard Road, which was a pleasant experience. After freshening up, take a leisurely walk along Orchard Road, the shopping and entertainment hub. The Christmas decorations were up although it was only mid-November, making the place more festive for us. There are numerous small eating joints and food courts on this road, therefore always providing you ample options for dining or snacking.
Day 2 - Visit the Jurong Bird Park. You can take the MRT easily from Concorde Hotel to Jurong Bird park (you would need to transfer lines). The local bus takes you from The MRT station to the park. For exact bus numbers and MRT routes, you can contact your hotel tour desk (who was very helpful in our case). You are likely to be done with the park by 4 pm. Keep a less busy evening, maybe just strolling around the malls near the hotel as your child is very likely to be exhausted (from previous day's travel). End the day early.

Day 3 - Visit the Singapore Zoo. Again MRT can take you there easily. Plan for the night safari in the evening if you have older children. But with younger ones (atleast mine who is 5), they tire out by 4 pm, and your evening safari may not be worthwhile. Instead you can schedule a quick freshen up at the hotel, and head out to Clarke Quay. This is the night-life spot (we adults also need our share of fun right! ;) ) with plenty of fine dining restaurants. Indulge in some wine and dine experience by the river while your little one can much on some fries and sip on coke. It doesn't hurt for them to take a quick nap after a long day, while you adults enjoy your evening.
Day 4 - Keep this day a little flexible to explore the city. You may visit the Singapore flyer, the Merlion Park, Marina Bay or the various shopping malls. The flower dome at Marina bay is quite informative. Go for a Duck Tour, if weather permits. For all Indians, a visit to Little India is a mandatory experience! Have an Indian meal or 2 here.
Day 5 - Visit Sentosa Island. You can take the MRT or Taxi, but for a unique experience you can take a cable car ride. Drive up to Mount Faber which is a small little hill on this tiny island, and is the highest point in this city. From here, take the cable car to Sentosa station. Spend the day at Sentosa, choosing the activities that appeal to your family. (you can see guides and timings online prior to your visit). A must visit is the SEA aquarium and the Dolphin interaction programs at the Dolphin Island. If you want to opt for a cheaper option, Underwater  World is also a fantastic aquarium. End the day by watching sunset at Palawan beach which is reached by a suspension bridge, leading you to the southernmost point of continental Asia.
Day 6 - Return. You can plan to spend about 2 hours at the airport as Changi Airport itself is an entertainment hub in itself. Shop, eat, and visit the butterfly park before you depart this friendly and entertaining place.
Some tips and tricks to help you plan:
  • Download a Singapore MRT map in advance and study it to understand your location against your planned destinations
  • Look up hotel information in detail before you book, as most hotel rooms are very small (Singapore being a tiny country and there being a hassle for space). You may not even have enough room to open your luggage if you are not careful
  • Before visiting the parks/zoos, look up the timings on the website 1 or 2 days in advance. There are live shows in most parks which have a schedule based on weather, and you may want to plan your visits around those. Check also for weekly offs
  • If you are a family of 4 or more, calculate your fares for travel by MRT and Taxi. Sometimes taxi turns out cheaper and much faster which we may not realize
  • Most park and entertainment tickets are available at the hotels tour desk at good prices. It makes sense to buy from them as you also get some good offers and free tips/guidance :) (versus our normal tendency to book online)
  • Carrying a child stroller always helps. Children tire quickly and get cranky. The stroller saves you from carrying them around, and also enable them to doze a bit if they want to
  • I strongly recommend trying the local cuisine there like Chilly Crabs and Singapore Chicken rice, but if you prefer Indian meals, plan your evenings in the Little India area, so that you can have dinner there
  • Singapore rains are very unpredictable, so build a day of buffer in between. Always carry umbrellas and rain footwear. Don't let the rain spoil your mood or plans. Th weather is warm and humid round the year, so dress accordingly

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Saturday, September 26, 2015

A dash of Helsinki, with a touch of Tallinn!

My travel story
Some places have a charm that lingers with you long after you have left...and Finland is one of them. But then of course I feel like that about all places I visit. Hmm. Having said that, Finland is a country of small, tucked away neighbourhoods and towns that are not really famous for anything specific, but has a tremendous capability to cast its spell on you. I loved soaking into the culture, the language, the weather (In August ;)) and the food. Of course you can traverse into the lesser tread roads for the most authentic experience, but that is advised to be done with company only (due to the harsh terrain and weather of the country.

But if you are a solo traveler, fret not. You can get a glimpse of all this and more in the capital city of Helsinki and its suburbs. 
Take a walk down the streets of one of the lesser known neighbourhoods, Espoo. I loved the natural flora and fauna of the place. Beautiful mushrooms grew in the wild which inspires even the totally amateur photographer in you. Be ready to be startled by the cackling of wild geese which frequently fly overhead , enroute to their migratory destination.
Make a trip down to the port of Helsinki and you can see the blend of food from all over Europe. It is a foodies paradise...Belgian cuisine, Scandinavian fare, food from Lapland, and Arctic beer. Be sure to try the Salmon soup, broiled Baltic herring and Reindeer Meatballs, to name a few. Apart from food, the reindeer, mink and fox fur apparel are worth a look! It is also a perfect place to do people-watching. Just sit back and relax at one of the open air cafes with a pint of Lapin Kulta (if summer) and lose yourself in the bustle around. 
Take a ferry for sightseeing and sail till the Fortress of Suomenlinna. It is quaint fortress on a tiny island, and is of historic importance to Finland, besides being a UNESCO world heritage sight.
Or if you are up to some more travel, take a ferry to Tallinn or to Stockholm. Tallinn is just 2.5 hours by ferry, and is a wonderful summer destination. Saunter through the old town lanes and take in the enchanting medieval charm, indulging on Scandinavian or Mediterranean fare as and when the tummy demands!
Stockholm is an overnight ferry, of about 17 hours, so it may make sense to plan 2 more days for exploring Stockholm as well.
Finland, I discovered, loves the violin. There is so much talent in amateur violinists who pour their heart out into their music on the sidewalks, making your walk a melodious one.
On a trip to Finland, a visit to Lapland is a must if you are an adventure lover. Camp out into the wilderness near Rovaniemi where you do have some slim chances of seeing the northern lights. There are glass-roofed igloos to stay in, which is an experience of a lifetime. The trip to Lapland may also be done in winter, which is actually a better time to view the northern lights, and experience the ice hotels, but stick to summer if you think you cannot combat the harsh terrain and weather.
To sum it up, Finland is one place that I visited for 3 weeks, but is going to be with me for a long long time.

The Gastronomical Journey across India and beyond - Right in the heart of Gurgaon

Gurgaon, wanna get adventurous with food? Are you bored of your regular eating joints and wanna venture into a new arena of taste? Or are you an outsider new to Gurgaon, and craving for a taste from back home?
Here are some joints that bring in tastes from all over India and the world that are sure to either set your taste buds tingling, or give you a solace of having your native food after a long time.
1. Bengali - Oh Calcutta! and Ki Hangla
Bengalis, here is your chance to have a tryst with your very own tastes. Visit Oh Calcutta! at DLF Cyber Hub for a plethora of bengali preparations including Kolkata Biryani, Railway Mutton Curry, Paturi, Fish fry, Sukto, Aam porar shorbot, and much more. Do not miss their Nalen gurer ice cream.
If you are looking for some Dhakai cuisine, or want to try some Kolkata rolls, visit Ki Hangla at Super Mart 1 market in DLF phase 4. This is a good take away joint although they have some sitting space as well. These guys have some good Kolkata biryani as well.
Your trip all the way from Gurgaon to CR Park may get eliminated by these authentic joints.
Oh Calcutta!
2. Maharashtrian - Maharashtra food, Food court, Ambience Mall, Gurgaon
Visit this joint for a authentic taste of vegetarian Maharashtrian fare and street food. Indulge in their vada pav, shrikhand-puri, dahi vada, pani puri, veg thali and other delights from this western state.  And all my Mumbaikar and Punekar friends, you will not have to give up on your favourite tastes just because you have moved out of Maharashtra. Aamchi mumbai, yes the pavs are a bit different in the north from what you have, but the tastes are closer than you think!
3. North Indian - Sighri, Sector 17, Faridabad
A city in north India should not have a lack of North Indian restaurants. But in spite of that, this quintessential place has me wanting to go back time and again. Yes it serves North Indian and Chinese fare like its other culinary counterparts, but there is something about the "Sighri" flavours that gets your taste buds tingling.
The place gives a twist to all regular preparations and that makes the culinary experience a refreshing one.
Instead of the regular momos at any other joint, try their "Tandoori Momos" assortment straight from the Tandoor. The filling inside and the seasoning outside are equally unique.
Replace your regular parathas and naans with the Sighri style Achari Pudine da paratha or the Olive Chilli naan.
Ditch the veg rolls from the carts for a while and indulge in the Soya Chaap roomali roll.
Not only are the names impressive, but the preparations are also exemplary. And oh, I almost forgot the mention of these little bowls of amazing dips! So go out there and explore more on their menu!
Image credit: Sighri, Faridabad
4. South Indian - Vaango! and Naivedhyam
My south Indian friends (esp the vegetarians), fret not! For some treats from back home head to Vaango! at the Sector 29 Market, Gurgaon, or at DLF Cyber City. You will get an elaborate spread of Idlis, Dosas, uthapams, poori bhaji, Bisibelebath, Thalis, Curd rice and more.
For a more closer to home experience, visit Naivedhyam at Vipul Square, B Block, Sushant Lok, Gurgaon. It may be a lesser known place but a strong contender among folks from the south who want to feast on their regular culinary fare. 
Yes, it may not match up to the magic of Amma and wifey, but definitely a welcome treat in an unknown place.
5. American - Johnny Rocketts and MediumWellDone
Want a taste of the authentic American burger? Head to Johnny Rocketts in Ambience Mall Gurgaon. Similar tastes, similar portions and similar ingredients, you will not be disappointed (having stayed in the US of A for a considerable amount of time I can confidently say this). Its the house of the classic hamburgers, Philly Cheesesteaks, Salads, Chillidogs and more..
I always have a tough time picking from the menu, because everything is so good, that you cant leave one for the other! Try their Smoke house burger, The Bacon cheddar burger, Onion rings, and the Grilled/Crispy Chicken club salad. A special mention here for the Route 66 burger which is an absolute delight!
Visit Mediumwelldone Steakhouse at DLF South Point mall on Golf Course Road for some steak-delight. These guys really know the steaks well, and you would have it just the way you ordered it!
 6. Korean - Gung The Palace, Sector 29 Market, Gurgaon
If you are looking for a good Korean culinary experience, look no further. This place offers an ambiance and spread that is extremely authentic. First off, the display of the various knick knacks from Korean art and tradition is quite interesting. Second, the seating style is very Korean. It gives you the feel as if you are seated in a traditional korean home for a meal. You even get a private dining room with wooden interiors to dine in. I am a person for whom the ambiance matters as much as the food, and so you may see me rambling about it at times (for the positive and the negative).
But for the food lovers too, this place is perfect. The starters platters are good appetizers (literally)! It really brought on my hunger like a good appetizer is meant to do. The Octopus casserole and Fish cake soup are some of the must-try entrees.  The casserole cooks right in front of you, and they have rice and numerous accompaniments that come with it. The portions are well-sized and 2-3 people can easily share on the same order. A must visit place if you bear a Korean palate!
Octopus Casserole
7. From Continental Europe - Olive Bistro, DLF Cyber Hub
Have an office gang or a family that has varying palates and gastronomical preferences? Olive Bistro is the place to go! Situated on the 1st floor at DLF Cyber Hub, this open-air-cum-indoor cafe has a plethora of options from all across Continental Europe. From the Mediterranean Basa and Falfels, to Wood fired Pizzas and Pastas this place has something to tickle every kind of taste bud. My all time favorites here are the selections on their healthier menu - the Beetroot and Arugula salad and Chicken vegetable broth  ( having traveled a lot in Europe I have some high expectations where this cuisine is concerned :) ).
Again, the ambiance here is quite interesting. You must check out their chandeliers and lamp shades in the interior seating. The outdoor seating is also very unique and every time I visit cyber hub, after browsing across all other eateries I eventually settle with this !
 The decor speaks food too!