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Shimla – the queen of hills – I have oft enough memories of family holidays spent in Shimla, a summer resort of once and now booming capital of Himachal Pradesh.  Overlooking the superheated plains of North west India and Punjab,  Shimla was always and is a welcome retreat. A pleasant 3 hours drive up into to  the lower Himalayas, by road or the famous narrow gauge toy train with a 100 tunnels. Main memories of trip –  walks up the mall, wooden handicraft markets, bustling Tibetan markets, pashmina and woolen specials and Raj style guest houses and coffee shops. Always spurring of a nostalgia there.

How many days would I spend there on a holiday now – 3

Goa – Wow! what a fantastic combination of sun beach, beer and culture. I have been there thrice, as about a 13 year old, a 22 year old and then another 10 years later.  Each time has been special in its own way. Interestingly although travel advisories might urge getting away from the Northern beaches, those are still the most vibrant of the lot and ones I have been to.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA HELLOMOTO

How many days would I spend there on a holiday now – 7

Delhi – Oddly, yes. A big hot, dusty plain encrusted with concrete chumps as it looks from the air. But as much as is the history to it, is the charactered rendered upon it through years of rule by one or another. Lutyen’s New Delhi was always remarkable as a child, and a few decades later having seen the world a bit, it seems more remarkable, in the endeavour, design and achievement.  Holidays in Delhi were frequent with my Dad’s best  friend’s family, so a bunch of lads growing up together and making do with what was the urban sprawl for imaginative games – all good, nice fun that added character to the holidays.

How many days would I spend there on a holiday now – 5

Bombay, no Mumbai – Hmm, I think it was about every 2-3 years, starting with a long train journey, on the Superfast, Frontier mail, later the Rajdhani and of course my first flight. Just relaxed and fun family holidays with my maternal uncle’s family. Incidentally he was (and is) notable figure in the Indian film industry. Occasional brush ins with the luminaries of the Indian film industry added to the delight. (Did that encourage a career in film industry? No).  It was a strikingly different urban scape, the delicious ghee topped chapatties and pickle with yellow dal, finely chopped aloo gobi and of course the super ginger tea! Not too mention a trip to Khandala in a 12 seater van that had been restored after an unintended dip at the Mud beach!

How many days would I spend there on a holiday now – 4-5

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I normally keep a seperation of concerns between my travel blog and my ‘general’ blog, but starting the other day out of a writer’s block on the latter I ended up more or less on talking about one of the things I love about travel – Trains. Here is more..

 

A traditional houseboat pulls into the resort driveway!

We had been living in Bangalore in and out for about 7 years before we planned our Kerala trip. With an easy access to places of interest in South India, hadn’t really not much of an excuse not visiting Kerala backwaters this far. Finally did last month and came back wondering what took so long to plan the trip. The place defines the term relaxation in true sense. Kerala backwaters refers to the the numerous wide canals branching into/out of the largest fresh water lake in South India, Lake Vembanad and cut through the paddy fields, coconut groves and pretty much define the life in the region.

So if you are looking forward, on the verge of, have it at the back of your mind to plan a Kerala trip – here is a ready reckoner ex-Bangalore-

1) Getting there Kanyakumari Express is the ideal way, better than flying. The train runs the length of the Southern corridor from Bangalore to the Southern tip of India and covers many major towns on the way. We booked through IRCTC.co.in about a month in advance. 2nd AC up to Kottayam cost Rs. 1043 per head/- and for the comfort I’d say it was quite reasonable. Starts from Bangalore City Jn, at 9:45 PM, you can sleep 70% of the way and reaches Kottayam at about 11:00 AM. Train Number 6526, platform # 3

2) Staying – Kumarakom the main resort located about 14 KM off Kottayam is the main water front area.  There are a handful of real resorts here and nearly all front the Lake Vembanad. We stayed at Cocobay Resort, a relatively fairly priced resort for its class. Other good ones would be Coconut Lagoon, Whispering Palms. I would recommend these 3 for a relatively right priced holiday. Given the inflow of global tourists here, pricing is on the higher side. The picture below is where we stayed,

3) Houseboat – This is the most charming part of the backwaters, and a must try. Book a houseboat in advance before you go. You can request the resort to book, but resorts dont mostly own their houseboats and charge high commissions to boat operators. So contact a houseboat operator directly. The operator will arrange to pick you up from the resort right outside the doorstep like here below,

Google around houseboat operators and bargain well with them. In peak season you can get a 2 BR houseboat for 7K-8K a night, all meals included –  all to yourself. The houseboats come in many shapes and sizes so, 1 BR to 5 BR and then special Convention houseboats too. With 2 levels, balconies, quite a bit of variety.  So do enquire from a couple of operators and ask about the shape and size of the boat. Make sure to have an AC houseboat. Kerala is a warm place even in cooler seasons.

4) Around Kumarakom – There are a few things you can do,

A) Cheriyapally (means little church)  – Built by a Hindu Maharaja of Travancore some hundred years ago, this chruch has mix of Syrian, Hindu, Muslim architectures. Interesting, but that’s India for you.

B) Shopping – Antique shops – On the way from Kottayam to Kumarakom, there are about 4-5 shops you can stop by at.  Buy a miniature raceboat. For some traditional Travancore textiles ask for Seemathi on KK Road. Its close to the railway station and probably the best known in town. For Spice and Cashew which is quite reasonable there, CSI Commercial complex on Sastri Road.

Having noted these though, these are just the smaller accessories to the trip. Be careful about planning your arriving and leaving journeys. Union strikes that close-down amenities and transport are common in Kerala. On the day we were to return some wing of the communist party that is a key player in the state, decided it was time for one and clamped down all public/commercial vehicular movement in the town. We learnt of the strike while on the houseboat and on way back to the dock, where a taxi would take us to the railway station. On tenterhooks for a few good hours, we were reassured by the houseboat staff that they would find a way, taxi, private car or even by boat all the way to the station! Luckily it didnt have to come to the latter and we had a private car drop us in time for the train. Did it take anything away from the trip? No, just added to the thrill.

So well, make up your mind, book and get going, Bon Voyage!

Sunset from the houseboat

Position this – A) A country with 400 National parks, 70 wildlife sanctuaries, 4000 year old History, the greatest mountain range in the word, the best whitewater rapids in the world, a subtropical coastline that is an envy of the world, and pearly islands that can compete with the Hawaiis of the world, a topography with practically every kind of variation earth has to offer, cuisine that has pervaded the nook and corner of the world, and much more.., also the largest democracy in the world – gets a paltry 4.4 million tourists a year.

And B) an island which is less than than 0.01% of the above country in size gets 7.5 million.

A) India B)Singapore.

Why? See www.incredibleindia.org for some more and you might wonder India should be as much compelling destination as any other, isnt.

No single reason , but the Government by large should hold the credit for this (lack of) achievement.  In 1960’s and Tourism in India was ranked somewhere as 126th or 127th on the priority list of industries for development, lower than the industry development of lighthouses!

Awareness has grown, and perhaps the priority, but even in the current context, poor project and funds management at the ground level, lack of accountability, political problems, infrastructure arent helping turn things around.

I was just reading P Chidambram’s essays in his book “A view from outside” in which he cites N.R. Narayana Murthy’s assertion that the Taj Mahal, and what its symbolism represents a $20 Bn opportunity for India and employment. Simple math as quoted in the book – there are 200 Mn couples in developed nations. Even if 10% of them decide to spend their anniversary by the Taj in the typical 2 night, 3 day model, that at about a $1000 spend per couple can be a $20 Bn opportunity. Imagine adding to that a cruise by a resurrected Yamuna by Taj, then some more perhaps.  And then add up all the features mentioned earlier, each is a huge opportunity by its own right.

Pipe dream perhaps. Its not about a desire to do it,  only when things get down to ground it becomes a game of oneupmanship, egos,  red tape, sloth, jurisdictions – in corporate speak – misaligned KPIs and  institutionalized mediocrity.  As things stand no reform in the present government either seems headed in a direction, to suggest things will be any better in near or far future.

 

We had taken a small weekend trip to Madikeri to escape Bangalore in 2005 summer. Frankly it was not the best time to visit, but there are always some takeaways. I would recommend a trip between Oct-Mar, when there is water on the riverbed and the waterfalls. Some cool over the place, so you can hike it well.

For stay it should be a Kodagu family you should stay with. The food they can cook is out of the world,  real effort spent in making each ingredient stand out. And if I can generalize, the overall experience is  quite warm and homely.
Many people there have cottages in Madikeri, high up and coffee estates down in the lower hills. So while you can cool off the day’s start at Madikeri, drive down to the estate to listen to only the sound of dry leaves crushing under your foot, :). If you are a little adventurous there is a bit of rock to climb around too.

The inside roads are pretty bad, bad and as I understood from the Coorgi people, since the day Coorg was amalgamated with Karnataka, there has been step treatment by the state government. Pity, for its a huge, pristine mini-state by itself that can really be great for tourists. Go there to get a perspective on how small city life really is.

I had bought the Travel guide by Outlook to help me about the place and found it useful, but help if they can add some more maps here. Some pictures to help.

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