Category Archives: Travel Destinations

Achtung – Germany: Rediscovering My Roots 37 Years Later

Note: This was written eleven years ago and quite a few things have changed since then – in Germany, and in me. I was born in Hamburg, am in fact half-German, and moved to India with my mom and brother in 1974. My mother is re-settled in Berlin, but various circumstances – most of them related to money – conspired to prevent me from returning to the land of my birth till I could finally buy myself a round-trip ticket to Berlin from Mumbai, where I lived and worked back then, in 2008.

A visit to Germany was nothing if not overdue since I was born there and hadn’t been back for 37 years. This effectively meant that I knew nothing of the country, which had reportedly changed completely since I had my face ground in the schoolyard dust in Hamburg at age 8 by a blonde Aryan prototype called Torsten.

The way to go was obviously Economy Class. I mean, nobody was watching to see in what style I left India or arrived in Germany – Lufthansa could, therefore, take a wet hike. I picked FinnAir.

The Mumbai-Berlin return ticket cost me 28,000 Indian rupees, and I was going to get to see Helsinki in Finland, too (the airport, that is). That’s where I would be cooling my heels for six hours while I waited for my connecting flight to Berlin.

I was on my own, and more than just a little worried… I was leaving Indian soil for the first time since I’d arrived almost four decades ago and had a serious case of atavistic heebie-jeebies about it all. Icy xenophobia had filled my spine and made itself at home there from the moment I arrived at Mumbai’s international airport. It was 11.30 p.m.

I had something like 300 Euros on me, and I wasn’t sure of my constitutional right about spending it ‘over there’. What if some pasty-faced whiteface took one look at my grubby Indian hands holding his country’s precious currency and called the cops, denouncing me as an infidel impostor?

I had yet to learn that money talks a universal language and that people in Europe weren’t too choosy about whom they spoke with – at least back then. That is one thing which has changed phenomenally in Europe today.

I paid attention to the pre-takeoff drill as I’d never done before, expecting some drastically important additions to the usual ho-hum stuff because this was an international flight. I needn’t have bothered – same old drill, the performing Finnish stewardess looked as ready to chuck her job in mortification as any of the Indian ones I’d ever seen.

Once the flight took off, things became increasingly chilled out – many passengers stretched out over empty seat rows and went to sleep as though flying to another land was of no great import. It wasn’t, of course, but you’d have been telling that to the wrong guy if you’d told it to me.

For me back then, given my considerably constrained finances and the fact that I was flying to the country where I took my first look at the world, it was a very big deal indeed.

Maybe an hour and a half later, we were flying over Afghanistan. I worked in real estate (still do – but only on the yata-yata side of it, not the dealing) and seeing those huge expanses of craggy land going waste made my bowels hitch and my heart ache.

Afghanistan from the air looks like the skin of a weathered old crone in the last stages of dehydration. It went on for miles… and miles, and miles.

Finally, I dropped off to sleep and awoke to the sight of an amazing green carpet of brown-tipped pine trees, with occasional specks of civilization scattered there like debris. We were about to land in Helsinki, Finland.

The air outside was cold, bracing and disconcertingly clean. Aren’t human beings supposed to spread the stink of technology and industry as soon as they have the ability to? Going by what I saw from the air, the Finns don’t seem to have understood the true message of progress as yet.

Aerial view of Vantaa airport Helsinki

Vantaa Airport is amazingly modern, yet outrageously spotless. Pedestrian conveyor belts whisk in-transit passengers from point to point within this artificially warmed microcosm of steel, chrome and glass.

The overall accent, of course, is on retail. There’s stuff on sale all over, including food with names that make the most mercilessly-christened South Indian cuisine sound like amateur nursery rhymes.

Timidly, I took out my wallet and handed over a five-Euro note to buy coffee and a sandwich that may have contained elk meat, I’m not sure. I was ready to defend the fact that Indians are bonafide human beings and have the right to wield foreign exchange.

The waitress handed me my change and didn’t call the cops. I was officially an accepted member of the international tourist tribe! My heart swelled with pride and I believe my gait assumed a cocky cant as I ambled over to the lounge near my departure gate.

The connecting flight to Berlin would arrive in four hours. Did I choose to sleep for the duration? Well, let me ask you this – you’re in a Sci-Fi airport in a strange land. Nobody knows you, you know nobody. You have 300 Euros and a passport.

You’re brown (my complexion is actually kind of coffee with a generous shot of milk, but you know what I mean) and practically everyone else is white and occasionally yellow.

Would you sleep? I took out a novel and kidded myself that I was reading.

Berlin Hier Kommen Wir

The flight to Berlin was over before I knew it – of course, the different time zones screw with one’s mind. One shouldn’t harp on that too much, though. Jetlag is a very pretentious version of plain old disorientation, just like a migraine is a headache with attitude.

Flughafen (airport) Tegel glittered like a frosty diamond necklace in the night below. I was about to land in the country of my birth, but felt like a tawdry sightseer for all the difference it made deep in my guts, where it really matters…

As I stepped off the plane, the cold hit me like a runaway deep freezer. It suffused every pore and percolated down into my bones, proceeding to ice my marrow and then my soul. It was August 2008, a decade before Germany was seriously hit by global warming.

An Indian should never have to be confronted by such cold, and definitely not in August. Jetlag? This was CLIMATE lag. My skin crawled but had nowhere to hide. And then, as I walked to the airport bus, something happened.

The Germanic barbarian (attuned to icy steppes, mammoths and opposing Hun factions), whose persona I’d shed thirty-seven years before, roused himself awake deep inside me and roared his defiance. He shed the imprint of thirty-seven blazing Indian summers, kicked his long-somnolent metabolism into gear and laughed hoarsely at the cold.

Arriving in a daze at Tegel Airport

I was in Germany – and while my brain had been on an extended tropical vacation, my body suddenly bristled with inner resources of warmth and coping once more. By the time my mother hugged me at the luggage carousel, I was 100% home again.

The first night at her home near Kurfuerstendamm (Berlin’ primary shopping district) went in a daze. I had indulged in a LOT of en route gawping, with confused déjà vu yammering constantly below the surface.

Kurfuerstendamm

I awoke next morning to the sophisticated stillness of a typical German autumn morning. The streets below the third-floor apartment’s window were tranquil, deserted and impossibly clean.

If you can shop here, please adopt me

I must say something here about German urban planning – it rocks. There are no eyesores of the stripe we know in India, where a suburb in any given city other than Chandigarh has a brain-numbing mis-assortment of architectural configurations.

There are social classes in Germany, sure. They gather in their own pockets, sure. But it is only the pockets that are either grander or more modest than the others – not the individual buildings themselves.

To see a neighbourhood change in Germany, you have to travel at least two miles from the city centre – and even then the change is so gradual that you’ll likely not notice it.

Commerzbank at Kurfuerstendamm – Germans take their banking VERY seriously

My re-acquaintance with Germany had to be jammed into ten short days, of which my mother and I spent the first four simply ambling around Berlin and taking a cruise down the River Spree, with the starting jetty just outside the achingly beautiful Schloss (castle) Charlottenburg.

The cruise on the River Spree
On the river cruise

We visited the home we had occupied on Spiessweg in the suburb of Wittenau, spent an awesome afternoon in the park where my brother and I used to play as kids, and dropped in on acquaintances for whom I’d become part of some outré Indian jungle legend over the years.

At the park on Spiessweg – MAJOR deja vu

We also took a bus to Hamburg, the city of my birth. The bus was totally amazing – central heating, zero vibrations, Rolls Royce hum, a loo, and with a thermostat indicator inside announcing that it was dead-ass cold out there.

My mom at the bus depot – we head for Hamburg

German precision percolates down to every stratum of life in this country. I saw a couple of bikers pass us, literally mummified from head to toe against the elements out there.

I thought of my own bike back in India, and how the wind factor and tropical cold even in this country can seep into your bones after a few miles – and shuddered in sympathy. But one of the bikers waved cheerily to us as he passed.

I was six when we’d left Hamburg for good (we moved to Berlin for two years before our final departure to India) and I didn’t have any great expectations from my memory cells.

Hamburg has some amazing sights

Sure enough, I didn’t remember much. It was an entirely new city to me – a big port city, sparkling in some areas and quite squalid in others, especially towards the harbourside – with awe-inspiring monuments, buildings of immense scale, and that eerily well-planned ethos to everything.

My Indian uncle, who had decades ago made Hamburg his home and ran a travel agency near the railway station back then (he died a few years ago), picked us up at the bus terminus.

With my uncle at his Indian grocery store-cum-travel agency in Hamburg

We’d met during his infrequent visits to India, but the last one had been over fifteen years ago. He looked old, all right – but also well preserved. The cold does that to you – it acts as a preservative. Tissue doesn’t seem to degenerate as easily in cold countries as it does in sweltering ones like India.

Later on, we learned that there was an eventually fatal kidney disease lurking below the surface, but he never let on and was the perfect guide to my return to the city I was born in.

The hospital in Hamburg where I was born

My Hamburg Homecoming

The disconcerting uniformity of the German real estate landscape hit me twice as hard in Hamburg, as we drove further and further to the extreme outskirts – to Ralstedt, therein to a small residential street called Aumuehlerweg. The first place I had ever called home on Planet Earth.

One of our neighbour’s families back then still live there. Of course, their individual stories have lost the generic family tag and taken off on different tangents. The kids we used to play with are now all grown up and have kids of their own.

Their mother is now retired. She folded me into a bear-like embrace that something in my memory remembered very clearly. Other old neighbours came over to say hello, with the expected questions about India – poverty, yoga, the Taj Mahal, monkeys and tigers.

My childhood home in Aumuehlerweg, Hamburg – others live there now, but it is unchanged

The feeling I got there – that life never goes on without leaving some kind of discernible wake behind it – was really all I’d come to Hamburg for. We did some sightseeing after that, but my mission was really accomplished.

I had peered into the sandpit I used to play in when I was four years old, seen the junkyard where we played cops and robbers, and found my roots still firm and thriving in the unchanging, suburban Hamburg landscape. I could now go on with my life.

Playing in the sandpit at our Hamburg home – circa 1969

My mother was no less moved than I was – she had never been back to Hamburg either, and we were sharing a unique then-and-now vision overlay. We took the night bus back to Berlin and arrived there as exalted wrecks.

A lot of shopping went down before I left Berlin; so did a lot of rehashing of old ghosts with my mother – some good, some not so good.

On the morning of my departure back to India and vile old Mumbai, I took a solitary saunter down Adenauer Platz and on to Kurfuerstendamm. I wore no jacket, preferring to let the delicious cold suffuse me. I wanted to take as much of it as possible home with me.

I also wanted a last mental snapshot of the dignified, focused and self-assured faces that defined Germany’s population back then (that’s another thing that has changed since Merkel decided that an open door is better than a closed one).

Berlin’s Fernsehturm (TV tower). The East German commies hated it because it reflects a cross

I needed to believe that some of that exists in me, and that I can choose to let it surface, if I can just rise above the squalid version of quality life back home…

Four hours later, my mother bid me farewell at the security check. My last glimpse of Germany was a diminishing speck of green land and impossibly neat urban landscape, probably no bigger than the Indian state of Maharashtra.

Spiessweg, Berlin – where we lived from 1970-72

Such amazing progress packed into such a small surface area. It was unbelievable. What makes a nation great? The size of its borders, or what happens within those borders?

Why are many large countries forever hankering for a break, that will help them reach their mysteriously denied highest potential, while other, smaller ones don’t bother with such frivolities and simply get down to work?

Is it the difference in climate? Does the tropical heat somehow stupefy the human spirit, or does the spirit somehow get diluted with the size of the country?

Back in Mumbai, I knew I could never again see the city with quite the same sense of my previous pride and awe. I had walked the streets of Berlin and Hamburg, travelled in their subways and buses, and knew that Mumbai can never be a world-class city.

At a water fountain on Adenauer PLatz

It is simply a city of transients with no cause and no goal except their own individual ones… and I was one of them. I realized that we have no real desire to make our cities great and livable. If we did, we’d plan them, give flow and direction to the urban sprawl and ensure that life retains some semblance of dignity for all.

PS. My naïveté back then comes through very clearly in this recollection, but I decided not to edit it out. I have been to Germany several times after the trip recounted above, but none of those trips could – or ever will – match my first impressions. That is a good thing.

Today, Berlin has changed considerably; not in architecture and landscape, but in spirit. Today, Germans are by and large an intimidated and angry lot, and one now encounters unfriendliness to strangers, that was nowhere in evidence in 2008. I am glad that I could see it before that happened.

Destination Agonda Beach: A Backpackers Paradise In Goa

A panoramic view of Agonda Beach in Canacona, South Goa

I first went to Agonda beach in 1991, when there was not a soul or shack on the beach. At the time, I was studying at Goa University at Taleigao Plateau, doing a Masters in Marine Biotechnology.

I was staying in the hostel at the University campus and set out for Palolem beach in Canacona with a bunch of other hostelites and a local, Raju, who became a close friend of mine (he passed away a year ago, bless his soul).

He was a baker who lived near St. Inez church in Panjim and loved being our tour guide, showing us new places and restaurants to the detriment of his own business (and the chagrin of his doting parents).

Via Palolem En Route To Agonda

We were planning to spend the night with a friend of Raju’s at Palolem, so we took the bus to Margao and caught another bus to Canacona bus stand. From there we walked to Palolem, where Raju’s friends, the Gaitondes lived. Long walks were no challenge to us young girls, charged up with the eagerness of youth and the desire to explore.

Goa University Hostelites, on Palolem Beach in 1991

As this was in December, the Gaitonde’s Palolem Tent Resort was full. So we had to adjust our expectations for decent lodging. A few of the girls slept at the Gaitonde’s home, while the more adventurous ones, I included, settled for a changing tent on the beach, where we shivered on the cold December sands.

Posing on Palolem beach – Land Ahoy! That’s me in Raju’s oversized leather jacket.

In 1991, Palolem was not yet overrun by tourists. And Agonda, 12 kilometres away, was completely undiscovered. The next morning, we hired a bunch of cycles and set out for Agonda.

We had to cycle over steep, hill climbs, sometimes preferring to get off and walk instead. A few hours later, we reached this pristine beach with nary a shack in sight. The only habitation was the fishing village nearby.

Agonda Beach is between Cola and Palolem beach in Canacona, Goa

After a few delightful hours spent at this unspoiled paradise, we set off back for Palolem and then took a bus back to our hostel. The next day, our bodies ached from all the cycling, but we made some warm, fun memories that have served me well until today.

My second visit to Agonda was many years later when there was just a single shack on the beach. In the last couple of years, I have gone there almost every New Year’s Eve.

My doggie, Simba, playing on Agonda Beach years ago

Agonda Today: A Haven For Backpackers

On my third visit, a couple of years ago, I found that the place had changed tremendously with lots of options for lodging and boarding. Thankfully, there are no five-star hotels there just yet – just basic beach resorts, homestays or rooms let out by locals and many excellent restaurants and eateries on the beach.

So many little resorts at Agonda Beach

One of my favourite beach restaurants is Agonda Sunset, run by a bunch of friendly and really sweet Nepali guys. The food here was tasty and reasonably priced. My favourite dish was the chicken schnitzel and I enjoyed whiling away the evening sipping on the ginger honey lemon tea.

Chicken schnitzel, my favourite dish at Agonda Sunset
Love the Ginger Lemon Honey tea too

Every time I visit, I look for accommodation within walking distance of this beach shack. In 2015, when we were in Goa for a family reunion, I stayed at Wave On Waves, which is just opposite Agonda Sunset.

Wave On Waves opposite my favourite beach shack Agonda Sunset

If you’re willing to shell out more for authentic Italian food, try La Dolce Vita, for its Italian pizzas made in a wood-fired oven. I found them too pricey and didn’t much care for them.

Try La Dolce Vita for authentic Italian cuisine
Pizza at La Dolce Vita

If you’re a digital nomad, you’ll love the fact that Agonda is awash with Wifi connections. No matter where you stay – in the little resorts, homestays and the beach shacks – you can settle down and log on to the internet, and even get some work done if you’re so inclined.

Imagine working with a view like this…

The one thing you won’t get here is a pharmacist, so carry all your medicines when you go, because you’re unlikely to get anything except Himalaya Herbal products, and the nearest town’s an hour’s drive away.

Despite all this development, this South Goa beach is still one of the most peaceful, picturesque and relaxing beaches in Goa, far away from the madness of North Goa beaches like Baga, Calangute and Anjuna.

I would even recommend it over Palolem, which is now too commercial for my liking. It seems to be quite popular with foreign tourists and backpackers, and the Indian tourists are mostly families.

I took a boat trip in this little fishing vessel

Only once did we see a bunch of Indian guys behaving obnoxiously with a couple of foreign women in the water, upon which a local came along, reproached them and promptly kicked them out. Otherwise, it’s relatively free of the obnoxious and badly-behaved tourists you find on North Goan beaches.

The water is clean and clear, and the swimming is great here. The large waves also make it a haven for surfers. I highly recommend the dolphin watching trips which also take you on an excursion to secret beaches – Butterfly Beach and Honeymoon beach – that can only be reached by boat.

You can see why it’s called Butterfly Beach

I took a boat trip from Agonda to see the secret beaches, situated between Palolem and Agonda. On the way, there were some interesting rock formations like Turtle Rock. The secret beaches are tiny, isolated and quite charming, and this is a trip worth taking if you’re staying at Agonda.

No prizes for guessing why it’s called Turtle Rock

I actually hesitated to write this destination review about Agonda beach, Goa, because so few people know about this South Goa beach, and I loathe the idea of more people discovering it (especially the obnoxious tourists).

Luckily most of the party-goers prefer to stay in North Goa where the party scene is, so I head in the opposite direction, to South Goa. The beaches are better, the water is cleaner and the people are better behaved.

The sunsets at Agonda are sublime

If you do go to Agonda, please be a responsible tourist and let it remain lovely and peaceful. If you’re looking to party or want a rocking nightlife, stay north of the Mandovi. Don’t come here and screw it up for the rest of us.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rlgwPfmPXcY

Update: Agonda beach was voted #1 among the Top 25 Beaches in India & Asia and #18 among the World’s Top 25 Beaches in TripAdvisor’s 2018 Traveller’s Choice Awards. Damn! Here come the tourist hordes.  🙁

All photos (except the Google Map) are © Priya Florence Shah.

Destination Poovar: An Island Resort For The Incurable Beach Lover

Floating cottages at Poovar Island Resort

Going by the amount of press Goa beaches get, one could be forgiven for believing that Goa is the Alpha and Omega of Indian beach destinations.

This belief is, to some extent, justified – in terms of getting its tourism act together, Goa still rules. However, tourist orientation alone does not a perfect destination make…

Having explored Goa extensively, we decided that it was time to give Kerala – that great, green, soggy coconut-tree-infested armpit that everyone knows of and nobody really understands – a  fair trial.

Destination – Poovar, a resort island adjoining Thiruvananthapuram (as though Trivandrum wasn’t enough of a tongue-twister). We had what it takes! We had the brochures, we had the suntan lotion, we had two squirmy brats to hold our sanity to ransom. In short, we were tourists – and we meant to prove it.

Of course, we also had the then-Club Mahindra Poovar (now known as the Poovar Island Resort) tell us that they were was booked to the rafters – but hey, we’re from Mumbai. We don’t take ‘no’ for an answer.

So there we were at Thiruvananthapuram airport in the middle of a furnace-like April, wondering how it could POSSIBLY get any hotter when summer hit its peak next month. Did I mention ‘tourist orientation’ earlier? Kerala doesn’t have any. I mean, it has great beaches and one helluva lot of coconut trees, but it isn’t tourist-savvy.

View of Golden Sands Beach from Poovar Island Resort

I mean, they’re friendly enough at the retail level as long as they see a wallet-bulge in your pants, but it takes more than mercenary friendliness to make you feel welcome there. At the very least, you need to feel that you’re on the same page as they are – and you will never get that reassurance.

Maybe it’s only because they mean well but can’t communicate the fact to you.  Don’t go by Kerala’s literacy level – that may be the highest in India, but it takes English to be tourist-friendly. Correction – it takes COMPREHENSIBLE English.

I believe they do speak the language in Kerala – but for all it sounds like, it could be the rattling of coconut-oil slathered chestnuts in a hollowed-out Webster’s dictionary. It does not compute. Not to Indian ears, and most certainly not to foreign ears.

English, as spoken by a native Keralite, comes across like an encrypted mix of busted bongo drums, castanets and out-of-tune guitar strings misprocessed through a waa-waa pedal and echo chamber. Foreign tourists have an advantage, though – they’re not averse to making asses of themselves using sign language.

Anyway, we did manage to get a taxi that took from the airport to the resort’s launch jetty. Along the way, we discovered that we were a mere coconut oil-skid away from Kovalam Beach. We got all excited over that (a mistake in that heat) and vowed to check it out after our four-day stint on Poovar Island.

Boat cruising through the Poovar backwaters

The boat ride took us along an amazing, winding waterway where the coconut tree ruled supreme – a relentless canopy of green. Along the way, fishermen went about their fishermanly business without paying us the slightest attention.

Fishermen doing their thing in the Poovar backwaters

I was impressed – this was the first contingent of locals I had seen who had better things to do than stare and flash their startlingly white teeth at us. The boat pulled up at a jetty that took the form of an open houseboat fitted out with wooden benches. Beyond this strange but beautiful contraption stretched a concrete lane that led to the actual resort.

Poovar Island Resort Jetty

The lane was uncompromisingly lined with… you guessed it – coconut trees. I had reached a point where I would have given a hundred coconut trees for the sight of one noxious Tata truck or overturned garbage can crawling with hunger-crazed cats.

Poovar Island Resort Coconut Trees

Checking into the resort was a bit of a challenge. Apart from the decided difference in English language versions, it turned out that they had the wrong rooms booked for us.

They had no kitchenettes in the rooms. We had been very specific about our requirement of kitchenettes and had lugged an improbably heavy bag of kitchenettable foodstuff along.

This bag was now threatening to become the gastronomic equivalent of a millstone around our necks. The Mumbai mindset we had brought along refused to dovetail with this, but we were also beginning to latch on to an important lesson in South India tourism – while in Kerala, do as the catatonic comatose do.

What about Poovar itself, you ask. This is understandable and shall be addressed accordingly.

Poovar is another world. This little island is almost too perfect to be true, which means that it probably is. It would not surprise me to learn that a bunch of gung-ho geologists from Singapore descended in this part of the Kokknut Oyl Bowl of Indya and hacked this little piece of real estate off the mainland with a few truckfuls of napalm.

Poovar Island Resort walkway

I can almost see them unleash a frenzy of high-end landscaping by the light of many full moons, adding the picture-perfect walkways and concrete paths, the self-contained houseboats that probably need to be booked an entire lifetime in advance, the statuary, the ponds and the flower beds.

Manmade or not, Poovar is the very epitome of tranquillity. The resort featured a swimming pool complete with bar, a rather neat gymnasium contained largely by bamboo thatching and a restaurant that serves out-of-this-world South Indian, continental and Mughlai a la carte and buffet meals.

Stay away from the resort’s store, however – they sold us a Korea-made pair of plastic diving goggles for Rs. 800 and wanted to follow this up with a fake piece of Nepali stoneware that would probably have cost us our mortgage, pension plan and a goodish part of my left arm.

Bring everything you need from wherever you’re coming from and returning to – and I mean EVERYTHING – toilet paper, ciggies, sleeping/birth control pills, booze, T-shirts that say “I LOVE POOVAR” (readily available at Mumbai’s Colaba, Delhi’s Palika Bazaar, Goa’s beach shacks or anywhere else where tourist dross is sold).

The sunken bar at Poovar Island Resort

Also, expect to do a fair share of sweating while at the Poovar Island Resort. The rooms’ air conditioners seem to have called an uneasy truce with Kerala’s trademark mugginess and worked only half the time.

Nothing that the somnolent housekeeping guys could do (once we managed to convince them that it would be really nice if they could do something BEFORE we checked out four days later) made much of a difference.

A beautiful sunset at Poovar Island Resort

Our four days on Poovar up, we got ferried back to the mainland and decided to put our plan of checking out Kovalam Beach before we flew back to Mumbai on the table. This cost three hours of precious lifetime, which will never be replaced.

Take my advice – stay away from Kovalam. Apart from a picturesque lighthouse, there is more charm in the least of Mumbai’s overcrowded beaches than here. It has all the character of a Bangkok flea market, with a comparable retail component.

Kovalam Fishermen pulling in their catch

Cheap restaurants, tawdry Kashmiri and Nepali handicraft shacks, touristy keepsake outlets and hostelries of VERY doubtful repute have Kovalam in an uncompromising death grip.

The ten feet of remaining beach is black with some kind of permanent oil slick, and the sight of pale-skinned Westerners trying gamely to catch a tan on this DMZ-like stretch made me want to cry softly with mortified repulsion.

Every intact seashell larger than two centimetres that have ever been retrieved there is being sold five feet up the waterline as part of some outlandish boardwalk knickknack.

Our Poovar adventure ended at Thiruvananthapuram Airport with an eight-hour wait for an Indian Airlines flight that had already been delayed by seven hours, to begin with.

This delay, which made it into the papers two days later, apparently was a record of some sort, and I guess we should be proud of having been there to experience it.

While it lasted, it was nothing less than gruelling, torturous and completely infuriating. The airport authorities were finally forced to put up all stranded passengers in the First Class lounge one floor above.

I arrived back in Mumbai with an hour to spare before hurrying to the office, my mind still a confused daze of coconut trees….

The Cynic’s Survival Guide To Your Goa Beach Vacation

So, you’re going on a Goa vacation. You’ve made an online booking in what may be the last of the decently priced hotels in Goa, have your flight tickets in your hand and are raring to go. Goa beach culture – here you come!

Good for you. I salute your prudence and good taste. To be sure, there aren’t many options that compare to a Goa vacation. You’ve made an excellent choice.

I love Goa, and recommend it highly over India’s other beach-based tourist destinations. Kerala’s Kovalam? Gimme a break. Mumbai’s Juhu? You’ve GOT to be kidding me. Lakshadweep? Hey, I thought you want to be where the ACTION is!

So, your plane lands at Dabolim Airport. Or your train pulls into Margao Station. Or your bus wheezes to a halt at Panjim. Or you’ve survived a self-driven car journey and are trying to figure out if this IS Panjim or just another of those towns with pseudo-Portuguese names that you’ve passed through.

Read the hoardings and see what area the joints they advertise are at. Don’t tell me you can’t see all those Dantesque monstrosities that vie for your attention.

Eat that lobster platter. Drink that beer. Take that pleasure cruise down the Mandovi River. Move into that Goa resort, because no other resort even comes NEAR in terms of ‘tropical ambience’, hospitality, facilities, cuisine (don’t bother looking for the room rates, though).

You’ve finally arrived at your hotel, dumped your baggage, taken a shower and are now ready to ‘do Goa’. Everyone has been very courteous and helpful.

The receptionist has handed you a list of the services available at the hotel and pointed out that the shopping arcade is just behind the bar. She has informed you that the hotel offers the best pleasure cruises down the River Mandovi in Goa.

Nothing unusual in all this. You, as an experienced globe-trotter, smile and nod in all the right places. You’ve checked out a zillion beach-towns before and Goa holds no surprises for you. Right? Wrong.

You ask the receptionist which way the beach is. She gives you directions. Okay, here’s where you need the survival guide. Scroll down if you’re in a tearing hurry to get at it, or hear me out first. I strongly recommend the latter course of action.

It doesn’t matter which particular Goa beach you’ve chosen to patronize on your vacation. It could be Calangute, Baga, Anjuna, Vagator, Colva, Cavelossim, Benaulim or any other – the fact is, it is a Goa beach and you are a tourist. In this rather vulnerable capacity, there are some things you should know of Goa and its people.

As a tourist, you belong to the tribe that made Goa, The Tourist Destination, happen. Before you and your kind did your number on this place, it was a quaint, sleepy fishing state that made and consumed the very excellent brew called ‘feni’.

The local populace caught fish, washed it down with feni, found a spot of shade for the afternoon siesta and was content and happy. These were (and still are) simple folks who never asked to be invaded by sweating, white-skinned aliens in Bermuda shorts, smelling of designer perfumes.

These simple folk never asked that their beaches be jammed with suntan lotion-slathered foreigners that jabbered at each other (and them) in unintelligible dialects as they marinated themselves into painful sunburns.

Cow sauntering on Baga beach in Goa

The point is – once this alien tribe DID descend, it changed Goa’s economic landscape forever. The tourist trade overshadowed the fishing industry, and even though the tourist season lasted for only four months a year, there were more bucks in the tourist trade than in fishing.

So fishing continued, but it was no longer the primary economic driver. Tourism was – and is. And that’s you. You’re Goa’s primary economic driver. Chew on that for a bit, alien in Bermuda shorts.

That salty sea-breeze you’re inhaling also carries a mercenary spirit with it. These simple folks whom you and your tribe have dislodged from their siesta have four months to make money out of the likes of you, and they are not – I repeat NOT – going to miss a trick.

So, here’s your Goa vacation survival guide and may it serve you well:

  • Get used to the local water

Unless you have oodles of undeclared money stashed away in some bank at Zurich, get acclimatized to the local water.

Mineral water costs only 20 Indian rupees outside your resort – inside, you’re paying service tax, VAT, luxury tax and whatever else one can possibly weigh down a bottle of water with. You’ll end up paying much more that way.

  • Stay away from the feni

DON’T drink the feni, unless you know what to expect. Feni does not hit you from the front – it sneaks up on you from behind. You’re okay till you leave the bar; once you’re outside and the breeze hits you, you are WASTED.

No pleasant interim stage of tipsiness – you go from nothing at all straight to blotto and wake up with a prize-winning hangover. Stick to Scotch, gin, vodka or whatever else you’ve been killing yourself with before you came here.

  • Avoid the local cuisine

Unless you’re an Indian tourist, don’t eat anywhere outside your hotel or resort, especially not the local dishes. Genuine Goan cuisine is meant for cast-iron stomachs.

Western innards pampered by hygiene, soufflés and light seasoning are no match for it. So – smile at the xacuti and nod approvingly at the vindaloo, but order the Chicken a La Kiev or Russian Salad.

Goan prawn curry. Credit: Schellack at English Wikipedia, via Wikimedia Commons
  • River cruise? Maybe not.

Before you opt for one of those river cruises, ask them what it entails. If it includes a stopover at some small island, run the other way. They’re going to make you their captive audience to a jazzed-up version of the local dances, and you will die of mortification (unless you’re into that sort of thing).

  • Taxis are expensive

Get ready to pay through your nose for the taxis that are the main means of transport in Goa, which has a practically non-existent public transport system.

You won’t find no Uber or Ola here, mister. It’s a mafia out there.  Learn how to ask “How much to (your destination)” and get someone to interpret the answer.

  • Don’t condescend

DON’T address a Goan waiter as ‘patrao’. You will hear the locals call each other that, and it has no insulting connotations. However, the typical Goan is fiercely partisan and will not allow an alien to presume that he’s privy to local familiarities.

He can call him patrao. You can’t.
  • Don’t mess with the locals

DON’T get into a brawl (or even low-grade argument) with ANY local outside your hotel or resort. The staff at Goa hotels and resorts do not represent the typical, unadorned Goan. They’re trained at hospitality training centres and are probably too polite to get into your hair.

If you get aggressive with a local, on the other hand, he will emit a sharp, short whistle. Five seconds later, you will be set upon by a horde of his buddies who will pulp you first and ask questions later.

  • Don’t go ‘antique’ shopping

DON’T enter any of the so-called ‘antique stores’ you’ll see near every popular beach. These shops would like you to believe that Goa dates back to the Middle Ages (it doesn’t) and that every local family has suddenly decided to sell off its family heirlooms (they haven’t).

Never mind the ‘certificates of authenticity’ some may offer you, or how genuine some of the stuff looks. For more dope on how such ‘antiquities’ are manufactured, ask any street kid in Mumbai’s Colaba area.

  • There’s no work getting done here

DON’T go to Goa unless you have all urgent and pressing matters of business tightly wrapped up. Only an uninitiated imbecile hopes to find any business communication centre or courier open before ten in the morning.

They close again at 1.30 p.m. for the siesta and sometimes open briefly again after five. Even outside siesta timings, Goans spend most of their waking hours in a kind of stupor that barely supports metabolic life – sort of like those ascetics you read about in books by Lobsang Rampa.

DON’T expect to be able to mobilize any locals to help you meet emergencies of any kind. Emergencies do not exist on the Goan mindscape. While in Goa, you had better get used to the  ‘susegad’ lifestyle – terminal lassitude raised to its infinite power.

  • Don’t forget your liquor license

If you’re leaving Goa via road, make sure you have a license for every bottle of booze that you carry back. The police have flying squads that will intercept you at key points just beyond the border. It is NOT legal to take liquor out of Goa without these pieces of paper, no matter what anyone tells you.

Have you visited Goa? What was your experience? Let us know in the comments below.

All images are © Priya Florence Shah unless otherwise mentioned.

Club Mahindra Sherwood Mahabaleshwar: Amidst Forests And Family

In early March 2018, just after my child’s board exam was done, we took a short trip to Club Mahindra’s Sherwood Mahabaleshwar resort for a much-needed break.

For those who have never heard of Mahabaleshwar, it is a hill station at an average elevation of 1,353 metres, located in the Sahyadri mountain range. Situated about 120 km (75 mi) southwest of Pune and 285 km (177 mi) from Mumbai, it is blessed with a pleasant and bracing climate and has one of the few evergreen forests of India.

Because of its proximity to Pune and Mumbai, it is a popular vacation spot for city-dwellers looking to escape the heat and pollution of these two cities. It’s not easy to get a booking here. In fact, I tried to get one (albeit unsuccessfully) for a few days during the long Holi weekend, but instead only managed it during the week after.

This is one of the downsides of owning a timeshare and a major issue I’ve faced with Club Mahindra in recent years – the difficulty of getting a booking in the resort of my choice during the dates I want.

The reception at Club Mahindra Sherwood Mahabaleshwar

We set out from Pune on a Tuesday morning, thanks to the travel desk that helped us book a taxi for the three (or so) hour drive to the resort.

A long, winding road takes you to the gate of the resort, which is situated in a woody, forested area about 4 kilometres from Mahableshwar town. The first thing that hits you is how peaceful and quiet it is here, with only the sounds of chirping birds to disturb your reverie.

Our room at Club Mahindra Sherwood Mahabaleshwar

Exhausted from my sleep deprivation of the previous week, I slept the entire first day, while my child entertained herself in the fun zone. The family-friendly theme of Club Mahindra resorts is why I took on the membership around 10 years ago, and I haven’t regretted it since.

My child has spent many a blissful afternoon in the welcoming arms of the Fun Zone – an essential element of every Club Mahindra resort – whether painting with one of the creative kits or playing games with another kid or participating in the evening’s housie or karaoke session.

This time we also planned to spend a day in nearby Panchgani, a charming town known for its many excellent boarding schools. This was only the second time I’d visited Panchgani, the last time being a stay at a tented Club Mahindra resort that seems to have been eliminated from the roster.

But our visit was not for the purpose of sightseeing (which we avoided altogether), but to a very special landmark called the M.V. Roach bakery, started by my great-grandfather, Manuel Vincent Roach, in 1901, and now run by my second cousin, Christopher Savio Roach, and his mum, Ruth.

The M.V. Roach & Sons Bakery in Panchgani (Established in 1901)

Before our visit, though, we stopped in the main market in Panchgani for some delicious parathas at a tiny (and not very hygienic) place called Akbarali’s. It came highly recommended by a friend who spent a few years in a boarding school in Panchgani.

Akbarali’s Paratha House In Panchgani Market

The parathas were delicious and, if you omit the butter, would make an excellent vegan meal. They were massive and a bit too heavy for us. Not being big eaters, we could hardly finish off two slices each.

Jain Gobhi (Cauliflower) Paratha at Akbarali’s Paratha House, Panchgani

We then dropped in at the Roach bakery, where we spent an enjoyable afternoon with my cousin and aunt. Christopher showed us their massive wood-fired oven that can bake around 450 loaves at a time.

Christopher Savio Roach with the wood-fired oven at the M.V. Roach bakery

My aunt, Ruth, took us on a tour of the Roach (previously called Rochas) family through all the old family albums. I was chuffed to find a photo of my great-grandpa, M.V.Roach, founder of the bakery.

Manuel Vincent Roach, the Founder of the Roach Bakery in Panchgani

Christopher’s grandpa, Francis, and my grandma, Kathleen, were brother and sister, which makes him my second cousin. With our massive family, it would be impossible to keep in touch with everyone, were it not for the twin blessings of Facebook and Whatsapp.

When we returned to the resort a few hours later, we were so exhausted, we slept all day and missed our dinner. I reminded myself that this was supposed to be a relaxing break, with the kind of downtime we couldn’t really get with all the distractions at home.

Thanks to a weak mobile network (only Vodafone and BSNL work consistently in this neck of the woods), I attempted to connect to the net only when I had some work pending. If you’re looking to disconnect completely for a few days, this is a good thing. For me, it was a working holiday, so it became a bit of a nuisance.

The upside was that waking up in the morning to the chirping of birds in the green canopy above us (which continued almost all day), catching sight of a beautiful specimen of the Indian (or Malabar) giant squirrel (Ratufa indica) endemic to this area, and being startled by a large monkey outside our room, made me feel pretty close to nature. If the objective was relaxation, we achieved that pretty well.

Indian (Malabar) giant squirrel exploring the canopy

One problem I have with Club Mahindra’s resorts is that most of them are far away from the nearby town or city, and there are few or no restaurants in the area. Which means you’re stuck having to eat the (very expensive) food in the resort restaurant.

This is not entirely a bad thing as the food, especially the buffet, is excellent and doesn’t leave you wanting. You can opt for a package that includes 1, 2 or 3 meals a day. Members get a 25% discount. This is a cost that you need to factor into your holiday expenses whenever you visit a Club Mahindra resort.

Evening buffet at the Saddle Back Restaurant

Considering that most of their resorts have the equivalent of a 4 or 5-star rating, this is par for the course. Other than the expensive food, we really have no complaints when we visit a Club Mahindra property, and the Mahableshwar resort was no exception.

The rooms are spotlessly clean and well-maintained. The beds are extra-comfortable. The staff are polite, extremely attentive and helpful. They will organise excursions and transport for you at the drop of a hat. And the locations where these resorts are situated are often exceptional.

As someone who hates waste, I was happy to see that they’ve switched to soap and shampoo dispensers instead of those wasteful plastic bottles, but what gives with these plastic stirrers in the rooms? Why not provide reusable stainless steel spoons to stir our coffee, as most of their other resorts do?

Plastic stirrers in the rooms. Why, Club Mahindra?

This was our first time at Club Mahindra Sherwood Mahabaleshwar and we really enjoyed our downtime and the time spent with our family in Panchgani. Watch the video below to enjoy some more glimpses of this charming resort. And if you’ve been here, do share your experience in the comments below.

All images and videos are © Priya Florence Shah

Travel Guide For Bora Bora: The Jewel Of The South Pacific

Bora Bora, located in the Society Islands, is Tahiti’s crown jewel – a true Polynesian island paradise that tourists the world over consider the ultimate tropical vacation destination.

Hollywood and film industries from most other parts of the globe have never tired of capturing its spectacular topography. Probably its most definitive landmarks are the twin towers of black rock and an azure lagoon of clearest tropical water.

Considering the ideal location and nature of this island getaway, it is not really surprising that water sports like water skiing, parasailing and tackle fishing feature prominently amongst the things to do there. Responding to the potential, many enterprising holiday specialists have provided matchless facilities to enjoy such activities on almost any budget.

Bora Bora’s spectacular natural beauty is far from superficial and skin deep. The world beneath its waves makes it the perfect hunting ground for professional and amateur scuba diving enthusiasts.

Recreational tourism aside, Bora Bora is also amongst the world’s legendary backdrops for freshly baked romance. Newlyweds who choose the island for their honeymoon will have something to cherish, talk about and reminisce for the rest of their lives.

Despite the high influx of tourists every year, Bora Bora has managed to avoid the cluttered, cheap boardwalk culture that one tends to associate with seaside and island resorts closer home. There is nothing trashy about Bora Bora.

It is very well connected by sea and air, and reaching there is as thrilling a visual experience as actually holidaying there. Excellent internal transport connectivity ensures that the entire wealth of Bora Bora’s splendour is available for a visitor’s inspection and enjoyment.

Unlike many other resort destinations of this kind, Bora Bora is far from cut off from the realities of mainstream life. In other words, it has an excellent infrastructure to support the necessities of modern living – hospitals, banking, foreign exchange etc. – even while it retains all its highly individual and other-worldly charm.

Bora Bora Hotels

The hotels that capitalize on its popularity do so in unique style, avoiding squalor even at the lowest end of the holiday budget scale. Most of them strive to offer the maximum advantage of Bora Bora’s visual delights. A lagoon view from one’s hotel room is something to cherish.

Bora Bora’s hotel industry has responded splendidly to the various tastes of its round-the-year tourist invasion and establishments that offer top-of-the-line facilities and amenities are at your disposal.

If you’re looking for luxury hotel options, then the Four Seasons Resort Bora Bora or the InterContinental Bora Bora Le Moana Resort are excellent options. A less expensive option (and just as good) is the Sofitel Bora Bora Marara Beach Resort.

However, hotels and resorts are not the only accommodation facilities available on this fascinating Polynesian island. One of the most unique ways to experience a vacation in Bora Bora is by staying in a beachside bungalow, like Bora Bora Bungalove, or a lodge, like Oa Oa Lodge, which is bang on the beach.

Camping holidays, can work out to be far more cost-effective than hotel stays and even expose you to more to the ethnic island culture than a commercial hotel establishment can.

Considering that there is so much to see here that may not be readily accessible by ordinary transport means, many adventurous vacationers choose the camping/trekking options and save themselves a pile of money while still getting full mileage out of their time on the island. One can enjoy a vacation on Bora Bora at almost any budget.

Bora Bora Weather

Bora Bora’s weather falls in line with the general parameters of all tropical locations – entirely predictable for the most part (except for the infrequent but spectacular cyclones) and with definite seasons. Broadly, it can be classified into the wet (rainy) season or monsoon and the dry season.

The monsoons last for five months – between the months of November and April, to be precise –and they generate a considerable amount of rainfall. It is estimated that three-quarters of Polynesia’s yearly rainfall occur within these five months.

It can get quite hot and humid on the island in this period – temperatures can go up to 30 degrees and even higher during the period between February and March. Though Bora Bora has its own rustically romantic charm in the monsoon season, a majority of tourists find the torrential rainfall hard to take. The generally pleasant north-northeasterly toerau trade winds blow during the monsoons.

In contrast, the dry season, which also lasts for five months (between May and October) is far more amenable to the tourist trade. Humidity is down to a manageable level from the extreme mugginess of the wet season. Usually, temperatures will fluctuate between 24 degrees and 28 degrees and the weather generally remains pleasant.

This season also features the southeasterly ‘mara amu’ trade winds, which can reduce daytime temperatures without warning. First-time visitors would probably be best off vacationing during the dry spell, which is considered peak tourist season on Bora Bora.

The lacuna between these two main seasons is not considered to be optimum vacation time on the island, but that depends entirely on one’s point of view. For instance, you are likely to get accommodation, island touring, charter fishing and water sports facilities at extremely reasonable rates during this period.

Vacationing In Bora Bora

Getting to Bora Bora is not a problem. The French Polynesian island is eminently accessible by land and air. If one chooses to fly there, one can choose between a number of international airlines that have regular flights to and from Fa’a’ā International Airport.

This is located at Papeete, which is the capital of Tahiti. Alternatively (and if your budget allows it) you can choose to charter a flight or even a helicopter. Many affluent tourists prefer the latter option because of the spectacular panoramic view this affords in transit.

Bora Bora can, of course, also be reached by commercial or private sea vessels. Once there, however, sea travel is practically a must – exploring the azure waters in general and the magnificent lagoon, in particular, are inalienable from a Bora Bora vacation.

No matter what kind of accommodation or vacation package one chooses, it is important to plan the holiday carefully. There is so much to see and so much to do, and yet relaxation should be the binding element through it all.

Much depends on one’s own mental makeup, of course – the hardy explorer would never be satisfied with lounging around in luxuriant lassitude at a fancy resort. By the same coin, a lot of such relaxation would be in order for the stressed-out business executive.

An ideal vacation at Bora Bora would include:

  • A reasonable amount of water sports – tackle fishing, water skiing, scuba diving, an Aquasafari….
  • At least a couple of expertly guided island tours
  • Visits to the neighbouring islands of Raiatea, Huahine and Tahaa
  • Checking out places of historical and general tourist interest, such as the fascinating remnants of World War II and the spectacular lagoonarium
  • Getting in touch with the Tahitian natives – witnessing the local dances, checking out their craft

Viator has a large list of activities and things to do on your Bora Bora vacation, that we bet are enough to memories that last a lifetime.

Honeymoon In Bora Bora

Bora Bora has been the ultimate honeymoon venue ever since the advent of modern tourism. This has nothing to do with the snob value of having vacationed there – it is just that the island is probably the most romantic spot on the planet.

The hearts of newlyweds cannot but respond to the natural splendour of the emerald lagoon, the timeless magnificence of the twin granite pillars and the pristine beaches. And is in the case of most other tropical islands, Bora Bora’s unique climate even seems to work as a natural aphrodisiac.

Since it is not crassly commercialized and cluttered with the usual trappings of the tourist trade, Bora Bora is the perfect setting for freshly baked couples to get to know each other better. Nothing intrudes on the privacy that is so much called for during a honeymoon – the Islanders appear to have an instinctive respect for romantic solitude.

Many married couples consider their honeymoon at Bora Bora – the leisurely walks along the moonlit lagoon, catching the sunrise and sunset on one of the beaches and meals expertly prepared by true masters of the trade tend to have a lingering effect.

There is something for every kind of honeymooning couple on Bora Bora. If the leanings are towards an extravagant splurge in bohemian luxury, it’s available at the many elite hotels and resorts that are spread over Bora Bora.

The adventurous have no shortage of things to do – despite its natural blessedness, the island is not an isolated phenomenon in the Polynesian chain. There is an enormous amount of tropical terrain to explore together.

Many couples go a step further than just honeymooning at Bora Bora – they even get married there. Tying the knot in a legally binding and valid manner is not exactly an easy process, and there are various formalities to follow. It is, however, possible.

Or you may wish to have a spectacular mock-up marriage that immediately follows or precedes the legal one elsewhere. The natives have a unique ceremony that would make such an experience quite unforgettable.

Bora Bora Beaches

Life in Bora Bora is essentially beach-centric. That makes perfect sense since it is the beaches that tourists naturally zero in on almost from the moment of arrival at this beautiful tropical island.

It is hard to describe the serene splendour of Bora Bora’s beaches in words. Those who have seen them in some of the various Hollywood films that have been filmed over the ages on location there will know that they are literally quite indescribable.

Bora Bora is just 18 miles long, and beaches are the defining catchword here. This charming little island is the tourism jewel of the South Pacific and has long since been hailed as the most romantic beach chain that the globe has to offer.

The beaches themselves sport none of the boardwalk clutter that one tends to associate with resort islands. The various hotel establishments have cooperated with Tahitian authorities and natives to preserve and maintain the magnificent seclusion and beauty that Bora Bora’s beaches are so famous for.

Matira Beach is the crowning jewel in Bora Bora’s crown, and should not be missed. While there, the visitor has various options. One can seriously work on one’s suntan, engage the help of local pearl divers to find one of the black pearls the island is so renowned for, go aquaplaning, scuba diving, water skiing or parasailing, and go on a boat ride to watch the sharks being fed.

Watching the sun rise and set on Matira Beach is an experience that will set standards of exhilarating, soul-stirring beauty for the rest of one’s life. Check out this video of this lovely beach.

Don’t expect to be able to go to a local disco or nightclub after the colourful display, though. That’s not what Bora Bora’s beach life is all about. Here you will find unspoiled nature, friendly natives and true ethic charm – not a picturesque extension of Big City life.

Flights To Bora Bora

There are, of course, no direct flights to Bora Bora. A full-fledged airport would have detracted from the island’s rustic ethnicity. It does feature a tiny airport at Motu Mute, however.

The way to fly to Bora Bora is via Tahiti’s Faa’a International Airport at Papeete and catching a smaller craft from there to Motu Mute. For reference, it takes a normal commercial flight something like seven hours to reach Papeete from Los Angeles.

The airlines that have regular flights to Faa’a International Airport include Quantas, Air New Zealand, Air France, Air Tahiti Nui, Hawaiian Airlines, Corsair and Lan Chile. However, the process of flying here can be confusing and complicated. Most tourists prefer to have a professional travel agent make their bookings.

Faa’a International Airport is far from a very busy one – many days do not see more than a couple of international flights coming in. International tourists will find most of the basic amenities available – these include currency exchange counter, an internet café, a post office and easy access to a marketplace that offers Tahiti-centric curios.

Air Tahiti offers daily charter flights to the island from Papeete, and from Bora Bora to some of the better-known peripheral islands such as Raiatea, Moorea and Huahine. Air Moorea and Air Archipels also offer private charter flights to Bora Bora and the other islands from the main airport.

If flying to Bora Bora is a little more involved than it would be with other popular tourist destinations, it is well worth it. All along the way, the passenger is treated to a spectacular display of tropical splendour that cannot be matched by other destinations.

Bora Bora Cruises

You can explore the beauty of Bora Bora’s magnificent waters and surrounding islands on almost any budget. The most popular choice for seeing the legendary lagoon and other points of interest is, of course, the luxury cruise liner, but various private enterprises offer cheaper options.

Places covered by cruises from Bora Bora include the Leeward Islands of Huahine, Raiatea and Tahaa, the French Polynesian Marquesas Islands and major and minor lagoons throughout the chain. They cover various time periods and can last from three days to sixteen days.

Bora Bora is equipped with an immaculately facilitated boatyard that also makes private sea excursions possible. It is possible to hire native guides for personal cruises, and such an expedition can be exciting and far more fulfilling than a commercially planned one.

However, those who indulge themselves in the private charter option to see the islands are usually experienced sea people for whom the process of sailing is as appealing as the sights they will see.

Many boat charter companies for such private cruises can be found on Bora Bora’s Vaitape and Uaiatea’s Uturora. These can be easily contacted by telephone or email, and bookings can be made personally or via travel agents even before arrival at Bora Bora. For those who are interested in such an adventure, detailed marine charts are available.

Whatever means one uses to cruise Bora Bora’s breath-taking waters, one is advised to consult appropriate weather reports and updates. These areas are subject to the tropical phenomenon of cyclones, though these are far from frequent and are usually well predicted.

It is also necessary to have the right seafaring apparel, since climactic changes are usually abrupt and dramatic on Bora Bora’s waters. We hope you enjoy your vacation in Bora Bora. Manuia, or Cheers as they say in Tahiti.

Medhufushi Island Resort: Doing Maldives The RCI Way

Poolside at Medhufushi Island Resort in the Maldives

For about a decade, I’ve been a loyal member of Club Mahindra and RCI, believing fervently that until my child turned 18, timeshares were the safest, most family-friendly option for a single mom vacationing with a small child.

This was actually true to some extent. There are many benefits to timeshares, but that’s a topic for a different blog post.

Now, the Maldives was on my bucket list for a number of years, but I never even imagined I could go there. It was a luxury and honeymoon destination that, I thought, would always be out of reach.

In my mind, such exotic places were reserved for celebrities like the Bachchans and very rich tourists. So when RCI announced that it had included the Maldives in its roster, I couldn’t contain my excitement at the chance to go.

We booked our trip through a friendly, Sri-Lankan company called Southern Hospitality, that RCI had partnered with. I decided to opt for the full-board (three meals a day) package and paid for our board plus sea-plane journey before we left.

In early December 2017, we boarded our Srilankan Airlines flight at Mumbai and took our first steps outside India via Colombo to Male. Since the Maldives is one of the countries where Indians get a visa on arrival, the immigration process was a breeze.

At Male, our tourist operator transferred us to the TransMaldivian Airlines (TMA) Terminal. Unfortunately, Cyclone Ockhi decided to make landfall just then, bringing heavy showers, so all flights were cancelled due to bad weather.

All flights cancelled thanks to the cyclone

This led to quite a bit of chaos at the TMA terminal. The passengers who had booked resorts not too far from Male decided to proceed there by boat, while many had not yet realised that they were not going anywhere.

I knew that once people realised we were spending the night in Male, the hotels would be packed to the rafters with stranded passengers. I had to act quickly if we were to find a place to stay, and asked our tour operator to book us a hotel room pronto. It took us a short ferry ride to get there.

Male did not impress me at all. There was no feeling of being in a foreign country. It reminded me too much of Mumbai, and as we passed a Tata Housing project, it felt just like another suburb of Andheri. Cities can be dreary, soulless places, especially ones that are poorly planned.

As the capital of an archipelago, I found Male a cramped and crowded place. Stepping through lanes too tiny for even a car to pass, we reached the Octave Hotel, where we retired for the night. I prayed that the weather would improve the next morning if only so we could get out of the city.

I was weary and my feet were cramping up.  I soaked them in hot water for some relief. The staff at the Octave Hotel were courteous and helpful, and our tour operator made sure we were well-taken care of. But I suspect, at this stage, I would have found any old hotel a blessing.

The room service had some excellent options, and, hungry from our long day, where the only thing we’d eaten were bland-tasting sandwiches in the TMA lounge,  I ordered some jumbo prawns before bed. 

The concierge (poor man) thought I’d ordered two plates and was dismayed when I had to ask him to take one back, but he took it back and didn’t charge me for it, which I was grateful for. 

Whether I was positively ravenous, or because the prawns were so fresh, I’ll never know, but those jumbo prawns were the most delicious thing I’d ever eaten in my life. I still salivate every time I think of them.

The weather had vastly improved the next morning, but on these tiny islands, squalls can descend pretty quickly. Eager to get going, we had a very early breakfast, thanks to the obliging hotel chef, and left for the airport terminal. It wasn’t long before we managed to take off to our destination – Medhufushi Island Resort.

The 45-minute sea-plane journey, a first for us, was a bit stomach-churning, but the sight of the numerous little coral atolls from the air was captivating. In my mind, the melodious voice of Harry Belafonte was singing “Island In The Sun” while below, the sun sparkled and glinted on the blue-green sea.

This is my island in the sun…

Medhufushi Island Resort is truly a tropical paradise – one of those picture-perfect little islands that you see in those glossy travel magazines and yearn to visit. I was thrilled to find that, in such a beautiful location, you can get really good photos with just a mobile phone. #nofilter required. 🙂

The over-water villas at Medhufushi Island Resort

We were booked into an over-water villa, one of the little rooms on stilts that fan out into the sea. The guest relations manager, Kishore, was a clever young man from Bangalore.

He was quick to inform us that he’d given us the sunset villas that face the west, which was better than the sunrise villas. Those, he said, are allocated to large families, so that they don’t fight among themselves over who’s got the better villa.

Walking to our water-villa

Stepping out into the balcony of our water-villa, the first thing that hit me was the breeze and the sight of miles and miles of blue-green waves in every direction. It was unreal. It felt like we’d entered a very rarefied realm that we could lose ourselves in.

Those blues and greens are just so calming

It’s true what they say about the beach being good for your health. The sight of all that water was unimaginably soothing and calming.

All I wanted to do was to spend as much time as possible gazing at the waves, listening to the ocean, absorbing it all so I could see it in my mind’s eye anytime I wanted. Of course, nowadays you have Instagram for that. 😉

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The first day we spent on the island was relatively dry, with the cyclone seeming to have taken a hiatus. We spent most of the day exploring the sandy beach, familiarising ourselves with the layout of the resort, and savouring the excellent buffet.

A picture-perfect island in the Maldives

Maldivians make a living through fishing and tourism. Most of the staff in the resort are expats from Bangladesh and the chefs are very good with fish preparations.

The fish and vegetarian curries were excellent as was the Continental food. The sushi and sashimi were not as tasty. But when you’re spoilt for choice, like we were, you can’t really complain.

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On impulse (and thanks to the sales skills of the talented Mr Kishore), I decided to upgrade us to the all-inclusive package – which included unlimited drinks, two bottles of drinking water a day, and a couple of free excursions. What’s a holiday on the beach without a few Margheritas?

Sunset Bar at Medhufushi Island Resort Maldives

Because Medhufushi Island Resort is just that – an island – fresh water is scarce. The resort has a desalination unit so that they can create the copious amounts of fresh water their guests require.

Being an eco-conscious tourist, I asked Mr Kishore how the (not inconsiderable) garbage generated on the resort was dealt with. He said it was sent to another island,  where part of it is incinerated and the rest is exported for recycling. Hmm, that didn’t sound very eco-friendly.

I could see many opportunities for them to just create less garbage in the first place, especially in the use of plastic straws and plastic bags in the gift shop. But luxury resorts like these are less likely to change their wasteful ways than those that promote themselves as eco-friendly.

Here are some observations and travel tips if you plan a trip to the Maldives:

1. The Maldives is a Muslim country.

While Maldivians prefer that you dress conservatively, especially in Male, on the island resorts all bets are off. There are even a few adult-only resorts I read about in the flight magazine on the way over. I tend to prefer the family-friendly ones that RCI is well-known for.

Bikinis are fine on island resorts and in some areas on other resorts, too.

Some things, like idols and pork, are prohibited here. The bacon is made with beef. (No, I didn’t try it. I don’t eat beef or pork).

2. American currency is good here.

While the local currency (the Maldivian rufiyaa) is accepted, US dollars are preferred for most purchases. All prices are quoted in USD. Indian rupees are not accepted, although Indian debit cards are.

3. The Maldivian capital, Malé, is like a suburb of Mumbai.

Despite the brochures, don’t fall for the Malé tour spiel. It’s like a section of Andheri and even smaller. If we weren’t stranded by bad weather, we’d have avoided it altogether.

I hate most cities and Male was no exception.

That said, it depends on your personal preferences. If you like touring cities and soaking in the local culture, by all means, explore Malé. I, however, loathe cities and long to be as far away from them as possible. On vacation, at least.

Travel brochures are made of scenes like these

4. If you’re newly married, this is Heaven.

It’s worth noting how popular the Maldives is with newly-weds and honeymooners. We saw quite a few beautiful brides posing for photo-ops in their wedding regalia.

Also, you’ll see a number of these little mementoes that couples like to leave behind. Very cute!

Want a cute token of your love? It’ll cost you.

5. So. Many. Chinese. People.

The Maldives seems to be very popular with Chinese tourists. There were so many of them, mostly newly-weds, posing in their wedding regalia.

To protect her privacy, I photographed this bride from afar.

As tourists, they are very friendly and well-behaved people. We even made friends with a very nice guy called Nate, who spoke a little English. Most don’t speak any English, but I did see one of them using a translation app to talk to their guide at the airport.

6. The best time to visit the Maldives.

According to the brochures, it’s from December to April. Barring a cyclone or two (we went in early December), the climate should be beautiful. Cyclone Ockhi made landfall while we were on the island, giving us a couple of days of torrential rains.

Cyclone Ockhi brought us torrential rains. I love storms, so I didn’t mind.

When not cloudy and windy, it’s hot and humid, rather like Mumbai weather. Carry plenty of sunblock and apply it liberally, especially if, like me, you tend to get sunburnt.

7. It’s a haven for snorkelers and divers.

Despite the widespread coral bleaching due to the El Nino event in 1998, the Maldives is still a snorkelers and diver’s paradise. There are many spots where you can watch amazing sea life in the crystal-clear waters. We saw this sting ray close to our room.

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Because the house reef was bleached in the El Nino event, it wasn’t exactly teeming with sea life. So they compensate you with free snorkelling trips to a thriving and colourful coral reef a short boat ride away.

We went snorkelling, line fishing and saw glowing flying fish and spots of bioluminescence in the water (a bit reminiscent of this scene from Life of Pi). Apparently, the Maldives is one of the best places to spot bioluminescence on the planet.

Also Read: Snorkelling And Line Fishing Excursions In The Maldives

If you catch fish during your line fishing trip, the chef will cook it according to your preference. We caught a grouper and red snapper, so the cook grilled it up for us with some garlic butter. For Indians like us, used to spicier fare, it turned out to be a bit bland.

They’ll cook you the fish you caught. It didn’t make me hungry.

8. Carry a good camera.

The Maldives is so beautiful that even a decent mobile phone will give you great photos like it did for me. Unfortunately, I could not take underwater and low-light/night photos with my mobile phone so it might be worth carrying a better camera for that.

Many of the Chinese tourists had little waterproof mobile pouch covers into which they put their mobile phones for underwater photos. I truly regretted not buying one before I came. Ah well, live and learn.

Click the image to book your room now

9. Be a responsible tourist.

The Maldives is an eco-sensitive zone, and sadly, not immune to the deluge of plastic that’s destroying our oceans. We did see a considerable amount of plastic waste washed up on the beach.

Please don’t add to it by throwing garbage in the water, or on the beach, where it can wash out to sea. You’ll end up harming sea life and making these beautiful islands less attractive.

The lobby at Medhufushi Island Resort in the Maldives

10. You may need a travel adapter.

The standard voltage in the Maldives is 230 V and the frequency is 50 Hz. The standard voltage in India is 220 volts, and the frequency is 50 Hz, so you should be able to use Indian electric appliances in the Maldives.

But we had carried a universal travel adapter and found we could not plug in our devices at Medhufushi Island Resort without the adapter. No idea why that was the case. I’m still scratching my head trying to figure out why.

I do hope you enjoy your trip to the Maldives. Yes, you’ll be sad to leave, but who can complain when you have a departure lounge that looks like this. 🙂

Your floating departure lounge.

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What’s the cost of travel to the Maldives from India?

It depends. Our Maldives trip cost us around INR 2.5 lakhs (US$4000) all-inclusive. This was not exactly cheap, but thanks to RCI, we did get to stay in an over-water villa for a week at a very nominal cost. In comparison, if you book a water villa through Booking.com , it can cost over US$500 a day.

The airfare, sea plane, and the food package were our most expensive purchases, but it was my first foreign trip with my child and I wanted us to have an incredible experience. It turned out to be a dream vacation and it’s one destination that I wouldn’t mind visiting again and again. 

Nothing quite prepares you for a view like this

Since I returned, I’ve been researching ways to do the Maldives even cheaper. Lauren Juliff has an excellent guide on travelling to the Maldives on a budget. Check it out if you’re willing to forego the water villa experience (which I’ll remember for a lifetime).

One perk I really enjoyed (thanks to my HDFC Bank Regalia Card), during both my departure from Mumbai and my arrival back in India, was my Priority Pass™ Airport Lounge Membership.  

Thanks to the Priority Pass™ card, we got to wait in this really comfortable lounge after the immigration check at the Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport in Mumbai, where we were entitled to free meals and even alcohol (yes, you can get free booze, people).  

Priority Pass Airport Lounge at Mumbai International Airport

On the way back, at Velana International Airport in Male, I was gloomily resigned to spending a few hours in the hot, muggy, outdoor waiting area, until I spotted an air-conditioned lounge and asked the lady at the desk if my Priority Pass™ card was accepted there. It was. Oh, joy! 🙂

Priority Pass Airport Lounge at Male Airport

We found we were entitled to free drinks, cookies, luggage storage, one hour of Wifi, and even a shower if I wanted one. I declined the shower but opted for the drinks, cookies, Wifi and luggage storage. It made the wait so much more bearable.

Enjoying our Wifi and drinks in the Male airport lounge

To avail of the Priority Pass Airport Lounge Membership, you need to apply for a credit card that gives you a complimentary membership. Learn how to use credit card reward points to travel free.

Check out the video below with some of our favourite moments from our trip.

 

All images and videos are © Priya Florence Shah

The Machan, Lonavala: Birds, Bees And All Manner Of Mating Creatures

Touted as an eco-friendly resort that’s run totally off-grid, on solar and wind energy, The Machan in Lonavala is a luxury forest getaway situated 10 to 15 minutes by car from the Bushi Dam diversion on the Amby Valley Road.

The resort resounds with the sounds of birds, bees, and trees (and sometimes couples going at it in the next room).

We went in May when temperatures were in the 30s (degrees Celsius). It was humid, but pleasant, thanks to the air cooler in the room. If you’re looking for lots of activities, you’ll be disappointed.

There’s not much to do here, except go for nature treks (ours was cancelled because of the threat of bee attacks), massages, yoga, meditation, and stargazing.

There’s no TV or music as it disturbs the forest animals. So if you feel the need to blare loud music and party, this is not the place for you. If you’re afraid of insects and bees, stay away.

If you want some quiet downtime away from the crowds and the internet, you’ll love it here. It’s the perfect romantic getaway, but the rooms are not soundproof, so it’s not as private as it seems.

While I applaud their initiative to go off-grid, an eco-friendly resort should not be using aluminium foil and plastic wrap to transport food. What’s wrong with using casseroles or the good, old, Indian dabba?

As far as food goes, it’s probably best to avoid the buffet meals. They are adequate but fall short on taste. Ask for the a la carte menu, or stick to in-room dining in the privacy of your verandah.

Also, carry some snacks and drinks along if possible. They have a small bar in the dining area, but everything is super-expensive (Sprite for Rs 150 and a pint of Sula Chenin Blanc for Rs 1000).

There is no kitchenette, but each room comes with an electric kettle, tea/coffee pouches, and a fridge. To my surprise, there was no cutlery in the room. A disposable plastic stirrer is not an eco-friendly substitute for a stainless steel spoon.

I wish they understood that disposable does not equal eco-friendly. It just ends up creating waste. It also makes me wonder how they dispose of all these disposable items (including spa slippers and underwear) so far out in the boondocks.

That said, the rooms at the resort are rustic yet beautiful, and the decor is tasteful. The antique furniture and elegant bathtub are a lovely touch.

We stayed in a Canopy room that had an enviable view of the surrounding forests. We missed the stargazing session but had a nice chat about stars and planets with Gautam, the resident astronomer, and an all-around nice guy.

Staying at The Machan Resort, Lonavala is not cheap. It will set you back INR 12,000 per night, or more. But then, you’re not paying for a vacation, you’re paying for an experience.

Also read: 8 Scenic Getaways Within 2 Hours Drive From Mumbai And Pune