Category Archives: Travel Diaries

Dreams Las Mareas Costa Rica Review

Dream Las Mareas, located in Guanacaste, Costa Rica was my first experience staying in a luxury chain brand resort.

I have previously stayed in several all-inclusive resorts located throughout the Caribbean; St. Lucia, Jamaica, Punta Cana, and Riviera Maya.

While my husband and I prefer to vacation at tropical all-inclusive resorts, we tend to shy away from the luxury chain brand resorts because we also like to save money on all aspects of travel.

We broke this tradition when I came across a vacation package to Dreams Las Mareas on Groupon.

Travelling to Dreams Las Mareas

One of the only drawbacks to our stay was how far Dreams Las Mareas, Costa Rica, was from the airport.

After travelling for two days from Detroit, MI, the last thing we wanted to do once we landed, was to spend another 2.5 hours getting to the resort.

Dreams Las Mareas Costa Rica has an airport shuttle and arranged for the airport transfer to the resort, however, we waited outside the airport with our driver for at least an hour for the rest of our party.

Once they finally arrived, we had an hour and a half drive, over some pretty treacherous roads, until we finally arrived at our destination.

Arrival at the Dreams Las Mareas Hotel

Once we arrived at Dreams Las Mareas, we were greeted with chilled champagne and cold towels. A bellboy took our bags while we checked in at the desk. Once this process was complete, we were able to begin our vacation!

We were shown to our room and were immediately drawn to the balcony. Our balcony had a stunning view of the resort property and the jungle-covered mountains in the distance.

The balcony also had a large jetted tub that we enjoyed in the evenings as adorable little geckos appeared on the exterior walls and ceiling. The rooms themselves were pretty basic, although tasteful.

Resort Setting and Activities

I am not familiar with much of Costa Rica’s terrain, however, if the long treacherous drive from the airport was necessary for us to stay in that magical setting, then it was all worth it.

The Dreams Las Mareas resort is located on a small beach, with jungle-covered mountains on either side. The beach is public, however, it was never crowded.

I actually enjoyed the public nature of the beach because we were able to chat with locals and buy souvenirs and enjoy services for a fraction we would have paid on the resort property.

One afternoon my husband and I enjoyed hour-long full body massages on the beach. Two Costa Rican women (I wish I remembered their names) had massage tables set up on the beach in the shade of trees just a short walk down the sand from the resort area.

I have had many massages in my day, and this was by far one of the best massages I have ever had. The Dreams Las Mareas staff make the most of this magical setting by offering yoga every morning on the beach and offering a guided wildlife tour circling the area around the property.

Each morning I walked to the beach, where the sand was still damp and cool from the night tide. An instructor provided us all with mats and instructed us through hour-long yoga sessions, during which we synchronized our breath to the sounds of the ocean waves.

Some very well cared for and friendly beach dogs sat on the sand and watched us sweetly throughout the yoga class. This was such a magical way to begin each day!

One afternoon I also went on the guided wildlife tour led by Dreams Las Mareas staff. This was a fun way to socialize with other vacationers and learn the names of various tropical plants.

The Food and Buffet

Dreams Las Mareas has a buffet that is open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

They also have a poolside grill open for lunch, and several sit-down restaurants that are open for dinner, including a steakhouse, seafood restaurant, Mexican, Italian, and hibachi.

I am vegetarian, and they did not have an extensive list of options for vegetarians. The poolside grill was very basic food; burgers and fries mostly. It was just OK.

The sit-down restaurants were all good, although not too memorable. The best food was served at the buffet. I have been to many buffets, and Dreams Las Mareas has the best buffet hands down.

The breakfast spread had so many options, it was unbelievable! Including several types of fresh squeezed juices and champagne for mimosas (my favourite!).

Pools at the Dreams Las Mareas Costa Rica 

Resort

The resort property has several pools, all with a different vibe. One pool welcomes children, with lots of playing and splashing. Another pool is adults only and very chill and peaceful.

Another pool has a swim-up bar, which is where the partiers and young adults congregate. We spent most of our time at the swim up bar and had a blast.

My only complaint about the pools is that they charge extra to use the cabanas. As a result, there were at times not enough loungers for everyone, while the cabanas sat empty.

Dreams Las Mareas Costa Rica Nightlife

The nightlife and entertainment were a hit or miss as far as activities at Dreams Las Mareas Costa Rica are concerned. There was one bar that was open late. It had a pretty relaxed vibe.

There was also a dance club that had a lot of potential. I LOVE dance clubs, especially while on vacation. Each night my husband and I tried to enjoy the club, and each night was the same.

Early on the club started to fill up and the music was inviting, then the music changed, everyone stopped dancing then eventually left the club.

After our second night at the club, we realized that the music was from the exact same playlist! I wish they would have provided good dance music, then that place would have been a ton of fun.

One evening, the resort put on a Cirque du Soleil type show for entertainment. I definitely recommend attending this and getting a good seat.

I thoroughly enjoyed this show, and even screamed out loud at one daring performer’s stunts!

All things considered, we greatly enjoyed our time at Dreams Las Mareas in Costa Rica. We will definitely stay at another Dreams resort one day.

Exploring The Macabre And Fascinating Polar Museum In Tromsø, Norway

During our trip to Tromsø, in early September 2018, one of the places I was keen to visit was the Polar Museum in Tromsø, Norway.

Fresh from having binge-watched the Netflix series, The Terror, a fictionalized account of Captain Sir John Franklin’s lost expedition to the Arctic in 1845–1848, and my interest in Polar exploration whetted, I was eager to learn more about Arctic explorers.

Located in former Customs House on the quayside – a stone’s throw from our Tromsø hotel, the Clarion Collection Hotel With – and dating from 1830, the polar museum in Tromsø is all about Arctic exploration and trapping.

By Lars Tiede – Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0

As the centre of seal hunting in North Norway in the late 1800s, Tromsø was the “Gateway to the Arctic” and an important base for many polar expeditions.

Near the museum is a statue of Roald Amundsen, the Norwegian polar explorer who led the Antarctic expedition of 1910–12, which was the first to reach the South Pole, on 14 December 1911.

Paying tribute to Norwegian Polar explorer, Roald Amundsen

He was an important person during the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration and the first person to reach both poles. He also led the first expedition to traverse the Northwest Passage (1903–06) in the Arctic.

The museum is a shrine to these courageous men and women and the ships and equipment that were essential for life both on the sea and in the Arctic.

The Polar Museet is all about winter trapping, seal hunting and polar expeditions

From the remarkably life-like exhibits, which ranged from macabre to fascinating, it is obvious that life as an Arctic explorer or trapper was hard and that they must have been used to great risk, hardship, deprivation and exposure to extreme conditions.

Some of the subjects of the exhibitions included:

  • Overwintering in the Arctic – The trapper Henry Rudi who killed 713 polar bears
  • The first woman to winter in the Arctic – Wanny Woldstad
  • Seal hunting in the Arctic Ocean
  • Fridtjof Nansen’s and Roald Amundsen lives and expeditions
  • Helmer Hansen and Hjalmar Johansen who accompanied Amundsen to the South Pole
  • Svalbard, Willhelm Barentz’ discovery of the region in the 1500s, whaling in the 1600-1700s and Russian overwintering
  • Temporary exhibitions with Arctic content

I feel obliged to include a trigger warning for animal-lovers. Some of the exhibits of animal trapping and seal hunting were downright distressing.

Here’s a photo-essay of some of the exhibits I found most fascinating.

A very-lifelike exhibit of a reindeer hunter with his kill
Scenes of life in the Arctic
A husky stands on guard
A rather distressing exhibit on animal trapping

Many of the exhibits are not labeled in English so it was hard to figure out what they represented.

These, of course, showcase some objects used by explorers.

Some objects used by Arctic explorers
“Did stone-age people live on Svalbard?” asks this exhibit, showcasing life in the Arctic.
As Norway is one of the few whaling nations, it’s not unusual to find whale bones

This exhibit contains British and Dutch graves that date back to the 17th and 18th centuries.

One of the more macabre exhibits
Sleds, spears, axes and tools that were used by hunters and explorers
I found this seal-hunting exhibit quite distressing
Seals, seal pelts and the clothes made from them
Models of the ships that sailed from Tromsø
And the men who sailed on them
A trunk of clothes and accessories worn by explorers
Remnants of the airships that Roald Amundsen used to explore the Arctic

This dog accompanied Roald Amundsen at the Gjoa-expedition, the first navigation through the Northwest passage in 1903-1906.

Roald Amundsen’s dog
A sled and the huskies that pulled it
Birds of the Arctic
The muskox (Ovibos moschatus), an Arctic hoofed mammal

Objects that belonged to Norwegian trapper and polar bear hunter, Henry Rudi, who was born in Tromsø.

Rudi is known for having killed a total of 713 polar bears
A walrus skeleton surrounded by photos depicting scenes of death
One of the creepier exhibits – the heart of a whale or polar bear (I couldn’t tell which)

We didn’t actually end up spending a lot of time inside the museum because the thermostat was set so high, we found it uncomfortably warm in all the layers of clothes we were wearing.

But if you like history and creepy stuff, visiting the Polar Museum in Tromsø is one of the things you might enjoy doing.

Polar Museum Tromsø Hours and Opening Times:

  • August 1 – June 14: 11am – 5pm (11.00-17.00)
  • June 15 – August 15: 09am – 6pm (09.00-18.00)
  • Closed on May 1 and May 17

Polar Museum Tromsø Entrance Fee: NOK 50

Also, read:

 

Why I Chose To Visit Tromsø For My Northern Lights Bucket List Tour

In the novel, The Drifters, by Pulitzer Prize-winning author James A. Michener, the second chapter is about the flaxen-haired Britta Bjørndahl, an 18-year-old girl from Tromsø, Norway.

After finishing school, she finds a job in an office at the docks, but eventually becomes curious about the world beyond Tromsø, and goes to vacation in Torremolinos, Spain for fifteen days.

The novel follows six young characters from diverse backgrounds and various countries as their paths meet and they travel together through parts of Spain, Portugal, Morocco and Mozambique.

When I read it a few years ago, I was as enchanted with Britta’s tales of her childhood in Tromsø, as the fictional narrator of the book, George Fairbanks.

An extract from the book reads:

Britta Bjørndahl was born more than two hundred miles north of the Arctic Circle on the island of Tromsø. During World War II her father had been a notable patriot.

For three perilous years, he had resisted the German occupation, hiding out along the fjords and in the mountains to send wireless signals to London or flashlight codes to British ships as they hovered off the Norwegian coast.

At the end of the war four nations decorated him, and in the summer of 1957, the entire crew of a British destroyer flew to Tromsø to relive with him the excitement of those gallant days.

As a huge WWII history buff, I was especially fascinated with the description of the sinking of the great German battleship, Tirpitz, that would “sneak into Tromsø harbor… and hide from Allied airplanes until it was time to rush out and destroy all Allied ships.”

With the sinking of the Tirpitz in the fjords near Tromsø, Hitler lost the last influential ship of his surface battle fleet and this marked the end of Germany’s naval war in northern waters.

After the war, a Norwegian-German salvage operation recovered the remains of the great battleship, but you can see the wreck of the ‘Tirpitz’, in the waters of Tromsø Fjord, Norway, as it was in 1945 in the photo below.

By Daventry B J (Flt Lt), Royal Air Force official photographer. This is photograph CL 2830 from the collections of the Imperial War Museums, Public Domain.

When I was planning my Northern Lights bucket list tour, this is why I chose to do it from Tromsø, Norway. My fascination with the fictional young Britta’s stories, and the fact that Tromsø lies within the Northern Lights Oval made me decide that Tromsø was the place to go.

One of the places in Tromsø that I was keen to visit was the Tromsø War Museum (Tromsø Forsvarsmuseum) where the cannons of a Nazi coastal artillery battery and a restored command bunker lie.

According to the Lonely Planet, “the Tromsø War Museum also tells of the giant German battleship Tirpitz, sunk near the town on 12 November 1944, and the Nazi army’s retreat from Leningrad, when many of its 120,000 troops were evacuated by ship from Tromsø.”

The Tromsø War Museum is open on Sundays in May and September, and every day except Mondays and Tuesdays from June through August.

But on the three days that we were to visit Tromsø, the Museum was closed. Unwilling to give up on my chance to see it, I wrote to the Tromsø tourism board and they gave me the contact of the museum’s caretaker, Leif.

So I emailed Leif and asked him if I could visit the museum as I wanted to write about it. He offered to give me a private tour. Unfortunately, when I emailed him before we left, I didn’t hear back from him, so we had to skip our tour of the Tromsø War Museum.

Our Tromsø Hotel, The Clarion Collection Hotel With

It was a long, tiring journey from Pune, India, to Tromsø in Norway, in early September 2018. When we touched down in Oslo, the temperature was in the high 20s and we wondered where the Arctic chill had gone.

Our first view of Tromsø from the air

We reached Tromsø on a rainy evening, jet-lagged and exhausted, and checked into our charming Tromsø hotel, the Clarion Collection Hotel With, which was right on the waterfront.

Our Tromsø  hotel, the Clarion Collection Hotel With

The weather was a bracing 8 to 12 degrees C, so despite our exhaustion, we decided to explore the waterfront and get our bearings in this new country.

Near our hotel on the waterfront with the Polar Cathedral in the background

Thanks to the lovely weather, we managed to spend a lot of time outdoors, watching the boats come in and seagulls beg for scraps in the Storgata square.

A hungry seagull inspects the menu at a food truck in the square

The Clarion Collection Hotel With was a fantastic choice for us. It was slightly more expensive than some of the other hotels I had considered, but it more than made up for it in terms of location and food.

The beautiful waterfront near our hotel

The best part was that we spent absolutely nothing on our meals. Norway is an expensive place, and if we’d had to pay for our meals, it would have cost us a pretty penny.

I absolutely loved the Norwegian brown cheese (brunost)

However, at the Clarion Collection Hotel With, not only was breakfast covered, but there were free waffles in the afternoon and coffee available anytime.

Delicious waffles for lunch

To our delight – and this is the best part – we found that dinner was also on the house and it was always a delicious buffet with a fish or chicken main course. I felt like we’d died and gone to heaven!

Delicious dinners on the house

In the afternoons, we had to make our own waffles in the waffle iron, but the hotel provided the dough and toppings.

The waffle iron

While we were waiting for the waffle iron to heat up, an American lady came up and stood by me. She asked me if I knew how to make waffles.

Only half-joking, I said I watch MasterChef. She found that quite funny and proceeded to tell us how they saw the Northern Lights a lot in Alaska, where she lived.

This poor guy greeted us when we arrived

Arun and I enjoyed the three autumn nights we spent at our beautiful and comfortable hotel on the waterfront.

Arun Vs Polar Bear

The staff was pleasant and friendly and the hotel was very close to the Storgata (the main street) and within easy access of everything you could possibly need.

Exploring the Storgata (main street)

It was the perfect base for our Northern Lights Chase near Tromsø and our Fjord Sailing excursion, too.

The Fangstmonument (Arctic Hunter) – statue of a whaler in a boat

Other than those two tours from Tromsø, we didn’t venture too far from the hotel, except to visit a supermarket nearby and the Polar Museum, which I’ll cover in another post.

The Norwegians sure do love their breads

If I ever go to Tromsø again (and I hope I do), the Clarion Collection Hotel With is where I’ll stay. The perfect location plus free food! What more could we ask for in our Tromsø accommodation?

Also, read:

Watch a lot more photos from our Tromso tour in the video below.

 

Chasing the Northern Lights From Tromsø With GuideGunnar

“How do you sleep during the Midnight Sun?” I asked GuideGunnar.

“I close my eyes,” he said, tongue-in-cheek, eliciting a laugh from us as we waited for the Northern Lights to appear at Rekvikeidet, a chilly, open plateau near Tromvik.

Arun and I shivered in the icy winds, looking to the heavens for a glimpse of the elusive Lady Aurora until I decided to stop torturing myself and put on one of the thermo suits that GuideGunnar had offered us. Arun took one too, and we both felt much more comfortable.

It was after 10 pm on the 5th of September 2018, and the long days and short nights of autumn meant we had to leave an hour later than usual on our Tromsø Aurora chase.

The Northern Lights Tromsø tour left from Guides Central, which turned out to be just behind our Tromsø hotel, the Clarion Collection Hotel With.

We were expected to report at 7.45 pm, so we left just a few minutes before that and climbed up the stairs of the two-storey building to where GuideGunnar was waiting.

Guide Gunnar sits near a photograph of himself as a young man

He welcomed us and told us that one other couple would be accompanying us, so there’d be just four of us tourists on his small Northern Lights group tour from Tromsø.

The young Chinese couple who came in turned out to be from Hong Kong. They didn’t speak much, except to giggle and whisper to each other during the tour.

I was very curious to learn more, so I paid close attention when GuideGunnar told us what to expect on our Northern Lights Tromsø bus tour.

GuideGunnar’s Aurora Tour bus

He explained that depending on the weather and if the clouds came in, we may have to drive for hours, and even cross the border into Finland, if necessary.

He also told us a bit about the history of Tromsø, which played a big role in World War II (more on that in another blog) and was generous in sharing his in-depth, local knowledge.

We told him about our upcoming trip to Lyngen North, and he said he knew Ola, and that his grandfather would probably be able to tell us more about the war since the Germans had built the Spåkenes kystfort in the area.

Because it was still early and quite bright, Gunnar took us first to a spot where some wild reindeer had been spotted, and we could see them grazing from afar.

Reindeer graze in a far away field

When I asked him which supermarket was the best place to pick up provisions, he recommended the Eide Handel in Eidkjosen, where you can get the best quality produce. He even took a detour to Eidkjosen so we could pick up some stuff.

Eide Handel, the premium supermarket in Eidkjosen

Since we didn’t want to be lugging big bags around on our Northern Lights chase from Tromsø, we didn’t pick up any provisions. Instead, Arun picked up some premium tobacco called Snus. Gunnar found this very funny, considering that the supermarket had some of the best produce available.

Our next stop was a scenic spot called Henrikvika by Kaldfjord, where we stopped to take photos of the beautiful bay at twilight.

View of the fjord at Henrikvika by Kaldfjord

After that, we made a stop at the fishing village of Ersfjordbotn, and enjoyed the sunset while Gunnar chatted with a fisherman.

Sunset at Ersfjordbotn

Next, we drove to the top of a hill at Grøtfjord, where we waited by the side of the road wearing the luminous, reflective wristbands that Gunnar had given us for night safety.

Brilliant sunset at Grøtfjord

We spent quite a while here, watching for the Aurora borealis and enjoying the fabulous view of the bay and the long sunset until Gunnar decided that it wasn’t happening and decided to take us to another location.

This involved a drive on some roads that seemed a bit unfinished, to an open and windy plateau where we would have the best chance of spotting the lights.

Our Aurora Chase Route with GuideGunnar

Here, GuideGunnar provided us with tripods, helped us set up the cameras and gave us an impromptu lesson in Northern Lights photography. He set the camera to manual, increased the exposure time and set the ISO to 800, telling us to change it as needed.

Since I had no experience with night photography, his guidance proved invaluable as darkness fell and the first wispy threads of the Aurora made their appearance on the horizon.

My first attempts at photographing the Northern Lights

The Aurora borealis, when it is weak (GuideGunnar rated that night’s Aurora activity as 2/10) looks like translucent clouds with little to no colour to the naked eye. It’s only when photographed through the DSLR that the greens and purples appear.

Once I got comfortable with adjusting the camera settings to capture more light, I got much better photos.

The Northern Lights in early September near Tromsø

I even tried my hand at some Milky Way photography when the Aurora took a break. It didn’t turn out too bad, even if I say so myself. 🙂

My attempts at photographing the Milky Way

GuideGunnar set up a campfire for us and served us a delicious snack called Skattøra Lefse – Arctic Norway’s traditional and locally made pastry with cream and sweet goat cheese.

Campfire under the Northern Lights. What more could one ask for! © GuideGunnar2018

Since I’d taken a liking to the Norwegian brown cheese or Brunost, I enjoyed it thoroughly. He also served some hot blackcurrant jus, which was very welcome on that chilly night.

As we sat around the campfire in our thermo suits, Arun and I lay back in the grass and watched satellites drift slowly across the sky. With no light pollution, we could see them clearly. It was a rare sight for city folks like us.

GuideGunnar’s photo of our Aurora Chase. © GuideGunnar2018

Gunnar decided that we should wait till 1 am to see if the lights returned. Arun and I were still jet-lagged and exhausted by this time, and we had a Fjord sailing excursion planned the next morning, so we rested in the bus till it was time to go back.

According to GuideGunnar’s Aurora blog, we covered 120 kilometres and spent 6.5 hours on our Northern Lights chase from Tromsø. It was our first excursion in Norway and a very enjoyable one.

Lady Aurora dances above while GuideGunnar takes a photo

GuideGunnar was the perfect tour guide and his photography tips served me well when we stayed at Lyngen North. He also happens to be a local TV star of the Chasing the Northern lights TV series.

Tips for your Northern Lights Chase in Tromsø with GuideGunnar:

  1. The best time to see the Northern Lights is from early September to early April. North of the Arctic Circle, the sun does not rise above the horizon during the middle of winter (from around mid-November to mid-January). This is called the Polar Night.
  2. The Northern Lights are visible when darkness falls so you can see them from mid-August. The tour guides begin their Aurora chases from the beginning of September. However, when I tried to book an Aurora chase for my dates (5th and 6th September), GuideGunnar was one of the few tour operators in Tromsø willing to take small groups on a tour before the 15th. That’s dedication!
  3. You can download the My Aurora Forecast app to see how likely you are to see the Aurora borealis and find out about solar wind activity (which is what causes the Northern Lights). However, no one can guarantee that you’ll see them. It takes a combination of good weather and solar wind activity to have a good chance of seeing them. Oh, and a good Aurora guide and a healthy dose of luck, too!
  4. The Northern Lights are most likely to shine often and strongest between 8 pm and 2 am, but it’s also possible to see them before and after this period.
  5. The nights can get pretty cold, even in early September, and when you’re chasing the Northern Lights outside Tromsø, the wind chill can get quite uncomfortable. Wear 2 to 3 layers of clothing when you go on a chase and if you’re freezing, don’t try to be brave and ride it out. Put on a thermo suit and stay warm, even if it looks a bit ridiculous.
  6. GuideGunnar will show you a movie or two about the Northern Lights while he’s driving you in his bus. Soak it all in, including the fascinating science behind them and the strange beliefs and superstitions that people had about the lights in days gone by.
  7. For Northern Lights photography, you’ll need a DSLR or mirrorless camera. A mobile phone won’t cut it, no matter how good it is, as you need long exposures (some of mine were 30 seconds long). Guide Gunnar will provide the tripod so you don’t need to carry one. Follow his guidance on taking Aurora photos as he’s an expert on it.
GuideGunnar shared this Aurora borealis photo taken on another day. © GuideGunnar2018

Read all about GuideGunnar’s Aurora Chase tours and watch his movie here. For a 5% discount on his tour, like his Facebook page and book directly on his Facebook app.

However, for the best discount on GuideGunnar’s chases, you can book more than one chase, since you can’t be sure when you’ll see the Northern Lights. Here are the discounts he offers.

Northern Lights ChaseSavers:

  • Book 2 Chase dates and save NOK 500
  • Book 3 Chase dates and save NOK 1000

Some of the photographs in this post were provided by GuideGunnar and are indicated as such.

Also, read:

Watch the highlights from our Northern Lights guided tour from Tromsø (and some fabulous Aurora borealis photos from GuideGunnar) in the video below.

https://youtu.be/x2zSW8K9FNY

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Lyngen North: Northern Lights, Fjords and Fogbows

The Northern lights danced above our heads, cascading across the clear autumn sky in an explosion of green and purple.

The Northern Lights on our last night in Norway

As they raced in an arc across the heavens, the lights waxed and waned, and I gave up trying to use a tripod in my effort to catch something of them before they completely vanished.

It was the most spectacular display we saw

The amazing performance lasted about 30 minutes before it faded to a few lights glimmering on the horizon. It was our third and last night at Lyngen North and the most spectacular one by far.

We had journeyed to Norway from India in early September 2018  – a bit too early to see the Northern Lights, some would say – and we’d travelled around 200 kilometres north from Tromsø to enjoy the Aurora borealis from the unique vantage point of a glass igloo.

The route from Tromso to Lyngen North

Ola Berg, whose family has lived for three generations at Lyngen North, picked us up from Tromsø in his Tesla Model X, and drove us to Spåkenesveien in Rotsund, where he settled us into our glass igloo at the shore of the Lyngenfjord.

Driving from Tromso to Lyngen North in Ola’s Tesla

Contrary to my expectations (early September isn’t the optimum season for Northern Lights), we saw the lights on 4 out of our 6 nights in Norway, despite the long days and short nights of autumn.

At Lyngen North, finally

On our first night at Lyngen North, the sky was clear and we saw them dance above our heads from our little wooden bench on the shore of the Lyngen fjord.

The Northern Lights on the first night at Lyngen North

We were thrilled when we saw a shooting star streak past the lights and I managed to catch it on camera.

A meteor streaks across the sky as the lights dance nearby

The second morning, we awoke to a thick fog that enveloped our glass igloo in its wet embrace, leaving droplets of condensation inside my camera lens and concealing the peaks of the Lyngen Alps across the fjord.

On our second morning, a thick fog came down over the fjord

The Northern Lights still shone from behind the fog that night, giving it a spooky and eerie glow that would not look out of place in a Stephen King movie.

The Northern Lights gave the fog a spooky glow

On the third morning, too, we woke to a thin fog that dispersed quickly as the day progressed, but not without leaving us a magical fogbow that left us marvelling at Mother Nature’s generosity.

The fogbow was a marvellous surprise

Sometimes called a white rainbow, a fogbow is similar to a rainbow. However, as its name suggests, it appears as a bow in fog rather than rain.

Mother Nature was definitely generous with her bounty that day

Because of the very small size of water droplets that cause fog, the fogbow has only very weak colours, with a red outer edge and bluish inner edge.

The Glass Igloo Experience at Lyngen North

A year back, when I was planning my bucket-list trip to see the Northern Lights, I decided to go via Tromsø (for reasons I explain here).

While researching other interesting places to visit in Norway, I spotted Lyngen North and its glass igloos, on Booking.com’s list of options for accommodation in Norway.

Lyngen North has two glass igloos

I’d read about something similar at the Kakslauttanen Arctic Resort in Finland, but the glass igloos there cost three times as much as the ones at Lyngen North. At both resorts, they tend to get sold out pretty quickly.

The glass igloos at Lyngen North are self-contained studio apartments outfitted with a kitchen with stovetop,  refrigerator and electric kettle.

These igloos are the real deal

They also have heated floors, private bathrooms with tinted glasses for privacy, free high-speed WiFi and private parking. The bed is ultra comfortable and has a slightly oversized mattress.

Northern Lights planetarium for two

As of now, the property doesn‘t feature a restaurant, but the owners were in the process of laying down the foundations for one when we were there, and Ola hopes to have it running by December 2018.

The kitchen cabinets have crockery, cutlery, coffee cups, wine glasses, salt, pepper, sugar and a few spices. But, for now, you have to carry provisions and cook your own food. Ola stopped at a REMA 1000 supermarket on the way to let us pick up groceries.

The REMA 1000 is the most economical supermarket in Norway

Since I don’t have much faith in my cooking skills, we mostly picked up canned food, and stuff we could use to rustle up a quick meal.

If you stay in the glass igloos in the summer (for the Midnight Sun experience) you might have trouble sleeping at night because of sunlight streaming in from the top.

We went in early autumn and the short night (most of which we spent staying up to watch the lights) made it difficult to get a sound sleep since the sun rose pretty early.

via GIPHY

The glass igloos also act as greenhouses, trapping heat inside, which makes the afternoons quite warm. Since igloos are, for the most part, designed to keep the wind out, very little wind enters the room even if you keep the door open, which we did most of the day.

But there’s an air-conditioner to keep you cool during the warm afternoons and who wants to spend all day inside anyway, when you can sit by the shore and enjoy the breeze and the spectacular views of the Lyngenfjord and the Lyngen Alps.

Why stay indoors all day when you can enjoy this view

Since the temperature was a very bracing 10-12 degrees C in the day, we were quite comfortable sitting outside. The nights, however, got much colder and I needed 3 layers to stay warm when I was out watching the Northern Lights.

The property also features a hot bath under the stars that you can climb into when it gets too cold. We chose not to use it because of the potential for chlorine allergies.

Enjoy a hot bath under the stars

Activities at Lyngen North

Lyngen North is located in a remote peninsula of Norway. If you’re lucky, you may get to see moose or elk, foxes and rabbits in the nearby woods and fields.

Birdwatchers will find quite a few species to spot, from noisy seagulls squawking in the distance to ducks and many more species of birds that we couldn’t identify.

Depending on the time of year you visit, there are quite a few outdoor adventure activities you can enjoy, including snowshoeing, skiing, fishing, and visiting the Reisa national park nearby.

The owners offer boats on hire to go boating and fishing on the fjord. Not being well-versed in the art of boating, we chose to opt-out of these activities.

You can hire these boats for a fishing trip

Instead, being the history buff I am, I wanted to visit the ruins of an old German fort near the property. The Spåkenes kystfort (Spåkenes coastal fort) is a ruined coastal fortress built by the Germans during World War II, and it has quite a fascinating history.

The Spåkenes kystfort is on the Storbakken hill, the highest point of Spåkenes and consists of four bunker complexes, each of which included a gun, ammunition bunker, trench, and infantry bunker.

The ruins of an old German fort – Via Mainostoimisto Seven-1, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The work to build the bunkers began in 1941. After the Germans left, one of the bunkers suffered extensive damage in an explosion.

Unfortunately, the Storbakken hill was rather steep for me and I couldn’t climb it thanks to an old injury, so we weren’t able to see the fort with our own eyes. Arun, being half-German, was not impressed with German fort ruins and didn’t care to climb and explore it on his own.

It’s worth taking a walk along the coastal road

However, the view from the coastal road leading from Lyngen North to the fort and beyond was so amazing, we took a long walk along it, admiring the homes along the cliffs and imagining what it would be like to live in one of them.

An RV with a spectacular view

If you’re a Liverpool fan, you’ll find a kindred soul in one of Ola’s neighbours who seems to be quite vocal about his devotion to the football team.

Liverpool fans will find a kindred soul in Ola’s neighbour

Tips for your trip to Lyngen North:

  • Lyngen North is located at the peninsula Spåkenes in Northern Norway, 3 hours north along the E6 from Tromsø Airport. You can take a bus or rental car to Lyngen North. Check their website for transportation options.
  • If you don’t want to drive or can’t drive yourself to Lyngen North (we didn’t) contact Ola directly and ask if he can pick you up. Of course, you must pay for the pickup and drop, but Ola’s a very thoughtful and accommodating young man and he’ll do what he can to help you. As a bonus, you get to ride in his Tesla. 🙂
  • If like us, you don’t speak or understand Norwegian, you might find it hard to read the labels on groceries in the supermarket, as some of them are not translated into English. Ask for help from the person at the counter. When we couldn’t locate the butter, we asked the lady at the checkout counter and she helped us find it. Norwegians speak English so communicating is not a problem at all.
  • The sale of alcohol is restricted in Norway and it’s only available in certain stores. Ask a local for help to find a store that sells it. Ola took us via the AMFI Pyramiden on the mainland side of Tromsø city where we bought some wine and a bottle of Jagermeister.

    Picking up wine at the AMFI Pyramiden

  • To identify the mountain peaks in the Lyngen Alps and some on the way, Arun used the PeakLens app on Google Play. It helps you precisely identify mountain peaks and hills in real-time and works online and offline with pre-downloaded maps.
    The PeakLens app gave us the (unpronounceable) names of these mountains in the Lyngen Alps

     

    No prizes for guessing why this peak is called the Sleeping Soldier

  • To know how likely you are to see the Northern Lights, you can download the My Aurora Forecast app. It tells you exactly how likely you are to see the Aurora borealis and offers information about solar wind activity and high-resolution sun imagery. However, your chance of seeing the lights depends largely on a combination of solar activity, good weather, and a healthy helping of luck.
  • If you want to stay in the glass igloo at Lyngen North, you’ll have to book months in advance, as they have only two and they tend to sell out very quickly. Contact Ola if you’re not sure about availability.
  • Finally, do spend at least 2 to 3 nights (if not more) at Lyngen North. No photos can capture the magnificent views of the fjord and Lyngen Alps, and Lyngen North is truly one of the best places to stay in Norway to see the Northern Lights.
It’s hard to say goodbye to Lyngen North

Also, read:

I hope you enjoyed this Lyngen North review. Watch the video below for some of my favourite moments from our trip.

 

Park Hyatt Goa Resort And Spa Review: Pousadas, Ponds, and Portuguese Influences

Some of the images and information in this review were provided on request by the Park Hyatt Goa Resort and Spa.

A light rain was falling as I alighted at the lobby of the Park Hyatt Goa Resort and Spa in Cansaulim, a 5-star luxury hotel in South Goa.

The lobby at the Park Hyatt Goa Resort and Spa

I stepped out of the car and was struck by how much it reminded me of my favourite 5-star timeshare resort in Goa, Club Mahindra Varca Beach Resort, of which I’m a member.

The Front Entrance at Park Hyatt Goa Resort And Spa

The resemblance ended there. As I was taken to the check-in counter on the lagoon, I saw that the property was much larger and more lavish than I had imagined.

The lagoon at the check-in counter of the Park Hyatt Goa Resort and Spa

Here’s a 360-degree view of the lagoon from our check-in counter.

 

I was in Goa having being invited to speak on Pinterest marketing, at the 6th edition of the Exotic Wedding Planning Conference, a one of its kind event organized by Exito, and conceptualized to bring the top wedding planners across the globe to a single platform.

As the Official Country Winner in the Luxury Wedding Destination category at the 2016 World Luxury Hotel Awards, the Park Hyatt Goa Resort and Spa seemed like the perfect place to organize a conference of wedding planners in Goa.

View of the Lobby at Park Hyatt Goa Resort and Spa

The conference was from the 13th to the 14th of August, 2018, and I had arrived a day early to relax and prepare for my talk, which was on the 2nd day.

After checking in, another speaker and I were transported by buggy to our respective rooms. The Indo-Portuguese style room and suites are a distinctive feature of the Park Hyatt Goa Resort and Spa hotel.

Buggy transport at Park Hyatt Goa Resort and Spa

At first sight, my room looked like any other 5-star hotel room. But when I explored it further, I saw that it had a large verandah (balcony) with a view of the lagoon that runs through the property.

Welcome to Goan-style verandah living

My room was part of the Indo-Portuguese style villas, called Pousadas, that are divided into five landscaped courtyards, each distinctive in theme, architecture and landscape.

Indo – Portuguese style Pousadas at Park Hyatt Goa Resort and Spa

The Pousadas are predominantly single-storied and have spacious balconies with stunning views that overlook the sea, lagoons or tropical spaces, perfecting the concept of ‘verandah living’ that is innate to the people of Goa.

The furniture in the rooms was styled like antique Indo-Portuguese furniture, which I love. It is locally sourced with design features from the early 1900s.

The huge Portuguese-style wooden bed in my room

The other feature I loved in my room was the lavish bathroom with a sunken shower. I love beautiful bathrooms and this one looked and smelled wonderful.

My lavish bathroom with the sunken shower

I had mixed feelings about the fact that it led to an outdoor shower room with a pebble floor and vegetation, that opened out to the sky, and the only thing separating my bathroom from that room was a pane of clear glass.

The open shower made me a tad uncomfortable

Imagining that a peeping Tom could look into my bathroom made me cringe, so I called up the resort host, who assured me that there was “absolutely” no cause for worry.

The walls enclosing the outdoor shower were designed so no one could look inside, she said, so it was “absolutely private and confidential.” She said “absolutely” quite a few times. Although it didn’t mitigate my discomfort, I said, “Screw it, let’s do it,” Richard Branson-style.

Once I decided to take a bath, I found I didn’t really care after all. I was more focused on enjoying the bath products from Forest Essentials. From the shampoo, conditioner and shower-gel, to the delightfully lemon-scented hand soap, all the products felt luxurious and smelled divine. Even better that they’re cruelty-free.

After my nice hot bath, I felt relaxed and squeaky clean. I polished off the welcome platter, with delicious Goan sweets, like bebinca. Even the logo had an edible bottom, Willy Wonka-style. Nice touch!

The delicious welcome platter with Goan sweets

For dinner, I ordered a plate of saffron arancini from the 24/7 room service and prepared to spend my evening curled up watching a movie and resting in preparation for the next day.

The saffron arancini were tasty but not mind-blowing

I also got my blazer and trousers pressed by the laundry service, which returned them promptly in an hour.

The next morning, I called for a sunny side up with sausages and potatoes. It was delivered in a steel tiffin, which I thought was wise since it’s both environmentally-friendly and keeps the food warm.

The breakfast, delivered in a tiffin, turned out to be a disaster

However, the breakfast itself turned out to be something of a disaster, because the kitchen had forgotten to send salt and pepper, and didn’t tell me that toast was not included as part of the order.

In the time it took the delivery boy to go fetch the salt and pepper, the eggs were cold as ice and practically inedible. I shoved them down anyway, in my hurry to get to the conference on time.

Later, when I told a sales representative from the Park Hyatt Goa Resort and Spa about my disastrous breakfast, she notified her higher-ups, who apologized and sent a bottle of red wine to my room, to make up for the gaffe.

I called a buggy to take me to the Pyramid Ballroom since there was no way I was going to find my way around the enormous property by myself. I was all ready for the talks, engagement and networking activities and the day went off well.

The conference was very well-organised and went off without a hitch. The food at the networking luncheons was excellent and the speakers included some actual celebrities like Devika Narain, the wedding designer for Virat Kohli and Anushka Sharma’s hush-hush wedding in Italy.

The conference was held in the Pyramid ballroom

In the evening, we were invited for dinner and cocktails at another ballroom (whose name I can’t remember). A new friend of mine, Boi, and I navigated our way over the vast and gorgeous swimming pools to the dining area.

The lagoon-style pool at Park Hyatt Goa Resort and Spa

The resort grounds and architecture are a treat for the eyes. Designed by famed resort architect, Simeon Halstead from Spain, and landscape designer, Peter Imrik of Napa, California, it has the cheerful and relaxed atmosphere of a small Indo-Portuguese village.

Village Square at the Park Hyatt Goa Resort and Spa

Spread over 45 acres, the Park Hyatt Goa Resort and Spa property is like a picturesque township, full of green courtyards and gardens, linked by Venetian-style canals and waterways, tiny bridges and cobbled streets.

The Park Hyatt Goa Resort and Spa resort is full of green courtyards and gardens.

Once Boi and I managed to find our way to the dining area, we were greeted by a lively bar area and a delightful singer who kept us enthralled with songs from the 80s and 90s.

The bartender was rocking

I contented myself with a couple of Pina Coladas and enjoyed getting to know my fellow-attendees. The dinner was a multi-cuisine spread that had so much choice, I was confused at which way to go – Goan or Asian or Italian?

A representative image of the food at the Park Hyatt Goa Resort and Spa

I finally settled for the seafood ravioli followed by Crêpes Suzette for dessert. Both were delicious. Although many of the conference attendees stayed on to party till 1 a.m. or later, I called it an early night since my talk was the first presentation on the agenda the next morning.

I retired to my room and slept early. The next morning I rushed off to the Pyramid Ballroom at 8.30 am, without a chance to eat breakfast because I wanted to run through my Powerpoint and make sure that the animations were working.

As it was my last day at the Park Hyatt Goa Resort and Spa and I would be in the conference all day, I also packed my bags and took them with me.

Thankfully my talk went off well. Image © Exito

My talk went off well. It was well-received and I got some great feedback from the attendees.

Since I had to check out that day, I’d booked myself into another hotel for the night – a budget hotel in Nuvem called the Indismart Woodbourne Resort. It turned out that Boi was staying there too, so we decided to leave together after the conference and split the cost of the cab fare.

In the hurry for us to get to the hotel, where her father was waiting for her, I forgot to check out of the Park Hyatt. Luckily they sent me an email with my room service and laundry charges, which I paid online.

My stay at the Park Hyatt Goa Resort and Spa did not lack comfort. However, one of the things I would change was the wasteful use of plastic bottles in the rooms and conference areas. These could easily be replaced by jugs with glasses.

No plastic bottles, please

To their credit, they do use glass bottles at their all-day Village Café restaurant, but it would be great if they extended this eco-friendly practice to the entire hotel.

Sustainable Practices by the Park Hyatt Goa Resort and Spa

On request, the staff outlined for me, the sustainable practices followed at the resort. Their corporate social responsibility program is called Hyatt Thrive, which includes energy-saving and water consumption reduction initiatives, engagement in community causes, and environmental clean-up drives.

In addition, the Park Hyatt Goa Resort and Spa operates a series of initiatives under the Hyatt Thrive program that are geared for the betterment and livelihood of the local community and benefit the environment in the Cansaulim area.

These activities include an Apprenticeship Programme, organic farming programme, sustaining and promoting a local small-scale art industry, enriching the lives of village youth through sports and festive celebrations and other community activities.

Some of the Park Hyatt Goa Resort and Spa’s ‘Green Initiatives’ include:

  • Renewable sources of energy

Renewable sources of energy through windmills and solar panels that generate power used for the external illumination of the hotel.

  • Water conservation measures

The hotel implements rainwater harvesting measures. All the lagoons in the hotel are waterproofed to save water. Water circulation is kept off for five hours. Water in the sewage treatment plant is recycled and used for irrigation of landscaping.

The lagoons at Park Hyatt Goa Resort and Spa are waterproofed to save water

Drip irrigation methods help reduce water consumption. Hedges are mulched with coir dust and grass clippings to retain moisture, reduce erosion, provide nutrients, and suppress weed growth and seed germination.

  • Recycling of biodegradable waste

The hotel has a wet garbage plant that processes about 500 kg of wet garbage per day, and a vermicompost system that uses earthworms to convert pre-composted grass clippings to organic manure, which is then used for landscaping.

  • Air pollution control

A scrubber plant removes and neutralizes particles like dust and gases from exhaust streams.

  • Organic Chefs’ Garden

Their ‘Chefs Garden’ is an in-house, organic vegetable garden where fresh herbs and tropical fruits are grown and used by the kitchens at the resort.

An in-house spice farm grows cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, black pepper and other aromatic spices. Neem is a natural insecticide used for the plants.

Other green initiatives include the use of reusable cloth laundry bags and cane baskets in place of plastic, and energy-efficient light bulbs, instead of incandescent bulbs.

Types of Accommodation at the Park Hyatt Goa Resort And Spa, Cansaulim

The resort has two categories of accommodation, rooms and suites. The Suites include options like the:

  • Park Lagoon View Suite
  • Park Sea View Suite with Lap Pool
  • Vista Suite
  • Park Sea View Suite
  • Imperador Suite

Rooms are available with a single bed or twin accommodation with a view of the lagoon, pool and ocean.

Imperador Suite with Outdoor Sunken Bathtub. Courtesy Park Hyatt Goa Resort and Spa

The busiest times of year for tourism in Goa are from October to February. The rest of the year is usually off-season – although over the last few years Goa is becoming a popular destination for MICE Events.

Activities at the Park Hyatt Goa Resort And Spa

The Park Hyatt Goa Resort and Spa also seems to be quite popular with Indian families, and I saw a bunch of them lounging about the lobby on my arrival. Not surprising, since it won the Most Child-Friendly Hotel award at the 2016 KidsStopPress.

Camp Hyatt – the kid’s activity centre at Park Hyatt Goa Resort and Spa

Its Sereno Spa also won the #1 award for most luxurious Spa resort at the 2016 asiaSpa India Awards. Unfortunately, I never had the chance to check it out because my stay was too short and hectic.

Outdoor Spa treatment room at Park Hyatt Goa Resort and Spa

Places to visit near the Park Hyatt Goa Resort and Spa

Arossim beach is walking distance from the resort. Again, I was unable to visit the beach since my visit was for business and I had no time for anything else.

Arossim Beach, Park Hyatt Goa Resort and Spa

To see more stunning images from this property, check out the video below.

https://youtube.com/watch?v=6HJXZy-mlSA

 

Disclosure: My airfare and stay at the Park Hyatt Goa Resort and Spa was sponsored by Exito. However, this review reflects my honest and candid opinion of my stay.  

A Weekend At Baga Beach, Goa: Misty Mornings And Mambo Nights

The weekend trip I took to Goa in February 2005 was very different from any other trips I had taken. First, because I went with three other people I had only met once! And second, because we stayed in North Goa.

I usually prefer the South because the beaches are much more beautiful and secluded there. But then North Goa is more “happening” and my friends and I really wanted to check out the nightlife.

We reached Mapusa at seven on a Friday morning and decided to sink anchor at Baga. No trouble getting a cab, and a little later, with the help of (or despite) my broken Konkani, we managed to find comfortable lodgings at the Sea View Resort at Baga beach.

The Sea View Resort at Baga beach

Although our Baga Beach accommodation cost a little more than we’d planned to pay, the place was very cosy. The high ceilings and tiled roof felt just like an old Goan home, and our rooms were a stone’s throw away from the beach.

After dumping our backpacks in the room, my friends and I headed down to the shack in front of the resort for breakfast.

A beach shack on Baga intriguingly called Monalisa’s Angelheart

Intriguingly called Monalisa’s Angelheart, the name and logo were about the only things that distinguished it from the multitude of little shacks that dotted the beach.

The beaches of North Goa – except for Baga, Candolim and Sinquerim, are really not my preferred destination for a Goan holiday.

The blue waters of Baga beach

Most of North Goa is lined with rocky beaches like Anjuna and Vagator that are better known for parties and drugs, than for their white sands.

My German friends, Patrick and Wiebke were backpackers and the sort of folks who were completely open to new cultures and experiences.

So much that they were not even averse to travelling in the overcrowded second-class compartment of a Mumbai local train at peak hour. Now that’s an adventure by any standards!

I found them so different from the tourists whose only experience of India is restricted to the rarefied air of their five-star hotel and air-conditioned transport.

On our first afternoon in Baga, they decided to take in a little sun on one of the recliners in front of the shacks.

Patrick and Wiebke sunbathing at Baga

Since I prefer to avoid the sun, I contented myself with slapping on the SPF45 and relaxing in the shade of Monalisa’s Angelheart.

Back then I lived in Mumbai. Life there was so crazy that it actually took me a while to wind down. It was weird at first because I kept thinking that I had something to do or somewhere to go.

It was only after a while that it hit me that I had nothing to do but eat, have a cold beer, lie on the beach and sleep. Ooooh, heaven!

It’s not surprising that Goa has spawned more poets, writers and musicians than professionals and businessmen.

There’s probably something about the sea air, the atmosphere, the languid pace of life, that brings out the creative side in its inhabitants.

The patrão and his minions push their boat out to sea

One of my favourite things to do in Goa is to pig out on seafood. I mean, nowhere in Mumbai can you get such fresh, delicious mussels fried in rawa or semolina (yum!) squid and pomfret?

To me, the seafood in Mumbai reeks of lead, cadmium, mercury and all the foul stuff that the industries there pour into the sea (not to mention the untreated sewage, yuck).

But in Goa, the fish always tastes fresh and delicious. I got Patrick (the only other person in our group to eat meat) to try out the Chicken Xacuti, which he claimed was “perfect.” It’s hard being a vegetarian in Goa.

Fishing boats anchored in the bay

After a few hours in the sun, Patrick and Wiebke were good and roasted. Patrick actually got sunburnt, poor guy.

We were too tired from our bus journey to check out the party scene, so we went for a walk down the beach late in the evening and stopped off at a beach restaurant called Drop Anchor.

The restaurant was built at a height of about 10 or more feet above the beach. The décor there was a perplexing mix of low sofas in North Indian style and curtains with an Oriental motif. We were offered a hookah but declined.

The tide was coming up as we walked back to our little rooms after dinner. We sat on the beach for a while enjoying the cool sand beneath our feet, till a rather large wave nearly wiped us out and had us rolling with laughter at our encounter with a “mini-tsunami”.

I woke up when it was still dark and early the next morning – an unusual occurrence for me since I’m not a morning person. I got out my camera and decided to go for a walk on the beach and take photos.

Early morning on Baga Beach

It was a cool, pleasant morning with none of the chill of winter. I enjoyed exploring the beach in the early morning light.

Sunrise at Baga Beach

The sun was just rising above the coconut trees while the moon still hung like a lantern over the fishing boats.

The moon shines over the sea

I walked around taking photos on the beach, watching the fishermen take their boats out to sea and making friends with a little doggie who took a shine to me.

This little guy took a shine to me. It was love at first sight for us both.

When the others woke, Wiebke and I decided to go for a dolphin-watching trip. We saw a few fins, but this was the closest we got to the dolphins. It was fun, though.

The closest we got to a dolphin on our boat trip

Over the next couple of days, we explored Baga, the flea markets and the party scene at Tito’s Café Mambo, an open-air disco and bar, where we saw creepy Indian men trying to dance with any gora women who would give them the chance.

Flea market at Baga Beach

After a few drinks and laughs at Café Mambo, we retired to our rooms for the night. The next day, we hired a beat-up old Fiat and drove to Anjuna beach where we hung out on the rocks for a while.

Anjuna Beach in the North of Goa

Anjuna was where the infamous and sad case of 15-years old Scarlett Keeling unfolded in 2008. This beach is notorious for its party and drug scene.

The rocks at Anjuna beach

Then we drove through Candolim, checked out a few of the fake antique furniture stores and went on to Sinquerim beach, which adjoins the Aguada Fort.

Aguada Fort at Sinquerim Beach

On our last day, before we caught our bus from the Mapusa bus stand, Patrick, Wiebke and I went for a delicious Goan lunch in a restaurant nearby where Patrick regaled me with hilarious stories of their trip to Cambodia.

By this time I was missing my family immensely. They were all I could think about. As a mom, it’s hard to take time away from your child and family, and this was the first trip I took with friends a few years after my child was born.

It was also the first time I had been away from my child for so many days, and the pangs of guilt were getting to me. I desperately wanted to go home as soon as possible.

The weekend in Baga was a welcome respite, no doubt, but by the end of it, I was glad to be home and hold my baby in my arms again.

All photos are © Priya Florence Shah

A Trip To Ladakh: Leh – Nubra Valley – Pangong Tso

Whenever I saw images of Ladakh, they conjured up for me a land of stark mountain ranges, serene high-altitude lakes, and blue skies contrasting with cold desert landscapes.

Magnificent views everywhere you look in Ladakh

When I finally did my bucket list trip in May 2016, I found my imagination was not far from the truth. I had no desire to land up in Ladakh alone with my child, with no bookings and having to search out tour operators for excursions.

Spontaneity and doing-it-yourself are not the right approaches for all vacations. When travelling with family, especially children, in such a remote place, I find it’s better to book a tour with a well-known operator.

So I opted for the “Amazing Ladakh with 2 Nights in Nubra Valley” package from MakeMyTrip.com. The total cost of the package for both of us came to INR 43,521 (including taxes). This is how our trip went.

Getting Acclimatized To The Altitude

Leh, the capital of Ladakh is at an altitude of 3,524 meters (11,562 ft), so it’s important to acclimatize after coming into the city, before travelling further within Ladakh.

The email from MakeMyTrip mentioned that it was best to spend a day to rest and get acclimatized to the place. They also recommend that those planning to have an anti-altitude pill before travel, such as Diamox, should consult an experienced doctor first.

We boarded our flight from Pune to Delhi and flew on from there to the tiny Leh airport. Upon arrival, a MakeMyTrip representative met us at the airport and transferred us by car to the 3-star Grand Willow hotel in Leh.

The view from the Grand Willow hotel in Leh

After checking in at the hotel, we took their advice and rested for the day, having all our meals in the hotel dining room. The food was simple and not bad for a budget trip.

Having a meal in our hotel in Leh

I was worried about my child getting altitude sickness because of a history of asthma. Instead, I turned out to be the one who had trouble acclimatizing to the low oxygen levels, while my kid was absolutely fine.

Luckily I had no debilitating symptoms, except for mild breathlessness when walking uphill on Leh’s undulating city roads.

Sightseeing Around Leh

On the second day, we had our breakfast and went on a tour of some of the attractions near Leh.

Spituk Gompa (monastery) near Leh

First, we went to the Spituk Gompa (monastery), just outside Leh. I got breathless climbing the monastery stairs, so I opted to stay lower, while my child climbed to the top of the monastery. But even from where I stood, the sight of the Leh valley below us was quite spectacular.

The view of Leh from Spituk Gompa

After our visit to the Gompa, we were taken to the Magnetic Hill outside Leh. Depending on whom you ask, the “gravity-defying phenomenon” that this spot is famous for has either to do with magnetism or an optical illusion.

Unfortunately, on our visit there, I saw no sign of either phenomenon. So the Magnetic Hill turned out to be a bit of a dud.

Magnetic Hill was a big dud

After that, we drove about 35 kilometres outside Leh city and 6 kilometres from Nimo village on the Kargil – Leh highway, to the Sangam or the Confluence of the Zanskar and Indus Rivers.

Y-shaped Confluence of the Zanskar and Indus Rivers from the road above

The views at this point were quite breathtaking. Tall, sandy mountains almost devoid of vegetation, sloped down on either side of the river to meet at a Y-shaped curve called the confluence, where the two rivers meet.

The confluence of the Zanskar and Indus Rivers

A little one-storey cabin near the road, belonging to Indus Himalayan Explorers, offers rafting and kayaking gear for the more adventurous traveller. This is a fantastic place to enjoy water sports, or just stand and skip pebbles over the waters.

Indus Himalayan Explorers offers kayaking and rafting gear

On our way back, we stopped to visit the Gurdwara Pathar Sahib, a Sikh temple managed by the Indian army, where we enjoyed the Langar – free food served to visitors at the community kitchen in gurudwaras.

After returning to our hotel, I had a hankering for some authentic Ladakhi food. So, my child and I walked to a restaurant near our hotel, where I had the Tibetan Thukpa (noodle soup), which was quite delicious. The portions were a bit too large for me, though.

Tibetan Thukpa (noodle soup)

Leh to Nubra Valley Via Khardung-la Pass

The next morning, we woke up early and had a quick breakfast to begin our 140 km drive to Nubra Valley, about 5 to 6 hours away.

On the way, we passed by the Khardung-la Pass – incorrectly cited as the highest vehicle-accessible pass in the world – at an altitude of 5,359 meters (17,582 ft) above sea level.

Khardung-la Pass is of strategic importance to India

Maintained by the Border Roads Organisation, the pass is strategically important to India as it is used to carry supplies to the Siachen Glacier, the highest and coldest battlefield in the world, at an average altitude of 20,000 feet.

At the snowline near Khardung-La

As we entered Nubra Valley, I was stunned at how much it reminded me of the description of the fictional Shangri-La from James Hilton’s novel, Lost Horizon.

Nubra Valley or Shangri-La?

Rivers and rivulets run through the Nubra Valley carrying fertile alluvial soil, making the valley an oasis of green in the desert landscape of Ladakh.

Rivers and rivulets run through Nubra Valley

After our long drive, in the company of a Gujarati family of four, we checked into our tent camp in Hunder in the Nubra Valley. I took a nap till dinner, while my child had fun playing with the family that had accompanied us.

Our tented camp in Hunder

Sightseeing In Nubra Valley

The next morning, we set out to do some sightseeing in Nubra Valley, starting with a visit to the White Sand Dunes at Hunder.

White sand dunes in Nubra Valley

My child enjoyed an ATV ride on the sand dunes, while I took photos and took in the scenery.

ATV ride on the sand dunes

After that, we visited the Diskit Gompa, the oldest and largest Buddhist monastery in the Nubra Valley.

Diskit Gompa (monastery) in Nubra Valley

It features a 32-meter statue of Maitreya Buddha.

Statue of Maitreya Buddha at Diskit Gompa

After our tour of the monastery, our guide took us across a small rivulet to see a herd of Bactrian camels. Since I do not believe in riding or any form of exploitation of animals, I sat out the camel ride with my child.

Bactrian camels in Nubra Valley

Instead, I busied myself taking photos of these two-humped animals that have a tremendous tolerance for cold, drought, and high altitudes. The domesticated Bactrian camel has enabled the travel of caravans on the Silk Road and been used to travel in inner Asia since ancient times.

Bactrian camels have a high tolerance for cold, drought, and high altitudes

After our visit to the camel camp, we returned to our camp in Hunder for dinner and rested till the next morning until our journey back to the hotel in Leh. I skipped the shopping tour in Leh, although my child accompanied the Gujarati family on their excursion.

I had purchased a jacket in a tiny market in Nubra Valley, but on reaching Leh, realised that the zipper was of poor quality, so I gave it to a mochi (cobbler) in the main square near our hotel for repairs.

We were to go on a day excursion to the Pangong Tso (Lake) the next day. The distance from Pangong Lake to Leh is a round trip of 280 kilometres. It’s a 5-hour drive from Leh, most of it on rough and winding mountain roads. It exhausted me just to think about it.

Long, winding roads climbing up the mountains

Now, I love mountain lakes and Pangong Tso was very much a bucket list trip for me. So I asked our tour guide if my child and I could extend our stay at Pangong for a night and return the next day.

In this, I found that MakeMyTrip did not disappoint. They were very flexible with our itinerary and arranged for our Pangong Lake stay in a tented camp overnight. It cost extra, of course, but it was well worth it.

Excursion to Pangong Lake

This brackish-water lake is situated at an elevation of 4,350 meters (14,270 feet). It is 134 kilometres (83 miles) long and extends from India to China. About 60% of the length of the lake lies in China.

My first glimpse of Pangong lake through the mountains

During winter the lake freezes completely, despite being saline water. The closer you get to Pangong Tso, the more likely you are to see marshes and wetlands formed by the streams that feed the lake from the Indian side.

Marshes and wetlands formed by the streams that feed Pangong Tso

Pangong Tso is sacred to the locals, so swimming or water sports are not allowed here. For security reasons, India does not permit boating on the lake. As the lake lies on the Sino-Indian Line of Actual Control, an Inner Line Permit is required to visit the lake.

No swimming or boating is permitted on the lake

While Indian nationals can obtain individual permits, others must have group permits (with a minimum of 3 persons) accompanied by an accredited guide. The tourist office in Leh issues the permits for a small fee.

To get to Pangong Lake, you have to pass through the Chang-La Pass, claimed to be the second-highest motorable road in the world at an altitude of 5,360 meters (17,590 feet).

At Chang-La Pass, the second highest motorable road in the world

Craggy rock formations dot the landscape on the way. The climb is very steep and requires a careful drive.

Craggy rock formations dot the landscape

The stretch of 10 to 15 kilometres of road on either side from Chang-la is loose dirt and slush and dangerous for bikers, especially in the summer months.

Loose dirt and snowmelt make the roads dangerous for bikers

I have great respect for the Border Roads Organisation and Himank, who build and maintain these high-altitude roads.

The Border Roads Organisation and Project Himank build and maintain these high-altitude roads

My first glimpse of the blue waters of Pangong Tso through the mountains was heavenly. It was every bit as mesmerizing as I’d imagined it to be.

The famed Pangong lake, at last

It was May, so it was still very cold, especially at night, when we had to leave the relative warmth of our tent to walk to the dining tent, a few feet away. We reached there just as dinner was getting over and only managed to grab a few handfuls of rice and dal and a papad or two.

Our tented camp at Pangong Tso

My kid was not happy about us spending the night because of the freezing cold. But I loved watching the sunrise, which was surreal.

Pangong Lake looks surreal at sunrise

For some reason, being at that altitude made it seem all the more sacred and spiritual. It made me understand why rishis (seers) and holy men seem to prefer high-altitude living. It’s not just the isolation, it’s also the sense of grandeur that such a place inspires.

Because we were travelling back to Leh on our own, we were able to stop at a spot near the lake called 3 Idiots Point (made famous by the Aamir Khan movie, 3 Idiots, which was partly filmed at Pangong Tso).

The restaurants are making a killing off the fame of the 3 Idiots movie

We met a local who owned a pair of yak. He consented to allow me to click his photos for INR 20. I paid him 100 rupees in a moment of generosity.

A local celebrity and his yak

I also got the chance to see the crystal-clear waters of the lake up close and spend some time at the lakeshore. Had we settled for the day excursion, we would have missed out on so much.

A yak sits contentedly on the banks of Pangong Tso

Pangong Tso was the highlight of my visit to Ladakh. Given a chance, I would love to go back and see Tso Moriri, and a few more high-altitude lakes in Ladakh.

Pangong Lake Tented Camps

Tips To Keep In Mind When Visiting Ladakh

  1. Watch out for altitude sickness or acute mountain sickness caused by exposure to low oxygen levels at high elevations. Symptoms may include a headache, vomiting, feeling tired, trouble sleeping, and dizziness. If you experience any of these symptoms, move to a lower elevation.
  2. Don’t plan too many activities in a single day. Listen to your body and take rest when you need to rest, even if it’s the middle of the day.
  3. Travel with a tourist guide. Ladakh is a remote area near the Indian and Chinese borders. It’s not advisable to travel solo or without a guide who knows the area for fear of straying into disputed territories.
  4. Keep your passport on you at all times, even if you’re an Indian tourist. Permits are required to visit some areas. Your passport or ID will be required to issue these permits.

Watch the video of our trip to Ladakh here

 

A Weekend At Treasure Island Resort, Lonavala

The mist rolled down over the hills, green and wet with the rain. Little waterfalls burst forth from the verdant foliage as we drove past on the expressway from Pune to Lonavala.

Driving towards Lonavala on the Expressway from Pune

Treasure Island Resort, Lonavala, is just on the outskirts of Lonavala town. You have to pass another toll naka (post) and a few roadside dhabas (restaurants) before you see the massive sign signalling you inside the gates.

It was over 20 years since I stayed at the Treasure Island Resort, Lonavala. The last time I stayed there was before my kid was born.

I didn’t remember much of what it looked like back then, except for this pool with a waterfall in the centre of the resort. Every time we crossed the corridor passing by the pool, our noses were assaulted by the stench of chlorine.

Pool and waterfall at night at the Treasure Island Resort, Lonavala

I booked a week at the resort in July 2018, because a week of my RCI timeshare was expiring and I had to use it or lose it. That’s one of the curses of owning a timeshare you don’t use as often as you should.

At the Treasure Island Resort, Lonavala

Even though we were entitled to stay for a week, we decided to cut short our stay and return to Pune after the weekend, because the hotel had no Wifi, the data network was bad and we wouldn’t have been able to get any work done.

Our suite at the Treasure Island Resort, Lonavala

Our stay was very pleasant though. The hotel had upgraded us from a studio apartment to a 1-bedroom suite, so we had plenty of place to lounge about and a massive bathroom that made me very happy. I love hotel rooms with big bathrooms.

The huge bathroom in our suite

We spent a very pleasant afternoon watching Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory  – the delightful 1971 musical with Gene Wilder, not the creepy 2005 Tim Burton remake with Johnny Depp.

Arun and I drove around Lonavala a bit. It had a lot of memories for us. But the dreadful traffic and lack of parking on weekends made us stick close to the Uphill mall in Lonavala, where we picked up a meal from McDonald’s.

Uphill Mall Lonavala

Our evenings were spent enjoying cocktails at the Tavern, the lounge at the 5-star Fariyas Hotel. We also preferred having our evening meals there.

The decor in the Fariyas Hotel Lonavala
My Strawberry Daiquiri at the Tavern, Fariyas Hotel

The food at Treasure Island Resort was reasonably-priced, tasty and well-made. But it was pure vegetarian (obviously targeted at the Gujarati community), and the room service was understaffed and unmotivated.

We had to waste a good deal of time trying to get through to them on the intercom, convincing them to serve us meals in the room.

Lonavala is a town and hill station about half-way between Mumbai and Pune. It’s one of the few places where weary Mumbaikars can hang up their hats on a weekend.

Punekars are somewhat more fortunate, having access to many more weekend getaways, like Lavasa, Mulshi, and Mahabaleshwar, besides the forts and hills near Pune city that attract so many trekkers.

It’s hard to get lost in Lonavala. If you can’t find your way, just follow the “Maganlal’s Chikki” signs. You can read more about the famous Lonavala chikki here.

Maganlal Chikki, Lonavala’s most famous chikki franchise

Before we returned to Pune, I tried to buy a pack of the famous Cooper’s chocolate and walnut fudge, but the long lines outside their shop made me opt for the fudge and chikki from Frend’s chikki nearby. It tastes just as good.

Frend’s Chikki and Fudge