Tag Archives: Indian Tales

Kausani : Best view of the Nanda devi range

Date of the trip: 21st Nov 2020

Let me give you a couple of moments just to absorb the magic of that stunning blog cover photo. And just so you know – it’s real, and it’s magnificent. The three Trishul peaks right on your face in Kausani are hypnotizing and slyly overshadow the humble Nanda Devi peak. For us, they reminded us of the queen of Himalyas – Mt Kanchandzonga.

Now with our travel story,

Kausani is a small sleepy (but touristy) Himalayan town North East of Ranikhet. Geographically, very close to the Nanda devi range. The route was scenic and roads are of good quality. Kausani is not very far away from Ranikhet. It’s a straight 2 hour drive, so it can be considered for a day trip when staying in Ranikhet. However, with a more chilled itinerary (like ours) it can easily be stretched into an overnight thing.

View from the road when travelling from Ranikhet to Kausani.

Our intention on this trip was to (extremely) slow travel. We wanted to enjoy the scenic route as much as the destination and therefore took a lot of breaks to admire the valleys and riverside villages and fields. Villages were preparing for the upcoming harsh winters by drying pumpkins and other gourds, preparing preserves and pickles.

The route goes via many farming villages and along the Kosi river. Short pauses on almost all bridges and wherever the river was adjacent to the road, it gave us abundant opportunities to bird watch. Our eyes were always peeled to spot kingfishers, waders and dippers or black or hill partridge.

Stop over at Khatarmal Sun temple :

While driving to Kausani (or Almora) from Ranikhet one stop (worth the detour), is Khatarmal Sun temple. Keep a watch on google maps as the diversion to it is very hard to spot.

Intricate carvings and designs, clear skies and valley view overlooking Almora, makes this pit stop worthwhile.

Katarmal Sun temple is one of the first sun temple of the country. The labyrinth of small temples of shiv-parvati around it makes this majestic structure mesmerising.

Walls of smaller temples are decorated with unknown lost ancient language inscriptions and divine designs.

Checkout the small café at the entry gate run by the locals. Easy snacks to eat and tea are available here along with locally sourced pickles and jams to shop. Himalayan scenery from this vantage point is outstanding.

A short 10 min uphill hike is required from the parking lot to get to this place through the village, edged with fruit trees.

Where to stay in Kausani :

There are many lodges/guesthouses/hotels of all budgets here. KMVN (Kumaon mandal Vikas Nigam) is a much sort after accommodation for it’s excellent Sunrise views of the Nanda devi range.

Season for visiting Kausani :

It’s an all year round destination. However, as the town is situated on lesser Himalayas and there is hardly any blockage or aerial distance between Nanda devi range and the Kausani ridge, the temperatures drop considerably once the sun goes down or if winds blow. Snowfall is common during winters

What to see and do in Kausani :

Like all Himalayan towns with epic views, this one also has multiple scenery viewing points like sunrise point and sunset point. A gazillion ancient stone temples also enrich the history of this town. A number of seasonal waterfalls like Rudrahari waterfall are great ways to enjoy the natural beauty by hiking to it.

Walking in pine forest after watching the golden sunrise.

Off-course, we always find time to go for walks and bird watching where ever we go. While walking back after watching sunrise, we had an excellent birding session. Checkout the ebird list here and Sunny’s instagram account for the photos.

Places we missed visiting in this trip, but are definitely going in our ‘next time’ list :

Me and Sunny trying to capture the stunning Trishul view in our memories for ever. No amount of photographs or videos do justice to the feelings.

Hiking trails all around Kausani off-course tops our list. Guided walks in the flora/fauna rich forests around the town to various waterfalls and temples are worth the experience.

Although we missed it in this trip, it would be awesome to visit the planetarium and observatory to check out the night sky and maybe do some astrophotography. 

Watching locals go about their daily chores while getting maximum sunlight . Or did I just need a reason to look at those snow peaks again?

The highlight of this town is the Anasakti Ashram. Constructed on mountain overlooking the Someshwar valley and view of snow-capped mountain, this ashram was abode of Mahatma Gandhi for some weeks. He was so mesmerized by the beauty of this town that he proclaimed that it is no less than Switzerland itself. Since then ‘Gandhi Ashram’ has become no.1 tourist attraction of the town which is nicknamed ‘Switzerland of India’ by the father of the nation himself. It is possible to stay in the ashram but they don’t have any online portal for booking. It’s in our list for next time, missed it due to pandemic restrictions.

Interested in literature? Spend some time in museum dedicated to the famous poet Sumitranandan Pant. He was born in this quaint town and had his most inspiring work written here influenced by mighty snow capped Himalayas . Oh! I think these majestic mountains and oak forests can turn anyone into a poet. But only few of them can land their work in our school syllabus! :p .The museum displays his personal items, drafts of his poems, letters, his awards, books, stories etc. Due to shortage of time, unfortunately we missed this one too, it is in our list for next time!!

Sunrise photography session. It’s a serious job for the men in our family! :p

In the town there are innumerable travel agents and guides who are more than interested in taking the visitors to see all the popular tourist spots for a fee. That’s a great way to enjoy what the town has to offer and help the local economy.

What to eat in Kausani :

As we were there for only a day and were someone’s guests, we did not checkout any food places in the town.

No trip to any cold Himalyan town is over without a plate of my favourite pahadi Maggie!

On our way back to Ranikhet we took the route via Lodh and stopped at ‘Rudraksh restaurant’ (located here) to eat their Kumaoni Lunch thali.

The family that owns this hotel owns the surrounding fields and most ingredients are locally sourced from the village. Kumaoni food is pre-cooked and has set thali menu depending on availability of ingredients. Servings are off course unlimited.

We stopped here for lunch. Other meals are also available.

Visited : November 2020 : Too hungry to click proper pictures!
Tthis was how our thali looked: Kumauni style rajma/Aloo ke gutke/Bhang ki chatni poured generously over radish salad/Bhat ke dubke/Steamed rice. Just the stop needed to warm ourselves during midday winter chill in the Himalayas.

During our visit to Kausani, we felt that it’s a wonderful and beautiful town in it’s own sense. A super short visit may not do justice to enjoy everything this place has to offer. Looking at a gazillion hotels and restaurants might make you think of it as touristy (these do reduce the charm of this place). But over the years beauty of this place has attracted lots and lots of visitors, mother nature has been really generous with providing the town with excellent views and hiking opportunities. Many famous entities like Mahatma Gandhi and Sumitranandan Pant have added to it’s rich history.

Kausani surely deserves more than a stop over or a day trip! We WILL be back for a longer stayover next time!

Mobile phone time-lapse of the family enjoying the magical golden hour in Kausani.

I hope Kausani has at-least found a little place in your list of places to go ‘When (you are) on a Break!’

Have you stayed in Kausani? Please feel free to add in our ‘next time’ list so we can get to it next when we are in town!

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Ranikhet : 15 things to do when you don’t feel like doing anything

Date of the trip: 14th Nov 2020 to 3rd Dec 2020

Ranikhet, a small sleepy mountain town in the lower hills of western Himalayas, home and headquarters of Kumaon and Naga regiment – it’s where my parents currently live. When you have a home in one of the most scenic towns in the country, and when (you are) on a break after 7 months of lockdown – there is no point looking anywhere else – just pack your bags and take the flight!

Nobody can resist the invitation when these majestic Himalayas call!

Jump directly to15 things to do in Ranikhet, when you don’t feel like doing anything!

Nainital is the most popular tourist destination in the Kumaon region (undoubtedly!) but having visited both the cities, I feel the ridge town of Ranikhet often gets overshadowed by the valley city of Nainital. Nainital is full of hustle – bustle, glittery market lights and eating places, but nature lovers are in for an overwhelming experience in Ranikhet where you walk on the beautiful forest trails which abound in this fairytale colonial town, while a life goes on in Ranikhet at an unhurried pace. It’s far more peaceful and serene than Nainital, needless to say, Ranikhet is more like a town we would love to visit even when we are on our own.

Ranikhet is a mountain town settled around an army cantonment. This town was a summer establishment for British since the 1870’s before becoming home to Kumaon regiment. Apart from the military, this town is famous for its majestic views of the Himalayas and Nanda Devi range and Jhula devi temple.

As the sun rises above the Ranikhet ridge, the sleepy town gets on with the day to day chores.

Best time to visit Ranikhet:

Every season has its bests in Ranikhet. Specially for birders to note, this town lies en-route the migration channels of Himalayan birds. Although residents are abundant, each season has its own bunch of avian visitors.

For best views of the Himalayas, Mid October to Mid March is the preferred time.

December temperatures starts to drop below zero degrees while January and February can get snowfall. Ranikhet, due to its close proximity to Himalayas has a very localized weather which can change drastically throughout the day. It may rain unexpectedly throughout the morning and clear out into a bright sunny day during noon, just to go back to an overcast evening. Temperatures fluctuate accordingly.

During our visit in November (autumn), these pink blooms with their sweet nectar were covering the valleys along with golden/drying autumn foliage of Oak, Horse chestnut, Pine and Deodar. All trees were hosting a plethora of birds and animals during the day.

How to reach Ranikhet :

Delhi is the nearest International Airport, while Pantnagar receives flights from Delhi via Dehradoon is 75 km away. Kathgodam is the nearest railhead and is about 50 km from Ranikhet. The New Delhi – Kathgodam Shatabdi is most convenient. Due to the prevailing lockdown we however had to take a taxi and go by road all the way to Ranikhet – which was to be our home base for next two weeks.

We landed at Delhi airport around midnight and by the time we crossed over into Uttarakhand the sun was up. After getting off the highway near Moradabad we stopped at New Shri Sai Dhaba for a cup of tea. Soon we crossed Choti Haldwani (home of the great Jim Corbett) and started our uphill journey. Road between Choti Haldwani and Nainital can be a bit more dizzying as it has continuous sharp curves. Beyond Nainital, up in the higher mountains, it’s a bit better as there are longer straight roads between the bends. We reached Ranikhet by lunch time.

Our first flight (Mumbai to Delhi) experience post lockdown. Not very comfortable with things covering the face but at-least safe!

Where to stay in Ranikhet:

Like most hill towns in the country, there are innumerable guest houses and homestays in the city. But to truly enjoy a relaxed holiday amidst the pine forests looking at the beautiful range, absorbing the essence of the place, you must try to stay a couple of days in the old British houses turned into Resorts, like Chevron Rosemount , Holms Farm  Heritage, Yak and Yeti or West View etc… Construction of new buildings is not allowed in the town hence unlike other tourist destinations, this town is quiet and does not have mushrooming resorts everywhere. Even if you do decide to stay in one of the local homestays or guest houses, try one meal at these hotels and you will definitely come back with lot of landscape photos and satisfied pallets.

Chevron Rosemount. We did not stay here but enjoyed some meals and coffees here. The chef here is outstanding and the Himalayan view from it’s garden is unforgettable.

How to travel in and around Ranikhet :

Of course, like any other holiday destination, having your own private/rented car/bike is always a plus (Zoomcar from Delhi, perhaps?). You then have flexibility to move around as well as stop anywhere without any problems. Roads in this patch of the state are in excellent conditions and road trips and biking groups are very popularly seen on them. However, private taxis are readily available from all hotels (private tie ups) as well as the city taxi stand

We stop multiple times through out the road trip. Pausing to enjoy the view or spotting a bird sitting in the clearing for a perfect picture are always big part of our trips.

Before we go ahead, a point about safe wildlife interactions :

Be aware of your surroundings while venturing out at any time of the day or night. People are safe and helpful but being cautious and aware of wild animal’s presence is important. Deer, Macaques and Langurs however cute, can be ferocious. It’s never a good idea to try feeding, cooing at them to attract their attention or trying to touch them. Ignoring them and walking away is the only way to stay away from their business. Photograph the animals, if you need to – from a safe distance so as not to disturb them. Be sure to keep a lookout at the local news on current leopard sightings. Leopards and other animals like foxes and bears are used to human activities so they normally avoid crossing paths. But if caught by surprise, might misinterpret your excited actions as an attack and may retaliate in fear. Understand, no wild animal hunts humans for food unless really necessary, self defense and fear may result in negative interaction.
We are venturing into their home after-all.

And finally,

15 things to do in Ranikhet, when you don’t feel like doing anything:

Ranikhet is mainly a leisure holiday town. A heaven for people like us who want to unwind after a hectic office schedule. Slow traveling and pausing at each turn to appreciate the peaking mountains and forest sounds. Some days when I got up too early, amidst pin drop silence – I could hear the breeze blowing through the pine leaves and reminding me of the ocean waves in a distance. The freshness and purity of the air rejuvenated all my senses. Its a feeling that needs to be experienced and expressing in words is impossible.

One of our favorite pass times when we did not feel like doing anything. Pulled out a rug, found a sunny spot with a view and… siesta time!

Other than rolling on a rug, catching up on some reading and sketching (see photo above) we spent our time in the town doing these 15 things and found ourselves in complete peace of mind and relaxed – all lockdown blues washed away!

01. Watch the rising sun.

Sun rises behind the Ranikhet ridge and there is no easy way to see the sun rising directly. The whole Nanda Devi range is clearly visible from most view points and the golden snow peaks gleam majestically when you see the range, getting its first beam of light in the morning, golden hour and it gets more and more magical with each passing moment. 🙂 . It is truly enchanting. No amount of photographs or any kind of lens can do justice to what we saw that day. During our stay we tried and tested a lot of view points for the best sunrise and sunset photos. Finally figured that the best spot to enjoy sunrise is – a viewing platform ahead of the Narsing Stadium, just above Pathak Bakers. In addition to this, the view of the sun rise from Haida khan temple is equally (if not more!) rewarding.

Sunrise view after Nanda Devi range got its first snowfall. Getting up early in freezing weather was so worth it. (Check the cover photo on top to see what Sunny is clicking!)

02. Enjoy a cool evening and a fabulous sunset.

 For sunsets, there are innumerable places and all top each other. The complex cloud formations, endless valleys to the horizon, multitude of hues and the glowing orange ball of setting sun behind the false horizon – nothing can beat the romance of this moment.

Sunset view from Seven stones sunset point.

To make a great evening of it we headed to the sunset point on Chaubatia road, Foresta Cafe – near Seven Stones viewpoint. The chilled industrial vibe and soothing ambience of this eatery is great for some instagramable pictures!

There is a different taste to instant noodles in the mountains. Order for some hot coffee or tea with mommos to go with it – evening will certainly be memorable. “Pahadi wali Maggie’ is no joke. Who have tasted it will agree!

03. Watch the Trishul rise above the clouds (and go back!)

Winter and spring  months are the best time to watch the Nanda Devi range. The cycle of the range hiding and revealing behind the clouds is what holds the magic of this town. 

Falling in love, guaranteed! The triple peaks of Trishul (screen left) are the prominent features of this part of the range. Nanda devi peaks 2nd highest in India humbly stands on the other end (screen right).

04. Visit local old temple and churches.

Like all high altitude villages, endless faith and hope is needed to keep the people going, face the hardships due to remoteness and tough weather conditions. Ranikhet being a British stronghold has a big bunch of old churches too, most of them in ruins. Some old unused churches have been converted into army veer-nari (war widows) welfare institutions. Each of these temples and churches have interesting history and stories about them.

A couple of thousand brass bells aorn the walls of Jhula devi temple, Ranikhet.

Jhula devi was built 700 years ago to save the villagers of surrounding valleys from man eating leopards and tigers. It’s a popular temple to make wishes and promises. The perimeter around the temple is full of hanging bells, devotees offer bells as a mark of respect once their wishes are fulfilled by the Goddess. Its a popular pilgrimage spot for locals.

St Bonaventure’s church area is decorated with multicolored flowers. This church runs a primary school adjoining it.

A visit   to St Bonaventure Catholic Church, is a sweet reminder of colonial architecture. The original interiors and wood work is preserved carefully including. Although now removed, one of the rifle rack locks are still attached to one of the benches, it is a reminder of a bloody episode in the churchs past which had forced Britishers to carry weapons into the church during an uprising by freedom fighters.

05. Admire the vistas and the peace of Haidakhan temple.

Drive to the neighboring village of Chiliyanaula and visit the peaceful Haidakhan Babaji Temple in the early hours. Its a place of spiritual devotion, and is surrounded by fruit trees with a majestic view of the valley flanked by 180 degree view of mighty Himalayas.  It’s a great place to practice some meditation. The empty compound and melodious hymns playing continuously inspire to introspect and admire the complete Nanda Devi range in silence. It’s sure to make you feel saintly.

You don’t need to be a believer to visit the Haidakhan temple. The peaceful surroundings and open valley view of the Himalayan range is reason enough!

06. Follow the hiking trails and go or long walks.

Every morning we would pick one of the trails before or after Ranikhet club and do leisure birding while enjoying the pine and oak forests. No guide is required if you have you have presence of mind or a general idea of the place. Check the landmarks on google maps before hand. Benches provided en-route for resting let you absorb it all in. Don’t try to finish the hike quickly, take your time and let the moments fly by with cool breeze. If you can, take a rug and have a picnic on the way. Always remember to cleanup afterwards!

Our favorite was the route from Jhula devi temple to West view hotel via forest route opposite the temple. From West view we again took the forest route towards Ranikhet club via Chevron Rosemount hotel and Army holiday home.

Walking on the quiet forest trails of Ranikhet are the real reason I would choose Ranikhet anytime over the bustling tourist cities of Ranikhet. They never disappoint.

07. Visit the Kumaon Woolen Center.

The Kumaon Regiment is the most decorated unit of Indian army but it comes at a great price. Many courageous soldiers have sacrificed their lives for our country, and after them The Regiment has taken the responsibility to rehabilitate their families/wives and children. This particular center sells woolens, clothing and handicrafts hand woven by war widows with traditional Kumauni designs. A must shop stop! Shop with a cause.

08. Buy, use and consume products made by the local community.

Kumauni valleys are full of fruit and flower orchards. A couple of NGOs/ Govt organizations and Kumaon regiment center encourages the locals to collect the produce and make preserves/jams/pickles/honey etc.. They are delicious and we bagged a whole lot of them from wherever we could find them on the shelves. It encourages the local economy and helps each household through hardships.

Umang is one such organization which employs local talent and resources to churn out great quality woolens, handicrafts and condiments. My sweater in the photo is designed and hand woven by the village ladies and presently my plate has toast with wildflower honey on it. Every bite takes me back to my holiday in Ranikhet.

09. Visit the local Ranikhet bazar.

Check out the colorful vegetables imported from the plains and local grown fruits and veggies all out on display in the main bazaar. Its just along one main road, but houses all possible stores with local and otherwise products. Try the freshly cooked local cuisines here wherever you see most locals flock!

Due to COVID restrictions, we did not venture into the market, walking around clicking pictures and experiencing the local colour. Driving through does not justify the experience, but here we are – the new normal!

An apt mural on petrol pump wall at one end of the market road. 😦

10. Walk along the golf course.

The Golf course is closed to tourists. However, the road which passes through the two part golf course is accessible to everyone and can be used for walking and enjoying the sunset and wide open spaces of one of the highest, most beautiful golf courses of the country. (Watch out for flying balls!)

Sunset from golf course.

11. Visit Holm farm heritage stay.

This Heritage homestay was constructed around 1870 for a high ranking British officer with a view of the whole a Nanda Devi range with a private apple and other fruit orchards. Post-Independence it was used by the by our first Prime Minister late Pundit Jawaharlal Nehru and his family as a holiday home and a socializing venue. Other than him, this guest house as hosted Viceroy Mountbatten and many other celebrities and personalities. It is now maintained by the same family which took over it from the Britishers as its caretaker. The architecture of the main building is old worldly but it has some modern cottages now around it. The main hall is adorned with hand painted rose bush wall paper  and old photographs of dignitaries and antique piano now decorates the dining hall. The host, Mr. Himanshu Upadhyay is a very warm person and full of stories. Food is delicious and homemade. It’s a must visit, try booking a cottage for stay here or at-least come for a meal. Personal vehicle/taxi is recommended as the route is through the forest, up a hill and the farm house is invisible from the streets.

Post lunch photo with Mr Himanshu (Second from left) in front of Holm farm.

12. Visit Kumaon Regimental Museum.

Kumaon Regimental Centre (KRC) Museum was established in the 1970s and is maintained by the Kumaon and Naga Regiment of the Indian Army. The KRC Museum has an excellent collection of memorabilia from past wars and campaigns, and a display of the different weapons used by soldiers along with their achievements and mission success stories.

It was very interesting to see photographs and read about the missions and names of the people involved. Many of these stories of battle and courage were very relatable as I had read them or heard about them in the past (or seen in some movie!).

PS: Don’t miss staff of Jhasi ki rani on display inside!

Outside the KRC museum. Drive to it and let the KRC guard know you want to see the museum. Security is high respectful behavior is appreciated.

13. Birding! Birding!

Although I have covered birdwatching earlier with hiking. I think it deserves its own place in this list, I cannot emphasize enough on how delightful birdwatching in this region is. Birds are not shy at all and for an unassuming birder, coming across a huge mixed hunting party while on a hiking trails is no less than a maddening paradise, at one such instance we ended up listing 20 – 25 different species on a single thicket of trees on one of the road bends!! While visiting or staying at Chevron Rosemount, the best part is the birdwatching opportunities from the comfort of the garden (…sometimes an odd barking deer grazing peacefully too) while enjoying some mixed pakode and coffee/tea. The forest maintained around the hotel is a sort after feeding ground for birds. The rare Himalayan birds do their hunting rounds twice or thrice a day, keep the binoculars always ready.

Even if you have never done birding but like to observe new species, these walks through the forests will certainly be joyful!

The Khaleej pheasants, once endangered – are now legally protected by the gov. and often cross the walking route with a large harem and chicks.

For more excellent wildlife pictures from this trip, you must visit Sunny’s Instagram account!

14.  Try your hand at recording the star trail.

Ranikhet being on the ridge and away from any big town or factory enjoys clear skies most of the year giving the visitors from metros (like us) a memorable view of the night sky. This opportunity should not be missed. Star gazing, milky-way photography, star trail photography is a great way to spend some quiet time under the blanket of a million stars. Some cool places to enjoy this hobby is Holm farm, road going across the golf ground, Seven stones viewing point.

One fine chilly night, Sunny dared to step out and set his camera pointing up!!

15. Visit Choti Haldwani and other neighboring towns.

A visit to Choti haldwani is easier to undertake on your way to Nainital/Ranikhet or while returning back. This small village at the junction from when Himalayan roads leave the plains and start going up. It was home to legendry Jim Corbett. His life achievements and artifacts are neatly curated in his family home – turned museum which is a must visit. Most notable are the his letters to his friends and family and journals.

Nainital being the judicial capital of Uttarakhand is a transport hub and one big city of Kumaon making it base for most visitors as it has easiest transport solutions to all surrounding destinations. On the other hand Ranikhet is closer to the Nanda devi range so it is closer to towns which are in direct shadows of the Himalayas. Both cities have their pros and cons. As we were already based in Ranikhet for the fortnight, we decided to visit these towns from there. As we had enough time on our hands we spaced out each out station trip. Typically, to absorb Ranikhet’s true essence, you need to stay here atleast 3 to 4 days then check out the surrounding towns.

These are some other towns we visited during our stay at Ranikhet:

I hope Ranikhet has now made it to your list of places to go ‘When (you are) on a Break!

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Nainital : 7 things to do in a day during a pandemic!

Date of travel : 01st Dec 2020

Nainital is one of the most popular holiday destinations in North India. In the list of best honeymoon destinations in Himalayas, it sits right next to Shimla and Darjeeling. While staying in Ranikhet, one weekday (while my parents went to respective offices – smirk!) we decided to go on a day trip to Nainital.

The valley town being a tourist hotspot, there was an initial reluctance to visit it amidst COVID pandemic. But we adjusted our itinerary in a way that we avoided crowded areas and stuck to open spaces as much as possible where social distancing was easy.

The whole town in itself can be covered on foot and is made for people who love to walk in the sun while enjoying the cool breeze and taking pictures. Having said that, taxis/self drive cars, cycles & bikes and handicap assistance is readily available – so, don’t worry!

Step 01, The golden rule is to use the golden hour. We left early from Ranikhet so we could reach Nainital before the holiday makers get up and get about. We could therefore enjoy the quietness of the city and did not have to be too cautious right from the beginning. We took a private taxi from Ranikhet, but intercity buses and shared taxis are also available between these towns from main bus stands. It takes roughly 2 hours to reach Nainital from Ranikhet.

First view of the valley town of Nainital. Home to many prestigeous schools, fantastic views and starting point for many Kumaoni adventures. The city has a lot of faces and is run by the natives living in these matchboxes houses facing the sun, away from famous Naini lake.

7 things to do in Nainital in a day at the time of a pandemic.

There are multiple tour operators & guides who are more than eager to get hired and show all the viewing points in the city. It’s overwhelming to be approached by so many of them as soon as the taxi pulls onto Tallital. It’s a good bargain to hire them if interest lies in scenery watching and shopping. Otherwise, politely refusing their offers is the way to go. Always remember that they are offering their services to earn an honest living and need to be respected. The guides, often locals have a lot of stories to tell and can be surprising source of great recommendations for eating places. Alternatively, a ropeway ride to snow view point from one end of Mall road is a good choice.

Empty streets is such a rare site in Nainital, early morning certainly has its own charm!

During this particular trip, we wanted to avoid social interaction and did not hire a guide. We were staying and coming from Ranikhet, Himalayan peaks were not a major attraction for us. There was no point looking at cloud covered Himalayan peaks using a telescope which we could see clearly with naked eye from our backyard! (lucky us!) Read more here about, why you must stay in Ranikhet to have the best Himalayan experience!

As we did not have any interest in seeing the view points or get hustled with the crowd, we decided to ask our taxi to drop us at Tallital side of the Mall road and park in the taxi stand across the lake in Mallital. Our plan was to walk and follow this route, call him when were done.

There is so much to see in Nainital, it was difficult to decide where to start. I guess, when in doubt – always start from the top. 🙂

01. Visit G.B. Pant High Altitude zoo.

I have already written in detail how I feel about zoos. They get me excited and I go back to being a 5year old. All the wildlife here are very well kept, healthy and enclosures are well maintained. Most are rescued and have medically recovered from all over Kumaon. Like all high altitude zoos, this one too is made on a hill (very similar to Gangtok or Darjeeling zoo) and as you follow the yellow arrows, you eventually finish a loop going up and down the hill. It has a big veterinary hospital and a very well-constructed and maintained interpretation centre (not to be missed!) within its boundaries.

Overall, our visit to the zoo was much more fun than I had expected. Being one of the first visitors of the day, we had the whole zoo to ourselves for most of the time and ended up spending three hours here instead of our planned two.

We chose to walk slowly and spend time at each enclosure observing the animal/bird’s behavior. We have seen a lot of restless animals and birds in many zoos in India as well as abroad. Fortunately in this one, all were relaxed and basking in the winter sun.  Some big cats were active and the bear was too busy grooming himself to bother about the visitors.

No private vehicles are allowed on the road going uphill to the zoo gate. Road is a narrow single lane with bungalows built at its edge with people walking all over it. There is no way any general driver can maneuverer on that. It’s better to either walk up the hill from Mall road or take a shared taxi from the Mall road at the start of the slope. We had reached fairly early so while going towards the zoo the taxi was empty with only two of us in it apart from the driver. But while returning, looking at the cramped taxis we preferred to walk.

Apart from the interpretation centre there is a souvenir shop, clean paid washrooms and a cafeteria (with fresh delicious snacks) are also present around the entrance of the zoo.

Timing for the zoo (Friday to Wednesday) – 10am to 4pm

Ticket for Zoo (for Indian nationals – free for senior citizens, children upto 5 years) – INR100 p/p

Ticket for interpretation centre (for Indian nationals above 12 years of age) – INR30 p/p Taxi to and fro from Mall road uphill to the zoo entrance – INR30 p/p

02. Walk on Thandi Sadak.

Once down the Zoo hill back on Mall road, turn left to cross the iconic ‘I love Nainital’ signboard to reach Thandi sadak.

A pedestal road spanning 1 km goes along half of the Nainital lake opposite the Mall road. Thandi sadak is lined up with lush greens of pine, deodar and oaks, which restricts warm sunbeams to fall over the road, keeping it cool always. I have walked on this road a decade ago, the enchanting winter morning mist still gives me the chills when I think about it. Not many people come this far, so it’s likely that social distancing will be pretty easy.

Due to our extended zoo trip, we had to skip the Thandi sadak part of our itinerary.

03. Take a boat ride from Naina devi temple to Mall road.

From the base of the zoo, if you take the route of Thandi sadak – the walk will end at Naina – devi temple. It’s beautifully constructed temple dedicated to Goddess Parvati’s reincarnation – Naina devi, on whose name the town and lake is named.

Our plan was to walk to the temple via Thandi sadak and hire a row boat to the Mall road instead of walking to it. We had to off-course cancel the plan and walked directly onto the Mall road.

04. Walk on Mall road.

For decades, Mall road has been the pathway to millions of romantic rendezvous. Walking along the lake with antic street lamps bordering it and café’s inviting aromas of hot chocolate and cappuccinos and fresh bakes will surely make you fall in love with this tiny town. It’s a pretty wide road with a ‘no car’ section, making social distancing quiet easy.

View of Thandi sadak and Naina devi temple across the lake from Mall road.

05. Shop for wood work and candles.

The shops on mall road sell a lot of locally sourced wood artefacts as well as really fancy molded candles. These are good souvenirs to pickup when in town. It was essential that we avoided the popular local markets as they tend to get over crowded during the day, so we decided to only visit empty(ish) mall road souvenir stores.

Some well made fruit shaped candles bought from Nainital.

06. Check out the Murals

This was something that I think I appreciated the most during my visit. A group of artists have painted portrait murals on mall road as an appreciation and to honor civic workers/cleaners who actually keep Nainital pretty behind the scenes. All tourists must pledge to travel responsibly and support the efforts done by all these hard workers in keeping the cities/town we love looking lovable!

Portrait murals of Nainital.

07. Visit one of the many lake side cafes and restaurants

We chose to visit ‘Café LakeSide’ for lunch. The retro ambience and old English melodies made the charming afternoon most relaxing. Hot steaming sizzler and grilled fish was all that one can ask for to end a memorable day in Nainital.

Sizzling delicious lunch at Cafe Lakeside.

Full meal for two: INR2000/-

As we watched the bustling  Mall road below us(balcony seating) and the sun setting behind the hill across the lake with its last beams cutting across the high ridge, it was time to put on our jackets and order for that cup of hot chocolate. Temperatures in Nainital start dropping drastically in the late afternoon as the sun goes behind the surrounding hills, adding extra cool awesomeness to this valley town.

Bonus recommendation!: If by chance you are around till sun down drive towards Pangot to see Nainital lights at night.

I hope this list has given the creamy top things to do in Nainital on a short trip ‘When (you are) on a Break!’


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Andamans : Honeymoon destination 101

Date of the trip: 21st Nov 2013 to 27th Nov 2013

The first thought while going through the photographs of our trip to Andaman Islands was ‘out of the whole wide world, how did we ever decide on this destination?’ It was our honeymoon after all, our first adventure together after the roller coaster ride of a big fat Indian wedding. We had not travelled together before, and everyone who has travelled with companions knows how important their roles are in making or breaking the trip. For both of us, this was when we really realised that we had chosen the best companions for the longest journey of life and would love to be beside each other in all the future adventures of our lives and around the world. It all had to start from the beach! …Always the beach…

Two beach bums enjoying the perfect calm of the high tide. 🙂

 Inexperience and lack of time had been the reasons for us to book a package holiday from ‘Make My Trip’, a reliable tour operator. My cousins had been to the islands a couple of years back, and since then I always dreamt of visiting the Andaman islands. I did not want to go to a crowded honeymoon cliché, it was wedding season in India at that time and many popular honeymoon destinations would be overcrowded and overpriced. Sunny wanted to have a relaxed time and was not comfortable with low temperature locations at that time. So mountains were a no! – Oh, How he has grown into his glove since then! He was always inclined towards nature and wildlife but never had any close encounters nor got around to photographing them much. These were the hobbies which were yet to develop. On top of the list at that time was only spending quality time and trying to understand the new changes in our lives, strolling romantically on the beach and enjoying cocktails & beers! A tour package was perfect for this kind of holiday and I am glad now that we did not do a DIY stint. We literally did not use any brains during this trip and it was perfect!

‘Make my trip’ took care of our flights, accommodation, transport, food and a couple of activities during the trip. Our group was a small one, with 2 more honeymooners and a middle aged couple with a baby boy and a 10 year old daughter. They gave us enough time and space at every site so we could easily soak up everything and never felt rushed.

Tour map .

According to our one week itinerary we were to land at Vir Savarkar International Airport, Port Blair, capital of the Andaman Islands. After a night’s stay, we were to visit the Ross Island (now known as Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose Island – longest name ever!) and then proceed to Neil Island (now known as Shaheed Island) where we were booked for only a night. The last destination was Havelock Island (now known as Swaraj Island) , that is where we were to spend the rest of the week, coming back to Port Blair only to fly back to Mumbai.

Fishermen back from their morning catch.

Andaman Islands are all rounders in every sense. They truly have something for everyone.

Andaman Islands are an important part of Indian history, holiday paradise for history buffs!

We tend to leave behind our sense of patriotism somewhere in our busy day to day life. A visit to the Cellular Jail (Kala pani) is a jolt to remind us of the freedom struggle and the rock strong will of our freedom fighters who stood up time and again against the mighty British Empire. ‘Make My Trip’ had arranged a guided tour to this site and it was a very informative one. It was the most depressing place we had been to by then. The guide did try to cheer us up in the end by taking us on the roof from where we could get a breath-taking view of the blue ocean in all four directions. It didn’t help though when he added that the blue ocean all around was in fact the reason this spot was chosen for the jail, any prisoner who tried to escape would die of exhaustion while swimming before he reached the nearest land.

The “light and sound show” at the prison is a must see. Spoiler alert! If you are like me, you might leave teary eyed.

Entrance to Cellular jail compound.

Even a half day visit to Ross Island is time well spent. It has a very long and intense history. Most recent contribution to Andaman Island’s history is that it was the barrier saving Port Blair when the December 2004 tsunami hit the Andaman Islands devastating most of the islands. Port Blair and its high density population owns it to Ross island for blocking and breaking the wave’s wrath so it did not hit the city in full intensity, wiping it out completely. The eerie ruins of the old township covered in roots make excellent photo ops. A short hike up the hillock where the town church was, is a good way to scan the whole island. The huge gothic style walls and arches may not be that pretty in the evenings when they look like a set for a spooky exorcist movie. Most of the tourists only walk around the base of this hillock. That is where the eateries are and visitors can feed the number of spotted deer and peacocks.

The ancient roots growing over the ruins of Ross island give it particularly eerie feel. I and Sunny enjoyed walking around clicking hundreds of pictures.

Drooling at that magazine photo of white beaches of Maldives and Mauritius? It’s closer (and cheaper) to home than you would think!

Early morning flight meant sleeping like an ogre till the destination, but we were wide eyed during our second leg of the trip from Chennai to Port Blair. We were flying over Bay of Bengal and could see small green islands spread across the vast blue ocean. That’s when we knew we had made the right choice and this is going to be an outstanding trip!

Picture perfect first glimpse of the islands. Both of us were stuck to the window glass like a pair of geckos!

All through the trip the ‘Make My Trip’ rep took us to many beaches and each one was more beautiful and dazzling than the other. Port Blair itself has only one tourist beach, Corbyn Cove . We reached there around sunset, it was like all tourist beaches with water sports, snacks and shell jewellery and handicraft stalls. We found our bliss in just sitting on a side wall and looking at the families having fun. It was our first day on the islands and the only beach we had seen in our lives before this was Juhu Beach back in Mumbai, it did not look much different and unfortunately was disappointing. It got us a bit worried if all the islands are going to be as overcrowded and full of pushy water-sports salesmen as this one. We couldn’t be more wrong! all the islands had their own beaches with white sand and water with all colours ranging from emerald green to turquoise blue and the peace and calm overwhelmed us.

Me in the white hat at Rajiv Gandhi sports complex pier, waiting for our ferry to Ross island (visible in the distance)

Even while walking on the pier of Rajiv Gandhi Water Sports Complex (in Port Blair) we could see how clean the water was. A visible sea bed is very rare to us Mumbaikars. Red starfish were lazing everywhere on rocks while sea urchins lay cuddled between rocks calmly even though multiple boats and ferries to various islands were docked there. We took one to go to Ross Island from here.

Bharatpur beach, Neil island. Boats with glass base waiting for customers to show them the colourfull coral life of Andaman sea.

Bharatpur Beach in Neil island was the next beach we visited and it was stunning. Never in my life had I ever seen a beach so pretty. Although here too there were activities like glass base boat ride and snorkelling, it was quieter. In the daytime,the serene white sand and emerald blue sea was very welcoming even after the adventure we had the night before! (Read on, more on that later!). I may skip the glass boat a miss the next time around and opt for snorkelling instead. The tour operator had arranged a snorkelling session in Havelock so we skipped the paid one here (how we regret that decision, more on that later too!).

Radhanagar beach, Havelock island. Long white sand beach is ideal for a romantic stroll.

The serene Radhanagar Beach, Havelock island will always hold a special place in our hearts. I think even now when we have been to many beautiful places in our travels, it still comes in top five. The long uninterrupted stretch of clean sand with no one except our group was unbelievable.

The rocky beach reveals itself during low tide. The crooked tree trunks make the beach walk very interesting.

All our hotels on the island were adjacent to beaches. They were non touristy, side, rocky beaches. They were empty, calm and very pretty, but at the same time a bit creepy. During multiple cyclones (and the tsunami of 2004) many trees were uprooted along the beach. The authorities decided to let them lay there as they just added to the beauty of the beach – and we agree! They were amazing photo ops as the texture on each trunk was unique in its own way. These trees give shelter to various tiny marine creatures and walking along the beach became much more fascinating looking at them. We were just amazed by the colours and variety of fauna on these beaches. Oh, how Sunny wishes now to go back there and click better pictures! Really, all the beaches that we visited on this trip were mind blowing and had a very exotic feel to them. And hey! Andaman Islands are a cluster of many islands and most good sized ones are inhabited and are well connected. If you find a beach you don’t like, just go for the next one, I am sure all of them are soul soothing.

Interesting designs on the dead tree trunk.

Andaman Island spoilt my love for Mumbai beaches forever. I just can’t get myself to enjoy them anymore like I used to. 😦

Luxury comforts? check.

Accomodations booked by the tour operator were very luxurious and well maintained. Almost always we had a separate cottage to ourselves right next to the beach. They booked us into the Hotel chain SeaShell on all the islands. They managed to get us rooms in Hotel Sea Princes on the night of the rescue in Port Blair (Read on, more on that later too!). Rooms during the whole trip were very comfortable and amenities were well maintained. All hotels had scrumptious buffet meals and a view to die for! We spent some free evenings in Havelock enjoying the in-house bar overlooking the blue sea and had never felt so relaxed before (even at the time when we did not know how and when we were going to reach Mumbai 😀 – long story, coming up later!) It certainly was an unforgettable setting! Chefs in all the hotels were outstanding and the spread was always very delicious.

All the hotels we stayed in had cottages rooms and were on the beach, except the ones in Port Blair.

Inter island transportation gets you cruzin’!

We travelled within the island by the minibus arranged by ‘Make my trip’. But when we had to travel between islands, we would go the pier and board the bigger boats/small ships. Some of these were run by government and some were private ones. Comfort of the seats and ticket costs depends on which one it is. Our tickets were covered in the tour cost. Walking on the pier was always very exciting as we could see all the marine creatures on the sea bed till further away from the beach. We had never seen sea water so clear until then and we would spend many minutes trying to look for something unique swimming around.

The pier at Neil island, waiting to board the boat for Havelock island. Locals are always waiting around to help dock these big boats.

Yes mummy, it is safe!

Although Andaman Islands are closer to Myanmar than to India, we never felt the distance to our country even once. The islands are populated with Tamilians, Keralites, Andhrans and Bengalis. Hindi and English were well understood. Islands are completely safe for backpackers and tourists. People are helpful and courteous. We had left our phones and valuables on the beach whenever we went into the water and no one touched them. Economy is based on tourism alone, I don’t think they want to risk it!


‘All’s well that ends well’, nowhere it is true more than our trip to Andaman islands. November is the best time to visit the islands as temprature and humidity are low all through the day, visibility is clear and crowd and costs are low. BUT, November is also the month where cyclones may hit the island and there was one, Cyclone Leher, on it’s way the day we landed.

I cannot talk about the holiday on the islands without talking about our first adventure together. It started the very second day of our trip. We (I mean the whole tour group) started late from the hotel to go to Ross island, once we reached there, we missed the ferry back to Port Blair because the kid wanted to feed chips to the deer again. We were scheduled to take ‘once a day’ ferry to Neil island from Port Blair as soon as we were back, so we missed that too. The ‘Make My Trip’ rep came up with the idea of taking us back to Port Blair in a motor boat which was great and quick thinking. From there we got into a ship leaving for Havelock later in the afternoon.

Our ride to Havelock island.

It was a government run ship and we all had our seats booked but we were too excited and decided to take a tour of the ship and the deck. Our first ship ride, it was excellent! Sunny was ever so careful of where I was putting my feet with all the machinery and pipes everywhere. Little did he knew what was ahead of us :D.By sunset we had reached Havelock Island. They rushed us onto a jetty in a mini bus. We were not sure of where we were or where we’re going. I am sure they had told us the plan but we were too overwhelmed at the time to let it sink in. For me atleast, every leg of this journey was very exciting and I was very sporty about it.

The motor boat ride to Neil island into the sunset – a trip etched into our brains. Fun times!

There was a motor boat waiting for us at the jetty partially covered and just big enough to accommodate all of us, a helmsman and a navigator. Our luggage was dumped in the bow of the boat and we zoomed into the setting sun. Now imagine this, a low motor boat with 12 seats almost all occupied, a navigator sitting on the bow of the boat with a torch and the pilot half praying that the motor doesn’t stop or the diesel doesn’t dry up, jumping on waves 3-4 feet high with force of a fierce ocean. Each time the boat crashed into the wave it would break into our face. Flipsy – doozy, that’s exactly how our tiny motor boat was cutting through the ferocious high tide of the night. Sunny as well as other newlywed husbands were completely paranoid. Wives, including me were enjoying the wild ride, the other family was seriously sea sick and puking their stomachs out. As the night grew darker the stars twinkled above. No land or light in sight for miles, the stars filled up the sky from horizon to horizon. I wished secretly that we didn’t have the canvas over our heads, I would never get a better opportunity to see this magical sight above. Looking at Sunny’s worried face I instead wished we should reach land safely. Down below the froth made by the boat was glowing because of plankton’s luminescence. It was unbelievable and magical – straight out of a fantacy movie. We had the advantage sitting on the first set of seats, we could enjoy both, the glow in the sky and the glow in the sea. The navigator would switch on the torch light occasionally to see if there are any buoys visible to guide us to land. As the time passed, all the tour members started getting anxious to see land or lights but miles and miles of darkness was broken only with rumble of the motor and roars of the waves, and somewhere in the middle the pilot asked us if we had seen a plastic water bottle anywhere rolling on the floor of the boat. After further investigation we came to know that the boat had almost run out of diesel and the bottle had some spare in it. That was the trigger, everyone started searching for it very vigorously. There were high chances that it may have fallen off the boat in one of the jumps over the waves. The lady with the baby finally found it rolling near her feet and passed it to the pilot, everyone was hopeful of living again (phew!). All the dramatic parts of the movies Jaws, Castaway, Titanic were playing in our heads. A couple of miles more, and it was no more fun and games. We were now questioning the crew if they knew where they were going. Back of my head, obviously I knew, they are locals and they can navigate to each island with their eyes closed but the stress and anxiety on the boat was building up on me too. Their mumbling reply did not help either. No lights still in sight, once when the navigator put his torch on, we were only a feet away from a cemented pillar. All of us took a sigh of relief realising that land would be near now. In another couple of minutes and turns we saw some halogen lights, we were there finally! We had reached Neil Island jetty. Closer we approached the pier we saw there were people standing on it and waving at us with torches. And when we reached even closer, we realised the pier was almost 10 feet higher than the motor boat. It was a pier for cruise ships! The ladder came down only halfway and we all had to do some gymnastics to get on it balancing ourselves on the wobbly bow. The baby had to be tossed up first and the mother pulled herself up followed by the father and the daughter. Slowly we were all up and Sunny was visibly relieved that both of us were safe and alive. We were drenched and all our suitcases were soaked. After we reached the hotel he had the most relaxed night, dried all our clothes and slept like babies. 

View from the restaurant after breakfast on the day the cyclone hit.

This incident was followed by a bigger problem two days later when we were in Havelock Island when Cyclone Leher hit the island. October to February is the season for cyclones on these islands. The choppy sea during our motorboat stint was just the beginning of an upcoming storm. We got up on the morning of 24th November covered in coconut flakes and husks, they had flown in with the strong winds and squeezed in between the log walls of our room. We were told not to go out for the morning as the government was assessing the situation and it may not be safe to move around outside, falling coconuts were the real danger. Around noon the winds stopped blowing and as the morning sightseeing had been cancelled we decided to take a walk in the island township. The walk was beautiful and the tropical plants at the roadside were very new to us. We visited the market, did some shopping and returned only to find our tour operator waiting to take us to Radhanagar Beach. It was to be our last day on the island and he was reluctant to cancel the day’s plan completely, although it had started drizzling now, we jumped into our minibus and reached the most amazing looking beach. Remember all those Hollywood movies where the random extra is just standing in a wide open clearing and sees a dark cloud moving towards him which is actually a covering of an alien mothership, or a random girl playing on a pretty beach and sees this big wave of destruction coming towards her! Well, it was almost like that when the coast guard started banging the bell as the dark cloud of the actual cyclone was heading towards the land right in front of us. Although it was still many kilometres away, the scale of it was making it look very close. We hurried to the bus and back to our hotel. That evening the government announced cancelation and blocking of all inter island transport. Flights were postponed and all tourists were asked to stay where they were till further information. A meeting of the group was called and after much negotiation the ‘Make My Trip’ rep told us that the stay for another day will be borne by the operators and they will make sure all of us reach our destination safely. We called up our parents from the reception as cell phones were not working and updated them with the proceedings. The next day, we lounged in our rooms or in the veranda in front of our rooms, ordered room service, chilled and chit chatted. It was an unusual experience for us and although it was stressful at the time, it got Sunny and me closer. We learnt to depend on and trust each other, we were glad that we were together in this. It was good. When the sky was clear again the next day, the Indian Navy ships rescued all the foreign tourists, we were taken back to Port Blair in a cruise ship.

The big Navy ships docked on Havelock to rescue the tourists

The bay was choppier than ever and ferocious waves were tossing the ship playfully making everyone a bit sick. That night we were accommodated in a hotel in the outskirts of the city. Port Blair was stuffed with tourists rescued from every island. We were very tired that night and had wobbly legs from the jumpy voyage, we found it best just to crash and snore.

The view from the window on our last voyage through the angry seas. A fleet of ships to Port Blair with rescued the tourists.

Next morning we went to the adjacent beach to have a last look at the bay, now calm and soothing like before. The welcoming cool hues and bright sunshine was the perfect goodbye! When the runway had dried up, flights started taking off and we headed home in the first available flight managed by ‘Make My Trip’, our reliable tour operator.

A bright new day! Sadly, our last day 😦

Oooh! That was a very nostalgic write up! It leads to the next question,

Is Andaman islands circling back in our bucket list?

Obviously, we would not go back to Andaman Islands with a package tour again. We are all about DIYs now. However, I do admit, we may not have been able to handle the cyclone crisis without them. We would not know what to do and where to go during such an emergency. Although our trip was a booked tour and we had a limited kind of very touristy experiences (apart from the cray time during our motor boat ride offcourse!) it was still so much fun! and fit the requirement at the time perfectly. The place gave us so many amazing memories that we can not wait to get back and enjoy other experiences that the islands have to offer.

The amazing marine creatures with amazing accommodations on dead trees on the beaches.

Our list of ‘things to do in the next trip’ is really REALLY long, here is a short version:

  1. Taking a walk in the island towns. A day before the cyclone hit, Sunny and me went for a stroll around the sleepy town as all our days sights were cancelled due to govt. advisory. It was a short walk and we bought some fridge magnets and cup noodles incase we get stranded for too many days. Maybe next time we can explore more into towns and find some hidden gems!
  2. On the day we reached Havelock, we visited PADI certified scuba diving center and made our payments there for a trip underwater the next day. They were to take us in a boat to a coral island. Train us and take us diving. Of-course, none of that happened thanks to Cyclone Leher but it has now made it into our list for the next trip. It is very important to choose a certified dive company for a safe an memorable experience like Seahawks Scuba. They have training courses and offer multitudes of other unique activities.
  3. We had skipped a paid snorkeling session at Neil Island and were supposed to go for a complimentary one in Havelock, and guess what…??
  4. A visit to Jolly Buoy Island or Mahatma Gandhi Marine national park for exotic wildlife spotting is a must in the list!
  5. There are multiple exquisite museums in Port Blair which would be fun to visit but were not in our itinerary. Its great to see these to know more about the place you visit. So, always on our list.
  6. We have decided, next time we are here, we will hire a self drive (easily available, I have heard) and go bird watching. Some islands have conservatories made especially for birds which would surely be very very exciting to visit. I am sure these tropical islands are home to many many rare and exotic birds. Chidiya tapu is also a good birding destination.
  7. We hardly got a chance to taste some local cuisines during our stay there. As Make My Trip had our meals arranged in our stay hotels everywhere. Only once when we were rushing to catch the ship to Havelock from Port Blair, we stopped at a  restaurant for some lunch. I hardly remember it, gulped it down in a hurry. 😦
  8. I have heard of very rewarding hiking trails around Mt Harriet. Definitely adding that one!
  9. Volcano watching and scuba diving around Barren island. The only active volcano in India. Can you really miss it?
This adorable lady was always by our side on the beach during our extended stay in Havelock. 🙂

We are sure to visit the islands again soon, I am sure more things have changed there than their names. 🙂 . Feel free to give us some ideas of what to do there!

Visited Andaman Islands recently? Tell us all about it! Leave a reply below.

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Kolkata : City with indefinite history, culture and traditions.

Date of the trip: 11th Jan 2020 to 13th Jan 2020

What better way to start the new decade than to get lost in the largest delta in the world? None other than the delta of Ganges of course! Here the mighty river finally merges with the Bay of Bengal. Here, Ganga Mayiya (as she is fondly called in India) turns into multiple untamable  distributaries and channels that changes the everyday life of those liing in the delta region. This area had always intrigued me, and we jumped in without second thoughts when this trip was suggested. It has always been an unusual and mysterious place to us. Although much is known, yet much is yet to be discovered. The weather was somewhere between pleasant to chilly. A light jacket and covered legs sufficed for me during the whole trip. Summers are not recommended for this trip as it can get quite hot & humid ruining the vacay mood. Monsoon, despite being extremely wet and humid, is a good time to visit Kolkata to experience a completely different side of the city but due to its close proximity with the Bay of bengal, Bengal coast experiences violent storms, hurricanes and typhoons. So Sundarbans is not really recommended in such scenarios.

The excellent sunset over river Hoogly

Our group was made up of three generations. Starting from the top, my 87 year old grandmother (whose adventurous, courageous and curious genes runs through and through in mia familia) her daughter and son inlaw, her son (my father) and daughter inlaw (my mother), my brother, me and Sunny. All who know us know, it was an unusual group. Each one of us had a different area of interest, different levels of energy and patience and different requirements. It made this trip very colourful, unique and fun. It also gave me a chance to review each part of it in different perspectives.

The story of our journey started from the land of river Hoogly (a distributary of the river Ganges), Kolkata. Capital of the state of West Bengal, one of the most historical cities of the country, and known world wide to be the epicenter of arts, culture and literature. It has been the center of food and culinary delights since forever and holds it’s pride high with uncountable stories of freedom fighters and social reformers. Also, most importantly, as the capital (and entry point for East India Company) of British India for the longest time.

This post is divided into two parts and is about a week long break from office: 

Part 1 – Is about the first half of the trip spent in Kolkata, the capital city of the state of West Bengal.

Part 2 – Is all about travelling and staying in Sundarban, the largest mangrove forest in the world.  

Both the places are worlds apart and deserve their own space. These posts are a part of a bigger segment ‘Following Ganga’. Sundarban is the last stop for Ganga where it merges into the Bay of Bengal. The only way to go from there is upstream.

Colorful Lohri decoration.

Part 01

Here it goes,

:Day 01 – 11th Jan 2020 – Saturday:

All of us arrived from all parts of the country and checked in at the ‘Red Arrow Residency’ at 4pm.

Red Arrow residency is a great & economical place to stay. Especially for a family get together or 4 couples travelling together. It is somewhere in between a hotel and an airbnb/guest house. Imagine a 4 bedroom apartment turned into a hotel. Each room is occupied by one couple and all of them share the sitting room and the dining room. Kitchen service is from another apartment and breakfast is complimentary. It is like a house out of the old Agatha Christie’s novel, with house guests and all that (minus a murder, offcourse!). The rooms are very comfortable, clean and spacious. There is no view in particular but it is decorated very tastefully. There is an outstanding chef who prepares breakfast and the staff is very helpful and ever-smilling. It is as comfortable as your home but with the luxuries of a hotel. It is centrally located and proved to be a great place to start an evening walk around the block around the most important sights of Kolkata. Our first night in Kolkata, to get into the Kalkutta groove, we decided to walk around the block to the Park Street. The street has the best night scene in Kolkata. My grandmother had stayed back in the hotel, it had already been a hectic day for her, with all the travelling, and going for long city walks was not her style anymore. We had already ordered some kathi rolls and tea in the hotel so dinner was more or less done. We walked to Park Street and went straight to Trinca’s for some drinks and fish tikkas.

This is one of the oldest hotels in the city. It has live music and a chill ambiance. The guest list has always been star studded and the stage is where the spot light was first shone on famous Usha Uthap. The food was good but personally, not my type of place. I could see people enjoying the live music, but for me it was a bit too dark and loud. Food was good and the service was up to the mark – maybe worth a visit if that’s your style! 

On the way to Park Street we had crossed the Birla planetarium, Metro office and US consulate. Multiple food stalls were getting ready for the busy Saturday night food fever. Kolkata has always been in ahead on competition with Delhi when it comes to street food. Although the steaming hot momos, samosas, bhajjas, puchkas, tea, luchis and curry were looking very tempting, our tummies were already full so we walked on passing the hustle and bustle of the pavements, wide enough to be occupied by food stalls yet comfortably walkable.

On our way back we picked up some cake from Flurry’s in Park Street as dessert to take back to the hotel. It was an old school cake and everyone except me, my brother and Sunny could relate to it. We were too used to soft, light, melting cakes with creamy icing, and this was a heavy sponge cake, not too soft and had hardened sugar icing – all of us enjoyed it anyway, it was delicious!

My first reflection of the city was that although it was a metro city, it was still at a slower pace compared to Mumbai. Bengal had always been a more intellectually advanced state and Kolkata is where it all started. It has its own organised chaos. Traffic follows independent rules which is typical of any big city in the country (still shocked me at multiple times).

Cuddly chilly nights.

Dear Patna airport,

We had the pleasure of visiting you today morning. We had to change flights on our way to Kolkata so things were quite rushed and we did not get a chance to meet you properly. The little time we got gave us a chance to witness the best circus that we have seen in a long time. You are a major port to a major city and the main inlet & outlet point for people visiting the state of Bihar, it would not hurt to expand a little, right away – if possible. Especially because you claim to be an international airport. It is 2020 afterall, more people are preferring and affording air travel to train travel and security check, however daunting, is a necessary step in maintaining inflight security.  A dingy dark corridor can no longer be used to pile people up for this process. It is suffocating and people with power are continuously jumping lines and are being ushered right in front of us common citizens of this country. The lines are serpentine and people are not aware of basic etiquette and safety rules of an airport almost always irritating people who do. At this point I would like to appreciate the CISF and other officers who are on duty and are responsible to manage this chaos. They are very patient and polite, trying their best to make travelers understand the basic requirements. In the wake of fast infrastructure development in the rest of the country, why are you left behind?? A bit of better space organisation, educating the travelers and assigning more staff to control the misbehaving, rule breaking crowds would help a lot in uplifting your morals. A more pressing matter is that of the washrooms. It needs urgent attention according to me. Rather quickly too! The number of loos is very very low, although well kept, the space is not utilized very efficiently. More staff is required guiding the more uneducated visitors. I literally saw a couple of ladies trying to use men’s washrooms due to lack of multiple women’s washrooms (or lack of understanding of sign boards!!). You need to grow up man!! with the growing number of visitors, an expansion is unavoidable. For ignorant, unruly visitors, more patient, polite staff/volunteers to help the security personnel and a better space organisation is the need of the hour. The VIP treatment culture needs to be demolished as soon as possible. It is completely old fashioned now – c’mon! Lastly, how about getting a better looking and equipped food court, a book store and a handicraft shop to flaunt the oh-so-popular and ancient cuisine, arts and crafts of the state. Hope you get more attention from people responsible and are taken care of like other ports of other state capital cities. Because you are important and deserve to be better.

 Hope, when we meet next, you are feeling better!

Lots of love,

When on a Break

:Day 02 – 12th Jan 2020 – Sunday:

Our sun rose early this day. As others decided to sleep in, me, Sunny, my parents & brother decided to go for a morning walk in the gardens of Victoria Memorial. The cold wind from the side of the river Hoogly freshened us up instantly. The tea stalls on our way had just started to put up water for boiling for their first round of sales. After a 5 min walk from where we were, we entered the back gate. Sun was still hidden behind the morning haze and a subtle golden light was hitting the angel on top of the large white dome in the center of the garden.

The awkward banana tree. 😀 . Hats off to the gardener who decided to plant this one and only banana plant right in the center of the spectacular view.

Although Taj mahal has no comparison, the first view of Victoria memorial in the morning sun was a sharp reminder of my recent visit to the king of mahals last month. Victoria memorial, constructed to commemorate the death of Queen Victoria in the colonial era is now one of the best kept museums of India and has its own unmatchable charm.

More history here.

The surreal sunrise.

Many people come to the gardens for morning walk. For the garden, the ticket costs only Rs20 per person for the whole day (single entry). The cool climate, green everywhere, away from city noise, this place is a great place to start a calm morning.

All gardens are well kept and have stone paths all around for walking/jogging. There are water ponds all around the memorial, taking a relaxed feel of the place to the next level. They act as reflecting surfaces for the grand white structure  for an irresistible photo moment. 

Birding is also great in the garden at this time. Pied mynahs zoom around you like war-aircrafts. Egrets snoozing lazily near the water areas. Green pigeons roosting quietly where the sun hits the dead tree.

Decorative detailed statues on the roof.

After a chilled morning walk we headed back to Red arrow for breakfast and freshened up..

Red Arrow has complimentary breakfast, made fresh in the kitchen next door. The chef is excellent and modifies the recipe according to the guest requirements. First stop, Victoria Memorial museum. This time the whole family was going together, so we had to take two (iconic) yellow taxis. The one with all the elders dropped them to the main entrance of the garden. Which is grander than and opposite the back entrance of the garden and is closer to the entry of the museum.

The guardian angels on the King George gate

Our trip had coincided with the birthday of Swami Vivekanand for which the Indian Prime minister Mr Narendra Modi was visiting Kolkata (Swami’s birthplace). This was also amidst a nationwide ongoing protest against the recent amendment bill about citizenship passed in the parliament a couple of days ago. This weekend was also a long one in Bengal (especially in Kolkata) due to the festival of Sakranti, celebrated very enthusiastically in this region. All this had resulted in road blocks and diversions, traffic jams and extra security all throughout our Kolkata stay. Our taxi guy dropped us at the back gate of the Victoria memorial garden. This time we had to pay Rs 30 per head to enter as we were planning to enter the garden as well as the museum. We re-entered the premises at 10AM. On Saturdays and Sundays the garden and museum are open till 8PM. Rest of the days everything shuts down by 5PM.

The white marble dome and the winged angel welcoming and announcing the arrival of King George.

During the day the garden transforms into a hangout for families and friends. It has a relaxed vibe to it. We saw couples getting their pre-wedding photos clicked there and these gardens seem to be ‘the place to be’ for such photoshoots. The exterior carvings, statues are exquisite and unique. Multiple gargoyles guard from the roof along with angels and cloaked celestial beings. The architect is said to be inspired by Taj mahal and specially ordered white marble slabs from Makrana (the origin of Taj Mahal’s marble too). The design is undoubtedly inspired by the Mughal architecture but is studded with European twists.

The lady who ruled half the earth. Queen Victoria.

We entered the memorial and were immediately struck by the massiveness of the place. The roof rose many meters up and is decorated with intricate murals, well preserved. The interiors of the building are well sectioned, displayed with different types of collections and exhibits. Everything from art, history and culture related artifacts are displayed with proper, informative signboards. The traffic inside the museum is controlled by the security and although it was a weekend morning, it did not feel stuffy. I am no art enthusiast or expert, yet the paintings displayed here attracted my special attention. The details and textures were unbelievable.

Check out the embroidery details in the painting !!

Kolkata is one of the cities which has a long and well documented history. Nowhere is it more evident than here in this museum. The history section deserves extra time as it is a vault of information. Each article and photograph excites even the ignorant. While leaving the museum one signboard lingered in my mind. This amazing building was a dream and design by British but was built by Indians using Indian money and now is dedicated to all the people who gave all to get this grand structure standing. All the atrocities of the British rule aside, we should not forget all the good they brought to the country too. This museum at multiple times reminded us of the British who left a good, positive imprint on the Indian society, culture and heritage.

The extraordinary interiors of the magnificent white dome.

 The lines at the entry were now fairly long and coming early was advantageous afterall.

There is a lot of walking on cobblestones, and there are stairs to reach the museum entrance. My grandmother walks well with just a bit of hand-holding to maintain balance. So she was okay all the way. There are benches inside the museum as well as in the garden so resting aching feet is not a problem.

The murals on the dome are excellent, it’s great to see them up close .

From here, the next stop was for our grumbling tummies – a short yellow taxi trip for lunch  @ 6Balleygunge place, Ballygunge.

Don’t let the pop-arty interior of this place fool your appetite. The food is as delicious as it gets.

Whoever tells you, you can reach the botanical garden from Balleygunge to walk out all the lovely food consumed, probably might be wrong. We tried and failed, and reached the garden as it was shutting down. It was time for quick decisions, and we turned around the same cab towards the Vidya sagar setu boating pier (Princep ghat) to catch the setting sun just in time. Taxis would normally stop at Princep ghat. The boating area is 5 min walk from there. Me, Sunny and my brother ran to the pier to get some pictures, by the time the family reached the sun was down and last dusky orange streaks were illuminating the hazy sky.

The view was still breathtaking. This bridge is a recent construction over the river Hoogly to ease the load on renowned Howrah bridge.

Vidyasagar setu over river Hoogly. Perfect setting to watch sunset.

Many boatmen were trying to usher us into their boat and charged us a whopping Rs400 per boat, 4 people on 1 boat. I have heard they normally should be taking Rs 200-300 per boat, but the sun was racing downwards and time was of the essence. I would say, sitting relaxed – away from the city rush was a good way for all of us to unwind. Having said that, I may skip this trip next time I am in the city. The boatman slowly directs the boat up to 500 mtrs till the bridge and back, lets the current of the river do much of the work. The boat is mostly just floating around with no serious intention of covering some area. The boatman is not chatty or even communicative. He just wants to finish his half hour and get to the next customer. Anyway, I think it is mainly something to do for love dripping couples who want to enjoy some quiet.  Although overpriced, for first timers like us, I think it was a great way to enjoy our first sunset on the river Hoogly taking in the view of one of the longest suspension bridges of the country. Yes, my grandmother was with me on the boat. Like I said earlier, she is fearless and (with a little support) is always up for any adventure 🙂

Even this tiny wobbly boat did not scary dadu

The pathway along the river is much like the Carter Road Promenade of Mumbai, hustle bustle of evening walkers, couples romancing  in corners and on the benches under the trees along the river. Friends clicking a million selfies at every viewpoint, hawkers trying to sell some chana jor garam and peanuts and balloons. It was Sunday, and this street was no less than a carnival. But we had alternate intentions, we had to rush to the Victoria Memorial, yet again. All the walking through the day had drained my grandmother, she opted to skip the next part and retired to her room. As unforgettable as it is during the morning sun, it is magnificent at night, when it is all lit up. Only on the weekends, the main entrance and the museum is open to the public till 8PM. If I had a chance to re-live this day, I would visit the memorial at sunrise, skip the late morning visit, and visit the museum and enjoy the exterior lights at night on a weekend.

The night lights just reinforce the grand image of Victoria memorial

A short taxi cab ride took us to Kaali ghat. Kaali ghat is said to be one of the most auspicious temples of goddess kali. A rather plain looking temple is built around the cave where the goddess statue resides. We reached this place around 9:30-10PM. I think it was the best time to visit the temple. It was empty and devoid of pushy crowd. As we walked towards the temple, many panda’s (men who claim to help fast track the visit, often charging unnecessarily) came up to us claiming the line to reach the cave to be 4hr long. Offcourse, it was not. We were in and out within 15mins. Proving our time of visit to be the most efficient one. One note: keep the pockets empty during the visit or keep only the amount you would wish to donate in the temple. All usual temple tactics would be in play here and the best way is to keep a lot of wits and no more cash than required on self. This place is very important for the believers and thus wrongly gives opportunity for ‘pandits’ to earn a bit on the side. A little donation is good as it helps in keeping up the place but be cautious of unnecessary donations. The male visitors are required to perform the prayers in this temple rather than the female visitors so don’t worry if they drag your husband/father/brother into a deep cave 🙂 Be clear about how much you are willing to donate from earlier on to attract less attention. The road leading up to the temple has a lot of shops selling souvenirs and pooja samagri, bargaining is offcourse a necessity.

We took the metro from Kali ghat metro station (5 mins walk from the temple) to park street to try our luck in getting a table at Peter cat. Metros are never a good idea for grandmothers so maybe it was a good idea that she stayed back.

The murals all around the city are very interesting to see, always worth a moment’s pause, even if there is a rush.

Peter Cat had a long waiting line (expected!) so we tried another restaurant a bit away-Oasis.

The place looked a little downtrodden, suppressed by the surrounding well to do popular restaurants, not matching up to ‘Park Street standards’ and empty on a Sunday night. Reluctantly we entered, but soon found the staff to be very friendly, polite and accommodating. Although we were not very hungry (thank you 6 Ballyganj place!) whatever we ordered was super tasty!

What’s up with the yellow ambassador taxis?

When we were in Kolkata, we used a lot of these to get from one point to another. It was surprising for us to know that even for a short 5-10 min ride we were forced to pay INR100. Our group always required 2 of these and in a day we were easily spending INR1000 only on transport – even when we were staying in a very centrally located hotel. There was an electronic meter on every dashboard but the driver would insist on fixing the price before departure rather than sticking to the meter readings saying the meter is not working..etc..etc… Almost always this price was nonnegotiable. For us, coming from Mumbai – where meter reading in the king in 99% cases, it was a tough blow. Fishy, fishy… I decided to ask my colleagues who are from Kolkata when I came back home. It is after all a large scale tourist scam. They are supposed to charge the customers according to the meter. Any defiance can be reported to the nearest traffic police guy. They personally always take the metro as it is convenient and faster – like anywhere! As observed by me, metro stations are very closely located and are easy to find. Something to remember for my next trip.

:Day 03 – 13th Jan 2020 – Monday:

Last day in Kolkata and still so many things to do… breakfast table was full of yummy food and lots of discussions about all the places that were yet to visit. Very unlike me, I had decided to be spontaneous on this trip (a surprise for my husband). It was going to be a children’s special day and the zoo is where the day would start. Followed by a visit to the planetarium before going for lunch. Also we did not waste much time booking our evening fiesta! (more details in a bit!)

Alipore zoo (Kolkata zoological park) is the oldest zoo in the whole of Asia- that right there, if that doesn’t make you go there, the list of the zoo residents will surely do.

A humble gate to a grand park

A yellow taxi ride away from where we were staying, Alipore zoo has a grand entrance with the aquarium across the road. The ticket was Rs30 per person. From aviary to the carnivores and herbivores, this zoo is a paradise for all – age no bar! The South American collection of birds here is excellent. The most attractive resident of this zoo is the giraffe. A big family of giraffes, all healthy and tall, were enjoying a lick on the tree stump when we reached their enclosure. Yes, we enjoyed seeing them, but i think for me, best was to see the joy in my grandmother’s eyes when she saw these gigantic, graceful and beautiful beings walking around and stopping close to her in the cage. For that moment, she had become a 5year old and her eyes had lit up in sparkles. All of her life she had been wishing to see these elegant giants and had expressed her wish to see a giraffe while having breakfast that morning. We spent a long time near the Giraffe enclosure.

Hero of the show! Family which licks together stays together

Although I understand that the world is split between pro-zoo and anti-zoo people. I think I lie somewhere in the middle. If the animals are kept healthy and their enclosures are according to standards with enough cover area and healthy food – I don’t think I am against it. The human world does need to see the beautiful wildlife mother nature has to offer. It increases their interest in preserving it and forces them to wonder and realize how small a part humans are in this massive world.  Everyone is not equally lucky or economically booming to travel to different countries and regions to see this wildlife in their natural habitat. They live their lives looking at magazine photos and watching TV. But the reality of the wildlife beauty strikes only when they are right in front of you and you understand how fragile they are. In fact I’m proud to say, I’m one of those who would not mind buying a ticket to see these animals just so the authorities can afford maintenance and give proper living conditions. Having said that, I would still enforce that I am totally against the usage of animals for wildlife tourism / circuses and chores.

A chilled one is all that is needed. Specially with a plate of famous ‘Chelo Kabab’. @Peter Cat.

The last sunset to our extra quick trip to this historical trip had to be historical off – course!

A sunset/evening cruise on the river Hoogly had been booked during breakfast for our evening fiesta! 

We had booked with Vivada Tours and it had costed us INR1000 per person (including evening snacks & tea & soft-drink).

The floating reception for the sunset cruise.

We reached the Millenium park pier by 3:40PM and boarded the double storied boat with a gigantic golden head and torso as the bow. The cruise boat started with long bellowing towards the famed Howrah Bridge. The staff were very pleasant, smiling and helpful. The upper deck was an open area where the cool river breeze could be enjoyed.

Cleopatra inspired bow, may make her weep in her sarcophagus! but it was hell pretty up on the deck, and very very comfortable indeed. The Howrah bridge at the back is where we go!

We were still just beginning to absorb the serene atmosphere, when the guide on board started welcoming and introducing us to the tour with the waiters walking around with snacks and welcome drinks. As the boat slowly crossed the Howrah Bridge, he started pointing out to various piers and buildings of historical and cultural importance and educating us a bit about the history of each one of them.

Crossing under an architectural marvel filled me with excitement and pride.

He soon informed us that we were now approaching the Belur Math – head temple for Ramkrishna mission  (Hindu religious and spiritual organisation) founded by Swami Vivekanand and we deboard to attend the evening aarti.

First glimpse of Belur Math.

This aarti is quite famous and attracts a lot of crowds from all over the country. Even the Honorable Prime Minister, Shri Narendra Modhi ji had attended it a day before on the occasion of Swami Vivekanand’s birthday. Government runs regular ferries from various piers along the river to this temple. It is also accessible via road and train. The cruise ship eventually docked at the Belur Math pier as the sun set over the horizon. This temple has no frills attached to it and the aarti was extremely relaxing. The architecture includes features from all types of religious structures. The resonating sound of the aarti vibrates the core of each being sitting in the temple. At some point, I unknowingly drifted into meditation. The calming sound of the prayers makes it impossible to think of anything else. It was certainly a very pleasant experience, and something I would never forget. By the end of it, I was glad that we had included it in today’s plan and highly recommend visiting the temple for evening aarti.

Every one prepares for the aarti. People from all over the country come to attend this meditative humming and symphonies.

From here the cruise turns back towards the Millennium pier and the party starts. It takes a while to get out of the lingering effect of the temple and start enjoying the city lights all along the river. Soon we approached the Howrah Bridge, now all lit up. No photograph can justify how beautiful the moving lights looked. It was the best ending to the best evening spent and no other words could explain the evening better.

Ramakrishna memorial across the river from the river from Belur Math.

The food was awesome. It was a buffet of various snacks and dessert. Even after the cruise got over and we were back on land, I wanted to be around and enjoy this evening even more. Maybe take a taxi closer to the colorful Howrah Bridge and click a couple of more pictures. But I guess, it is always better to end a holiday when the list of things ‘to do’ is still pending – just to make sure that I come back for more.

The multitude of colours changing formation and designs s kept us glued to the bridge on our trip back.

The evenings on the river do get a little chilly so jacket is a good idea. A thick wind blocker for my grandmother would have been a good idea too. Nonetheless, it was enjoyed by her to the fullest. The washrooms were on the lower deck of the cruise, and were good. Belur Math also had good washrooms. Our tummies were full of the snacks as we returned to our hotel, so dinner was eagerly skipped.

No amount of photos can justify the feeling of this night.

The next day was going to be a change in the venue, far from the bustling city and in the lap of nature. Sundarban was calling and we had to sleep comfortably before we were ready to say ‘hello!’.

Mural at Belur Math pier

This trip to Kolkata was extremely short, a trailer of sorts.

Are you from Kolkata? Please suggest more places to visit and things to do in Kolkata, I will surely add them in my next trip. Leave a reply below!

Part2 of this trip nestled in the largest mangroves on the face of this earth is coming soon.

Agra : Wah ‘TAJ’!

Date of the trip: 1st Dec 2019

Read this post to see how you can plan an exciting long weekend loop road-trip from Delhi to Bharatpur to Agra with a half day trip to Fatehpur sikri.

Since the earliest time of my life, I remember Agra to be a family favorite city, as it is for most around the world. My relatives have been staying there for generations and my parents and grandparents have innumerable stories to tell originating from the oldest part of the city. I have a photo in front of the Taj Mahal at every stage of my life and yet now when I visit it, it’s still new to me and full of surprises.

As soon you enter the Taj premises, first encounter with the attention to detail. Semi precious stone engraved into marble stone . The Persian designs are mostly intricate and floral .

And this is how you can reach it:

By train: Trains come to Agra station from all major cities in India. The city has three railway stations Agra Cantt, Agra fort, Agra City and caters to different regions.

By flight: Although Agra has an airport, no flights land there as it’s mainly an air-force station. Making New Delhi the nearest airport. There are many options on Delhi airport to hire a taxi. Some hotels in Agra send taxis to the airport to pick up their guests.  Lucknow is also an option as the nearest airport.

By road: Driving to Agra from Delhi or Lucknow or hiring a taxi is the easiest way of transport (although might not the cheapest) and gives you the flexibility of visiting multiple places without wasting too much time. There are intercity bus services too which are frequently available. There are a couple of websites for self drive car rentals too. For our trip, we took my father’s Honda city and drove from Bharatpur to Agra via Taj expressway.

Even the floor is designed beautifully. This is the original flooring. No reconstruction was required on this.

Best places to visit in Agra:

Taj Mahal: Wonder of the world, symbol of love and pride of India. The white magnificent marble mausoleum on the banks of Yamuna needs no introduction and is always on top of every traveler’s list, domestic or foreign. 

Agra Fort: Accomodation, capital seat and control center of the Mughal kingdom. It was the heart of one of the largest occupations in Indian history.

These being the icons of Agra, the city has been the hub of history specially for the mughal era. It is dotted with tombs and mausoleums of all popular emperors and their families. It is easily comparable to Rome when it comes to the number of sites to see. Each site can serve as subject of history & art. A week can easily be spent here contrary to the popular plans of a day or two. Agra is not only about Taj mahal, this city has a lot to offer to a traveler who is ready to stop, see and admire. 

Unfortunately, our trip was just a long weekend getaway from Mumbai this time and we could only spare a morning here. And as Sunny had never visited the Taj, and it was on top of his list we used the time wandering in and around Taj Mahal only. In this blog I will be covering only Taj Mahal and hope I get to wander the rest of the city with Sunny again soon.

Geometrical designs and symmetry is the basic of all Persian design. A bliss for people like me who love everything in systematic order and symmetry.

Weather reports:

I would suggest to avoid this site in summers as Agra tends to heat up and the only shade around is under the trees of the Paradise garden. This by far is the least crowded time of the year.

Rest of the year should be good to visit. Monsoon & winters give a very magical feel to the whole area and can be great for photography. Clouds or fog covers it as it is very close to the river. Winters have highest number of visitors. In early December, the skies were clear and the crowd was not unbearable. I could roam without any jacket but if you are sensitive to the temperature, a light jacket would suffice. Months beyond that can be really cold as the city experiences almost freezing temperatures during winters.

The feeling is surreal.

::Taj Mahal::

For years India has been symbolized by the Taj Mahal in the world’s books, maps and media. Nothing reminds the world of India like the Taj Mahal (others being bollywood thumkas, chai, crowd, colours & butter chicken – off-course!!!) As you enter the gates and approach the majestic white structure, all words ever used to describe it sound insignificant and meaningless because you feel overwhelmed and tongue tied. All blogs online, all stories from books, relatives and friends can not make you prepared for the tingling you feel looking and touching the marble designs and coloured stone engravings on the Taj. A little spurt of jealousy is justified when you remind yourself that it’s the greatest (and the most expensive for sure!) symbol of love in the whole world. Mughal emperor Shah Jahan deeply saddened on death of his wife Mumtaz Mahal (that’s where the name comes from Mumtaz Mahal) ordered all the best he could find to build this magnificent mausoleum for her. White marble was transported from miles away area of Makrana the laborers and artisans from all over the Persian kingdom were bought in. The location on the banks of Yamuna in the then capital of Mughal kingdom, Agra was finalized and a floating wood foundation was designed specially for tackling the annual flooding of the wild river. The gardens around Taj with the fountains known as the ‘Paradise gardens’ were designed to portray the interpretation of heavens. The science of construction was never seen before and the detailing of each motif was crafted with lot of thought and patience. It was continuously supervised by the emperor himself. By the time of completion (20 something years), the emperor had become obsessed with the mahal and ordered a replica built for himself right across the river in black marble. Bless the stars of the workers on the construction site that Shaha Jahans sixth son, Aurangeb took over the throne and jailed his father at the time culling his plans. Though it would have been a world class site, both mahals facing each other, and Yamuna flowing in the middle reflecting both grand structures, Taj’s uniqueness and lone gigantic structure gives it the class above all wonders of the world.

More history and details here and even more here.

It’s hard not to click a romantic picture with your special someone here. The beauty of this monument demands it!

Essential information:

Open time: Sunrise to Sunset (Closed on Fridays)

Without a doubt the best time to visit is during the sunrise. Taj faces the sun when it rises and the marble changes hue with every degree of rising sun. It’s fascinating to sit and watch the colours change during the day. We reached around 8am and it was not that bad. Lines were still short and took us hardly a minute or two to go through security check.

This website also has all the finer details about the rules and regulations, and a downloadable pamphlet.

The scale of the archways is unimaginable, specially if you imagine how the architects could take up such a challenge when there were no skyscrapers around.

Tickets can be bought from here beforehand.

Ticket cost for an Indian: Rs50

Ticket cost for a Foreigner: Rs1100

These costs are for the gardens. To enter the mausoleum there is a ticket counter in upper courtyard of the mahal. Ticket cost is Rs200 for all domestic as well as international tourists. Shoes are not allowed beyond this point. There is an option of removing shoes and stack them in any corner, free of cost or buy a shoe cover on spot for Rs10, cover your shoes and walk on. Although there is govt run shoe cover stall near the mausoleum entrance, as soon as you enter the Taj premises small kids and hawkers would try to sell shoe covers for all sorts of prices. Bargain and agree only for Rs10, that is the government authorized cost. After the mausoleum exit there is a bin where people throw the covers. I decided to keep mine. They are of good quality and are reusable while packing shoes in a suitcase. I had paid for them after all.

Even though tickets are booked online, it is mandatory to carry an ID to enter. Passport or a domestic identification card will do.

The construction has a lot of scientific importance and a lot of thought has gone into designing the monument. Many designs like the zig-zag one above create optical illusions which the tour guide will surely show you. The Arabic calligraphy are the verses from the Islamic holy book, Quran.

Security check: As Taj mahal is the most sought after tourist destination domestic as well as international, it’s a high security zone. That does not mean you will see army patrolling the area etc..etc… but yes there are security officers always patrolling the gardens in civil attires checking on unruly visitors, checking corners and empty alleys. Before entering the premises there is a queue for security check much like the airport. Being patient and keeping your wits about will just help make the process smooth. The filtering here is much like the airport except a few more things are prohibited. So no sharp objects no weapons, no tripods, no food (no picnics please!) only water, no cigarettes and lighters, no electronics except phone and camera, no big carry on bags or backpacks. 

About the guides: We employed a guide just before we entered the security area. He had an ID card with a blue strap around his neck and was well informed about the site. He charged Rs300 for us (group of 5). We had to pay for his ticket too, so maybe he was not a govt. approved  guide but we didn’t mind him as he was good and took us around in a methodical manner and answered all our questions. When we travel we don’t mind employing local guides, it’s our bit of contribution in helping the economy of the place. Yes, google is great. Yes, pamphlets and guide books have all there is to know about the place but our reason to visit a site is not to attend a history class or publishing papers on architecture, it’s much more than that. It’s about the little stories, it’s about the folklore, beliefs and secrets of the place which only a local would know. That is why if I can afford it, I always go for a local guide. My father always employs a photographer too to get good family pictures clicked. Although it might look cheeky, I think it’s a great way to help the hard working locals and in return you get funny family pictures printed. Often they become the best souvenirs of the visit. In this age of digital photography, photos normally end up in a hard-disk ignored and forgotten. At least in this way they get forcefully printed and always remain in front of you reminding of the good times. Be patient and polite but firm, and hire one. Set your terms straight beforehand and enjoy the visit. You won’t regret it. 

The route taken by us during our trip

Walking in the park:

As you approach the premises of Taj Mahal, you would need to choose which entrance to pick for entering. Many rickshaw drivers and forcefull guides would pester to lure you to various gates.  There are in total 3 entrances. South was closed when we visited. Eastern gate is suggested to be the least crowded (who knows! ‘Crowded’ is a very subjective term) and is open throughout the day. But we took the western gate. It is open only in the mornings until 9am. This is the gate morning walkers take for their morning walks in the Mumtaz park. Picnicking here in these gardens are allowed. As you walk further on the pathway following the signboards, you will reach the security area where one can enter only with the ticket. There is no official parking area outside the western gate. We just went ahead and paid a guy Rs 80 and parked off the road near a public washroom where other cars were parked. I think eastern gate has parking.

The main gateway to the the Paradise gardens leading to the Taj Mahal (the grand white dome peeping from behind the tree)

After crossing security, we entered the red sandstone gate, which marks the entry to the Taj premises.  Walking from here to the courtyard, we crossed the cabins assigned to the laborers who worked on the monument. Our guide, who was leading the way enlightened us with many informative stories about the laborers and their living lifestyle. The courtyard is where all the gates, southern, eastern and western meet. Eastern gate is from where normally the mughal king Shah Jahan would enter so he could see the beautiful monument straight ahead. From western gate we turned left to face the magnificent red entryway. It made us just stand in awe, the marble work on it with intricate arabic calligraphy almost made us forget that this was just the entryway to the real site we had come to visit. Looking through the gate at the white dreamy structure it looked so far and perfectly framed into the archway. Reminded me of the photo framed at my parents house taken by my father many many years ago. It is the most popular spot to click a photograph.

All the crowd in the world can not spoil this photograph. It’s the first view of the Mahal , everyone has the right to stop and take in its grandness and experience the tingle.

As we walked in, the perspective changed and the gigantic marble structure looked magnificent reflecting perfectly into the fountain stream dividing the structure in half. The persian gardens are the best examples of symmetry.  As we walked through the gardens following our guide, listening to his bits of information, every angle of this royal structure was beckoning us to click its picture like a self centered celebrity. No number of photographs were enough. No amount of photographs could justify it’s grandness.

The perfect symmetry of this place is astonishing.

The Interior of the mausoleum was a stark reminder that this magnificent white structure is actually made in remembrance of a loved wife. Seeing the graves of ShahJahan and Mumtaz Mahal side by side of each other enforced the feeling of undying love. Photography was not allowed in here but the beautiful intricate arabic calligraphy all around hardly needs to be photographed – it gets imprinted in the memory itself. The crowds of tourists, who were so agreeably spaced-out in the gardens, were now bottle-necked into a shuffle through the central mausoleum. The caretakers were asking everyone to move a bit faster to avoid suffocation and clogging.

Just cant get over these geometrical designs. 🙂

Outside on the platform Yamuna was the center of our attention. The availability of water source as well as food waste from city, multiple bird spotting can be done here. Egyptian vultures, hornbills, wagtails etc.. were flying around everywhere. Unfortunately Sunny had not carried his zoom lens.

Special note about washrooms: there are clean bathrooms next to the main entry gate to the gardens. Can be visited while coming in as well as exiting.

The last views before exit. No number of photos are enough!!!

Accommodation:

Accommodation in Agra is not a problem at all. It’s a large metro city with lots of tourist attractions as well as industries and offices. The hotels around Taj mahal can be a bit pricey but a room with a view of the Taj is I think worth every penny. We ourselves had stayed in Bharatpur as visit to Agra for us was en route to Delhi from Bharatpur.

The paradise garden leading back to the gate after a memorable trip to Taj

Food and shopping in and around:

There are multiple restaurants all around this area, all serving good food. Traditional as well as international cuisines. This is a city with historical cuisines. We asked our guide for the best breakfast and he recommended Shriji. One more benefit of hiring a guide I must say. It was the best breakfast I had in a long time and cheaper than I could have imagined. Don’t feel off by the dodgy look of the place. The food is excellent and the menu is traditional. 

For shopping, our guide took us to a souvenir store just next to the security check area. This is where the shop keeper showed us how the artesians at the construction site engraved precious stones into the the marble. There was no one pushing us to buy anything. However we did pickup some small knick-knacks to get back home. On top of our list to buy from here was petha, a sweet specialty of the city made from pulp of the petha fruit and sugar syrup, best had chilled. There was a Panchi petha store (most famous producers of this sweet)  just outside this souvenir shop and picked up a couple of sealed boxes. 

Time for some yummy traditional breakfast @Shreeji mishthan bhandar a 15min walk or a 5min rickshaw ride away from the west gate. Some Bedhai & aalloo sabzi, Jalebi, Lassi will surely make anyone salivate. The shop cooks work like clockwork and fresh meal is served . Sitting is very very limited so you will most likely will have to stand and eat. Long lines are a proof of it’s authenticity and a locally loved spot.

Money matters: Cash is welcome everywhere. Bigger souvenir shops won’t mind card payments. Confirm if their card machines are working before the purchase.

Alternate suggestions:

If time allows try visiting Agra fort after this tour. That is where Shah Jahan was jailed by his son. On his request, he was put in a cell from where Taj mahal was visible so he could look at his wife and and beautiful mausoleum all the time from his window. 

Also try to visit the site where black Taj Mahal was planned to be built across the river Yamuna opposite the white Taj Mahal. It has now been made into Mehtab park and gives stunning views of Taj mahal from a different vantage point with Yamuna in front of it reflecting it perfectly.

Busy streets outside the western gate.

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Fatehpur Sikri : One with the grand entrances

Date of the trip: 30th Nov 2019

Read this post to see how you can plan an exciting long weekend loop road-trip from Delhi to Bharatpur to Agra with a half day trip to Fatehpur sikri.

The great king Akhbar had sought the blessing of the Saint Sheikh Salim of Sikri while wishing for a son. To honour the birth of his son Jahangir, he made the mausoleum for the saint. It’s often recognised by the all time famous Buland darwaza, the gateway to Jama masjid, situated in the same compound as the mausoleum. Akhbar later constructed the red stone walled city and family palace and courtrooms next to it and called it Fatehpur sikri.

Fatehpur Sikri was one of the first planned city of the Mughals. Akbar chose to construct this capital on the natural features of the terrain of this area. Terraces on receding level were used for three main complexes:

The ‘Mosque complex’ at the highest level comprising of :

  • Jami Masjid,
  • Tomb of Sheikh Salim Chisti
  • Buland Darwajah.

The ‘Royal complex’ on the lower level comprising of:

  • Raniwas (each small palace is dedicated to each of Akbar’s wives and is unique to itself and respectful of their respective religion)
  • Mahal-i-ilahi
  • Shahi Bazaar
  • Meena Bazaar
  • Baithak and the gardens.

The ‘Public complex’ at the lowest level comprised of:

  • Panch Mahal
  • Khawabghah
  • Shahi kutub khana
  • Ibaadat khana
  • Deewaan-i-aam

Once inside the palace premises, just let your imagination travel centuries ago with guides narration in the backdrop (or the write-up on the information board).

The center island in Anup Talao where the famous royal musician Tansen used to perform and Emperor Akbar used to sit at the top floor of Khwabgah just in front of it.

Akhbar is famous in Indian history as a tolerant and wise king (with a lot off help from his navratnas off course!). One of his many revolutions was ‘Din – i -illahi’. He was a strong believer of giving equal status to all religions that he saw in India which was as religiously diverse then as it is now (even though he himself was an Islamic invader on a Hindu dominated land). He even suggested an ideology which was a blend of all major religions of his kingdom (Din – I – illahi) which was unfortunately turned down. This ideology is very beautifully depicted in his Deewan – e- khas (the meeting room of the highest officials of his courtroom). This was the most memorable part of the palace for me.

For more history lessons check this out.

Deewan – e – khas where the central pillar is carved intricately according to the ideology of din – i -illahi. It has symbols from all major religions of the time and the sitting area of officials for discussions on confidential matters of the state.

Out of the palace premises from the other end, across the road is the mausoleum of Salim Chisti, currently run by saints family. They run charity and schools with the money they collect from tourism. Shoes have to be kept out next to the stairs and a fee of Rs10 per pair has to be paid on return. Beyond the massive beautiful gate is the courtyard with the red stone Jama masjid and white marble mausoleum of the Saint with family graves to one side. Akhbar had come to the Saint to wish for a child and apparently Jahangir was born soon. since then there is a lot of faith attached to this mausoleum and is regarded as one one of the most sacred alongside the mausoleum of Ajmer, Rajasthan. All who come here have sensitive wishes and prayers in their hearts (most popularly related to child birth and fertility) which they can meditate on while tying the red blessed thread inside the mausoleum wall and while donating a chaddar (decorative cloth) over his grave (readily sold around the family graves with costs starting from rs2000 to rs8000 and is sold per couple). I am not a believer and find it very hard to be convinced of the stories and superstitions of this place. But I do believe in what my mother says, ‘never mess with people’s faith and hopes, that might be the only thing they are living on’ – so, I step back.

A delicate beautiful structure made with white marble, Salim Chishti’s mesoleum and a red bold gate of Jama masjid beyond it.

Last stop, or the exit point is the great and mighty Buland darwaza (Doorway of victory). It boasts to be the highest gateway in the whole world and is an excellent example of mughal architecture. It is decorated with the inscriptions of the conquest of Akhbar in in Gujrat and his victory stories as well as sayings from different religious books like quran and bible. The artwork along the archway is extraordinary and the scale of the gate is unimaginable especially if you think of the effort made by the architects, artists and labors of mughal era.

A gate so mighty, it takes a LOT of effort to get it into one frame. Under the scaffolding yet as ‘buland’ as it can be, the famous, Buland darwazza

And this is how you can reach it:

By train: This city is well connected by train with train station just a kilometer away from the old city entrance

By flight: Although Agra has an airport, no flights land there as it’s mainly an air-force station. Making New Delhi the nearest airport.There are many options on Delhi airport to hire a taxi. Some hotels in Agra & Bharatpur send taxis to the airport to pick up their guests.

By road: There are many state buses which run from neighboring cities like Agra and Bharatpur. A half an hour road drive from Bharatpur or a 45 mins drive from Agra would get you to the ancient capital of the mughal empire on the border of the state of Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh, Fatehpur sikri. 

From the road towards the walled city, the silhouette of the fortified ghost city looks very impressive. When coming, the most likely entrance to Fatehpur Sikri is through Agra Gate (although there is a lesser-used rear gate). Vehicles are required to park in the designated car park near the entrance.

Winter haze covering the ‘chatriz’ of Buland darwazza as seen from the royal complex of Fatehpur Sikri

Weather reports:

I would suggest to avoid this site in summers as the red stone tends to heat up and the only shade around is in the palace structures. 

Rest of the year should be good to visit. Monsoon tends to be low in crowd index.

The domes at the corners of the palace walls. One of the best looking features of Persian/Mughal architecture.

Essential information:

Open time: 6AM to 6PM

The mosque complex is closed during prayer times everyday and full day on Fridays.

Ticket cost for Indians: Rs45

Ticket cost for a Foreigner: Rs550

There is no camera fee. Videography is chargable. Fatehpur Sikri is made up of two different parts — the mosque and palace complex — surrounded by a fortification wall. Visitors require a ticket for the palace complex but not the mosque. Tickets can be purchased at the entry to the palace complex or online here.

What to wear: While seeing the royal complex anything is fine. The usual what you would wear for the weather. But for the mosque complex its mandatory to cover your head, shoulders and knees. Specially if your planning to enter the mausoleum.

Corner minarets of the mosque complex.

Guides fees: Guides chase all visitors as soon as they get off at the parking lot showing their IDs and suggesting deals. They tell tales and and try to convince the visitors to hire them and should be taken in good humour to avoid aggressive encounters. The economy of the city is mainly based on tourism and that should be kept in mind while negotiating the rates. Hiring them is a two face situation. On one side we are giving employment to a local but on the other hand we are encouraging the over pushy behaviour of these men. We took the whole package from the guide near parking lot for which we paid Rs650 for the group of 5 through Fatehpur palace complex as well as the mausoleum. We took a guide from near the parking lot but the official ones are actually near the ticket counter. Lesson learnt much much later, always go for the official ones they are educated professionally about the site and are not money oriented. (If you have hired one in your recent visits let me know the fees they charge in the comments below!) They have good information and I would highly recommend hiring one at least for the first trip.

A corridor going towards Jama masjid

Transport inside the monument premises:

I barely remember this palace from school days but was still overwhelmed by all the developments since then. I remembered that we could take our van till the entrance of the palace premises which is on top of a hill. But now visitors need to park their vehicles at a designated tourist vehicle parking and hop on Agra tourism bus from ‘Gulistan tourist complex’ next to the parking lot rather than hiking till up. Inclination is not very steep and an average person can hike up easily, bus is just a time saver and is easy to get one for Rs10 per head per trip. Find the site map here.

Agra tourism buses which ferry the visitors up and down from the car park.

Food/ Shopping/ Accommodation around the park:

The area where tourism bus parks near the car parking lot is called ‘Gullistan tourist complex’, visitors can stop at ‘Cafe coffee day outlets’ for some coffee and snacks. Washrooms are also available here.

The complex has souvenir shops which display a remarkable collection of stonework and showpieces. Bargaining and haggling is part of business so don’t shy away. Some shopkeeper may follow you around like the one who followed us. Keep calm and be firm with the refusals if you are not interested. Or easier is to pay a visit to his store, and don’t pickup anything!

Most people who visit including us stay in Bharatpur or Agra. There are very few places to stay here and there is no valuable review of any place. Gulistan tourist complex has a hotel of its own.

Money matters : All payments in the monument and tourist complex are primarily cash only. I saw a couple of digital payment stickers in some shops – worth trying Google Pay. Card payments are discouraged except in ‘Cafe Coffee Day’ which were happy to take card payments.

Grand entrance to the Mosque complex.

Is Fatehpur Sikri worth it?

It’s absolutely worth the detour, if you are around Agra or Bharatpur. Or travelling between Rajasthan and Uttar pradesh. Infact there is no point in missing this excellent piece of art if you are visiting Agra (it’s less than an hour away really!). Many would call it the next best thing after you visit the Taj Mahal. There are just a couple of things to keep in mind. There will be guides waiting for your car to enter Agra gate, and start chasing you to hire them. It’s part of their job and they will do everything to convince you. Keep stern on your amount and terms without being aggressive. The situation can turn ugly if its not handled calmly. They are the main reason that tourism in this city has gone down. Best would be if you hire an officially trained guide from the ticket office. We had hired one from the parking lot and I felt he was not really interested in showing us around the palace much but rather was keen to rush us to the mosque part where his counterpart would try and convince us to pay up for various blessings and donations. He skipped most of the part in the palace complex and took a straight route towards the mosque complex. The pushy (and may be fake) guides are most active around  the mosque complex in particular, it is overrun with hawkers, beggars, pickpockets, and touts as it is free to enter. It’s a bit unfortunate that this part of Fatehpur Sikri is not well kept at all. The upkeep and state of the mosque courtyard as well as the stairs outside of Buland darwaza was disappointing and left me a bit bittersweet. It is an absolutely fascinating place to be, but it would be a better visit if only it was better maintained.Also, another reason for the downfall in tourist numbers. Another idea would be to visit early in the morning. Like around 7am on weekdays. The lighting for photos would be great, crowd would be sparse, guides would not be too pushy, it maybe cleaner making it a more pleasant visit. Just something I thought about for my next visit! This time we reached quite late and had no time for leisure walks and observations (that also might be the reason for the guide to skip half of the royal complex).

The grand palaces of Fatehpur on the other hand were well kept and restored well. It will always be in my list of places to come back to and enjoy the detailed art and carvings. To spend more time in it and with a better guide. I loved the feeling of imagining myself to be a part of grandmothers bedtime story about kings and queens. The feeling I have got only in Amer Palace (Jaipur) before!

Ruins of once flourishing city of Fatehpur Sikri. Can you spot a peeping blue king of the ruins in the picture?

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