Taj Bekal, Kerala

If you want to cut off from the world and just enjoy a weekend of luxury and pampering, then this is the place for you. Taj Resorts & Spa, Bekal.

Bekal is a 2hr drive from Mangalore. It has a beach and the backwaters making it an idyllic spot to relax. The sea is rough and not the most suitable for swimming. However the sunsets make up for that.

We were given a traditional welcome on arrival with cold towels and a drink. The hotel accommodated our early check-in request and we were personally escorted to room 819. This was the superior room with a lovely balcony.

The steward explained everything about the hotel and guided us on the activities and services. I was pleasantly surprised by the size of the room. The interiors are done tastefully and have a lot of traditional yet contemporary touches giving it a lot of personality

The bathroom was even better! It had a large bathtub, with two showers, two sinks and the WC. The balcony had a swing cum bed, overlooking the backwaters.

There is plenty to do here for two nights. There is a swimming pool, and kayaking, yoga, spa, indoor games, gym, paint ball, bar, restaurants, library. Enough for two nights.

The spa has services ranging from INR 2500 to INR 12000.

The average cost per meal is roughly INR 2000 for two.

The best thing about this property is the staff. Just like any Taj, this one also has an eye for detail and every person we met was a manifestation of that philosophy. They were helpful, courteous and always preemptive of our needs. It really made us feel special, despite the resort being fully booked. The staff never ignored a single guest.

The breakfast was to die for! Probably the best spread I have ever seen in a long time and I travel a lot! Once again the staff was on their toes and managed the crowd beautifully.

It’s the little things that make Taj, the Taj.

1. When you remove the room key, the plug points stay on, so that your phone can continue charging!

2. If you have an issue, it is addressed almost immediately with no reminders needed.

3. The check-in happenes in the room and not at the reception unlike other hotels.

4. You might see chefs playing with kids and interacting like friends with guests. Very special!

My verdict: Taj Bekal is special in every way. It will make you miss it!

My rating: 5/5

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Bandhavgarh, Madhya Pradesh, India

I am a wildlife enthusiast, but Bandhavgarh always eluded me. Simply because of the poor connectivity from Bangalore. One needs at least 5 days off to plan a trip there. And the fact that it touches 45 degrees in summer just added to the inertia. But that finally ended in April 2017. I decided to book the flight to Jabalpur, via Hyderabad and then drive 3.5 hrs to the famous Tiger reserve in the scorching heat. Jabalpur is the closest airport and Katni the nearest station. The entire trip was organized by http://www.learn.sudhirshivaram.com and I must say it was a fabulous experience!

(Cover photo by Sharmila Sur)

The Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve is spread over 1161.471 sq. km. area with following details:

Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve Constitutes
Area
(In Sq. Kms.)
Bandhavgarh National Park
448.842
Panpatha Wildlife Sanctuary
245.842
Buffer Zone Area
466.787

An area of about 207 sq. km. has been declared as tourism zone within the Park*. This area has further been divided in three tourism zones. Each area has its own flora & fauna diversification. Below given table provides names of Safari zones in Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve where one can do wildlife safari with description of maximum limit of safari jeeps allowed each time.

Safari Zones
Safari Vehicle Limit
Morning – Evening
Tala (Gate-1, Premium Zone)
20 – 20
Magadhi (Gate-2, Non-premium Zone)
20 – 20
Khitauli (Gate-3, Non-premium Zone)
16 – 15

*Source- (http://www.bandhavgarh.co.uk/bandhavgarh-park-safari.html)

Bandhavgarh is one of the best known safari parks in India for tiger sightings. The tourism here is very mature, so one has a wide variety of choices for accommodation unlike some of the other parks in the country. We were booked in Kings Lodge which is very close to the forest entry gates. As you know, in India, one has to get to the entry gates early to improve one’s chances of spotting a tiger and also to reduce the chance of getting dust in your face throughout the safari ūüôā Therefore, having a hotel close to the gates really helps. The website of the resort is¬†http://www.kingslodge.in

There are 3 forest gates -Tala, Khitauli and Magadhi. Among these three safari zones, Tala Zone is oldest and most popular. Its name “Tala” is derived from the local Tala village at which the entrance gate is located. Before year 2010, it was the only safari zone in which jungle safaris were done. Other two zones were closed for tourists.

Tala is the prettiest zone, with its bright green Saal trees, many natural watering holes, the Bandhavgarh fort, and the “table mountain look alike” hill right in the middle of the zone. It is also a premium zone, and costs more than the other 2. Tigers are thriving in this zone with more than 3 mothers with cubs. Summer is the best time to spot them.

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(Tala Zone. Photo by- Sudhir Shivaram)

We had 6 safaris in all, which were divided equally between Tala and Magadhi. Morning safaris started at 5:45am till 10:45am. Evening safaris were from 4pm to 7pm. Bandhavgarh was just brimming with cubs when we were there. Both the zones showed us the most amazing sightings! We saw 8 different tigers in all, including 4 cubs.

Magadhi had three 4-month old cubs who gave us a real show! It was an experience of a life time. Never before had I witnessed a male tiger attend to the cubs. This zone is full of bamboo shoots and is not as green as Tala. There are fewer watering holes in Magadhi, which actually increases your chances of spotting a tiger!

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(4-month old cubs stalking a jungle fowl. Photo by-Anirban Roychowdhury)

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(Dad and daughter. Photo by-Sudhir Shivaram)

Kings Lodge was just the perfect accommodation for us. Splurging on a 5-star such as the TAJ would be a sheer waste according to me, because nearly 8 hours  a day are spent in the park. However, Kings Lodge was a luxury resort with the right balance of hospitality and affordability. The cottages here were spacious and well done. And the service was really good. We were greeted with cold towels and chilled lime juice after every safari.

The cuisine was mostly north Indian, but one could place special requests and they oblige. The resort also has a small pool and spa. The massage service was quite good and authentic. Kings Lodge has some of the best safari drivers, which is a priceless asset in the forest. You cannot control the guide you get, but the drivers can be hand picked. We were very happy with their skill, manners and punctuality.

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All in all, Bandhavgarh was delightful. It exceeding all expectations of tiger sightings. After Tadoba, this is the only park where I had a 100% hit rate.

My verdict: I would highly recommend Kings Lodge, Bandhavgarh. It has a good mix of luxury and hospitality without taking away the forest experience. One can hear animal calls in the night, making it a very exciting choice of accommodation.

My rating: 4.5/5 Very little to complain about.

Travel Tip: Try to book the rooms closer to the dining area especially if you want to avoid the long walk to and from your room in the summer. Rooms 1-6 are close by.

See more of my travel pics on Instagram @thefanatictraveller.

Photo credits:

Sudhir Shivaram Photography- https://www.facebook.com/SudhirShivaramPhotography/

Anirban Roychowdhury- https://www.facebook.com/anirban.roychowdhury.1610

Sharmilas Photography- https://www.facebook.com/sharmilas.photography/

My Top 10 hotel rooms in India…

Out of all the hotels and resorts that I have stayed at, IN INDIA, here are the rooms that¬†I consider my TOP 10! I have based this ranking on the view from the room, the design, size & decor, and of course the hotel/homestay/resort overall! The service and staff were also considered. Mind you, I am not all about 5 star hotels, so this list has a huge variety! The TOP 10 come in all shapes and sizes. And I am also not a foodie so do not see this list as a reflection of the quality of food at the hotel/resort.Finally, some of these resorts were visited by me a few years ago, so forgive me if the service or room quality has dipped since then ūüôā

You can read my detailed review of most of these rooms in my previous blog posts.

So here goes…

#10

GRT Skyroca Panaromic Room, Yercaud, Tamil Nadu(2013)

https://www.grthotels.com/yercaud

This room has a very trippy glass floor. Even the bathroom has it!

#9

Fort Jadhavgarh , Pune (2012)

http://www.fortjadhavgadh.com/maharashtra/pune/index.htm

A beautiful fort converted into a hotel. The pool was just stunning!

#8

Ragamaya Hotel, Idduki, Kerala  (2015)

http://www.ragamayamunnar.com/

An unexpected surprise this! Tucked away in the middle of nowhere.

#7 

Royal Orchid Brindavan Garden, King Suite, Mysore (2015)

http://www.royalorchidhotels.com/royal-orchid-brindavan-garden-mysore/overview

A heritage property overlooking the Brindavan Garden.

#6

Jungle Retreat, Masingudi, Karnataka (2012. 2014)

http://www.jungleretreat.com/index.html

One of my favourite places to go to, again and again!

#5 

Thippanahalli Homestay, Chikmagalur (2010)

http://www.thippanahallihomestay.com/

A quaint homestay overlooking the mullayanagiri hills.

#4 

Taj Baghvan, Pench, MP (2012)

http://www.tajhotels.com/Luxury/Taj-Safaris/Baghvan-Pench-National-Park/Overview.html

The best safari resort that I have ever stayed at.

#3

Aashyana Lakhanpal Casinhas, Candolim, Goa (2013, 2016)

http://www.aashyanalakhanpal.com/home

Tucked away in a peaceful corner of Candolim, this property is a must see.

#2 

Waterwoods  Resort Room 11, Kabini, Karnataka (2016)

http://waterwoods.in

One of the coolest rooms you can stay at.

#1 

Ri Kynjai, Barapani, Meghalaya (2016)

http://www.rikynjai.com

And on top of my list is a world class resort in the north-east of India

So that was my top 10 in India. There were some other contenders like:

Leela Resort, Kovalam

Guhantara, Bangalore

Diggi Palace, Jaipur

Rain Country Resort, Wayanad, Kerala

Red Earth, Kabini

Old Lighthouse  Bristow Hotel, Fort Cochin

But it was either the service, the staff or the facilities that did not live up to¬†my expectations and so they didn’t make the cut!

The next post will by my TOP 10 rooms outside India. So stay tuned…

Road Tripping in Meghalaya,India (Part 2)

Day 3- Drive back to Shillong

On our way back from Cherrapunjee, we decided to take a different route to Shillong. Instead of going via NH 206 (which was a shorter way), we went Via Smit Village. It is a slight detour but totally worth it. We were told that it is a more scenic route and one crosses the local villages on the way. But it was so much more! Every turn was picture perfect. The roads are narrower and not as good as the main highway, but the scenery slows you down in any case ūüôā I highly recommend this route!

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It is here that you will find the spectacular Laitlum Canyon! This place was really the highlight of our entire trip. I had no idea that such a place exists in Meghalaya. And nor did anyone else. I am so thankful to @tripadvisor for telling me about it and to all other fellow travelers for posting online. I hope to do the same with this blog post. Google shows you 2 destinations on the map for Laitlum, but you need to ask the locals for the right one. From Shillong, this is how you need to go:

1. Head east on MDR32 towards Laitumkhrah Point Towards New Colony
2. Turn right at Demsei√Ī-√Źong Bus Stop
3. Turn left
4. Turn left
5. Turn left at Sawlad Bus Stop onto NH44
6. Turn right onto Smit Rd
7. Continue straight onto Jongksha-Mawkynrew Rd.
8. Continue straight
9. Arrive at location: Unnamed Rd

For the best route in current traffic visit http://maps.google.com/maps?saddr=Shillong%2C%20Meghalaya&daddr=Unnamed%20Rd&geocode=FRRNhgEdBS56BSl_IL00j35QNzEriI8Q9y1IYg%3D%3D%3BFatPhAEdUHZ6BQ%3D%3D&dirflg=d

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(Laitlum Canyon)

It is a 270 degree view from up there. We could see 4 waterfalls and the endless movement of clouds. There is also a hiking route which I didn’t have the stomach for. But the locals use it daily to get to their homes in the valley below. One can drive right up to the edge of the mountain and park. It is really an overwhelming experience. The sheer raw beauty of this place will make¬†¬†you concede that Meghalaya is indeed the Scotland of the East!

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We had booked a 1 night stay in Tripura Castle in Shillong, which is the new favorite among the tourists.

http://www.tripuracastle.com

I have to say that the website is a bit misleading. Because the hotel is smaller than it looks online. But it is still a very pretty little property. When we arrived at the hotel, we very happy with the room (107) and also the bar. The entire place was really impressive on the outside.

But as a reviewer/blogger, I just could not overlook the glaring hygiene issues we witnessed. At breakfast, we had cockroaches crawling on our table. I saw a rat jump out of the area where the breads were Рwhich by the way had fungus and were stale.

Not only that, I even saw the waiter bring both the veg and non-veg starters in the same bowl, and segregate them at the buffet table. When I questioned him he had no answer.

Overall a very disappointing stay from the kitchen hygiene point of view. The rooms however were excellent and so was the bar!

My Verdict: Very pretty hotel, but management is not great.
My rating: 2.5/5 Because there is only so much a room can do to enhance your stay. Food, hygiene and service matter more.

 

 

Road Tripping in Meghalaya,India (Part 1)

My husband and I have driven for 10 days in Scotland and have experienced the magnificent¬†mountains and meadows that one saw in Skyfall! Till date we are in awe of that landscape.¬†We were told that Meghalaya is called the Scotland of the East. But I took it as seriously as I take Bangalore being called the garden city ūüôā

My parents live in Assam, so we planned a quick visit¬†home and managed to squeeze in a 5 day road trip to the land of pork, rock music and incessant rain. I did a bit of research online beforehand so that we didn’t go the usual places like Police Bazaar, Center point and Pinewood hotel. I was determined to see a side of Meghalaya we had never seen. The adventurous, unexplored side. The quiet and unknown side. And boy were we in for a gold mine!

Our plan was as follows:

Day 1- Drive from Guwahati to Ri Kynjai Resort (Barapani). Stay the night

Day 2- Drive to Cherrapunjee. See Elephant falls on the way. Also see the new caves that have been discovered. Stay the night

Day 3- Drive to the Dawki river and then back to Shillong via a different route. Stay the night at Shillong

Day 4- Visit Laitlum Canyon and then catch a live band in the city. Stay the night

Day 5- See the sacred grove. Drive back to Guwahati

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Day 1- Drive to Ri Kynjai

The 4 lane highway from Guwahati to Shillong is as good as any. The drive is stunning and peaceful. It takes roughly 2 hours to get to Ri Kynjai, which is 30 mins before the city of Shillong.

http://www.rikynjai.com

This is possibly the most talked about property in the north east of India. And rightly so. Ri Kynjai just blows you away. Nestled in the hills, overlooking the Umiam Lake, the hotel is exactly what it is named- tranquil and serene. The grand entry with wide open spaces tells you there is no dearth of real estate in this part of the country.

IMG-20160511-WA0002

The rooms are large yet cozy. Pinewood interiors give the hotel a very local feel. Even the decorative pieces are very ethnic and showcase the rich culture of this region. Ri Kynjai has a restaurant and a bar. The menu is limited and even more so for vegetarians. The prices on the menu are pretty random I have to say. But the quality of food was good. You can either eat Chinese or Indian food here. Nothing else is available.

This hotel is pretty pricey, so one night is good enough to enjoy its richness! You will spend anywhere close to INR 12-15k per room with all meals. They also have a spa which has massages starting from INR 2500+tax. The gift shop is beautiful, but again, exorbitant. More suited for foreigners I would imagine.

My verdict: Ri Kynjai is a must see property in Meghalaya. Even if you cannot stay there, do pay a visit.

My rating: 4.5/5

Day 2- Drive to Cherrapunjee

When we started our drive to Cherrapunjee, my father could not stop telling us stories about how deadly the route was back in the day. So we all braced ourselves for an adventurous ride. But the roads, all the way to our hotel, were smooth and comfortable. The views of the mountain ranges took us back to our Scotland trip. It is on this route that we realized how underrated Meghalaya really is:

1.This is a matriarchal state, where the women work and the men take care of the house and children!

2. It is spotlessly clean, no matter where you go!

3. Unmatched natural beauty and the food is fantastic!

4. Great roads leading up to even the most remote areas!

DSC04979

We stopped at the Elephant falls which was just 20 mins outside of the city. It is a nice pit stop to make at the start of the trip, because the sights just get better and better after that. So do not go here at the end of your trip ūüôā Let it be a precursor to what lies ahead.

DSC04976

(Elephant falls)

On the way, there is a spot where you can do zip-lining. We were so excited about it and the experience was memorable. You must try it. It is cheap, fun and thrilling!

Just before entering Cherrapunjee, there is a gate on the left. It is the entrance to a cave that has recently been discovered. One gets to see fossils of sea animals inside and also experience the eeriness of being inside an age old natural cave. There are guides to take you around and the walkway leading up to the cave is very well done. Even elders can go up there quite comfortably.

In Cherrapunjee, we stayed at the Polo Orchid hotel. It was rated one of the best in the area but was still quite ordinary. The hotel has a great view of the valley and the waterfalls. However, the infrastructure and cleanliness was questionable. We felt overcharged. Our original plan was to stay here for 2 nights, but we cut that short and returned to Shillong the next day (which was a great decision).

The only thing good about this hotel was the spa. Food was average at best.

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From there you must drive to the Dawki river which is at the India and Bangladesh border. The river is crystal clear and has a beautiful emerald colour. The boat look like they are in air! It is an unbelievable spot to visit

dawki

My verdict: Since this area does not have too many options, Polo Orchid is good for a 1 night stay. It is close to many attractions and the staff is helpful if you tip them ūüôā Just keep your expectations low.

My rating: 3/5

 

 

Waterwoods Resort, Kabini, Karnataka

We booked Waterwoods because we had heard really good things about it. Our plan was to stay at Kabini River Lodge (also known as Jungle Lodge, Kabini) for 1 day and then 2 days here. Jungle Lodges had really set the bar for us when we came to Waterwoods. But this property did not disappoint. Because we had no tiger sightings in the 2 safaris at Jungle Lodges, we were really glad that Waterwoods was next. Because there was a lot more to do here!

Website: http://waterwoods.in

Firstly, the rooms are breath-taking. One can see the detailing in every little corner of the property. Someone has made it with love and it is very evident! We stayed in Room 11 which is the only one with a Tree Deck and a hammock! So if you are going with your partner, just pick this room! It is secluded from the other rooms and has a great view of the Kabini River

Secondly, the hotel served much better food than JLR and we also enjoyed the swimming pool. The hotel also has room service, unlike JLR. The website is very close to the real thing and is not misleading at all. There are many more things to do at this resort than at JLR.

Lastly, The service was just exceptional! Sometimes when there are big groups on the premises, with kids etc, the staff tend to forget the couples who are around. But we never felt ignored. The staff set up a separate romantic bonfire for the two of us and it was really special!

The safari is through JLR, where one gets a bus/canter. Not a jeep. Funny thing is, it costs the same! That is probably the only point to be aware of. Everything else is just way better than JLR!! We, however, got lucky with our last safari, where we requested the JLR guys for a Jeep. Since we had stayed there the previous day, the team knew us and made an exception. And as luck would have it, we saw a tiger!

My verdict: I highly recommend this resort for a peaceful, lazy and stunning stay. Not for the safari though. We will surely be back here soon!

My rating: 4/5 only because there are no Jeep Safaris for the guests.

Kabini River Lodge- A lovely drive from Bangalore

Kabini is just a 4.5hour drive from Bangalore on a weekday. But if you go over a weekend, the Mysore “Expressway” might take you 6hrs. So we chose to go on a Wednesday and return on a Saturday. A very good decision to start with! The route was beautiful and full of Gulmohar trees! We went in the first week of May which was supposed to be peak season for tiger sighting.

We wanted to book for 3 nights at Kabini River Lodge (also known as Jungle Lodges), but got only for 1 night. The other two nights we stayed at Waterwoods Resort, which is right next to the former. This again turned out to be a blessing in disguise and I will explain why.

Website: http://www.junglelodges.com/kabini-river-lodge/

Jungle Lodges completely control the jeep safaris in Kabini and only their residents get to ride in them. Other resort guests get the canter/bus for the safari. So since we had just one night at this place, we got 2 Jeep safaris. Next day we were to move to Waterwoods.

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(Jungle Lodge)

DAY 1-JUNGLE LODGE, KABINI

A day before we reached, there was heavy rains in the area and the tiger sightings dropped. Both our jeep safaris were in vain. No tigers or leopards. And when the tiger sighting is not good, then there is little to do in Jungle Lodge, compared to a Waterwoods Resort.

Having said that, The Jungle Lodge property is so picturesque and open. We loved the entrance to the lodge and got a warm welcome at the reception. The staff briefed us on the agenda and showed us to our room. We stayed in room 6 which is the older wing of the resort. So it really takes you back in time! The room was nice and spacious- but no AC. Even then, the high ceiling kept the room cool. And if you are scared of lizards and insects, then this is not the best choice. We had many creatures as visitors inside our room- frogs, lizards, moths etc. But we really didn’t mind.

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(Room 6 in Jungle Lodge, Kabini)

The next time we went to Jungle Lodge was in February, and we chose the tents. They are cheaper and as comfortable as the rooms. I would recommend the tents over the rooms because there is little difference between the two but the former is much cheaper. Most of the time you are in the jungle anyway.

This lodge has a cosy bar which is a great place to chat with other wildlife enthusiasts. And the Kabini River is right next to the restaurant (Golghar) where one can go for a Coracle ride, or a boat safari.¬†The food was okay. Nothing to write home about. There is no wi-fi and no room service in this hotel. No swimming pool or games. The room has no TV either. We didn’t miss any of these things, but if you are looking for all of the above, then this is not the place for you. We saw a wild boar outside our tent in February! It was truly exciting!

All in all, a place for nature and safari lovers. The naturalists, guides and drivers are the best in the business and will spot animals in the jungle from a mile away!

My verdict- Kabini River Lodge gave us what we were looking for! Old world charm, wildlife enthusiasts, and nature! Go there for the safaris!

My rating- 4.5/5 only because the food was not as good.