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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Coonoor, Tamil Nadu

A 7.5 hour drive from Bangalore, Coonoor is a quaint little hill station near Ooty. It recently came in the limelight because of a Bollywood movie called Kapoor & sons which was shot there. Before that it was visited by the off beat travelers.

(Instagram- thefanatictraveller)

Nestled in the Nilgiris this town is a much better option than Ooty these days. It is less crowded and more personal. We took the road via Salem to get there, which is a slightly longer but faster route. The drive is also very scenic compared to the mysore- bandipur highway. There are 3-4 toll booths which are the only bottlenecks.

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Coonoor is famous for its heritage properties, home made chocolates and cosy vibes. We went in May and the weather was a pleasant 20 degrees. There are several nice places to stay, like:

1. Kurumba resort- away from the town

2. Taj gateway- in the heart of coonoor

But since we don’t like to splurge too much on stay, we picked the 200yr old heritage property called Wallwood by Neemrana. It cost INR 5000 a night and looked quite decent.

We booked a room called “Camphor” which had a lovely balcony overlooking the estate and was away from the noise of the main house. If you are a couple that wants to avoid families then I strongly recommend Camphor. The rooms in the main house can get very noisy during meals since the dining area is right there.

This room was quite basic but had everything we needed including privacy. Also the food at this hotel was really tasty and homely. The staff was very helpful too. The hotel is located bang in the middle of the town and is close to all the touristy places.

Although we didn’t go to any 😉

What we did was breathe, eat, drink, drive around and sleep.

(Instagram- thefanatictraveller)

One day we went to a place which was called 43 hair pin bends on the map. This is a very popular biking route with breathtaking views of the mountains. The drive took us through lovely tea gardens coupled with thick woods. We even saw a family of wild Indian Gaur on the way!

On the way back we passed the Lovedale boarding school. A campus like no other! It really felt like we were in the UK countryside. You must try and take a look while you are there.

Some Places to eat and drink in coonoor are:

1. Hopscotch- a nice pub

2. Cullinarium- lovely food

3. Cafe McIver- nice place to chill

4. Taj gateway- good for a snack

5. Wellington club – if you have a army connection

(Instagram- thefanatictraveller)

All in all, it was a nice laid back holiday in the peak of summer. There are some nice walking trails and also lakes that one can explore.

Waterfalls are in plenty too if you are interested. But do not go to Coonoor seeking activities. Go there for the warmth, and the chill 😉

My verdict: A lazy little hill station where there is no rat race. Enjoy the clean air and poor service 🙂

My rating: 3.5/5 Wallwood Neemrana was ideal for us since we were out the most of the day. Food was excellent. Total value for money.

Tuli Tiger Resort, Kanha, MP

Kanha tiger reserve is roughly a 4 hour drive from Nagpur. One can even fly to Raipur or Jabalpur to get there by road. It is one of the prettiest forests in India and also one of the best managed.

Each safari vehicle has a GPS tracker that monitors the speed limit. Any reading above 20km/h inside the park is flagged off and interrogated.

Every vehicle is assigned an experienced guide who instructs the driver and monitors the safari. The staff is disciplined and respectful of the forest. Even the tourists are very well mannered here compared to some other parks in India.

The safari timings are:

Morning safari – 6:15am-11am

Evening safari – 3pm -6:30pm

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Situated in the heart of India, Kanha has three prominent zones for tourists:

1. Kanha zone

2. Kisli zone

3. Mukki zone

The saal trees are a signature of this forest. Kanha is also the best place to see tigers in the jungle meadows. The landscape and the habitat is inspiring and incredibly relaxing. This is also one of the few reserves in India that has clean toilets at the rest area.

Spread over an area of roughly 1900sq.kms, it is one of largest national parks in central India. Tiger sightings in each zone vary from season to season based on tiger activities. There are over 100 tigers in this reserve but the main species that represent Kanha is the barasingha, or the swamp deer.

We decided to stay in Tuli Tiger Resort, which is just 15 mins from the gates. This property was in the buffer zone and was the perfect choice for us.

Rooms were nice and big. And the bed was quite comfortable. The service was impeccable and so was the food. We thoroughly enjoyed our stay here and would highly recommend it to all tourists who enjoy a luxurious stay in the wilderness.

There is a pond inside the property which makes it blend with the forest beautifully. And a small swimming pool to cool off after a long safari is always a welcome option.

The resort would set up a bonfire each evening, where the guests would share their safari stories. With a drink in our hands and good conversation, it was the perfect setting to end the day.

The packed breakfast each morning was a delight. We were pampered with a large spread which lifted one’s spirits if one had no sighting 🙂

I have stayed at the Earth Lodge, Kanha but I prefer Tuli. The former is a lovely resort but a bit far from the gates. Tuli was convenient, comfortable and clean. They also have ultra luxury tents which looked out of the world. We stayed in the villas.

My verdict: Kanha is a must visit for any wildlife lover. And Tuli is a great choice. Pick the zones based on local knowledge of sightings.

My rating: 4.5/5 Very little to complain about. Except that the bathroom was flooding on and off but was fixed by the staff.

River Tern Lodge, Bhadra, Karnataka

The River Tern Lodge in Bhadra is one of the many properties owned and run by Jungle Lodges, Karnataka.  Situated in the midst of the Western Ghats of Chikmaglur district in Karnataka, surrounded by the lofty hill ranges of Babubudangiri. The River Tern Lodge is a perfect blend of nature and wildlife. The lodge gets its name from the congregation of thousands of River Terns during their breeding on a nearby island.

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Accommodation:

Set next to the Bhadra dam, all rooms here overlook the serene waters of the reservoir. Rooms 1-9 are closer to the restaurant, bar and the reception and are more suited for senior citizens and families. Rooms 10-21 are a bit away from the reception and the dining hall but are more scenic and peaceful. One has to walk 50-70 steps to get there.

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We were first given room 20 which is a newly constructed cottage. The room had spectacular views, however the toilet was not fully covered with a wall till the roof. So, it was a bit strange to have the loo share the same air as the rest of the room 🙂 One could hear and smell things one didn’t want to. That too with an AC in the room!! There is always a need for a fully covered bathroom no matter now close you and your fellow traveler are 🙂 So I would not suggest room 20 and 21 for this reason alone.

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Rooms 12, 14, 16 are the best! They have big balconies overlooking the reservoir, and the bathrooms have large glass windows making it a very stunning setting! We were shifted to room 14 the next day and it was far better than room 20. The latter is also the farthest room making it even more undesirable.

Rooms have 1 double bed and 1 single bed, an electric kettle, emergency lamp, water bottles, toiletries and towels. The brightness of the cottages instantly add life to the stay and you feel immersed in nature. The constant chirping of birds and the rustling by squirrels keep you busy and entertained. There is something incredibly relaxed about this place. It grows on you!

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Activities:

People come to this lodge for the jeep and boat safaris in the Bhadra Tiger Reserve and Wildlife Sanctuary. But they also have water sports- kayaking, boating, swimming etc. All included in the per head rate of INR 7,500 per day.

In the safaris, sightings of cats is low, but not impossible. However, this resort is perfect for birding. It attracts hundreds of river terns during the breeding season. Bird-lovers are in for a treat with over 200 species including, grey jungle fowl, red spur fowl, Malabar parakeet, etc. calling these forests home.

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Food and Service

Unlike other JLR properties, where food and service are nothing to write home about, River Tern was an exception. We loved the spread and the courteous staff. Every member was very helpful and knowledgeable about the forest.

The Bar has a limited menu but the rates are very reasonable.

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My verdict: This resort is perfect for nature lovers and those who wish to relax. Do not go there expecting to see cats. The safaris are more like joy-rides. Enjoy the park for other things. And enjoy the resort for its views and service

My rating: 3.5/5 Room no. 20 was a bit awkward.. but after we were moved to Room 14 it was heaven. Good service and good views make this a very relaxing and tranquil property.

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Varkala, Kerala, India

Kerala is truly God’s own country. I have been there more times than I can count and each time it is a new experience. Varkala was recommended to me by a mallu friend (and I have many), as a lazy laid back destination. And I can tell you for a fact that he was right!

We made a 3 night 4 day plan to Varkala from 30th Sept to 3rd Oct 2017. This was just before the season begins. This place hosts a lot of German and Spanish tourists after 15th of Oct each year. We got very good rates, both for the flight and the hotel because we booked in advance so this was gonna be a budget trip.

I have to admit that initially I was a bit skeptical about a 3 night plan. What would we do there? Will it get tedious to be there for 4 days? Would 2 nights have been enough? There were very few other places to see nearby as per google and hence my concerns.

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(Varkala Cliff)- Instagram ID- thefanatictraveller

We flew to Trivandrum and then drove to our property Krishnatheeram Holy Ayur Beach Resort. It is just a 1 hour drive from the airport to Varkala. As soon as we set foot into the property and walked up the cliff, we knew even a week would not be enough!

Varkala is like Goa, 20 yrs ago. It is off-beat, pristine and quiet. Crowd is limited and very civilized. The views are out of this world and even puts the best beaches to shame if you ask me! A hidden gem that leaves you gaping at every turn. There is a pathway made all along the Varkala cliff which ensures you don’t miss any corner of the spectacular views of the endless coastline. Bars, restaurants and shops are spread all along the walkway. The beach is famous for surfing and attracts people from all over the world!

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(Krishnatheeram Resort)- Instagram ID- thefanatictraveller

I chose Krishnatheeram Resort because it was right next to the beach and had good reviews. Varakala also has a Taj Gateway, but I was not convinced about the location. It was not beach facing. Other than the Taj, there are no other popular chain of hotels here. You have to pick from the local list on the map.

Having spent 4 days going up and down the cliff and checking out all other hotel options first hand, I think we made the right choice! This property is located in the north side of the cliff and has access to the best and most private beach. South beach is more crowded and attracts a lot of locals who come to visit the Janardanaswamy temple.

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The beach facing swimming pool was a great attraction as well, which I didn’t find in any other hotel on the cliff. We also had the best seats in the house as far as the sunsets were concerned. People staying in other resorts would walk over to our side to get a clear view.

This hotel also has a yoga studio facing the beach. Doing yoga early morning, facing the waters was so relaxing! I absolutely loved it! The AC Rooms were very basic yet comfortable. Do not expect luxury in this part of the country.

The only issue was that the resort did not serve alcohol. However, the restaurant next door did. So it was not such a big problem.

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(Beach in front of the hotel)- Instagram ID- thefanatictraveller

The first day just goes in absorbing the raw beauty and simplicity of this place. The fishermen here still live such simple lives and use such basic tools to fish. It really takes you back in time! And makes you appreciate and respect the fish served on your plate each day.

Next day we explored the south cliff and just walked around.  Some of the restaurants and pubs have fantastic locations – like the Tibetan Kitchen. The food was very average but we still landed up sitting there for over 2 hours 🙂 Each bar has a fixed rate for beer and mocktails. And everything is VERY STRONG! Mocktails are just INR200/- and are more potent that a tequila shot 🙂

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Some of the better restaurants are:

Caffe Italiano, Cafe Del Mar, Milky Way, Puccini Lala and Rock and Roll Bar.

Varkala also offers a range of Ayurveda massages. Rates range from 500-1500 per massage. The shopping is quite decent as well.

Third day we hired a bike and went around exploring the nearby sight seeing destinations. It was fun, but we soon realized that Varkala was the best place to be.

Places to see around Varkala:

  • Kappil beach- very rough beach. You can go kayaking in the backwaters there
  • Ajengo fort- very overrated. Can be avoided
  • Shivagiri- We didn’t go because we are into temples

 

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(Anjengo fort)

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(Varkala shopping)

Last day, we did yoga, had a lavish breakfast, took a dip in the pool, and then went into the sea. After that we took a short nap, had a lazy lunch. We checked out at 4pm and left for dinner to Leela Kovalam (1.5hrs). We caught the last flight back to Bangalore at 10pm

Overall budget: INR35,000 for 3 nights and 4 days for 2 people

Flight: 5,000 return from Bangalore per person

Room: 3,500 with breakfast

Bike hire- 350 per day

Airport transfer- 1,600 one way

Meals- Average 300 per head

Drinks- Average 200 per drink

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Varkala is a place that will linger on in your mind for a while after you say goodbye. The perfect destination to unwind and enjoy a good conversation. We will surely be back there soon!

My verdict: Krishnatheeram Holy Ayur Beach Resort is a very good choice if you are looking for a basic stay in the best location!

My rating: 3.5/5 because the roof of the room was dripping on the last day. And because there was no alcohol. However location is a 5/5. I would book this place again!

See more photos on my Instagram ID- thefanatictraveller

 

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 🙂 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 Demseiñ-Ïong 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 – which 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 🙂

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.

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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!

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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 🙂 Let it be a precursor to what lies ahead.

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(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

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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 🙂 Just keep your expectations low.

My rating: 3/5