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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14 days in Portugal

A road trip in Portugal is what I wanted when I started my research. But there were many reviews and articles online warning against it. They said nobody follows rules and the drivers are rash. But we still went ahead and booked us a car! And I am here to tell you to do that same! DO NOT LISTEN TO THOSE PEOPLE! Driving was just fine there.

(Instagram- thefanatictraveller)

We wanted to experience the entire country and therefore planned for the cities, beaches and the villages. And we can safely say that Portugal is now right on top of our list of places. It was the most outrageously beautiful 14 days and here is what the itinerary looked like:

Day 1- Land in Lisbon. Stay at Lisbon

Day 2- Lisbon- See Alfama and Tower of Belem

Day 3- Lisbon- Visit Sintra and Coba de Roca

Day 4- Pick up the car and drive 2.5hrs to the Algarve region. Stay in Lagos

Day 5- Lagos- enjoy the beach, caves, rock formations.

Day 6- Lagos- enjoy the beach, caves, rock formations.

Day 7- Drive 1 hr to Baleeira, Sagres. Stay at Sagres

Day 8- Drive 1 hr to Arrifana beach. Drive for 1 hr and stay at Milfontes town.

Day 9- Drive for 2 hrs to Mafra then Nazare. Stay at Nazare.

Day 10- Nazare- Enjoy the beach and the big waves.

Day 11- Drive to Aveiro via Coimbra. Then to Porto. Give up the car. Stay at Porto.

Day 12- Porto- Do the free city walking tour. See Gaia and the wineries.

Day 13- Day trip to Braga- See Viana De Castelo. Stay at Porto

Day 14- Go to Lisbon by bus or train and fly back.

(Instagram- thefanatictraveller)

FACTS:

  • Travel dates- 20th Sept to 3rd Oct 2018
  • Weather- Bright and sunny at 30-35 degrees in most places. Sagres was cold and windy.
  • Budget- INR 1.5 lacs or 1750 Euros per person all inclusive (Flight from Mumbai, car, hotel, food, drinks, visa, fuel, tips)
  • Number of travelers- 2 adults.
  • Do not say “gracias”. They hate that. It is “obrigado” (masculine) or “obrigada” (feminine)

(Instagram- thefanatictraveller)

COMMON TIPS FOR DRIVING AROUND IN PORTUGAL

  1. Left hand drive. International license is a must.
  2. Uber is easily available and is a lot cheaper than local taxis in the big cities.
  3. Avoid driving in cities because there is cheap public transport and Uber available.
  4. There are not too many speed guns on the highways- top speed limit 120km/h.
  5. Highways have tolls ranging from 0.5 EUROS to 2.5 EUROS but are worth it.
  6. Opt for Via Verde automatic toll machine in your car as it is very convenient.
  7. Drives are not as scenic as Italy or Scotland perhaps, but help you to explore the various offbeat beaches.
  8. Free parking was there in all the places outside of the big cities. But be careful of your bags and belongings.
  9. Google maps works just fine and will get you wherever you want to go!
  10. Overall, Portugal was very safe and people were very nice.

COMMON TIPS FOR FOOD AND ACCOMMODATION IN PORTUGAL

  1. Hostels in the cities are the best option. They are clean, well located and cheap.
  2. Hostels even have private suites with attached bath which are quite spacious.
  3. Big hotels are best avoided if you want a local feel and not waste money.
  4. Check in time is 3pm in most places. And check out is mostly 12 noon.
  5. Average meal cost- 20 Euros for two, without drinks.
  6. Very limited options for vegetarians throughout the country- mostly salads and sandwiches.
  7. Popular dishes are cod-fish and sardines. Pork, beef , chicken are also available in most places.
  8. Mainly 2 brands of beer- Sagres and Super bock. Not all places have it on tap.
  9. Wine is available everywhere and is the staple drink. Avg price is 3.5 Euros per glass.
  10. Water from the tap is potable across the country.

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PLACES WE STAYED AT:

  • Lisbon- Grapes & Bites Hostel– Private Suite with a terrace (4.5/5)
    • Excellent location
    • Great price
    • Lovely room with terrace and a bathtub. Thin walls though.

 

  • Lagos- Our House Guesthouse– Sea view room (3.5/5)
    • A bit away from the main harbor- suitable only if you have a car
    • Beach facing and quiet, clean property
    • Nice room with glass bathroom walls

 

  • Sagres- Memmo Baleeira– Street view room (4/5)
    • A bit pricey but great location. Beach access.
    • Excellent breakfast spread. Heated pool
    • Lovely room with a bathtub

 

  • Milfontes- Rural Moitra Mar– Superior room with terrace (3/5)
    • Quiet little village hotel. With tennis court and swimming pool
    • Not the best location but excellent food. Suitable for families
    • Large room with a sit out but no air conditioning

 

  • Nazare- Hotel Magic– Double Room (4/5)
    • Quirky little hotel with parking. Close to the funicular station
    • Not beach facing. But great location for the price
    • Nice room with glass bathroom walls

 

  • Porto- Airbnb- Ribeira Vintage Suite (4.5/5)
    • Excellent location and price
    • On the 2nd floor. No lift
    • Cozy room with a balcony. No kitchenette

(Instagram- thefanatictraveller)

DAY 1-3: LISBON

The first thing that will get you by surprise in Lisbon is its narrow cobbled streets. I guarantee it. The way cars maneuver those turns is fascinating. It is a big city with an old world charm. The roads go up and down as the entire city is built on small hills. Most buildings have hand painted tiles on the outside walls, which is trademark Portugal. This is done to insulate the houses.

(Instagram- thefanatictraveller)

The famous trams of Lisbon are indeed a sight to see. They are the real celebrities on the streets. Then there are the innumerable monuments and old buildings that loom large everywhere. The most magnificent one being the Arco Da Rua Augusta.

The main areas to stay at are Barrio Alto or Chiado. These places have the best bars and restaurants in town that are open all night. And Rossio is the main metro station in Lisbon. However, the entire city can be covered on foot. Which to my mind is the best way to see it.

(Instagram- thefanatictraveller)

Alfama is a must visit. It is the oldest part of the city and is very colourful, creative and cultural. You can just walk around all day and not get bored. Each corner is an unreal experience. This part of the city has some of the most dramatic hand painted tiles on the walls giving the area a lot of character and personality. This area is also the best to try the local ham and also the local drink Ginja!

Every Tuesdays and Saturdays, there is a flea market called the Thief’s market that is set up, with shops selling local products and gifts. Beware of pick-pockets here. But the atmosphere is awesome and you will find good stuff to buy at great prices.

Tower of Belem is a short drive away and is a beautiful area to go to. One can take Bus 15 to get there. It drops you right in front of it. The Jeronimos monastery is another stunning building on the way to Belem. Don’t miss it. Both places close by 5pm.

Did you know that Lisbon has a bridge exactly like the Golden Gate, only higher? It is called 25th April- the day of their revolution. One gets a great view of the bridge from the Padroa dos Descrobrimentos.

(Instagram- thefanatictraveller)

Sintra is a 30 mins drive from Lisbon. It is on the western side. One can spend half a day exploring the palaces and castles there and go to Cabo Da Roca for some nice views of the ocean. Please be very careful of your bags here as it is a very popular tourist destination. You have hop on hop off buses and Ubers going there.

(Instagram- thefanatictraveller)

DAY 4-6: LAGOS

We are beach buffs and no place better than the Algarve for that. South of Portugal has some of the best beaches in the world. It is just a short 2.5hr drive away from Lisbon.

Lagos has the famous rock formations and caves that you see all over Instagram. Ponda Da Piedade, Benagil Caves and the Camilo Beach, are all in and around Lagos.

The Marina De Lagos is where most of the boats leave from. There is free parking available close to the marina. I would say that this is a good place to book a hotel at. We were booked 5mins away.

In Lagos you can book the small boats to go inside the caves (15-20 euros per person). Or even a yacht that takes you for a half day tour with lunch, beer, swimming and music (40-50 euros per person). We did both and we would do them again! It was a brand new experience and I would urge you all to book it. The dolphins also paid us a visit on the tour. We used viator.com to book. Kayaks are rented out on the beaches and not the marina. Needless to say, tides dictate the bookings of all these trips.

(Instagram- thefanatictraveller)

There is a stunning walkway on the cliffs, all along the coast, from where you get breath-taking views of the ocean and the rock formations. You can start your walk at the lighthouse or Farol, close to Camilo beach. It is pretty simple and easy. No strenuous trekking needed. Once again there is free parking available here.

(Instagram- thefanatictraveller)

Behind the main road of the Marina is a cute little street with bars and restaurants and shops. This is the old side with churches and cobbled streets. Find the shop called Poticho. It is a treasure!! You will thank me once you see it. And for all the Indian travelers, there are 2 Indian restaurants on this strip 🙂 You are welcome!

DAY 7: SAGRES

Sagres is a short 1hr drive from Lagos. It is at the south-west tip of Portugal. Known for its windy surfing conditions, this place can get a bit cold. We stayed at a wonderful location called Baleeira. It had some fabulous views of the bay that left us gaping. There is just one street in this town which has all the bars and restaurants. We loved this sleepy little place for its beauty and simplicity and local vibe.

(Instagram- thefanatictraveller)

The lighthouse in Sagres is a destination stop for the sunsets. Menacingly high cliffs make up the south-west coast of Portugal and it is best seen from here. People gather on the rocks every evening to soak in the setting sun. Oh! and don’t forget to try the fresh churros after. They are heavenly!

One of the best beaches here is called Beliche. However Sagres is popular mostly for surfing. One of the bars that I recommend in Baleeira, Sagres is Pau De Pita and the restaurant you must try is Batedor

DAY 8- ARRIFANA AND MILFONTES

I had a long list of beaches that I wanted to see along the way. Like Amado, Marcas etc. And we saw them all. But Arrifana turned out to be the most memorable. From the moment you park the car to the time you reach the beach, you are in awe of it’s beauty. There are moments when it reminds you of Cape Town. I wish we had stayed here one night. But we were booked at Milfontes to cover some distance before our drive to Nazare.

Milfontes is a small town which served as a mere pit stop for us after a long day of swimming and driving. We were booked in a village resort which was relaxing.

DAY 9-10: MAFRA AND NAZARE

Mafra is a pretty little Portuguese town that contains one of Europe’s largest and most extravagant palaces, the Palacio de Mafra. This vast complex includes a huge monastery, an ornate basilica and a library that contains over 36,000 ancient books and its own colony of bats!

Nazaré is a popular surfing destination because of its very high breaking waves that form due to the presence of the underwater Nazaré Canyon

It is said to be the largest canyon in Europe having the maximum depth of at least 5,000 meters and about 230 kms long. (Wikipedia)

Due to the height of the waves, numerous surfing records have been set at NazarĂ©. On November 8, 2017, German big wave specialist Sebastian Steudtner surfed an 80 ft wave. In the meantime, Portuguese surfer Hugo Vau surfed a potentially 35 m (115 ft) high wave, known as “the big mama”, on 19 January 2018; an achievement yet to be authenticated by the Guinness Book of Records.

While we were not there during the season of the big waves, we still got to witness some swells. I can only imagine how it is in November. Nazare is a stop you just have to make during your trip to Portugal. There is plenty to see and do here.

There is also a funicular built in 1889 that takes you to the top of the cliff where the lighthouse is. It is a very convenient way to get to the top and get a 270 degree view of the ocean. Cost- Roughly 3 Euros per person return.

DAY 11- AVEIRO AND COIMBRA

These are 2 very unique places to cross on the way to Porto. Coimbra, a riverfront city in central Portugal and the country’s former capital, is home to a preserved medieval old town and the historic University of Coimbra. In the city’s old town lies the 12th-century Romanesque cathedral SĂ© Velha.

Aveiro is a city on the west coast of Portugal set along a lagoon called Ria de Aveiro. It’s distinguished by its canals navigated by colorful boats (barcos moliceiros), traditionally used to harvest seaweed. Not far from its core, known for art nouveau buildings, is the Cathedral of Aveiro, with its prominent bell tower.

When in Aveiro, resist the temptation to get on those boats at 10 Euros per person. Instead see the town on green bicycles which are available for free. Ask anyone!

DAY 11-13: PORTO

Ah! Porto!

Don’t ever make the mistake of seeing Porto before Lisbon. That would be disastrous. Because this place will take your breath away! Lisbon is just a trailer, Porto is the movie.

Much smaller than Lisbon, Porto has the delicate balance of a small touristy town with it’s old world charm intact. Everything here is artistic, including their train station.

The best way to see Porto is to walk. And there are these FREE walking tours conducted, where a guide takes you around for free and you just tip him/her what you want. I think that is a brilliant way to see the city. Instead of opting for a sight-seeing bus tour, I suggest walking if your legs permit. It can get a bit tiring with the uphill climb and the steps.

The main places to see are:

  • Ponte Luiz I Bridge
  • Livlaria Lello
  • Palacio Da Bolsa
  • Clerigos Church
  • Sao Bento Station
  • Praca Da Liberdade
  • Paco Episcopal
  • Mosteiro Da Serra do Pilar

There are vineyard tours and also the Duoro valley tour that is very popular here. But we wanted to explore the town as there was enough to see.

Please note: Most trains from Porto to Lisbon leave from Campanha Station and not Sao Bento. Take the train that has Lisbon Apolonia as the last stop and not Lisbon Oriente. The former is closer to the main city than the latter.

To conclude…

The one thing that I will take away from Portugal is the down to earth vibe. Everybody was so relaxed and chilled out. We never saw a very dressed up crowd anywhere. No hoity-toity folks like you find in France or Italy perhaps. The land had a very welcoming nature that made everyone feel at home. We are certain we will be back there someday!

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.

3 nights in Zanzibar, Tanzania

I am a beach buff that grabs any chance of visiting a sandy stretch with blue waters. Zanzibar was on my list for a long time, especially after I read about “The Rock Restaurant“. It is a place surrounded by blue waters and serves alcohol! What more does one need as incentive? Below is an image of this unique bar which I saw on the internet and I knew I had to go there 🙂

One can make a reservation online, and since the place is very popular among tourists, I would recommend an advance booking to avoid standing in a queue. The food and drinks are expensive but well worth it, for the overall experience you get.

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So, we booked a 3 night stay at Zanzibar as an extension to our Kenya Masai Mara trip.

Our itinerary 

Day 1- Land in Zanzibar and head to Pongwe Beach hotel. Relax at the hotel

Day 2- Go for a half day snorkeling tour to Mnemba island. Have lunch and return to the hotel. Head to Nungwi and Kendwa in the evening for the sunset and some drinks.

Day 3- Go swimming at Pongwe and enjoy the high tide. Then go to The Rock restaurant for a late lunch . Enjoy a lazy evening. Head back and enjoy dinner and live music at the hotel

Day 4- Check out after breakfast. Drive to Stone town. Eat lunch at stone town and fly out at 5pm to Nairobi

Total Budget for 2 with airfare- INR 60,000-70,000

Airfare- 15,000 (from Nairobi)

Taxi- 12,000

Hotel- 20,000

F&B & activities- 13,000

Planning the trip in advance really helped because the prices of flights and hotels shot up during peak season. We went to Zanzibar in August 2017 (high season), and booked our flights from Nairobi in February 2017 itself. We got return air tickets for INR 7,000 per person which went up to INR 25,000 by July end. One of our friends wanted to join us, but the hike in airfares made it unviable for him.

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The island

Like most islands, the pace on Zanzibar is slower than on the mainland. You will never feel the need to rush here, and you’ll hear “Hakuna matata” all day long as locals send out their “no worries” vibe to tourists . The island is just magnificent. and combines amazing beaches with many different thing to do, lots of history and culture to explore.

However, as soon as you land, the economic disparity becomes very apparent. Zanzibar is a poor country. Locals make less than a dollar per day. Tourism is their main source of income therefore, everyone is expected to tip handsomely to help the locals.

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The roads around the island are fantastic. So getting from one part to the other is easy and comfortable. Having said that, the taxis here are very expensive. It will cost you anywhere between $80-$100 for a 5-6 hour rental. One can hire bikes as well, but the assumption is that on an island like this, you will consume alcohol 🙂 so riding is not advisable. There are several beaches to choose from depending on your preference.

The Zanzibar airport is a nightmare especially on departure. I would request all tourists to account for minimum 3 hours as check in time because the queues are endless and the process is very poor. There is no air conditioning and people push and shove to make their way. The new airport is still under construction and until it is done, you must be ready for a tussle on departure.

The Beaches

I have been to many beach destinations, both in India and abroad, but nowhere else have I seen water this blue. It just takes you by surprise. However, each side of the island witnesses very different behavior by the sea. So you must know about it.

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North- The beaches in the north of the island, unlike the east coast, are not as tidal, so you can spend the whole day at the beach. This is the most popular side for tourists and has all the big hotel chains and also some great bars. The north-west side is famous for its beautiful sunsets. Two best beaches here are:

  • Nungwi- Very commercial yet very pretty. A lot of local vendors around. Not as clean as I thought.
  • Kendwa- My favourite part of the north. The sunset and the vibe here are unmatched. Highly recommended for a night out. Food and Drinks are much cheaper here compared to other parts

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(Nungwi)- instagram ID- thefanatictraveller

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(Kendwa sunset)- instagram ID- thefanatictraveller

East- The east coast of Zanzibar is less developed, but impresses with beautiful white sand beaches. The beaches along the east coast are very tidal. At low tide the water withdraws for up to 1 kilometer, making bathing virtually impossible. During this time, you can take a long beach walk or walk straight into the sea. At high tide the water is perfect for swimming and gives tourists a lot of privacy. 3 best beaches here are:

  1. Pongwe- The most private and beautiful beach I have ever seen.
  2. Pwani Mchangani- A nice and quiet stretch of white sand with big hotels
  3. Paje- white sandy dream beach in the south-east of Zanzibar is popular with water-sports and its good kite-surfing conditions.

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(Pongwe)- instagram ID- thefanatictraveller

West- Even though the beaches on the west coast cannot compete with the dream beaches on the north and east coasts, they are still worth a visit  The best thing about the beaches on the west coast are the sunsets, truly unforgettable! The best beach here:

  1. Prison Island beach

South– The south coast of Zanzibar boasts reefs, sandbanks, and mangrove forests. This area hardly touched, but even though there are but a few sand beaches suitable for bathing here, visitors love to come to this region thanks to the dolphins that have made their home in the waters of the south coast.

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(Kendwa)- instagram ID- thefanatictraveller

Stone Town

Stone town for me was a huge disappointment. Perhaps, because I am Indian, dirt and dilapidation is not something that fascinates me. The entire town felt as if it was gonna come crumbling down any minute. It’s one thing to see historic buildings and ancient ruins, but quite another to just witness badly maintained monuments.

Half a day in Stone Town is more than enough according to me. You can visit the spice market, see the slave chambers, and experience the narrow streets. Don’t waste any more time here and head to one of the amazing beaches instead.

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Pongwe Beach Hotel

Zanzibar offers accommodation in all shapes and sizes. There are the big chain hotels like the Hilton and then there are boutique hotels like the Pongwe Beach Hotel. We chose the latter because the beach is private and the place is not very commercial. It is a romantic getaway. Situated right at the beach, this hotel looked irresistible.

 

(Pongwe Beach Hotel)- instagram ID- thefanatictraveller

The ratings were really high on tripadvisor, and it did not disappoint. We were greeted with a personalized note in our room and a complimentary champagne bottle for our special occasion. The room was large and traditionally decorated.

The breakfast menu was limited for vegetarians but the service was fabulous. All members of staff were always smiling and willing to go out of their way to help. Every Friday this hotel has a live music show, which we absolutely loved! Food and drinks are more expensive in this part of the island, as compared to Kendwa. But the privacy and peace made it all worth it for us.

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Heidi was the person in-charge and she was very helpful and proactive in making arrangements for us. The hotel had paddle boarding, snorkeling, kayaking as activities. There was also a small library with some very interesting choice of books. What we found very fascinating is the high tide and low tide hours. During low tide, we walked 500mts into the sea with ankle deep still waters.

The best part about this hotel is its infinity pool overlooking the blue waters! One can spend the entire day on that deck just sun bathing and sipping wine.

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(Pongwe Beach Hotel)- instagram ID- thefanatictraveller

Other things to do

Zanzibar has many activities which we didn’t opt for. Here are some that might help you:

  1. One night at Mnemba Resort/Lodge- beautiful but expensive resort on a private island
  2. Cheetah’s Rock- A place where tourists get up-close with rescued cheetahs
  3. Dolphin safaris- south of the island
  4. Bawe beach- on the west side

Quick tips

  • USD is easily accepted everywhere. But cards are not
  • $2 is a good tip for waiters. $5 for drivers
  • Book in advance to enjoy cheaper rates- be it flights or hotels
  • Reach the airport well in advance before your departure.

My verdict: Zanzibar is a must visit for all beach lovers. Choose Pongwe beach if you want to have a quiet, private, lazy holiday. Do not expect ultra luxury here. The stay is cozy, personal and very peaceful. Kendwa is the more happening beach with loud music, sunsets and great bars.

My rating: 4/5 Everything was nearly perfect. The only issue was the price of food and alcohol was much higher here compared to Kendwa beach. Also, there are no sunset views in this part of the island.

Masai Mara, Kenya- Keekorok Lodge

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Masai Mara is considered a very expensive and luxurious holiday option by most. That’s because the overall cost generally comes to nearly $4000-$4500 PER PERSON (all inclusive). However, I was keen to plan one for $2500+tax per person including tickets, room, food, safari and transfers for 8 nights, 9 days. This came to roughly 3.5 lacs in INR for 2. I was also keen on going during the great migration. So clearly it was going to be a tough task. But there are certain things that we did to make this possible.

#Tip 1- Plan early

We started planning this trip 6 months in advance. That gave us a huge advantage on the air tickets. We got the best timing of flights, for as low as 25,000 per person to Nairobi and back. Later that same ticket became 50,000 since it was migration time in August. The flight to Zanzibar went up from 8000 to 20,000 return per person. Even hotel rates went up. So booking early, especially during peak season is a must. We flew Kenya Airways to Nairobi from Mumbai and Precision Air to Zanzibar.

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#Tip 2- Be flexible on the itinerary

During my research, I realized that the most popular way to do Kenya was to visit the 4 main areas- Masai Mara, Nakuru, Samburu and Amboseli. That’s what all travel agents suggest. They pack the 4 destinations over 8 nights and suggest road travel to make it a budget trip. Each drive is at least 6-7 hours long. But covering all 4 places was exceeding our estimates by good $1500.

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We were clear that we did not want to make the holiday very hectic. Nor were we going there for a professional photography mission. We were going there for “the first time” and as wildlife lovers who are interested in observing animal behavior and be amidst the wilderness of Africa. So we had to take a slightly different approach.

We went with the following:

  • To see 1 place properly and thoroughly for 5 nights – which was Masai Mara.
  • To club it with Zanzibar for 3 nights- a beach destination to relax after a hectic safari tour
  • Go by road to Mara and back. But fly to Zanzibar from Nairobi

This brought down the cost significantly and we were well within the budgets. In hindsight I think this was a great itinerary for us. It was a very relaxed yet exciting trip. We loved every safari we took and each day in Zanzibar was simply magical. We had full board in Kenya and breakfast included in Zanzibar. I will post a separate blog on Zanzibar after this.

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#Tip 3- Choice of resorts

Kenya offers a host of resorts and hotels that come in various shapes and sizes. The tents are the most expensive and give you the original “bush experience”. Eg; Little Governor’s Camp. It costs around 50-75k a night on booking.com

Obviously this was not feasible for us. Besides it was closer to the Mara river and more suitable for big time photographers. This being our first trip to Masai Mara, we wanted something closer to the main park and more reasonable.

Our choices were Keekorok Lodge, Ashnil Mara Camp, Julia’s River Camp. These were ranging from 25-30k per night. Now this might sound very high at first, but if you look at “Jungle Lodge” rates in Karnataka for parks like Kabini, they charge 20k per night. So this was not that far off. We finally went with Keekorok @ 30k per night, because it had good reviews, a swimming pool and a Hippo pool in its backyard. The rates included stay, food, safari permits, safari vehicle, guide/ driver. Our Indian travel agency was ” Take a Break”. They were good but relied heavily on info from their local partners in Africa. So, I suggest you book directly through booking.com or an African agency to make it more cost effective.

http://sunafricahotels.com/kookorok-lodge/

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#Tip 4 – Choice of Safari Vehicle

There are Vans and there are 4*4 Rovers. These are your options for safaris. The former costs a lot lesser than the latter. Both the vans and the rovers have a convertible roof to see wildlife. Rovers are available in 2 types – open and closed. So for serious photographers, an open rover will make sense. But for us a van was just right. It went everywhere and showed us everything. A 4*4 would have been a waste for us observers.

The other factor here is the number of people per jeep/van. The bigger the group the lower the cost per person of course. We took the van just for the 2 of us. It was to pick us up from Nairobi Airport, drive us to Masai Mara, do the safaris each day and bring us back to Nairobi. This makes the guide/driver very very important!

Please make sure you insist on an experienced guide/driver. During our trip we saw 56 diff lions, 8 cheetahs, 1 leopard, several hyenas, jackals, hippos, zebras, elephants, wildebeest etc.. all thanks to that guy. So, get a good “silver grade” guide if possible.

We drove to the river one day, in the van, and saw the great migration in full swing as well! But one needs to be very very patient at the river. It might take hours before the herds decide to cross. So, do not expect a sure shot sighting.

Watch this video of our rare sighting:

#Rule 5- Transport within the country

Going from Nairobi to Mara can be done either by road or by plane. There are small 12 seater and 20 seater planes that go back and forth. These planes leave from the Wilson Airport, which is a 30min drive from the main Jomo Kenyatta Nairobi International Airport.

Website to book- http://www.flysafarilink.com/en

Cost- Roughly $400 per person return

Luggage: 15kgs per person (including hand baggage)

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We had planned to go by road which takes 7-8 hours one way. So, our budget included the entire cost of the van for 2 people for 5 nights and 6 days. However, last minute we had to switch to a flight because of some security concerns in Kenya, as we were landing a day after their General elections!! That set us back by another $850 total. The van reached Mara and waited for us. So, we had to pay for the van as originally agreed.

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In hindsight, it was an expensive but very thrilling option. The plane ride is quite an experience. The view from top is unmatched and reaching Mara in 40 mins versus 8 hours is a great trade-off. We landed on an airstrip which was in the middle of the reserve. Zebras, wildebeest and buffaloes were there to greet us at the Keekorok airstrip. A memorable journey indeed.

Other Things to note:

  • The plug point is like that in the UK. So carry an adapter/converter
  • Tipping norms are- $1-5 to waiters/porters and $5-10 for drivers each day
  • Conversion rate for Kenya is $1= 100 shillings. Tanzania is $1= 2200 shillings
  • Jambo means Hello. Asante means thank you
  • Carry binoculars because the vast expanse demands it
  • USD is accepted in most places and so are cards
  • The park is open from 6:30am to 6:30pm
  • Vans and Jeeps communicate through radio for sightings. So chances are very good
  • Mineral Water is expensive to buy in the resorts. Try to carry your own.

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Keekorok Lodge, Masai Mara

Accomodation

We absolutely loved this property. It was bang in the middle of the reserve and had no fences. Animals were all around the premises and we could see them grazing outside our room. We stayed in Room 1244 which is a chalet. They have standard rooms, chalets and suites(2nos). Our room was away from the main lobby and restaurant but closer to the wilderness. So walking to the room without an escort after dark was not permitted.

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The room was spacious and had a huge balcony overlooking the park. We had an electric kettle in the room, locker in the cupboard and also a hair dryer in the bathroom (for those who want these things). There was an adjoining room to ours and I must say that the walls are very thin. So you must be aware of this one little issue with the accommodation.

Premises

Keekorok has a swimming pool for its guests which comes in handy between safaris. And another for its resident hippos 😀 Yes! There is a natural hippo pool behind the resort which houses over 50 of them. You can hear them grunting all day long. It’s such a WOW factor for the property. They even have a hippo bar facing this pool where you can have beer while the hippos wrestle. At dusk they all step out to graze around the property.

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The resort is brimming with birds and is surrounded by big old trees. We saw bushbabies jumping around at the wee hours of the morning right outside our room. They have a spa as well, but sadly when we were there the staff was on leave.

There is a gift shop too but it is a bit expensive like all hotel gift shops. I would recommend you buy from the Keekorok airstrip or the Nairobi airport rather than here.

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Watch the video of these 1 day old cubs here:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=76THkQskzeM

Food & Service

Since this property is owned by an Indian, it offers a great variety to its guests. Both vegetarian and non-vegetarian spreads are extensive. We thoroughly enjoyed the breakfast here. All other meals were really good too. To have chhola bhatura in Masai Mara is priceless 🙂 But they have English, Italian and Chinese cuisines too. Am told that Keekorok has the best food quality in all of Masai Mara.

Having said that, the dining area can get a bit noisy. Meals are not the most private or serene affair. Especially if there are big groups staying at the lodge.

The staff here is very very fun loving and always smiling. They really make your day. We were surprised by a goodbye cake on our last night here which I thought was very sweet.

My Verdict: Overall I think Keekorok is the right choice for first time travelers to Masai Mara. It is also very well suited for families.

My rating: 4.5/5 because we got everything we wanted from our stay. The only slight issue was the absence of hot water in the shower.

Instagram ID- thefanatictraveller

Rare sighting of 1 day old lion cubs

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