Over the last 199 posts I have rambled on about travelling, books, places and experiences. Today, this is my 200th post and a cause of celebration — a celebration of my journey and of you readers who have stuck with this verbal diarrhoea! I want to make it that little bit special for you too. Over the years have got together a bunch of places, experiences and hotels that I will remember for the rest of my life — photograph or no photograph. This doesn’t mean it’s an all-encompassing list, but each place is unique. They are all in India as that was the intention, except for one in Bhutan. It isn’t in any particular order but the way my brain chose to arrange it. Enjoy.
Let’s get going now.
1. Head to Cherapunji Holiday Resort. You can actually skip the typical ‘points’ at Cherapunji. Charapunji Holiday Resort is NOT a resort (yes, they might just have gotten the name wrong) It’s not a hotel and it’s not a home stay — actually, I don’t know what you can call it! Perched on the top of this hill with one of the most amazing views I have come across and run by a husband and wife team, this place is an experience in itself. Trek down to the fascinating living root bridges, mingle with the people from the village and sip on chai overlooking the magnificent mountains.
2. Track the tigers in MP. Come Mid-October and season begins post the rains. If you want a safari in the popular or beautiful zone, you need to book a good month or two in advance. The thick monsoon greens, early morning chills and the chances of seeing a tiger walking out of the mist are priceless experiences. Chitvan Jungle Lodge at Kanha is a great place to make your base. It is comfortable and not too expensive, people are warm and the food is very good. If you feel like splurging, then spend one night at the Taj Banjaar Tola at Kanha and live in tents by the Banjaar River. I personally preferred Kanha, but this tigress in the pictures is from Bandhavgarh. She was a total beauty.
3. Swoon at the Taj Mahal at night. Picture the scene. Just 50 people huddled together in the cold night air, it’s pitch dark, the stars are out and there in front of you, stands the Taj Mahal gently shimmering in the moonlight. If you wish to go, do book the tour for a full moon night. There are 3 full moon nights left in this year — October 8th, November 7th or December 6th which is a Saturday. It’s easy to do. Book your hotel, send them a scanned copy of your passport and they’ll book the tour for you. More details on the ASI website. Just ensure that these dates do not clash with a lunar eclipse – I learnt the hard way . Another tip, book for a later viewing so that the moon has risen higher into the sky.
4. Village-hop with Grassroutes. Stay in tents, visit village homes for meals and go for small hikes around the village. Experience village life and their food! I got to pluck and eat fresh Jamun after a hike, eat hot puranpoli at the pretty Heera Bai’s house and gorge on her special dal with the dagadachi tadka, or stone tadka. Grassroutes offers visits to three villages in Maharashtra and you’ll come back with interesting stories. And eyes much wider. Go meet the hand that feeds you. Go on.
5. Trek in the Himalayas. I wish I had done more, and hope I do so. Only completed one 10 day trek in the Himalaya and it would go down as one of my best experiences ever. I think I was the closest I have ever been to nature, the most I have experienced silence and the joys of just walking and how far a it can get you. We walked upto 14000 feet at an ancient pass in the Pir Panjal Range of the Himalayas. I still have very stark memories of that trek. For those who do not like trekking, even a trip in the hills while staying at places that appreciate nature should be good.
6. Live in an Organic Farm with scientist-turned-farmers. They researched more than 15 varieties of cardamom plant and found the one that the pests like the least and grow that now… excites you? No? Ok, if you visit the farms you will think they are jungles and not really farms. The crop grows in bits and patches under the canopy of old trees, trees that always stood there… Still not convinced? The New Year Eve’s party will give a city party a run for its money! Music goes on late, farmers from all the neighbouring areas come down; these are your educated-scientists-or-quit-the-city-farmers — extremely interesting people. If all this excites you then visit Rainforest Retreat and book your lodge today. Still not interested? Then maybe this is not your cup of farm!
7. Go off radar at Spiti, Himachal Pradesh. Go in October, towards the end of season when its even quieter and there are no tourists milling around. The passes begin the close towards the end of October; though the exact date changes every year as it’s dependent on when winter sets in. Sneak in from Manali as Rohtang pass closes earlier and leave from Shimla. Spiti is one bumpy drive over non-existent roads, with pristine blue skies, against the arid grey landscape and sharp rocks. You’ll get stuck in traffic jams caused by landslides and end with boxes of crisp and juicy Kinnaur apples in Sangla. The mobile network is sporadic, so I chose to switch off my phone. The silence was brilliant.
8. Stay at Maranat Mana. This is probably one of my best homestay experiences. It could be because we stayed there for Onam. It could be because it was one of my first homestay experiences. It could just be because it’s BRILLIANT. And I’m definite on the last one. You live in the restored granaries and interact with the family that lives in a 150 year old mansion — built in old Kerala style. And it’s a HUGE place.
9. Visit Paro and stay at UMA PARO. Of the luxury travel experiences I have had (albeit limited), this was probably the most beautiful place. The personal care products they give are divine and you will want to steal as much as you can. Bhutan itself is a must do. It manages to have the starkness of Spiti and yet is beautifully green as it’s much lower down in altitude. And you get it all there — it’s still a monarchy, you can have an active holiday or choose to relax and live at a spa, the people are really warm and the entire place is gorgeous! Your journey begins when the captain of your flight in says, “and that, ladies and gentlemen, is the Mount Everest.”
10. Paraglide at Kamshet: I am not an adventure or adrenaline driven person. I wouldn’t want to bungee jump or skydive. But paragliding, is akin to meditating and I say that with utmost seriousness and sincerity. I will never forget my first flight- my heart pounding in my ears, running to the end of the cliff, the take-off followed by silence. Floating high above the Earth with everything just a spec far below. You are not hurtling to the ground, gravity is not tugging at the strings, you are like a kite — gliding, floating, staying above. It’s calming, relaxing and with those breathtaking views, you couldn’t ask for more. Kamshet, near Pune, is a great way to begin your love affair with gliding high above the clouds. I went with Nirvana.
11. Adding another one for good measure and because I feel bad to leave this out… Chettinad and Visalam. Those gorgeous old mansions, with tiles from Japan, crystal from Belgium, with teak from Burma, yet their heart and soul is wholely Indian. The entire ‘chettinad’ experience is a must-do. It’s unique and interesting to learn more about that community of Chettiars. And if you stay at Visalam, an old bungalow-converted-hotel, you’ll get to do both… learn about Chettiars and their lives and also live it up Chettinad style. If you are headed there, don’t forget to ask for the Pumpkin soup. psst. if the rates at Visalam give you a heart attack, go off-season when it’s the cheapest.