Halebidu – A Glimpse into our Magnificent Past

What’s in Halebidu:

Halebidu is a small little town located in the Hassan district of Karnataka, popular for its twin temples of the Hoysala dynasty. Hale = old and bidu = abode, stands for old abode or old capital. Our guide told us it’s also known as ‘Dwarasamudra’ – (entry by sea) and I started wondering how could a samudra (sea) come in this place! Later I was told that a huge tank was built here by King Vinayaditya of the Hoysala dynasty.  As per historical records, the Hoysalas ruled from Belur (17 kms from Halebidu) along the banks of the Yagachi river. Later, King Vinayaditya built a canal to channelize water from the Yagachi river to a newly built tank along the banks of which Halebidu flourished.

Now that explains why it was also known as Dwarasamudra! The tank is long gone now and all that can be seen are lush green fields surrounding the temple complex.

 

The Hoysala period boasts of numerous exquisitely carved temples. It is said that more than 1500 temples were built during their reign out of which hardly 100 survive today. Halebidu twin temples is one of the Hoysala trio of temples which have been proposed to be listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The other two proposed temples can be seen at Belur and Somnathapura. The intricate details of these temples are simply jaw dropping! It is difficult to describe the exquisite handiwork of the talented craftsmen. No wonder, these temples are huge tourist attractions from world over.

How to reach Halebidu from Bangalore:

Its a refreshing drive of about 3.5 hours from Bangalore. Halebidu is 210 kms from Bangalore and the drive on NH75 is a breeze. SH21 was okay. Love our National Highways… State Highways need to catch up! We could easily cruise (literally!) at speeds of more than 100 kmph on NH75.

The Shiva Temples:

The twin temples of Hoysaleshwar and Shantaleshwara stand tall and glorious as a mute testimony to the grandeur of the past. These Shiva temples named after the King and Queen Shantala Devi respectively, are located in the same complex and are still unfinishe. It is said that the work on these temples were interrupted by numerous wars the Hoysalas had to wage to defend their empire. 850+ years later these temples are still almost intact and active, housing the large monolithic Nandis facing the Shiva lingas.d.  The temples stand on an elevated platform which has 64 corners and shaped like a star.  The geometry of this soapstone structure is simply accurate in every detail. The temple walls are covered with deities depicting tales of our Hindu mythologies from Ramayana, Mahabharatha and others. Similarly, in Belur, the temple walls are adorned with sculptures of apsaras depicting the lifestyle of those times, replete with shringar (fashion), dressing style, hair style and much more.

As we enter the temple complex finding our way through the numerous vendors selling guidebooks and knick knacks, we are welcomed by a lush green lawn and paved pathways leading to the entrance. On one side, it houses a museum collection of numerous awe inspiring sculptures of deities which were once a part of this magnificent architecture.

The entrance today

 

Dwarapalakas at the entrance. This was the entrance of the Hoysala kings in those days and now is at the opposite end of the entrance today.

 

The Dwarapalakas (guards at the entrance) are so exquisitely carved but unfortunately were destroyed when it was attacked by Malik Kafur in the 13th century. The Archaeological Survey of India tried to repair the damage in vain. I guess perfection cannot be repaired. They could not conceal the damage done, in a graceful way and left it as it is.

Photography inside the temple premises is prohibited. After taking darshan and teerth, we proceeded to hire a guide who was very good with her work. With her near perfect English, she walked us around the complex describing every little detail with great interest and enthusiasm. It took us around 2 hours to see the temple at our own slow pace.

I am portraying some of the carvings below. A look at it will make you wonder the patience and talent of the craftsmen then. Not only were they adept sculptors but were also proficient in mythologies and other art forms prevalent then. A beautiful sculpture of a Bharatnatyam dancer reveals how knowing the dance steps and the correct posture was essential to the correct portrayal of the dancing sculpture.

Bharatnatyam dancer with the correct posture. A look at its feet reveals the details with which the posture and curvature of the foot is captured. The proud expression on her face also leaves us amazed. Queen Shantala Devi herself was an accomplished Bharatnatyam dancer and used to perform in these temples.

 

Uma Maheshwar (usually the deity couple is seen standing in most other temples)

 

Chakravyuh of Mahabharata, where Abhimanyu, the son of Arjuna, entered but could not come out.

 

Govardhangiri – one of the highly commended sculptures at Halebidu

 

Erotic sculpture – reveals how temples in those days were educational centres and sex education was not considered a taboo.

 

The filigree sculptures portraying various Hindu deities and Jain tirthankars together. Jainism and Hinduism coexisted peacefully then [even today:)].
Varaha avatar, an avatar of Lord Vishnu, killing a demon. A look at the demon below reveals the vast attention to details – see his eyes are protruding out and even the facial expressions are taken care of!

 

Hoysaleshwar Nandi. This and the adjacent Shantaleshwar Nandi are one of the largest monolithic Nandis found in India

The temple visit was fantastic. We also visited Jain basadis (situated within a kilometer), dedicated to Jain tirthankars – Parshavanatha, Shantinatha and Adinatha. These basadis or temples were all built in between the 11th and 14th century.  Unlike the Shiva temples, the basadis were not crowded and only a few Jain devotees were singing a holy song in the premises. It was amazing to experience the solitude of these ancient temples.

Two – three hours is all it takes to enjoy these temples but it leaves behind memories of a lifetime! This visit impressed me greatly and makes me all the more proud of our Indian heritage.

 

A few tips:

  1. It’s a one day trip from Bangalore and NH 75 is really good to cruise at high speeds. The other Hoysala temple at Belur is just 17 kms away and can be combined with this trip.
  2. There are no decent eateries nearby but yes, one does get corn, sugarcane juice, cucumber slices etc. just outside the temple. Suggest to eat on NH 75 which are lined up with various restaurants.
  3. There is no entry fee to the temple but the museum visit does require one to buy tickets, which again are nominally priced.
  4. Government guides are easily available inside the temple and charge a fixed rate of Rs 300/-

 

South Africa – Part II (Garden route & Kruger)

Kruger National Park was on our bucket list of destinations for a long time now. We were waiting for our little one to grow up a bit so that he could truly understand and enjoy the wildlife sightings there. Kruger was the highlight of our South African trip but once there, one cannot afford to miss Cape Town and Garden Route. Cape Town was a beautiful beginning to a memorable vacation and from there, off we started on the 2nd leg of our journey through the panoramic Garden Route.

Garden Route

Nope..don’t go by its name. This route is not associated with any gardens as such but it is a 300-km stretch along the south-western coast of South Africa, between Cape Town and Port Elizabeth.

Along the Garden route

 

1) Mossel Bay

Our first destination on this route was Mossel Bay, some 400 kms from Cape Town. Driving was a breeze on the well-maintained roads and we reached our destination in under 6 hours. This is the very place where the first European, Bartolomeu Diaz landed his foot on the South African soil in 1488. There is a museum complex by his name which houses some interesting remnants of this past, including the life-size replica of the caravel which Diaz and his crew used for their voyage.

Mossel bay is also known for its prehistoric archaeological remains dated as far back as 164,000 years! There are caves here which have revealed evidence of it being the ‘birthplace of human culture’. The Point of Human Origins is an archaeological tour offered at these caves from near the Pinnacle point beach and is quite well reviewed.   We were supposed to go on this guided tour but unfortunately heavy rains and the slippery path cancelled our tour. Nevertheless, we did lunch at the restaurant there (@ the Pinnacle Point Beach & Golf Resort) and had our share of some super delicious fig pizzas. Gain some, lose some…, right?

Pinnacle point beach, Mossel Bay

Mossel bay was great fun inspite of the rains because of its AWESOME views. The vast expanse of the Indian ocean with waves dashing along the cliffs made for an unforgettable view from the beautifully manicured lawns of the resort. We spent about 2-3 hours in the resort and headed to George (city) for our overnight halt.

2) Oudtshoorn

We stayed for two nights at George which is an hour-long drive from Mossel Bay. Next day, early morning we started for Oudtshoorn to reach Cango caves, which are located in the Swatberg mountain ranges. After around 2 hours of circuitous driving, we reached the caves and were ready to be amazed.

Words will not do justice to the evocative dripstone formations inside this underground wonder world. All the chambers are illuminated and beautifully highlight the natural decor formed here. Some of the stalactites and stalagmites are more than millions of years old and resemble the modern works of art. Aptly, they have been named so too. Madonna, Child formation, Cleopatra’s needle which is 9m long formation, Leaning tower of Pisa and many such popular names have been attributed to those fantastic formations. We chose to do the standard tour over the adventurous one which requires one to crawl along the rocky terrain through claustrophobic holes! An hour-long trip inside leaves one dripstone-struck 🙂

Bushmen habitat @ Cango caves, Outdshoorn

Cango caves

The cango caves with its impressive stalagmites and stalactites

The next plan for the day was to visit an working Ostrich farm in Oudtshoorn and see these wonderful flightless birds. Riding on ostriches is now banned by the government there and I am quite glad about that. However, the ban left me wondering who would have anyways dared to ride on such huge, super fast birds! We took a guided tractor tour in the huge breeding farm and were amazed to know some interesting facts about them … like did you know that their eggs are so huge and strong that do not break even if a fully grown human stands on them? Wait! however, if you dash them around, they will crack!

No, you can’t break it!
The big and strong ostriches

The farm has a big curio shop selling candle stands made from ostrich eggs, ostrich-feather dusters, pens, leather bags made from their tough skins and so many more things. I purchased a beautiful ostrich egg candle stand which adorns a table in my living room today! The pics and such momentos make for some lovely memories over time.

3) Knysna

Next day we hopped over (not literally :P) to Knysna (pronounced as Nice..naa) stopping briefly at one Redberry Farm for some fun. We did strawberry picking there although it was a bit early in the season for it. But still, we managed to collect a lot of sweet, juicy strawberries for us to munch on.

Knysna is well known for its ‘Kynsna Heads’ which are a pair of sandstone cliffs dramatically rising from the sea and guarding the entrance of the lagoon from the vast ocean. We drove along the headlands adjoining the Heads and then walked gingerly on the Leisure Isle beach, avoiding the zillions of baby crabs playing there in the waters.

The evening walk along the beach was a very lovely one, offering beautiful views of the Heads on one side and of picturesque, whitewashed villas on the other. Some experiences which seem simple and not so noteworthy, sometimes gives one the greatest joy. They cannot be easily described in words; only can one feel and live the experience. The fact that we ( I and my husband) were enjoying the walk without a care in the world, frolicking behind our son like  small children, clicking pictures all around us, and enjoying the magical moments of it all, made it a walk to remember for our life times.

Knysna heads

4) Plettenberg Bay

Well, the Garden route journey definitely warrants a mention of Plettenberg bay and the lovely hiking trails, sanctuaries and adventure activities it offers. We did visit the Elephant Sanctuary and were delighted to get really up close with the elephants. We could touch them, feed them and walk along with them. The guides were friendly and we felt quite safe throughout our adventure. The group matriach, Sally, commanded a lot of respect from me. The way she managed her herd and led them by example in each and every task, calls for a leadership class from her 😉

With Sally at the sanctuary

Many tourists to South Africa skip Garden route and directly go for Kruger from Cape Town. But if you have the luxury of time, then please do not skip this scenic route. It offers a lot to satisfy one’s travel lust. From beautiful views, adventure activities to wild forests and fauna, the route offers it all.

Fantastic Kruger

From Garden route, we flew to Johannesburg and then proceeded to Kruger. Kruger is a different world of its own and one has to experience its wilderness in person to enjoy it truly. The sightings of animals, the thrill of tracking at the wee hours of sunrise & sunset, the feeling of wild animals lurking around close, all has to be experienced by oneself.

However, I would definitely like to add one funny incident we had with the wild elephants. We were in our safari jeep in the midst of a herd of elephants. Old elephants, adult elephants, adolescents, babies, they were all there. It was a big herd of around 15-20 elephants scattered all over, enjoying their meal of bushes and leaves. We were in a open-air jeep with 8 tourists including us, a guide and a tracker with their guns. We were strictly warned to not make noise or get up from our seats no matter what happened as this act of ours supposedly scares the animals and they might attack us.

In the midst of the wild herd

So we were all seated in our seats surrounded by elephants and enjoying their joyful antics until it was time for us to make a move. Our jeep, was a sturdy Land Rover which could crush any small bush in our path and make way for us in that arid bushy area. When the tracker crushed a large bush under our Jeep, one of the adolescent elephants just 2 feet away from us, got irritated and trumpeted loudly, signalling us to leave. The tracker and the guide were calm but worry was writ large on our faces. Again, the elephant trumpeted so loudly that it made my little son jump up in his seat and clamber up on my lap. Later we were explained that adolescent elephants get easily irritated and trumpeting is the best way they can warn us. Most of the animals, except leopards and wild bulls, tend to warn their opponents before attacking. Glad that nature does have its way of warning the lesser (in terms of strength) animals.

It was funny the way my son panicked, jumped and got on my lap but it did teach us to respect nature and the might of these wild animals. When in jungle, obey the rules of the jungle or court trouble! The safaris and such kind of interactions with these animals taught us a lot in terms of their habitat, their behaviour, their getting adapted to the constant tourist incursions, and also made us realise the sad truth of poaching.

Kambaku safari lodge
The breakfast spread at Kambaku
Leopard staring at us after a good meal
Lion guarding his kill

These pictures tell much more than just words! 🙂 Most pics were taken from a distance of less than 5 feet from our open-air jeep. So do plan out this thrilling South Africa and Kruger trip soon. It is a must-do trip in your lifetime..Adios!

 

Tips:

  1. Stayed at Oobai Hotel, Golf & Spa at George to cover Mossel bay and Outdshoorn.
  2. Rented an Air BnB at Kynsna along the waterfront to cover Knysna and Plettenberg Bay
  3. Getting vegetarian food along the Garden Route was a bit difficult as compared to Cape Town. We tried Mexican, Thai, Italian and Portuguese food for vegetarian options in and around the place. Zomato app was a true life saver on these occasions. We did not find any Indian options as they were far and few and also closed on Sundays.
  4. Hot chocolate is one of the must-try drinks while in South Africa. The rich, chocolatey taste is sure raving about.
  5. At Kruger National Park, we stayed at Kambaku Safari Lodge in Timbavati Private Nature Reserve. Timbavati is contiguous with the larger Kruger area and so the animals are not restricted in any one area but free to move from one part of the reserve to another. Sighting is purely on chance and on the skills of the tracker and guide. We were lucky to see all the Big 5 (Leopard, Lion, Giraffe, Rhino, Elephants) up & close in under 3 safaris. Kambaku conducts 2 safaris and a bush walk daily. Food, obviously is taken care of at the Safari Lodge and they do customise it for us as well :).

 

 

Lepakshi – the temple of legends and architectural marvels

Shikhara of the main temple

As the legend goes, Lepakshi – the Vijaynagar era temple, is the place where Jatayu, the vulture, fell  wounded while trying to save Sita from the clutches of the demon king, Ravana. ‘Le-pakshi’ in Telegu means: ‘Rise – O – bird’. These were the words which Lord Rama uttered on seeing Jatayu injured in that condition.

This legend is surely fascinating and so is the temple architecture and its murals. The half- a century old temple is situated in the Anantapur district of Andhra Pradesh, some 120 kms north of Bangalore. Dedicated to Lord Veerabhadra, Bhadrakali, Vishnu and Lakshmi, this temple is well-known for its hanging pillar and India’s largest monolithic granite-sculpted Nandi.

Lepakshi is about an hour-long drive from North Bangalore on the lovely Bangalore-Hyderabad highway (NH44). Cruising at a speed of little more than 100 kmph, we reached Anantpur at about 10 in the morning. Taking cues from the signboards, we turned left off the highway onto Lepakshi Road and passed a few charming villages before being welcomed by  the granite monolithic Nandi some 200 metres from the main temple. We parked near the Nandi enclosure next to the APTDC Haritha hotel. As soon as we stepped out of our car, we were greeted by a couple of monkeys and a group of kids who followed us demanding money. We soon enough realised what they really wanted and bought all of them ice cream from a vendor nearby. The happy faces waved at us as we proceeded on.

The Nandi is ornately carved from a single block of granite, with a height of 4.5 m and a length of 8.23 metres, making it the largest monolithic Nandi in India.It is bedecked with bells, earrings, chains and other jewellery and it faces the shiva linga inside the temple premises, some 200 metres away. Another monolithic Nandi, probably the second largest in India (need to verify the fact here), faces the Virupaksha temple from the bazaar lane of Hampi. Interestingly, both these monolithic bulls are the architectural marvels from the bygone Vijaynagar era.

We walked over to the temple which is atop a small hillock known as Kurma sailam (tortoise shaped hill). The sanctum sanctorum houses the main shrine of Veerabhadra (a fearsome form of Shiva), Bhadrakali, Vishnu and Laxmi. The murals on the ceilings are still visible and are partly intact in places with all their colors and forms. Their mere glimpse depicting the everyday way of life then, clothing, social events, musicians, processions, etc. transport us to that glorious, royal past. I desisted from clicking pictures inside the garba griha to do my bit to preserve the remainder of the murals. The murals are fading away and are in urgent need of restoration. Right outside the main temple hall lies the Ranga mantapa or the 100-pillared dance hall with its exquisitely carved pillars.

Another interesting aspect of this temple is its hanging pillar which hangs from the ceiling without touching the ground! No, no it not defective.  The Archaeological Survey of India had demonstrated that the pillar was not defectively built but was specially constructed this way to highlight the sheer brilliance of the architects of their time. One can easily pass a sheet of cloth or paper from underneath the pillar and verify the truth.

Hanging pillar
Pic Courtesy: http://eccetrav.com/the-mystery-behind-the-hanging-pillar-of-lepakshi/

To the left of the main shrine, lies the Kalyana mantapa which as per records, was never completed. However, the exquisite carvings adorning the pillars of the mantapa leaves one, still, spellbound. Below the elevated Kalyana mantapa is a big, right footprint considered to be Devi Sita’s footprint. The footprint is always wet with some water seeping in through the rocks. No one knows the source of this water supply nearby. Interesting, right?

Sita’s footprint

The brilliance of the architecture manifests itself in every nook and corner of this temple. There is a huge Ganesha carved out on the other side of the mantapa.  A shivalinga canopied by a hooded, 7-headed naga is another marvel carved on the other side.

Ganesh
West side of the temple premises

Legends abound this temple as does the beauty of its carvings. The temple was built by brothers Virupanna and Veeranna during the rule of king Achyutraya of the Vijaynagar empire. It is said that Virupanna, who was a royal treasurer, misappropriated the funds from the royal treasury for the construction of the temple without the approval of the king. The infuriated king, as a punishment, ordered Virupanna to be blinded for his act. When Virupanna heard of the punishment, he himself carried it out by dashing his eyes against the walls of the temple. Even to this day, the two (supposedly) gory blood marks on the temple walls stand a mute testimony to this legend. After this incident, the temple construction came to a standstill and the Kalyana mantapa (wedding hall) and other structures remained unfinished.

Unfinished kalyana mantapa

The beautiful carvings in the Kalyana mantapa

One requires about 2-3 hours to explore the temple and enjoy the carvings. We did not see any guides around in the vicinity in the temple. However, as per other blogs and travel sites, guides are supposedly available to help us get around.

There is just one APTDC restaurant in the vicinity, Haritha, which did not have any variety in their menu.  So we decided to head back towards Bangalore without trying it out. We pulled over at Nandi Upachara restaurant near Nandi hills  for lunch and were not disappointed with their fare. We even chanced upon Shri. Ravi Shankar Prasad at the restaurant and managed to click a selfie with him. For the uninitiated, he is the Union Minister for Law and IT presently. 🙂

Lepakshi is a half-day trip from Bangalore and a enjoyable one! Not to be missed by the residents of Bangalore for sure.

Tips:

  1. Route: Bangalore North -> Bellary Road ->NH44, towards Hyderabad for about 100 kms. There are a couple of tolls on this road. Take a left diversion as per the signboard in Anantapur district of Hyderabad and drive around 16kms on Lepakshi road to reach the temple.
  2. Carry sun protection like hats, sunglasses and skin creams as it gets really hot there, especially during summers.
  3. There are no restaurants except APTDC’s Haritha in the vicinity. So it is advisable to pack food for your trip there.

Our South African adventure in Cape Town – I

Our 2-week visit to this southern country of the African continent, commenced with Cape town, then proceeded on to the  beautiful coasts along the Garden route, and ended with a thrilling safari in Kruger National Park.

Cape Town

Cape town is a beautiful coastal city at the tip of the African continent. The sights here are incredibly beautiful – a combination of sun & sand with cliffs & beaches is a win-win combination any day!  The city mesmerises the onlooker with its abundance of natural beauty. Not only does this place offer beautiful vistas but there are also ample of things to do in and around this vibrant town. Taking a peek into its rich but turbulent cultural history, engaging in various adventure activities like shark-cage diving, to savouring its local cuisine which is a melting pot of its multicultural delicacies  – this city offers it all.No! we did not do shark-cage diving at that time of the year.

The Victoria & Alfred (V&A) waterfront is one such happening place, which especially comes alive at night! Set against the Table mountain, this waterfront boasts of numerous shops and restaurants selling a variety of food options and local wares. A big Cape Wheel adds to the fun and character of the area. There is a food market right opposite the Cape Wheel which is quite popular with the locals and tourists alike. The market sells all kinds of food including ostrich and other exotic meats. Meats that I had never heard of before and I started wondering what can a vegetarian like me would eat in this part of the world 😉 Then we saw this little Samoserrie!  – a counter selling small samosas with various kinds of fillings, both of the veg and non-veg type. Our first evening in Cape town had indeed begun on a wonderful note.

@ V&A Waterfront

 

Samoserrie

The next day started early for us as we were going to trek the Table mountain. Wrapped in jackets to beat the 6 degrees celsius chill, we started driving towards this natural wonder. The mountain’s summit is flat like a table; however the climb was pretty steep.  It took us (not regular climbers) close to 3 hours before our guide, Steffi, could coax us to get up there. As the climb became more steep, she encouraged us all the more to put our best foot forward (pun definitely intended!)

Simon’s bay (village) as seen from the Table Mountain

Once atop the flat tablescape, the views surrounding us were superbly fascinating. Our jackets were long gone during the climb and we were trying to cool ourselves in the chill up there. We thanked heavens to find a small restaurant serving some good food which was badly needed. We had a ravenous appetite by the time we entered the restaurant. It is a great place for a leisurely breakfast after conquering the 1,085 m high Table mountain. We were, however, wise enough to take the cableway down the mountain. 😉

That afternoon, we had an amazing vegetarian lunch at a Eritrean (Ethiopian) restaurant in the City Bowl. A couple of beggars followed us down the street begging for alms which alarmed us a bit, but that was about it. We did not encounter any such incident during our entire stay in the country thereafter. The restaurant was bang in the middle of Greenmarket square, a local flea market. This market in the heart of Cape Town’s CBD is the place where local traders and artists flaunt their fabrics, sculptures, art and beadwork at reasonable prices. Bargaining, I was told, is accepted in South Africa but hardcore bargaining is something that one should refrain from so as to not offend the local sellers. Surrounded by beautiful wares, we could not resist our urge of shopping and ended up buying some local fabrics and wooden bowls as souvenirs of our stay there.

Eritrean lunch (vegetarian) – consisted of a injera (bread), with shiro(legumes) and alicha (legumes and vegetables); served in a communal plate

 

A local vendor at his stall in Greenmarket Square

 

Another stall @ Greenmarket Square

 

The Majestic Table Mountain from V&A waterfront

The evening took us to Kirstenboch Botanical Garden – a beautiful garden, beautifully located against the eastern slopes of Table mountain. In fact, the entire Cape Town is situated  along the Table mountain. No matter in which corner of the city you go, you will find the Table mountain towering tall above you 🙂 This garden is  must-visit in Cape Town with its majestic location at the foothills of the mountain.  

Another recommended activity while in Cape Town is to drive along the M6/Victoria Road. This road runs from Cape Town along the 12 Apostles mountain range all the way to Hout Bay. The drive on this road along the coast was a spectacular experience with fabulous views of palatial homes and pristine beaches along the coastline.

Vistas as seen from Victoria Road

We thoroughly enjoyed our morning drive to Hout Bay and decided to visit the World of Birds Wildlife Sanctuary and Monkey Park, situated there. It is the largest bird park in Africa and an informative park to hang out with your little one. We had an amazing and also an ‘safe’ experience there – with little monkeys jumping over us in a caged area with a park official standing beside us. My little one too jumped around with the monkeys, feeding them. Never had such a close experience with monkeys, anywhere before. It was just about noon by the time we exited the park and decided that we have plenty of time to go down south and visit the Cape of Good Hope Reserve.

So off we set towards Simon’s town where we had a quick halt to grab some lunch. The town is a charming little place set on the coasts of Indian ocean and offers some good food options. Further on, along the way we decided to visit Boulder’s beach which is a haven for the endangered South African penguins. The beach is a protected area,and rightly so. We purchased tickets to enter the reserve and had a gala time watching the penguins playing with the waves and amongst themselves. Seeing the penguins waddle along the wet sands lifted our spirits no end!

South African penguins @ Boulder’s beach

Our next destination for the day was the famous Cape of Good Hope Reserve. We reached there at 3:30 pm and were supposed to exit the reserve by 6pm before the gates shut close. Happy to make it on time inspite of so many stops on the way, we hurried to take the funicular tram which took us all the way upto the lighthouse. The lighthouse is situated at the highest point on the reserve and offered spectacular views of both the oceans together in sight! A little down along the steps of the lighthouse, goes a trekking path around the lighthouse which again is an experience to be enjoyed. A narrow path cut out on the cliff around the lighthouse is surely not to be missed 🙂 However, short on time, we walked around the lighthouse for only a little while before descending down to see the actual spot known as the Cape of Good Hope. This is the same spot along the Atlantic coast where Bartolomew Diaz, the Portuguese explorer, first set his foot on the African soil in 1488.

I wonder whether this serendipitous discovery by Mr. Diaz really bode well for the local settlers here! Well, time and deeds cannot be reversed. Colonisation, first by the Dutch and then by the Brits is the bitter truth of this African nation.

Cape of Good Hope Reserve – with Atlantic Ocean on the left and Indian Ocean on the right

 

As seen from the lighthouse @ Cape of Good Hope Reserve

The next day’s itinerary included a visit to the District 6 museum. We knew little about South Africa’s apartheid history before visiting the museum. However, the visit left us shocked and disturbed to know the inhuman atrocities meted out to the black and coloured citizens there. District 6 is actually a church converted to a museum in the inner-city residential area of District 6 in Cape town. It is a memorial dedicated to the forced eviction of close to 60,000 inhabitants from District 6 in the 1970s. The handwritten notes of the evictees, various exhibits and pictures of the District 6 colony tells a dark tale enacted in the recent South African past.

Initially, we were surprised to see only Whites frequenting expensive restaurants and places of entertainment & recreation. It made us wonder where all the native blacks of this country are, especially so in Cape Town! There is still a clear segregation between the Blacks and Whites, who constitute only around 8% of the entire South African population. The decades of economic and social repression have crushed an entire generation of the non-white population here.

This and our visit to Robben island deeply impacted us. Robben island was a political, high-security prison where Nelson Mandela spent 18 out of his 27 years of imprisonment before the fall of the apartheid regime. It is now declared as a World Heritage Site. The tours to Robben island start from the V&A waterfront and lasts for around 3.5 hours.

Nelson Mandela’s prison cell for 18 years

We spent 6 days in Cape Town and had a wonderful time knowing a different city and a different culture. The locals were genuinely friendly and considerate and went out of their way to help us at times 🙂 Food options too were diverse for vegetarians like us. There were quite a few Indian restaurants too which dished out quite authentic Indian fare. I am listing out a few eating tips for you all:

  1. Stayed in the City Bowl Area of Cape Town through air bnb (airbnb.com) Many apartments are available right in CBD which is quite close to V&A waterfront. Alternatively, one can choose to stay near Seapoint or Greenpoint as well.
  2. Do visit Market on the Wharf near the V&A waterfront for a variety of food options
  3. El Burro Mexican restaurant, again near the waterfront (reservation mandatory; Sunday closed)
  4. Salathai Thai restaurant, near the waterfront. Food quality was decent, not great.
  5. Sawaddee Thai restaurant, Rheede Street, Gardens. Food was great here! (reservation mandatory, Sunday closed)
  6. Jewel of India, near the waterfront. (reservation mandatory, Sunday closed)
  7. Jarryds, a good breakfast place in Seapoint. Recommended on the way to Victoria Road
  8. Jiji’s juice bar in CBD of Cape Town
  9. Punjab Wok, near Canal walk mall, Century City. One of the better Indian restaurants there with excellent service
  10. Shopping  recommended at Greenmarket square (can bargain), along the V&A waterfront (expensive) and at Canal Walk mall

Well, my South African travelogue is not done yet. Stay tuned for more on Garden Route to come 🙂

 

Orange County @ Coorg

A revisit to Orange County, Coorg, had been planned again after ten long years… with our little son in tow this time! This resort had etched itself a special place in our hearts a decade ago with its wonderful hospitality, super delicious food and its aromatic filter coffee from its very own plantation!

We had fond memories of the resort and were looking forward to visit it again. The ride from Bangalore to Coorg was a smooth one except for the last 3 kilometers or so on the plantation’s mud road which took us inside to the gates of the resort. We took NICE road and hit the Mysore expressway before taking a diversion for Coorg near Mysore. It took us approximately 6 hours to reach the resort with an hour-long stop at A2B on the way for a scrumptious South Indian breakfast.

At the resort, we were welcomed with a refreshing cool, coffee drink infused with coconut milk. Unique as it was, it was equally pleasing to the palate as well. The electric buggies (similar to golf carts) carried our luggage while we walked down to our cottage. On this occasion, we had booked the Lily Pool Cottage with a private pool and jacuzzi with it. My son loves private pools as he  get to soak himself in the cool, inviting waters of the pool, anytime of the day. He also had a gala time playing with the fishes in the adjoining lily pool. I am sure he must have been some water fairy/elf in his previous birth  which explains his fascination with water 😉

Lilly pool cottage

 

Private Pool with a Lilly pond

 

Complimentary fresh fruits and cashews, refilled daily

 

The inviting bed

 

The lilly pool outside the bedroom

Having reached at around 1 pm, we decided to have lunch at Peppercorn, their grill and sizzler place which is overlooking a gorgeous lake adjoining the Dubare forest. The lunch had a North Indian set menu from which we could order. The food was amazingly delectable. Words cannot do justice to the food 🙂 One has to go there and savour the experience themselves. The ambience, the fact that we were the only ones in the restaurant for a long time, and the excellent customer service made our lunch quite memorable.

Seated @ Peppercorn

It’s hard to overlook the hospitality of the staff there. Even the sweepers and cleaners exchange smiles and a courteous ‘namaste’ when the guests pass by. The resort has employed many locals there and it is quite obvious the wonderful, hospitality training they have gone through.

Their other restaurants, The Granary and The Plaintain Leaf (their traditional, all-vegetarian restaurant) which serve North Indian/Continental and the local South-Indian/Kerala cuisine respectively, are worth raving about too. Granary is set above the common swimming pool and offers a fantastic view across. The Plaintain Leaf too delighted with me with their authentic South-Indian fare like Cherupayar curry, Kadala curry served with puttu, idiappams, kurma etc. etc.. It’s not everyday that I get to taste the local cusine of the land, that too so yummy 🙂 The Ayurvedic touch they added to their food through digestive drinks (like Zandu Pancharishta), and herbs-infused water was a silver-lining to the whole gastronomic experience. Digestive drinks are highly needed in OC though! No guesses for the reason 😀

As plentiful the food options are, so are the activities planned out by the resort for their guests. It will take at least a minimum of 3 days of stay to enjoy all the planned activities – plantation walk, nature walk through the Dubare forest reserve, coracle ride on the Cauvery, bird watching, fish feeding/fishing, village tour, worker’s trail, cultural entertainment program at night around a bonfire, and a story corner focusing on the Coorg culture and heritage right after.

They have a play centre for kids just across the pool and have some activities planned for the kids as well – such as a paper recycling workshop  in the mornings and some games/contests during the day. I guess they offer daycare services as well.

Their Ayurvedic spa- Vaidyasala, offers some rejuvenating massages and treatments; however, we did not book the spa this time. We were just simply busy with the activities, gorging on food, sipping coffee and relaxing in their reading lounge. The reading lounge is atop the paddy fields with a panoramic view of the forest and plantations, and also offers a gratis supply of coffee-on-demand while we browse the books. Truly, a stay at OC, Coorg is simply a complete relaxation package without having to worry about anything! Of course, I mean the cost as well, as the stay is all-inclusive of food and activities – no extra hidden charges 😉

The OC staff even helped me put together a surprise birthday celebration for my hubby and decorated the bed with lovely flowers and swans. A small cake, a hand-written birthday wishes and the floral decorations made the celebration really special. No guesses for who enjoyed all this and the cake the most…our sonna 🙂

The decorated bed

We couldn’t enjoy all the activities as we were short on time and my son too refused to stay back at the activity centre for some activities where he wasn’t allowed. Children under 12 were not allowed to enter the forest or take a bicycle ride to the nearby village.

However, I took the nature walk for 2.5 hours while my husband graciously looked after our son. The walk through Dubare and along the banks of Cauvery was fantastic. We spotted a group of wild elephants just 100 metres away from us. The walk through the forest was a rough one, in the sense that we had to clear the path of thorns and branches to make way for ourselves. These were animal paths and we were made our way through it with our excellent guide and naturalist, Mr. Vishwanath, who made the walk all the more informative and thrilling.

On the banks of the Cauvery inside the Dubare Reserve

The story-telling session at night was another informative program OC, Coorg has recently started for their guests. We were served some delicious coffee wine (the resort owner, Mr Ramanapuram’s wife or so had gotten it made at home!) and were regaled with interesting tidbits about Coorg history and its Kodava culture. The stories are never repeated and there is always more to know each night!

That Sunday, dinner was arranged in the paddy fields under the open skies with lamps and lanterns adorning the night. The dinner was set on the buffet tables, live music was being played on one side and a beautiful bonfire was lit on the other. White, sparkling linen were spread over the tables creating a nice contrast against the dark background. When such great care had been taken to liven up the atmosphere, how can food be left far behind! We were again pampered that night with choicest dishes and great service.

Dinner in the paddy fields

Time flies! We did not even realise when our vacation came to an end. We did not step out of the resort even once during our stay there and yet we were relaxing and occupied at the same time. Away from our mundane city lives, we had an invigorating stay at OC. Next morning, bidding hearty goodbyes to our hosts, and carrying wonderful memories in our hearts, we started off on our ride back home.

 

Disclaimer: This write-up is not a paid review of the resort but is solely based on my visit and personal experience.

Please feel free to contact me if you have any questions or comments. 

 

Bheemeshwari @ Jungle Lodges Resort – a getaway to remember!

Feb 24, 2017

Sunset across the Cauvery

We were excited that we were finally going to Bheemeshwari, a name synonymous in my mind with the gushing Cauvery, Mahseer fishing , tented accommodations, verdant forests and thrilling adventure activities. For reasons unknown to even us, Bheemeshwari had always taken a backseat all these years, when it came to deciding on weekend getaways. But this particular weekend, we had finally booked Jungle Lodges at Bheemeshwari and were raring to go. My son was super excited with the fact that we were going to stay in a tent. He asked us numerous times as well if a tent was strong enough to keep us safe from the wild animals of the jungle! 😉

It took us less than 3 hours to get there on a Saturday morning from Bangalore. Check in at the Jungle Lodges Resort (JLR) was  at noon. So we started from our house at around 8 am giving ourselves ample of time for a leisurely breakfast stop somewhere along the route. We took the Kanakapura Road, which is a double lane road lined up with renovation at numerous places. So our drive was slow but smooth.

There were not many restaurants in sight as we passed by, but around 10 am, we spotted a MTR sign tucked away in a corner of the road. Soon enough we parked our car in its parking lot and seated ourselves for a happy meal 🙂

Breakfast at MTR

 

Kanakapura Road (NH 48)

With a satiated appetite, we proceeded on our way to JLR. The JLR folks had already called on us and asked us to take the Halaguru route over the Sathnur route. The latter one apparently was not in a usable condition. The ride to Bheemeshwari was quite smooth contrary to the many reviews we read online. Traffic was light and the weather cheerful. We breezily made our way to the gates of JLR.

Signboard

 

Halaguru gate

On arrival, we were greeted by a group of monkeys in the premises, who were promptly shooed away by the guard. After checking in, we were led to our tent. I was really happy with the resort at first sight. Our tent was right opposite the banks of the Cauvery and it felt as if we truly were in a ‘jungle’ resort! The tent was spotlessly clean and spacious for the 3 of us. The hammocks and swings outside each tent added to the charm and comfort of the resort. The resort was full for the weekend and yet it did not seem crowded. Climbing nets, ziplines, machans, rope walks, dotted the place and sought to prepare us for the upcoming adventure activities.

Our tents

 

Activity area from atop a tree

The restaurant/dining area was a bit further down the resort. We all had to walk down the jungle terrain for about 100-150 metres to reach there. The dining area was surrounded by log huts/cottages and was spectacularly located across the wide, inviting banks of the Cauvery. Coracles and kayaks were kept on one side of the dining area while a barbecue grill was on the other side.The charm of the resort is hard to define. It is not sophisticated like the other luxurious resorts we have been to but still has all the facilities of one. It is truly ensconced in the lap of nature. One gets the feel of being in a forest setting inspite of being in a resort!

The walk to the dining hall

The buffet lunch was wholesome and delicious. It was a mix of South Indian and North Indian fare and felt homely. The entire dining area was netted and secure from the monkeys while letting in the cool breeze from the Cauvery.

Delicious goodness 🙂
Dining hall across the river

The adventure activities started soon after lunch. We lazed for around 30-40 minutes after lunch before we started with the fun –  ziplining, all the rope walks (Burma loops, Elephant walk..), etc. Soon after that, we were called for the coracle ride but not before we were served tea and cookies at the restaurant.

Burma Loops

 

Elephant Walk

It was around 5pm by the time we reached the banks of the Cauvery. The sun had started setting spreading a nice orange glow in the horizon. The breeze was cool and refreshing. Our boat man (coracle man!) took us around for a good 45 minutes in his endeavour to  help us spot some crocodiles. However, we were not lucky enough! We had to make do with the mud marks left behind by these reptiles.

The JLR staff deserve a special mention all this while – right from the bellman, the adventure activity personnel, the dining area staff to the coracle boatmen . All of them made us feel comfortable and at ease. This courteous service added a special touch to our stay.

JLR Cabin

At around 7pm, it had become pitch dark and the path to the dining area was dimly lit with lamps hanging on the posts. Of course, it has to be dimly lit so as to not attract any wild animal towards us :). Armed with torches and flash lights from our mobiles, we made our way to the bonfire set up near the dining area. Chunks of marinated paneer, and veggies were being barbecued alongside. Not to forget the juicy chicken pieces for the meat lovers! The sky was amazingly clear there to allow us to indulge in star gazing. Seated around the bonfire, enjoying the lovely barbecue, and gazing at the twinkling stars above, made it a night to remember…

Bonfire

 

Barbecue

No cell phone service, no internet, no TV for the entire day and yet we had lots to do and enjoy! Camping definitely did wonders for our sleep as well. The next day started early for us at 6 am. We did not even need an alarm to get us up and going.We were all refreshed and invigorated for the morning’s adventure. Our guide led us through the forest on a trekking path atop a small hill. The watch tower there helped us get a good panoramic view of our trek route. We could also spot the JLR tucked up as a tiny dot in the trees yonder. While descending, however, we took a different route along the river banks to get back. The walk through the forest with monkeys jumping around on the trees, listening to an occasional trumpeting of the elephant nearby,  all made for an exciting trek back to the camp.

Trek route from atop a watch tower

 

Cauvery bank – laid dry in areas due to drought!

Our trip at JLR ended with a sumptuous breakfast. Need I mention that (good) food always forms a very important part of our vacation! Good food, courteous service and cleanliness were the hallmarks of this resort, set up in the verdant surroundings. Very happy with our JLR experience, we headed back to Bangalore with wonderful memories of this trip.

Had Maggi after ages! 😀

Disclaimer: This is not a paid/sponsored write up on JLR-Bheemeshwari and is solely based on my personal experiences and opinions.

Route taken – Bangalore –> Kanakapura Road (NH 48) —> Halaguru exit —> JLR

Singapore – The Jewel of South East Asia

Dec 2016

This Christmas, we visited Singapore – the Lion City of Asia. When I googled about Singapore, I was pleasantly surprised to know that Singapore stands for Singapura (‘Singa –lion, pura – town), a name it derived from Sanskrit. It is said that ancient India (before 1000 CE) exerted a profound influence on South East Asia, including Singapore and that it was a part of the Indianized kingdoms of Srivijaya empire, Majapahit and others.1  Apart from its ancient Indian connection, Singapore’s recent ‘rags-to-riches’ success story with its founding father, Lee Kuan Yew, impressed us greatly nonetheless!

 

Singapore Parliament House

We had an awesome week-long vacation exploring the city country and its diverse culture. Singapore, truly, is a lovely city in everything it offered to capture our imagination – from its towering skyscape to its neat, tree-lined streets; interspersed with beautiful open vistas of the Singapore river; its colourful, busy ethnic quarters full of zest and energy; to its daily refreshing rain showers – this little city country has much to offer to any wandering tourist.

Here in this blog, I am not going to write about the various touristy places, parks and zoos that we explored there. Singapore is quite a popular tourist destination and there is already loads of information on the net about which places to visit and sightsee.  It is also easy to move about in Singapore using their efficient Metro Transit Rail (MRT) system and Uber cabs. So, here I am going to focus on our cultural, gastronomic and shopping experiences that we enjoyed and are going to cherish for a long time to come!

Little India and Chinatown are the major cultural hubs of Singapore. Both these neighbourhoods are great places to hang out, shop and eat!  Squeaky clean streets, cheap food and lots of roadside shopping along with historic landmarks, lend its charm to these places. We wanted to visit Little India for all that we had heard about it; that this little district in Singapore is a miniature and sanitised version of the real India. And we were not disappointed! We were rather pleasantly surprised to see a mini Tamil town ensconced in there.

The moment we stepped out of the MRT into Little India, we were greeted with State Bank of India on one side and a line of Indian shops on the other – selling everything from vegetables, flowers, incense sticks, Kanjeevaram sarees, banana leaves, pooja items, etc. etc. The vendors were sprinkling water on their vegetables to keep them fresh and eventually wetting the footpaths in the process – just like in India :D. Loud Tamil songs were blaring from another shop! Komala Vilas and many other south Indian restaurants in the vicinity were buzzing with crowds. The familiar and delicious aroma of sambar was wafting through the air and whetting our appetites!

A typical lane in Little India

 Photo credit: http://www.10best.com/destinations/singapore/singapore/little-india/

We had not eaten Indian food for the past 3 days ever since we had landed! Coming from Bangalore, we visited Little India mainly to satisfy our cravings for Indian food.  We decided to go to Swad, a Gujarati thali place that proved true to its name. Armed with directions on our phone, we walked across the neighbourhood to this tiny vegetarian restaurant. We opted for the limited thali which served 3 different sabzis, dal, farsaan, khichdi/rice, and phulkas directly off the stove. Ravenous as we were, the food tasted super yummy and was gobbled up in no time.

During our numerous rides across Singapore, many Uber drivers had suggested that we visit Mustafa shopping centre situated on Serangoon Road in Little India. The 24-hours open, crowded shopping centre gave us some delightful shopping experience.  Chocolates and electronics were really cheap there as compared to those found in India!

However, unlike Little India, we visited Chinatown mainly to explore the culture and ethos of the Chinese immigrants there. Right at the entrance of Pagoda street (one of the main shopping street in Chinatown) is the Mariamman temple, the oldest Hindu shrine in Singapore. I covered my knees with a sarong wrap to enter the temple, but was not allowed to go close to the sanctum-sanctorum as visitors to the city were not allowed beyond a point.

The Pagoda street next to it is a line of Chinese shophouses on both sides of the street selling everything under the sun – right from trinkets, clothes, crockery, decorative items, spa treatments to exotic food. It also houses the Chinatown Heritage Centre depicting memories and stories of Singapore’s early forefathers.

 

In Chinatown

 

Again, a crowded street in Chinatown

 

The walk across Pagoda street led us to a MRT station and beyond that a flight of stairs took us to People’s Park Complex shopping centre. It is a modest mall as compared to the ones on Orchard Road but it did give us what we were looking for – Chilli oil and chilli paste. Yes! We absolutely love these condiments and wanted to buy it. We looked around in the mall and finally found it in a Mandarin-speaking shop on the ground floor. With a little help around the shop, we soon discovered them in one of the aisles. I incidentally found some pu-erh tea as well (the Chinese tea which supposedly has many health benefits) which we picked.

 

Chilli oil and chilli paste on the shelves

 

Pu-erh tea

 

Happy with our finds, we further wandered around the mall to reach a crowded little place serving hotpot to its customers. Hotpot, as I found out, is a simmering stew of vegetables and meat served along with noodles or rice. The dish looked super healthy and quite popular too. The wee-little shop was overcrowded! A little across the corner, we came across a shop selling dumplings of various kinds. Although I am a vegetarian, these exotic foods surely fascinated the foodie in me 😀

Hotpot

 

At the People’s Park Complex

 

At the People’s Park Complex

The Chinese New Year (which fell on Jan 28, 2017) preparations had already begun and the streets in Chinatown were a picture of colour and gaiety. Paper lanterns and decorations in red and yellow hues were all around us. We were also lucky enough to see a lion dance unfolding on the busy streets there. Our Uber driver told us that such functions were held not only during the new year celebrations but also at business-opening ceremonies to usher in prosperity and good luck. How cool is that!

A lane in Chinatown

Our day in Chinatown concluded with a visit to the famous Buddha Tooth Relic Temple. People were offering incense sticks at the entrance as a mark of respect. Again, I covered my shoulders and knees with sarongs kept in a box outside the temple.  Though this time, I wrapped myself up quite tightly with the sarong before entering the temple (it’s a pain if you have to keep on fixing the sarong time and again lest it slips :D). A holy ritual of some kind was going on with monks standing near the altar and singing prayers. The atmosphere inside the temple premises was soothing and calm. The museum on the top floor is worth a dekko too.

 

 

Buddha Tooth Relic Temple
Inside the temple premises

 

Orchard Road, a well-known shopping destination, was a picture of festivity on Christmas Eve. Decorations and lights adorned the shops and the atmosphere was one of joy. We shopped in Daiso and a couple of other Japanese outlets before calling it a day. After shopping, we decided to try some authentic Chinese food. Indo-Chinese food with all the manchurians and spicy flavours that we get in India is totally Indian!  Being in Singapore, we wanted to taste the ‘authentic’ Chinese (read vegetarian :p) cuisine….And thanks to my husband’s buddy and his wife, we  dined at Din Tai Fung, a popular Taiwanese restaurant ranked as one of the Top Ten Best Restaurants in the world.

Orchard Road on Christmas Eve

 

 

 

Chefs busy making baos and dumplings in Din Tai Fung

We patiently waited for a good 45 minutes before we could enter the restaurant. We were supposed to order while waiting outside and were given the menu and the ordering card. Our friends helped us order all the right vegetarian dishes –soups, baos, dumplings, fried rice, noodles and the amazingly delicious mango pudding and yes! – not to forget the ‘gratis’ supply of green tea! The food was extremely low on fat and spices and was delicious. We really enjoyed the food, the company and the overall authentic Chinese/Taiwanese (One-China policy 😉 )experience.

No Singapore trip can be complete without visiting Sentosa, the Singapore Zoo and the famous Jurong Bird Park. Sentosa (again derived from the Sanskrit word ‘Santosha’, meaning happiness ) is an island-resort replete with theme parks and resorts. A couple of our days in Singapore were mostly spent in Sentosa, enjoying Universal Studios, aquarium, and the thrilling, ziplining ride to Siloso beach.  On one of the days, we decided to take the cable car from Mt. Faber to reach Sentosa, taking in the beautiful sights from above; and on another day we took an Uber through the underground roads of the island to reach there. Clicking pictures with the exotic birds, eating delicious coconut ice cream served in coconut shells, spotting a man taking a selfie with a huge snake around his neck; all made for wonderful, happy memories of this place.

 

Cable cars crossing over from Mt. Faber to Sentosa

 

 

Coconut icecreams

 

Inside Universal Studios

 

The Monorail of Sentosa

A visit to Jurong bird park and the Zoo were a must-do for our little one and we were equally glad that we did it. Impeccably maintained with a variety of trees and animals/birds, these places reminded us of the once lush green cover of equatorial forests, this island would have had!

Another place deserving a mention is our visit to the Gardens by the Bay. The Cloud Forest Dome in there is a cool, moist observatory showcasing plant life at different altitudes. It has the world’s tallest indoor waterfall, cascading against a mountain. The dome periodically creates an artificial but refreshing mist to mimic the natural environment. The flower dome next to the Cloud dome is equally fantastic. It is the largest glass greenhouse in the world and has an amazing, informative display of flowers and plants from the Mediterranean and semi-arid regions. Gardens by the Bay was a one-of-its-kind experience for us. It was an evening well spent. I would strongly recommend this place for all visitors in Singapore.

Exiting the gardens, we decided to dine at Clark Quay (Boat quay). We entered one of the pedestrianised lanes that curves itself along the Singapore river. The lane was buzzing with lights and crowds. It was packed with bars and restaurants set in iconic, multi-storeyed houses with the famous Fullerton hotel standing tall on the other side of the bank. We preferred the open-air seating by the river. The cool, refreshing breeze passing ferry cruises, the hearty dinner served, and my lovely family as company, all made it a night to remember!

We spent almost a week in Singapore and yet felt that there is much more left to explore. We visited all the major landmarks and tourist places and felt that we could have easily spent more time in these places. But, time and flight wait for none ;). Thoroughly impressed with Singapore, we packed our bags with an intent to return soon. Adios!

 

 

Recommended restaurants:

1)Piedra Negra – Mexican cuisine

Address: 241 Beach Rd, Singapore 189753 Phone: +65 6291 1297

2) Swad – Indian cuisine

Address: 70 Desker Rd, Singapore 209593 Phone: +65 9890 0061

3) Maharajah Boat-Quay

41 Boat Quay, Singapore 049830 Phone: +65 6535 0122

4) Din Tai Fung – Chinese cuisine (it’s a chain all over the city)

Address: 290 Orchard Rd, #B1-03, Paragon Shopping Centre, Singapore 238859 Phone:+65 6836 8336

5) Sawasdee – Thai cuisine

Address: 32 Pagoda St, Singapore 059191 Phone:+65 6327 1733

 

Recommended shops/malls:

1) Bugis Street – One of the biggest and cheapest places in Singapore to shop for clothes, souvenirs, accessories, electronics, cosmetics and houseware.

2) Daiso department store – It is a Japanese variety-store chain selling stationery, toys, decorations, gifts, etc. Items are sold for S$2 each.

3) Mustafa Centre – the 24-hour shopping centre/supermarket located in Little India

4) Orchard Road – a 2.2 km shopping stretch for high-end retail therapy

5) VivoCity Mall – located in Harbourfront precint of Bukit Merah

 

 

References:

  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Singaporean_Indians

Sailing to Flam (Norway)

We were all ready to explore Norway on a cruise ship. We had read beautiful stories of the vistas of Norway; especially of its fjords and the stunning landscape it offers. Flam, situated on the western coast of Norway, was our first destination and it did mesmerise us as expected. Truly speaking, words are not enough to describe the magical sights, we witnessed in Flam. Hopefully, my pictures will do some justice to describe what we experienced.

flam-port
Port of Flam

Flam is a little hamlet of majestic beauty with about 700 residents, located at the inner end of Aurlandsfjord – an 18-mi long branch of Sognefjord. The landscape is colossal with deep fjords adjoining the tall granite cliffs, which are dotted with red & white houses and numerous waterfalls interspersing its vastness. Sognefjord is the largest fjord in Norway with a stretch of 127 mi and the second longest fjord in the world. It is also listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

A population of just 700 people does seem a small number when one stays in India, doesn’t it? :D. However, such is the beauty of the place that it receives almost 450,000 visitors every year! Furthermore, the Flam harbour too receives about 160 cruise ships a year.  With such a large influx of tourists, it is amazing that the place is divinely charming and pristine as if left untouched.

ms Koningsdam - our cruise ship
ms Koningsdam – our cruise ship

Our ship docked at Flam sharp at 8 am and was to set sail at 5 pm the same day. So, we had close to 9 hours to see this beautiful place. We had booked a Fjordsafari-Hiking-Goatfarm-Lunch tour with a group there ( www.flamguide.no ) from 9 am to 2:40 pm. The tour started with us wearing a warm, waterproof oversuit which contained a floatation device  (seriously, the fjords are about 1500 metres deep in some areas!!! )and hopping onto a speed boat.

Our boat guide was a Norwegian guy who had migrated from Bergen to the surroundings of Flam, where he had bought 33,000 acres of land. Yes, you heard it right! He bought a goat farm high up on the mountains adjoining the fjords. In summer time, he farms his land wherever it is arable and in other seasons, when farming is not possible, he doubles up as a guide offering his excellent services to tourists. He chose this village life over the city life in Bergen and is quite content about the way he gets time to spend with his family amidst nature!

Fjord
Fjord

We started off towards the heart of the Naeroyfjord (branch of Sognefjord) and also sailed a bit of the Sognefjord before reaching our destination. On the way there, we saw the fjord banks dotted with numerous charming hamlets and  verdant farms. Inspite of being located in such a popular tourist area, these hamlets are very remotely connected and are majorly accessible only by water.  One such farm – the Stigen farm, now turned into a hotel, must surely  be the most inaccessible of them all.  Perched up high on a cliff, this farm is accessible only by a ladder. In days of yore, when the farm had any unwelcome visitor like the tax collectors, the farmer, it seems, would simply pull up the ladder. However, now it is a very popular hotel in the tourist season and gets fully booked 3 years in advance!

Hotel which is accessible by only ladder
Stigen farm – cum – hotel

As we sped further ahead in our boat, we reached Undredal, the village which is famous for its goat cheese. This fjord village has about only 80 residents, 300 goats and the smallest stave church in the whole of Scandinavia. Cheese production still happens here the traditional way and it is quite famous for its brown cheese. Dotted with red houses, flanking the vertical cliffs and waterfalls, this unique village in the middle of the World Heritage area, was a sight to behold!

Undredal - the cheese making village
Undredal

We reached Aurlandsfjord and were almost ready to dock in Skjerdal, when we spotted a dolphin jumping out of water. Some seals were making merry just on the other side of our boat. Well, this was a good start! Now, we looked forward to the hike. It had taken us about 40-45 minutes to reach Skjerdal.

At the wharf, we jumped out of our speed boats, got out of our oversuits and began the rather steep but short hike towards Leim goat farm. It was a beautiful hike with splendid views of the fjords along the way.

the-gorgeous-view-from-the-hike
Vistas as seen from the hike

Soon, we reached a motorable road along our hike route, from where we spotted the white Leim farmhouse.

 

 

 

The goat farm at Leim
The white coloured farm house at Leim

We continued the hike and came across a stony path filled with adorable goats, just below the farm house. The goats were very friendly and were trying to chew at our backpacks;) We spent some time clicking pictures and goofing around with the goats and then made our way to the farm house.

Our grand goatee welcome to the farmhouse 😉

goat

The 1.5 hour hike was a bit tiring, particularly as it brought us along some steep climbs. On reaching the farmhouse, we were greeted by a young Norwegian girl, dressed in a local attire. She was home on vacation and was helping her mom cater to the tourists. She herself had prepared delicious lunch of salads, pesto, salami, goat milk spiced yoghurt and a variety of cheeses for us. Ravenous as we were after the hike, we immediately settled down on a terrace overlooking a beautiful valley for a sumptuous lunch. She served us the lunch with some warm bread and fresh apple juice.

The cheeses were all home made from their own farm’s goat milk and so was the meat. Meat was obtained from the old goats who were no longer useful. As we gorged on the food, she further brought in plates of pancakes with brown cheese…yeah brown cheese! It is the cheese which is made from the leftover whey.  A delightful gastronomic experience it was!

Our (goat) cheesy lunch at the farmhouse
Our (goat) cheesy lunch at the farmhouse
Pancakes served with brown cheese and blueberry preserve (not in the pic)
Pancakes served with brown cheese and blueberry preserve (not in the pic)

It started raining while we were having our lunch and this made the vistas around us all the more beautiful. Mists of clouds were drifting over us as we started our descent. It just seemed magical. Our hiking guide told us that it was the fjords and the culture of Norway (Undredal and other places) which inspired Disney’s movie Frozen.  No wonder, the region seemed like a fairyland in the mists.

At the base, we drove back to the port of Flam enjoying a hearty chat with our Swedish guide, and I making a mental note to myself…to capture this wonderful experience on my blog soon 🙂

The Bosphorus ferry tour of Istanbul

April 4, 2015

I was super excited! It was going to be a 2-week long trip in Turkey, starting from Istanbul. Not many would be aware that Istanbul or Constantinopole of ancient times,  is a city on two continents – one part in Asia (known locally as Anatolia) and other part in Europe.  The Bosphorus Strait runs across the city dividing it into continents and connects the Black Sea to the Marmara Sea. The Strait has been a site of significant settlement and civilisation since ancient times. It was here, on the European side of the Bosphorus, the Greeks founded the city of Byzantium, which later came to be known as Istanbul.

 

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Photo credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/melih_ozcanli/9690831491/

 

We landed at the airport and hired a cab to our hotel near Sultanahmet square. We were waiting for the cab when a German backpacker student approached us and asked if we would be willing to share a cab with her.  Of course, we agreed and started off towards the city (50 TL per person). It took us a good two hours to make our way to our hotel. The sights and sounds as we neared the city, felt familiar – the chaos on the road, traffic jams, ladies and children [most of them were the displaced Syrian refugees 🙁 ] selling trinkets on the street and lots and lots of crowds everywhere. The driver took upon himself to show us his beautiful city as we rode by. The traffic was heavy as we passed along the Bosphorus Strait, but the sights were stunning.

The air travel, and the cab ride had drained us out for the day. It was almost 6 pm in the evening when we checked in to our hotel. It was a cold and windy day and the weather was unusually cold at 6 degrees Celcius for that time of the year.  We wrapped ourselves in jackets and headed out to explore the neighbourhood and grab some food.

We had a quick dinner of Mezes (local word for appetizers) in a nearby Turkish restaurant. Being a vegetarian, left me with very little options on the first day. I  ordered some falafel and hummus. The bread was complimentary. It was a big roti like bread sprinkled with a variety of seeds, including sesame seeds.  The hummus which came with it was lipsmackingly delicious. Later, in my coming days, I found out that vegetarians do have plenty of food options in Turkey. Not only in a big city like Istanbul but elsewhere too.  Its good to go green 😉

We still had to plan our 3-day stay in Istanbul. Our hotel owner was a friendly and helpful guy. He made us feel comfortable with all the little tips and pointers one needs to get around a new city in a new country. Not only he helped us book  our Istanbul tours but he also helped us in booking the Cappadocia and Izmir tours!

We decided to take the Bosphorus Strait Tour early in the morning the next day. We were picked up at our hotel in a bus and dropped near the ferry point. We were a group of around 12-15 people, all excited to start the tour. I was wondering how will I brave the biting cold on the open deck of the cruise. Hubby was insistent  that we be on the open deck on the top floor to enjoy the view rather than be in the cosy warmth of the covered lower deck. I agreed.

 

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Our first halt was at the Ortakoy mosque, one of the most famous locations on the Bosphorus. It is a picturesque mosque with the Bosphorus bridge in the background. We stopped here for about 40 minutes and got ample of time to see the mosque and get some shopping done as well. The mosque is very pretty as you see in the pics below with beautiful in-laid tiles and decorated ceilings. The area near the mosque is lined with roadside shops selling knick knacks and other items. We were lucky to find some beautifully embroidered table cloths at a steal deal and a pair of gloves to help me beat the chill.

 

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The Bosphorus bridge joins the Asian side with the European side of the city. As we ferried on, we passed under the bridge to reach the Kucuksu Pavilion. This was the Sultan’s guesthouse during his frequent hunting expeditions and is now turned into a museum. It is a beautiful palace with intricate engravings and other motifs adorning the walls. We spent around an hour at this place clicking away to glory.

 

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Back on the ferry, we were treated to some delectable cookies and a sweet sherbet. Munching on the food, we were drinking in the beauty of the stunning views of the city.

Our next stop was the Rumesli fortress built by the Ottoman king, Sultan Mehmed-II.  We were told that the fortress was constructed at the narrowest point of the Bosphorus strait, opposite an Anatolian Castle on the other side. These two vantage points served to protect the city from invaders via the Strait and also to prevent any aid from the Black Sea to reach the city during its Turkish seige. Interestingly, this fortress, was built in a very short span of 4 months and 16 days to help the conquest of the city from the Byzantines.

 

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We clicked a lot of random pictures while listening to our guide narrating us the history of the place. The view of the Bosphorus strait from the top of the fortress was amazing! We hurried back down so as to not miss seeing the gigantic chains, which run between Rumeli fortress and the Anatolian Castle on the other side.  These were again used to safeguard the city by preventing the enemy ships from crossing the narrow strait.

The highlight of our cruise though, was the yummy lunch they served us on the the ferry. Inspite of being a vegetarian, my options were not limited and I was served a delicious spread of  close to 8-10 cold Turkish mezes and soft drinks. I loved the mezes so much that I ended up asking the guide about its recipes and was not surprised that a lot of effort of pounding and grinding the spices, lent the dishes its delicious flavours.

After lunch, we started cruising again towards the Black Sea. Our last stop was at the fishing village of Anadolu Kavagi. It is a typical fishing village dotted with  fish-n-chips shops, not far from the mouth of the Black Sea. There were ruins of a castle up a nearby hill, which we intended to see. The view from the top was quite raved about. The walk to the castle was quite steep and it took us around 20-25 minutes to get there. The castle had a lovely restaurant overlooking the Black Sea. There was nothing much remaining of the castle except its walls. However, we soaked ourselves in the vastness of the Black Sea spread out there to our heart’s content!  It feels amazing to experience the history and culture of a foreign city in such a wonderful way.

 

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On the way down, we saw a local lady in a lovely local attire, swirling something like a pizza base in her hands. On getting closer, I saw that it was a small kiosk selling something very similar to aloo parathas – Gozleme Patate. She had small bowls filled with mashed potatoes, & cheese and was expertly making those Gozlemes by making them fly like saucers. All the trek up and down the castle had whetted our appetites and we ordered one plate of those steaming hot parathas (Gozlemes ;)) We relished every bit of it along with the mesmerising views that the castle offered us. The new culture, new cuisine, ever-sociable Turks and the new sights made our trip a truly memorable one.

Back on the ferry, I convinced my hubby to sit on the lower deck ensconced in the warmth of the cabin. We reached our drop-off point in around 45 minutes bidding adieu to the wonderful Bosphorus!

This cruise is one of the must-do’s in Istanbul and will definitely leave you with long-lasting, and scenic memories 🙂

Tryst with Nature and Solitude @ Sakleshpur

May 14-16, 2016

Sakleshpur is a quaint little hill station, tucked away on the slopes of the verdant Western ghats. Famous for its coffee plantations, the town is amidst green hills full of coffee, cardamom, pepper and areca plantations. It is not as popular as the neighbouring Coorg but nevertheless, equally beautiful, less commercialized and more peaceful.

Our drive from Bangalore was a beautiful one on wonderfully maintained, lush green roads. We reached the destination in under 5 hours with stops in between for refreshments.The Bangalore-Mangalore (BM) Road which took us to Sakleshpur is a beautiful tree-lined road offering scenic views time and again. The road is lined with picturesque tall hedges enclosing coffee and pepper plantations within. While driving, we could also see swathes of mist flying down towards our car. That was truly a sight to behold as we felt we are floating in the clouds! The mild temperatures, cool, fresh breeze, abundant greenery interspersed with bright red May flowers in their full bloom, made for a refreshing sight.

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The dirth path to solitude

Sk11 chameleon

 

We were really thrilled to be at such a place, away from the crowds of Bangalore and also from the crowds usually seen at other popular hill stations at this time of the year.

On reaching Sakleshpur, we found our way to our homestay, which was located some 15 odd kms away from the town. We checked in our homestay at around noon and decided to spend our time relaxing there in the afternoon.

Evening came and we wanted to get out and explore the rural surroundings. Deciding to take a stroll nearby, we walked on and reached vast, rolling expanses of grasslands, without any civilization in sight. It felt magical to be in the middle of nowhere, with just small hills covered with lush green vegetation rising in the background. We proceeded along the mud path on the grassland and reached a small rivulet flowing through a few paddy fields. There was a small arch-shaped bridge, which helped us cross over to the paddy fields. It all seemed very charming and serene! Thatches of hay lay stacked in the paddy fields; a lone village woman making her way back to her village, seemed picturesque!

Sk2- the rolling grasslandsSk3- the path to the fields

Sk4- the lone village woman

Sk5- paddy fields

Sk6- A walk in the fields

Suddenly dark clouds started gathering in the sky and we decided to hurry our way back to the homestay. Already tired with the day’s driving, we decided to call it a day.

The next day after a hearty breakfast, we decided to visit the ancient Belur temple, renowned for its architectural beauty. We were advised against visiting the Manjarabad fort and the Bisle view point. The fort it seems was in a filthy condition and the road leading to the Bisle view point was in a bad shape as well. Hence, we decided on Belur.

The drive to Belur from Sakleshpur was again a very smooth one with verdant roads all the way. It took us around 1 hour to reach Belur and we parked our car near the temple wall in one of the lanes there. We hired a government guide at the entrance of the temple. He was to charge us Rs 300 for about 30-35 minutes of the guided tour of the main temple.

He explained all the sculptures and carvings on the temple gopuram, and on the walls, in detail. He was an expert in his work – I guess practice made him talk perfectly in a rhythm non stop! The lady with the mirror; the queen who danced on the pedestal in front of the main shrine; the fashion (saaj shringar) in those days; all these and other stories carved on the temple walls fascinated us. The soapstone carvings are so intricate that the temple indeed seems to be decorated with a filigree all around it.We were mesmerized by the architectural beauty of the temple and were  dumbstruck with the intricate carvings it has. One of the pillars near the sanctum sanctorum, actually used to rotate around its axis till some 200-300 years ago (Picture below). A architectural wonder, I must say!

SK7- entrance to temple

Sk8- Inside the main temple

Sk9- The rotating pillar

SK10 beautiful pillar

It was about 1 pm in the afternoon and hunger pangs started to kick in. There were no restaurants or eateries in sight near Belur. We started towards Sakleshpur hoping for some delicious  lunch. We stopped at a vegetarian restaurant next to the Ossoor coffee estates on BM road. The place was full and we had to wait for 5 minutes before we could get a table for ourselves. The waiter got us seated and handed us the menu card. And man, what an extensive menu they had! – They had everything from North Indian, South Indian to Chinese. The food was tasty and the quantities were huge. While we were busy eating, the rain gods descended upon us with a fervour. The rains lashing in the adjacent lush green coffee estate  made for a splendid sight from the restaurant (Meal with a view! :D).We ended our meal with a delicious filter coffee, which it seems was from their own coffee estate. So obviously we ended up buying 2kgs of their coffee powder and some garam masala before we started for our homestay again.

The rains had subsided by the time we reached our homestay. However, later in the evening, the rains started again with loud thunderstorms and lightning.  It was already dark outside by 6pm and the atmosphere was cool and windy.We decided that it was best to spend our time indoors. We wrapped ourselves warm and chillaxed in the room with a cup of hot chai and a good book on the kindle.

Although, there is not much to sightsee in Sakleshpur, it makes for a good short stay if one is willing to spend time with oneself amidst nature.

Finding a place in the lap of nature, beholding the undulating landscape of the Western ghats, with not a soul in a sight, made our weekend getaway even better! We could unwind away from the humdrum of the city and could truly drift away in the clouds of Sakleshpur.

Tips:

Route taken from Bangalore: ORR- Tumkur Road- NH-48 – BM Road- Sakleshpur