Thailand 2019: Phuket and Phi Phi islands

Covid-19 is still having a free rein in 2020 and so the travel-deprived moi shall be content with memories of past holidays. My recent-most trip is almost a year ago, to Thailand with the hubby’s extended family, thanks to Banti mama. I find myself back in time on my second day in beautiful Phuket, continuing on from my last post (Thailand November 2019: Phuket).

The highlight of Phuket is the stunning coastline and the islands just off its coast. This day, we had a pre-booked tour to the well-known Phi -Phi islands. Ideally we would have chosen to stay a couple of nights instead of just doing a day trip like we did this time, well you learn something every day! Fortunately for all the older people in our group, we were booked on a huge boat and not a small long-tailed boat or speed boat, which had been a pain for the poor seniors. After waking up unreasonably early and driving almost an hour to the pier, we stood waiting for the boat to be loaded for another hour. Needless to say, we were (as in Krabi Thailand November 2019: Krabi 4 island tour), completely disgusted by the tour operators; all except Babu masi, who utilized the time to shop. (In retrospect, it might have been the smarter thing to do)

Ever-smiling Babu masi spent the wait time fruitfully

When we finally boarded the boat, we were even more disappointed to find our seats in the lowest cabin area that had tiny cubby-hole windows way above seat level. There goes the view! “Thomas Cook never again,” was everyone’s furious decision!

The ride to the islands is 2 hours and the airconditioning in the claustrophobic cabin ( unthinkable today!) was the only saving grace. Oh and the “Gujju” food bag! With no food service on board, we thanked our lucky stars for our smart vision in carrying the food bag everywhere (and for finding it at Bangkok airport!). Once you are stuffed silly, even a dull ride can seem less painful! Of course, there are mobile phones to while away the time.

Kids can always entertain themselves. Look at the bored/ sleeping adults behind!
The hubby needed no device, the kids had a blast playing with him and jumping over him!

However, even mobiles, running and jumping about could get boring and after some time with no beautiful sea scape to wow us, everyone slid into a slumber.

Finally, they allowed us to go onto the deck and there was a mad scramble to get out into the sunshine.

Karst islands rising from the deep blue sea and the stunning clear blue skies ensured that we never went back down
Banti mama enjoyed a chilled beer while the kids had icecream

If you travel by speedboat to the Phi Phi islands, you can get off at the island where the Leonardo diCaprio starrer “The Beach” was filmed, but the big boat tour only takes you to an island where you can snorkel and then on to the Phi Phi islands themselves. So a bunch of us and the 2 teens got onto another boat to snorkel while the senior citizens and the kids went onto Phi Phi directly.

It was my first time snorkeling and I really enjoyed it. Not having carried an underwater camera casing, I have no pictures but this is something I have to do again for sure. It was fascinating to see the pretty yellow and black striped fish and marvel at a rare blue one, and fun to be bobbing in the ocean, trying to stay within the ropes.

Tiny fish in the clear waters off the pier at Phi Phi

Phi Phi island is quite large, very crowded and touristy. And yet, it has a certain charm to it. Maybe it’s the beautiful color of the waters, the delicious food available, or just the chilled island vibe, but I felt that this would be a lovely place to stay at, especially after day trippers like us were gone.

Banti mama loved this island

Our tour included lunch at the main beach area, so we rushed through the market without stopping and had a very average lunch (the only 2 bad meals on the trip were those included in the tour). It probably was for the best as we quickly wolfed down the food and dove in to the best beach I swam in on this trip. White sands and clear blue waters, absolute bliss!

Sadly, we didn’t have enough time to enjoy our seaside bliss, as we had to head back pretty soon. We walked back through the market place, grabbing some slush and icecream on the way, wishing we’d stayed here instead of at the mainland. On the boat ride back, the seniors and kids had a bit of shut-eye, but we had a great time on the deck in the blazing sun, watching the beautiful scenery rush by.

My brother-in-law and sister-in-law getting very tanned on the deck

Back at the hotel, we roamed around our hotel area, making a mental note of places to eat at. We were surprised to see the large numbers of massage parlors in the area, and a little doubtful about what exactly was on offer. We finally decided to actually see for ourselves instead of slandering them without evidence & dived into one. I am happy to report that I had the best foot massage ever and nothing else happened. At least I think so, as I fell asleep!

While in Phuket, one must sample the nightlife, and so we headed off with our younger cousins to Bangla road, the neon lit, pedestrian-only vibrant center of night life in Patong Bay area. The party here is not only in the bars, but all along the road. The long day caught up with us, and we, the older lot needed to call it a day by midnight, which is actually when the ‘day’ begins in Bangla.

Since the last 4 days had been crazily hectic, we decided to just rest the next day and have really no plan but local sight seeing. The kids were desperate to swim, so they leapt into the hotel’s tiny pool, while we walked around our hotel and then headed for a long lazy lunch.

We simply took over the entire restaurant!
Beloved food of our teens

That evening, we planned to visit the local beach that was a mere 1.5 km walk from our hotel. As we set off, we were pleasantly surprised to come across the Phuket Patong Bay parade, with beautifully decorated floats and people dancing in their local costumes.

The kids joined in the parade and merrily danced along. The rest of us walked ahead to the beach to catch the sunset, the only sunset we saw at the beach on this trip.

My sister-in-law loved the chilled coconut water at the beach

As it grew dark, the floats lit up, and the dancers put up quite a show for us. This unplanned evening turned out to be the most fun filled evening for us!

My brother-in-law and sister-in-law posed with the prettiest lady in the parade

My niece spotted a Starbucks, and dived in. Kids and their fads! FYI, back in India, my house is 500m from a Starbucks! So much for trying the local cuisine, the curse of globalisation! All in all, it was worth getting in simply to enjoy some air-conditioning actually.

I loved these pretty wooden lamps

The entire beachfront ahead was lined by beautifully decorated shacks, selling drinks and a huge variety of food. But we already had our share of overpriced corporate cake & coffee so we could only gawk at it!

Filled to the brim, we walked back to our hotel. The next day, we had an early morning flight to Bangkok. Phuket turned out to be a surprisingly enjoyable place. Food was outstanding and despite the long distances, this large peninsula had enough to keep everyone entertained. And I slept happily, dreaming of this gorgeous sunset.

P.S. Many many thanks to Yogesh Shenoy for editing my very lacklustre post and making it a post worth a read.

Thailand November 2019: Phuket

September 2020 is when I thought I would be able to take my postponed North Italy trip. Of course, I’ve been living in fool’s paradise with hopes that just cannot materialize. With all plans of travel in 2020 dashed, it’s nice to revisit a wonderful, unplanned and unexpected trip to Thailand almost a year ago, courtesy hubby’s uncle and aunt, Banti mama and Renu masi. I’ve already relived the Krabi trip in previous posts, it’s time to move onto Phuket.

On the third day of our trip, we woke up early (again) for the long 4 hour drive to Phuket. I didn’t know the 2 places were so far apart, and was lucky that I had enough music stored on my phone to keep me company as we drove past groves of trees with no water in sight. Tired by the early morning, everyone else fell asleep but Coldplay managed to keep me up till we finally reached Phuket and planned a long day of sightseeing before reaching the hotel.

As always, included city tours are boring, with visits meant to lure the unsuspecting occasional traveler to overpriced lousy stores and over-touristy destinations from where the drivers get kickbacks. Luckily, we had our own list of places to visit that the kids would enjoy and were spared half of the unwanted destinations that the guide tried to make us visit. After a slow (but delicious) Punjabi lunch at a “dhaba” styled restaurant run by a Sardarji, we went straight to Tiger kingdom.

I really hate the idea of drugging an animal for letting kids and adults pose with them, but we had little kids with us who were too young to understand such concepts and were all charged up about touching a real tiger. Surprisingly, our teens were just as charged up and despite my entreaties, joined the kids in the tiger cub “meet and greet”.

Some day, they will realise their folly, till then, they will be happy with this memory
Delicious mango slush with mangoes while waiting for the kids

Any trip with kids has to have enough for them to do and Thailand certainly provided enough. Straight from Tiger kingdom, we went to Dolphin bay to see a seal and dolphin show. Even with my anti-animal torture sentiments, I loved the show. Dolphins are my favorite sea animals and it’s relieving to see how much their trainers love them, even while making them perform in ways they really shouldn’t be doing.

The highlight of the show was when we could actually touch the dolphins. Having never gotten close to a dolphin, I was the first to rush ahead this time and was shocked by how rubbery their skins were and still amazed by the beauty of these graceful sea animals. Sigh! I really don’t have the right to talk about kids’ folly!

From there, we were whisked away to a temple, only to have our teens groan away at that thought. However, Thai temples are beautiful and peaceful and we enjoyed posing outside and inside the temple.

I was impressed by the photography skill of the driver, who captured all of us with the temple
Ask nicely and y’all will be blessed!

Like all Buddhist temples, the architecture was ornate and detailed, but not a shade on those in Bangkok. We climbed up all the levels to the terrace with a beautiful view of the huge Buddha statue on top of a hill and the surroundings.

Banti mama and Renu masi really enjoyed the temples

It wasn’t just humans and drugged animals who posed nicely for us that day, some animals were naturally forth-coming for their turn on my lens.

It was getting late and dark as we left, but our driver was keen on taking us a viewpoint over Phuket bay, so we drove and drove up a long winding slope to reach a beautiful terrace with a great view.

As we watched the sun set and the city light up, the exhaustion of the day finally caught up with us. Having emptied out the Gujju snack bag, we drove to the hotel past glittering streets and high end boutiques. After some rest, we indulged in some street food (the best street food of the teen’s life, she’s drooling even as I type) and visited a night market for some unique food options.

Tiny tables lined the market
I have never seen so much sea food at one spread

Our teens went off with the hubby’s younger cousins, one of whom was once a chef in a 5 star hotel, to try local cuisine. And did their horizons broaden! For a change, my daughter stayed off pizza and pasta and tried something different, including even octopus and clams!

My sister-in-law and I, much less adventurous and vegetarian, had a blast sampling the exotic fruits and desserts available.

Ice creams and slushes made using delicious fresh fruit

Having had such a hectic but exciting day, we were happy to crash into bed early as we had another long day ahead of us, a full day trip to the famed Phi Phi islands. However, the exhaustion of writing has crept up on me just as the exhaustion after that long first day at Phuket, and so, the story will continue on yet another “locked down” day.

Thailand November 2019: Krabi 4 island tour

There are some places that one describes as impossibly beautiful, and they stay fixed in one’s mind as impossibly beautiful forever. For me, one of them is Krabi, more specifically, its islands. The soft golden sands with stunningly clear turquoise-green waters and deep blue skies have captured my heart. I have always loved beaches, but Krabi’s beaches are a class apart and I would love to go back.

It was our second day at Krabi and of the unexpected trip to Thailand courtesy the hubby’s uncle and aunt Banti mama and Renu masi (Thailand November 2019). We had to wake up ridiculously early (for a holiday) to go on the pre-booked 4 island tour. Thanks to the rain, we had rested enough the previous day and could wake up on time for a scrumptious breakfast and head off on time, sleepy but very excited.

DSC_6473

A sneak peek of the day ahead, shimmering through a gap in the trees

It is a different matter that once we were unceremoniously dumped by the car driver at the meeting point, there was no one to meet. We went to the waterfront, to the few shacks around, then back to the drop-off point, but found no one. Banti mama struggled to call the local travel agent, who didn’t take the calls. After more than half an hour of getting frustrated, we met someone who told us to wait near the waters.

IMG_20191029_072725m

Everyone was grinning at having found the tour organisers

Happy to find a point of contact, we walked right back to the beachfront, cheerfully stood under the trees, admiring the waters and wondering how there was no one around, while the kids shrieked for beach toys. As their mother went back towards the road for the toys, she noticed a large gang of people and approached them to ask about our tour guide. It turned out that we should have been waiting right there, by the road, instead of being misguided by one of their own people!

As we trudged the long walk back, the tour guide actually yelled at us for having wandered off and making everyone late. That was the last straw, considering that we had reached way before anyone else.

20191029_092927

However, it was impossible to stay angry for too long, as the tour group was led by an extremely entertaining woman. She proceeded to “orient” us for the better part of an hour. She had us in splits, not because she was funny, but because she was really silly. We could only thank our stars that she was not our boat guide.

20191029_094801

Traditional long tailed boats

We set off almost 3 hours after reaching the beach from where the tour started, and it was very hot by then. Still, we were very excited as we approached the line up of long tailed boats, till we struggled to clamber in. Note to all elderly and physically challenged travelers, approach these boats with caution. You need to wade into thigh deep water and hoist yourself over the edge to get in. Luckily, with a lot of effort, all 18 of us managed to get in safe and sound and settled in, and then we set off.

20191029_100055m

This neat orientation took half an hour to set up and was undone in 5 minutes!

Soon, the beach was a tiny speck on the horizon and beautiful blue-green waters surrounded us. A gentle breeze blew into the boats, cooling those of us not covered by the shade. Fortunately, the Gujju food bag had made its way onto the boat too, and we cheerfully chomped on theplas and chili pickle, interspersed with biscuits.

Once your tummies are full, everything appears more beautiful. The sea appeared greener, the skies bluer and the sun seemed sunnier!

20191029_100827

Even the clouds seemed, well, cloudier.

20191029_101458m

Even the grins were toothier!

20191029_101115

Happily, we leaned over the side of the boat and let our fingers trail in the water. The kids squealed as the spray flew over their faces, and we had to hold them down as they jumped about. Tall karst islands protruded from the waters, some with entertaining shapes.

20191029_102545

Soon, it was time to reach our first island of the 4 island tour, Phranang Cave on Railey island. As we moved in, we could see that this part of the island was packed with people and boats. Our driver expertly maneuvered between 2 boats, and hurriedly 2 adults, 3 kids and 1 teen jumped out and ran onto the beach. Before any more of us could hop out, the waves started tossing our boat towards the neighboring one. Our driver struggled to control the rocking boat and we to keep our balance. Unable to secure a safe docking spot, he finally moved away, planning to dock a little ahead.

But he hadn’t accounted for a new set of boats coming in. Before we could reach the shore, the landing area was full and we had no way to get off. Feeling panic stricken about being separated from our group, we considered jumping into the water and swimming to the shore, but the driver and guide wouldn’t allow us. Finally the boat had to back away, turn around some rocks in the water and stop on a part of the island far away from the rest of our family.

20191029_104101

We spent a lot of time just trying to get to the shore

IMG_20191029_091227

My sisters-in-law at the tail of the boat

The guide told us that we could only spend half an hour here as he had wasted a good chunk of the allotted time trying to get the boat to the shore. My mother-in-law waited back in the boat as it was a huge struggle for her to get on and off (actually she spent the entire day on the boat till the tour was over).

We rushed to find our children, who had thoroughly enjoyed playing on the soft sands and the clean waters. They dragged us into the waters for a good swim.

DSC_6450

The only picture I took with my SLR on this day. I shouldn’t have carried it at all

We had so much fun in the water that we didn’t want to leave this island, despite the scorching heat. But time was short, and leave we had to, so we clambered back onto the boat, to get to the next island, Chicken island.

20191029_115137

The boat pauses at the place where the chicken’s head is best seen

While the name got everyone hungrier, this island had no beach to land on. There was a small cove at one edge where snorkeling could be done. Our younger cousins cheerfully hopped into the deep green-blue waters, but the in-laws were too frightened to allow us (and mainly our teens) to get into the waters, so we couldn’t experience that.

20191029_120320

Bharti Sodhi, who came up with the brilliant family tee shirts

It was a very still part of the ocean, sheltered away by the island, with very beautiful shades of water.

20191029_121112

Once the snorkelers were safely back in, we headed off to the next island, the Tup island. This island is connected to another by a sand bank that you can walk on when the tide is out. I had really hoped that we would be there at such a time, but that was not the case. Instead there was enough water to stand in, and the sand below made it a gorgeous shade of green.

20191029_124642

We got off the boat directly into the warm waters

We spent a lot of time in this shallow stretch of paradise. The kids had picked up the snorkeling gear and were practicing with it.

20191029_125017

What fabulous shades of color are these waters!

The rest of us swam about, marveled at this place or just floated along.

20191029_124753

The hubby’s favorite island

20191029_125233

Print-worthy vistas

Had we not been on the tour, we wouldn’t have left this place, we loved it so much. But we were on a tight time frame and we really had to move onto the next stop.

Did I forget, lunch was calling?

20191029_133906

Our last stop was Poda island (lunch island for me), where we disembarked and rushed for food, turning our backs to the alluring sea. Lunch, however, was a terrible disappointment. After standing in a huge line, we got some over cooked unsalted vegetables and mushy glass noodles. It was basically food for a fussy toddler and we ate to fill some bit of the crying stomachs, but really hated it. So, we wasted as little time as possible on lunch and rushed to the sea instead.

20191029_134234

We just sat and stared at this view

Before we could swim to our heart’s fill, we were called to the boats as the waters tend to get choppy in the evenings. We hopped from boat to boat as there was no ladder on ours, feeling very happy indeed that my mother-in-law had stayed back on the boat. Here, we had a wonderful surprise, finally something to eat to our heart’s content, delicious fruit!

20191029_140720

Needless to say, we wiped out the boat’s entire stock of fruit in seconds. The long ride back, the full stomachs, and the exhaustion of the day caught up with us and nearly everyone slept off.

20191029_143633

We were very tired once we got back at the hotel, so we made good use of the pool (and its cafe) to recover and catch up with dinner and slept soon as we had an early morning drive to Phuket the next day.

We had had a wonderful albeit short time in Krabi. I would certainly call it the best part of my Thailand trip and would love to go back. However, I wouldn’t take the 4 island tour again and wouldn’t recommend it either to anyone. The islands are doable on their own and its better to choose the island and amount of time you have there rather than be at the whims and fancies of Thai tour operators.

Yet, nothing, not even the mass tourism of Thailand, can detract one from the abundant natural beauty of Krabi and that’s why I loved it. And till I go back, this is what my dreams will be made of.

20191029_124838

Thailand November 2019

Some holidays are unplanned, unaccounted for and served on a platter. You have to be lucky to get one of those, and lucky we surely were when the hubby’s uncle decided to plan a holiday for the extended family to (hold your breath) Thailand for his 60th birthday. Thank you Banti mama and Renu masi!

IMG_20191030_151540

2019-2020 was the year of minimal travel as the teen was in grade 10 and behaving as though she were giving the IAS or CA exam (the toughest Indian exams). We had already enjoyed a small trip to the golden beaches of Tarkarli (Tarkarli-May 2019) and a wonderful holiday in Bangalore with my sister and adorable niece in May of this year. I was busy researching destinations for the long holidays post-Grade 10 exams and having the hubby reject them all (sad face). That’s when Banti mama’s 60th birthday party got shifted from a Lonavala farm house to Goa to Phuket and Krabi. Great jump I say!

Banti mama plans trips at 10x the pace I plan them. He promptly hired Thomas Cook for a 5N Phuket and Krabi package and added 2 extra nights in Bangkok for good measure and booked the tickets before we could even get our heads around the idea. Leaves were sanctioned and the teen coaxed and cajoled to miss her precious classes. The Thomas Cook UK collapse certainly added a big set of flutters, but of course it all worked out.

mermaid color pixie (28)s

It only helped that I had colored my hair blue and teal a month ago for my 45th birthday. I was all set for Thailand! Frantic thepla and Gujarati and Punjabi snack shopping, and desperate downloading of songs and movies on mobiles took us to D-day where 14 adults, 2 teenagers and 3 kids assembled in matching tee shirts (courtesy Bharti Sodhi) at Mumbai airport.

20191027_222449

We had a stopover at Bangkok airport, where we walked almost 2 km and stood in a crazily long queue for visa on arrival and then another long walk and queue for security check before the domestic flight to Krabi. In all the sleepy haze and mayhem, we forgot the food bag at the counter and only remembered it at the gate, when we were very hungry.

Luckily, Gujju food bags have a sense of belonging and stay true to their owners. We rushed back to security, retrieved the bag and hogged and hogged before the flight. While on it, the teens and the kids were too excited to sleep, but the adults merrily caught their 40 winks.

20191028_093155

20191028_093716

Beautiful palm trees at Krabi

 

We loved Krabi best of all the places we visited. If I ever go back to Thailand, I will spend a full week relaxing in Krabi. Lovely beaches, clear waters and great food are all a direct flight away from Mumbai. However,I have no idea when that will happen, given the current mess the world is in and the many other places yet unticked on my bucket list.

Krabi airport is a long drive from the beachfront, but the lovely hotel with its huge rooms and pool livened us all up.

5 hotel (3)

20191028_115440

My coffee terrace

 

We freshened up and headed for a quick lunch, planning an afternoon trip to climb a thousand steps to the tiger cave temple with a great view. Hungry as could be, we ate and ate, while it suddenly started pouring, effectively cancelling all plans for the hike. I was so relieved as I wasn’t sure that I could climb a thousand steps!

The long walk back to the hotel in the now-gentle drizzle was very enjoyable, past the market area. We had fun peeking into the tiny shops with their charming wares.

8 pretty krabi by night (7)s

20191028_204119m

While the older people enjoyed an afternoon of shut-eye, the rest of had a great swim in the huge pool and delicious French fries, pizzas and cocktails.

5 hotel (13)

Too tired to walk to the beach, with a long day ahead of us the next day, we relaxed in the pool till night, where we headed to a night market right beside our hotel.

DSC_6405

7 aonang night market (15)

I love quaint market places with their myriad artefacts, wares and food. The different colors and smells, the hustle and bustle, all appeal to me. If there’s a night market where I am visiting, I will land up there. Luckily for me, this one was too close to miss and all of us went to see what was on display.

7 aonang night market (37)

The hubby’s aunts, Babu masi and Renu masi, are great fun and super enthusiastic

This tiny market was filled with stalls of tacky clothes, handbags, jewelry and souvenirs to carry home. As always, I was too busy clicking pictures to even pick up a fridge magnet for my sister, who loves them. That ended up as a repetitive pattern on this trip.

DSC_6410s

7 aonang night market (16)s

7 aonang night market (13)

There were lots of food stalls with small tables laid out and we wandered through all, hoping to finish dinner here itself. Sadly, most of the food was seafood, and most of us were vegetarians. There was even a Bavarian beer garden here and that was tempting for a few in the group but they held on for now!

7 aonang night market (7)

Sushi

7 aonang night market (41)

I have never seen fruits look more delicious!

DSC_6424s

Even though there was no food of our choice, there is always the universal favorite – icecream! A couple of cold stone ice-creams and delicious fruit slushes later, we headed off to the main Aonang beachfront for dinner at a multicuisine restaurant so that everyone could have food of their own different tastes.

The signboard was enticement enough and those that had held off earlier gave in now!

20191028_203508

20191028_210827

Banti mama with the love of his life

With a heavy meal in our tummies we walked back slowly, listening to the waves lap along the beach, deciding that we’d wake up early the next morning to walk along the shore at dawn.

20191030_072043

Needless to say, only two people went on that walk, Banti mama and me! Used to the solitude (Did I leave Banti mama behind? I really don’t remember!), I enjoyed the fresh breeze and the sun lighting up the entire beach.

20191030_070959

20191030_071418

What a great place for breakfast. Sadly, nothing was open

dawn walk through krabi (10)

Cute knick knacks outside a public restroom

 

Having started the day on a happy note, I headed back to the hotel for a delicious breakfast and later, headed off to the waterfront to some of the most gorgeous beaches I have ever been to, as part of the 4 island tour. But that tour deserves a full separate post, so here I sign off, happily dreaming of turquoise waters and golden sands.

Tarkarli-May 2019

“Simla-Manali!” “Spiti valley!” “No, Kinnaur, its easier to get there and back,” “Noooooo, we should see Manali and Rohtang Pass,” “Oh no, Rohtang won’t have opened yet!” argued eight of us back and forth, while planning an impromptu May vacation (in end-April!). “Bali!” cried the husband, and we were enchanted, dreaming of endless sandy beaches and coconut trees and hammocks over clear blue waters, when the kid piped up, “We aren’t going anywhere, don’t you know that I have my boards next year?” “Next year,” I said, “not tomorrow.” “Nope, I am NOT going anywhere,” she insisted.

We kindly offered to leave her with her grandparents as we vacationed, while we furiously researched very different places. Finally it was clear that Bali was off the cards and Himachal Pradesh too crowded.

That’s how the gem of a “mini-Bali” was thought of, Tarkarli, a small beachside village on the Konkan coast, just north of Goa, rapidly becoming the scuba-diving destination of India. The trip was planned swiftly in one evening, hotels booked, drive itinerary planned and payments done before anyone could change their mind.

drive to tarkarli (2)

That’s how we set off on a sunny weekday at 5 am to drive the 480 km to Tarkarli. On the way back, we planned to halt overnight at Kolhapur to break the journey, but the drive to Tarkarli was covered in 11 hours.

Mumbai-Kolhapur was a stunning drive, via the expressway in the dark, watching the sunrise over Lonavala ghat and breakfasting at the famed Sri Ram vadapav just ahead of Pune. The road continued as a well surfaced, wide dual carriageway ahead of Pune, curving gently and trucks jostled with us for space in the fast lane, making this a much more enjoyable drive than the expressway with it’s straight lanes and an 80-km speed limit. Gulmohar trees in full flower dotted the road, adding beautiful patches of color.

drive back from tarkarli (6)

Of course, it got hotter and hotter as we drove on and it was a relief to see the green sugarcane fields as we approached Kolhapur. Naturally, we slowed down to stop and enjoy a cold glass of sugarcane juice.

drive back from tarkarli (11)

Crossing Kolhapur, we veered off the national highway to a smaller state highway, taking care to take the road that led to the Gaganbawda ghat as it is a wider road with a gentle ghat. On the way, we drove on gorgeous tar-surfaced country roads with tall trees providing a totally canopied road.

drive back from tarkarli (15)

Reminiscent of the dark hedges of Game of Thrones? We drove a good distance on this stunning road before turning off towards villages and then the circuitous ghat.

drive back from tarkarli (8)

By the time we reached Tarkarli, we were terribly tired and sleepy, but keen on visiting the beach. So after a short rest, we scrambled up the steep sand bank opposite our hotel to walk a tiny distance to the beach.

steep climb up sand bank to beach

Our hotel was at a distance from the main beach access, so it was almost as though this section was only for us. We ran and jumped in the water and dug our feet into soft sands as good as any Goa beach with one-tenth the crowds.

evening tarkarli beach (1)

Tarkarli is known for water sports, scuba diving, snorkelling, dolphin sighting, a fort and numerous temples. Oh and for delicious Malwani cuisine. While the hubby thoroughly enjoyed the fish, I loved the ghavan-chatni and alu sabji.

The next day, we merrily headed to the close-by Deobagh beach for the water sports. Deobagh is a small tongue of land sandwiched between the Karli river and the Arabian sea. It certainly is pretty as a picture with a lot of small bungalows and beachfront homestays.

charming tarkarli village (7)

I could have spent the whole trip lying on this hammock

The water sports here are on a tiny island in the Karli river, a long and narrow bit of sand smack in the middle of the river, to get to which, you need to board a tiny fishing boat.

tsunami island (16)

tsunami island (21)

At the end of Deobaugh beach is the junction where the river drains into the sea. The still waters of the river meet the turbulent choppy waves of the Arabian sea, a distinction seen even more clearly from high up in the air.

sangam point from water (2)

Note the different colors and the abrupt cessation of the waves

The water activities are an organised business with the touts hurriedly strapping you with life jackets and bundling you off on a series of activities that might not be very safe, but are great fun. The kids in particular loved the jet ski, but I spent most of my time on the ski screaming “slower, slower, please,” while the driver took me over bigger and bigger waves and almost turned me over into the water. It was when I got off, totally shaken and drenched, that he revealed that he had heard “faster, faster!”

watersports tsunami island (13)

The best thing that we did that day was parasailing. We were taken on a small boat deep out in the choppy sea, where we struggled to get harnessed and then got thrown up into the air and flung down again in the sea and dragged along behind the boat, before being lifted off again into the air. Needless to say that I spent my time screaming loud enough to be heard on the boat. My brother-in-law was even more scared, he was desperate to be let down so he could get back to Mumbai and work!

parasailing (16)

I must add that the few minutes that I was up in the air, I actually looked down to see the clear divide or “sangam” between river and sea and wished I had a Gopro to capture this beautiful view. Then they lowered us again, and I was back to screaming.

Exhausted and thrilled, we suddenly realised our hunger and hogged at a small Malwani home-made food restaurant that served the freshest food possible.

food (1)

In the evening, we just roamed about the area around our hotel and admired the tiny bungalows and the mango trees.

charming tarkarli village (10)

charming tarkarli village (11)

Living opposite the beach necessitates dunking oneself in the pristine waters at least once a day, as part of our routine: breakfast, beach, lunch, siesta and an evening out. This evening, we set off to Sindhudurg Fort, Shivaji’s majestic fort off the Malwan coast. We had to park our cars right on the beach, making us hope we could return before the high tide set in!

sindudurg fort (6)

The slope and the close proximity of the water had us quite worried

We took a very unstable boat packed with people to the fort, which is entirely surrounded by water. It was very windy and our boat rocked vehemently on the waves and water splashed over us multiple times, prompting lots of Oohs and Aahs.

sindudurg fort (36)

Sindhudurg fort in the distance

The fort itself was a solidly built engineering marvel with outstanding views all around. Scuba diving is done in these waters off one edge off the fort.

sindudurg fort (8)

I was so entranced by this view that I didn’t notice a tiny step coming up and promptly fell onto the hard stone floor and tore my jeans and the skin beneath. Trust me to be clumsy at ground level! There went all my dreams of scuba diving and snorkelling. After cleaning up the wound, I struggled to walk into the fort and found myself at the base of steep steps leading to the walls of the fort.

sindudurg fort (15)

Climb, one must, even if limping and grimacing in pain. Was it worth it? Most certainly!

sindudurg fort (23)

India’s own Blackwater bay? Or am I still in a GOT stupor?

sindudurg fort (29)

It was very hot and some icecream and a windy rocky ride helped cool us down. I was thrilled to see some souvenir stalls at the exit, that reminded me of toys we’d buy as kids.

sindudurg fort (32)m

sindudurg fort (32)mm

I would have loved to shop but everyone left me behind when they saw me with the camera!

We proceeded to see the sunset at the nearby rock gardens. While waiting, we found a little ‘tapri’ selling delicious piping-hot chai and pakoras. After the best meal of an already gastronomic trip, we rested on the broad rocks at the edge of the sea. Rather, I rested, others tried stunts.

rock garden sunset (36)

Though it was very sunny, a cool breeze blew over the sea.

rock garden sunset (7)

rock garden sunset (45)

Great sun flare, pic courtesy the hubby

But when the sun actually sank into the horizon, it was well worth the wait.

rock garden sunset (28)

rock garden sunset (32)

On our last day, we went back to Deobagh beach, this time to walk along the sandy edge of the meeting point of the river and the sea.

deobagh sangam evening (7)

The man standing at the junction of river and sea

We walked happily in the cool waters, a gentle breeze blowing over us, the coconut trees nodding away in the distance and we felt that this was probably better than even Bali.

deobagh sangam evening (19)

We had had a very relaxing and thoroughly enjoyable mini vacation. We were actually happy that none of the initial plans materialised and would be happy to come back to Tarkarli in the winter season. Fingers crossed!

Uttarakhand 2018: Mussourie, the misty hill-station

Looking back, we did our short Uttarakhand trip in the correct ascending order, Haridwar (Uttarakhand 2018: The holy land of Haridwar), Rishikesh (Uttarakhand 2018: Rishikesh, the charming riverside town) and finally Mussourie. The hill station of Mussourie was certainly the best part of our trip. It was followed by a totally harrowing drive from Mussourie to Delhi, but it was very pleasant to meet my mother-in-law’s family and my bestie Kavita Mehta in Delhi.

IMG-20180920-WA0000

Kavi, it was so great to meet Rajeev and you

However, I continue my story and trip from the day we left Rishikesh for a very winding and steep road from Dehradun to Mussourie. As we covered switchback after switchback, I found myself wishing I could have walked up instead. Yet, Mussourie was worth that crazy drive (Note to travellers: take Ondansetron and plenty of tic-tacs). As we drove through the mist that always surrounds Mussourie, we pulled down the windows and breathed in the crisp mountain air till we reached our charming hotel (brilliant choice by hubby again) with a great valley view.

DSC_5607

I could have sat for hours looking out of the window, but the best view was on the day we left when we finally saw a cloudless sky with the Himalayan peaks.

DSC_5767

My niece went crazy taking pictures here and some were simply outstanding.

DSC_5489

hotel vishnu palace (10)

All Indian hill-stations are built on a similar theme, a central mall road with shops and gorgeous valley views. As we hadn’t shopped much on this trip, two mothers and two daughters set out promptly to explore the mall road and (naturally) shop in peace.

DSC_5518

We walked down the road through the mist that blew through us, hogged on ice-cream in the cold, dove in and out of shops, trying to buy clothes for us and the kids, but it proved tougher than we had thought. Finally we needed our mother-in-law’s precious help.

DSC_5548

We loved the mall road and strolling aimlessly along it. There were amazing murals and paintings on the sides and the dslr sure enjoyed itself.

DSC_5562

DSC_5559

We walked past the cycle-rickshaw pullers who were calling out to us for a ride, till the site of the cable car which goes to the second-tallest point of Mussourie, Gun hill point. We chose not to go up as it was so misty that we wouldn’t have seen the valley at all and just roamed about, loving the mist covering the valley.

DSC_5546

Looking at the strollers available for rent.

DSC_5561

Amazed by the mist that suddenly obscured most of the view.

DSC_5547

Wishing we could move to a home like this.

market (17)

By now, hunger struck and we made our way to a gorgeous valley-facing café with delicious food (and hummus that our kids devoured so fast that I couldn’t even take a picture!)

DSC_5578

DSC_5577

We sat there watching the sun set, enjoying the retro music and then stared at the lit up valley side.

DSC_5593

We walked back to library square, near our hotel, loving the last 2 days of the cold before we got back to Mumbai heat.

DSC_5602

20180917_190517

It was quite chilly and we huddled up in our jackets while we had a great dinner at café library, our food haunt for the remaining meals and the kids’ favorite.

20180917_205433

20180917_213852

The next day, we chose not to go to Kempty falls as they were quite far off, but merely roam about local Mussourie. I’d hoped to go to Landour, a twin colonial town, but we couldn’t squeeze it in and walked down the mall road to the cable car.

DSC_5556

20180918_114130

A short ride took us to the highly commercialised plateau of Gunhill, with great views over the valley all around.

DSC_5684

cablecar to gunhill point (96)

Gorgeous Himalayan wildflowers grew up the hill and all along it.

DSC_5642

DSC_5659

The kids had a blast shooting down balloons, my favorite game as a kid.

DSC_5671

Photo of the trip:

20180918_123705

In the evening, we drove a short distance to the unimaginatively named but lovingly created company garden. Flowers and fountains filled the garden and we spent a very relaxing evening roaming around.

DSC_5728

DSC_5731

We spent our last evening strolling about on the mall road once again, loving the mist that seemed to hang in the air like a fluffy cloud.

20180918_182056

This evening, we caught the sunset in all its glory. We had thoroughly enjoyed our time in Mussourie and came back refreshed as could be and ever-ready to plan the next adventure.

DSC_5762

DSC_5763

 

Uttarakhand 2018: Rishikesh, the charming riverside town

After Haridwar that I didn’t like at all, I had no expectations from our next halt Rishikesh. I was sure that it would be (yet another) dirty, holy, pilgrimage town. A town overrun by tourists searching for either inner peace or adventure. After all, the yoga capital is also a thrill capital and the starting point for many treks into the Himalayas. Boy, was I wrong! Rishikesh was infinitely more charming, chilled and loveable. It’s tough to say what exactly appealed to me about Rishikesh. Maybe the clean waters of the river Ganga that flow through the town, the green hills that surround it, the cleaner air (and town), the lesser crowds, maybe the relaxed time we had there, maybe the peaceful atmosphere. I don’t know. What I do know is that very surprisingly and unconsciously, I fell in love with Rishikesh.

DSC_5430

A harrowing drive over craters in the name of a road took us 20 km upstream of Haridwar to Rishikesh. The smart hubby had booked a simple and small hotel nestled amidst the mountains, with comfortable armchairs to enjoy a book and some coffee.

DSC_5278

Oh, and a small steep walk to a Baskin Robbins! Yum yum! That’s the first thing I saw while driving out of our hotel to the chaotic area around the Ram Jhula. A winding drive downhill through lush green trees took us to the main market area on either side of the Ganga. Instantly, we headed to the ghat. The first view of the clean flowing waters was mesmerizing.

DSC_5288

The water was clean enough to tempt all of us to dip our fingers and toes in it.

ganga near chotilal (2)

We crossed over the pedestrian-only, cow and motorbike-also Ram Jhula.

ganga near chotilal (1)

It surely was a struggle to cross the holy waters, what with cows, throngs of people and trident-weaving sadhus interspersed with motorbikes. Mayhem at its best!

DSC_5304

Safe on the other side, we enjoyed walking about the crowded markets, admiring the handicrafts and clothes on display.

DSC_5307

DSC_5376

Narrow market streets lined by food and clothes shops

Loving the graffiti on the streets.

DSC_5363

DSC_5362

Drooling over art pieces on display.

DSC_5374

And taking in the myriad smells of street food.

DSC_5308

Rishikesh has a plethora of vegetarian food options, ranging from enticing-appearing street food like kachoris, jalebis, fried potatoes to river-view cafes with international cuisine to gorgeous riverfront hotels far from the city. Needless to say, we gained a lot of weight on this trip!

As we walked on past the market, we came to the Parmarth Ashram right by the river. Rishikesh is as famous for its ashrams as yoga and Parmarth is one of the “Godliest”, as is the Ramdev Baba ashram outside the city. Though we didn’t stay at any ashram, I think it would add to the experience and would consider it whenever I visit Rishikesh next.

DSC_5310

A gorgeous Shiva statue sits perched in the flowing waters

DSC_5319

Railings with diyas line the river banks

The beautiful serene Ganga flowing through this hilly town created a very soothing feeling. Yet, walking along the Ganga in the cool evening breeze was not the best part of Rishikesh for me, the best bit was the Beatles Ashram.

DSC_5349

A ridiculously long walk till the far end from Ram Jhula, and a scramble up a rough pebbled path took us to the now derelict Maharishi Mahesh Yogi Ashram, where the Beatles had spent a year meditating and creating outstanding music. Quiet and deserted now, with only a handful of people braving the long walk, the atmosphere was beautiful.

DSC_5343

There were many meditation pods, laid out in rows. Somehow, they reminded me of a rishi’s hairdo.

beatles ashram (12)

DSC_5329

My brother-in-law meditating at Rishikesh…..transcendental?

The chirping of birds and crickets was all that broke the silence. Huge lengths of neglected paths stretched out ahead of us. The few buildings were totally run down, broken, almost falling apart. Some were labelled as the kitchen or the post office. A large complex had many photographs of the Beatles and the Maharishi and a small cafeteria looking out to a large green space.

beatles ashram (15)

We walked ahead to a huge hall that was now decorated with graffiti on all the walls.

DSC_5346

DSC_5347

My absolute favorite Beatle is John Lennon and my favorite song is Imagine so imagine my happiness seeing this.

DSC_5348

Okay, I’m still singing it.

DSC_5352

Weird painting that caught my eye lens

Our souls sated, the three of us walked back with a spring in our step. I’m so glad that my brother-in-law and the kid came with me to this unique place and loved it like I did and very grateful to my knee for cooperating.

We got back on time for the Ganga Arti at Parmarth Ashram, which was a huge let down. I also think we’d scored a hat trick with the Artis and this had been way too much.

DSC_5382

The Shiva statue is so calming

Exhausted by the long day, we crashed into bed and woke up comfortably late the next morning. I lazed about in the garden with a coffee and this great view.

DSC_5280

This day was supposed to be river rafting day, but the rafting season hadn’t yet begun, so we just went to the Laxman Jhula area and strolled about. This part had a rocky sand beach along the river.

20180916_140540.jpg

“Follow me” says my sister-in-law

We settled for lunch at a beautifully located café over the Ganga. Poor service and very average food was the only way I could sum it up coupled with the distinct feeling that they didn’t want Indians.

IMG_20180916_141809

After a nice afternoon nap, we headed to Triveni ghat, 4 km downstream where three rivers are supposed to join. There’s a grand Arti here too, but we gave this one a miss. Thank the Lord Ganga Maa, otherwise I could have written a thesis on the Arti.

DSC_5476

The little village around the ghat was typically like Haridwar, ridiculously overcrowded, dirty and full of knick-knacks for sale.

DSC_5484

near triveni ghat (6)

We got back quickly from Triveni ghat and went shopping in the dark, literally, as the electric supply had shut down, so a few shops with generator light was all we could shop at. A hurried shopping done, we had a very delicious dinner at Chotiwale by the Ganges and bid adieu to the river. The next day, we would leave for Mussourie.

Rishikesh turned out to be the surprise package of our trip. Somehow, the peacefulness of Rishikesh entered me and stayed there for a long time. Somehow, it calmed me, soothed me.

DSC_5457

You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope some day you’ll join us
And the world will be as one

John Lennon, Imagine

Uttarakhand 2018: The holy land of Haridwar

It’s amusing that the next trip I took after Germany and Austria should be to the crowded, holy towns of India. Actually, more surprising than amusing. Had the hubby and I had our way, the Thapar clan would have been vacationing in Bali. Instead, divine intervention dictated that the entire Thapar clan took the toughest way to visit Haridwar, Rishikesh and Mussourie, as we flew via Delhi. Note to all those planning this trip: Please fly into Dehradun and hire a car from there to reduce the trauma of road travel through Uttar Pradesh, over roads meant only for bullock carts.

We reached Haridwar by early evening and checked into our well-priced, central hotel with delicious food and were stunned to see this painting outside our room.

hallstatt in haridwar hotel (1)

The classic view of Hallstatt in a tiny Haridwar hotel

My brother-in-law and I shared a hearty laugh and then a heartfelt sigh. We left soon for the Ganga Arti on the banks of the river (prayer for the holy river Ganges). Haridwar means Gateway to God and is a famous Hindu pilgrimage point, and the starting point for several “essential” Hindu pilgrimages. According to Hindu mythology, a few drops of “amrut” (nectar) fell right at Haridwar, at the banks of the river Ganga.

electric rickshaws (6)

We had to take a rickshaw to the ghats, the bathing area at the banks of the river, and were pleasantly surprised to find them all electric. Good move to reduce the carbon footprint! However, as we walked down from the rickshaw stand towards the ghats through the pedestrian-only zone, the dark clouds that were gathering just burst open and everyone rushed for cover.

crazy rain ganga arti (1)

The only time we ever saw this area deserted

I suddenly understood what they meant by “the heavens opened up.” It poured like no tomorrow. Bombay rains were no match. We had tried to get into a tiny stall, but the surging numbers of people pushing and shoving their way through prevented me from getting in. I managed to hand over the camera bag (thankfully) to my father-in-law and the hubby, kid, brother-in-law and I headed out in the insane rain to look for shelter.

crazy rain ganga arti (4)

We tried hiding under trees, bridges, lamp posts, but there was no shelter anywhere. We finally gave up and decided that we might as well head to the ghats and see the Arti as we were totally drenched. Wishing my glasses had vipers, we walked to the viewing platform in the middle of the river and had an uninterrupted view of the Arti as all the crowds were hiding under the bridge.

crazy rain ganga arti (5)

The clanging of the bells, the musical Arti, the lashing rains, cold breeze and the swift-flowing Ganga, all added up to a magical experience. When the priests lit their multi-layer diyas simultaneously, one could believe in the Gods.

crazy rain ganga arti (6)

We loved it so much that we could forget Bali. Well, almost. Okay, we couldn’t. We were sopping wet, muddy, dirty and frozen cold, and bereft of 4 members of our family, who we luckily managed to meet up with. I shouldn’t complain; my father-in-law had kept my camera bag dry and safe. Had it been with me, I would have needed a new camera.

We rushed back to the hotel, bathed and fell asleep. The next morning, we set off once more for the ghats, to see the madding crowds by day. The river, swollen by the previous night’s rains, flowed along at a terrific speed, carrying with it tons of fertile silt.

har ki pauri (32)

People thronged the banks, offering money and flowers to the priests, dipping into the muddy waters, cleansing their souls.

har ki pauri (3)

har ki pauri (26)

Beautiful flower-filled diyas to offer to Maa Ganga

 

har ki pauri (7)

Family genealogies are recorded in such books and births and deaths are updated by devout Hindus

Of course, the shams can get to you, like the conmen trying to get you to feed the poor or donate for your family’s lineage, or the priests who double up as fortune-tellers, or worse, fortune-changers. Yet, there’s a charm to this organised mafia of religion, and that’s the honesty and intensity of human belief.

har ki pauri (28)

The bow and arrow bridge across the river with the majestic Shiva statue behind

shiv murti (7)

We walked back slowly, trying to ignore the huge financial divide splayed out in front of us and the abject poverty and dirt around. The rains had left behind more muck and soon, I was desperate to get away, when I came upon this graffiti on a wall on the bank.

har ki pauri (30)

Cheered up immensely by just imagining what the artist must have been thinking, we made our way to the cable car up to Mansadevi temple, high up on a mountain.

mansadevi temple (62)

mansadevi temple (18)

Floral offerings

We walked about the tiny temple complex and bowed our heads to the deity and were promptly smacked, blessed by the priest. We went back down the cablecar, feeling lucky that we didn’t have to walk the entire distance up and down and admiring the beautiful bangles and necklaces on display.

mansadevi temple (19)

mansadevi temple (29)

Not my type, but what lovely colors! We waited for our drivers and enjoyed some icecream.

mansadevi temple (43)

The original Thapar clan

mansadevi temple (32)

The add-ons

Just then sauntered by the cleanest pig I’ve ever seen in my life!

mothe of all pigs (2)

Post-lunch and rest, we headed back to (where else?) Har-ki-Pauri once more. The most sacred of all ghats, standing for ‘footsteps of the Lord’, the site for the Ganga Arti, was a very different place than the previous day. Huge crowds swelled on both sides of the banks, the locals doing a good job of crowd control and money extraction.

ganga arti (8)

Brahma Kund, the place where the nectar supposedly fell, is the main site for the Ganga Arti

As the sun set and cast its last rays over the waters, the priests lit the tall diyas and the entire crowd sang the Arti in unison.

ganga arti (14)

ganga arti (17)

As the darkness fell, more and more diyas were lit and the waterfront turned into a series of flames, reflected in the Ganga rushing along.

ganga arti (29)

ganga arti (23)

It was our last night in Haridwar (thankfully) and we would leave the next day for Rishikesh. We wandered through the markets, eating sweets and snacks, enjoying the cool weather.

markets (6)

ganga by night (5)

For all the hype about Haridwar that it didn’t live up to, there’s a special something there, and that’s the beautiful river Ganga. Sometimes fast and furious, sometimes, slow and sedate, the river is the hub, the draw of the city. While it is the reason for the mess of Haridwar, it is also the saving grace.

ganga by night (4)

Germany Austria 2018: The Grossglockner Hochalpenstrasse

“You set your heart too much on things, Anne. I’m afraid there’ll be a great many disappointments in store for you through life,” said Marilla. “Oh Marilla,” exclaimed Anne, “Looking forward to things is half the pleasure of them. I think it’s worse to expect nothing than be disappointed.”

Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Montgomery

Like the child Anne, I have the bad habit of setting my heart too much on things. On a trip, it is making someplace THE focal point, THE obsession. And like the child, it’s frequently something that might not get realised and hence lead to deep disappointment. This year, the obsession was the Grossglockner Hochalpenstrasse (High Alpine Road), which was a silly obsession as it conventionally opens in early to mid May and we were there on 3rd May. This high altitude road is closed from November to April because it is totally snowed in. The unusual prolonged winter in March 2018 reduced the chances of its opening while we were there. The fear wasn’t allayed by my trip planner Yogesh, who urged me to plan something else on that day.

Untitled

The purpose of visiting Zell am see was to drive the Grossglockner High Alpine Road

I had so many alternate plans lined up that it became imperative for the road to open on time! The obsession build up as our trip grew closer, to the extent that I had downloaded the Grossglockner app on my mobile and was checking it twice a day, sometimes three times. And till we left, it kept saying, “opening shortly.” And I kept telling myself, “Be still, my beating heart.”

The flight to Frankfurt and the subsequent travel naturally distracted me adequately, so I only checked the app the day we reached Würzburg (still closed) and then directly on the day we left the lovely Rothenburg ob der Tauber, when it suddenly said, “open”.

Screenshot_20180804-204252

“Joy hath no bounds,” was my state, till the eventful fall of the hubby on the Nördlingen tower the same day (Germany Austria May 2018-The unromantic Romantic Road with the very romantic towns), when I was not sure whether he’d be able to do such a strenuous drive with such a severe injury. But I had underestimated his resolve (and interest) for he kept staring at the webcam the previous evening at Zell am see and chalking out the route.

Finally, the next morning arrived. With great excitement (and staring at the webcam), we finally set off after a hearty breakfast at our lovely hotel Traube. My friends Neha Sisodiya and Yogesh Shenoy joined us for this drive at our hotel and we set off, hoping for clear skies. (Warning: There is a ridiculous number of images in this post)

DSC_2966

It’s not easy to plot the Grossglockner drive on Maps, but the website has an inbuilt route planner that we followed. We were driving it from North (the Salzburg end) to South (the Corinthia end, where one can drive into Italy). The drive to Bruck, the starting point for the high Alpine road, was scenic as could be and set the ball rolling for the day to come. The day was beautiful, with blue skies and fluffy white clouds, no hint of the rain that was predicted. Happy I was. As we drove through the beautiful alpine scenery, we turned off into a road with pretty meadows with wooden chalet like houses.

DSC_2969
There were very few boards on the way, so naturally the hubby was a tad concerned about being on the right route, but we had to be on the right road with these mountains looming up.

DSC_2968

Of course, we were on the right path when the toll booth came up, but surprisingly, the rate was less than that on the website. I was worried, would we travel only half the road? The man at the booth handed us a map of the best viewing points and the two offshoots to the highest motorable areas and we set off.

The Grossglockner High Alpine Road is a 48km long toll road that drives through Austria’s Hohe Tauern National Park with stunning views of tall mountains including Austria’s tallest peak, the Grossglockner.

Untitled

This is it,” I thought, “The Grossglockner Road itself. Buckle up, sit back and enjoy the ride.” And then I found myself being pushed backwards into the seat as someone had found the accelerator and was going for it gung-ho.
The initial part of the drive was a steep ascent from the bottom of the valley into the mountains. This portion hugged the side of the mountain, so there were sharp curves and we could see ourselves getting higher and higher very swiftly.

DSC_2978

DSC_2975

The gorgeous Austrian Alps beside us as we ascend

There were waterfalls all around, one so huge and close to us that we were tempted to get off and stop. We didn’t stop as we wanted to reach the top before the predicted rain, and thought we would see it on the way back. Bad move.

DSC_2985

We had decided not to stop on the way, but it was irresistible. The road had multiple viewing bays, that were simply too tempting to get off at, and we did give in to temptation. After all, what’s a road trip without the view?

2018-05-03 11.34.04

Neha Sisodiya and Yogesh Shenoy at our first stop, already 1850 meters ASL

IMG-20180806-WA0002

So many photographers!

We continued to ascend, turn after steep turn and resisted all temptation to stop every two minutes, because that’s how breath taking it really was.

DSC_2995

DSC_2997

Even though it was not raining, there was a fair amount of cloud cover, which hung about as blobs of cotton on the mountains beside us. Now, the surroundings began to change, the leaves grew sparser and bits of dirty snow dotted the sides.

DSC_2996

First sighting of snow on the road

We were surprised to see cyclists on this route. “They must be bonkers,” I thought, “and super fit.” Not only were they super fit, they were super fast too. In fact the same cyclist crossed us twice while we were busy stopping for photographs!

DSC_3011

The wheels for the trip, our trusted Volkswagon Golf

 

DSC_3013

The man of the trip, just as trustworthy

A lot of the viewing bays had signboards about elevation, peaks seen and fauna, but we didn’t waste a moment looking at them, we were just so blown away by the views. At this point, maybe midway to the top, we had our first marmot sighting (that I coudn’t see) and saw a treehouse with a view to kill (that we couldn’t climb).

DSC_3005

DSC_2990

It was great fun having Neha and Yogesh with us. The kid was totally charmed by Neha and found a new friend. Now I can’t speak to Neha without her butting in!

As we drove higher, the entire scenery changed. The trees and the greenery reduced and were replaced by huge masses of snow.

DSC_3018

We were level with the clouds now.

DSC_3019

Soon, we drove right through them. “I wanna take the clouds home,” said the kid. So did I.

2018-05-03 11.41.19
This bit was scary, but the hubby maneuvered expertly as we ascended higher. Just a little ahead, we stopped at the Haus Alpine Nature Exhibition where we thought marmots could be petted. Marmots are cute large squirrels for whom the European Alps are home. Unfortunately, there were only wild (non-pettable) marmots here, but we had a great time playing in the thick carpet of snow while Yogesh photographed the marmots.

DSC_3026

DSC_3024

The mean machines that keep the road motorable

At this point, we could see the huge mountains looming ahead and dense snow all around us. After all, we were already 2260 meters above sea level. But the hubby was looking terribly distressed. “Houston, we have a problem,” he said. We were dangerously low on fuel. I was surprised as we had checked the fuel gauge the previous night and the morning of the drive and there was enough. He thought the indicator might be erroneous because we were on a slope, so we parked on level land and checked again. There wasn’t enough fuel to even complete the journey. “Possibly, the steep ascent used more fuel than we thought,” he said. This was terrible. The only petrol pumps on this road were at the two ends. I had visions of 4 adults pushing the car and the kid steering.

There was just one option, to head back down the way we came and get to the petrol pump before the toll booth. Hopefully being downhill would consume less fuel. We apologised to Neha and Yogesh for being so dumb (we’ve been driving for years and couldn’t even estimate the amount of gas needed) and headed back down.

2018-05-03 12.07.42

One of the 36 switchbacks on the road

The drive down was very different from the drive up. I talked even more than usual because I was so stressed and the kid naturally had to match up. Neha and Yogesh’s eardrums were in for a really rough time! We made it down and out in good time but it was a really long drive to the gas station. “Please make it, please make it,” I prayed desperately till we reached and I think we all were relieved by the refuelling.
Once the “longest pitstop ever” was done, and we were back in buoyant spirits, we continued driving up, this time non stop beyond the point where we’d turned back.

DSC_3033

The road is a true engineering marvel

DSC_3036

More curves

Even though thunderstorms had been predicted by this hour of the noon, they hadn’t yet started. We were now ascending even above the layer of clouds. We drove through a series of switchbacks, but unlike those at Sikkim, these weren’t terribly tight or steep and the road itself was implacable, making this one of the best drives of my life. Suddenly, a very sad voice piped up, “Mommy I’m feeling sick.” “Oh no,” I thought, “the motion sickness is acting up despite all the medication.” We tried distracting her with all sorts of stories when the solution suddenly struck. “You need food,” I cried. in all my excitement, I’d forgotten that she needed to keep being fed on road trips to control the nausea. There was no restaurant for a long while, so we stopped at the nearest parking bay to get food from the boot and my jaw just dropped open. Splayed out beneath us were the switchbacks we had just climbed, like a huge brown anaconda amidst the pure white snow.

DSC_3041
We let the kid keep hogging while we all jumped out and took scores of pictures. A big thank you to the kid and her vestibular apparatus for helping us find this place.

2018-05-03 13.13.34

Now, we ascended towards the lookout post seen in the picture above, Fuscher Torl, at 2428 meters above sea level. It was all too gorgeous for words. The snow was all around us now. Soon we came upon a large parking lot from where 2 roads diverged. One went to the right and one to the left and curved steeply upwards.

DSC_3047

The road that leads to the Fuscher Torl and towards the main mountain passes

We were perplexed by the 2 roads. “It certainly goes onto the right,” said the hubby, “all the cars are going there.” “Then who’s going there?” I asked him, pointing to the road to the left where I could see a few cars descending. “Let’s go and see,” said the enthusiastic hubby.

DSC_3071

What a road! We had unknowingly stumbled onto the narrow cobblestone road that led to the highest viewing point of the drive, the Edelweissspitze at 2571m. The road till there was narrow, just enough for one car, very steep with very tight corners. No wonder very few cars were going there. But the brilliant hubby took us up there. Outstanding bit of motoring that was.

DSC_3058

Once we reached the very top, we ran about the panoramic viewing platform like little kids. We were amazed to see cyclists at this elevation too.

DSC_3050

DSC_3053

The marmot point we had turned back from for fuel was a tiny speck with the 200mm lens

We saw crazy people sitting on the railing and clicking selfies. I tried explaining the hazards to the kid while suddenly, we both got pelted hard by snowballs. We turned around but could see no one. Splat blotch bang, some more made their way. That’s when we looked up. The naughty hubby had gone up onto the terrace of the exhibition gallery and was busy pelting us.

DSC_3057
The kid rushed to get there to pay him back and splash, ran straight into a puddle and got all soaked and I had to rush back to the car to change her socks and shoes while the hubby clicked away from his vantage point.

2018-05-03 13.45.23

2018-05-03 13.40.27

More than thirty 3000m peaks can be seen from this panorama point, many of which were partly hidden by the clouds. Even more stunning was the series of switchbacks that we’d driven on the way up.

2018-05-03 13.40.27m

Contrast this with the same view taken exactly 20 days later by my brother-in-law on a bright and sunny day.

20180526_175129

Picture courtesy Ravi Thapar, taken 20 days later

Sated by the views, we drove down that scary narrow road, again with excellent maneuvering by the hubby, on past the Fuscher Torl, where a memorial was built to commemorate those workers who died during the construction of this masterpiece of a road, built over 5 years from 1930 to 1934, in order to generate revenues for a cash stripped Austria. Brilliant foresight and engineering!

We drove down towards the Fuscher Lake, opposite the Mankei inn where tame marmots are kept by the innkeeper.

DSC_3089

The lake was almost completely frozen when we went, and I have included my brother-in-law’s pictures simply to point out the difference over just 20 days.

DSC_3094

Us approaching the Fuscher Lake

20180526_181054

Pic courtesy Ravi Thapar, taken 20 days later. You can see the walking path across the lake that was covered by snow on our trip

The lake itself was barely recognizable as a lake to us when we went.

2018-05-03 14.04.40

The almost completely frozen lake when we went

20180526_181109

Pic courtesy Ravi Thapar; the barely frozen lake 20 days later

Hunger finally overcame our excitement and we were pleased to get a meal at the Mankei inn. The marmots were still hibernating, so there was no chance for the kid to play with them.

2018-05-03 14.21.50

IMG-20180803-WA0021

Camera gear for the trip!

We drove on towards the two tunnels that go through the mountains. We crossed the first and came out at a winter wonderland (in May).

DSC_3102

We drove on to cross the Hochtor pass, which at 2504m, was the second highest point on the drive. In olden years, it was the most dangerous part of the road, but now, as safe as any other point.

DSC_3103

Snow ploughs start clearing the road in the end of April from both ends and meet at this summit. Once all the snow is cleared, the road is declared open.

2018-05-03 15.08.37

The kid and the hubby scribbled their names on the tall walls of snow.

2018-05-03 15.08.33

Neha and Yogesh found a viewpoint from where the tallest mountain of Austria, the Glossglockner (3798m) could be seen on a clear day.

DSC_3112

Both the kid and Neha wanted to build a snowman, so that had to be done. We saw a flat glacier like area and got out.

DSC_3130
Neha and the kid had a blast throwing snowballs at each other. Then the hubby joined them and the two adults pelted the kid bigtime!

DSC_3127

While Yogesh and I were busy taking pictures, Neha had a go at us!

DSC_3129

What a gorgeous place this was and what views!

DSC_3110

Happy with the playing, Neha and the kid got down to the serious business of constructing a snowman. They made a small mound of snow for the body and Neha started shaping into a body and a head and the kid promptly flattened it out.

2018-05-03 15.23.57

The process repeated itself till Neha made a separate head and placed it on top. Yogesh rummaged about in the bracken and retrieved pebbles for the eyes and made arms out of sticks, and voila, we had a snowman.

2018-05-03 15.28.37

Having had our fill of snow, we drove onwards towards the next offshoot, the Kaiser-Franz-Josefs-Hohe point, named after the emperor of Habsburg, who had climbed to this height in the late 19th century, with great views over the glacier.

DSC_3133

We drove through these tall walls, shovelled aside by the snow ploughs as we descended. Unfortunately, the road to the viewpoint was closed because of risk of avalanche, so we continued to drive downwards.

DSC_3146

Frozen waterfalls

As we descended, the snow reduced and the greenery started reappearing.

DSC_3135

DSC_3141

By now, the large clouds that we had been seeing for long, rolled in further. It looked as though snow was flying off from the higher parts of the road we had come down from. There didn’t seem to be much point in continuing downwards and we thought we’d seen all that we could of the Grossglockner Hochalpenstrasse so we took a U-turn.

DSC_3143

The Grossglockner Road continues southwards to the village of Heiligenblut

Of course, the road had more surprises to give us. We weren’t a minute too soon in turning back. Black clouds covered the sky. We sped up and swiftly reached the Hochtor tunnel when snow started falling.

2018-05-03 15.33.39
All the places that we’d stopped at were barely visible now. We could barely merge out the outline of the Fuscher Torl restaurant at the bottom of the curve leaving to the highest point the Edelweissspitze. The highest road leading to it was totally shrouded in clouds.

DSC_3149
Soon visibility dropped to a couple of meters.

2018-05-03 15.53.52

It was actually scary now. We had to be extra careful as the road was slippery and we had to conserve the brakes on the steep descent. But I must say, the hubby drove exceptionally well.

DSC_3162

The rain fell in full force now. It started raining like it rains in Mumbai. We drove down through the rain and the clouds, each turn scarier than the previous one.

DSC_3172

The valley couldn’t be seen at all

The rain continued in full force till we reached our hotel. Neha and Yogesh caught a bus to Kaprun and the hubby, exhausted by now, drove us to the hotel. We had an early dinner (pizza and pasta for the kid’s daily pizza need) and retired early after a wonderful day. The Grossglockner Hochalpenstrasse was one of the best drives I have even been on, and this day, one of the best of my days. And I think all 5 of us would agree on that.

IMG-20180503-WA0098

I must acknowledge a lot of people for this wonderful day. Firstly, the great team at Grossglockner who cleared out the snow on time for us to see it. Secondly, the kid, for conquering her motion sickness enough to manage such a drive. Third, and very importantly, Neha and Yogesh, for telling us about the drive,coming with us and making our day much more special. We had a great time with you both and hope to meet up again.

But most of all, to the man himself, the Schumi Thapar, for agreeing to rent the car despite his reservations and driving so fabulously despite his injury.

Oh! How could I forget! To dreams!

Germany Austria May 2018: Mittenwald, the picturesque Bavarian Alpine village

Mittenwald was probably the town that I was most excited about on this trip. The quaint little town at the very base of the Alps with the beautifully decorated houses was my biggest draw apart from the Grossglockner. And did it live up to the expectations? Yes. Much more than, in fact.

DSC_2343
The drive to Mittenwald from Oberammergau was past stunningly beautiful scenery. Lush green fields and tall conifers lined the roads.

DSC_2325

As we were at the base of the Alps, we naturally drove through quite a few tunnels, structures I love to take pictures of.

DSC_2308

DSC_2315

One can’t help but gasp when this is the light at the end of the tunnel.

DSC_2326
Approaching Mittenwald, we drove over a small hill as we drew closer to the Alps. The hubby, now desperate for rest, drove at full speed through the curves. As we drove into Mittenwald, we missed nearly all the routes to get to our apartment. Incidentally, this was the only apartment during our stay (much to my chagrin). I had thought that vegetarian food would be really tough to get in this tiny quintessentially German town, which was the main reason for booking an apartment, but i had underestimated Mittenwald and the capacity of my child to eat pizza. We finally reached the corner of the street our apartment was on, and the hubby stared in awe at the huge snow-capped mountain just behind.

2018-04-30 14.13.37

“I could get used to this view,” I said as we trudged our bags up the staircase into our apartment and flung open the door to the balcony to look onto the mountains and instead looked straight into the town cemetery. “No way!” exclaimed the kid.

DSC_2694

There went my dreams of having tea on the balcony. The new plan was to keep windows, doors and curtains boarded tightly shut! The apartment was lovely with a hall that doubled up as a bedroom, another small room and a well stocked kitchenette.

DSC_2435

Food was now a priority and we set off promptly towards the town where we had passed an Italian restaurant on our drive in. Sadly, it was closed, so we walked deeper into the town center, stunned by the gorgeously painted houses around us.

DSC_2333

DSC_2337

It is all too easy to forget food when every turn you make springs up a prettier sight than the last one.

DSC_2339

And where the Karwendel mountain range comes as the backdrop to charming houses.

DSC_2340

We must have stopped at least 20 times on the short 10 minute walk till the town center. The pretty little houses with paintings on their walls charmed us no end. They weren’t as ostentatious as in Oberammergau; they were just right. I loved them and was glad that I chose to stay in Mittenwald instead of Oberammergau. We turned into the main street in the town center and were even more thrilled.

2018-04-30 15.31.18

While the camera growled for attention, the child growled for food. We ducked into a “doner” shop and had a superdelicious lunch of falafel sandwich, non-bland pizza and shwawarma, one of the best meals of our trip.

2018-04-30 14.38.16
As we stepped out of the little shop, our eyes on the walls of the houses around, we almost fell down. There was a small open trough running through the street and many other streets in the main center. God knows why.

DSC_2657m

Laughing at the Mittenwald “gutter”, we headed back to our apartment for a bit of shut-eye (for the hubby) and many games of Uno (for the two of us). Rested enough, we headed back into the picture-perfect town in the evening. What really shocked us here was how people drove. It was a small town with narrow streets, most cobble stoned, without foot paths and people drove like they were on the Nurburgring circuit. That would be my only complaint about Mittenwald.

This time, we walked away from the center towards the train station that was flanked by the mountains. Broad roads were lined by trees and fantastic painted chalet type houses.

2018-04-30 19.07.41

DSC_2401

I didn’t know what I loved more, the paintings around the windows or those on the walls. All I know is that Mittenwald totally lived up to its reputation of being a “living picture book”, as described by Walter Goethe, the famous German author.

DSC_2351

DSC_2381

DSC_2335

The train station, a simple building, had the huge Karwendel just behind. I felt I could reach out and touch the mountains in Mittenwald.

DSC_2362

There is a cable car here too, the Karwendel car, but we chose not to take it in favour of the Zugspitze that we did the next day. So, we walked back to the town center, but not before turning back to see the trees all lit up by the blazing evening sun.

DSC_2361

The main streets were even more charming in this light.

DSC_2657

DSC_2368

Turning around the end of the street, we walked onto a street with even more beautifully painted houses and hotels.

DSC_2391

Chairs and tables were placed outside the cafes and we’d love to have stopped and sat but for the fact that we were still full from the heavy lunch.

DSC_2389

We walked till the end and turned another corner to see yet another row of adorable houses.

DSC_2688

And a maypole with the different occupations of the residents on it.

DSC_2686

Returning back by a different route, we found a supermarket for groceries and a small memorial for an Olympic skiing champion who hailed from Mittenwald. What great respect to show a sportsperson! We Indians have a lot to learn.

DSC_2352

DSC_2353 (2)
We walked on further beyond the main street to where the houses seemed to be built on the hill just behind. Light coloured with wooden roofs and windows, they looked just as fascinating as the pastel coloured ones.

DSC_2386
There were lots of sports and jewellery shops in this area, all with very nicely done shop windows.

DSC_2378
As we walked ahead, we came upon a huge wooden violin. Violin making and wood carving are two of the biggest occupations in this town.

2018-04-30 19.37.40
Mittenwald used to be an important town on the trade routes till the late 17th century when shipping routes took it out of the equation. About that time, Mittenwald resident Mathias Klotz learnt the fine art of violin making from Italy and returned to his home town to make outstanding violins including Mozart’s concert violin.

DSC_2345

After this long wonderful walk, we returned to the apartment where we were too scared to sleep in the other small room that directly overlooked the cemetery and huddled close to each other and slept off. We kept the windows closed but it got too suffocating and hot at midnight so I had to get up to open the window. The eerie glow over the cemetery met my eyes and I rushed back into bed, trying not to think about ghosts, spirits and the like. Needless to say, sleep was fractured that night. However, the next morning we awoke to this beautiful view.

DSC_2696

I wasn’t exhilarated as it was the day to go to Zugspitze and I didn’t want any clouds floating about. However, it turned out to be a great day (previous post: Germany Austria May 2018: Zugspitze, the top of Germany) and when we returned in the evening, the kid and I promptly set out to walk through this lovely town again. Alone now, and unbounded by time, we took a very leisurely stroll and enjoyed mother daughter time together.

DSC_2653

I was surprised by the raft, but later read up that Mittenwald was used to be on the river Isar trading route from Munich, so rafting (flosserei) was hugely important in these southern Bavarian towns.

DSC_2812

We ambled slowly towards the town center, taking this opportunity to visit the small town church, whose tower was so gorgeously painted.

DSC_2370

The service was on, so we headed out. I don’t like gate-crashing services; I feel it’s a very personal time for the worshippers, not for visitors, so we came back later on. The streets were totally empty either because of the service or because it was May day.

DSC_2660

It was a great opportunity to click people-free pictures of the frescoed buildings.

DSC_2663

And notice the stunning flowers in the flower beds.

DSC_2375

Or capture pretty flower filled window sills.

DSC_2679

We walked back to the church once the service was over and sat for a few minutes, enjoying the frescoed ceiling and amazed by the named pews. “What would happen if these people left the town?” asked the smart kid.

DSC_2692

2018-05-01 19.31.50

We took a last stroll on the deserted streets before we headed back, taking time to pose against flower beds, colorful houses and cafes and even door knockers.

DSC_2672

DSC_2667

DSC_2687

The kid was entranced by the delicate carvings on some of the houses.

DSC_2400

DSC_2665

The mother by the charming shop names and paintings.

DSC_2674

DSC_2399

Mittenwald had cast a spell on us for sure. A spell that has stayed on us since then, something that’s tough to break. I fell totally in love with this simple pretty town nestled amongst the mountains, a town that belonged to Enid Blyton land, not mother Earth.

DSC_2678

DSC_2690

I can’t end this post without saying a huge thank you to Yogesh Shenoy for telling me about this town. I would certainly never have found it by myself, and I would have missed a masterpiece if not for him. So thanks a million Yogesh.