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Friday, January 27, 2017

Travel Preparations - Well Prepared is Half Done


We all love to travel - don't we? and we are ready to head out of the town on every available opportunity. But if you have been to a visit recently, you would know how difficult are the days leading up to the start of vacation. There are unending multiple lists of tasks that one has to accomplish and it is easy to get overwhelmed with all one has to do to prepare for the holidays. Well, there are those who would sneak out without much of preparations but if you are with family or would like to make the most of your time, it is best to prepare well. The attempt in this article is to help all those in the preparations stage for a vacation. I have used my experience over the years and leveraged various lessons learned to put together specific considerations during trip planning.

Hopefully, these do ease your trouble to some extent!!

Choose the Right Destination and Itinerary

The first thing to decide for any vacation is the time and destination. While timing in most cases will be determined by when your organization has holidays in their yearly calendar or when you are able to cajole your boss into approving your leave application. Once your timelines are ready, start by identifying the destination where you would like to spend your well-deserved vacation. There are many considerations that go behind this - duration, the purpose of the holiday, budget etc.

First start with the time you have in hand and look for places you can head out to. There would be locations which you can cover as a weekend getaway whereas if you have an entire week off you could reach farther off. If you plan to get out of the country, it only makes sense if you have adequate time off - my rule of thumb 9+ days. The notion that Indian holidays are cheaper is no longer valid and most South East Asian countries can be covered in almost the same budget as a Kerala Vacation for a Delhite. Another important thing to consider is the purpose of your vacation. If you looking for a relaxing time with family then head to beaches or hill resorts which are relatively less commercialized. If you are in the touristy mood and want to explore places, mingle with locals and visit sites, choose your destination accordingly. Also, one could look at choosing destinations which are not at the peak of their season, that is if you are okay with a bit of sun or rain. This could help you reduce your expenses to a great deal as it would be easier to negotiate deals during such times.

Once you decide the region or destination, determine all the cities or locations you would touch during the trip. It generally gets boring staying at same hotel or city after a time and hence We recommend breaking up the monotony by covering multiple places - We try to touch 2 - 3 places of stay for a 9-10 day vacation meant for relaxing holiday. If you are onto exploration, make it 4 or 5 at the maximum beyond which you are just running from place to place. Out of those 4 places, at least have one stop of 3 - 4 days preferably towards the end of the trip. This way you could chill out before returning to rigors of life. Once the locations are locked, put down the exact itinerary - datewise places you would be in and transfers from one city to other. We would recommend keeping enough buffers in your timeline to accommodate flight delays, weather, and mood-swings.


Travel - Flight Tickets / Train Reservations

This is one major expense item for most international holidays and a major concern for all domestic ones i.e. if you pick train travel. Hence it makes perfect sense to freeze these tickets as much in advance as possible. Especially, if you have a tentative itinerary in hand, getting train tickets booked is the best bet. At worst you lose token money in cancellations, but it would be worth it in long run. Flight tickets are bit tricky and you would want to be relatively sure of your travel dates. However, there are some online ticketing websites which run offers allowing you easy cancellations. Before booking your flight tickets, explore all popular websites and your cards or wallets to identify the offers running across. Reward points combinations, cash-backs, discounts etc. become considerable savings when we have high-value tickets. Also, make sure you book reliable flights with good safety records. You may also want to look at airlines which may not be glamorous, yet have good services. For example. Cathay Pacific is not high on any list but has impeccable service in most aspects.

Once tickets are booked, I always make it a point to validate the PNR on the particular airline's website. This is to ensure that booking has gone through from the booking agent to the airline and I would get a seat when I show up. Also, most international airlines and some domestic ones allow you to choose your seats, without a fee. Always, use that option and choose most desirable seats - my favorite are aisles, away from galleys and washrooms, reclinable and two-seaters (if you are traveling in 2s, these are worth paying for too). If you are traveling overseas, make it a point to call the customer service or log into the web portal to specify your meal preferences. They may not carry your Indian vegetarian meal (yes Indian is a different type of vegetarian) and you would be left with salads or bread. In case you need special help, do let the airline know beforehand.

Train vs By Road vs Flight?

Generally, my thumb rule is to choose train if it takes you to your destination overnight. This way you can leave the previous day and utilize your night to travel towards your destination. Anything longer than that or at other times eats up from your leisure time. I am sure we find train journeys fun but I for sure would prefer to kick off my vacations at the destinations sooner rather than later. If you are an enthusiast, a car can be a fun way to travel and road trips are experiences in themselves. However if your first destination is more than 6-7 hours by car, I would recommend taking a train or flight until the first destination and then take a car rental from there. This way you enjoy the road trip and avoid exertion of the longer leg. As for the flights, there are some journeys you are bound to take by air - at least the overseas travel. For domestic travel, if train takes too much time, I would say flights are pretty affordable nowadays and in some cases more economical than trains. Case in point, my latest Delhi-Mumbai return fare was cheaper than a Third AC Rajdhani fare on the same route.

Accommodation

This is one aspect of your trip that has the potential to make or break the fun you have during the vacation. I have seen tourists overlooking the importance of accommodation and opting for cheaper motels or un-starred hotel to save money on the pretext that limited time is spent in a hotel room - after all, they are there to be out roaming. While this may be entirely false for someone going in for a lazy getaway, it is still a fallacy for someone interested in covering the city as a tourist. Once you are done with your rigorous day tour, you would want to come back to a cozy bed or a rocking chair and enjoy a cup of coffee. You would like to have an ambiance that feels comfortable and tempts you to explore it. If you are with the family, you may want to stroll around in evenings and mornings which is not possible if your hotel is right on a market street. Whatever the circumstance is, choosing an accommodation carefully is one of the most fruitful investment you would make in you planning.

If you are opting for a package tour, the operator would provide you with a listing of hotels at various locations that they would book for you. If you are on a group tour you would have limited maneuverability compared to a customized tour but still, make it a point to ask the operator for options. They would though hesitantly, in all probability give you a few. Research each of them well before making a final pick. If you have a customized package being made, ask for options from the operator and also identify a few options on your own. Similarly, if you are on your own booking individual places, finalize the amount you want to spend on accommodation and then look out for various places available in your budget.

As part of the hotel research, your first destination should be TripAdvisor or Make My Trip or any other web portal where you can search for all the hotels in a city. Once you have shortlisted places within your budget (or have a list of options from your travel operator), read through the reviews online. Make sure you check out pictures of the place, including those from travelers. Also, pay close attention to where the place is located. For an urban city, I would recommend finding a place in the city center and in case you are off to a beach destination, look for something by the beach. Depending on the purpose of the holiday, the location plays an important role in determining how much you reap from the journey.

Once you book your accommodation, and if done through an online portal or a third party agency, confirm the bookings with the hotel to make sure that booking went through. Further, a couple of days before departing from home, re-confirm the bookings to avoid last minute issues. Inform the hotel of your expected time of arrival and if you have any specific preferences. I personally ask for non-smoking rooms on the higher floors of the facility.


Travel Documents

Once the basic booking are done and accommodation and travel plans are finalized, one has to ready up the travel documents folder. No one prefers any hurdles or issues during a holiday and if these come in form of lack of documents, they may actually take a serious turn ruining the entire trip. Travel documents are especially critical if you are going for a trip abroad, but there are a few things that you need even for a domestic getaway. Let us look for things that are required irrespective of the travel destination. First are your booking vouchers and tickets - holiday vouchers (for package bookings), hotel booking confirmation, flight tickets, email confirmations from hotel/flight, additional reservation vouchers etc. You have them in your email but I recommend taking a print out and pinning them up in a folder to make things easy at each step. You never know when your phone battery or data plan may give up on you. Next, I would also recommend having a copy of the local map (source it from google maps if you may) of the city you are visiting. I actually keep a few version handy - one is the zoomed-in version of the Hotel I would be staying at, one is a tourist map of the city and another is driving directions from the airport or railway station, if possible.

Now if you are traveling abroad there are few more documents that gain importance. First one is your passport - grab it and confirm validity. Next is to get your visa sorted out. Check if the country you are visiting allows visa-on-arrival for your passport. If it does, I would recommend opting for that option as it saves some preparation hurdles and you can conveniently have a stamp at the start of your journey. Read the documentation requirements in details and prepare for the process at your destination. Most countries prescribe need of a passport photograph (I anyway ask you to keep a few copies handy), bank statement, return flight tickets, hotel booking confirmation, visa fee and of course the passport. Get an extra copy of these things to avoid any last-minute hurdle. Most places accept visa fee in multiple currencies or have card swipe machines but some prefer local currency or the US Dollars in bills. As a security measure or as a prescribed requirement, take a travel insurance for your trip to save you from uncontrolled expenditure in case of emergency.

Get all documentation ready and pinned well before your departure date. Prior to departing, make it a point to double check these documents as this is a critical part of your luggage - things you cannot buy at any cost. As a backup, I tend to keep an electronic copy on my PDA and also on my mail server just in case I need to retrieve it for whatever reason.

Currency

Money is what you need to travel, apart from the attitude and aptitude to travel. If you are traveling domestic, keep some hard currency handy as a lot of interior places would not offer card payments or ATM machines. Networks are elusive in many parts and you may find yourselves stranded for fuel or other requirements. It is best to carry cash as a buffer and keep topping it up as you use it. If you are traveling overseas, this heading gains critical importance. First, research the currency that is applicable for your destination and identifies current exchange rates. Also, estimate the amount of money you would need - research the living indexes, travelers' estimations, and other online information. If you are on a package tour, consult your travel advisor too. Settle for an amount on the higher side of your estimation. I have alway benefitted from online reviews and other discussion boards while opting for currency transactions. There are currencies which are difficult to procure because of short supply and hence carry high exchange margins. For such destinations, it is better to pick up US Dollars in India and have them exchanged locally in that country. The two transactions come out to be economical than one in such cases. Further, if you are opting this route, I recommend using authorized money changers. I always go for airport or bank counters which are a bit pricey but reliable. Also, carry an international debit or credit card (Visa/Master Card) to source cash in emergencies.


Luggage

I always make it a point to travel light for multiple reasons - airline limits, logistical ease, light load on shoulders etc. However traveling light does not mean to be unprepared for where you are headed. While you can buy almost everything everywhere, you may not want to spend those priced moments looking for a right place. First and foremost, assess the weather conditions in your destination and pack clothing accordingly. Also, keep a pair extra clothing for exigencies. Pair up your accessories with dresses but try to keep them to a minimum. Footwear occupies quite some space so try to reduce them to the extent possible. However, do have a pair of casual sports shoes which come in handy for many occasions. There would be other clothing items you may want to include based on your plan and itinerary.

However, clothing is only a part of the luggage and there are few more critical items you may want to pack. First is a small first aid kit - bandages, Dettol, general medicines, any specifically prescribed medicines etc. Then there are electronics including camera, chargers, power banks, headphones, and memory cards. Do ensure that you charge your batteries to full and wipe out memory cards before starting the trip. Also, you may want to backup your phone and laptop data in case the worst happens. If traveling overseas, add in a couple of international/universal adapters. Also, if you like you could pack in ready to use beverages especially during trips abroad - as we like to pack a few pouches of powdered tea mixes. At last of course, toiletries based on your need.

A golden rule that my wife taught me - run through the things you need from morning to night in mind while packing luggage. This helps remind crucial items which would otherwise have gone unpacked.


Your luggage is packed and bookings are done. All you need now is to head out, catch your flight or train and have a great time. And yeah, do not forget to come back and let us know how your trip went. Of course, if you have any other trick in hand for travel preparations, we would be happy to give you your due credit!!

If you need details about a particular destination, you may find value in our travel experiences below.


Thursday, January 19, 2017

Mumbai - The City that Never Sleeps


It was the first long weekend of the year 2017 and we were in no mood to waste it out on our lazy surreals. We were already scouting for options when dad called one morning, telling us that they were going to Mumbai for an official tour and asked if we would like to come along. Well, that was we were looking to hear anyway and promptly agreed. What needed to be seen was the dent this last minute plan would put to our pockets as train travel was not an option for a quick weekend getaway. I quickly fired my laptop and checked the flight prices and fortunately, there were umpteen deals from airlines and I managed to grab a good deal for our travel dates. So the travel was set and dad was taking care of hotel bookings, in short, we were ready to leave our abode again - this time going off to Mumbai, the financial capital of the country - a city that is believed to never sleep.

As planned we packed our bags, traveling pretty light for this short trip, booked the cab and locked the house. We were rushing away from our home by eight on the night of Jan 12th, towards New Delhi's Indira Gandhi International Airport. We were flying Jet from the Terminal 3 and reached the departure area by about 9 PM. We checked into our flight and the process was smooth and fast. The lady handed us the boarding passes and guided us towards the domestic departure's security check area. Going through the airport has become a habit until now and we do not give a second look to the shopping zone and food court en route our walk to the Plaza Premium Lounge on the first floor. We checked into the lounge and identified a corner seat to settle our luggage and started our ritual with exploring dinner options. Gladly they had a decent dinner fare and we hogged on the food to give our trip a perfect start. Over food and drinks, we noticed a tall individual pacing with his phone and covering face with a cap. Wifey exclaims that her intuition revealed that person to be Mr. Sonu Nigam, the maestro himself. She takes it onto herself to approach him and he graciously obliges her with a selfie. What was remarkable was the entire episode - he was on a phone call when wifey approached towards him and realizing the situation he excused himself from the call, took wifey's phone in his hands and guided her to a better angle to have adequate lighting and then clicked a couple of pictures - like a perfect gentleman. We could not have asked for a better start of the trip. Soon, we checked the information board and realized it was the right time to leave for the departure gate.

A video journey of Mumbai



At about 10:15, we were waiting at the gate for our boarding sequence. Jet had a zone wise boarding protocol which worked as intended and everyone was conveniently settled in their seats by the time the aircraft left the airbridge. The usual security announcement ensued and the plane finally took off leaving us with a beautiful view of the glittering night of Delhi. Once in the air, the food service began and they served us dinner - the usual aircraft one to a large extent. The quality I would say was decent but the quantity was seriously short of expectation. Even Vistara, where we weren't satisfied with service, did a good job at the quantity of meal. Probably we are ones with higher expectations. Other than that the service was good and attendants were responsive and prompt. After an hour and half of flying, the captain announced that we had begun our descent and would be landing in few minutes. The excitement grew as the plane landed at the Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport in Mumbai. We had claimed our baggage by about 1 AM in the morning and were proceeding out of the Terminal 2' arrival hall. We just realized that we had landed at the new terminal of the airport which was swanky and chic by any standards - and we had only seen the arrival hall yet. We were already eager to have our experience of departure from this terminal on our return flight. Anyways, we came out of the airport and struggled for a few moments to identify where the cab would pick us. Arrival area is a bit complicated for first timers - the cabs pick you up at parking areas which are themselves at two levels i.e level 6 and 7. Finally, we figured that the easiest way was to ask the cab to pick us from Level 6 parking and we proceeded to the designated location. By 1:45 AM we were zipping away from the airport in this city of dreams called Mumbai. We checked into our hotel by 2:30 and landed on the bed after the daylong exertion.

Right Beside the ATC - Airport Area
Mumbai, formerly known as Bombay - the name given during colonial British rule, is big and vibrant in many ways and has a unique charm of being known as "the cool or hip city" different from any other place in this vast country. It has been the city of dreams for many and provides an abode to all - dreamers and hard-labourers, starlets and gangsters, stray dogs and exotic birds, artists and servants, fisherfolk and millionaires, and lots and lots of people. While New Delhi is the capital on the political map of India, Mumbai is the financial and entertainment capital of India. With Reserve Bank of India and SEBI, outliers for government departments, setting up their headquarters in Mumbai, the city became the center of all financial activities. The leading stock exchanges work out of here as do most of the financial services institutions. On the other hand, Mumbai is also the home of Hindi Movie Industry, fondly called the Bollywood. This along with the all the other activities related to the fashion world finding their hub here makes it the epicenter of glamor quotient in the country. The city has furious energy, lightening speed and paranoia metropolitanism. However amidst all this, the city has its own culture, old-world architecture and spiritual devotion that goes along with it. Entire modernity aside, the city celebrates all traditional festivals with zeal and devotion for religion is astute. During our three days there we found people of the city absolutely gentle, helpful and courteous. Be it the cab drivers, co-passengers in local trains or a roadside shopkeeper - everyone was eager to go the extra mile to ensure we carry only happy memories from the city.

Next day, we woke up to a kadak chai at the guest house and had a filling breakfast. After freshening up we went on to meet mom and dad staying at the Hotel Sahara Star, a plush property with nicely done interiors, unique exterior architecture and congested rooms. After a short gossip session, we went onto our exploration of the city. We had planned to have a holy start to the site-seeing session and hence visited the famed Siddhi Vinayak Temple in Prabha Devi area. Lord Ganesha or Vinayak is the god worshiped before embarking on new endeavors and this two-century-old temple attracts devotees in large numbers who come here to have their wishes fulfilled. Fortunately, the rush was on the lower side at the time we visited the shrine and hence had a very good darshan of the deity. The orange colored idol of Ganesha generates enlightenment and piousness and reassures the devotees that their wishes are being heard. After spending some enriching moments in the temple compound, we came out to continue our trip.

Juhu Chowpatty Beach - Night Life

We drove through the North-West highway northwards towards the Borivali area to have a jungle experience in the Sanjay Gandhi National Park. The national park is an exceptional wilderness spread over 103 Sq. Km. and is wedged between the suburbs of Mumbai and Thane. It is believed to be the largest wildlife reserve in Asia within city limits occupying about 20 percent of Mumbai's geographical area. We took the jungle safari and went through dense vegetation looking for the big cat which kept eluding us and successfully stayed away from our sight. Though the purpose wasn't fulfilled, the undulating green land, panoramic views of hills and valleys and relatively unpolluted surroundings were a refreshing break from rushed city life. The campus is also the home to Kanheri Cave complex from between 1st century BC and 9th century AD. This complex consists of 109 caves carved out in black rocks and are a center of Buddhist devotion. The major part of 109 caves of Kanheri are simple cells cut in basalt - viharas - cells for monks where they lived, studied, meditated. Few larger cells though are chaityas - halls for congregational worship. The caves involve a short hike up the stairs from where the vehicle drops you and hence a visitor should be prepared to shed some sweat. However, the effort is worth the experience and the views of caves and the surrounding forests are spectacular.

We had our lunch at the food court of the Oberoi Mall, on our way back to the hotel. This mall looked tiny from outside but encompassed huge depths in the inside. We went to the hotel for a short afternoon nap before proceeding for evening fun at the Juhu Beach. Juhu is one of the posh residential localities of the city with homes of several movie artists and the beach is sought after destinations. However, childhood memories of the pristine beaches are soon dwindled looking at the clutter and litter this place has today. Insensitive tourists are ruining the very beauty that they have come here to admire. After playful moments with the waves, we saw the numerous eateries clustered in a corner serving local delicacies. We enjoyed a dinner of pav bhaji (curry with bread) at one of these. There is something different in the dish when you have it right on the beach and we loved it to the core. This was the last location for the day and we called it a night. Not really, actually !! We went to enjoy the nightlife of the city at Bandra Reclamation. This is a newly developed area on the northern edge of Bandra Worli Sea link on the lines of the Marine Drive.

Next morning, we started the day with a drive across the city - southwards. Our plan was to spend the day in South Bombay, the soul, and heart of the city. This part of the city is the British rules' gift and contains some of the grandest colonial-era architecture on the planet. However, if you explore a little more and you’ll uncover unique bazaars, hidden temples, hipster enclaves and India’s premier restaurants and nightlife. Our first destination was the Gateway of India. The Gateway of India is a monument that marks India's chief ports and is a major tourist attraction for visitors who arrive in India for the first time. The colossal structure was constructed in 1924. Located at the tip of Apollo Bunder, the gateway overlooks the Mumbai harbor, bordered by the Arabian Sea in the Colaba district. The main objective behind the construction of the Gateway of India was to commemorate the visit of King George V and Queen Mary to Bombay (Mumbai). Overlooking the monument is the majestic Hotel Taj Palace - iconic building with its unique place in the history of the city. After the attacks of 26/11, the hotel has been renovated and the glitter is alluring. There is also a new tower that has come up in the campus which mirrors the Mughal architecture but falls short in meeting the grandeur of the original building. The hotel is as much a part of the tourist map of the city as the Gateway of India itself.

While wandering, we looked around for the ticket window, which was nestled in a small corner - the place we bought ferry tickets for the Elephanta Caves. These ferries are motorboats that take you across the Arabian Sea onto an island housing these historic caves. We took the boat and were fortunate to not have to wait long given it was a weekend. As the boat started, we had an awesome view of the Mumbai Skyline and the Shoreline with high rises lined across the sea-shore. The mighty Gateway and the Taj in a single frame provided a picturesque scene. As the boat crossed the islands, the offshore oil fields, and the signaling towers, we kept clicking pictures and kept enjoying the ride on the sea-waves. After about an hour-long ride, we anchored on shores of an island and disembarked the boat. As we landed on the jetty and moved towards the caves through the long channeled bridge, we realized that it was an exhausting site to be at. One walks about half a kilometer through the bridge and then climbs about 100 steep stairs to reach the caves. However, once you are there the gigantic caves are capable of humbling you with their sheer size. Elephanta represents the pinnacle of rock cut architecture and sculptural art medieval India achieved. Despite the mindless destruction, Elephanta's art suffered during the colonial past, it still reserves the right to awestruck any ordinary visitors. These are by far the most enigmatic heritage sites I have been to. On our way back, we picked a few souvenirs and rode the toy train through the bridge leading to the Elephanta Pier, where jetty is located. Another hourlong sojourn through the sea landed us back at the Gateway of India.

The Gateway of India and The Taj Palace - Behind us Onboard Elephanta Boat


Elephanta Caves
It was almost the lunchtime and after a short lunch break, we decided to take a tour of the South Bombay reliving old memories. We went for a quick look at our old apartment building and went through the busy market lanes of Colaba - locating Maratha Store, Cambridge Shirt Outlet and Keshav's. Later we took a glimpse of the Churchgate Railway Station - given a contemporary look with metal frames and glass panes. We passed through the Bombay High Court and other colonial building on our tour. One of the interesting places we covered was the Flora Fountains. Flora Fountain, also known as 'Hutatma Chowk' since 1960, is declared as one of India's Heritage structures. Built in 1864, this tourist spot houses India's prestigious fountain, located in one of the busiest shopping areas of the city. The name 'Flora' is derived from the name of the Roman Goddess of Flowers. The old statue of a lady in white still exists but the focus has been taken over by a new statue of a lady in black at the top. The old statue is sadly in a dilapidated state showing the apathy in preserving our historic sites.

At the end of the tour, we spent few moments at the forecourt of the Victoria Terminus, now renamed at Chatrapati Shivaji Terminus. The building is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a historic railway station located in the heart of Mumbai. Built in 1888, the station is a grand reminder of the British Raj in India and still one of the most historical landmarks within the Central Business District of Mumbai. The building carries a statue of Queen Victoria on the top. The complete construction of the building took ten years, which was the longest time taken by any building of that era in Bombay. It was opened to the Queen on her Golden Jubilee in 1887 and was the most expensive building in Bombay, which then cost about 260,000 Sterling Pounds.

Iconic Victoria (CST) Terminus

The Mumbai Local - Lifeline of the City
It was already late evening roaming various tourist spots of the city and it was the perfect time to head to some relaxing moments at the Marine Drive. The four kilometer stretch of paved footpath and road by the sea is the most treasured destination to spend evenings for every age group. The road has recently been renamed as Netaji Subhash Chandra Marg. You can see a plethora of activities across the belt which provides mesmerizing views of the shoreline, especially once the darkness falls and the buildings put on their glittering lights. The entire line of building with their twinkles give the stretch a look of pearl necklace giving the road Queen's Necklace. We spent leisure movements sitting on the parapet by the sea and reminiscing the good time we were having in the city swaying in the cool breeze. Later we walked along the sea to where the drive ends - the sandy beach called Chowpatty located at the foot of posh Malabar Hills. The beach was earlier infamous for litter but was surprisingly clean this time, better than its counterpart in North Bombay - Juhu. In late evenings, it looks like a colorful fair with umpteen shops and eateries. We enjoyed some snacks which doubled up as dinner and had fun to mark our last evening in the city.

By about 10 in the evening, we took a cab back to our hotel. The drive across the evening traffic was long but interesting going through numerous landmarks across the city. On the way, we stopped for a quick tour of Haji Ali Dargah. The dargah is the complex housing the tomb of the Muslim Saint Pir Haji Ali Shah Bukhari (R.A.). Along with the tomb, there is also a Masjid within the complex. Situated about 500 meters off the coast, this monument has been sentinel to the shores of Mumbai for a long time. The dargah was decorated beautifully with colored lights and looked ravishing from the shore. Next, we stopped for a while at the Worli Sea Face, which provided great views of the sea and the newly built Bandra-Worli Sea Link. Spanning across the arc of Mumbai's coastline, this sea link is a civil engineering wonder that reflects the modern infrastructure of the city of Mumbai. Officially known as Rajiv Gandhi Sea Link, this eight-lane cable-stayed bridge is a connection between North and South Bombay across the Arabian Sea, away from the city rush. After initial mishaps, the link has been barricaded on sides which hinder the views of the sea to some extent but still provides a thrill of crossing the seas under the star lit sky. We were snug in our cozy bed by about 11:30 in the night.

Next day, we woke up early for our 9 AM flight out of Mumbai. We were at the swanky and aesthetic Terminal 2's domestic departures section by 7:30 AM. We spent the hour we had before the flight exploring the airport closely and admiring the beauty - overtaking Terminal 3 of IGI Airport in New Delhi in terms of covetousness. We also paid a quick visit to the American Express Lounge for sake of experience and it was definitely a good resting ground for those taking a flight from here. We boarded our Air India flight right in time and took off by 9:10 which was commendable given the credential that the airline is infamous for. The service was decent and the staff was courteous and available. The meal service was functional and the food was generous. We landed at the IGI Airport at about noon, with half an hour of delay, thanks to the morning fog leading to schedules being haywire. We reached home in another hour and settled on the couch, remembering the fun moments from the trip and mentally preparing for the office day which was only hours away.

Swanky Chic Terminal 2 - Chatrapati Shivaji Airport




Saturday, January 7, 2017

Mukteshwar-Ramgarh : The Fruit Bowl in Kumaon


We were enjoying our vacations in Nainital and the trip was in full swing. We had been offered the best of welcome by this Lake District in hills of Kumaon and the visit offered us everything we could ask for. We realized that we had a day available during the trip where we could sneak out of Nainital for a quick day tour to higher reaches of Kumaon and hence we planned a trip to Mukteshwar on the last day of the year 2016. Accordingly, we arranged for logistics - planned the itinerary, booked a cab and packed a small bag.

We had an early start that day as we wanted to absorb the morning mist with fresh sun rays falling on the Naini Lake. After a small stroll in morning, we enjoyed a mouth-watering breakfast at the hotel restaurant and prepared to embark on our excursion. We packed some light snacks to munch on during the journey and some woolens, just in case the heights bring more chill. As planned the cab was at the hotel by 9:15 AM and we were already set by then. The cab was zipping out of the hotel compound and rolling on the steep slopes of the hotel exit by 9:30 AM and we were excited about this getaway within the getaway.

A Video Journey Across the Hills


As the trip started, the scenic views of the peaks and valleys and the slopes in between kept us glued to what was being seen out of the windows. We were indeed mesmerized by the beauty that nature had bestowed on this part of the country. As we passed small settlements and viewpoints, we exploited every chance to get out of the car for a few snaps to create memories. On the way, we had another round of snacks at a roadside joint to keep the energy levels high.

After about an hour of drive, the car stopped at a point in the middle of nowhere, and our chatty driver, Sanjay, told us that this is a relatively untapped point which provides some good views. The place was outside of a village called Gagar. We deboarded the car, armed with the lenses, and proceeded to the corner of the cliff to witness the views. And yes, Sanjay was not wrong. The views of Himalayas were simply marvelous and we could see the snow-capped ranges right from there - ones we were expecting to see from Mukteshwar. We spent quite some time admiring the beauty in front of us and walked by the cliff. We continued the journey after about 20-25 minutes of break. The white Himalayan ranges accompanied us until far on our trip until we were on the other-side of the hill. In another 15 minutes, we reached our first tourist spot - Ramgarh.

Nestled in the lap of nature, Ramgarh is a destination blessed with an impeccable view of the snow-covered peaks of the Himalayas and adorned with a beautiful and serene environment. At an altitude of about 1800 meters above sea level, this is a small village which has managed to keep its raw untapped charm - away from the bustle of major hill stations. Tourists, in particular, would like this place if they are looking to be away from all action and spend days in solitude and devotion for nature. This village is nicknamed as the Fruit Bowl of Kumaon because of the variety of exotic fruits grown here like peaches, apples, plums, pears, strawberries and apricots. The place is full of such orchards doing wonders to the senses of the tourists visiting here. The place was originally a cantonment for British Army but managed to save itself from the development and exploitation as in other popular hill stations. That is the reason this place allows you to be in the lap of nature in its true form. We spent about half an hour visiting various plantations and absorbing the magical spell of this hill-village.

Remains of Snow Fall on the Way

As we proceeded from Ramgarh, soon we saw soft remains of snowfall from the previous day coloring a large part of hill slopes and road boundaries in white. This was definitely a sight that made the trip even more worthy of the effort. It took us another half an hour of negotiations with curves of hill roads to reach the outer counters of Mukteshwar. We stopped briefly at the PWD inspection bungalow as it is said to provide great views of the valley. The views were great but we already had been through the mesmerizing views throughout our drive and hence we decided to move to other spots in the town.

Mukteshwar is a small hill town mostly known for adventure sports such as rock climbing, rappelling etc. and the amazing view of Himalayan ranges you get from there. Another one of Uttaranchal's beautiful hill stations, Mukteshwar deriving its name from Lord Shiva is complete with fruit orchards, coniferous forests and rolling meadows at a height of 7500 ft. The colonial imprint on buildings and art is evident here.

The driver dropped us at the gate of the Mukhteshwar Dham Temple. We decided to engage services of a local guide to help us navigate this town better. We picked a guide named Mangal, who had been at this job for about 8 years and was quite informative. On his recommendation, we decided to go through the touristy ritual of covering all the points and then visiting the temple. The tour began and we took the round-trip walk through the area which covered all the points of interest in the town. The first point was "Naag Fan" rock which is basically a rock structure imagined to resemble a snake.  Nothing interesting or extraordinary, but still a spot on tourist guide's map.

The Crooked Jungle Walk

The Valley Below Behind Us

We continued on the hill trek and were introduced to Chauthi ki Jali after a few minutes of the hike. This area where it is believed that a Demon and a Goddess fought a battle. The place is marked with what is believed to be faint outlines of a sword, a shield and a trunk of an elephant. There is also a ring-shaped structure within a rock. The locals believe, that on Shivratri, an auspicious day, passing through the rock-ring is beneficial for expecting women. Though, the topology, which includes a narrow rocky path to the ring and just a rock on the other side of it makes it a pretty dangerous act.

Next, we went through the jungle walk amidst innumerable trees of Deodar on one side and oaks on other. The walk landed us on a rock cliff which provided great views of Himalayas and to our luck all snow capped peaks. One that stands out is the Nanda Devi Peak. Nanda Devi is the 2nd highest mountain peak in India and overall 23rd in the world. It stands as tall as 7,816 m above the sea level. We spent about half an hour there and had coffee on top of the peak. Those hot sips worked marvels and seemed perfect for the location.

Later, we walked to the temple. Dedicated to Lord Shiva, the hilltop temple with white marble Shiva Linga and Copper Yoni is surrounded by idols of Brahma, Vishnu, Parvati, Hanuman, Ganesh, and Nandi. You have to climb a series of winding steep stone stairs to reach the sanctum. This temple is believed to be one of the 18 most important Shiva temples in the country and is a revered shrine for Hindus. We spent some moments in the divine atmosphere and then proceeded to descend the stairs. It was already late afternoon and at the main entrance of the area, we noticed a roadside vendor preparing Maggi Noodles. We could not help ourselves avoid the temptation and ordered a plate for us. It seemed to be the best meal we would have had for some time.

After the refreshments, we began our journey back to Nainital along the same roads with the same scenic beauty which accompanied us back to our base. We were back in Nainital by about 4 PM in the evening and covered a few tourist spots in the town before getting back to the hotel. There was a huge traffic jam at the entrance of the city because of the New Year eve rush. Apparently, Nainital is a New Year eve destination for the entire area, including for ones like us.  As we entered our room and prepared for the celebrations welcoming the new year, we were left mesmerized with everything the day had offered to us.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Nainital - The Lake District in Kumaon


It was already the start of December and we still did not have a plan for the New Year finalized. Last year we were in Cochin to witness their traditional celebrations but this time it seemed that we would either be at a party in the city or couched in a blanket. The probability of later did give us chills and hence the thinking hat was put on. Somehow I happened to have some free time during the second week and I browsed through options we could still choose to visit, affordably. Most tourist destinations were already booked and the ones that had availability wanted to charge heavily. The process of elimination continued and finally, I announced to my wife that we had two options to sneak out to - Shimla or Nainital.  After a couple of minutes of discussions, we chose Nainital or we could say it chose us. A possibility of getting out of the city on new Year was enough to enlighten our day. The plan was to enjoy a four-day trip to Nainital starting 30th of December 2016 and returning on 2nd Jan in the new year. Hectic preparations begun and the first thing was to book the travel. Thanks to Dynamic Fare system introduced by Railway Ministry, We got confirmed reservations for Shatabdi Express. Next was accommodation which proved a bit tricky but we managed to seal an acceptable deal. Finally, the transport, for which we found a contact online and booked a vehicle for the four days.

The trip started when we woke up at 3 am and prepared for our cab at 4 am. The Kathgodam Shatabdi was scheduled to leave at 6 AM from New Delhi Railway Station which is about 40 kilometers from our place. Luckily, I checked the train status before starting, which was unusual for me, as this was the starting station for a Shatabdi which nulled any chances of a delay. Well, this time was different and the status showed that train had been rescheduled to depart an hour later at 7. Apparently, the train came in last day with a 5-hour delay. In time I rescheduled our cab for 5 and since we were already ready by 4, we spent the hour looking forward to a good break and relaxing trip over a cup of hot tea.

A first-hand video tour of Nainital for you


Our cab arrived in time and we locked the house and left home to be back only in the New Year. As the car zipped through roads and the highway, we realized the thickness of fog and the apparent reason for train delays. It took us about an hour to reach the station and we reached Platform Number 11 of New Delhi Railway station by 6:15, right when the public address system confirmed the 7 AM departure. After a wait of about half an hour in chilly windy Delhi morning, the train rolled in right at 6:45 AM. We had been assigned seats in coach CE which meant that train was running super-full and an extra coach had been added to accommodate the rush - probably a lot of people wanted to be out to celebrate the New Year. As we settled in the seats, the rush was apparent and with everyone assigned seats arbitrarily, the Indian way of negotiations to accommodate people traveling together to be seated close by were at their peak. Soon, the bustle settled and the train whistled out of the platform gradually catching pace.

The familiar voice over the PA system welcomed the passengers onboard the train and provided some numbers regarding the journey. Simultaneously we were served packaged drinking water. In about another half hour the staff served a welcome drink - packed lemon water, sweet and flavored. This was followed with breakfast trays with two options each for vegetarian and non-vegetarian preferences. For vegetarians, they had a choice among Cutlets and South Indian(Vada-Idli) along with a slice of bread and butter. The trays also carried the tea set and hot water was served for those inclined. If someone needed, the staff carried coffee pouches as an option. The service ended by about 9 but the journey ensued. Most passengers used this time to catch on their sleep. Obviously, everyone had sacrificed a good part of their sleep to catch this early morning train and no one wanted to be sleepy right when they landed for their vacation. Negotiating the dense fog, the train continued its run towards the destination. leaving behind stations, crossings, settlements, and cities.

We reached the Kathgodam Station at about 12:45 as the train rolled into the station about an hour and a half behind schedule. As the morning fog had prepared us for worse delays, we were relieved to realize that we still had our half day to salvage in this hill state of Uttrakhand. We already had booked a taxi and had drivers contact details with us. He had called to confirm our arrival time when we were at Haldwani, a station prior to Kathgodam. As we deboarded the train, we could feel the freshness of the air and a view of colonial charm at the station itself. The building is a heritage property inherited from the British and provides a feel of countryside station catering to limited population yet having its own importance. The station building and platforms are relatively big for the traffic they cater and provide all functionalities one may expect. We were rearing to start the tour and called our driver who was already waiting for us in the arrival hall. We boarded the car and off we went.

Curves Uphill - Kathgodam to Nainital
Dotted with lakes (Nainital Lake, Bhimtal, Naukuchiatal, Khurpatal, Sattal), Nainital has earned the epithet of 'Lake District' of India'. The word tal means small water body in Hindi. The unspoiled and tranquil environs of Nainital District command breath-taking, panoramic views of the lush expanse of the broken hill and Himalayan ranges. Located in the newly formed state of Uttrakhand, the hill city is about 35 kilometers from Kathgodam, the gateway to Kumaon. Nainital town has the famous lake to which it owes its name. The surface of this lake has an elevation of 1.935 m above sea level. The city was the summer headquarters of the colonial administration of the province.

As we moved we started a bit of dialogue with the driver, Sanjay Chauhan, and realized he was a chatty person. Apparently, he had interests in tourism, story writing, lyrics writing  (still struggling) and what not. But he was a courteous person ready to meet our requests and we were happy to have him for start of our trip. Our plan was to cover a few tourist spots before reaching Nainital. The driver recommended that we take the "Lake Tour"  which would fit with our timings and we decided to go ahead with the recommendation. As we started the climb onto the hills of Kumaon, the name this region is known by, the Gaula River greeted us and continued on our trip by the road for some distance. We stopped for a while on-route at - Aashirwaad Restaurant, a roadside eatery for some light snacks. The fried pakoras and desi chai were a great beginning for the trip. The first tourist stop for us was Naukuchiatal - about an hour and a half away from Kathgodam. The lake derives its name from the fact that it has nine corners and locals believe that those who see the nine corners attain nirvana. We did not believe in the concept and hence did not even put an effort to count the corners. We did, however, take a round of the lake just in case that sufficed for Nirvana. Fed by underwater spring, this is the deepest lake in the district. It was a picturesque lake with beautiful views and losing into the dense oak forests. Relatively devoid of tourists, this was a good place for those looking for peace. We spent about half an hour there walking by the lake and enjoying the start of the trip at this beautiful spot.

Bhimtal - Largest Lake in District
Next stop on the day was the Bhimtal about twenty minutes from Naukuchiatal. This is another lake in the district which is relatively untapped and has the raw charm. There are a couple of resorts around the place which provide better logistics for peace-seekers compared to Naukuchiatal. The lake gets its name after Bhima, from Mahabharata known for his might, because of the size of the lake. A  We had our lunch there and enjoyed the surrounding. The island in the middle of lake enhances the view looking like a pearl in water. The tourism department has set up an aquarium in the middle of the lake on the island. We spent half an hour in the vicinity of the lake and left. During this half hour we walked to the semi-formal viewpoint, basically a terrace with concrete seats and table. We picked a coffee and chatted for a while in the lap of scenic beauty. We were definitely enjoying the welcome we were being accorded by the beauty of the region. At Bhimtal, we also saw an activity center offering paragliding facility for tourists at 1500 bucks per flight. While we were tempted, the set up did not enthuse confidence in their safety apparatus.

Next, we zipped through Sattal for exhaustiveness of the tour and spent only a few moments clicking pictures and then left for Nainital. The lake is named as Hindi translation of "Seven Lakes" as it is a group of many lakes nested together in a whole. The area was ones rich of tea plantation but the practice eroded over time. The lake is a destination for many migratory birds. This is also a famous site for camping for tourist. This was the last of the "Lake Tour" and we proceeded to Nainital from there.

We were at the hotel reception at about 6 PM in the evening and checked into our suite - a luxury lake view suite with two bedrooms, a drawing room, and dining room along with a semi-private balcony, located right near the famed mall road, though a short hike away. The location provided beautiful views of the lake, while also offering the privacy and tranquility one would want for a vacation. The master bedroom itself had a glass wall which gave a panoramic view of the lake and the city, right from the bed. After freshening up, we decided to take a stroll at the Mall Road to get a feel of the place. We spent an hour on the road walking by the lake across millions of shops. Later we had dinner at Embassy Restaurant at the Mall Road itself. The place had a shabby board but the exteriors defied interiors. The interiors were done in wood and nice small roof hanging lights gave a pleasant look. The food was good and the owner himself kept a close watch on guest comfort and provided valuable suggestions. We loved the dinner and retired back to our room.

Mountains - Far and Wide
Next day, we had a day tour to Mukteshwar and Ramgarh. We had an early morning that day as we wanted to witness the beauty of hill in the light of rising sun and absorb the pristine morning mist. This was followed by hot aloo parathas from hotel restaurant served in the room which simply made the day better. We left the hotel by about 9:15 AM and went through curves of the hill-roads destined to the heights of Mukteshwar, a peak at 8000 feet height. We were back by about four in the evening and decided to use the available time for some additional excursion around the city. First, we went up to the Lake View Point for a glimpse of the lake from a height. It is located about 5 km away from Nainital on the way to Kilbury, nestled at a height of about 2300 meters above sea level. Next, we spent some time in the Cave Gardens developed in upper reaches on Nainital. A network of inter-connected rocky caves and hanging gardens that it is, takes the visitor into a mysterious and ancient dream-world providing an encapsulated glimpse of what the wilderness of the hill region. On our return to the hotel, we passed through the Thandi Sadak or Cold Road. This is the most alluring spot in this small hill station, which offers a cool ambiance for a perfect walk. Thandi Sadak is lined up with lush greens of pine, deodar, and oaks, which restricts the sunbeams to fall over Thandi Sadak. However, this was not the end of the day for us.

It was a new year eve and after some rest, we headed to the Mall Road which was bustling with activities, nicely decorated with lightings and decors. There were speakers placed throughout the road and music was being played to get the party mood in. Tourists were dancing to the tunes of Bollywood numbers and the environment was fun. We returned to the room, not before the clock striking 12 and we wishing every stranger A Happy New Year. That evening, we had dinner at a restaurant called Nanak which had a great exterior touch along with good interiors, a bit tacky yet good. The food was good and service decent.

Lighting - Preparing for the New Year
Next day was a day we had planned for true vacation feel. We had a relaxed start and woke up the sun rays falling through the glass walls and yawned into awakening by about ten. We started the day at about 11 after the late relaxed morning and lazy breakfast. We strolled down the mall road for some time before walking up to the base station of the Ropeway. The ropeway or the cable car is a major attraction attracting huge crowds. We were lucky to be in time to avoid much rush and had to wait about half an hour after taking the tickets. There is a waiting room with adequate seats to help prevent from chilling winds where you can wait for your turn over a coffee from the canteen. The cable car, in batches on 10 passengers, takes you to a viewpoint located 2250 meter high, called Snow View Point. The ride on the cable car provided wonderful panoramic views of lake and valleys. The aerial survey of the hill-city was a great experience over that small confined trolley. The peak top provided great views of hills and valleys but clouds prevented the view of Himalayas. Nonetheless, it was a great location. They had another viewpoint there providing a great view of the Naini Lake in its Kaju or Mango form. We spent an hour there and returned, not before enjoying steaming onion-pakoras. There is also, a restaurant and guest house of tourism department developed in a British Time building used as erstwhile Governor's House. They have also developed an activity center at the top offering bumping cars and merry go rounds, flying fox and rock climbing options for tourists.

After returning from the cable car, we took a boat ride in Naini Lake. This freshwater lake is the nucleus of this hill city and all tourist interests are located around it. About 28 meters deep at the bottom-most point and 2 miles in perimeter, the lake is surrounded by lush green hills, seven in number. The lake has been topologically divided into two parts, upper called as Mallital and lower as Tallital. One cannot stay unimpressed by the alluring beauty of this lake, which magnifies multifold during the night. The rower Bhupinder was a chilled out guy,  telling us about how from the next day it would be an end of the season and they would have to fight for having even a single ride in a day. He took us through both parts of the lake and obliged us with pictures. The ride took a little more than half an hour and it was about lunch time when we deboarded the boat. We were thinking about how to proceed for the meal when someone warned us about possible rains. We swiftly decided to have something packed for lunch and proceeded to the hotel. On the way itself, the rain stroke us but this was different. This was something like stones striking us. Hails were on their way and we rushed to our room. After about a couple of hours of couching over coffee and enjoying the view out of the balcony, we decided to give the second part of the day a chance at shopping.

Commotion at Naini Lake Boat Club
At about 6 we came down to mall road for a glimpse of the evening and strolled while picking up souvenirs for family and friends. We also visited the Tibetan Market (Bhotia Market). The market is one of the most famous among locals and tourists. Its strategic location around the picturesque Naini lake makes it the most visited market. The colorful street is always buzzing and loaded with people. This is the market where you get everything under the sun. Woolens (shawls, jackets, stoles) from hilly areas were economical. The city is also famous for its aromatic candles aromatic and we picked quite a few. We had dinner at Gianni's (Restaurant of Channi Raja Hotel) which had a waiting of 15-20 minutes and the reason for choosing this place was curiosity behind the waiting guests. The wait was worth and the food was really incredible. We loved their interiors and service. We returned to our room by ten. During the stroll on Mall Road, we also visited the first Methodist Church of India. At the other end of Mall Road, we saw the Jama Masjid in Mallital area. The Jama Masjid (mosque where the community gathers for the communal Friday prayer) was originally built for Muslim soldiers in the British army since the locals were (and largely still are) solidly Hindu.

Next was our last day of the tour and we started early to experience how the mornings are at the Mall Road. The road was thinly populated and most shops were still opening up when we reached there at 9:30 AM. We proceeded to the Tibetan Market area and visited the Naina Devi Temple. The temple is located on top of the Naina hill at the northern shore of the Naini lake. The presiding deity of the temple is Maa Naina Devi represented by two Netras or eyes. Nainital is one of the 64 Shaktipeeths also known as religious sites of Hinduism. The location of temple provides awesome views of the lake. After spending few moments in the divine surroundings, we paid a visit to the adjoining Gurdwara. Later we had our breakfast at a small outlet - China Town, serving roadside food. It is nothing but benches in a shed and for those paranoid about hygiene, this is not the place to go. After the breakfast, we spent relaxing moments by the lake and then returned to our room to pack out bags. The cab was there to pick us at 12 noon and we checked out of the hotel. As we boarded the car and began our return journey, the heart was heavy and we could see the beauty of hills running away from us as we descended the curvy slopes of the road. We were there at Kathgodam Railway Station by 2  PM and boarded the Shatabdi Express back to New Delhi. The train rolled into the New Delhi Station right on time and we were back home by 10:30.

A trip with wonderful memories, electrifying time and scenic natural beauty had come to an end but it would take some time for us to accept the culmination of this vacation.


Wednesday, December 21, 2016

BBQ Factory - Good Blend of Hospitality

We were in a good mood as the festive season had set in and work at the office was dwindling with most client teams leaving for holidays. We had planned a chilled out evening over a movie and then a coffee date to spend time together. However, when that coffee mood turned into hunger is anyone's guess and after the movie, we decided to head out for dinner at some place. As usual, we decided to take the help of our trusted friend, Zomato to choose a place. After exploring a couple of places we decided to give a shot at one of the nearby food hub - Central Plaza. We had chosen a barbecue place for the dinner which served the starters on the fire oven placed right on the table, a format that has caught up off-late and there are many chains running across the nation. This one was not one of those chains but still we decided to five it a try. So we parked the car in under-renovation parking in the courtyard of Central Plaza and asked for the seat at our pick - BBQ Factory.


The reception was inviting and we were ushered to our table. The service soon started with setting up of the oven over the table. The warm fumes seemed perfect for the slight chill of weather. While we enjoyed the warmth of oven, the server brought us the starters with a good variety ranging from barbecue vegetables to other delicacies. The freshly baked starters had their own charm and we took our time to get all the flavors of sauces served along with. Once done with the starters we realized that we were already reaching capacity in our belly and were still two courses away from the finish line.

We headed to the buffet serving the main course and explored available options. The table had a good spread with all usual suspects available in the choices. We cautiously picked our selections and moved back to the table. We asked for an assortment of bread to be served on the table. The food had good flavors and we did like the quality. After gulping enough we decided to move to desserts in time so that we had that lingering corner which could accommodate them.



We loved the dessert corner and filled in our plates with gazar ka halwa, gulab jamun over vanilla ice cream and choco pastry. While we had a realization that we were eating over our capacity, the taste buds simply kept defying the instructions from the mind and we carried on until the last bite we could get into ourselves. We were satiated at the end of it.

While we know food is only a limited part of a restaurant visit and a lot of it goes with the service. We were impressed with the service too. The attendants were attentive, prompt, responsive and accommodating. The service was quick and response to most requests was great. The manager himself checked on us to know if we were being served well. The staff was not dressed to the tee in most upmarket dresses but their hospitality was no less than the best we had been too.

Overall it was a great experience and we came out satisfied with the experience.



BBQ Factory Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Friday, December 16, 2016

Glimpse into the City of Nizams - Hyderabad Trip


Again a business trip to the city most dear to me for being the place where I earned my first moolah - the land of my first job - Hyderabad. There was a client coming down for a couple of days and we had a few meetings scheduled with him. It needed us to be there in the city for three days. This time we decided to take a break to usual schedule and mix some pleasure with the business. Wifey agreed to come with me for this visit and we extended the visit to include a weekend and make time to explore the city. As planned we started on November 26th, 2016, Saturday early in morning with packed bags and leaving behind locked doors. There are very few days you are up so early in the morning and these are views one misses to appreciate. The cool breeze has an energizing effect and the moist freshness of the morning freshened us out of the early morning lethargy. By about 5:30 we were there sipping a hot cup of coffee at Plaza Premium Lounge in Domestic Departures of Terminal 3 of Indira Gandhi International Airport.

A short video from our trip - immerse yourselves !!


We had a good half an hour to catch up on a light breakfast before we proceeded to board our 7 AM Vistara Flight to Hyderabad. I tried taking up Vistara to experience this new player in town. It's already been about a year of their existence I hadn't had a chance trying them out so this time I agreed to pay a higher fare just for sake of the experience. The check-in was smooth and staff is courteous and helpful. They were responsive to requests and since I had a corporate booking, they allowed my wife a seat along with mine (BTW Indigo asked us to shift seats if we wanted it together). Once onboard, the premium economy customers are served with a welcome drink while other passengers in the rear just do with a bottle of water. As the flight took off, the captain provided the relevant parameters including weather conditions, flight time and distance and expected time of arrival. The take off was fine and soon they began the food service. Everyone was offered a vegetarian and non-vegetarian option along with a drink choice. While we were already full from our break at the airport lounge, we still decided to take a bite. The food, while better than a sandwich offered on other airlines at a price, was better yet did not beat the airline food quality. The taste was pale and items customized to not suit common choices. I would say most plates sent back pretty much quite a bit of the serving. In about two hours, the captain announced preparations for landing and we were finally going to start a few days of holidays we can get. The one thing that stood out in the flight was our co-passenger, a lady in the window seat, who though visually challenged was capable of managing the entire journey herself. It was not until the flight attendant alerted us about her condition that we realized the situation.

Once we were on the ground, we claimed our baggage and headed straight to the hotel. For people arriving at the airport it is important to note that all cabs pick you at a place designated at "Point D" which is in the basement, a bit of walk away from the terminal - ask anyone and they would guide you. We had been booked at The Red Fox hotel, a part of The Lemon Tree group. The drive from the airport to the hotel was long but the excitement of coming back to the town and with special someone kept us going. We were in the hotel lobby checking in at the reception in about an hour. The check-in was okay and our request for an early check-in and room at the higher floor was met. The early check did cost us about Rs. 500 + service taxes. The room was well set up and function for most aspects, while still maintaining its aesthetic value. I have stayed at the Lemon Tree beside and the standard is more or less that same, of course, it has a few niceties added to it. One thing that we did like about the place was the importance given to the specially abled in recruiting. Most of the room service staff and quite a few in the serving staff were deaf and dumb. The efficiency and effectiveness they had at their job were amazing and I would give any number of bonus points to the management for this policy. We took about an hour to freshen up and were ready to head out. Within minutes our Uber was waiting to pick us up.

We had planned a visit to the Ramoji Film City that day and knew that it was going to consume most of our day. The last entry at the film city is at 2 PM and we accordingly left as soon as we could and reached the venue by 1 PM after about an hours drive on the majestic outer ring road. The entrance to the venue is palatial and a wide road takes you through mighty gates and cab drops you at the ticket counters and reception area post which Ramoji's facilities takes over. We took the tickets (1000 bucks each) and entered the Film City. The smart access cards are swept to allow entry and after frisking visitors find themselves at the bus stop - the place where the film city buses pick up tourists and drop them into the innermost zone, designed for touristic interest. The ride from the reception to the drop point is about 20 minutes long and takes you through jungles and drives generally used for shoots,

The drop point is at the landmark named "Eureka" which is a roundabout around with the primary interest points are located. Eureka is also the bus stop for all the vehicular access. We enjoyed three back to back shows depicting art, culture, and history of filmmaking. The first was the "Film Making Show"  at "The Action Theatre" where spectators are given a chance to be part of various stages of movie making including direction, sound and acting introducing you to various props and techniques. Next, we enjoyed a virtual reality show at "Space Yatra". We also attended a show at "Lights Camera Action" where a live animation show was presented for the audience. After these shows and a quick lunch at "Jimmy's Drive-in", we proceeded back to Eureka to take the Red Vintage Bus Tour which takes through various studios (including Ramayana set) and outdoor locations showcasing various structures depicting scenes and cities from across the world. To end with, we enjoyed the cultural program - "Spirit of Ramoji" at the Alampana Theatre. We returned to the hotel for a quick break before proceeding for the dinner.

Entrance - Ramoji Film City

We went out for a dinner at Dialogue in the Dark at about 8 PM. This restaurant is located in the Inorbit Mall in Madhapur area, a 10-minute drive away from the Red Fox. This is a themed restaurant where the entire concept is pretty novel and interesting. The food is served in complete darkness as you may guess from the name of the restaurant. The idea is that the entire staff at the place is blind and they invite guests to experience what it is to live in pitch dark world. They provide two options, a full meal or starter platter. Guests are asked to put away their mobile phones and other glass items in a locker to avoid damage in dark. Once ready, guests with similar choices are lined together and a staff guides you through the darkness to your table and helps you sit. The food is served on the table and server guides you through the offerings and relative locations on the table. They are even happy to answer all your queries regarding the place and its significance. Our server Taobji did provide an entire overview and background about the German who introduced this idea to provide meaningful employment to specially abled. We returned at about 10 in the night and called it a night after a refreshing cup of tea over chat about the day.

We had a lazy morning, the next day, and after the complimentary breakfast buffet took the time to relax and plan. We left at about 10 in the morning and our first stop for the day was the Golkonda Fort and so we took a cab for about half an hour ride. Located in the western part of Hyderabad covering about three square kilometers of an area, Golconda fort is one of the most magnificent monuments in the region. We have seen forts to be the charm of the west but this one does get this part of the country on the fort map too. The fort epitomizes the Mughal architecture and culture and showcases the brilliance of the time in provisioning security for the building. Whether it is building a wall in front of the main gate to prevent elephants gaining momentum while attacking the gate or reflective design so that a noise at the main door reaches in the inner periphery of the command center, the architectural beauty simply leaves one marveled. The main complex of the fort is made up of a series of structures, ranging from those used for public audiences to the ones used as royal residences and halls. On the right-hand side of the porch are mortuary baths with provision to take the body out of the fort with no public knowledge. The reason was that death of a ruler was not announced until his successor took the reins and hence secrecy had to be maintained. For those interested, there is a light and sound show conducted in the evenings to showcase the entire history of the fort.

Golconda Fort

Next on our list was the identity of Hyderabad - Charminar. This four-story, square shaped monument is the landmark of the city and reminds of its rich cultural heritage. As the name suggests, this building is built on four pillars or 'minarets' and is built in granite and stone. One could climb 149 stairs to reach the top and have a wonderful view around. Today, the monument find itself in the hustle of the town and a busy market has come up all around it making the streets cluttered yet lively. After a short session of window shopping, the sun tempted us to get indoors. This seemed to be a perfect moment for our next stop - Salarjung Museum. Built in 1912 by seventh Nizam of Hyderabad, the museum was designated as Institution of National Importance". The museum is a collection of innumerable antiquities and showcases history and art of culture - probably more interesting to a student of those faculties compared to me. But still, it is a critical part of Hyderabad's tourist map.

It was already late afternoon and we headed to the Hussain Sagar Lake for a relaxed calm evening. We started with a visit to the Lumbini Park where we took a ride on the speed boat which took us around the periphery of the lake and provided close views of the mighty Buddha Statue in the middle of the lake. There is also a musical fountain show at the park for those interested. We chose to avoid the show to save ourselves from the rush. Instead, we strolled along the lake and spent some relaxed moments after the hectic day. Later, we had our dinner at the Eat Street - a food court built by the lakeside with seating arranged to provide clear glimpse across the water. We returned to the hotel post dinner and ended the day with room service tea to shed some tiredness.

Next day was the start of the business phase of the trip and we spent the days at the office. I am sure those discussions with the partner would not be of interest to you and hence to avoid the blabber, let me cut the whole story short from here. On Monday, we had our dinner at the Paradise Biryani outlet in Hitech City. This is the most popular destination in this city known for its biryani - a rice recipe spiced artfully. They have this aesthetically developed outdoor seating resembling a climb up on rocks. The service was decent and the food was definitely perfect. Next day there was an official team dinner at The Sheraton in the financial district. The buffet was a usual premium class offering - relatively bland but presented nicely. The options were limited but overall a good setting. Service was lacking if expectations are made based on the standard that this place would like to showcase.

Sunset at Hussain Sagar

Wednesday was our last day in the city and we wrapped up work by noon. It was time to collect some gifts for the family and we reached a local artisans market - Shilpagram. It is a collection of about 100 small shops from across the country where artisans try to sell their creations. We were able to pick a couple of pashmina shawls for ladies at home. We also picked some pearl jewelry as a memoir. For friends, we picked the famous biscuits from Karachi Bakery outlet. We had our lunch at an authentic Andhra food place called - "Rayalaseema Ruchulu" with some colleagues from office. If you plan to buy them, pick them from an outlet in the city and avoid the airport outlet - they sell at a pretty high premium. We headed straight to the airport from there and reached by about 7 PM for a 9 PM flight. Unfortunately, the flight schedule was haywire that day and our flight kept delaying and finally took off at midnight. We waited at the Plaza Premium Lounge and caught up on dinner during the wait.

It was indeed a fun visit which ended with a lot of memories and we came back to our lives - usual rigor and melancholy of everyday chores. Put in your comments and feedback.

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