The road less taken

SEASON'S HOT SPOTS

The road less taken

Indians have realised it at last. Vacations should really be vocations dedicated to recharging your mental, physical and emotional batteries. Getting away from the 9-to-5 grind is not just a therapy, but a social necessity. Here are a few destinations you should head to in 2011.

Indira Priyadarshini National Park in Madhya Pradesh

If you’ve read Kipling’s Jungle Book (and if you haven’t, you really should) or even seen the Disney animation movie, you’ll recognise many of the settings in this park located in Pench, even though it isn’t the original Seoni jungles of the legendary wolf-boy Mowgli. Here, we saw all the wildlife we expected to see, including a carnivore that our guide identified as a wolf, but it was probably a heavily-built jackal. When we overheard  a walkie-talkie conversation between a forest guard and his officer, we dashed ahead, mounted an elephant, and spent many minutes enthralled while a sub-adult tiger slouched through the forest and his siblings sat contentedly around their mother, grooming each other like a passel of purring tabby cats. Our base was the Madhya Pradesh Tourism Development Corporation’s Kipling’s Court.

Lachung in Sikkim

A hotel in LachungThis is a beautiful little Himalayan village and the oddly-named Modern Residency enhances the setting — it’s been built to resemble a Buddhist monastery! From its terrace, we saw yaks being herded home at sunset, yellow bhuttas drying on grey slate roofs and a strawberry-robed monk and his acolyte, wending their way down a narrow village lane, stretching a blue plume of incense above them. Next morning, after eating momos, we drove through the famed Rhododendron Sanctuary, visited hot springs presided over by a silver-haired guardian with a face as wrinkled as a brown walnut. We then entered a valley, rich with wild-flowers, backed by violet mountains and veined with glistening, silver streams.

Cheruthuruthy in Kerala

If you want to discover some truly authentic facets of our heritage, this is the place to be. We stayed in the River Retreat Heritage Resort, Palace Road. It’s a genuine old palace, with high-ceilinged rooms and wide lawns overlooking the legendary Nila River. From here, we spent a day at the famed Kerala Kalamandalam, where gurus train students in the traditional dance forms of Kerala, including make-up and music. We visited a temple dedicated to the ancient snake deities, a family of hand puppeteers, a traditional school teaching the ancient Kodiattam dance-drama and a family involved in the art of leather puppetry. Though we had lived in Kerala for almost two decades, this was the first time we  experienced these unforgettable facets of Kerela’s culture.  

Tarkarli in Maharashtra

A beach in Tarkarli. Photos by authorsAfter travelling up and down India’s coastline, we still feel that this was one of the best beach getaways we have experienced. It had designer simplicity and is a broad casuarina and snorkellers’ beach. We were told that sometimes it gets very noisy with visitors from the towns, but that happens to most beach resorts nowadays. Tarkarli, however, is sufficiently off-the-beaten track to deter most urbanites. We did an excursion to Malvan Port, boarded a bucketing outrigger with an outboard engine, and bounced across to Sindhudurg, the only sea fort built by Shivaji. The descendants of his Muslim employees still live in this rugged island and are proud of the Shivarajeshwar Temple — the only one in the world — which holds an idol of Shivaji worshipped as an aspect of Lord Siva.  

Bhadra Wildlife Sanctuary in Karnataka

Great for a weekend, or longer. A protected forest wilderness with its own glistening spread of water. During our brief tour of its dense and rejuvenating jungle, we spotted a grey jungle fowl, wild pigs, a barking deer, a giant squirrel, a serpent eagle, a monitor lizard and a pair of nesting shamas. This was rewarding enough for a single jeep ride, but the main attraction was yet to come. We boarded a boat and did a long cruise around some riverine islands. They were teeming with hatching, feeding, squawking, fighting, soaring river terns with a chevron of terns diving at and strafing two hunting pariah kites. We also saw a few black cormorants and black ibises living under sufferance. In other words, the terns in this colony behaved just like people in a human colony! We stayed at the River Tern Lodge run by Jungle Lodges and Resorts. It was a great experience.  

Zermatt in Switzerland

ON FOOT The walking town of ZermattWe love this quaint little town in the Alps. The only people allowed to drive cars in Zermatt are those from the health services. We were received at the station by a horse-drawn coach, which clip-clopped us at a very dignified pace, to our hotel on a steeply rising street overlooking a gushing ice-melt river and rising peaks silver-headed with snow. Zermatt is a walking town with a cable car to one of the peaks. We walked, window-shopped for amber from the Baltic, cuckoo-clocks, chocolates, cheese, gossamer clouds of lace,   hand-carved pipes and others made of clay, gnomes with red caps and exquisite Christmas crib figurines. It was like living in a set designed for a Disney fairly tale. If you have a spark of romance left in you, you’ll love Zermatt as we still do. 

Pangkor Island in Malaysia

It really is a mountain, rising out of a crystal blue coral sea, its peak clothed in dense rain forests, and skirted by a beach of soft, white sand. The Pangkor Island Resort and Spa, where we stayed, has a private beach and a friendly flock of hornbills. We boarded a pink taxi with a yellow roof and visited a fishing village with brightly painted boats bobbing in the bay; a Kali temple; a resplendent Tao Temple with a carp pond; a legendary drum that reputedly grew hair, and a restored Dutch Fort. We also saw a double rock with an odd carving on it showing a striped carnivore attacking a boy. Then we went back to our resort and unwound for two days. If you visit Pangkor, this is what you should do.

Aswan in Egypt

REGAL RUINS The monoliths at Abu Simbel. In this historic place, Gamal Abdel Nasser changed the seasons of Egypt. From the age of the pharaohs, the Nile had flooded its banks every year. With Russian help, President Nasser built the High Dam across the Nile, controlled its flood, irrigated vast tracts of land and generated enormous amounts of electricity. In Aswan, we visited the impressive High Dam, then went to Philae where archaeologists, architects and landscapers had relocated the Temple of Isis to protect it from submergence under the rising waters of the dam. We also ambled around its fascinating market, caught a luxury cruise down the Nile and did a long road trip to the fabulous Temple of Abu Simbel whose gigantic monolithic figures had also been rescued from their original home, now hidden under the great river.

Malaga in Spain

The beach resort of southern Spain is a place where most people speak English because holidaying Brits have made it their place to escape the miserable winter of their misty isles. The Spanish are friendly people but they are particularly welcoming here. We gorged on seafood barbecued on upturned boats on the beach, drank local wines and visited a museum dedicated to the works of a local artist, Pablo Luiz. We also trudged up to the Moorish Castle of the Alcazar built by the cultured nomads, who had made Spain an Islamic nation. Then came the cathedral from the catholic period. It contains great works of art and is a great work of art in itself. We entered to pray and stayed on, rapt with wonder.

Saariselka in Finland

This is Christmas card country, and even though it is within the Arctic Circle, it’s not full of great, white sheets of snow and ice but of deep coniferous forests. During summer, these welcoming wildernesses are bright with delicious wild berries and not even the owners of the forest can stop you from plucking them. Such is the law in this gentle, law-abiding country. There, we joined the grizzled prospector Paavo Holmisto, panned for gold, met Kaijo Paitto and saw her making her award-winning felt pictures. She is a Sami, the indigenous people of Finland, who are traditional reindeer herders. After which, because we were in Christmas card country, we drove south to Santa Claus’ Workshop Village, touching the Artic Circle. You can indulge yourself in some Christmas shopping here and post a letter to Santa Claus, to which he will reply. You can meet Santa Claus too!

Now, all that is left is to forget your cares, pack your bags, and travel!

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