Hot vacations in cool getaways

Hot vacations in cool getaways

Hot vacations in cool getaways

It’s that time of the year again when we scout for cool getaways to escape the sweltering heat of the season. Gustasp and Jeroo Irani list out a few places that can make your summer holiday a truly memorable one.

Summer is a time of delicious indecision when everyone needs a break from stressful jobs and polluted cities. Today’s wanderers look for the perfect get-away, the idyllic retreat… just any place where they can cast aside their watches and worldly constraints. Here’s a wish list for the avid traveller… Distant, often off-trail destinations, or even scenic ones in your own backyard… These are perfect places to go to when it all becomes too much!

The magic of Whistler

We were going to take a leap of faith and jump into the bottomless space that yawned between the mountains of Whistler and Blackcomb.

Zip lining in the mountain resort of Whistler in the province of British Columbia, Canada, is not for the faint-hearted tourist. We had been persuaded to zip line over a forest canopy, down five zip lines, at times speeding at 80 kmph! The lines were joined by a network of suspension bridges, boardwalks and trails in an old growth rainforest over the gushing Fitzsimmons Creek.

Harnessed and helmeted, we swung out like modern-day Tarzans — into the rocky embrace of soaring mountains. The height of Ziptrek Eco Tour’s highest zip line was about 180 ft above the forest floor, and the longest was 2,000 ft long, which was a drop of about 20 stories!

Whooosh! The earth seemed to tilt to meet our knee caps… We felt an incredible sense of freedom and a lightness of being.

Indeed Whistler  is North America’s most fashionable summer and winter destination. Perched on a lake-dotted glacial valley, north of Vancouver, it offers an intoxicating cocktail of sun and fun… mountain biking, bumping on ATVs, white water rafting, rock climbing…

The less intrepid can revel in a spectacular setting of mist-wreathed peaks and aquamarine lakes.

Vancouver International is the nearest airport.

Chamonix on our minds

Amber, yellow, burgundy, earth-rust… it was a palette of colours created by a divine hand; an Impressionist painting of an unhurried, untrodden world.

 We were walking through a series of quaint villages with lyrical names and dense woods that hugged the French resort of Chamonix in the French Alps. A young shepherd herding his errant flock of sheep, a village of just a hundred souls, a tiny church ringing with voices raised in prayer…

Back in Chamonix, we gazed at the robust arc of snow-crusted peaks dominated by Mont Blanc which, at 4, 810 m, is the highest massif in Europe. The next morning we swung up from the valley of Chamonix in a two-stage cable car to South Needle below Mont Blanc. In that hushed silent world, with Mont Blanc almost blotting out the sky, we felt like inhabitants of a lost corner of the earth.

A couple of hours later, we were down in Chamonix, feisty and throbbing with life. Cobblestone streets studded with luxury boutiques, tea bars, brasseries, cafes and picturesque chalets with balconies that brimmed with ruddy blooms…

Later we relaxed at a cheery bar with a glass of ‘kir’ — local white wine spiked with liqueur — and absorbed the resort’s relaxed vibe and voluptuous beauty.
The closest international airport is at Geneva, Switzerland, which is connected to Chamonix by rail and road.


Swiss bliss

A champagne breakfast in a thermal pool anyone? How about lolling in the hot springs at night, and gazing at snow-dusted moonlit peaks?

Hot springs vacations don’t come more romantic than in Leukerbad, located in the Swiss canton of Valais. This minuscule town has 30 thermal baths, both public and private, and some beckon the spa buff with some ingenious twists to a normal hot springs ritual.

We headed to the spiffy Linder Alpentherme, Europe’s largest high-altitude medical and Alpine wellness, beauty, sauna and thermal spa where we plunged into the large thermal pool. We floated around for a while in the indoor one as warm as a bath tub and then swam out to the outdoor pool, allowing our bodies to be pummelled by jets that spurted from the sides of it. Above us, snow-dusted mountains rose forbiddingly. Inexplicably, we were there in spring yet snowflakes fluttered down, caressing our bare shoulders and faces…

The hot springs dip made us feel like we had shed 10 years of our life. On our last afternoon, we swished up by cable car to the Gemmi Pass, singing and yodelling with our fellow travellers. The cable car resonated with our collective joy.

Frequent trains run between Geneva and Zurich airports and Leuk, the nearest railway station. From there, take a bus to Leukerbad.


The hot & cold of it

The Japanese Alps in Central Honshu arrayed themselves on the horizon as though to showcase their lofty, luminescent beauty. The entire landscape was awash in blinding white. Had the Gods run out of colour?

Our double-decker cable car of the Shin-Hotaka ropeway swayed upwards, skimming over snow-laden pine trees and past bare ones whose branches resembled the gnarled hands of a witch! The Shin-Hotaka is a two-stage ropeway (said to be the longest in Asia) that whisked us up close to the peak of Nishi Hotaka-dake (2,909 m).

We walked past walls of ice and onto snow-packed slopes where nature called the shots and stumbled on a man-made little snowman that resembled a lost extra-terrestrial! Later, we swung back in the cable car to the base station, below which flared the Shin-Hotaka Onsen or hot springs region. The base for this area is the lively city of Takayama, where our hotel was located.

Here we revelled in the life-giving warmth of the hot springs that gushed in a private pool beyond which the Alps rose – huge and sullen. We emerged after the mandatory 20 minutes, awash in sweet languor, and dreamt that night of mountains and snow avalanches that sounded like giants clearing their throats.

From Tokyo, travel by train to Takayama, which is the base for the Alps as well as the Shin-Hotaka hot springs region.


Where beauty is the beast

Welcome to wild Africa! It does not get better than in South Africa where they have lifted the safari experience to an art form. Of the country’s 20-plus national parks and 30 smaller regional reserves, Kruger National Park and the adjoining Sabi Sands Private Game Reserve are the most famous of them all.

The highlights of our South African safari was driving out into the untamed wilds where beauty was the beast, be it the elegant deer, the bulky white rhino, scowling buffalo, strutting giraffe, wallowing hippo… even a pride of hungry lions, their mouths stained with the blood of their kill. Knowledgeable rangers helped us appreciate animals in their natural setting rather than rushing us around, ticking off sightings on a scorecard.

A misconception about South Africa is that the safari experience is the exclusive preserve of the rich and famous. Not true. The choice of accommodation covers a full spectrum of options from budget camps to luxury lodges that indulge guests’ every whim.

One does not necessarily have to stay overnight in a park to experience a wildlife adventure. It is possible to go on a day safari in Kruger, which allows day visitors.
However, an overnight stay is the real thing, and hard to beat!
Johannesburg is the closest international airport from where one can fly/drive to Kruger.


Not so gently down the fjords...

The surface of the water in a little cove of Milford Sound Fjords in New Zealand was as clear as a mirror and it reflected what was an altar of creation. Dense rain forests draped the slopes of towering snow-tipped mountains which were laced with silvery waterfalls; tree trunks swathed in velvet moss reached up to the heavens, plants clung desperately to rocky outcrops… The nose of our yellow kayak carved through this slice of paradise that crinkled in its wake.

The splash of our paddles mingled with the song of the forest: the rustle of leaves, the chirping of birds, the gurgle of streams… Any inhibitions we had about kayaking melted away: the moment was too precious to waste indulging in distracting probabilities.

The pace of the adventure shifted to high gear when we pointed our kayaks towards the liquid avenue, trapped in corridors of towering snow-capped mountains that reared almost vertically out of the water. We paddled under waterfalls that roared their discontent as they tumbled down vertical cliffs and said hello to New Zealand fur seals, lazing on a rocky outcrop, and nervous blue and fairy penguins.

And we topped off the adventure with a trek through a Lord of the Rings forest.
Use Queenstown, or better still, Te Anau as a base for Milford Sound.


Tawang: The Road to Paradise

We had been on the road long enough to realise that on a drive to Tawang, in the far north-eastern reaches of Arunachal Pradesh, schedules meant nothing and were made to be broken: for here the journey is the destination. Indeed, the landscape was so compelling that we felt obliged to stop frequently, to gape, muse and pay homage to the ultimate indulgence of wide open spaces. We tarried on pine-studded river banks, even as glacier-etched peaks rose menacingly above us; cruised past forgotten hamlets; deep green terraced fields rippling up mountain slopes; patches of shrub, the colour of dried blood; orchards blushing with apple blossoms; suspension bridges with fluttering prayer flags swaying over a fast-running river; nomadic herdsmen with intriguing headgear tending to their flocks of wild yak…  

The highlight of the drive was snowbound Sela Pass, which, at 14,000 ft, is one of the highest motorable roads in the world. The marketplace in Tawang, nestled under the gaze of the largest Buddhist monastery in India, was alive with activity, but further up in the lake district, near the border of China, the world was enveloped in a pregnant silence. Here we melted snow on a wood fire for tea and watched the sunset paint the sky in dramatic colours.

Tawang is ideally a two-day drive from Bhalukpong on the Assam border, with a stop at Dirang valley.


Valley of Flowers: Nature’s Grand Canvas

It was more than just a valley of flowers: we had entered an untamed paradise. Here, mighty snow-draped mountains flexed their muscles at the heavens; sprightly young rivers skipped through ancient gorges; silvery waterfalls plunged down deep ravines; dewdrops glistened like solitaire diamonds on petals and leaves; insects and butterflies fluttered from bloom to bloom… In these green meadows, largely untouched by man and civilisation, nature seemed to revel in painting an epic canvas that was raw, yet beautifully detailed.

However, we mortals had to earn the right to enter its portals by trekking 13 km up a steep mountain trail from Goviandghat (on the Joshimath-Badrinath road in Uttarakhand) to Ghangaria (which served as an overnight base) and then another 3 km to reach the valley. The vale is at its radiant best after the first rains when rivers of colour, sourced from a palette of over 500 species of flowers, run across the landscape all through July and August.

Ghangaria is also the base for Hemkund Sahib (a 10 km two-way trek) where a memorial to the 10th Sikh guru, Guru Govind Singh, contemplates its own reflection in a sparkling-blue mountain lake.

Delhi and Dehradun are the closest airports to Joshimath, the nearest major town.

Go Rustic in Coorg

We went harvesting for blood-red coffee berries in Coorg along with smiling workers whose nimble fingers picked the ripe ones with practised ease. Coorg or Kodagu is a destination where you may zen out and do nothing, or trek into a forest or along green hillsides, cycle into the local village to meet the chieftain cum medicine man, visit an elephant camp, or go bird watching. 

This minuscule prosperous district snuggles amidst a lavender tumble of hills and is studded with coffee plantation home stays and lavish resorts. The ephemeral corner of the country so captivated the battle-weary soldiers of Alexander the Great’s army that some of them settled in these verdant hills way back in 327 BC!

Our days in Coorg were suffused with colour — of the orange gulmohur blossoms, the green depths of the forest and the sprightly jade-green, fish-speckled River Cauvery that the locals worship as the Ganga of the South. In terms of sheer physical beauty, this region is certainly favoured by the gods.

Bangalore and Mysore are convenient airports for Coorg.


Pachmarhi: A Hill Station for All Seasons

A swarm of butterflies fluttered outside our car windows as we drove up to Pachmarhi, tucked away in the forested folds of the Satpura range in central Madhya Pradesh. A dramatic welcome like that could be a hard act to follow, but Pachmarhi did not disappoint. Located some 1,100 m above sea level, the former summer capital of British India is the rustic belle of hill stations in India. Nature, crisp and fragrant, found abundant expression in its rolling meadows, rugged green valleys and silvery-white waterfalls.

Here, we found ourselves torn between choices: to laze around in the abundant embrace of its scenic setting or pack it with activity: trek down the many trails that lace the landscape; gambol under cascading waterfalls with exotic names like Irene Pool, Duchess Fall and Saunders Pool; reach back in cosmic time and relive the mighty clash of gods and demons; stroll through an open-air art gallery of ancient rock and cave paintings that date back to the Stone Age era…

Probably the most striking aspect of Pachmarhi is that unlike many other hill stations in India, it still retains a virgin grace that has been spared the vandalism that comes with over-development.

Bhopal is the nearest airport to Pachmarhi, which is 50 km from the Pipariya station of Central Railways.