Because love is forever

This Valentine’s Day, whisk your special someone to an exotic land to revel in the purest of emotions — love

Äijäkoski rapids in the Muonionjoki river, Lapland

Curiosity allures; romance retains. Romance imprinted on us in awesome wonder at the ice goblins sculpted by the wind whistling down to Nubra, the shadow-flight of hornbills across a sunbather’s body in Pangkor, the tang of fresh toddy on a backwater cruise in Kerala, the creaking, closeness of a rickshaw ride down a lonely forest road in Matheran.

Call of the hills in Matheran

Matheran, in Maharashtra’s Western Ghats, is the first place we visited after we became a team. We chugged up in a little toy train to the heart of town and discovered that it really is a ‘once upon a time place’. There were no cars, buses, taxis, coaches or vehicles using internal combustion engines here. But there were plenty of winding, forested roads with little paths meandering through the trees, many shady, secluded places to dream our dreams away. We munched on Matheran’s peanut brittle or chikki, bought elegant cottage-crafted slippers, and then took a hand-drawn rickshaw-ride to some of the points offering views of the distant plains far below. The views are great, the togetherness of the rickshaw ride is even greater. Then we took a picnic lunch from our hotel and walked to Charlotte Lake: cool, green, serene, and the source of Matheran’s water.

A stream in Matheran
A stream in Matheran

Surreal backwaters of Kerala

The backwaters of Kerala are surreal. They are a fantasy world of glistening green reflections unreeling the past on both sides of our leisurely floating home. Flotillas of ducks paddle past, quacking happily. We were fascinated onlookers to a way of life where, reputedly, children can swim before they can walk, and ancient water wars are recalled in the fiercely contested boat races of Kerala with their teams of up to a hundred oarsmen; the largest in the world. That spraying, surging fantasy occurs only once a year. For most of the other months, excluding the sluicing monsoons, a slow backwater cruise is the ultimate leisure therapy. Your exclusive crew cossets you, prepares food harvested from the backwaters, cooked on board and served on your foredeck. You can even choose fresh, unfermented palm juice, as tangy as oven-warm bread. Chinese fishing nets lower and raise their bamboo jaws; shell collectors dive and emerge with dripping baskets of molluscs; pumps throb to keep sun-reflecting polder lands free from the sea; a church tolls The Angelus, recalling a faith brought by an apostle of Christ even before it reached Europe. The sun sets in a blaze of golden glory.

Enchanting Nubra Valley

But in the high, chilly north of our land, the sun had a cold glint of platinum. We had left Nathu La, the highest motorable pass in the world, and plunged down through soft snow, past ice pillars sculpted by the keening wind, and down the far northern side of our Himalayas. In the distance rose the black Karakorums. Below us lay the green, willow-whispering valley of Nubra.

We were in India’s enchanted segment of Central Asia. In a beautiful homestay, we learnt that our hosts had trekked along the Silk Route to India. They had used the two-humped, furry Bactrian camels. Herds of these still survived, grazing on bushes of the prickly sea buckthorn. Past them, down a lonely road protected by the mounds of benign spirits, a community shepherd drove a flock of soft-haired Pashmina sheep. Some of the lambs ran down to a stream, sipped the water, shook their heads in disgust, ran up again. “They’re young. They’ll learn,” said the herder. The water was bitter with saltpetre. It spread across a plain in glittering crystals. Our friend assured us that it was in demand for flavouring Tibetan gur-gur tea and giving it its pinkish tinge. Nubra must be the most romantic getaway escape in our land.

Nubra Valley, Ladakh
Nubra Valley, Ladakh

A tete-a-tete with Santa in Finland

The closest we have come to it abroad is in Finland’s Santa Claus Village. We stayed in a hotel in town, drove down a superb road through the coniferous taiga forest, across the Arctic Circle, and into enchantment and romance. What can be more romantic than a flesh-and-blood Santa Claus: a towering, white-bearded figure in a red robe and black boots? He lives in a large, rustic mansion with a conical tower, is served by attendants dressed as if they have stepped out of the pages of a fairy tale, and the shops of his village are in Christmas mode 24x7. We were delighted when he joined his hands in greeting and said, “Namaste! I have been to India.”

The immersion in the belief of that historical gift-giving bishop is so complete that it’s best to surrender to this globe-spanning fantasy rather than be a sour and cynical rationalist. So, we put aside reality, revelled in romance, and even the Arctic Circle became a land of emotional warmth and a joy forever. We admired the varied Christmas tableaus around the world and posted a letter in the Santa Village Post Office for a greatly loved relative. The reply bore an Arctic Circle postmark.

By the lake in Lucerne

But if this polar region is not quite your preferred getaway, try Switzerland’s beautiful Lucerne. We have, more than once. Most Swiss resorts are built in lake-centred valleys. Lucerne is defined by its bridge across the lake. It’s a zigzag bridge, with beautiful old paintings and a tower-prison once used for cantankerous couples. When we visited it again in autumn, it was bright with cascading flowers: clearly, the most romantically beautiful bridge we have seen anywhere. The profusion of flowers concealed the higher parapet of the bridge: an ancient battlement for the town’s defenders to repel their attackers.

Centuries before that, a kilometre-thick glacier had covered Lucerne and ice-melted whirlpools had carved great wells in the hard rock, still preserved in Glacier Museum. An audio-visual captured an illusion of the age of Mastodons and woolly mammoths. Carved on a cliff outside, the great ‘Lion of Lucerne’ lay stabbed and dead but still protecting the shield of the last king of France. The famed Swiss Guards had died to the last man, trying to protect the cosseted Louis XVI against the wrath of his own society. Swiss Guards now protect the Pope and they still wear unreal medieval uniforms.

Oceanic tales in Pangkor

We were reminded of them when we put-putted into Malaysia’s island of Pangkor, escorted by a flight of the extravagantly plumaged, assertively beaked hornbills-in-residence. Pangkor Island is a wooded peak thrusting out of a coral sea. A pink taxi driven by a saturnine islander with a wispy beard spun us round hairpin bends, through dense rainforests, down to a fishing cove where colourful skiffs bobbed on their own reflections. Malay fishermen had colonised the island after the hornbills. A fair amount of their catch went to an excellent fish processing plant in which girls worked dexterously, driers roared, and desiccated sea-food glittered in plastic packages. In contrast with this frenetic activity, Tao Temple, radiant in crimson, gold and blue, and set against a forested hill, breathed serenity and harmony with nature: the essence of Tao mystique.

Floating Mosque, Pangkor Island
Floating Mosque, Pangkor Island

We returned to find the resort alive with friendly Caucasians of all shapes and sizes. We beach-combed for coral and shells, had a relaxing Balinese massage, begged off a round of golf with a German couple, and enjoyed a superb Malaysian lunch. Then the manager greeted us, smiling, and said that he had just discovered that it was our wedding anniversary. The resort took over and we were feted, serenaded by a quartet from the Philippines, and watched the moon set over a silvered bay.

Naturally, we believe in the magic of romantic destinations.

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