Mauritius: Dive right in

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Undersea Walks, Sub Scooter, Sea Karting, Quad Biking and snorkelling with dolphins; the tropical paradise of Mauritius has a lot on offer for the adventure seeker, discovers ANURAG MALLICK

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“The French ruled us for nearly a century and the British for about 150 years, which is why Mauritians don’t drive on the right like the French or on the left like the British, but right in the middle of the road!” joked Ivan, the resort manager at Radisson Blu Azuri. Fortunately, if it’s adrenaline you seek, Mauritius is packed with enough adventure…

Though the island measures roughly 60X40 miles (about as large as Coorg), what sets Mauritius apart from other tropical destinations is the wide range of experiences for visitors. Fringed by coral reefs and clear blue waters, one may snorkel and kayak without leaving the comforts of your resort.

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We got our chance the next morning at Azuri’s private beach. Like many of the sights here, the resort was built around a sugarcane factory – its old dilapidated chimney left untouched as it overlooked the pool and Le Comptoir restaurant. After an ‘Eye Opener Juice’ of strawberry lemonade and a hearty breakfast, we set off for Gran Baie north of the island for a Solar Undersea Walk.

Locals played dominoes in the shade of the tree-lined beach. Boats bobbed in the clear blue waters while some set off from Sunset Boulevard on sportfishing expeditions to snare Marlins, Tuna and GT (Giant Trevallies). A transfer boat quickly transported us to the diving platform moored just inside the lagoon reef. John, the captain, briefed us.

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As we got ready to descend the ladder into the sea, our guide asked “Hey Bob Marley, are you gonna wear that rastaman cap and your glares on your sea walk”, motioning to my headgear I had forgotten to take off. “Can I?” “If you want to… The head doesn’t get wet!” And with that, the Undersea Walk patented helmet was strapped on. The distortion-free flat glass window panels allowed great visibility in 2-3 m depth of water while solar panels converted oxygen from the air to provide us a constant flow of fresh air from the surface.

On the sandy sea floor, the swimming monitor passed us crumbs of bread. “I’m not really hungry”, I motioned. “It’s for the fish,” the guide signaled back. “Aaaaah!” Despite the oxygen supply, being underwater does make you a little slow. A flurry of striped fish converged on us for a nibble. In what would be a relief to many, most water sports in Mauritius do not require a knowledge of swimming.

Blue Safari Subscooter inventor Luc Billard IMG_1703

The next stop was Trou aux Biches where Blue Safari director Luc Billard had developed a patented Submarine Scooter. “I’ve never ridden a scooter underwater”, was the common refrain. “Very easy, see those two shiny foot pedals? You press it, the scooter moves forward, you leave it, it stops. And that’s the steering.” I imagined the worst – ramming into corals or each other or worse still, mowing down the instructor, but luckily discovered that its speed was a leisurely 3km per hour.

A shared bubble was placed over me and my pillion, the platform was lowered and five scooters set off in Bond fashion. Not Daniel Craig kind, but ala Roger Moore, with strange gizmos, underwater lairs and 70s production values. The movement was quite imperceptible but the feeling of being on your own 3m under the Indian Ocean was exciting. With oxygen pumped into the vestibule, we breathed naturally enjoying a 360-degree view of the marine life – grotesque brain corals and iridescent parrotfish. The best part was the freedom to speak with your co-passenger. “So Miss Renu, traffic signal se left ya right?”

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Blue Safari also ran an excellent submarine tour that lets you observe the beauty of the seabed and the workings of a ballast system. Incidentally, they are the only submarine operator in Mauritius and the entire Indian Ocean! As the submarine dives 35m to the sandy bed, it’s the closest you’ll feel to landing on the moon. There’s limited place aboard the 10-seater and 5-seater subs, so it’s best to book early to watch stingrays and turtles glide past the ghost-like wreck of Star Hope.

Don’t let the alarming number of shipwrecks around the Mauritian coast worry you, as most of these wrecks were deliberately submerged to create artificial reefs. To the north and northwest of the island, dive for angelfish and barracudas around Silver Star (39m) or the Japanese trawler Stella Maru (24-28m), inhabited by blue triggerfish, reef fish, octopuses and moray eels. The wreck of TUG II (17-19m) on the west coast is an easy dive that throws up stone fish, leaf fish and scorpionfish. To the south west, watch trevallies and tunas hunt down smaller fish at Hoi Siong (16-28m). The forty odd dive sites can be reached within 20 minutes from the coast.

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Away from all the action of the north, Shanti Maurice in the quiet south was truly a great place to pause and catch our breath. Walkways lined with tropical foliage led to private villas with thatched roofs spread over 36 acres. A coral reef circled the curved beach with a jetty to the right and the surf crashing against black volcanic rock on the left.

Since the resort offered only non-motorized watersports such as windsurfing, sailing, pedal boats, snorkeling and kayaking, the beach was always tranquil. After endless rounds of spiced rum cocktails at the Rum Shed, rustic beach-side barbecues at the Fish Shack and full body massages at the in-house Nira Spa, we were ready for more action.

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Though much of the French-Indian-Creole-Caribbean-Chinese mix that comprises Mauritian cuisine is accessible to Indians, there’s plenty of adventure on the plate too. At La Vanille crocodile park, after feeding giant Aldabra turtles, petting iguanas and holding baby crocs, we tried crocodile meat.

It tasted like chicken (bit chewier) and in an ironical twist, the restaurant was called Le Crocodile Affamé (The Hungry Crocodile). Guiltily, we explored the 3.5-hectare reserve with enclosures full or crocs and caimans, endemic bats with 1m wingspans and an insectarium with 23,000 species – including dazzling bugs and butterflies.

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One of the top wildlife attractions in Mauritius is Casela, a nature reserve where visitors can pet lions, feed giraffes, pose with caracals, go on a wildlife safari to watch rhinos or have ostriches clapping their beaks at you. “I think he wants you to feed him,” said the guide, though to me it seemed like he wanted to feed ON me. For the shy squeamish sorts, there’s plenty of Dutch courage available.

No Mauritian holiday is complete without rum tasting, best experienced at rhumeries (rum factories) like Chamarel, St Aubin and Chateau Labourdonnais. Besides stunning viewpoints, Chamarel boasts sights like Seven-Coloured Earth, the odd exhibits at Curious Corner and the island’s highest waterfall.

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If you don’t happen to be a water person, there’s enough adventure on terra firma – golfing at spectacular courses like Heritage and Tamarina to hiking trails in the central highlands and peaks like Le Pouce (The Thumb), Pieter Both and Mount Piton – at 828m, the highest peak in Mauritius.

We went quad biking across the undulating terrain of at La Vallee des Couleurs, a nature park with four waterfalls and the third longest zipline in the world. Offroading to a viewpoint, we zoomed down half a kilometer over the ‘23-coloured earth’, unique to this volcanic island. I went belly down, miraculously keeping my flip-flops on!

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However, the number one activity in Mauritius is Sea Karting – the thrill of a jet boat with the safety and stability of an inflatable raft. We zoomed out on Black River in V-formation to the south west coast of Mauritius with stops at the spectacular Crystal Rock and the dramatic Le Morne Brabant mountain. We had no luck with dolphins as we were busy trying not to collide into each other as we bounced on the waves.

With top speeds of 70km/hr, Sea Karts are fast. Our slow evolution from Octopussy to Spectre was complete. The 1-hour excursion was easily my most enjoyable 60 minutes in Mauritius (half-day or full day guided tours also offered). Thankfully, the drive to Hotel Sofitel-Imperial at Flic en Flac was short.

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The reception and restaurant opened out to a large swimming pool that spilled onto a white sandy beach with the turquoise waters of the Indian Ocean receding into the distance. Being on the west coast, it was one of the best spots to catch the famed Mauritian sunset, though we got Sega dancers, fire-eaters and acrobats along with the view! The prawns and fish flew with surprising agility from the grill to our plates to our mouths, as we rounded off a splendid dinner by the sea.

The final act was a dolphin cruise and snorkeling trip after breakfast. We grabbed our flippers from Christine Sofitel Boat House and set off into the big blue. It was a bouncy gangsta ride. Maybe we should have gone easy on the dholl-puris (Indo-Mauritian version of the Bihari staple dalpuri or dal stuffed paratha).

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For all the activities in Mauritius, nothing could prepare us for the sight of wild dolphins skimming the waters. An entire school, maybe a hundred or so. Whenever a group approached a boat, excited divers jumped off like kamikaze warriors in a bid to swim with the dolphins. We were happy to watch the spectacle from the boat, before heading off towards Le Morne to snorkel the reefs.

“Quick, make a wish. That’s a paille-en-queue!” said the boat captain. By the time I could decipher his French pronunciation, a white long-tailed bird swooped down from the lush mountains towards the sea and disappeared. The Tropicbird, named after its distinctive ‘straw-tail’ was the symbol of the national airline Air Mauritius. It was considered lucky to spot one. “So what did you ask for?” “That I come back to Mauritius for a better look at it!”

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FACT FILE

Getting there
Located 4700km west of India in the Indian Ocean, Mauritius is a tiny speck in the Indian Ocean near Madagascar.

There are direct flights by Air Mauritius and Air India from Delhi and Mumbai (7hrs) to Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam International Airport at the south of the island.

www.airmauritius.com

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Where to Stay
Hotel Shanti Maurice, Chemin Grenier
www.shantimaurice.com

Hotel Radisson Blu Azuri
www.radissonblu.com/en/hotel-mauritius-azuri

Hotel Sofitel Imperial, Flic en Flac
www.sofitel.com/Mauritius  

Hotel Paradis & Dinarobin, Le Morne
www.beachcomber-hotels.com

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Adventure List

Blue Safari, Trou aux Biches
Sub Scooter for two MUR 5800, Submarine tour MUR 4400/person
Ph +230 265 7272 www.blue-safari.com

Solar Undersea Walk, Gran Baie
10:30 & 1:30 Mon-Sat
Ph +230 263 7819 www.solarunderseawalk.com

Fun Adventure Sea Kart, La Balise, Black River
MUR 5500 per Seakart (up to 2 adults + 1 child)
Ph +230 5 499 4929 www.fun-adventure.mu

La Vallee des Couleurs Nature Park Quad Biking IMG_1307

Quad Biking & Ziplining, La Vallee des Couleurs Nature Park, Mare Anguilles
Ph +230 5471 8666 www.lavalleedescouleurs.com

Segway & Walking with lions, Casela World of Adventures, Cascavelle
9am-5pm, MUR 740 entry fee, activities extra
Ph +230 401 6500 www.caselapark.com

Christine Sofitel Boat House, Flic en Flac
Ph +230 453 8975 bhsofitel@gmail.com

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For more info, visit

Mauritius Tourism Promotion Authority
Victoria House, Port Louis Ph +230 15 45 www.tourisme-ilemaurice.mu

Mauritian Scuba Diving Association
Route Royale, Beau Bassin Ph +230 454 00 11 www.msda.mu

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Author: Anurag Mallick. This article appeared as part of the Islands Special Cover Story in the July, 2016 issue of Outlook Traveller magazine.

Ale and Arty: The history of beer

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On the occasion of International Beer Day, celebrated on the first Friday of August, ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY trace the journey of beer in a lager than life story

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After water and tea, beer is the third most popular drink in the world. Such was its value in the ancient world that it was part of the daily wages of the workers who built the pyramids in Egypt! Before learning to make bread, prehistoric nomads used grain and water to make beer – it’s almost as if man had learnt to drink before he learnt to eat. Speaking of priorities, if the world was coming to an end and you were reprimanded for stowing away a few cases of beer, tell them that Noah’s provisions on the Ark included beer.

Besides being the most widely consumed alcoholic beverage in the world, beer is also the oldest, with a history of nearly 12,000 years. It dates back to the early Neolithic Age or 9500 BC, when cereal was first farmed. As hunter-gatherer tribes settled into agrarian civilizations based around staple crops like wheat, rice, barley and maize, they stumbled upon the process of fermentation and thus started brewing beer. According to anthropologists, beer was the driving force that led nomadic mankind into village life…It was his appetite for beer-making that led to crop cultivation, permanent settlement and agriculture.

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Though the earliest known alcoholic beverage is a 9,000-year-old Chinese brew of rice, honey and fruit, the first barley beer was born in the Middle East and is recorded in the written history of ancient Iraq and Egypt. In Mesopotamia, the oldest evidence of beer is a 6,000-year-old Sumerian tablet depicting people drinking a beverage through reed straws from a communal bowl.

The early beer was cloudy and unfiltered and was usually drunk with a straw to strain the bitter solids from the brew. As early as 3000 BC, the Babylonians had nearly 20 different types of beer. They were so finicky about the quality of beer that if someone brewed a bad batch, he would be drowned in it as punishment!

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Some of humanity’s earliest known writings refer to the production and distribution of beer. The Code of Hammurabi included laws regulating beer and beer parlours. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, the ale-wife Siduri dispenses this ancient advice to Gilgamesh, the king of Uruk – ‘Fill your belly. Day and night make merry’. Early Sumerian writings contain numerous references to beer; including The Hymn to Ninkasi.

Ninkasi, you are the one who bakes the bappir (barley bread) in the big oven, Puts in order the piles of hulled grains, You are the one who waters the malt set on the ground…You are the one who holds with both hands the great sweet wort… Ninkasi, you are the one who pours out the filtered beer of the collector vat, It is like the onrush of Tigris and Euphrates.” At a time when literacy was limited to the privileged, the prayer to the beer goddess doubled up as a method of remembering the recipe for the common folk! It also gives us a deep insight that in olden times the ‘brewsters’ were mostly women.

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The Finnish epic Kalevala, based on centuries old oral traditions, devotes more lines to the origin of beer and brewing than it does to the origin of mankind. Beer was spread through Europe by Germanic and Celtic tribes in 3000 BC, when it was brewed on a domestic scale. By 7th century AD, beer was being produced and sold by European monasteries. The early European beers contained fruits, honey, plants, spices and narcotic herbs like hemp and poppy. Hops were a later addition, first mentioned in Europe around 822 by a Carolingian Abbot and in 1067 by Abbess Hildegard of Bingen.

From 1000 AD, beer began to be bittered with wild herbs such as bog myrtle, lemon balm, borage, St John’s wort or elderberries. Hops were added to beer to reduce the putrefaction caused by micro organisms. The 12th century Old Icelandic poem Alvíssmál says, “Ale it is called among men, but among the gods, beer.”

Guinness Storehouse Dublin-Process IMG_6260_Anurag Mallick

The practice slowly spread across Europe and reached Britain by the middle of the 15th century. The British drinking song ‘Beer, Beer Beer’ gives an apocryphal origin – ‘A long time ago, way back in history, When all there was to drink was nothin’ but cups of tea, Along came a man by the name of Charlie Mopps, And he invented the wonderful drink, and he made it out of hops.’

The popularity of the English pubs, alehouses and taverns in the 17th century gave rise to a popular phrase. Keeping a watch on the alcohol consumption of patrons was always a big problem for bartenders, who would sometimes scribble ‘p’ or ‘q’ on the tally slate to indicate the pints and quarts consumed. As a reminder, the bartender would recommend his patrons that they ‘mind their Ps and Qs’ in all honesty. Today, the bartending term implies to mind one’s manners.

Germany beer IMG_0980_Anurag Mallick

One reason for the beer’s universal popularity in the medieval age was the poor quality of drinking water – rivers and canals were often contaminated by animal or human waste and beer seemed a safer alternative to drinking water. In the Middle Ages, the largest brewers were the monasteries. Besides generating a large revenue, beer was a refreshing break from the austere lifestyle and could be enjoyed even while fasting. In some monasteries, it was permissible to have as much as five litres a day.

Not surprisingly, it led to quite a few tipsy clerics. Legend has it, Alpirsbach in Germany was so named when a glass of beer slipped from the hand of an inebriated monk and rolled into the river, causing him to exclaim, ‘All Bier ist in den Bach’ (All the beer is in the stream)! Even today, Alpirsbacher Klosterbräu is brewed from pure spring water. The oldest monastic brewery Klosterschenke Weltenburg has been brewing its delicious dark beer since 1050. With over 1200 breweries scattered between Bremen to Munich, Germany is easily a place of pilgrimage for beer lovers with Munich’s Hofbräuhaus in Bavaria the most famous beer hall.

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In 1516, William IV, Duke of Bavaria, adopted the Reinheitsgebot (purity law), perhaps the oldest food-quality regulation still in use today, where the only allowed ingredients of beer are water, hops and barley-malt. Prior to the late 18th century, malt was primarily dried over fires made from wood, charcoal or straw, and in 1642, from coke. Beers made from malt roasted with coke is called ‘pale ale’ though the term wasn’t used until 1703. Thus early beers had a smoky flavour and brewers constantly tried to minimize it.

With the invention of the steam engine in 1765 and the onset of the Industrial Revolution, beer moved from artisanal and domestic manufacture to large scale production. Technological advancements of the 19th century brought about great advancements in the beer making process. The development of hydrometers and thermometers allowed the brewer more control of the process and greater knowledge of the results.

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In 1817 Daniel Wheeler invented the drum roaster which led to the creation of dark, roasted malts, contributing to the rise of porters and stouts. Porter, a darker version of beer, was invented in England while stout is a more full-bodied or stouter version of porter. The discovery of yeast’s role in fermentation by Louis Pasteur gave brewers methods to prevent the souring of beer caused by undesirable microorganisms. In 1864, he also developed pasteurization to stabilize beers – 22 years before the process was applied to milk!

In the nineteenth century, beers from the Bow Brewery in England were exported to India by sea. By the time the pale ale reached Indian shores after a long sea voyage, the beer would get spoilt. In order to prolong its shelf life, brewers added more hops (a natural preservative), and the India Pale Ale or IPA was born – a refreshing bitter brew for the tropical climate.

Guinness Storehouse Dublin-Pouring the perfect pint IMG_6293_Anurag Mallick

It was another accident that gave the world its number one stout – Guinness. At the St James’s Gate Brewery in Dublin, the Irish ground barley was overheated, resulting in the trademarked ‘Black Stuff’. And the rest was history. Today, the Guinness Storehouse is Ireland’s most popular tourist attraction. Visitors begin their journey at the bottom of the world’s largest pint glass (the hollow of the building is shaped like one), continuing up through seven floors filled with interactive experiences.

See the Director’s Safe with a sample of the original starter yeast, check out Arthur Guinness’ 9000-year-old lease for the brewery site, learn to pour the perfect pint and drink using the five senses. At the top, have a pint in the rooftop Gravity Bar for higher education of a different kind. Beer enthusiasts often say that the Guinness in Dublin tastes better than anywhere else. This is largely due to the hard mineral-rich spring water from the Wicklow Mountains favourable for stout.

IMG_6900 Quell 36.5 Bad Ragaz craft beer from Tamina Thermal Waters_Anurag Mallick

Regions have water with different mineral components better suited to making certain types of beer, thus giving them a regional character. Pilsen has soft water well suited to making pale lager, such as Pilsner Urquell while the waters of Burton in England contain gypsum, which is ideal for pale ale. The process of adding gypsum to water by some brewers is called Burtonisation! Recently, the Grand Resort Bad Ragaz in Switzerland’s most famous spa town had brewed a special beer called Quell 36.5 made from the healing thermal waters of the Tamina River!

Singapore’s iconic beer brand Tiger runs an excellent Brewery Tour as well. In a 45-minute guided tour, unravel 80 years of brewing history at the Visitor center as you challenge yourself with a specially created multimedia brewing game, a tour of the brew house and learn to tap your own beer in the packaging gallery. A 45-minute beer appreciation session follows as you sample the range of brews at the Tiger Tavern.

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Beer forms part of the pub culture of beer-drinking nations such as Germany, Belgium, UK and the US, and led to the evolution of activities like pub crawling, pub games, drinking songs and beer festivals. In 1810, Munich established Oktoberfest as an official celebration. Held between mid-September and the first Sunday in October, the 16-day event draws over six million visitors and nearly 5 million litres of beer are consumed! A special dark, strong beer called Wies’nbier is brewed specially for the occasion. The Bier & Oktoberfest Museum in Munich, housed in a 14th-century timber-framed building, enshrines all the Oktoberfest regalia from earlier editions.

In the 1830’s Bavarians Gabriel Sedlmayr of Munich and Anton Dreher of Vienna developed the lager method of beer production. And as German immigrants moved to the US the 1850’s, brewers introduced cold maturation lagers, giving rise to brands like Anheuser-Busch, Miller, Coors, Stroh, Schlitz and Pabst. However, modern brewing took off in the late 1800’s due to critical factors like commercial refrigeration, automatic bottling, pasteurization and railroad distribution. In the 1870’s Adolphus Busch employed double-walled railcars and a network of icehouses to make Budweiser the first national brand.

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Today, the US is leading the way in the latest global trend of craft beer. A microbrewery or craft brewery is usually independently owned and produces small amounts of beer, characterized by their emphasis on quality, flavour and brewing technique. In Bengaluru, a city that has long loved its draught beer and wears the crown of India’s ‘Pub Capital’, craft beer has taken off with brewers boldly using Indian flavours. Till a few years ago, words like basmati, banana, clove and coriander would have seemed out of place in a brewery; not any more.

When the American craft brewery from Ann Arbor, Michigan, came to India in 2012, it introduced signature varieties like Sacred Cow IPA, Brasserie Blonde, ChaiPA, Garam Masala Pale Ale and the malty Belgian tripel. Windmills Craftworks in Whitefield, known for their excellent beer and American diner fare in a jazz theatre setting with book-lined walls offer great Stout, Helles, Hefeweizen (German wheat beer), Golden Ale and IPA. With equipment and a brewmaster imported from the US, they stick to the international nomenclature. And if you haven’t made up your mind yet, start with a tasting set of six.

Windmills Craftworks Beer

The spirit of experimentation goes on at Toit where patrons can imbibe coffee and chocolate ‘Dark Knight’ stout, Basmati Blonde – described as a ‘love child of India’s Basmati Rice and German Pilsner malt’, besides special ales infused with chilli, passion fruit or millet and jaggery. Be it Porter at Barleyz or Apple Cider at Prost, Wheat at Vapor or Stout at The Biere Club, craft beer lovers are spoilt for choice.

With aficionados loving the complexities of craft beer over regular bottled beer, the trend has established strong roots in cities like Mumbai, Gurgaon, Chandigarh and Pune. Here, in Bengaluru, love for the amber fluid is quite strong. If you throw a stone, chances are you’ll either hit an app developer or a microbrewery.

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared as the Cover Story on 31 July, 2016 in Sunday Herald, the weekend supplement of Deccan Herald newspaper.

The Hungry Merlion: Singapore cuisine

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From pushcarts to plush restaurants and Chilli Crab to Chicken Rice, ANURAG MALLICK covers iconic dishes and fine dining venues for a real taste of Singapore’s exciting food scene

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Singapore’s status as a serious food destination can be gauged from the fact that ten of the Top 50 restaurants in Asia can be found here. This is where celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay met his Waterloo in a Street Food Challenge organized by local telecom major Singtel; his chicken rice lost out to the original at Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice at Maxwell Road Food Centre. Overnight, the tiny stall became a sensation.

Anthony Bourdain considers their chicken rice so good you can have it all by itself, even without the chili-shallots-ginger-garlic condiment and sliced red chili in soya! The trick is in the rice cooked in chicken broth with steamed or roasted chicken breast sliced and served on top.

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After working at Tian Tian for over twenty years, chef Wong Liang Tai quit and set up his own stall Ah Tai two stores away. Both remain so popular, there are serpentine queues at lunch time. Equally legendary is Boon Tong Kee, started by Mr. Thian Boon Hua as a tiny stall in Chinatown in 1979, serving Cantonese chicken rice infused with silky white sauce. After the first restaurant at Balestier Road in 1983, five outlets opened in quick succession and by 1999 it had diversified to Zi Char (home-style cooked food).

Singapore must have truly humbled Gordon Ramsay for he also lost to a tiny shop called ‘328 Katong Laksa’. Laksa is a coconut based curry with yellow noodles, prawns, boiled egg, sambal, topped with fried onions and peanuts. Run by a former model, her noodles come in bite-sized pieces, so it’s easy to soup up.

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Singaporeans love their Char Kway Teow – flat rice noodles and egg noodles stir fried with eggs, cockles, lap cheong (Chinese sausages), bean sprouts and Chinese chives. However, the ultimate favourite is Singapore chili crab, best served at Jumbo Seafood and Long Beach.

Some culinary experiences are so uniquely Singapore that patrons don’t mind queuing up. Jumbo’s award-winning chili crab makes it hard to get a table at their Clarke Quay outlet. They’ve opened multiple outlets to cater to the insatiable Singaporean. Song Fa’s bak kut teh (pork rib soup) evolved from a tiny push cart on Chinatown’s Johor Road in 1969 to a chain of restaurants.

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Patrons patiently line up for a table to eat juicy pork ribs falling-off-the-bone and umpteen helpings of the peppery spice-infused pork rib soup served with white rice, garlic chilli paste and sliced red chilli in soya sauce. For the best steamed pork dumplings, there’s Din Tai Fung while Tanglin Crispy Curry Puff has been tingling taste buds since 1952 with its golden fried curry puffs in chicken, sardines or yam.

Lau Pa Sat, once a Victorian era wet market has transformed into a buzzing street food centre. A diverse range of stalls are anchored around a central clock tower with an ornamental metal roof fabricated and shipped all the way from Glasgow. In the evening, vehicular traffic on Boon Tat Street is shut down as makeshift tables and chairs spill out from the building onto the streets. Satay stalls fire up their skewers to dish out mutton, chicken, beef and prawn satays with Tiger Beer. A sign displays the Satay Challenge record of 150 sticks consumed in 20 minutes!

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There’s diverse seafood on offer – soupy black mussels, fried sting ray, crayfish, scallops, squid, octopus, oysters, prawns with baby kailan (Chinese broccoli). The unique thing is you have to pay the moment your order arrives. With none of the usual squalor associated with street food, the hygiene standards are really high and each hawker centre has to shut down compulsorily for four days every month for cleaning.

With limited land available and a limit to reclamation, Singapore loves to squeeze out maximum utility from minimum space and repurposing the old. Dempsey Hill, once a British cantonment and barracks for soldiers is now a swanky gourmet and shopping district spread around a gently sloping hill. At PS Cafe and its sister concern ChoPSuey, dine indoors or outdoors feasting on rib eye steaks, pastas and wine.

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Ann Siang Hill, once a spice plantation of nutmeg and mace is now a buzzing F&B district crammed with rooftop bars and restaurants. Critically acclaimed Lolla offers tapas sized portions of house specials – toasted sourdough with kombu butter, cured meat platter, Iberico pork collar, lamb rack and more.

CHIJMES – the 1841 Church of Infant Jesus was renovated from a religious complex to a plush entertainment quarter (cheekily renamed after the peal of the church bells) with high end restaurants like the newly opened El Mero Mero, literally ‘The Boss of the Boss’. It serves excellent Mexican – Bluefin Tuna Tostada, Wild Fish Ceviche, Grilled Wild Fish Taco to signature cocktails like Habanero Mango Martini and El Mero Mero – orange-infused mescal, fresh lime and agave.

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A similar experience in a fast food chain format is Chilis, available at multiple locations across Singapore including Universal Studios. The sheer diversity of dining locations in Singapore is mind boggling. There’s a 34-seater Gourmet Bus that tours the city offering an excellent wine dine experience on-the-go.

At Gardens by the Bay, dine at IndoChine in a SuperTree, sit outdoors at Satay by the Bay or opt for a 7-course degustation menu at Pollen inside the Flower Dome in a plush indoor setting. For dessert, you are ushered to the counter for exquisite desserts hand plated in front of you. Try the pumpkin ice-cream, caramelized pumpkin seeds, fresh blueberry, white chocolate parfait, garnished with pumpkin seed oil.

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At the Botanic Gardens inside the National Orchid Garden overlooking the Ginger Garden is Halia, ‘Ginger’ in Malay. Their chilli crab spaghettini and paperbag fish are signature specialties, as is their version of Singapore Sling using Hendrick’s gin that contains 11 botanicals and notes of cucumber and rose.

With its diverse multi-cultural population, Singapore has excellent Asian cuisine ranging from Chinese, Malay, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, Indonesian, top international fare to the delectable fusion of Baba Nyonya or Peranakan cuisine – the food of Chinese straits settlers who speak Malay. Perked with spices, tempered with coconut milk and sweetened with palm sugar, drop by for a taste at Blue Ginger on Tanjong Pagar Road.

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And for those who love the comfort of Indian food, Little India offers enough variety – pure veg South Indian or Jain meals, the carnivorous delights of Chettinad, biryani and North Indian dishes. Most city hotels like Oasia in Downtown offer a great breakfast spread while resorts like Shangrila Rasa Sentosa have separate Indian, Chinese, Malay and Continental counters.

Local desserts like Chendol (shaved ice with pandan jelly, red beans, coconut milk and gula melaka) are legendary though for a special treat, head straight to Janice Wong’s 2am dessert bar in Orchard. Paired with sake or exotic cocktails, try their signature desserts like Tsujirehei Green tea tart, Kyoto Garden, Blackforest Cornet offered in a degustation menu classified as Zen, Playful and Natural. It was as much taste as performance.

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The 2am snickers inaya sorbet had cinnamon and rosemary smoked and covered with a wine glass to infuse a smokiness. In Cacao Forest, the Earl Grey bergamot chocolate mousse, forest fruits, miso and ice-cream were shrouded in a ring of cotton candy. As the crème de cacao liqueur and vanilla whiskey were poured on the fluff, the ‘forest’ disappeared before our eyes.

The iconic Singapore Sling, a gin-based cocktail infused with Grenadine was crafted in 1912 at the Raffles Hotel so ladies could drink in public without inhibition. When the Americans came here after World War II, they looked around for Philly Cheese Steak sandwich in vain until someone decided to stuff country sandwich bread with meat and eggs and called the Asianized version Roti John! Singapore thrives on culinary inventiveness. Bon appetit…

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FACT FILE

Getting there: Singapore Airlines flies direct from Bengaluru, Chennai and other cities taking 4 hrs for the flight to Changi Airport, which is located in the eastern part of the city. The route-dictated menu matches destination and passenger profiles with deliciously wholesome meals and Shahi thali on Indian routes, besides ‘Book the Cook’ service on Suites, First Class and Business Class.

Where to Stay
Oasia Hotel Downtown
Great location, this new hotel in the CBD is close to attractions.
Ph +65 6664 0333 www.stayfareast.com

Shangri-La’s Rasa Sentosa
A top resort at the western end of Sentosa overlooking Siloso Beach, it’s close to the Fort Siloso walkway.
Ph +65 6275 0100 www.shangri-la.com

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When to go: The Singapore Food Festival is held from July 16-31 with pop up kitchens and food promotions. This year, gourmet food festival Savour at Marina Bay has been staggered across three periods – Gourmet (12-15 May), Wines (8-11 Sep) and Christmas (17-20 Nov). World Gourmet Summit in April-May sees Michelin star chefs competing with local chefs.

For more info, visit http://www.yoursingapore.com

Author: Anurag Mallick. This article appeared on 24 July, 2016 in Sunday Herald, the weekend supplement of Deccan Herald newspaper.

Singapore Airlines: Slinging around the world

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ANURAG MALLICK reviews Singapore Airlines while flying from Bangalore to Melbourne via Singapore 

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As my Singapore Airlines flight SQ-503 from Bangalore to Singapore taxied off the runway, I watched the green landscape from my window seat get obscured by clouds. It was a 4½ hr flight in a southeasterly direction towards Chennai, the Bay of Bengal and beyond. A welcome drink of orange juice and a hot towel later, I turned my attention to the Kris World entertainment system. It had 80 movies to choose from – new Hollywood releases, Bollywood hits, a decent world cinema collection and 126 TV shows.

Besides the in-flight entertainment, there are many reasons to fly Singapore Airlines – the generous allowance of 30kg check-in baggage, pleasant smiles all the way from the airport counter to being ushered to your seat, delicious Asian cuisine and award-winning customer service. But for me, the high is in ordering a Singapore Sling when you’re 30,000 ft high! The iconic drink celebrated its centenary last year, created in 1915 at Singapore’s Raffles Hotel by bartender Ngiam Tong Boon.

Economy dining

Though my Singapore Sling came not in a tall glass but in a plastic cup (but then, so does the bourbon and whiskey) and was made from a pre-mix, the novelty of ordering Singapore’s signature cocktail while flying SQ is a different kick! Unlike the Raffles Hotel tradition of serving a complimentary bag of peanuts (whose shells are tossed on the floor of the Long Bar), I had a pack of roasted peanuts to contend with, minus the littering!

For the main course, I opted for the chicken rice lunch. A small tub of cheese, two biscuits, a roll and butter gave company to my second Sling. Soon, I was tucking into my wok fried chicken in black peppercorn sauce, perfectly done carrots, beans and baby corn with rice. The portions of the meal, like the baggage allowance, was generous.

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No sooner had I finished watching London Has Fallen, it was time for touch down. If Singapore Airlines (SQ) the national carrier, is one of the world’s largest and most popular airlines, its airport hub Changi is equally loved. The 15th busiest airport in the world, it flies to more than 60 destinations in 35 countries and serves more than 51 million passengers every year. And there’s good reason why Changi has made it to the top three of Skytrax’s best airport rankings for the past 14 years, topping the list four times in a row.

Free foot-massage machines (no coin-operated crap), two movie theaters, various TV-watching lounges, a waterfall and five specialty gardens throughout the airport dedicated to orchids, ferns, cacti, sunflowers and a double-storey Butterfly Garden with thousands of butterflies and a see-through “Emergence Enclosure” where you can see the cocoons hatch. The new Terminal 3 (T3) also has toy stores, video arcades and a pay-to-enter playground with rides, slides, inflated animals, all accessible without passing through security. It’s a giant entertainment and leisure complex disguised as an airport!

Changi Customer Service Desk

Besides the efficient operations, helpful ground staff to guide you and charging points everywhere, all three terminals have dedicated areas where travelers can stretch out on chaises – the Snooze Lounge in T3 or Sanctuary in T2, where upholstered chairs face an indoor brook and mini tropical forest with broad-leafed plants. For premium passengers, Singapore Airlines also has three lounges – the SilverKris Lounge, the Private Room and KrisFlyer Gold Lounge.

And if the airline rolls out the red carpet for regular passengers, it takes its service several notches higher for its other classes, especially on board the newer Airbus A380 aircraft on long-haul flights. Its private suites, designed by French luxury yacht designer Jean-Jacques Coste, come with sliding doors and blinds, comfy seats, separate beds and full bathrooms. There’s no scrimping with Ferragamo toiletries and Givenchy blankets, pillows and pajamas. Two suites can even be combined to create one queen sized bed and double room. First Class too features giant beds and meals like Lobster Thermidor and Singapore’s popular dish bak kut teh (pork spare ribs in a pepper broth).

New J Class

Business Class has fully-flat, 78-inch beds complete with linen, duvets, pillows and 18-inch HD TVs loaded with 1,000 movies, TV shows and songs, with noise-canceling headphones, internet and text messaging. Economy isn’t too bad either, with 19.5-inch-wide seats that recline eight inches, with calf and foot rests. Though the TVs are smaller (13.3-inch HD touchscreen monitor), the entertainment is the same as First Class. And the Asian-inspired dishes are delicious.

After my brief stopover at Changi spent in duty free shopping, it was time for my connecting flight SQ-207 from Singapore to Melbourne. With a return flight booked on Singapore Airlines as well, I was looking forward to the laksa, stir fried noodles and beef massaman curry. And of course, my Singapore Sling…

SQ First Class Gourmet Chinese cuisine

For more info, visit www.singaporeair.com & www.yoursingapore.com

Author: Anurag Mallick. This article was written specially for the blog on a trip courtesy Singapore Airlines.

Meghalaya: Cloudy with a chance of Meatballs

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ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY chase the monsoon across the Khasi hills to Shillong, Mawlynnong and Cherrapunjee while relishing local cuisine

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A gnarled bridge made entirely of roots spanned a swift flowing stream in our path. The surreal setting was Tolkienesque to say the least, as we wondered what adventures lay beyond. It was as if some sorcerer had cast a spell, leaving us speechless and transfixed. While we took in the dreamlike scene, two kids chirpily ran across the heavy bridge. Roughly paved with mud and stone, it swayed ever so gently, and the reverie was broken.

This was no ordinary bridge. It was a ‘Living Root Bridge’ of Meghalaya, locally called Jing Kieng Jri, shaped over centuries by entwining the fast growing aerial roots of the Ficus elastica tree. In these remote hill tracts, long before the availability of cement and steel, these were age old modes of crossing streams. It was an unwritten rule that anyone passing by would diligently twirl new wiry tendrils around older ones to strengthen the latticed structure. It was CSR taken to another level.

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We were at the root bridge at Riwai, a 2km walk from Mawlynnong, a remote village in the East Khasi hills on the Indo-Bangladesh border. Our guide Henry explained that his village was named after the rocks hollowed by rainwater – maw was ‘stone’ in Khasi and lynnong meant ‘cavity’. After all, this was Meghalaya, the Abode of Clouds, home to the rainiest place on earth, a title that had passed from Cherrapunjee and Mawsynram. With Cherra as our next stop, we were hoping to find out…

For now, we just wanted to float forever in the tranquil sun dappled pools but Henry promised to take us to a better spot. The jump from a little stream to a 300m cascade was definitely an upgrade. The Wah Rymben river tumbled over a wide rock face as Niriang waterfall, ending in a deep pool fringed by reeds. Having a waterfall all to yourself is a rare luxury in a populous country like India. With butterflies for company, we lazed around for what seemed like hours.

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On the way back, we stopped at Maw Ryngkew Sharatia or Balancing Rock, an ancient Khasi shrine that existed long before the arrival of Christianity. A trio of monolithic stones or Maw-byn-nah stood outside every home or in the fields to honour ancestors. In the old animist traditions of Meghalaya, stones, rivers, forests, all life forms were sanctified and nearly two centuries of proselytization had not eroded these beliefs. Sacred groves like Mawphlang were still zealously protected as sanctuaries.

The road was lined with broom grass, what we commonly call ‘phool jhadu’ (Thysanolaena maxima). A cash crop for locals, they harvested the inflorescence, which was made into brooms. Not surprisingly, Mawlynnong was pegged as ‘the cleanest village in Asia.’ The locals were indeed sticklers for cleanliness and we noticed cane trash baskets outside every home. Flower-lined pathways led us past Balang Presbyterian Church before we returned to our bamboo perch at Mawlynnong Guest House and Machan.

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All of a sudden, a crack of thunder boomed with the severity of a giant transformer bursting in the sky. We stepped out to witness nature’s sound and light show in all its fury. Flashes of lightning in the dark foreboding clouds above looked like explosions of some inter galactic battle, lighting up the plains of Sylhet below. There was a terrifying beauty to the whole experience.

When we reached Cherrapunjee the next day, it had already received a fresh coat of rain. But then, it almost always rains in Cherrapunjee. And when high rainfall, humidity and elevations of 1000 m rich in limestone come together, you get caves! With 1350 caves stretching over 400 km, Meghalaya has the deepest, longest and largest labyrinth of caves in the Indian subcontinent. Driving through the mist, negotiating dizzying bends, we reached Mawsmai Caves.

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It was a good introduction to the subterranean world of stalactites and stalagmites, formed over thousands of years. There were all sorts of shapes – candles, cave curtains, grotesque shapes and cave pearls. It was apparent why Meghalaya was becoming a spelunking or caving destination with adventure enthusiasts heading to the Shnongrim Ridge in the Jaintia Hills that holds Krem Liat Prah, the longest natural cave in India.

The bounty of nature was apparent everywhere. Waterfalls like Nohkalikai and Nohsngithiang Falls plummeted from high perches into aquamarine pools. It was the scenic beauty and cool climes that prompted the British to set up their first base in the North East at Sohra or Cherrapunjee. David Scott, Revenue commissioner of Assam and agent to the Governor General came from the plains of Sylhet and died here in 1831.

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A stone memorial noted his contribution to society. The first missionary to arrive at Cherra was Rev Thomas Jones in 1841 and the Nongsawlia Presbyterian Church was built by 1846. A tablet marked the centenary of the Welsh Mission in the hills. Ramakrishna Mission’s lovely old building dated back to 1931.

After our local sightseeing, following quirky yellow signs, we finally reached Cherrapunjee Resort at Laitkynsew. Our host Dennis Rayen had painstakingly collated meteorological data over the years, with rainfall patterns and weather charts lining the walls of his reception as decor. It was a great base for birdwatching and long trudges into the valley to see more root bridges. But nothing could prepare us for the double-decker bridge at Nongriat.

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Rising water levels in the stream had forced locals to build a second bridge a little higher than the old one, hence the name. Knowing that we would soon be back in the urban sprawl of Shillong, we lingered at the pools, allowing tiny fish to nibble away at the dead skin of our tired feet.

It wasn’t the best way to return the favour, but soon we were nibbling on fish at our lakeside retreat of Ri Kynjai 15km from Shillong. The stunning resort, located on the banks of Meghalaya’s largest lake Ummiam or Barapani (Large Water), used Khasi architecture and décor in cottages built on stilts. We relished the Khasi feast of dohshaiin (chicken meatball appetizer) served with tungtab (spicy fermented fish and garlic chutney), kha rang (pan fried dry fish), doh sniang khleh (pork salad), jadoh (rice flavoured with local turmeric) and Cherrapunjee Chicken, a peppery chicken curry.

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Ri Kynjai was a great base for trekking to Lum Sohpetbneng or The Navel of Heaven, the most sacred mountain for the Khasis. As per local spiritual beliefs, while the Khyndaitrep or Nine Huts people remained in their celestial abode, the Hynniewtrep or the Seven Huts people of East Meghalaya descended to earth – interestingly, using a golden vine bridge atop the sacred peak. A repository of ancient wisdom and values, the peak was an umbilical cord to the Divine. An annual pilgrimage is held on the first Sunday of February.

Shillong, despite being Meghalaya’s bustling capital, had its own charm and all the trappings of a ‘hill station’ – bracing climate, a water body with a jogger’s park in the form of Ward’s Lake, viewpoints like Shyllong Peak, landscaped gardens at Elephant Falls and a clutch of museums for the visitor. Don Bosco Museum, part of the Don Bosco Centre for Indigenous Cultures, shed light on local culture.

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The Butterfly Museum at Riatsamthiah, a private collection of the Wankhar family, showcased a dazzling array of butterflies, beetles and moths. The Rhino Heritage Museum was a piece of history by itself. Built in 1928, it was used as a small arms store by the British, in 1944 it housed Japanese POWs during Second World War and was called Dungeon Lines, the 1/8 Gurkha Rifles used it as a magazine and after independence it lay abandoned until it was converted into a museum in 1998-99.

There was a lot to Shillong. Historic churches, stunning architectural gems like the Brahmo Samaj building dating back to 1894 and small tidbits of history. Arundhati Roy was born here. Arthur Llewellyn Basham, author of the tome ‘The Wonder That Was India’ lies buried here. Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore lived here. His summer residence Mitali was being used temporarily as a State Legislative Assembly.

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Tagore’s writing desk and chair adorns the Maharaja suite of Tripura Castle. The erstwhile summer retreat of Tripura’s Manikya dynasty, the castle was built in the 1920s and renovated into the first heritage hotel in the North East in 2003! Shillong had lovely stay options like Rosaville, a delightful colonial era bungalow with old furniture and photos.

In the evenings menfolk met at the Polo Ground for betting over the age old sport of teer (archery). The younger generation sported funky hairdos and blasted rock music from their Made-in-China phones. With visits to this little nook in the north east by iconic bands like Mr. Big to MLTR and Scorpions to Sepultura, tiny Shillong was giving major metros a major complex. We polished off a Khasi meal of pork and rice at Trattoria ‘Restauranto Khasino’, a local joint before hiring a cab back to Guwahati. As we walked out, the mist rolled in. Like the Cherrapunjee Resort sign said ‘Heads in clouds, feet firmly on ground’…

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FACT FILE

Getting there
Shillong is 100km/3hrs south of Guwahati. From Shillong, Cherrapunjee is 56km while Mawlynnong is 81km via Pynursla off the road to Dawki.

Where to Stay
Tripura Castle, Shillong http://www.tripuracastle.com
Rosaville, Shillong http://www.rosaville.in

Ri Kynjai, Umiam Lake http://www.rikynjai.com

Cherrapunjee Resort, Laitkynsew http://www.cherrapunjee.com

Mawlynnong Guesthouse http://www.mawlynnong.com

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Contact
Tourist Information Centre
Meghalaya Tourism Development Corporation
Police Bazaar, Shillong 793001
Ph 0364-2226220

Nakliar Tours
Ph 0364-2502420, 9863115302
Email nakliartours@gmail.com

For more info, http://www.megtourism.gov.in

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the March 2016 issue of India Now magazine.

Pulp Fiction: Mango Mania

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With a history of over 4000 years, the mango remains the undisputed king of fruits, inspiring poets, musicians, architects and designers for centuries. ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY indulge in a bit of mangolomania…

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It is with good reason that the gold-skinned mango is regarded as the fruit of the gods. According to Puranic lore, goddess Parvati playfully covered Lord Shiva’s eyes one day, plunging the universe into absolute darkness. To atone for her transgression, she performed great austerities. She fashioned a lingam out of sand under a mango tree and worshipped Lord Shiva ardently. Pleased by her unwavering devotion, Shiva relented and Kamakshi, the lovelorn goddess was reunited with her lord under the same mango tree. The temple that commemorates this incident is called Ekambaranath – after ekya (united), amra (mango), nath (Lord) – and a mango tree still stands in the compound of the Shiva shrine in Kanchipuram.

Though the original 3,500-year-old tree has withered and a portion of its trunk is on display behind a glass case in the temple hallway, its offshoot in the central courtyard is unique. Its four branches bear fruits of four different shapes and tastes, which supposedly represent the four Vedas. This legend highlights not only the significance of the mango since antiquity, but also suggests the art of grafting was known in ancient India.

Kanchipuram Ekambranath Temple Mango Tree-Anurag Mallick

The mango has been around for over 4000 years in India with nearly as many varieties. The mango is to Indians what chocolate was to the Aztecs. Associated with Kama the god of love, the heavenly mango is hailed as the messenger of spring, a poetic perch for cuckoos and the eternal fruit of seduction. From Kalidasa to Khusrau, poets and writers have waxed eloquent about it. In Ritu Samharam (An Account of Seasons), Kalidasa describes spring thus, ‘Intoxicated by the nectar of mango blossoms, the cuckoo kisses his mate happily in love, the lovely mango shoot is his choicest arrow, the swarm of bees is his bow string. ‘Ambua ki daari se bole re koyaliya’, is the most popular bandish (set of words tied together in a raga) in Raag Bageshwari.

Revered in scriptures and lauded in literature, music and poetry, the mango’s resonating imprint can be found everywhere. From leaf to seed, the mango has been celebrated in textiles, jewelry and architecture across India –the gold zari borders of Kanjeevaram saris, the block prints of Rajasthan, the paisley motifs of Kashmir or Kantha embroidery in Bengal. As an auspicious symbol, mango leaves are hung outside homes and temples during festivals and around a kalasha (urn) for ceremonies. The sacrificial fire is not complete without dry twigs and branches of the sacred mango tree.

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Since Vedic times, raw boiled mangos, cumin, sugar and salt was a remedy for dehydration and combating heatstroke. Ironically, a product of summer, it is also an antidote for it. In Ayurveda, tender mangoes with salt and honey helps aid digestion. However, it wasn’t until the middle of last century that the mango was taken to another level by its connoisseurs.

If the mango is the undisputed king of fruits, it is an irrefutable fact that it was the kings who elevated the mango to what it is today, offering it royal patronage across the country. Chausa, originally produced in Sindh and Multan, was popularized by Sher Shah Suri after his victory over Humayun at the Battle of Chausa in 1539. To commemorate the event, he named his favorite mango ‘Chausa’ and helped propagate it throughout the subcontinent.

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In 1704, Murshid Quli Jafar Khan, the first Nawab of Bengal, transferred his capital from Dacca to Murshidabad in West Bengal. Until the British defeated Nawab Siraj-ud-Daula in the Battle of Plassey in 1757, many hybrid varieties were developed under the patronage of the Nawabs. Even today, Murshidabad is home to over a hundred varieties of mangoes – Dilpasand, Mirzapasand, Gulabbhog and Kohitoor to name a few.

In Bihar, the Maharaja of Darbhanga got a German botanist Charles Maries to develop exclusive hybrids. Varieties like Durga Bhog, Sundar Prasad and Shah Pasand can still be found in the private orchard of the Maharani’s residence in Darbhanga – Kalyani Niwas. Maries stayed in Darbhanga from 1882 till the death of Maharaja Lakshmeshwar Singh in 1898 and even named a mango after his patron –Lakshmeshwar Bhog. Maries’s unpublished treatise ‘Cultivated Mangoes of India’ and a volume of his drawings are kept at the Royal Botanic Garden archives at Kew, London.

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Andhra Pradesh’s large golden yellow mango Baiganpalli, popular across South India, hails from Banganapalle, the capital of a princely state from 1790-1948. The success of the Dussehri or Dashehari can be traced to the Nawabs of Lucknow and a 300-year-old tree in the village of Dussehri. The property of the Nawabs of Lucknow, the mangoes of this tree are never auctioned or sold. The fruits are handpicked and taken to the Nawab’s family who incidentally stay in ‘Dusseheri House’.

Legend has it that Mirza Ghalib had tried all of 4000 varieties of mango prevalent in India during his time. ‘Aam aur Ghalib’, a literary circle dedicated to the appreciation of mangoes and Mirza has met in Lucknow annually for the last 30 years. The mango has inspired many a tale. If the Neelam featured extensively in David Davidar’s ‘The House of Blue Mangoes’, across the border Mohammed Hanif found inspiration for his political satire ‘A Case of Exploding Mangoes’. In Nagarjun’s gripping book ‘Balchanwa’, a child recalls his father trespassing into a private orchard in Darbhanga to take two kishenbhogs and is ultimately lynched by the feudal owner. To think an army officer could shoot a child for pilfering mangoes a few years ago goes to prove how little things have changed…

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In the story ‘Gulab Khas’, famous Urdu writer Abul Fazal Siddiqi describes a mango contest held every five years in which the northern aristocracy judges the best new cultivar. When a dispute breaks out between two leading mango growers of the region, the arbitrator feels that “the eyes of the whole subcontinent were riveted on him,” and that his task is “fraught with historical import.” In the end, the cultivar grown by a humble female gardener—the gulab khas—wins the prize, leaving the landowners outraged and baffled. While touching upon the prevalent feudal tensions in India at the time, Siddiqi masterfully describes the taste, blush and textures of various mangoes.

When Urdu poet Akbar Hussain Rizvi, better known by his pen name Akbar Allahabadi, sent a box of the legendary langda mangoes to Muhammad Allama Iqbal in Lahore, Iqbal acknowledged it with a couplet. “Asar hai teri aijaz-e-masihaee ka ay Akbar, Allahabad se langda chale Lahore tak pahunche.” ‘Akbar, this is the miracle of your healing powers like a Messiah, langda the lame travelled from Allahabad to Lahore!’ Last year, it was the turn of Pakistani PM Nawaz Sharif to send crates of chausa to Indian PM Narendra Modi!

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India’s legendary mango belt of Lucknow-Allahabad has varieties people swear by – from Dussehri, Fazli, Lucknowa, Jauhari, Safeda, Amrapali to Husnara. Malihabad alone produces 1.5 lakh tonnes of mangoes every year worth Rs.150 crores, earning a mention in the Hrithik Roshan movie ‘Lakshya’. After nearly half a millennia of innovation, mango farmer and Padmashri Awardee Haji Kaleemullah Khan of Malihabad continues his relentless exploration and experimentation with his beloved fruit. Though growing dussehri mangoes had been a family tradition for three hundred years, his fascination for mango grafting started when he heard about cross-bred roses as a child. In the 20-acre Abdullah Nursery he inherited from his father, Kaleemullah’s legendary tree Al Muqarrar has borne over 300 varieties on its branches.

From Glass, Prince and Anarkali to the heart-shaped Asroor Mukarar, each specimen has a story – Karela looks like a bitter gourd while Aamin Lamba is so long it almost touches the ground. His nomenclature is a barometer for the fluctuating fortunes of Indian cinema, sports and politics where each new variety is named after a celebrity who’s the flavor of the season. So there’s Aishwarya, Sonia, Sachin (a unique hybrid of Gudshah and Chausa) and Akhilesh– like UP’s young CM, the tree bore fruit at a tender age of five! Predictably enough, now there’s a Modi aam too. A cross between Lucknow’s dussehri and Kolkata’s Husn-e-aara, it has crimson streaks that give it a rare and appealing hue!

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Of the 23 million tonnes of mango produced globally every year, nearly 56% comes from India, making it the largest mango producer in the world, an industry worth $360 million. With the onset of summer, the heady procession of various varieties of mangos begins. The season starts in April with early varieties like Bambaiyya, Pairi and Banganapalli, Alphonso and Dussehri in mid-June and late-maturing Fazli, Neelam and Chausa in July-August. The list of regional stalwarts is impressive – Kesar and Valsad of Gujarat, Fernandina and Malcorada (Mankurad) of Goa, Malda, Himsagar and Kishenbhog of Bengal, Gulabkhas of Bihar, Langda of Banaras, Totapuri from Krishnagiri in Tamil Nadu, Raspuri from Mysuru, the small green kaad mangay (wild mangoes) of Kodagu’s forests and the king of mangoes, the Alphonso or Hapoos of Ratnagiri.

The legendary Alphonso is named after Afonso de Albuquerque (1453-1515), the second governor of Portuguese India. Enamoured by this tropical fruit, the Portuguese experimented with mango grafting using European methods. On the many forays between their colonies, they took some saplings to Brazil and one of the grafts provided a perfect fruit. The variety was baptized Affonse and came back to India in the 16th century as Alphonso. Locals mispronounced it as Aphoos in Konkani and by the time it spread from Goa to Maharashtra and Gujarat, it was called Hapoos.

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Astute Gujaratis know that as summer ends, so will the supply of mangoes, so they bottle it up in various forms – from marmalade, preserves, pickles to bell jars of aam ras, consumed with puris, parathas or as is. The mango mania is most apparent at Valsad and Navsari districts. Each variety has its uses. Totapuri, shaped like the beak of the parrot, makes for a great snack with salt and chili. The small but fleshy Sindura, named after its striking red rouged skin, is perfect for milk shakes. Chausa is good as it is – usually rolled between the palms to loosen the pulp, nipped, squeezed and sucked straight from the fruit.

Atithi Parinay at Kotawde, a charming homestay run by Medha Sahasrabuddhe midway between Ratnagiri and Ganpatipule, offers mango tourism – unlimited mangoes during summer. The orchard of 25 trees has mostly hapoos besides Kesar, Neelam, Dudh peda and Vanraj. Follow the mango trail down the Konkan coast to homestays like Pitruchaya near Devgad and Dwarka Farms near Malvan.

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In Bangalore vendors line the wide footpath of Palace Road as commuters stop to pick up the season’s catch. In Mumbai, mango aficionados are ready to travel to the wholesale APMC Market at Vashi in Navi Mumbai (if not all the way to Ratnagiri) to buy them by the crate. All of Delhi eagerly waits for the International Mango Festival in July to have all wonderful varieties under one roof.

With a long hot summer and over a thousand recipes waiting to be prepared, it won’t be long before every fruit that dangles like a luscious golden bauble from its leafy branches is harvested and devoured. The mangophiles are already swarming the marketplace like mango flies around a fruit basket…

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FACT FILE: A-Z of Mangoes

Alphonso/Hapoos
Origin: Ratnagiri, Maharashtra
Golden yellow when ripe with firm, fibreless orange pulp, not very fragrant

Amrapali
Origin: Uttar Pradesh
Hybrid of Neelam and Dussehri with reddish orange skin and pulp

Banganapalli
Origin: Andhra Pradesh
Large sized, sweet, also called safeda, because of the whitish colour of the pulp

Chausa
Origin: Pakistan/North India
Small golden yellow when ripe, rich aroma with sweet, juicy pulp, great sucking mango

Dussehri
Origin: Malihabad, UP
Medium sized fruit, with pleasant flavour, sweet, firm fibreless pulp, thin stone

Fazli
Origin: Bangladesh/East India
Sweet juicy pulp, low fibre, large fruit (almost a kilo), late maturing variety

Gulabkhas
Origin: Bihar
Rosy flavor, gorgeous blush, non-fibrous pulp great for mango desserts

Himsagar
Origin: Bengal
Thin-skinned with smooth, extremely sweet silky flesh and sugary pulp

Kalapahar DSC05375_Anurag Priya

Kalapahar
Origin: Bengal
Small green variety that’s so delicate it’s kept on a cushion of leaves

Kesar
Origin: Gujarat
Green-skinned, irregular shaped with intense aroma, bright orange flesh and very sweet and tart.

Kishenbhog
Origin: Bihar/Bengal
Medium to large sized, with pleasant sweet flavour and firm, fibrous flesh

Langda
Origin: Varanasi, UP
Mildly fibrous with a distinct pine taste of turpenoline

Malgova
Origin: Tamil Nadu
Large green fruit with crimson blush, very fleshy with spicy sweet yellow pulp and small stone

Mallika
Newer hybrid of Neelam and Dussehri named after its beautiful appearance, honey sweet with notes of citrus and melon

Mankurad
Origin: Goa
Derived from Malcorada, large fruit with fibreless, firm flesh

Neelam
Origin: Hyderabad
Late maturing variety, large, juicy and very aromatic, bright orange pulp but named after its blue-green skin

Kesari DSC05394_Anurag Priya

Pairi
Origin: Goa/Coastal Maharashtra
Oval-shaped with fibreless texture and spicy aroma, great for juicing

Raspuri
Origin: Mysore, Karnataka
Oval-shaped, reddish yellow skin, excellent flavour and juicy, hence the name

Shah Pasand
Origin: Bihar
Small, yellow, kidney-shaped

Totapuri
Origin: Krishnagiri, Tamil Nadu
Curvaceous mango with typical parrot-beak shape, crunchy and tangy, often pickled or eaten raw, along with its skin

Vanraj
Origin: Vadodara, Gujarat
Oblong with blush of jasper red

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the June 2016 issue of Discover India magazine.
 

Life on the Farm: India’s best farm stays

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From milking cows, feeding chickens, rounding up horses to planting paddy and plucking oranges or tea leaves, ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY showcase India’s top farmstays where one can enjoy nature at its best 

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While many dream of retiring early, giving up the mad rush of city life and heading to the hills or remote villages to relax in a ranch or run a farm, some are actually living that dream. But life on a farm is no cakewalk. It’s a demanding full-time occupation that starts at the crack of dawn and wraps up at dusk with no letting up through rain or shine. Yet, there is something fulfilling about being amidst nature, growing and enjoying the fruits of one’s labour.

Today, the growing trend of farm tourism in India offers city dwellers a chance to savour country life at its best – milking cows, feeding chickens, rounding up horses, planting paddy, plucking tea leaves, coffee berries or oranges, driving a tractor, riding on bullock carts, taking guided spice tours and plantation walks and wolfing down hearty farm fresh organic meals! So roll up your sleeves for a hands-on experience at over 20 handpicked farm stays across the country.

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Rainforest Retreat, Coorg (Karnataka)
A certified organic farm in the tropical rainforests of Coorg (Kodagu) in Karnataka’s Western Ghats, Rainforest Retreat at Mojo Plantation is a unique blend of eco-tourism, sustainable agriculture and environmental education. Run by a botanist-microbiologist couple Dr Sujata and Anurag (Doc) Goel and their daughter Maya, the 20-acre farm grows cardamom and coffee in the shade of rainforest trees. Go on a guided plantation walk, learn how to hand-pollinate vanilla flowers, pick coffee and follow its journey from bean to cup.

Ripe red berries are handpicked, sundried, hulled, ‘monsooned’ to impart a unique flavour, graded, roasted and ground, all on the farm. The award-winning eco lodge offers a two-room Drongo Cottage and tents deep inside the plantation. The deluxe Atlas Cottages by the stream – named after the world’s largest moth species found here – are more suited for older guests and children. There’s no TV in the rooms, but enough nature TV outside with Wi-Fi near the streamside pavilion. Delicious, wholesome meals are prepared using fuel from the biogas plant.

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Farm produce like cardamom, civet cat coffee, gourmet filter coffee, pepper and vanilla are sold under the label ‘Don’t Panic, It’s Organic’ and proceeds go towards the Goels’ biodiversity research foundation WAPRED (Worldwide Association for Preservation and Restoration of Ecological Diversity). Every season has its appeal – coffee harvesting in Jan-Feb, coffee blossoms in Feb-March, vanilla flowering and pollination in March-April, fireflies by mid-April, frog mating in monsoons and cardamom harvest and blooming of ground orchids between Sep-Dec.

Animal Farm
Besides Moonshine, Starlight and Survivor, the trio of geese by the pond, 6 dogs Stella, Venus, Leo, Luna, Aquarius, Kiri, war-hero Billy the goat, cows and cats, there’s plenty of flora and fauna – Malabar Gliding Tree-frogs, Atlas Moth, Ahaetulla vine snake, arachnids, 40 species of endemic orchids, over 100 birds and occasional wildlife like wild boar, jackal, civet cats, Malabar giant squirrel, mongoose, porcupine, slender loris and barking deer. Doc has recently published a coffee table book on the biodiversity of Mojo called Life Organic.

Getting there: 10 km north west of Madikeri and 250 km from Bangalore. Head past Club Mahindra towards Galibeedu and turn right at the signboards for Kaloor village

Tariff: Rs.2,000-4,000 (includes bed and breakfast, half-day trek and/or plantation tour, lunch and dinner available at extra cost)

Contact: Ph +91-8272 265638/6, 201428, 9480104640 Email rainforestours@gmail.com www.rainforestours.com

Mojo Rainforest Retreat-IMG_9743_Anurag Mallick

No Man’s Land, near Sirsi (Karnataka)
Nearly a decade ago George and Susheela Varghese left their city jobs and decided to go ‘as far away from Bangalore as possible’. They ended up 400 km north near Sirsi in the forested tracts of the Western Ghats and hoped that the city wouldn’t reach that far, at least in their lifetime! However, it isn’t the remoteness that gives the 8.5-acre farm its name. George believes that we are just caretakers of the land and no one can really ‘own’ it. However, the joke at home is that with three home-schooled daughters aged 8, 7 and 4 and his wife, he’s the only guy in the house; hence No Man’s Land!

They host one family at a time in a cottage, with a tent for a second on the anvil. Besides the original cash crop areca, there’s paddy, sugarcane, pepper, banana, ginger and turmeric. The main homestead is perched on a 3-acre hillside with 30 mangos, 40 cashew, 40 amla trees and fruits like guava, chikkoo, pomelo, avocado and lychee. It’s not exactly an orchard with neat rows of trees, but more a ‘food forest’. They shun pesticides and fertilizers, focusing on alternate energy like biogas, composting, solar cooking and baking in summer using solar boxes. To enrich the soil and increase microbial activity, they use jivamrit, a mix of cow urine, cowdung, jaggery (for a sweet environment) and horsegram flour (food for microbes) that is fermented for 3 days before being added to the soil.

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Being a working organic farm, there’s never a dull moment with lots of seasonal activity – planting paddy saplings in monsoon, harvesting in early Nov-Dec and sugarcane harvest and jaggery-making in early March, celebrated as a local festival called aalemane. The small stream on the property has flowing water till Jan-Feb. Besides an organic harvest, the farm also makes ginger chutney, guava jam and banana savouries!

Animal Farm
All the farm animals are named after infamous people – from the dogs Veeru (after Veerappan), Ozzy (after Osama) and Silky (short for Silk Smitha) to the 3 cows, buffaloes, 20 free range country hen, 5 ducks to Sheru the kitten (after the Jungle Book baddie Sher Khan) and ‘The cat with no name’ – its gender was unknown for the longest time and hence escaped nomenclature!

Getting there: Danandi village is 16 km from Sirsi off the Hubli-Belgaum road in northwest Karnataka with the nearest airport at Hubli 110 km away.

Tariff: Rs.1,500/person, Rs.750 for kids between 6-16, below 6 free

Contact: Ph +91 9481278348 http://www.nomanslandfarm.in

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The Hermitage Guest House, Nersa (Karnataka)
When David and Morvarid Fernandez started their farm south of Belgaum in 1981, it was pretty much a wild tract. The isolated sanctuary seemed ideal for quiet contemplation, so they called it The Hermitage. In 2004 they established an eco lodge for guests and even after all these years, the soul remains intact. The 45-acre farm is 100% organic and grows seasonal vegetables, rice, wheat, turmeric, ginger, sweet potato, onions, chikkoo, mango, coconut, pepper, coffee, tea, cocoa and medicinal plants. Twelve acres have been left underdeveloped for wild animals.

Stay in The Machan, a bamboo and wood home on stilts 11 feet off the ground, or The Kadaba, a typical village home of wood and mud plaster or The Gota, a rural cottage with locally made red clay floor tiles. With no electricity, the farm is solar-powered with hot water available from a bhum (wood fire stove). The kitchen offers excellent Parsi and Anglo Indian cuisine incorporating unusual indigenous fruits, nuts, berries and vegetables grown locally or growing wild in the Western Ghats. Try homemade jam made from wild jamun, free range eggs, besides breadfruit, Bull’s Heart, Custard Apple and Cherimoya.

Konkan farmstays_IMG_2388 Maachli triphala berries

Get cooking lessons, drive a John Deere 5045, attend the local jathre (village fair) and santhe (weekly market) at Khanapur (Sun), Alnavar (Tues) and Nangad (Wed), learn pottery from Shambaji or Shankar using Khanapur’s famous red clay or relax in the perennial stream. Watch the jungles come alive with Flame of the Forest in summer and enjoy birding and stargazing in winter; the stillness broken by the call of jungle fowls or the howl of a jackal.

Animal Farm
With an environment hostile to agriculture, farming is a challenge with monkeys, bears and fruit bats making a beeline for chikkoo. Bulbuls and barbets peck at guavas, parakeets feast on sunflower while woodpeckers target the coconut trees! Spotted deer enjoy resting in the shade of the eucalyptus, acacia and silver oak trees and pairs of peacocks nest here every season. Besides butterflies, bats, snakes, gaur and other animals that pass through the farm, there are resident geese, hens, ducks and the adorable dog Bahadur (Badmash and Scully passed away recently after a full life on the farm, as did Apache the ‘loafer cat’).

Getting there: The Hermitage is near Nersa Village, 18 km from the nearest town Khanapur and 45 km from Belgaum.

Tariff: Rs.2,500/person, including all meals

Contact: Ph +91 9341998610, 9880757075, 9341692211, 9242623020, 9480235842
Email info@thehermitageguesthouse.com http://www.thehermitageguesthouse.com

OffTheGrid-168web_Anurag Mallick

Off the Grid Farm, Castle Rock (Goa-Karnataka border)
After running rivers in Dandeli, Coorg and Goa, white water rafting specialist John Pollard and his wife Sylvia, a pottery artist, chose a quiet nook in the hills close to the rafting action. Not too far from Castle Rock near Doodhsagar waterfalls on the Goa-Karnataka border, their 5-acre patch at Poppalwadi can be summed up as ‘extreme farming’. In a place too remote for mobile networks, tar roads or even electricity, solar powered LED lights, well-ventilated rooms and freshly prepared food requiring no refrigeration do the trick.

Off The Grid employs organic farming and composting to grow its own rice. Besides fruit trees like mango, chikkoo, guava, banana and jackfruit, the kitchen garden supplies enough corn, brinjal, spinach, beans, pumpkin and rocket leaves to be self-sufficient. The food is eclectic with a fusion of European, Asian and Anglo-Indian dishes – oriental noodles, Thai curry, salads, smoked meats, tandoori, tuna and as per John ‘wood-fired anything’.

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With just two cabins, two rooftop rooms and a tent, the set-up is eco-friendly, small, rustic and ultra low impact. Guests are welcome to lend a hand in farm work, weeding and picking vegetables. Choose from 2 hr trails to full day treks with picnic hampers to explore hidden waterfalls, swim in empty pools and village walks through Kunbi tribal hamlets.

Animal Farm
Contiguous to the Anshi-Dandeli tiger reserve, this is a wild tract inhabited by sambhar, deer, bear, porcupines, gaur (Indian bison) and leopards. Birding is rich though forest birds are not easy to sight. Noisy dogs don’t last very long here and may get picked up by leopards along with livestock, but Kukri the smart mongrel seems to be holding out.

Getting there: Drive 85km from Panjim on NH-4A via Velha Goa, Ponda, Mollem and Anmod Ghat to Castle Rock on the Karnataka border, from where it’s a 10 km/30 min offroad drive to the farm

Tariff: 3,500/person, all meals included

Contact: Ph +91 9049081097, 9623451758, 8805727230 Email info@kalirafting.com http://www.offthegrid.in

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Maachli Farmstay, Parule (Maharashtra)
Tucked away in the lush hinterland off Maharashtra’s Malvan Coast, Maachli is aptly named after the temporary machaans constructed in fields where farmers camp overnight to protect the crops during harvest season. Run by Pravin and Priya Samant and their son Prathamesh, the 10-acre farm is bordered by a perennial stream, which doubles up as a natural fish spa! The five rustic themed cottages have sit-outs overlooking the plantation and acute conical thatched roofs to prevent monkey menace.

Take a plantation tour to see how coconut, betelnut, spices, banana and mangoes are grown. For a more hands-on experience, milk a cow, draw water from the well, visit a potters’ village or learn to use a laath, the traditional way of tapping water from the stream for irrigation. Catch a cooking demo at the interactive kitchen Randhap (Konkani for ‘cooking’) where farm-fresh organic vegetables are chopped on traditional cutters called adalho and food is prepared on a chool (mud stove). Meals are served in earthen pots and patravali (leaf plates) or areca fronds.

Konkan farmstays_Local cuisine at Maachli IMG_2194_Anurag Mallick

The Morning Nature Trail to the Bandheshvaray temple of the gurakhi (shepherd) community takes visitors to the local avath (village society) and offers glimpses into rural life. The 2½-hour Sunset Trek to the coast meanders through coconut groves, mango orchards, small jungles, plateaus and an ancient devrai (sacred grove).

Getting there: 494 km from Mumbai, Parule is 21km south of Malvan and a 22km drive via SH-119 from Kudal (20km north of Sawantwadi) on the Mumbai-Goa highway.

Tariff: Rs.5,400, including all meals, nature trail & plantation tour, activities extra

Contact: Ph +91 9637333284, 9423879865 Email prathameshsawant@maachli.in http://www.maachli.in

Konkan_Stay in a mango orchard at Dwarka Farmstay_Anurag Mallick

Dwarka Farms Homestay, Talavade (Maharashtra)
Lush with mango, cashew, timber, coconut, banana and pineapple, Dwarka Farms is an organic farmstay managed by Dilip Aklekar on his 15-acre property near Sawantwadi. With a vermi-compost plant, biogas for cooking, milk from the farm’s cows and fresh fruits, pulses and vegetables grown on campus, Dwarka follows a ‘plant to plate’ philosophy. A wide range of vegetables, fruits and spices are grown organically, contributing to nearly 80% of ingredients used in the kitchen.

The rambling farmhouse has rooftop dorms and 9 rooms with large balconies opening into the mango orchard with 230 alphonso trees. Dilip’s affable nature allows guests to enjoy free access to his lounge and kitchen where one can learn to cook typical Malvani fare, sip sweet chikoo shira or savour fresh seafood delicacies. Besides excursions to beaches and local sights, he’ll happily accompany you to a potter’s village, bamboo workshops and mat weaving at George Joel’s Greenearth Culture and KONBAC (Konkan Bamboo and Cane Development Centre) in Kudal.

Getting there: Talavade is 14km from Sawantwadi and 11km from Vengurla on the Vengurla-Sawantwadi Road.

Tariff: Rs.2,800-3,600, meals extra Rs.250-300/person

Contact: Ph 02363 266267, 9167231351, 9422541168 Email dilip@dwarkahomestay.com http://www.dwarkahomestay.com

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Acres Wild, Coonoor (Tamil Nadu)
Located on a quiet hillside of Coonoor in the Nilgiris is Mansoor Khan’s 22-acre organic cheese making farmstay. After writing and directing iconic movies like Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak (1986), Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikander (1991), Akele Hum Akele Tum (1995) and Josh (2000), he abandoned Mumbai’s glitz in dramatic filmy style and moved to the Nilgiris in 2004, a stunning region where he had shot some of his films. Mansoor and his wife Tina found their calling in organic gourmet cheese.

Sitting pretty at 6000 ft, the farm grows vegetables, fruits and herbs like fennel, rosemary, thyme, parsley, sage, oregano and chives, used to flavour their cheese in delectable flavours – soft cheese like Herb & Garlic, Pepper Top, Celery, Caraway Seed and the garlic-infused Indian Summer. Guests can opt for a basic 2-day cheese-making course for Rs.8000 and learn to make hard cheese like Gouda, Cheddar, Gruyere and Parmesan or Advanced Cheese like Mozarella, Camembert and Haloumi. The 14 beehives in the garden produce honey, which is sold in local markets as well. The three farmstay cottages with five rooms are named Haloumi, Cheddar and Colby – cheesy, eh?

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Animal Farm
Besides hens, ducks, geese, turkey, guinea fowl and Rhea the doggy, the farm has two main breeds of cows – Jersey hybrid and Holstein-Friesian hybrid. You might find yourself petting Lazy, the jersey calf or Elizabeth.

Getting there: Coonoor is 21 km south of Ooty in the Nilgiris, 36 km from the nearest railhead Mettupalayam, 70 km from the nearest airport Coimbatore and 300 km from Bangalore. The farm is in Upper Meanjee Estate in Coonoor, reachable via Kannimariamman Kovil Street.

Tariff: Rs.3,500-4,500, plus taxes

Contact: Ph +91 9443232621, 0423-2232621 Email acreswildfarm@gmail.com http://www.acres-wild.com

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Destiny Farmstay, Avalanche (Tamil Nadu)
As the mist slowly rises above the lake and forested slopes of Avalanche, you get a wispy image of how beautiful the Nilgiris would have been nearly a century ago. Cut off from the mass tourism of Ooty, Destiny Farmstay is a throwback to colonial times when the hills were not overrun with human habitation. Spread over 180-acres and surrounded by the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve, Destiny was started nearly a decade ago by Vijay and Neeta Prabhu.

There’s no TV or mobile connectivity and an old army pick-up truck ferries guests across the last 3 km off-road stretch. The organic farm grows radish, cabbage and other vegetables, besides herbs, strawberries, plums and carnations. A private garden supplies the kitchen with farm fresh produce served at the Wishbone Restaurant. 35 rooms furnished with parquetry, country furniture and fireplaces, open to a stupendous view. Wake up to the neigh of horses or take a ride around the track after an introductory riding lesson.

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Visit a cattle farm to catch the dairy in action, get the lowdown on farming practises in an educational agri-tour or plant farm herbs and vegetables. Stroll down to the lake, hike to a nearby Toda village, try your hand at fishing in a little pond or go overnight camping on a nearby hill.

Animal Farm
A stable of 20 horses, a dairy full of 60 cows, 6 sheep, rabbits, geese, a couple of dogs and Jimmy the cat.

Getting there: Avalanche is 25 km from Ooty via Good Shepherd International School and Emerald Dam.

Tariff: Rs.7,500-10,000/couple, including breakfast, meals

Contact: Ph 0423 2244000 Email holiday@littlearth.in http://www.littlearth.in

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Organic Farms, Auroville (Pondicherry)
Long before ‘organic farming’ became a buzzword, the Auroville community has been involved in sustainable farming practices and holistic living since the 60s. Grappling with poor soil, difficult climate and a short growing season from December to March, Auroville today has nearly 320 acres of farmland and over two dozen farms, each unique in activity and character. Employing eco-friendly technologies such as windmills, solar energy, micro-sprinklers, biogas, permaculture and biodynamics, they blend modern agriculture with traditional farming techniques. Many of these farms with orchards, fields, vegetable gardens and dairies are open to serious volunteers.

The 35-acre Aurogreen, started in 1975, is one of the oldest farms in Auroville while the 135-acre Annapurna the largest. A ‘Certified Organic’ farm, Annapurna grows 30 acres of food crops like rice, millets and oilseeds, with the remainder dedicated to firewood trees, fodder and forest. Pebble Garden, home to 100 endangered traditional vegetable varieties, runs the outreach initiative ‘A Garden for Everyone’ and is open to visitors for a guided walk every Fri 4 pm.

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The 6-acre Solitude Farm with an in-house rock band Emergence and an organic restaurant, grows indigenous millets, rice, oil seeds, grams, pulses, vegetables and 16 varieties of fruits. They aim to create a dynamic integrated lifestyle, leaving space for music and arts with farming as the foundation of the community.

TerraSoul, a holistic farm project on a 4.5 acre patch in the 22-acre Windarra Farm, employs Permadynamics and has a mushroom and spirulina farming unit, besides workshops and classes on Thai yoga massage, martial arts and tango. Most farms have acco for volunteers, who are expected to stay at least a month and take part in farming and community activities.

Getting there: Auroville is 10 km north of Pondicherry and about 150 km south of Chennai

Tariff: TerraSoul charges volunteers Rs.4,000-7,000 per month

Contact: Email farmgroup@auroville.org.in http://www.auroville.org

Kerala-Oyster Opera

Oyster Opera, Padanna (Kerala)
Surrounded by fish farming ponds and coconut-fringed backwaters, Oyster Opera in Kerala’s Kasaragod district is an unusual farm. Its treasures are not found in the soil, but in water. One of the few farmstays devoted to green mussel and oyster farming, it was conceived by Gul Mohammed in 2007, who cultured kallumakai (green mussels) on locally available coir. Recipient of the Karshaka Shiromani, a national award from the Agriculture Ministry for his innovative farming technique, he shared his knowhow with poor coastal folk, transforming the lives of nearly 6000 farmers.

In this community-run enterprise, local women handle cooking and housekeeping at the rustic themed resort. Spread over 6-acres, Oyster Opera has traditional huts built on land, water and treetop using locally available materials. The eco-friendly laterite stone cottages with open air baths are named Mussel, Oyster, Clam, Shrimp, Crab, Pearl Oyster, Lobster and Snail with a houseboat called Sara’s Float.

Kerala-Kallumakai or green mussel farming 2

Besides picking oysters and fishing, enjoy swimming, canoeing, coracle jaunts, houseboat rides in the pristine Valiyaparamba backwaters and island hopping to uninhabited islets, estuaries, mangroves and beaches nearby.

Getting there: Oyster Opera is located at Padanna, 7km from the nearest bus and railway station at Cheruvathur in Kasaragod district. It is 120km from Mangalore Airport and 180km from Kozhikode Airport.

Tariff: Rs.3,800-5,500, includes breakfast

Contact: Ph +91 9447176465, 0467-2278101 Email oystergul@rediffmail.com http://www.oysteropera.in

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Spice Village, Thekkady (Kerala)
CGH Earth’s Spice Village is a farm disguised as a plush Kerala resort. Poised on a 2,000ft high ridge near Periyar around a ranger’s forested home, the 12-acre resort is built like a mountain village based on the ancient tribal wisdom of the Cardamom Hills. Spice Village won Wild Asia’s annual Responsible Tourism Awards in the ‘boutique hotel’ category in 2007 and it’s easy to see why.

A tea counter dispensing herbal brews of your choice supplants a formal reception. The nature-cooled cottages wear thatched roofs made of locally sourced elephant grass and stone floors with coir mats. The whole campus is a chemical-free zone – the sprayer uses biodegradable pesticides like neem and lemon grass oils, little clay pots provide natural mosquito control and the incenser burns Black Damur, an insect-repelling tree resin. Strings of aloe vera plants suspended in the verandah ward off pesky flying pests around the dining areas. Over 200 kg of daily organic waste is recycled in the vermicompost plant to fertilize the farm.

Kerala-Thekkady CGH Spice Village herbal tea counter IMG_9564_opt

Every tree is neatly labeled and the Pepper Vine Tour, an hour-long walk through the property, is a good introduction to spices. Nearly 140 species of native plants have been conserved. Organic vegetables and spices are grown in-house at the 1.75-acre organic farm, the fish comes fresh from the river and a specialty outdoor restaurant called the ‘50 mile diet’ sources all the ingredients with a 50 mile radius to reduce carbon footprint and benefit local communities! Get an Introduction to Spices every evening and learn how to use them during the Kerala Cuisine cookery classes at The Tiffin Room.

Animal Farm
Besides guinea fowl and numerous squirrels, birds and butterflies on the property, neighbouring Periyar Tiger Reserve is ideal for jungle walks and boat rides to spot elephants, gaur, deer, otters, foxes and other wildlife.

Getting there: Spice Village is on Kumily Road at Thekkady, 190 km from Cochin International Airport and 145 km from Madurai Airport

Tariff: Rs.18,700-24,000

Contact: Ph 04869–224514, 222315 Email spicevillage@cghearth.com http://www.cghearth.com/spice-village

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Punjabiyat, Saidowal-Gunopur (Punjab)
Perhaps no place in India captures the imagination of a farming holiday the way Punjab does with visions of mustard fields, tractors tilling the fields and robust cuisine. Punjabiyat, an hour’s drive from Amritsar, provides all that and more. Built amidst green fields of wheat and mustard crisscrossed by canals, with pathways lit hurricane lamps, its four mud-plastered cottages downplay the luxuries within.

High ceilings, four-poster beds, tasteful interiors, a covered front deck and private terrace with meals served in different settings as per your convenience. Enjoy parathas, aloo sabzi fresh from the potato fields, local curd, fruit platters and mango-mint smoothies, with a light continental lunch and open-air tandoori barbecues for dinner. The hosts insist you cannot have two Punjabi meals a day!

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Burn off calories with a 20-min cycle ride to a dairy farm where you can milk cows and learn about rural dairy farming. The famous Sikh temple, Ghallughara Saheb, is a 20 min walk away. Drive a tractor, go on a tonga (traditional horse carriage) ride and take an invigorating dip in the tube-well tank.

Getting there: Saidowal-Gunopur is 70 km and an hour’s drive northwest of Amritsar via NH-15 towards Gurdaspur. It is 100 km from Jalandhar via the diversion from Beas.

Tariff: Rs.7,600, includes breakfast, meals Rs.610/head

Contact: Ph +91 9818705508 Email info@itmenaanlodges.com http://www.itmenaanlodges.com

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Jor ki Dhani Godham, Katrathal (Rajasthan)
Set in the historic village of Katrathal that dates back to Mahabharata times, this unassuming farm will blow you away with its simplicity and charm. Located near Nawalgarh in Rajasthan’s Shekhawati region, the 15-acre farmstay is run by the gracious Kan Singh Nirwan. Recognizing the science hidden in old practices linked with faith, the farmstay is a wonderful way to reconnect with nature.

Stay in rustic air-cooled huts made of mud bricks with a wash of cowdung and walls lined with medicinal plants. Rotis made of bajra (pearl millet), jau (barley) and genhu (wheat) are served with pulses, vegetables and jaggery on a bajot (low stool). The focal point is the country cow, which provides farm-fresh milk, curd, buttermilk, makkhan (white butter) and ghee (clarified butter). The farm uses jivamrit (organic nectar), a concoction of cow dung and urine, known for its germicidal properties. Instead of fertilizers, seeds washed in jivamrit mixed with chuna (lime) sprout easily, are disease-resistant and require less irrigation.

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In the small garden patch, rose bushes, papaya and musambi prosper without being watered! Scoffing at drip irrigation and the obsession with watering plants, Kan Singh counters that plants derive 98.5% nourishment from the atmosphere, not the roots. Moisture is provided by a small pit of organic waste nearby. Guests on a short stay often linger for weeks and go back with a deep sense of gratitude. Visit lac bangle workshops and pottery kilns nearby as you explore the charming village known as India’s largest producer of clay chillums, besides Harsh Pahadi, the historic site of Lohargal and ruins of Buddhist temples.

Animal Farm
The farm has 25 country cows belonging to three main breeds – Tharparkar, Rathi and Sahiwal, besides Marwari horses – Badshah, Roopal and Momal and the three dogs Tommy, Tiger and Sheru.

Getting there: Located on the Katrathal-Hardyalpura Road, the farm is 24km from Nawalgarh and 15km from Sikar

Tariff: 1,200/person, food included

Contact: Ph +91 9875039977, Email nirwankansingh@rediffmail.com

Spiti Ecosphere-Volunteering along the trail_Anurag Mallick

Spiti Ecosphere (Himachal Pradesh)
Run by Ishita Khanna, Spiti Ecosphere’s community-based eco-tourism initiative helps visitors gain an insight into local agricultural practices, the intricacies of water management and farming feats at 4400 m. Being a high altitude cold desert, agriculture in Spiti is solely dependent on winter snow melt, which is transported over long distances through small channels called kuhls. Stay in some of the highest homestays in the Trans-Himalayan region at Langza, Demul and Komic, Asia’s highest inhabited village, as you learn to farm sweet pea, kala matar (black pea), sattu (barley) and the wild tsirku (seabuckthorn).

Hailed as a ‘Wonder Berry’, seabuckthorn (Hippophae Rhammonides) is packed with Vitamin C and also contains trace elements, mineral compounds, amino acids, proteins and omega oils. Be a farmhand, help in voluntourism projects and take home an array of wild herbs and agro products sold under the brand name Tsering (literally ‘blessings for a long life’) – seabuckthorn jam, tea and fruit drink concentrate to wild garlic, onion, mint, black peas, thyme and oregano.

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Animal Farm
Yak safaris give a chance to interact with these sturdy mountain beasts. The wild tracts of Spiti are also home to Shan (snow leopard) and Tibetan wolf.

Getting there: Kaza is 213 km from Manali. Take the Leh-Manali highway and take the diversion at Gramphoo onto SH-505 via Chhatru and Losar to Kaza. The villages of Langza, Demul and Komic come on the Spiti Left Bank trek.

Tariff: Rs.700/head, including meals

Contact: Ph +91 9418860099, 9418439294, 01906-222652 Email info@spitiecosphere.com http://www.spitiecosphere.com

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Emerald Trail, Jangaliya Gaon, Bhimtal (Uttarakhand)
Started six years ago by Sumith Dutta, who chucked his corporate job to move to the quiet hills of Bhimtal, the 3-acre patch was mostly barren, until planted with pomegranate, grapes, lime and assorted fruit trees. A 1000 sq ft greenhouse and open fields grow tomato, brinjal, potato, capsicum and other vegetables.

Sumith’s philosophy is simple – ‘What you see is what you eat’ with excellent home cooked Indian and Pahari meals. Guests are welcome to help out with the farm activities. The cows produce enough milk to meet the daily needs and the manure goes straight into the fields. It’s a neat self-sustaining habitat.

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One large bungalow with four rooms and the garden lights are powered by solar energy. A wood and brick cottage and two cottages built of local stone and mud flooring are ideal for independent travellers. A great base to cover the lakes of Nainital, Naukuchiatal, Bhimtal and Sat Tal with lovely walks and Himalayan views, the biggest plus is that it is pet friendly.

Animal Farm
Four Bhotiya dogs Rusi, Ringo, Piya and Mini, besides the cows Bachhri and Bela.

Getting there: 9 km uphill from Bhimtal off Naukuchiatal Road, it is just 20 km from Kathgodam railway station

Tariff: Rs.4,000-5,000, includes breakfast, meals 250-350

Contact: Sumith Dutta Ph + 91 9833949954, 7830025532 Email emeraldtrail.bhimtal@gmail.com www.emeraldtrail.in

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Makaibari Tea Estates, Kurseong (West Bengal)
Despite the universal popularity of tea, the environmental impact of growing it as a monocrop, the use of pesticides and soil degradation have always been contentious issues. So it is quite amazing for a tea estate to show the way in conservation. Makaibari, a corn field that evolved into a tea estate, was started by GC Banerjee in 1859 and is run by fourth-gen owner Rajah Banerjee.

Touted as the first tea factory in the world, it follows an integrated forest management approach where the tea bush is part of a multi-tier system of trees typical of a sub tropical rainforest. Nearly 70% of the estate is under tree cover and employs an advanced mulching system through a six-tier permaculture. Its guiding philosophy is to maintain a harmonious co-existence between soil, microorganisms, plants, animals and man. The estate nurtures local communities in seven adjoining villages of Makaibari (Corn Fields), Kodobari (Millet Fields), Fulbari (Flower Garden), Koilapani (Black Water), Thapathali (Thapa Village), Cheptey and Chungey.

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As part of the Homestay Program, 17 homes of local tea pickers have been identified where guests can stay, take part in voluntourism projects or live out a farmer’s life. Go tea plucking, learn how tea is made, understand the nuances of tea tasting with the Tea Master or participate in the magical harvesting of Silver Tips on full moon nights. Makaibari is the most expensive tea in India and sold last year at USD 1,850 (around Rs 1.2 lakh) per kg. Thankfully, its signature Tea Treasures are a lot more affordable.

Animal Farm
The area harbours tigers, leopards, deer, boar, monkeys, reptiles, over 300 bird species and the mimetic insect Tea Deva that looks like a tea leaf, first sighted on the estate in 1990.

Getting there: Located at Kurseong, 40 km from Bagdogra Airport, 38 km from New Jalpaiguri station and 37 km from Darjeeling

Tariff: Rs.800/person, including meals

Contact: Ph +91-9832447774, 8906515888 (Nayan Lama) Email volunteerinmakaibari@gmail.com http://www.makaibari.com

Sikkim Bon Farmhouse

Sikkim Bon Farmhouse, Kewzing (Sikkim)
Surrounded by lush green cardamom fields and forested tracts teeming with birds, Bon Farmhouse is the ideal base for birdwatchers and nature lovers. Placed at 1700m overlooking snow capped peaks of the Eastern Himalayas, the 6-acre family-run farm at Kewzing is helmed by brothers Chewang and Sonam R Bonpo. Guests can help on the farm depending on the seasonality. Most of the produce like maize, buckwheat, finger millet, green peas, rice, wheat, potato, pumpkin, beans and lettuce is stirred up into delicious home-cooked meals.

Farm-fresh eggs and milk, butter, cottage cheese, curd and butter milk from the resident Jersey cows also end up at the table. The forest abounds with wild edible foods and the monsoon adds seasonal delights like tusa (bamboo shoots), ningro (wild ferns) and kew (mushrooms). Discover local flora-fauna and learn how to cook Sikkimese cuisine with local delicacies like gundruk (fermented spinach), kinama (fermented soyabean) and fisnu (stinking nettles).

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Enjoy a hot stone herbal steam bath in a dotho, infused with wild medicinal plants collected from the forest. Hike to the three hot water springs in the area or head on walking trails to Doling, Barfung, Bakhim and Mambru villages, besides birdwatching trips to Maenam and the monastery trail to Kewzing and Ravangla.

Animal Farm
Four Jersey cows, 4 goats and 50 poultry keep you company, while the altitudinal variation of the adjoining area between the Rangit river valleys at 350m and the highest hill Maenam at 3500m harbours nearly 200 bird species. Maenam Wildlife Sanctuary is famous for the Satyr Tragopan and Fire-tailed Myzornis.

Getting there: Located at Kewzing, 127 km from Bagdogra Airport

Tariff: Rs.4,200-5,250, including all meals

Contact: Ph +91 9735900165, 9547667788, 9434318496 E-mail bonfarmhouse@gmail.com, info@sikkimbonfarmhouse.com http://www.sikkimbonfarmhouse.com

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Yangsum Heritage Farm, Rinchenpong (Sikkim)
Run by Thendup Tashi and his wife Pema, the beautiful heritage farmhouse was built in 1833 and remodeled in 1966. Five rustic Tibetan style wood-paneled rooms with spacious verandahs present a stunning view of the Singalila Range and the Khangchendzonga peak. Set at 1500 m in the foothills of the Eastern Himalayas, the 44-acre mountain farm is fully organic and grows cardamom, avocados, oranges, bananas, pears, apricots and mangoes, besides crops like maize, paddy, millet, potatoes, ginger, turmeric and sweet potatoes.

Seasonal vegetables such as cauliflower, cabbage, tomatoes and peas are also grown. Go on gentle nature walks in groves of bamboo and a mixed forest of pine, alder, chestnut, magnolia, cherry and rhododendrons. Take cooking lessons in Sikkimese cuisine and gain an insight into local Buddhist culture.

Getting there: Located in West Sikkim, the farm is 2 km from the small bazaar village of Rinchenpong, 40 km west of Gangtok, 66 km from Darjeeling (3 hrs), 92 km (3½ hrs) from Kalimpong and 153 km (5 hrs) from the nearest airport at Bagdogra.

Tariff: Rs.6,250, including all meals

Contact: Ph 03595-245322, 94341 79029 Email yangsumfarm@yahoo.com http://www.yangsumheritagefarm.com

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Abasa Homestay, Siiro (Arunachal Pradesh)
Run by Kago Kampu and Kago Habung, Abasa is an organic farmstay near Ziro in Arunachal Pradesh. Staying with an Apatani family gives visitors the perfect opportunity to learn about centuries-old techniques of paddy cultivation of the fascinating tribe, discernible from their facial tattoos and cane nose plugs. Spread over a patchwork of agricultural lands, the 10-hectare farm grows kiwi, tomato, cabbage, seasonable vegetables, cash crops and emo, the traditional rice.

Visit nearby fields for a crash course on the paddy-cum-fish farming and water management skills of the Apatanis. Paddy fields are maintained at various split levels separated by bunds where excess water drains off through channels to adjoining terraces. A 2 ft deep nala (drain) running through the fields is replete with fish. Fish and rice form the staple with a plethora of unique dishes stirred up by Kago Kampu – suddu yo, a mixture of chicken mince and egg yolk cooked on fire in tender bamboo stems, dani apu komoh or kormo pila, a chutney made of roasted sunflower seeds, yokhung chutney made of Xanthallum berries, peeke, a dish of bamboo shoots and pork.

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Try tapiyo (local vegetarian salt made from charred lai or maize leaf) and apong, a local brew made of fermented millet and rice. Help out in the kitchen garden where lettuce, chilli, tomato and baby corn are grown or work on the farm – preparing seedlings in Jan-Feb, planting in April-May and paddy harvest in October.

Getting there: Siiro is 3 km from the old town of Hapoli near Ziro, district headquarters of Lower Subansiri, 118 km from the capital Itanagar via NH-229.

Tariff: Rs.1,000/person, including breakfast and dinner

Contact: Ph 03788-225561, 94024 60483 Email abasahomestay@gmail.com

Konyak Tea Retreat-unnamed-1_Anurag Mallick

The Konyak Tea Retreat, Shiyong (Nagaland)
Ever dreamed of feasting on fruits straight off the trees? At Konyak Tea Retreat near Mon in Nagaland, guests can pick oranges (and eat to their heart’s content) during picking season from mid-November to December. Last year’s harvest yielded 5 lakh oranges! Set in a 250-hectare private tea plantation, Phejin Konyak’s family-run orchard and farm grows tea, ginger, pumpkin, squash, chilis, guava, lime and seasonal vegetables.

A stone walled farmhouse with two bedrooms, an open kitchen, living and dining space, and its own flower and vegetable garden has just been opened to guests. Pick tea at the family owned tea estate, milk cows and goats at the dairy farm, work with locals in their paddy fields, hike to waterfalls and forests or plant trees, flowers and vegetables at the farm. Learn how to smoke meat in the time-honoured traditions of the Konyak tribe and visit traditional villages nearby.

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Hostess Phejin is researching and documenting the vanishing tattoo traditions of her tribe for her book ‘The Last of the Tattooed Headhunters’ with Dutch photographer Peter Bos.

Animal Farm
80 cows, 20 goats, free range country hens, Pete the dog and a cat named Kali.

Getting there: Shiyong nearest town Mon is 32 km away and is a 1½ hours drive.

Tariff: Rs.2500 per night, includes meals and tour of the tea estate

Contact: Email phejin@gmail.com

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Heritage tea estates (Assam)
Relive the life of a colonial tea planter at Heritage North East’s century-old bungalows near Jorhat (doubles from Rs6,500). Banyan Grove, the renovated bungalow of the Estate Manager or Mistry Sahib, serves as the perfect base to explore Gatoonga Tea Factory nearby (pictured). Trace the journey of the famed Assam tea from bush to brew as you help local women pick tea leaves and learn the subtle art of tea-tasting. Burra Sahib’s Bungalow at Sangsua, 5km away, has a private lake and golf course and has been recently revamped into the Kaziranga Golf Resort.

The luxurious Thengal Manor at Jalukonibari, is a great countryside retreat. Across the Brahmaputra, in Balipara, is the Wild Mahseer Lodge (pictured; doubles from Rs8,500), part of the Addabarrie Tea Estate. The gorgeous 1853 angling lodge consists of tea-themed bungalows such as Golden Tips, Silver Tips and Second Flush. An elephant ride transports you to a tea party, complete with tasting sessions at the First Flush dining pavilion and a visit to the organic experimental cultivation station.

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Animal Farm
The tea plantations are great for birdwatching with wildlife trips to Kaziranga National Park to spot rhinos, elephants and water buffalo. At Hoollongapar Gibbon Sanctuary near Jorhat, see India’s only ape, the Hoolock Gibbon.

Getting there: There are airports at Jorhat and Guwahati. Banyan Grove is 16 km west of Jorhat and Thengal Manor is 15 km from Jorhat towards Titabor. Balipara is 26 km north of Tezpur.

Tariff Rs.6,500-8,600

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Contact
Heritage North East
Ph 033-22657389, 94355 14177 Email heritagenortheast@gmail.com
http://www.heritagetourismindia.com

Wild Mahseer Lodge
Ph 02267 060881, 91670 38491 Email daniel.dsouza@wildmahseer.com
http://www.wildmahseer.com

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This is the unabridged version of the article that appeared in the Feb-Mar 2016 issue of Conde Nast Traveller magazine and on 2 March, 2016 in Conde Nast Traveller online. Here’s the link on CNT: http://www.cntraveller.in/story/indias-top-farmstays/