Tag Archives: Neil Island

Solitary Shores: Offbeat Beaches in India

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This summer, ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY go off the beaten beach to uncover some lesser known sandy stretches across India

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India’s extensive coastline is blessed with large swathes of spectacular beaches. Be it the Konkan coast of Goa-Maharashtra, the Karavali coast of Karnataka or Kerala’s Malabar coast, India’s western side is lapped by the calm Arabian Sea. The slightly rougher eastern coast hemmed by the Bay of Bengal too has its share of beaches – from West Bengal, Odisha and Andhra down to the Coromandel Coast of Tamil Nadu.

However, with a 7000km long coast, some hidden gems have escaped the mainstream, that’s if you know where to find them! Beat the summer heat and crowded hotspots at these truly offbeat beaches…   

Kannur Thottada beach

Thottada, Kannur (Kerala)
While South Kerala is renowned internationally for its beach destinations like Kovalam, Varkala and Mararikulam, the relatively untouched Malabar Coast to the north has its share of secrets. Kannur’s cluster of beaches include the popular Meenkunnu and Payyambalam in the north to Thottada and Ezhara in the south. Thottada, with its serene backwaters and cliffs, retains the vibe of old Kerala, prior to the influx of tourism. Stay at beachfront homestays and feast on excellent Moplah cuisine – pathiris (assorted pancakes), fish curries and kallumakai (green mussels). At Kannur Beach House, go on a backwater boat ride with Nasir while Rosie stirs up delightful local fare. Stay in a renovated handloom factory at Costa Malabari with fresh seafood prepared home style. Just 10km south, skim the surf in your vehicle at Muzhappilangad, a 5km long drive-in beach. Watch fishermen draw in the morning catch and gaze at golden sunsets silhouetting Dharmadom Island.

Getting there
Jet Airways flies to Calicut International Airport, Kozhikode from it’s a 110km drive up to Thottada Beach, just south of Kannur.

Where to Stay
Kannur Beach House Ph 0497-2836530 www.kannurbeachhouse.com
Costa Malabari Ph 0484–2371761 www.costamalabari.com
Chera Rocks Ph 0490-2343211 www.cherarocks.com

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Nadibag, Ankola (Karnataka)
Uttara Kannada is well known for its beach haunts like Gokarna and Devbagh in Karwar, though few pay attention to the small coastal town of Ankola wedged between these two popular tourist getaways. The Poojageri River meanders through the forests of the Western Ghats, before it finally meets the sea at an idyllic place called Nadibag (River Garden) in Ankola. Few tourists come here, barring locals who climb the hill to catch the sunset, pose for selfies on the rocks or wade in the surf. The twin sights of the sea on one side and a picturesque lagoon on the other, as the sun goes down makes it an unforgettable spectacle. Ankola doesn’t have any fancy resorts, so Gokarna is the closest place for creature comforts.

Getting there
Jet Airways flies to Hubli (145 km from Ankola via Yellapur on NH-63) or Dabolim Airport, Goa (132 km via Karwar on Kochi-Panvel Highway).

Where to Stay
SwaSwara, Om Beach, Gokarna Ph 0484-3011711 www.swaswara.com

Bhogwe Beach from Kille Nivti IMG_2865_Anurag Mallick

Bhogwe, Malvan (Maharashtra)
The coast of Malvan in Maharashtra was once Maha-lavan, a ‘Great saltpan’ from where sea salt was traded. As the Karli River empties into the Arabian Sea, the beautiful strip of land between the river and the sea is Devbag or ‘Garden of the Gods’. Both, the river and the jetty are called Karli, so the place on the far side (taar) was called Taar-karli! While the scenic confluence developed into a hub for adventure sports, Bhogwe, located south of Tarkarli, has thankfully managed to escape the attention of most tourists. The best way to explore this stretch is by boat, which deposits you at Bhogwe Beach, a long swathe of untouched sand, before continuing the journey past Kille Nivti fort to Golden Rocks, a jagged ochre-hued hillock, that dazzles in the afternoon sun. Make sure to carry water and a picnic hamper. Relish excellent Malvani cuisine while staying in bamboo huts on a hill overlooking the sea or at Maachli Farmstay about 5km from the coast.

Getting there
Jet Airways flies to Mumbai and Dabolim Airport, Goa (123 km via Kudal).

Where to Stay
Aditya Bhogwe’s Eco Village Ph 9423052022, 9420743046 Email arunsamant@yahoo.com
Maachli Farmstay, Parule Ph 9637333284, 9423879865 www.maachli.in

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Laxmanpur, Neil Island (Andamans)
The Andaman and Nicobar islands are a much desired getaway for most beach lovers. Though only 32 of the 572 islands are inhabited, much of the usual haunts like Port Blair and Havelock Island are overrun by tourism. Yet, Neil Island, an hour’s boat ride from Havelock in Ritchie’s Archipelago, is relatively unexplored. Most of the local agricultural produce comes from the tiny island of Neil, pegged as the ‘Vegetable Bowl of the Andamans’. A lone metaled road cuts through the lush foliage to quiet beaches like Sitapur, Bharatpur and Govindpur, though it’s Laxmanpur that takes your breath away. Divided into two stretches, Laxmanpur 1 or Sunset Point offers stunning views and snorkeling opportunities and has comfy beach dwellings. Laxmanpur 2, dominated by a natural rock bridge, divulges secrets of the marine world at low tide. As the waters recede, local guides take you around salt pools inhabited by fish, eels, sea cucumbers and clams. Forget scuba, snorkeling or glass bottom boat rides, you can marvel at the variety of corals on a leisurely morning walk! See stag horn corals, finger corals, boulder corals and colour-changing corals from close quarters before the tide swells and hides them from sight.

Getting there
Jet Airways flies direct from Chennai and Kolkata to Port Blair (2 hrs), from where a ferry transports you via Havelock (1hr 30m) to Neil island (1hr).

Where to Stay
Sea Shell Ph +91-9933239625 www.seashellhotels.net/neil
Tango Beach Resort Ph 03192-230396, 9933292984 www.tangobeachandaman.com

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Tharangambadi (Tamil Nadu)
While the Coromandel coastline has popular beach destinations like Mahabs (Mamallapuram) and Pondy (Puducherry), few stop by further down the coast at Tharangambadi or ‘The Land of the Dancing Waves’. The Danes leased this small coastal village from the Thanjavur Nayaks and transformed it into a trading colony called ‘Trankebar’, eventually selling it to the British. The erstwhile summer residence of the British collector, renovated by Neemrana into the Bungalow on the Beach, has rooms named after Danish ships that docked at Tranquebar. Located on King Street between the Dansborg Fort and the half-sunken 12th century Masilamani Nathar Temple, the bungalow is the perfect base for heritage walks around the coastal town. Explore the Danish cemetery, Zion Church, New Jerusalem Church, Landsporten (Town Gate) and The Governor’s bungalow, all built in the 1700s. Watch catamarans set out for fishing in the early rays of dawn as you enjoy India’s only ozone-rich beach with the option to stay at Neemrana’s other properties nearby – Nayak House and Gate House.

Getting there
Jet Airways flies to Tiruchirapalli International Airport, Trichy (160 km via Kumbakonam)

Where to Stay
Bungalow on the Beach Ph 04364 288065, 9750816034 www.neemranahotels.com

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Talpona-Galgibaga (Goa)
With over half a century of being in the crosshairs of tourism, there are few secrets in Goa. Arambol, Ashwem, Morjim, Agonda; all the once offbeat haunts are now quite beat! But in comparison to the busy beaches of North Goa, the south is somewhat quieter. However, it isn’t till you drive south of Palolem near Canacona just short of the Goa-Karnataka border that you find a stretch that’s truly remote. As the Kochi-Panvel highway veers away from the coast, two lovely beaches line the tract of land where the Talpon and Galgibag rivers drain into the sea. Named after the streams, Talpona and Galgibaga beaches are indeed offbeat sandy stretches that few people visit. Since Galgibaga is an important turtle nesting site, tourism infrastructure is thankfully restricted. There are only a few stalls on the beach, making it one of the last undeveloped beaches in Goa where you can soak up the sun without hawkers pestering you with sarongs, beads or massages. Stay in a quiet riverside homestay at Talpona or in a Portuguese villa converted into the boutique hotel Turiya, which offers spa therapies and excellent local cuisine.

Getting there
Jet Airways flies to Dabolim Airport, Goa (76.5km via Margao)

Where to Stay
Rio De Talpona Ph +91-78759 21012 www.riodetalpona.com
Turiya Villa & Spa, Canacona Ph 0832-2644172 www.turiyavilla.com

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the May 2016 issue of JetWings magazine. 

 

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Get Lost: 15 Off-the-Grid Holidays

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Had enough of partying and want a quiet escape away from it all? Sit around a bonfire, watch the stars and get away from the crowds in these remote places that aren’t too difficult to reach. ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY show a whole world out there to lose yourself in…

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Get some Soulitude in the Himalayas at Ramgarh (Uttarakhand)
‘I’m off to Ramgarh’ you can announce nonchalantly and let the world figure out which of the dozen Ramgarhs in India you have toodled off to. Thanks to its remote location, the village of Gagar near Ramgarh (35 km north east of Nainital) is free from tourist traffic. Tucked away in the slopes of a scenic hamlet at 7,000 ft, it commands a majestic view of the Kumaon Himalayas – Nanda Devi, Trishul, Panchachuli, Pindari Glacier, Nandakot, Nandaghunti and Kamet. Its ten rooms, named Nirvana, Bliss, Quietude, Awakening, Peace (you get the idea), offer ample ‘soulitude’ and inspiration. Hike to the local Ramgarh market and continue to scenic orchards and old dak bungalows of Ashok Vatika renovated by Neemrana into the Ramgarh Bungalows. Wake up to a magical sunrise in this quiet nook that served as Rabindranath Tagore’s literary retreat for six years – he even considered it as the location of his dream abode and university Shantiniketan! The renowned poetess Mahadevi Verma too lived in Ramgarh – her home is now a library of her works. You might consider reading a book here, if not writing one! Owner Manish Chandra also runs another quiet retreat called Soulitude by the River at Chanfi nearby.

Soulitude in the Himalayas
Gagar, Nainital-Mukteshwar Road, Kumaon, Uttarakhand
Ph +91 99993 30379 http://www.soulitude.in
Tariff Rs.8,000-12,000

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Swing in a hammock by a gurgling river at Shanthi Kunnj (Karnataka)
Deep in the heart of Malnad on the banks of the gurgling Bhadra River, swing lazily in a hammock while staying in wood and bamboo thatched cottages overlooking the river and forest beyond. The Areca House, Log House, Glass House, Mud House, Tent House are all made of locally available timber, tucked away in a coffee, cardamom, areca and pepper plantation. Go on a tour of the Holy Cross Estate run by the Saldanhas or take an adventurous jeep ride to the river bank for a splash and barbecue picnic of fish baked in sand. The area was called Masigadde (Coal Field) as the forests were burned for producing charcoal to power the steam locomotives during the British era. Thankfully the forests are now protected as part of the Bhadra and Muthodi tiger reserves. Guests have reported rare tiger sightings just across the river though otters are aplenty.

Shanthi Kunnj Homestay
Devdhana Village, Honnekoppa, Sangameshwarpet, Near Kadabagere, Chikmagalur District, Karnataka Ph 0824-2485180 www.shanthikunnj.com
Tariff Rs.3,500/person, all-inclusive

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Have a wild time of a different kind in Chambal Safari Lodge (Uttar Pradesh)
The once notorious bandit terrain of India, the Chambal valley today offers exciting opportunities for wildlife tourism and eco conservation. Spearheading these efforts are Kunwar Ram Pratap (RP) and Anu Singh who run Chambal Safari Lodge in their ancestral property. Mela Kothi, the family’s field camp that once hosted a cattle mela (fair) has independent cottages on 35 acres of private farmland. Enjoy fireside dinners under the stars, go on bicycle jaunts, horse rides and camel safaris in the ravines or village and nature trails on foot. The signature experience is the jeep drive to the banks of the Chambal River for a guided boat ride. Spot gharials and muggers on the sandbanks and flocks of Indian skimmers besides other wildlife. Watch camels ford the river loaded with firewood on an excursion to Ater Fort (2km) across the Chambal. At Bateshwar (11km) view the riverside temples on the banks of the Yamuna from the riverside retreat The Kunj.

Chambal Safari Lodge
Mela Kothi, Village Jarar, Tehsil Bah, District Agra, Uttar Pradesh
Ph 9997066002, 9837415512, 9719501517
Email rpsjarar@chambalsafari.com www.chambalsafari.com
Tariff Rs.7,000-9,000, meals and excursions extra

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Experience tranquility at Tranquebar at the Bungalow by the Beach (Tamil Nadu)
Imagine a red sun casting golden spangles on a sea with silhouettes of fishing boats dancing past the waves. Throw in an easy chair on a wraparound balcony that overlooks India’s most oxygen-rich beach in front, the 17th century Danish Fort Dansborg to the right and a Pandya temple to the left and you have the perfect do-nothing holiday. Tharangambadi, literally the ‘Land of the Dancing Waves’ became Tranquebar under the Danes. Neemrana’s Bungalow by the Beach offers privacy with a dollop of wistful colonial nostalgia and rooms quaintly named after old Danish ships – Christianus Septimus, Countess Moltke, Prince Christian, take your pick! Period décor, stewards in attendance, a blue pool by the beach and delicious cuisine; this is old world luxury redefined. Visit the Fort museum or take INTACH’s heritage walk to leisurely explore the last vestiges of Scandinavian heritage at the only Danish outpost in India. In this time warp, Tamil culture seamless blends into the town’s landscape though streets still bear names like Kongensgade (King’s Street), Borgan Street and the old gateway Landsporten, besides historic churches, homes of former Danish Governors and pastors, an old cemetery and India’s 1st printing press! Neemrana has also restored two other heritage houses – the Gate House and the Thanga House into their signature ‘non-hotel’ hotels.

Bungalow on the Beach
24 King Street, Tharangambadi, District Nagapattinam, Tamil Nadu
Ph +91 11 4666 1666, 9310630386, 9786100461 www.neemranahotels.com
Tariff Rs.5,000-7,000

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Explore your fourth state of consciousness at Turiya Spa near Palolem (Goa)
Let’s face it, everyone has had their share of unconsciousness in Goa. But true to its name, Turiya explores the fourth state of consciousness. Set in a serene corner of Canacona, the 100-year old Portuguese villa and spa was renovated by architect and designer Sandesh Prabhu to help visitors to Goa find innermost peace. The 12,000 sq ft landscaped property has an inviting ambience, cheery colours and an intimate Eden-like garden with chikkoo, mango, avocado and frangipani trees. Get pampered with delicious home-style Konkani cuisine, bathe in open to sky baths or soak in a step-down bath, savour rejuvenative spa treatments based on Western methods and traditional Indian systems of Ayurveda. Uncover local culture with visits to a local market or farm or hire a bike to scenic Palolem (2km) and Agonda beaches (10 km north). Boat trips to Butterfly Island for dolphin sightings and day trips to Cotigao Wildlife Sanctuary and Karwar are other activities.

Turiya Villa and Spa
House No 16, Chaudi, Canacona, Goa
Ph 0832-2644172, 2643077, 9821594004
www.turiyahotels.com
Tariff Rs.5,000-9,500

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Watch the stillness of Umiam Lake & enjoy Khasi hospitality at Ri Kynjai (Meghalaya)
Located on the outskirts of Shillong, Ri Kynjai is a boutique lakeside resort in Meghalaya really lives up to its tagline ‘Serenity by the Lake’. The resort reflects Khasi traditions in every aspect of hospitality and architecture. Stay in plush cottages and stylish thatched huts on stilts. Wrapped within its warm pine interiors and wooden floors, watch drifting clouds and watercolour beauty of the surroundings or sit in the balcony and contemplate on the stillness of Umiam Lake. Submerge yourself in high-end spa treatments at Khem Janai or indulge in gourmet fare at the restaurant Sao Aiom (Four Seasons) specializing in North Eastern delicacies like jadoh, smoked pork with bamboo shoot and the famous Cherrapunji Chicken. The 45 acre wooded estate and gardens are great for leisurely walks, though for more adventure visit the nearby village of Umiuh or hike around the Khasi Hills.

Ri Kynjai
Umniuh Khwan, UCC Road, Ri Bhoi District, Meghalaya
Ph +91 9862420300, 9862420301 www.rikynjai.com
Tariff Rs.7,000-12,000

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Find Alpine comfort in India at Chalets Naldehra (Himachal)
Undulating grassy meadows fringed by tall cedar trees, Naldehra (22 km north of Shimla), was so enchanting that Lord Curzon, Viceroy of India (1899-1905) renamed his youngest daughter Alexandra as Naldehra after his favourite haunt. The undulating golf course set up by Curzon – the oldest in India and one of the highest 18-hole golf links in the world – still ranks among the most challenging in the country. Not far from the course, beyond a manicured lawn and a pretty garden, Finnish log cabins stand at multiple levels, no two of which are alike. Set on a 2-acre patch owned by the enterprising father-son duo Yatish and Amish Sud, the personal holiday home strategically built close to the golf course soon transformed into a resort., a Every chalet, named after early explorers who mapped the hills, sports commemorative brass plaques – F Younghusband Chalet, Gerard Chalet, Captain Kennedy Chalet, Sir Henry Collet Chalet. The revolving restaurant, 360˚ Top of the World, is the first of its kind in Himachal Pradesh! The small octagonal restaurant seats 20 and is a great perch to unwind and enjoy a delicious meal with laser lights, sunset views and starry nights. Hike to the picturesque village of Kogi to see old Himachali temples and homes with slate roofs.

Chalets Naldehra
Naldehra, District Shimla, Himachal Pradesh
Ph 0177-2747715, 9816062007, 9816039162 www.chaletsnaldehra.com
Tariff Rs.14,990-22,990 (2n/3d package)

Deluxe Room --The Grand Dragon Hotel Ladakh-2

Fly to the roof of the world while enjoying plush comfort in Ladakh’s winter (J&K)
While thousands drive to Ladakh when the high Himalayan passes open in summer, the relatively quiet winter holds its own charm. Not just the air, the crowd too thins out as the temperature drops. The sheer joy of leaving fresh tracks in snow will make anyone feel like an adventurer. And what better way to do it than pamper yourself at Grand Dragon, the swankiest 5-star hotel in Ladakh? Stay in plush rooms that open out to a view of the snow-capped peaks of Stok Kangri, Khardung la pass, besides landmarks like Leh Palace and Shanti Stupa. Sip a hot cuppa and dine at the specialty restaurant Tusrabs, literally ‘from ancient times’ that serves a fusion of Ladakhi, Tibetan & Chinese cuisine. After acclimatizing to the 3500 m, take a day trip along the Indus river past Nimu where it meets the Zanskar to Chilling, the start point of the Chadar (Frozen River) Trek. Visit Ladakh’s oldest living monastery Alchi, the moonscapes of Lamayuru, Atishey village and attend local festivals like Gustor (Jan 7) at Spituk gompa or Losar and Dosmochey (Feb).

The Grand Dragon Ladakh
Old Road, Sheynam, Leh, Ladakh
Ph +91 1982-255866/266, 9906986782, 9622997222 www.thegranddragonladakh.com
Tariff Rs.22,999-32,999/person (3n/4d Winter Offer)

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Escape to Mechuka on the China border (Arunachal)
Mechuka is so remote, it’s closer to the Chinese border than to any Indian town. Named after the hot water springs found in the area (men means medicine, chu is water while kha literally means snow or mouth), the far flung town lies in the West Siang district of Arunachal Pradesh. Reached after a circuitous drive from Aalo, the road deposts you at a wide plateau surrounded by an amphitheater of hills. The Siyom or Yargyap chu river snakes across the valley criss-crossed by bamboo bridges lined with prayer flags. Being an advanced airfield and staging post for the Indian Army, you wake up to the sound of bagpipes and military drills in the morning as wild horses graze in the fields. Base yourself at local guest houses and quaint homestays while visiting Tibetan monasteries like Samden Yongjhar gompa and Dorjeling gompa, besides the cave where Guru Nanak is supposed to have meditated 500 years ago on his trip to Tibet.

Department of Tourism, Itanagar, Arunachal Pradesh
Ph +91-360-2214745 www.arunachaltourism.com

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Gaze at the Aravalis as you listen to folk musicians at Dadhikar (Rajasthan)
Rajasthan is a land of forts and palaces, which is why it’s easy to miss out on some of the lesser known gems in the state. Dadhikar Fort, northwest of Alwar, is one such jewel. Wander into a world scented by 1000 years of history as you sip morning tea on the ramparts with unbeatable panoramic views. Choose from a bouquet of regal suites and stone clad rooms to curl up, with impeccable meals served in the courtyard and soul-stirring folk music under the stars. Balladeers sing ‘Saher Dadhikar Pargana, Alwar Garh ke paas, Basti Raja Chand ki, Abhaner nikas’ as they recount the legend of Raja Chand who camped here after his capital Abhaneri was flooded. The campsite (dera) came to be known as Derakar, which over time was corrupted to Dadhikar. Explore the hill fort, Sariska tiger sanctuary and nearby forts of Ajabgarh-Bhangarh besides Alwar’s hilltop bastion Bala Qila.

The Dadhikar Fort
Village Dadhikar, Alwar, Rajasthan
Ph +91 9871655431, 9950669900
www.dadhikarhotels.com
Tariff Rs.4,500-14,000

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Enjoy high tea at Tea Nest in Coonoor (Tamil Nadu)
Rolling tea estates, cool wind perfumed with the freshness of eucalyptus and pine, gushing waterfalls and exotic flower gardens; the Nilgiris is a dream destination. If you wish to stay away from the rumpus of Ooty, check into Tea Nest – a tea-themed hideaway outside Coonoor surrounded by 1800 acres of tea plantations. Wake up to birdsong in this perch on a hillock as gaurs graze in the bushes nearby, walk or cycle around the plantations dotted with tea-pickers busily plucking away or relax in the patio admiring the Pakkasurankote hill range. The early 19th century colonial villa has rooms tagged after tea varieties and presents a splendid 7-course tea-inspired menu served by friendly attentive staff. The Tea Nest Annexe, a 2-room planter’s bungalow scarcely 1 km away from the main house offers more privacy in a romantic setting. Don’t miss the nature trail past Toda hamlets and Hill Grove railway station to the ethnic Kurumba Village Resort, the company’s flagship enterprise nestled in a spice plantation on the Connoor-Mettupalayam Ghat road.

Tea Nest
Singara Estate, Coonoor, Tamil Nadu
Ph +91-423-2234018, 9442147198 (Tea Nest), +91-423-2233030, 8903502763 (Tea Nest Annexe) www.natureresorts.in
Tariff Rs.2,500-4,000, incl. breakfast

Woodpecker Tree House- View from the Plantation

Perch in a tree house at Pepper Trail in Wayanad (Kerala)
In a recent survey, Wayanad ranked among the top 10 best accommodations in the world. Adding to the present mix of specialty hotels, nature resorts and boutique hotels is Pepper Trail. The highlight of the 200-acre coffee and spice plantation in Kerala’s hilly district is a charming 140-year-old colonial bungalow. The lovingly restored Pazhey Bungalaav (Old Bungalow) houses the Malabar and Mackenzie Suites with quaint four posters and antique furniture. Perched on giant jackfruit trees nearby, the tree houses are 40 feet off the ground. Just because you are at the treetop, doesn’t mean you scrimp on luxury. Named Hornbill and Woodpecker, each tree house comes with large bedrooms, outdoor living spaces and safari inspired furniture. There’s plenty to do in and around the estate – guided plantation walks, cycling, open jeep safaris and coracle rides or fishing on the estate reservoir.

Pepper Trail
Mangalam Carp Estate, Chulliyode, Sulthan Bathery, Wayanad, Kerala
Ph +91 9562277000 www.peppertrail.in
Tariff Rs.4,700-18,000

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Stay in a house on stilts in Dibrugarh (Assam)
Head to Dibrugarh in Upper Assam to live the lazy life of a tea planter in a chang bungalow (traditional house on stilts). Rooms named after the tributaries of the Brahmaputra River look out to manicured lawns as fresh brewed tea is always available. Specially designed horse-riding tours take you around century old tea estates or cross-country along the banks of the Brahmaputra. Picnic on grassy banks, boat cruises and kayaking or extend your itinerary to visit the ancient Ahom capital of Sibsagar and the wildlife preserves of Kaziranga and Dibru Saikhowa. Purvi Discovery runs another lodge closer to town called Chowkidinghee Chang Bungalow and the new boutique property Wathai Heritage Bungalow at Limbuguri Tea Estate in Tinsukia, a good base to explore Dibru Saikhowa National Park.

Purvi Discovery
Ph 0373 2301120, 2300035 Email purvidiscovery@gmail.com www.assamteatourism.com
Tariff Rs.3,500-9,000, incl. breakfast

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Maroon yourself on Neil Island (Andamans)
The boat jetty at Bharatpur on Neil Island juts out into the vast Andaman sea of electric blue. You can walk to it each day from your beach hut just to watch the daily boat from Havelock sail away. In this nook, it is easy to stay in self-imposed exile for as long as one wants, snorkeling around the reefs and eating fresh seafood. Spread over 18.9 sq km and only 5km at its widest point, Neil is a tiny speck in the Andaman & Nicobar Islands nearly 1400 km from the Indian mainland and 40 km east of Port Blair. Its five villages harbour 3000 fishing and agricultural families, which gives the island its popular name – ‘Vegetable Bowl of the Andamans’. Neil is so small one can cover the whole island on foot in a day. The beaches (originally numbered for convenience) took on their present names after Hindu migrants were resettled here by the Indian Government after the 1971 Bangladesh War. Watch the sunrise at Sitapur or see it go down at Laxmanpur and marvel at the natural stone bridge and corals in shallow pools during low tide. Laze at Ramnagar or swim in Govindnagar, but whatever you do, don’t glug Neil down like a vodka shot; savour it like single malt…

Andaman & Nicobar Tourism
Ph 03192-232694, 244091 www.andamans.gov.in

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Stay in an erstwhile hunting lodge at Kila Dalijoda (Odisha)
Once an exclusive hunting lodge of Raja Jyoti Prasad Singh Deo, king of Panchakote Raj, Kila Dalijoda is a beautiful two storied stone house 22 km north of Cuttack in Odisha. The heritage homestay is named after its proximity to Dalijoda Forest Range, part of the newly declared Kapilas Elephant Sanctuary. The European style mansion, with arched windows and tinted glass was built in 1931-33, and at that time boasted tech advancements like self generating electricity, electrified fencing and water harvesting. Present hosts Debjit Prasad Singh Deo and his wife Namrata have kept its wild soul intact carrying out only minor renovation. With just three suites, it is the perfect hideaway where guests get a dose of rural lifestyle with visits to weekly village markets, tribal settlements and nature walks. Savour delicious home-cooked Odiya meals, with quail eggs available all year round (and duck eggs in winter), preferred over the plebeian chicken eggs due to traditional reasons.

Kila Dalijoda
Ph +91 9438667086 Email debjitsinghdeo@yahoo.co.in www.kiladalijoda.com
Tariff Rs.3,000-4,000

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This is the unedited version of the article that appeared on 18 December, 2015 in Conde Nast Traveller online. Read the story on CNT at http://www.cntraveller.in/story/off-the-grid-getaways-for-your-next-long-weekend/

Andamans: Walking down the Isle

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With secluded beaches, stunning sunsets and dazzling marine life, the Andaman Islands are a great place for couples, discover ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY

Scuba diving Andamans_Discover India

A pair of Powder Blue Tang circled each other giddily before disappearing into a rocky crevice. Green Staghorn corals bore a velvety sheen as if marine antelopes were rutting on the seabed. The underwater realm of gently swaying ferns, sea fans, iridescent fish and strange marine forms was painted in colours we had never seen before – so dazzling, they were permanently seared in our brains. In a matter of hours we had gone from dropping a week’s supply of fish food in our aquarium in Bangalore at dawn to snorkeling in the Andaman Sea by late afternoon. As we discovered a new world, hand in hand, it was a lot like being in a giant aquarium ourselves…

After flying over the seemingly endless Indian Ocean, the first sight of lush green islands from the air brought us to the edge of our seats. The moment we got off at Veer Savarkar Airport in Port Blair, we inhaled the tropical air and a tempestuous sea breeze tousled our hair with wild abandon in rousing welcome. Andamans was going to be great, we felt and trooped off with the enthusiasm of explorers on the verge of a discovery. A short drive to the hotel and a quick change later, we were on a boat to North Bay, the closest dive site around town. Local boat operators offer a 3-island boat tour including Ross and Viper Islands. At North Bay, tourists are transferred onto smaller glass bottom boats through which they peer at the shaky distorted seabed and squeal in delight. But we were happier snorkeling. North Bay, with its seven coral sites, was merely an appetizer for the main course that lay ahead…

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The best prospects were at the diving hub of Havelock, but we had a few days to explore the mainland. After our introductory session at North Bay, we were off to Ross, the smallest of the 572 islands in the Andaman & Nicobar group. It was hard to imagine that this little blip of a 0.8 sq km island with crumbling edifices choked by roots and vines was once a buzzing hub of colonial high life. The ruins of a bakery, church, bungalows and boiler rooms once echoed with laughter and animated chatter. At its peak, Ross was dubbed as ‘Paris of the East’ because of its grand soirees.

Ironically, just a mile away, Indian freedom fighters languished in one of the most notorious prisons in Indian history. In a searing dichotomy, the Andamans had experienced so much pain and suffering – torn between British colonial rule and Japanese occupation to being battered by the tsunami in 2004 – yet it showered on every visitor so much joy and peace, like a soothing balm over frayed nerves. We walked to the far side of Ross to the forlorn Ferrar Beach lined with rocks and overhanging trees.

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Partially under the army’s command, the island was dotted with World War II bunkers. Chugging to a dramatic shot of the setting sun, the boat docked at Viper Island where the red gallows at the summit was the site of several grisly hangings. The surviving wooden beam served as a chilling reminder. Many people had perished here, including Sher Khan who stabbed Indian Viceroy Lord Mayo in 1872. It was dark by the time we got back to base.

There’s a lot to do around town and a couple can spend more than a couple of days exploring Port Blair and its getaways. With its lazy undulations and tropical air, it is often described as India’s only warm hill station. We checked out the marine museums, relived the sadness and heroism trapped inside Cellular Jail, witnessed the poignant Sound and Light Show, gawked at North Bay’s palm fringed lighthouse captured on the reverse of a Rs.20 note, browsed for shell, coconut and driftwood souvenirs around Aberdeen Bazaar, drove south for a sunset at Chidiya Tapu and enjoyed a nature trail to Kala Patthar at Mount Harriet National Park beyond Hope Town.

Andamans North Bay view on Indian 20 Rupee note_Anurag Mallick

A great escape from the bustle of the capital, the quiet hilltop hideaway had a lovely old Forest Rest House with watchtowers and gun mounts scattered on the hillside. We were honoured to meet the Andaman Blue Nawab, a haughty butterfly that fed on only one species of plant and chose to starve to death if it wasn’t available! Thankfully, we weren’t as fussy and happily chomped on the wide choice of fish and seafood, sipping cold beer at Marina Park and the town’s only beach, Corbyn’s Cove.

Keep half a day aside for Wandoor Marine National Park, an hour’s drive west of town. The 280 sq km park spread over a cluster of 15 islands is the best dive site near Port Blair. Take a boat to Jolly Buoy, Red Skin or Mahuadera to explore its rich marine life that includes four turtle species – Green Sea turtle, Leatherback turtle, Olive Ridley turtle and the critically endangered Hawksbill turtle. We saw everything from large leatherbacks and giant clams to little Anthias and Fusiliers darting around.

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From Port Blair the Great Andaman Trunk Road darts north to Baratang with its limestone caves and mud volcanoes blubbing like a thick curry on slow boil. For something more mesmeric, a 45 min boat ride from Havelock to Barren Island, gives the adventurous a chance to see India’s only active volcano as it spews ash and dust. The northbound road from Baratang, broken up by ferry crossings and straits, continues further to Mayabunder and Diglipur. But our tryst with the mainland was over as we were taking the swanky Makruzz to Havelock Island.

We stood on the deck, hypnotized by the wake left by the twin hulled luxury catamaran before returning to our plush seats to enjoy the cruise at 24 nautical miles an hour. The jetty was abuzz with fishing boats unloading bananas and fish while little crafts ferried adventure buffs to remote dive sites in Ritchie’s Archipelago. We caught a cab to the Government-run Dolphin Resort that had a superb location and view, before upgrading ourselves to the luxurious yet eco-friendly Barefoot Resort at Radhanagar (Beach No.7).

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Tucked away on the island’s western side, the beach ranked among the best in Asia and we could see why. The wide shallow crescent was ringed with tall Andaman Bullet Wood trees on the seashore as a handful of tourists enjoyed sunbathing, leisurely walks or watched the sun go down. All the nightlife was on the eastern side at Govindnagar (Beach No.3) where most of the beachside restaurants, cafes, resorts and dive shops were located. Understandably, Havelock was fast becoming a honeymooner’s paradise.

The next morning we took a boat past the Lighthouse to Hathi Tapu or Elephant Beach where trees uprooted during the devastating cyclone provided a striking backdrop. Boats bobbed by the edge as tourists in inflatable tubes waddled around the corals, led by their snorkeling instructors. Like the tiny polyps that secreted these vast colonies of coral, the feathery white sand too had a fascinating origin.

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The multi-coloured Bumphead Parrotfish break off chunks of coral and rocky substrates by ramming its head against it, resulting in a flat bump on the forehead. It grinds the coral rock, feeds on it and excretes fine sand which over thousands of years has shaped some of the most sublime sandy beaches in the world. One Parrotfish can produce up to 90 kg of sand each year. The Blue Streaked Cleaner Wrasse or ‘Doctor Wrasse’ nibble off wound tissue and parasites from larger fish, giving them a manicure, pedicure and facial in the bargain. We were suitably inspired to follow suit and pampered ourselves with relaxing detox and rejuvenation programs in the evening.

On a whim, we took off to Neil Island nearby, an hour’s ride by boat. For those who might find high profile Havelock too touristy, unobtrusive Neil is the perfect answer. We disembarked at the stunningly blue jetty, checked into a beach shack and sampled the day’s catch at a garden café. Neil Island gave us a glimpse of how the Andamans would have been before being discovered by tourism. We explored the caves at Sitapur (Beach No.5) to the south and took a guided Coral Walk during low tide at Laxmanpur (Beach No.2). By the edge of the sea mirrored in pools of saline water was a natural rock bridge – ironically, it was ‘Howrah Bridge’ to the island’s Bengali settlers rehabilitated after the Bangladesh War. We drifted in warm currents and swam with the prospect of seeing dugongs amid grassy shallows and secretly wished that the lone boat that would take us back to Port Blair would forget to arrive…

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NAVIGATOR

How to Reach
By Air: Located in the Bay of Bengal about 1000 km from India’s east coast, the Andamans is connected by regular flights from Chennai and Kolkata (2 hrs) to Port Blair, the capital.

By Sea: Shipping Corporation of India operates Passenger ships between Port Blair and Vizag (56 hrs), Chennai (60 hrs) and Kolkata (66 hrs).

Getting Around: There are regular ferries from Port Blair to Havelock (4 hrs), besides Neil and Rangat. Makruzz covers the 45 km distance in 90 min. Local cabs are available in all tourism zones.

What to do Together Checklist
Snorkeling or deep sea diving at Wandoor or Ritchie’s Archipelago
Candle-lit gourmet dinner by the surf at Havelock
Long romantic beach walk at Radhanagar or Neil Island
Shopping for souvenirs at Aberdeen Bazaar in Port Blair
Bird & butterfly nature trail to Kala Patthar
Enjoy a sunset at Chidiya Tapu or Mount Harriet
Rejuvenative massage and spa treatment for couples

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What to Eat 

Port Blair has several eating out options like Corbyn’s Delight and Mandalay, though New Lighthouse Restaurant close to the water park and museum is a good no-frills eatery. Singhotel’s Pink Fly Lounge Bar is a trendy nightspot. Havelock is dotted with resorts that run charming cafes and restaurants like Island Vinnie’s Full Moon, The Wild Orchid’s Red Snapper or Emerald Gecko’s Blackbeard’s Bistro besides little shacks like Anju Coco that serve anything from pizzas and pancakes to great seafood. Barefoot Bar & Brasserie overlooking the jetty is a good vantage point while Barefoot’s Dakshin restaurant close by serves great South Indian.

Where to Stay

Peerless Sarovar Portico
Port Blair’s only beach resort overlooking Corbyn’s Cove
Ph 03192-229311 http://www.sarovarhotels.com

Fortune Resort Bay Island
One of the most luxurious hotels in Port Blair, atop Marine Hill
Ph 03192 234101 http://www.fortunehotels.in

Barefoot at Havelock
Havelock’s swankiest resort blending luxury and eco-friendly charm overlooking Radhanagar Beach
Ph 044 42316376, 9840238042 http://www.barefoot-andaman.com

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Contact
For tourism info
Andaman & Nicobar Tourism
Directorate of Information, Publicity & Tourism, Port Blair
Ph 03192-238473, 232694 E-mail ipt@and.nic.in http://www.tourism.andaman.nic.in

For Mt Harriet & Wandoor National Parks
Chief Wildlife Warden P.O. Haddo, Port Blair 744 102
Ph 03192-233321 Email cwlw@andaman.tc.nic.in

For Diving
Barefoot Scuba
Ph 044 24341001, 9566088560
Email: dive@barefootindia.com http://www.diveandamans.com

Dive India
Ph 03192 214247, 8001122205
Email: info@diveindia.com http://www.diveindia.com

Andaman Bubbles
Ph 03192 282140, 9531892216
Email: andamanbubbles@gmail.com http://www.andamanbubbles.com

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the April 2015 issue of Discover India magazine.

Surf’s Up: 10 Unusual Beaches of India

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With a 7000km coastline dotted with amazing beaches, explorers, traders, evangelists and refugees have docked on India’s shores shaping its culture, cuisine and faiths. ANURAG MALLICK & PRIYA GANAPATHY pick out 10 unique beaches this holiday season.  

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Laxmanpur | Neil Island, Andamans
The Andamans is a paradise of turquoise waters fringed by white sand, 4000 varieties of corals and a shimmering underworld of marine life. While Radhanagar at Havelock Island has often been voted as Asia’s best beach, Laxmanpur 2 on Neil Island boasts a natural rock bridge and a unique coral walk at low tide. 

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Muzhappilangad | Malabar Coast, Kerala
Muzhappilangad is India’s longest drive-in beach, with a 5km stretch of compact sand near Kannur offering a chance to whiz along the surf in your vehicle with views of Dharmadom Island and fishing boats bobbing on the surf. 

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St Mary’s Island | Karavali Coast, Dakshin Kannada
A two-hour boat ride from Malpe harbour, 6km into the Arabian Sea, is a volcanic palm-fringed island with feral goats, pristine water, a crunchy beach of seashells and hexagonal basalt rock columns that make St Mary’s Island a National Geological Monument.

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Om Beach | Gokarna, Uttara Kannada
Karwar’s scenic coast inspired Rabindranath Tagore to write his first poem, but the world can’t stop singing praises of Gokarna’s pristine Om Beach shaped like a gigantic Om and a coastal trek leading to smaller beaches like Half Moon and Paradise.

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Arambol Beach | Goa
Originally named Harmal after a local ruler Veer Harhar Mahal, Arambol (as the Portuguese called it) has a freshwater lake on the beach lined with sulphurous mud and mud-smeared hippies basking in the sun. 

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Kunkeshwar | Konkan Coast, Maharashtra
A region known for its divine Alphonso mangoes and Malvani cuisine, Kunkeshwar in Konkan’s Sindhudurg district has a 400-year-old Shiva temple that was built by shipwrecked sailors from Arabia as a gesture of thanksgiving!

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Nagoa Beach | Diu
A Portuguese colony from 1535 to 1961, Diu is strewn with churches, forts and the most visible imprint – the hoka tree (Hyphoena indica). Lining the crescent shaped Nagoa Beach, Diu’s most popular seaside hangout, the branching palm was brought from Africa by the Portuguese and is not found anywhere else in the country. 

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Land’s End | Dhanushkodi, Tamil Nadu
Once connected by rail to Rameshwaram and ravaged by a devastating cyclone in 1964, Dhanushkodi was a bustling fishing hamlet that is today a ghost town. Ruined railway tracks, weatherworn boats, marshes dotted with birds, relics of rama setu (Lord Rama’s bridge to Lanka) and an exciting access by four wheel drive vans.

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Tranquebar | Coromandel Coast, Tamil Nadu
A gust of sea breeze can be invigorating on any beach, but Tranquebar is special because it is India’s only ozone-rich beach and the only Danish trading outpost in India. 

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Puri Beach | Orissa
Orissa’s coastline is blessed with great diversity – from the mangroves of Bhitarkanika, nesting of Olive Ridley turtles at Gahirmatha or water receding upto 5 km every day at low tide at Chandipur on Sea. However, at Puri watch the unique spectacle of sunrise and sunset on the same beach. 

Read the full article on Conde Nast: 
http://www.cntraveller.in/content/10-indian-beaches-stories-surprises

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared on 24 September 2013 in Conde Nast Traveller online.

Getting Away from It All: India’s Top 10 Great Escapes

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ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY showcase India’s ‘coolest’ destinations, from Himalayan retreats, beach holidays to legendary hill stations

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There are many things for which we blame the British – cricket, bureaucracy, railways, tea and anglicized spellings – but the quaint ‘hill-station’ has to be their most charming contribution. From Snooty Ooty in the Neilgherries where the rules of snooker were laid down, to Simla in the Himalayas, where imperial plans were drawn every summer, most hill retreats were ‘discovered’ by British collectors to escape the scorching heat of the plains. Complete with lakes, botanical gardens, pony trails, golf courses, racetracks, bakeries, the ubiquitous Mall Road and scenic viewpoints and waterfalls named after Company officials and British memsahibs, these Little Englands were hailed as ‘Scotland of the East’, ‘Switzerland of India’, ‘Queen of Hill-Stations’ and other grand epithets.

Some of these hill retreats were developed into sanatoriums and cantonments of the British Empire, where homesick soldiers found rest and respite. The term Doolaly, Brit slang for ‘gone crazy’, originated in the hill town of Deolali in Maharashtra where recuperating soldiers often feigned madness to avoid being redrafted! Netarhat in Jharkhand, considered the Queen of Chhotanagpur, is supposedly a corruption of ‘Near the Heart’! The cool climes drew European planters to set up vast estates of coffee, tea, fruits and spices while missionaries established educational institutions. With time, these outposts became summer retreats for a vast Indian populace.

However, not all hill stations were British finds. Kodaikanal is credited to the Americans while Indian rulers developed their own summer capitals – Almora and Binsar by the Chand Rajas of Kumaon, Kemmangundi by Krishnaraja Wadiyar IV, while Chail was created by Bhupinder Singh, the swashbuckling Maharaja of Patiala to peeve the British after he was banished from Simla for eloping with a British lady! From Horsley Hills in Andhra Pradesh to Pachmarhi in Madhya Pradesh or Saputara in Gujarat to Mount Abu in Rajasthan, the state’s only hill station, India’s cool hideaways stretch from the Western Ghats to the Himalayas. Here are 10 great picks…

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1. Nilgiris (Tamil Nadu)
Lured by the irresistible charm of the swirling mist and eucalyptus-scented air wafting above the sweeping acres of manicured tea plantations, for decades tourists have wound their way up the hairpin bends towards the Blue Mountains. Sprawling bungalows with sloping roofs, monkeytops and vibrant gardens hark back to the colonial legacy of the region while the looming hills cloaked by dense forests are still home to herds of elephant and gaur. If Ooty seems too commercial and Kotagiri somewhat warm, Coonoor is indeed the perfect balance! One of the newest retreats is Tea Nest, run by The Kurumba Village Resort. Surrounded by 1,800 acres of the Singara Tea Estate, the charming colonial bungalow is perched in the shadow of Tiger Hill with its lofty manager’s bungalow and Pakkasuran Hill where Tipu Sultan had an outpost. Relish tea-themed cuisine like tea-mushroom soup and smoked chicken or fish infused in tea, wake up to grazing herds of gaur among the tea bushes or birdwatch from the comfort of your lofty lair. Drop by at Needlecraft in the century old Erin Villa to browse through exclusive petit point embroidery, cutwork and tapestry. Try tea-tasting at the Tranquilitea lounge and buy organic hill produce, Toda shawls and Kota stone pottery at the Green Shop. For complete pampering, surrender yourself to Kurumba’s brand new Jacuzzi suites.

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2. Wayanad (Kerala)
With a sweltering coastline, Kerala’s highlands are the ideal refuge – plantation bungalows in Nilambur and Nelliyampathy to Neelambari, the luxurious Ayurvedic hideaway in a pristine corner of Ranipuram. Yet, Wayanad with its rolling hills and profusion of homestays and resorts is a clear winner. Enjoy solitude in a 500-acre plantation left to grow wild at Fringe Ford near Mananthavady. Stay in luxurious tree houses at Vythiri Resort and Tranquil Plantation Getaway, where you wake up to the carefree whistles of the Malabar Whistling Thrush or choose from 14 nature trails within the property. Rekindle romance in a cave restaurant lit in the warm glow of a hundred candles at Edakkal Hermitage and marvel at Stone Age cave drawings nearby. The newest entrant My Garden of Eden, is a premium plantation retreat set in the hilly tracts of Valathoor near Meppady. Don’t forget to drop by at Uravu near the district headquarters of Kalpetta for an astonishing range of bamboo instruments like binsi (a hollow reed that whistles when swung), rainmaker (cascading seeds that emit sounds of the rain) and other innovative products.

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3. Coorg (Karnataka)
Blessed with nature’s bounty of hills, waterfalls and brooks, Coorg or Kodagu is a paradise that boasts dense forests teeming with wildlife, lush coffee and pepper plantations grown in the shade of rainforest trees, unmatched culture, unique cuisine and the genuine warmth of Kodava hospitality. From rustic and organic homestays overlooking estates and paddy fields to palatial plantation bungalows of the colonial era, Karnataka’s smallest and most mountainous region is also the fountainhead of the Cauvery, South India’s greatest river. Stay at Neemrana’s Green Hills Estate in Virajpet, a town formed after King Virarajendra met Lord Abercrombie to form a historic pact against Tipu, their common enemy. Straddle the Kerala border at Kabbe Holidays and walk along historic trade routes or base yourself at Palace Estate near Kakkabe and trek to Thadiyendamol, the highest peak in Coorg. Discover organic farming at the Rainforest Retreat or stay at exclusive heritage homestays like School Estate in Siddapur, Gowri Nivas in Madikeri and Java Mane near Madapur. For a cool splash in streams, choose from a new clutch of homestays like Silver Brook Estate or Bird of Paradise around Kushalnagar or resorts like Amanvana, Tamara and Kadkani River Resort. Or immerse yourself in colonial comfort at Tata Coffee’s Plantation Trail bungalows around Pollibetta.

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4. Spiti (Himachal)
If Shimla, Manali, Dharamsala and Dalhousie sound too familiar and you’ve been to Ladakh already, head to the Himalayan realm of Spiti for a change. Abutting the Tibetan highlands in eastern Himachal Pradesh, the region is dotted by some of the loftiest homestays in the Himalayas. Perched above the left bank of the Spiti river are the high altitude villages of Langza, Komic (the highest in Asia), Demul, Lhalung and Dhankar, the site of a crumbling monastery that was the first to be built in Spiti and as per legend will be the last to fall. Plan a tour with Spiti Ecosphere to uncover a mystical world of gompas (Buddhist monasteries), amchis (traditional medicine men), Bon traditions (animist religion preceding Buddhism) and unique experiences like the Tibetan Wolf Trail, protecting fossil sanctuaries, Yak Safaris and River Rafting. For a more inclusive experience, participate in rural development projects in this remote and rugged region as you watch locals involved in eco livelihoods like hand-woven handicrafts and organic products available under the brand name Tsering (blessing in Tibetan).

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5. Lake District (Uttarakhand)
Unobstructed views of the Himalayas often stretching across 300 km, stunning high altitude lakes and mythical tales of the divine infuse Uttarakhand with untold magic. The period when the mountains are awash with the fiery glow of rhododendrons leaves every visitor spellbound. Explore the Lake District of Nainital, a reflection of the emerald green eyes of Sati, the majestic Bhimtal and Sat-Tal and the nine-cornered Naukuchiyatal that bestows everlasting bliss on the beholder. Follow the high mountain road to Ranikhet and Majkhali or hike from Nainital to Corbett through forests of broad-leafed sal, oak and deodar, while staying at jungle lodges or century old Forest Rest Houses. Beyond the hill town of Almora, lies the quaint hamlet of Kasar Devi, where spiritual masters, artists and beat poets sought inspiration while Binsar doubles up as a wildlife sanctuary and a hill station. Scenic homestays like Valley View Villa near Ranikhet, The Cottage at Jeolikot, Emily Lodge at Nainital, Emerald Trail at Bhimtal and a chain of resorts by Leisure Hotels across Kumaon and Garhwal offer an assorted bouquet of options. The signature jams, pickles, preserves and flavoured honey available under the Kumaoni label and warm woolens can be picked up at Umang, a local co-operative.

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6. Meghalaya (North East)
A delicious nip in the air along undulating roads and strains of retro music emanating from cafés and mobile phones announces Shillong, touted as the Rock Capital of the East. Picture postcard images unfold in scenic churches, old schools and hill slopes swathed in green. Relive colonial grandeur in sprawling bungalows like Rosaville and the regal Tripura Castle or soak in the luxury of Ri Kynjai resort overlooking the shimmering Lake Umiam at Barapani. Watch locals wager on the age-old game of teer (archery) in the market area, marvel at the dazzling collection of beetles and butterflies at a private museum and savour delicious Khasi cuisine in homes and tiny hotels like Trattoria. Unfold the secrets of ancient root bridges, sacred stones and lonely waterfalls in Mawlynnong, the cleanest village in Asia and at the rain-drenched paradise of Cherrapunjee, track the Dark Rumped Swift swooping along the misty cliffs of Nohkalikai Falls. In this Abode of Clouds, there are other surprises – the surreal limestone contortions of Mawsmai Caves, the sacred groves of Mawflong, fish spas in natural pools and even a Double-Decker Root Bridge!

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7. Konkan Coast (Maharashtra)
The Konkan coast of Maharashtra can rejuvenate your senses in a delicate fusion of nature, peace, solitude and simple pastoral life. From the irrepressible joy of eating luscious Ratnagiri mangoes to golden sunsets along the sea-kissed beaches of Kashid and the historic sea fort of Murud-Janjira to the north and Ganpatipule, Devgad, Sindhudurg, Tarkarli and Sangameshwar stretching to the south. Just off the coast, choose from a host of homestays like Atithi Parinay, Nandan Farms and Dwarka Farmhouse that offer special experiences of farm life. Relish flavours that range from the subtle sattvik fare of Saraswat Brahmins to the spicy indulgence of seafood and Malvani cuisine. Pick up hand-painted pieces of Ganjifa Art at the Sawantwadi Palace or lacquerware toys from Chitaar Ali (Artisans Lane) before driving up to Amboli Ghat. If this is not enough, head north to the high hills of Lonavla, Matheran, Mahabaleshwar and Panchgani for breathtaking views and local specialties like chikkis, sweet corn, homemade chocolates and fudge.

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8. Canacona/Palolem (South Goa)
Far from the psychedelic beach scene of North Goa, serpentine roads lead south to the quieter shores of Canacona and Palolem. Just beyond the main bus stand lies a 12,000 sq ft oasis called Turiya where you can experience a legit mode of mind expansion! Inspired by the fourth state of consciousness, the newly opened 100-year-old yellow Portuguese villa draped by bougainvillea creepers houses a spa offering authentic Ayurvedic and western therapies. Renovated by a well-known architect, the impeccably furnished Turiya exudes a sensual lazy charm with delicious home-cooked food and a cozy verandah overlooking a garden twittering with birds. Personalized visits to the local market for fresh fish and nearby farms to hand pick your choice of vegetables make the holiday unique. If you can drag yourself out of the armchair, there’s Palolem beach just 2km away with bistros and boutiques or the serene Agonda Beach 10 km north, boat trips to Butterfly Island and the promise of dolphin sightings, day trips to Cotigao Wildlife Sanctuary and Karwar (Karnataka), besides some of the most scenic trekking trails in South Goa.

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9. Darjeeling/Sikkim (North East)
Surrounded by tea plantations and cradled in the lap of the mighty Kangchenjunga mountain, Darjeeling’s allure has always inspired poets, writers and filmmakers besides scores of tourists to roost upon its cool slopes. Visit local factories to taste the eponymous Darjeeling tea or take a ride in the UNESCO World Heritage train, the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway (DHR) up the Batasia Loops to Ghoom. Apart from a slew of resorts and plantation bungalows, you can check in at the unique Beatles theme lodge, The Revolver, with rooms named after John, Paul, Ringo and George! A more plush option is Mayfair Darjeeling, the erstwhile palace of the Maharaja of Nazargunj. Their newest offering, the ritzy Mayfair Spa Resort in Gangtok fuses a monastic theme with colonial architecture and has raised the bar for luxury in the North East. While in Sikkim, the land of prayer flags and chortens, visit Buddhist monasteries at Pemayangstse, Rumtek and Tashiding and experience the warm hospitality of heritage homestays like Yangsum Farm at Rinchepong, Mayal Lyang at Dzongu and Bon Farmhouse, a birding haven at Kewzing.

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10. Andamans
It is hard to imagine that a notorious penal settlement of yesteryears is today a tropical isle of pleasure. While the remoteness of the Andaman Islands has worked in its favour, its sparse population and laid back charm accentuates the privacy one seeks on a holiday. Located 1000km east of the Indian coastline and fringed by coral reefs and a palette of crystal clear blue waters, the islands are among the finest beach getaways and diving destinations in the world. Take a trip into history in the triad of Port Blair, described as India’s only ‘warm hill station’, Viper Island and the ruins of Ross Island once praised as the Paris of the East. Sunsets at Chidiya Tapu and Mount Hariett, snorkeling above iridescent coral reefs at North Bay and Wandoor, deep sea diving and sport fishing around Ritchie’s Archipelago are not to be missed. Havelock, the main tourist hub bristles with resorts and diving experts like Barefoot Scuba, Dive India, Laccadives etc. Visit during April-May as the waters become murky once the monsoons set in. Grab a tan at Radhanagar Beach, ranked by Time magazine as the best beach in Asia. Scenic Neil Island nearby has a subdued ambience and rustic stay options, making it an offbeat outpost. Besides regular boat access between the main islands, the swanky Makruzz cruise zips across 50km from Port Blair to Havelock in just 1½ hours!

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared on 8 April, 2012 in Deccan Herald (Sunday edition). 

Neil Island: The Art of Leisure

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Tucked away from civilization and lost to time, Neil in the Andamans is a hidden island with quiet beaches, coral reefs and natural rock bridges. ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY reveal its secrets, grudgingly.

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Ever had the feeling on visiting a place so pristine, you are almost afraid to share it with the world? Neil Island, about 1400km from the Indian mainland and 40km east of Port Blair, is one such place. Uncluttered by ATMs, internet connectivity and mobile signals, here coconut water does not come in tetrapaks and even the morning newspaper is a luxury. Located at the southern tip of Ritchie’s Archipelago in the Andamans, the island remains virtually marooned, except for two daily boats that disgorge the few travelers who make it thus far. Neil almost lies beyond the time-space continuum and reaching it is like approaching an Event Horizon, a point of no return.

After the mandatory tour of Cellular Jail, Chidiya Tapu and a 3-island boat ride around the capital Port Blair, most travellers head to Havelock Island for a luxurious holiday and the rush of ocean adventure sports. But like characters from a classic Victorian saga, Neil is the lesser known but more intriguing stepbrother of Havelock, the flamboyant aristocrat who hosts extravagant parties on its fabulous tropical estate. Havelock and Neil are spoken of like salt and pepper, but they are just as different in flavour. While Havelock is a bustling tourist hub, Neil is a sleepy corner of the earth where even time decides to dawdle and often slows down to a stop.  We realized it the instant we alighted from our Incredible India ferry at Bharatpur Jetty after the 1hr chug on the Andaman Sea from Havelock. 

The sun scattered silver dust on the sea, which spread like an unending ream of blue silk, seamlessly blending into deeper hues. If one accidentally dozed off on the beach, it wouldn’t be surprising to wake up with the strange feeling of having been washed ashore on some Lost Continent. Or imagining one was still dream travelling, for the scene is picture perfect – a beach with crystal clear waters fringed by trees and baby soft sands with an unbroken symphony of waves playing in the background. A lone cab driver offered to drop us at the Hawabill Nest Government Lodge, at one time the only accommodation on the island. A third generation Bengali immigrant, Babul spoke Hindi with a bewildering tropical Bengali accent and offered us a crash course in history. The entire chain of islands were once so deserted that after the 1971 Bangladesh War, the Indian Government decided to populate the area with displaced refugees, which explains why the lilt of their language was adrift so far out at sea!

Barring a few that have retained their aboriginal names, many islands in the Andamans were named after British heroes of the 1857 Sepoy Mutiny while the modern colonies created by the Government for the refugees were numbered for convenience. Over time, the settlements, beaches and landmarks acquired names inspired from mythology, thanks to the resettled Hindu migrant population. While Havelock’s beaches Govindnagar (Beach No.3) and Radhanagar (Beach No.7) bear a Krishna theme, Neil Island owes allegiance to the Ramayana. Choosing main characters of the epic, Neil is divided into different village zones – Bharatpur (Beach No.4) and Laxmanpur (Beach No.1) to the north of the central bazaar area of Neil Kendra and the rocky Laxmanpur (Beach No.2), Ramnagar (Beach No.3) and Sitapur (Beach No.5) to the south. It was ironic to find Hanuman absent, considering the monkey god allegedly used these islands as stepping-stones to Lanka. The word Andaman is believed to be a derivative of Handuman. More than the legend, it was Hanuman’s wayward flight, off-course from Lanka and perilously close to Phuket that seemed more perplexing.

It was dusk by the time we said goodbye to Babul, who offered to pick us up the next morning for a tour of the island. After a home-style dinner of fish curry, prawn fry, hot tawa chapatis and rice at Hawabill, we set out for a late night stroll. Fairy lights wrapped around a tree lured us to Gyan Garden Restaurant where a group of travelers were playing cards awaiting their food, which arrived like an enviable Asterix style Gaulish feast! Like some bizarre marine Show and Tell, the platter brimmed with large lobsters, grilled fish, prawns, crispy calamari and all the creatures of the sea, with garlic bread, garden fresh salad and potato chips. They asked us to join in but we graciously declined, inwardly cursing ourselves for having eaten earlier. However, we settled for fresh juice and exchanged stories.

One gentleman had escorted two elderly ladies from Europe and the trio headed to Neil because “It was perfect. Er… will you write about it?” they half entreated. “These are by far the most beautiful beaches,” Anne said, petting a stray dog. “We have stayed in fancier places in Port Blair and Havelock, but we prefer the simplicity of this place,” added another. Chris, an avid diver gushed, “This a great place for snorkelers and divers. We have spotted dugongs and the coral reefs are fantastic. It is more beautiful than anywhere else. You can spend hours drifting with the currents or practically swim across to Havelock!” Fabien, a deep sea diver and photographer added, “Once you get a taste of it, you cannot have enough. So one does it day over and over again…We jump in, throw down a line and lower ourselves in the clear waters. The deeper you go… more surprises unfold in this underwater garden.” A duo we met earlier on the boat revealed they were into sportfishing, “The sea off Ritchie’s Archipelago holds some of the best catches of giant trevally, barracuda and marlin!” It was really late by the time we crawled back to Hawabill Nest for our tryst with sunrise.

We set out early for the farthest beach at Sitapur past green paddy fields and fruit orchards. The abundant local produce earned Neil Island the sobriquet ‘Vegetable Bowl of the Andamans’. Spread over 18.9sq km and only 5km at its widest point, it was home to just 3000 fishing and agricultural families dispersed around its five villages. In fact, Neil was so small one could easily cover the whole island on foot in a few hours. However, its many attractions lured one to bear roots forever.

Sitapur was unlike anything we imagined. In the blue dawn, we were the only ones on the curving beach lined by a forest of tall trees. At the far end were the eerie yawning mouths of gigantic limestone caves. Having borne the brunt of the 2004 tsunami, these fabulous geological creations had been sliced by nearly half and suffered far greater damage than other areas on the island. A few rocks jutted into the sea and served as the perfect perch and we scrambled up their slate grey smoothness to witness the sun breaking out of the ocean. It was mystical watching the sky change colour as the waves crashed on the slippery rocks swathed by layers of neon green lichen and moss. Since this beach was fully exposed to the open sea, it was prone to higher tides. We hung around the caves and beach mottled with exotic shells, tree stumps and rocks.

Ramnagar seemed a little more populated and we drove along the scenic village road past stray garden restaurants that looked strangely lost in their pastoral surroundings. Often, their quaint misspelt menu boards exaggerated their quirkiness but we couldn’t linger. We were in a hurry to reach our next stop Laxmanpur 2 for another sunrise phenomenon. A short walk down a wooded area led us to a sudden change in view. We crunched along the beach and saw a stunning natural rock bridge formation round the corner. In true Bengali spirit, locals had named the geological sculpture Howrah Bridge! But bigger surprises lay ahead.

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Early in the morning, during low tide, a section of the fringing coral reef does a virtual striptease to expose some of its underwater secrets. Instead of donning snorkeling masks and wading into the sea, we stepped carefully over slippery rocks on our guided walk to observe marine life at leisure. Vividly coloured fish darted about in salty rock pools, leathery sea cucumbers lay motionless and clams wedged in the rocks quivered their clown-lips, bizarrely tinted blue and purple. Brittle stars splayed their tentacles from nooks and crannies and retreated when they perceived danger as eels stealthily watched us from their rock cradles. There were molluscs, barnacles, sea urchins and rock-boring worms but the corals were most fascinating – green staghorn corals, boulder corals, stubby finger corals, magical colour changing corals and strawberry pink corals that looked good enough to eat! When the waters slowly rose, our guide suggested we beat a retreat.

We hopped in at Hotel Pearl Park and Tango Beach Resort en route to Laxmanpur 1 or Sunset Point. Like AND Resort at Bharatpur and Cocon Hut Resort at Laxmanpur 2, the smattering of shacks scattered across the island are deceptively called ‘resorts’, a euphemism for budget, thatched huts. Most have attached restaurants and snorkeling masks, fins and bicycles on hire. We restrained from flopping into the hammocks conveniently strung between the trees and decided to check out the beach, a few yards away. Surrounded by mangrove creeks on one side and a turquoise sea lapping against soft white sands, it was the perfect place to get a tan, swim or snorkel. A narrow channel of water separated it from the southern tip of Havelock Island.

Bharatpur Beach, stretching a little further east was a vision of serenity. A few shady trees bordered the wide sandy stretch where the waters were a spectacular swathe of unblemished blue. We swam around for a while and snorkeled to our heart’s content, making full use of the 20m visibility. A few private boatmen plied glass-bottomed boats for coral viewing and charged Rs.150/head for a 15-minute ride. The reef was alive with multi-hued fish like Parrot fish, Surgeon fish, Dr Wrasse, Blue tang, Clownfish and Puffer Fish. ‘Nemo, Nemo!’ the boatman cried as he pointed to a clownfish ducking in and out of a luxuriant anemone. Munching between the coral niches, we spotted a Puffer fish that have the unusual ability to puff themselves to double their size to ward off predators. Since they lacked pectoral fins, their whirling rudder-like pectoral fins gave them an intriguing motion. The size of the brain corals and plate corals along this reef left us speechless. We had never seen anything that large, so close to the shore.

The ocean was really another universe beckoning us into its depths. The further we rode the more vibrant and magnified the underwater drama seemed. The waves began to get choppier and the boat sputtered. We saw our ferry make its way in the distance. It was time to head to the main jetty and return to Port Blair. Once we were locked and loaded, the ferry hummed off the coast and slowly, Neil Island grew smaller and smaller until it became a little dot and the ocean around began to spread into an immense ink blot. As a spray of panicky flying fish skittered out of the wake, we decided we will soon be back to Neil Island, in wet suits and flippers, to swim with dugongs in the sea. 

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the December, 2011 issue of Rail Bandhu, the Indian Railways’ in-train magazine.