Ranthambhore National Park, Rajasthan

Ranthambhore National Park, Rrajasthan

Captivated by the world of lions and tigers and bears (oh my!), away in style despatched travel writer Gunjan Prasad, resplendent in her oh-so-chic safari suit, to report back from India’s Ranthambhore National Park, Rajasthan. 
 

Chasing the wild – Having been in the business of travel writing for some time now, I understand that the best way to enjoy a trip is to set yourself free of any expectations you may have and simply cherish and relish whichever blessings the journey bestows upon you. It particularly helps to keep this dictate in mind when planning a holiday to a national park, with an agenda to see a tiger! All trips have a mind of their own and those involving “wild cats” are no exception; something my family and I figured out on our recent trip to Rajasthan’s Ranthambhore National Park. Bookings were made at Aman-i-Khás; an exclusive wilderness camp set in the rugged hills of Rajasthan on the outskirts of Ranthambhore National Park. The luxury tents are set in a quiet rural area that borders one of the finest tiger reserves in the world. It is set up for only seven months of the year and is packed away in the hot summer as well as the rainy season when the National Park also closes for the tourists. 
Gathering around a fire at dusk was a joy.
Gathering around a fire at dusk was a joy
 

Though driving is an option, it is not usually recommended so we took the concierge’s advice and opted for a four hour train journey to Sawai Madhopur, the township closest to the park. Journey by train in India is an event in itself. Every station comes with a local sight and smell, delicacy and dialect that it’s best to savour from the relaxed environs of a train compartment – it becomes even better when travelling first-class with an entire compartment to oneself. The holiday began for my kids as soon as we boarded August Kranti Express train; they made a fantasy world for themselves with hidden nooks that revealed reading lights, tucked away foot-rests and crisp white linen.

“Ranthambhore forest was for centuries controlled by its own chiefs. Until the British arrived, the people lived freely in the forests; revering the sun, the moon and the tiger.”

Travel time to Sawai Madhopur is three and a half hours and between nibbling on refreshments provided in the train and admiring the passing countryside, time simply flew. We were whisked away in the waiting Qualis (local SUVs) within minutes of arrival. As it was so very dark we couldn’t make out much of the town around us but our initiation into the world of tigers had certainly begun! Informed as well as any guide, our driver took us through a brief history of the town and the local sight-seeing options, besides giving us a complete run through of the flora and fauna of the forest, the count of the tigers, the last sighting and other dos and don’ts of the National Park. Ranthambhore forest was for centuries controlled by its own chiefs. Until the British arrived, the people lived freely in the forests; revering the sun, the moon and the tiger. They believed in a world of ghosts and spirits and wore a variety of charms and amulets to ward off an evil eye. Even today some vestiges of the past culture can be seen in villages around Ranthambhore: farmers can be seen offering prayers to the tiger before taking the cattle to graze and of course there’s the odd medicine man, working his magic to keep evil away. 

Ranthambhore National Park, also once the hunting ground of the King of Jaipur and his guests, was declared a wildlife sanctuary in 1955. Following the launch of Project Tiger and concerted conservation efforts to save the big cats, the tiger population is thankfully now more visible and stable.  In an admirable bid to deflect attention away from themselves and give due respect to the National Park, most hotels, and there are plenty to suit all pockets, have refrained from unnecessary ostentation; there are no grand entrances or pavilions or gardens in this region, unlike the flashier accommodations to be found in other touristy parts of Rajasthan. Aman-i-Khás, the property at which we were to lay our heads, is designed to blend unobtrusively with the native vegetation of tall grasses, scrubs and trees. The entrance is nondescript via a pathway that leads through high walls, opening onto the views of the rocky Aravali hills that undulate through Ranthambore National Park.

The tents at Aman-i-Khás were nothing like the ones we were used to huddling in! Built on a concrete plinth over 108 sq m of space, the tents come with a sleeping room, bathing tub and a dressing room separated by cotton screens. Furniture is minimal and unobtrusive, mimicking the travelling camps of an earlier time. Each tent is airconditioned and there is also a ceiling fan and a cooler chest for drinks.

Private dining in the tent felt very indulgent

The experience at Aman-i-Khás is focused on viewing wildlife, in particular, the tiger. Jonathan Blitz, the general manager of Amani-Khás is a South African and thus, a born-into-the-wild, self-styled naturalist. On his advice, we decided to hit the forest in the evening and kept the morning free to sleep in late and visit the Ranthambhore Fort. Nearly one thousand years old and several kilometres in circumference, the Ranthambhore Fort offers sweeping views of the National Park,which provide one with a feel for its vast scale. It is a 20-minute walk up to it and the area around the Ganesha temple situated on top of the Fort is dotted with old water tanks, chattris (covered pavillions), palaces and mosques. The views were astounding and the breakfast spread organized by Aman difficult to resist. It was between mouthfuls of hot steaming khichdi (a local ice and lentils preparation), that we heard the first thunder. Passing it off as a seasonal anomaly, we continued looking out for leopards and tigers from the old walls of the fort, by now contentedly sipping on our second cup of masala tea. An anomaly it was not and within minutes it started to drizzle. By the time we scrambled back in to our vehicle we were soaking wet. At the back of everyone’s mind was also a nagging worry about the safari planned for the evening. We stopped at Dastkar, a non-profit co-operative centre with an array of products for sale, made out of block printed cotton: saris, fabric, tea-cosies, shoe covers et al. The rain didn’t stop…it just kept coming as if the skies had burst. There was no question of going into the park that afternoon in an open-topped four wheel drive. Though a fabulous foot treatment at Aman’s Spa did much for the feet, it could not stop the mind from thinking about the next morning; the only other time we could go for the safari.

Journey by train
in India is an event
in itself. Every
station comes with

a local sight and
smell, delicacy and
dialect.”

From the way the downpour pounded on our tent through the night, a 6.30 a.m start for the park seemed impossible. But we were not going away without at least once getting a peek inside this world-renowned reserve. Armed with hot-water bottles, blankets, umbrellas and flasks of hot tea and egged on by Aman-i-Khás staff members, we drove into the park along with a guide and a naturalist. Gleaming from the incessant rain, the usually dry and dusty deciduo

us forest looked fresh and lush. The fauna was already mid-way into its morning routine and we spotted many animals; caracal, hyenas and sloth bears. Chital and sambar deer, antelopes and gazelles could be seen in hordes roaming the savannah whilst the marsh around the lakes and waterholes held the Indian marsh crocodile. Bird life, both resident and migratory, is prolific and over 350 species have been sighted within the park. We saw tree pies, bayblers and kingfishers. No, we didn’t see any tigers – not this time. It was ‘impossible’ in such weather conditions, they said. It would have been fulfilling to lay eyes on one; but for us it was not the last of the wonders to see in this remarkable territory – there was after all the train ride home!

 

Written by Gunjan Prasad


Delectable Delhi

Delectable Delhi

One of the joys of visiting a new country is sampling its cuisine, whether haute or undeniably low brow. Gunjan Prasad explores the streets of one of her favourite cities, Delhi.

There is a story about the Emperor of Delhi’s elephant that says he would stop in the middle of a procession and refuse to budge until he was fed sweetmeats made out of real, clarified butter from a special shop called Ghantewala in Old Delhi. There is a story about the Emperor of Delhi’s elephant that says he would stop in the middle of a procession and refuse to budge until he was fed sweetmeats made out of real, clarified butter from a special shop called Ghantewala in Old Delhi.

The story may be an apocryphal folklore, but the delicious diversity of Delhi’s food is not. Maybe it has something to do with its immigrant population that has trudged hundreds of kilometers from the rural countryside to make this big city their home; and brought with them tastes and flavors that are now a part of what one can call dilli ka khana (food of Delhi). Being the place where I was born and lived for the first quarter of my life, Delhi to me means my mother’s delicious food, devoured either sitting outside in the verandah enjoying a few hours of sunshine in the North Indian winters or in front of the khus-padded water coolers when the mercury shot up to 40-degrees. With four distinct seasons came different vegetables every couple of months; greens, carrots and cauliflowers in winters and gourds, okra and nothing much else in summers. While growing up, eating out was limited to an orange lolly at India Gate, chaat (savory crisps served with sweet, tangy and spicy sauces; usually served cold) at Bengali market or an occasional sweet corn soup at the local mobile van from Chinese-looking cooks. Parties, birthdays, anniversaries were all celebrated at home with relatives, with food being cooked by mums and aunts or else ordered in.



It remained this way even when I moved out, as the only thing I wanted to do on my annual trips back home was to tuck into as much homecooked food as I could! Thus, recently when I was asked to write a long-ish article about “Top 5 Places to Eat” in Delhi after a trip to India, it was quite a task. That I am not a part of the “bling” crowd that visits the newly opened lounge bars and super expensive Thai restaurants does not help either. Thus, I decided to ask some dyed-in-the-wool Delhites (with at least three generations of history in the capital) about places they will recommend to people seeking dilli ka khana.
 
Karim’s in Old Delhi featured top on most of the non-vegetarians’ lists (including mine). Though I don’t expect that many people, even in India, regularly dine on goat’s trotters, I am reasonably sure anyone who takes this recommendation will develop a taste for them, just as they will for the unique ambience of the Walled City; the sights, sounds and smells that take you right back to the days of the Mughal Emperor Shah Jehan. Butter chicken is to Delhi what pizza is to Rome. Every gourmand in the capital has a favorite hole in the wall that serves this dish of succulent roasted chicken pieces in thick and creamy buttery sauce. Though  Pindi near India Gate is where most tourists go, my voters’ pick was “Chick Fish” at the Malaviya Nagar market. Situated in a predominantlymiddle class colony, said to have been originally developed for Indian refugees arriving from Pakistan after the division, Chick Fish’s butter chicken is to die for. Match it with naans right out of the clay tandoor and some raw onions; you’ll be hooked for life.


A visit to Delhi without having chaat is simply unpardonable. Every neighborhood street has more than one chaat corner dishing out aloo tikki, pani puri, or papri chaat served with curd and piquant sauce. Though the upcoming Indian fast food chain Haldiram has made chaat-eating more hygienic, what with its plastic-wrapped potatoes and mineral water, to me the romance lies in queuing up with five others to wait for a turn at getting a spicy sour sauce filled crispy chaat and munching until my eyes water, due to the spices and chilies; the best place for such an experience is behind UPSC building at Shahjahan Road.  There is not much to write about Karol Bagh in the west side of the capital if you take it purely from a tourist’s point of view. The roads are narrow, winding and dusty and adding to the chaos are thousands of people, either hawking their various wares, passing through or simply just there for the food. Though primarily populated by people from Punjab, Karol Bagh’s claim to fame is kulfi (an Indian ice-cream), served at a restaurant called Roshan-di-Kulfi. A rock solid block of milky icecream hidden beneath a delicious mix of falooda (a milk-based drink flavoured with rose syrup and named after the strands of cornflour vermicelli that float in it) is a treat to die for in summertime.

If you turn left on Lodhi Road from the Nizamuddin flyover, you will find a medical looking structure that locals call the Purana Gumbad, and right next to this there are some plastic chairs and a table and a small cigarette stall – this is Patrick’s Tea Stall. The menu comprises masala chai (tea), bread omelettes, bread pakora (fritters), biscuits and bottled water. Next to the Centenary Methodist Church, it is just the place to get some spiritual guidance from hordes of Christian students who come for the Sunday service. While roadside eateries churn out the most authentic cuisine in Delhi; it also houses a plethora of up-market eateries. As the Delhi-ites are gradually building an appetite for unique-to-them cuisines such as Mexican and Thai, one country that dominates the culinary scene in Delhi is China. However, don’t go in expecting such authentic fare as Peking Duck and Pork Dumplings; Indians eat what is called “masala Chinese” – an ‘Indianised’ version of the original! However, for the discerning gourmand, one eatery that is a must-do is Side Wok, in the hip and chic neighborhood of Delhi-Khan Market. On the menu you will find dishes from Burma, Korea, Thailand, Malaysia and Laos but with the emphasis on Chinese cuisine.

The wait staff are attractively dressed in a palette of beiges and browns; this is a place to go for Tom Yum Goong, Gado Gado and, of course, Chicken Schezwan. There is much more to India than the Taj Mahal and Jaipur. Delhi, in itself, has enough history and culture to match that of many countries around the world. What is required, however, is to see it, feel it, smell it and taste it from the perspective of the people who know – its residents, the dilli-wallas.  

Madness in the Midwests

Chicago is a city that offers sights and treats galore to appease even the most disgruntled traveller. With wads of American’s notorious green paper money and blocks and blocks to conquer in only a few days, AWAY IN STYLE takes theWindy City on by storm.

Madness in the Midwest

Old Sun Times Building

Sitting in cattle class economy, staring in a zomboid trance at my swollen feet I keep on asking myself if this 24 hour flight is worth it all – through the turbulence and my sweating palms I shift around in my seat banging the intrusive arms of my economy class seat, hating my neighbour whose elbows protrude limpid
and relaxed into my personal space –damn those sleepers. Eventually, after the grizzly descent into American territory, Chicago appears as a gem of a city, with an incredible skyline and perfectly temperate summer weather. The breadth of Chicago’s skyline seems at once infinite and inviting, with the haze from the summer heat hanging through the relentless wind, there is an air of some sort of impending action – what I didn’t know, was that this could be whatever I wanted it to be. After dropping off all the luggage in the hotel room, and getting a disdainful look of condescending disgust from the un-tipped porter (must remember to tip and carry wads of $1 in my pocket – folded into origami packets so that the tipping can be executed in suave celebrity style), I wander out of my 5-star hotel onto Michigan Avenue. What strikes me first is the boundless width of the streets – things in the Midwest are generally bigger, wider and taller – this, and the fact that I have never seen such an abundance of blonde hair and denim moving so fast. Traipsing down Chicago’s main shopping district, I am overwhelmed by the blocks and blocks of malls and department stores.

Marshall Fields, a Chicago department store, has an inventive window display that brings hordes of tourists and locals alike in through its swinging doors each day. I walk in and the smell of perfume invades my nostrils. Cosmetics are the same everywhere, so I amble past the over eager shop assistants who epitomize the white-toothed Midwestern hospitality stereotype (although one was very smiley and good – and almost managed to coerce me into buying some more junk to clutter my vanity table with) and into the back gourmet foods section of the store. What I smell and see is better than any other delectable treat that some luxury skincare can come up with. It is a sleek green box with elegant typeface – but inside is a wonderful grid of small glistening chocolate nuggets nestled in uniform rows. These chocolates are quite literally, melt-in-your-mouth amazing, and in a few seconds quite a number are gobbled up off the sample tray – the shop assistant glares at me, I smile with chocolate smeared all over my mouth and fingers and snatch boxes in various sizes and varieties of these delicious minty chocolates and a few of the Frango biscuits too. As legend has it, these famous Chicago chocolates are made to a secret recipe that was created almost a century ago in 1918. Over the years, this special mint-chocolate confection has garnered a devout fan base that have transformed this flat green box into an ambassador for Chicago’s good taste. Coming out of this huge shopping mall, I turn a corner and something glitzy catches my eye. American Girl – is this some sort of strip club? – My curiosity gets the better of me, and I stand there to observe what kind of perverse establishment this could be – but there are no scantily clad girls traipsing by in their imitation leather platform shoes. No, what I see is a wonderment of accessory and a higher religiosity of young girls worshiping in fervour the idol of the Consumer demigod. There are little girls wearing the same outfits as a small doll cradled under their arms. This store, is a haven for young girls and their dolls. A place where they can get their hair done together, eat together, and emerge victorious and looking like each other.

Lawn seating at the pavilion with concerts during the summer

All the wandering around Michigan Avenue, balking at the high street prices (damn the exchange rate), has tired me out and has worked up a ravenous appetite. I decided that the only place that could satiate this desire for consumption was the infamous Hooters, which advertises itself as “Delightfully tacky, yet unrefined”. Any place that has the gall to cash in on unrefined tackiness is a place that I want to see – I love sardonic humour. As the doors swing open into this dining hall, I am confronted with a completely different type of American Girl – one that is attired in a tight white singlet with Hooters strategically emblazoned across many a well endowed bosom. Prancing around with white pop socks and orange hot-pants, my eyes busy themselves with the hefty menu of chicken wings galore and other assorted fried foods; beer and wine is served but hard liquor is not, by policy. I wonder to myself, is this place really for eating? I order the chicken wings and am pleasantly surprised by their quality whilst I admire the eye-candy, the walls and walls of sports memorabilia and franchise flair of course. My companion, on the other hand, was ogling at the living scenery. I didn’t go to Chicago to just eat and lounge about, although that seems to be the typical lifestyle of choice of the US citizen, judging by the larger size of their population. So I decided to leave my friend to his stunned staring and go sightseeing on my lonesome. Chicago is a very friendly city, much more open and affable than its East and West coast counterparts. Here, people stop to offer directions, and almost always suggested an alternative sight to see along the way. Chicago is home to the world’s first skyscraper, the Home Insurance Building, which was sadly demolished in 1931, and has a long history of beautiful soaring obelisks that are built with a sturdy architectural philosophy “form follows function”, and have surpassed physical limitations of having to withstand Chicago’s relentless high velocity wind. The Chicago Water Tower is one of two buildings that survived the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. What I found fascinating was how everything surrounding this water tower is land reclaimed by the burnt carcasses of every other fire-ravaged building that was pushed into the lake to extinguish the flames.


From left: Plaza with bar and food during the summer and ice rink during the winter. Looking up from under the Bean

Another sight to see is the world’s largest Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton, Sue, which is exhibited at The Field Museum Chicago. Amongst other things, it is both gratifying and educational to see their dinosaur exhibition space. Sue, as she is known, is a complex bag of bones, and not just an old fossil. Sue stands 13 feet high at the hips and 42 feet long from head to tail. It was quite an intimidating experience and also a reminder of how small our modern perspective is. From one giant, I wander over to another gargantuan relic: the Sears Tower, constructed in 1973, is the tallest building in North America standing proudly at 1,725
feet with 110-storeys and 4.56 million gross square feet. Beyond these grandiose proportions however, is the spectacular view that you get from the viewing platform – this, is immeasurable – and on a clear summer Chicago day, I left feeling satisfied beyond my massive American Size lunch of Chicken wings and beer.

Written by Alexandra Hamlyn

Plenty of beaches on Mykonos

Smoke circulates my lungs as clouds swirl around the room; I start to choke if I inhale to deeply. The small smoking area I have allocated myself to is starting to feel like a bad decision to initiate my 6-hour journey. As the television blurts out Hellenic commentary, walking space is near to non-existent in this supposed business class area. I do make it sound worse than the reality of it all, I must give credit to the DVD club and the wide range of coffee delights the onboard bar offers. To my surprise there is also a goodies fast food outlet. There may have even been a cinema, but I didn’t really venture far from my smoky surroundings, unless it was to take a breath of fresh air on the outer deck.

Little Venice

It is a long weekend in Greece and Athenians are flocking to the sea to find haven on the island waters. Agiou Pnevmatos, otherwise known as Spirito Santos or the Holy Spirit holiday is celebrated 50 days after Kalo Pasha (Greek Easter). The holiday celebrates something, but typically no Greek could really tell me what we were celebrating. Anyway we’re always happy with a holiday, reason or no reason.

Life in Mykonos starts late. Come 2am the city comes to life. It is for this reason I found myself crawling into bed at 4 o’clock in the morning, rather than the normal bedtime curfew of midnight. Unfortunately this caused me to miss the breakfast buffet on the first morning. I did however make sure I made it in the following morning to see the array of miniature bircher muesli’s served up in martini classes, along with miniature versions of what is known at the Belvedere hotel as ‘Breakfast in Santorini’. These light lemon curd yoghurts drizzled with honey and nuts in espresso cups are a taste sensation. The belvedere hotel is one of the more exclusive hotels on the island and the most internationally recognised due to the entrepreneurial skills of Tassos and Nikolas Ioannidis. The brother team have worked toward creating a unique experience that is both traditionally Greek and international.

As a fabulously indulgent induction I found it very necessary to start the island holiday with a manicure and pedicure. To really feel pampered, take a trip down to Psarou Beach and spoil yourself at Luisa, a high-end retail boutique that offers the best of the best that the world has to offer in fashion, accessories, beauty and a number of little things you never knew you needed until you found them. Stretch out on the silk leopard print Cavalli cushions. Laze under the canopy and take some sushi while admiring the beautiful people, Louboutin shoes, Matthew Williamson dresses, Marc Jacobs handbags, Pucci towels, Chloe sunglasses, Gavello jewellery, and, while your there, I suggest picking up one of the divine Missoni bikinis, I did, and I still do every time. Take a manicure and pedicure at Luisa Spa and paint your nails ‘long stem roses’ red to really feel like you’re on vacation. Perfectly bright nails will jazz up any outfit, even if you don the flip-flops. While down at Psarou beach you can’t miss dining at Nammos. This fabulous fish restaurant serves succulent crab claws bigger than your own arm. There are arrays of seafood delights devour, but the smells that waft from the kitchen alone are enough to set your tummy grumbling. Food is fresh and tasty and well worth the stop.

There are a plenty of beaches on Mykonos to be discovered; from family orientated Kalo Livadi, where restaurant Soli Mare serves up the most delectable lobster pasta you are to ever try in your life, to Kalafatis, whose wide stretches of small white pebbles, expanses of crystal clear water and sporadic trees completely carry you away to another world. Kalafatis beach is also home to a surf club where jet skis can be rented for fifteen minutes at a cost of 30 Euro. There are some secrets best kept to yourself, such as the more secluded Lia beach and the freedom that comes with a visit to Agia Sostis. Sostis is one of Mykonos’ most beautiful and coveted beaches, but the steep rocky access and a lack of bathing chairs and sun umbrellas means the beach stays relatively private and tourist free. Above the rocky inclination sits a small white church. This is where Sostis takes its name from as the Greek word Agia translates into English as Holy. While Holy Sostis might be protected when the wind is high Sostis becomes a sand storm. In such times I suggest you head for the more sheltered Ornos or Psarou Bays. If Sostis is good then you can also count on neighbouring Panormos Beach to offer good bathing opportunities. Once a beach that was home to only an outdoor, canopy covered, sand floor restaurant, Panormos has become slightly more developed in recent years. Still in touch with its bohemian roots, the ambience is great and the development remains fun and simple. Panormos beach is scattered sporadically with umbrellas. There is a swing, a sarong shop, and beach volleyball.

Bandana on Agia Anna however is a secret to be discovered and shared. Serving up traditional Italian fare and one specialty dessert that continue to draw the crowds back again and again and again. Don’t miss Bandana’s unforgettable chocolate and mascapone cheese calzone that just oozes with goodness!!

While on the topic of food, I suggest taking a peak at Interni, an ultra trendy open-air bar/restaurant. Ex Nobu chef from London, Irini Psoma has relocated to the Interni kitchen and is cooking up a storm. I highly suggest the salmon, which melts in the mouth with a similar sensation to Nobu’s ‘black cod’, laid out perfectly on creamy coconut risotto.

There are many angles to how Mykonos can be taken in. What I have touched on here is only the beginning. From a disco point of view we have a whole new story…these joys come later, now it is time to relax, soak up the sun and enjoy.

Written by Ivana Martyn

Laos Plenty of Water in the Dry Season

 Plenty of Water in the Dry Season

Luang Prabang is a UNESCO world heritage listed site, but that does not mean just seriously cultured travellers should go there


Laos is one of those countries not many people can locate mentally on a map. Can you? The inland country is squeezed between Vietnam to the North and along the East, Cambodia – shares a small border to the South –, Thailand along the West as well as Myammar and China along the North West. Name of the capital anyone? Vientiane. You knew it? Fine, this one is harder, name of the old royal capital? Luang Prabang. That was our destination for 6 days last Easter.

The small town nestled between the Mekong and Nan Khan rivers celebrated Songkram – new year – on the 14th–16th April. The festival has a deep religious meaning for Buddhists; so many religious offerings, processions and other ceremonies take place here.

We arrived there from Hong Kong via Bangkok as there are no direct flights from Chek Lap Kok airport to Luang Prabang. We were picked up and taken to Mouang Luang Hotel. The building looks magnificent from the outside; inspired by traditional Laos architecture the structure really impressed us upon arrival.
But this was really an unpretentious hotel: the interior, the rooms and the facilities were clean, spacious and had good air-con – an essential to survive when one is not used to that kind of dry and hot weather. The hotel wasn’t hyper luxurious or ultrachic; the garden has a swimming pool and there were lots of trees to provide perfect shade to laze around. The charming and extremely helpful manageress gave us some basic information about the town and we left.

It was almost midday and off we went merrily walking under the sun equipped with long sleeve linen shirts, sunblock, sunglasses and hats. Well, we should have carried an iceberg with us to try to remain cool. We almost melted. After wandering along the main street for one hour we returned to our refuge and decided to splurge in the pool and lounge under the trees until the sun went down a bit.

Our second attempt to explore the town was more successful. Still, we felt lucky we had six days there, so we could take it easy and avoid the sun at its worst. Luang Prabang has over thirty Buddhist temples but we did not intend to see every single one of them. We selected the most important and interesting ones and decided to take the time to enjoy visiting those select few. I am one of those people who prefers to be left hungry for more than have an overdose of hurried visits to the hundreds of places recommended by travel guides. Having travelled around Asia quite a bit in the last year and a half we really preferred to cut down the amount of sites we visit and carefully select the images we want to keep in our memory.

The town was apparently full of visitors, but it did not feel overcrowded. The limited accommodation of hotels and guesthouses allowed us to stroll among the locals. We could visit the lively night market on the main street without being pushed around, and enjoy the curious looks and smiles children – and adults alike- gave us when we saluted “sabbai dee.”

Once the festival started on the 14th of April, people from the surrounding villages came to town and things got more fun. On the first day, I got up at 5:45 to be able to see the Alms Giving Ceremony. People were sitting on the ground along the main streets with bowls of rice. Handfuls of rice were offered to the monks who approached them in lines carrying shiny metal bowls. Unfortunately, the holiday season brings along flocks of vendors who want to put up their little stalls and profit from the relative avalanche of potential customers who visit the location during those days. As a result, many motorcycles come and go among the monks, pilgrims who visit the temples and the rest of the people around. Pedestrians find themselves in a difficult situation trying to stay alert and survive while enjoying the interesting street ceremony.

After the formal religious parade the water battle started. People were equipped with buckets, hosepipes, cups, water guns and they would target absolutely everyone; from old grannies to young children –usually the most enthusiastic fighters. The origin of this battle has religious roots. Water is for Buddhists, a symbol of purity and to this day is still perfumed with flowers and sprinkled over the monks and other people to wish them good luck during the processions. But the street combat is less delicate and much livelier. During the three days of the festivities I had to be careful with the cameras. I saw more than one foreigner getting angry at children because they had dampened they expensive cameras and I didn’t want to spoil the fun of the community nor get upset because of an accident.
In the afternoon the fiesta was relocated on the sandy riverbank across the Mekong. We took a long narrow boat to cross over there and started walking among the crowd. For a few moments we were spotlessly clean and surrounded by people drenched in water and with flour and paint all over their faces and bodies. Only three minutes later we looked just like them and taking revenge with our water guns and some flour a young girl gave me. Later on that evening we walked into the lobby of our hotel and despite our messy aspect were greeted by the staff, “You are very lucky, you are very wet!”

In the evening the main street becomes an animated market where women sell lots of handmade textiles, some old, some new, all colourful. The small restaurants offer a variety of food you could find Lao cuisine –with tasty Mekong fish and also a kind of acidic noodles that I did not like- but there were also many French delicacies. The heritage of the old colonial power could be seen in the presence of baguettes and in many other recipes like crepes. The food was good but the natural fruit juices and milkshakes were superb, I could have lived on them for the week.

The following day we went to see the Royal Chapel, one of the most magnificent temples in the town. The rich and profuse decorations were coloured in gold, black and red. The colourful mirror mosaics were astonishing. People were going in and out of the temples with offerings and they were also getting ready for the procession in the early afternoon. We strolled around the well-kept colonial part of town and decided to have lunch on the veranda at the elegant Villa Santi hotel. We couldn’t have founda better place if we tried. We were about to start our meal when the procession began just below our balcony. It was the perfect place to see it and take photos -it was safe and dry. The colourful parade started with the formal monks, some authorities, the ‘queens and kings’, the ‘devils’, and then the informal groups of teenagers, followed by what looked like a bunch of drag queens and clusters of visitors who joined in and followed the carnival.

After three days of ceremonies, street parades, and water battles, the town was quiet once again and all the visitors disappeared. We finally saw Luang Prabang as it is for 362 days per year: a calm and beautiful Lao town where life goes at a tranquil pace. Not an impressive monumental city, but rather a cosy town where it’s a pleasure to get lost for a few days and slowly discover its charm.

Written by Rita Slva
 

Tuscany Raiders, Italy


Tuscany is a region that offers much more than fine plonk and pasta. So forget Chianti and cannelloni, and drive yourself down to Central Italy for a cultural awakening. Jim Stewart says ciao

Don’t get me wrong but I just can’t imagine going on a pleasure drive through southern China. Pollution, traffic and bad road etiquette – no thanks! Well actually it’s same over in Europe, but if there’s one thing that appeals to me about travelling there over any other region, it’s that in a day’s drive, you can see so much. Not that you’d want to stay for only one day like most Asian-operated tours encourage you to, but once you get used to the driving which often borders on maniacal, a few hours on the road can give you a superb insight into the country’s offerings.

In easy reach within central Italy, for example, are cities of huge cultural significance, achingly-beautiful countryside and food and drink to die for. Just one hour can see your blood pressure soar when struck by the beauty of Renaissance cities, level out through the tranquil fruit-growing areas, and then rocket again whilst dealing with traffic from hell in Pisa. One eye on the unpredictable Fiat in front and one eye on the Leaning Tower is not a situation to be recommended.

Relaxation and contemplation are easy to come upon though. But it is on foot that you’ll have more fun. Enjoying a pizza or gelato on the Ponte Vecchio maybe the tourist “thing to do”, but it’s in areas such as this that you can don your intellectual hat and savour the results of a cultural revolution that happened over 500 years ago. Every journey to Italy is a “tour artistique”. There are so many art treasures of such quality, spread so far across the country that Italy can rightly be considered a bona fide open-air art gallery. No other country in the world can boast the cultural and artistic treasures of Italy. And according to UNESCO, more than half the world’s historical and artistic heritage is found here.

It was in Tuscany between the 14th and 16th centuries that the great era of humanism and the Renaissance was born and developed. Of that extraordinary period of history, Tuscany, starting from the regional capital Florence, bears the greatest witness. As testament to this, there’s no way that you’ll visit all the churches, museums and archaeological sites in less than a few weeks!

There is no shortage of shopping opportunities, particularly for tourists from Asia! One of the most interesting areas to discover is “the other Florence”: the Oltrarno (on the other side of the River Arno). The best way to do this is to cross one of the four historical bridges: Ponte alla Carraia, Ponte Santa Trinita, Ponte Vecchio or Ponte alle Grazie. When the city walls were enlarged between 1172 and 1175, Florence had to be divided into six districts which included the Oltrarno, home to many artisan and craftsmen called Gonfaloni.

Nowadays the area is a living reality where the past is still alive in the “hum” of generations of artists tenaciously attached to their ancient crafts. In the labyrinth of lanes in the Oltrarno one can still encounter artisans who preserve and hand down original and refined working methods, directly transmitted by the Gonfaloni who in past centuries enriched Florence with their handmade objects.

Dotted around the city’s central district are great works of civic and religious architecture, sculpture and paintings of extraordinary artistic value. Most famously they testify to the creative genius of great artists such as Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo Buonarroti, and Filippo Brunelleschi. But Tuscany is not just Florence. There is Siena too, with its towering Duomo and expansive Piazza del Campo (the theatre each summer for its famous Palio). It’s simply a joy to stroll around the shaded pedestrianised alleyways and shop for pasta or to duck into a gnocchi restaurant on the piazza and watch the Vespas whiz past.

In the province of Siena (it’s here that you get your hands on the Chianti, by the way) Montepulciano and Pienza stand out as extraordinary gems of renaissance architecture, as well as San Gimignano, with its famous towers and turreted houses. Elsewhere, Lucca, a medieval Tuscan town on the left of the River Serchio is enclosed in thick 16th century walls. If you get up early enough, you can cycle around the ramparts and view a spectacular dawn break.

The exquisiteness of the Tuscan countryside is difficult to describe. If you’ve seen the film Stealing Beauty, you’ll already know it’s not just Liv Tyler that steals the aesthetics show! The landscape is unique, gentle and warm. Grapevines intertwine with olive trees; ramshackled huts sit next to grandiose Machiavellian castellos.

Now all you need is an Italian sports car to motor you around, as long as you’ve avoided the plonk that is!

Mexico Beyond the Beach Chairs

Beyond the beach chairs
Whether you like it or not, it’s not all about underage debauchery and Spring Break in Cancun. Mexico provides the perfect natural  surroundings to appease thrill seekingtourists

While relaxing by the beach with a frosty drink will always remain a popular vacation activity, tourists are increasingly seeking hands-on vacations involving adventure seeking. According to Mexico’s Tourism Secretariat, Sectur, adventure tourism and ecotourism in Mexico generate US$52 million annually. Whether the activities are landbased, sea-based or in the air, Mexico’s unspoiled natural surroundings, diverse geography and breathtaking scenery offers endless possibilities.

From exploring the Copper Canyon in Chihuahua to water rafting in Veracruz, adventure tourism in Mexico takes many forms to suit every taste and budget.Most tour operators offer a variety of options, from half-day trips to longer packages featuring a combination of activities. There are also activities to meet the needs of people of all physical and mental conditions: from the somewhat fearful and sedentary traveller to the physically-fit tourist seeking an experience that is truly extreme in nature.



Mounta
in Climbing and Rappelling
Ain’t no mountain high enough, you say? Then you haven’t tried the volcanoes in Puebla. Not for the weak, the Peak of Orizaba (also known as Citlaltepetl) is North America’s third-highest, soaring 5,745 meters high above the colonial city of Puebla. Only the most advanced hikers make it to the Jamapa Glacier and Espolon de Oro. Three-day hikes starting out at Piedra Grande Refuge are the most common. Other popular volcanoes for climbing are the Iztaccíhuatl, also known as the “sleeping maiden” as it resembles a reclining figure with curves and the Nevado de Toluca, a snow-capped volcano near Mexico City. Visit: www.amtave.org.

Apart from shimmying up volcanoes, other popular climbing destinations are Copper Canyon in Chihuahua, the Sierra Norte in Oaxaca State and the Sierra Madre Oriental in Nuevo León State near Monterrey.

Ain’t no Canyon low enough
Canyoneering (also known as “canyoning”) involves t ravelling down narrow waterways incanyons by rappelling, jumping, scaling slippery surfaces, swimming… and praying. The sport, which started approximately nine years ago in Europe, has quickly gained momentum over the world and Mexico features several ideal spots to practice it. These include Copper Canyon in the Sierra Madre Occidental mountain range in Chihuahua and Matacanes Canyon and Potrero Chico Canyon in the Sierra Madre Oriental Mountains in Monterrey, Nuevo Leon. Excursions vary from day-trips to week-long adventures. For the competitive, Chihuahua State hosts the Transglobal Adventure Competition and an annual Adventure Tourism Festival where athletes compete for cash prizes in several sports including sand-boarding, marathons and mountainbiking. If the competition doesn’t take your breath away, the lush scenery will.

Hiking and Backpacking
The mild climate and rocky mountains of the central Mexican state of Guanajuato makes it a popular destination for hiking and backpacking. Just fifteen minutes from the capital city of Guanajuato is the Las Palomas recreational zone and wildlife preserve, an important area of biodiversity and an ideal place for naturalists and birdwatchers.

Trained guides employed by the preserve and who are experts in the areas of botany, bird migration and the area’s flora and fauna provide a variety of tours, while there are also facilities for mountain-biking and camping.

Cycling
Cycling is a wonderful way to get to know Mexico and Mexico offers everything from short visits to archaeological sites to hard-core mountain biking/camping combinations. COUPLE SCUBA DIVING IN THE CARIBBEAN Photo By NADINE MARKOVA Tourist fisherman with catch Photo by Bruce Herman
The beautiful bay, lush scenery and rain forests around the Pacific resort city of Puerto Vallarta, for example, provide the ideal setting for the ultimate mountain biking experience. Bike Mex offers biking tours at all levels of the surrounding countryside, with visits to water falls, ranches, hot springs and quaint towns. They even offer tours to out-of-the-way-villages such as Yelapa, located in the Bay of Bandera’s southernmost cove, accessible only by boat or bike. For cyclists who prefer paved roads, Rosarito and Ensenada on the Baja California Peninsula host an annual bike ride every spring and fall, taking place April 17 and September 25 this year. The “Rosarito Ensenada Bike Ride” is one of the largest and longest-running cycling events in the wor l d, whose 50-mile course offers breathtaking views of the Pacific coastline. Nearly a half-million people of all ages and abilities have completed the course’s cycling competition.

On Horseback
Mexico boasts countless parks, wildlife reserves and beaches where horses are available for organised tours or for rent. Longer organised calvagades are common in the states of Sonora, Jalisco and Veracruz, just to name a few. Chihuahua State also hosts an annual week-long scenic cavalgade for the entire family (IX Villista Cavalgade) from the city of Chihuahua to Hidalgo del Parral, covering more than 136 miles.

Taking Flight
What better way to see Mexico than with a bird’s eye view? Paragliding has become overwhelmingly popular in A great way to experience Mexico’s exotic marine life is through sea kayaking. Kayaking out fittter soffer kayaking/camping adventures out of Loreto and La Paz on the Sea of Cor tez (located on the eastern side of the Baja Peninsula) where tourists can get up close and personal with finback and blue whales, dolphins, sea lions and exotic fish. Apart from paddling among islands, additional activities include snorkelling and hiking up scenic canyons offering breathtaking panoramas. Visit www.bajawild.com and www.kuyima.com. Other great places to kayak include the Mayan canals in the Sian Mexico, with Mexicans and foreigners alike flocking to places like Valle de Bravo in Mexico State and Lake Chapala, Mexico’s largest lake and just an hour’s drive south of Guadalajara in Jalisco State, to enjoy the country’s lush scenery from above.

For heights without the risk, peaceful air travel is still possible through hot air balloon tours such as those offered by Globo Aventura in Tenancingo, in Mexico State. The 3-hour tour includes breathtaking views of the Tenancingo Valley and an in-air champagne toast followed by an invigorating mountain bike tour.

Get Your Feet Wet
Veracruz State, which borders the Gulf of Mexico, is the ideal destination for white-water rafting. With more than 40 rivers, including the popular Rio Actopan and Rio Antigua, Veracruz offers Class II and Class IV rapids with ominous names like “Doors to Hell”. Most tour operators combine rafting with camping, hiking, visits to quaint towns and dips in nearby hot springs. Sunset in the mountains Photo by Carlos Sanchez Surfer in Puerto Escondido Photo by Guillermo Aldan Mexico also boasts countless destinations for diving. Top spots include Los Cabos on the southern tip of the Baja Peninsula, as well as Loreto and La Paz, located on Sea of Cortez and famous all over the world for its biodiversity. Referred to by French oceanographer Jacques Cousteau as “The World’s Aquarium,” the waters that make up the Sea of Cortez are teeming with blue, black and striped marlin, sailfish, dorado, sea lions, blue fin whales, hammerhead sharks, moray eels and tropical fish. Other top diving spots include the Yucatan Peninsula, surrounded by the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean Sea; Cozumel, Mexico’s largest island just off the coast of the Yucatán Peninsula, renowned for its underwater clarity and home to the second longest reef in the world; Isla Mujeres, a smaller island to the north of the Isla de Cancun; and the Yucatan Peninsula, whose cenotes (sinkholes) are increasingly favoured by divers.

Adventure, Without Breaking a Sweat
Strenuous activities aren’t for everyone. For those who like adventure without the physical stuff, Mexico offers an interesting variety of activities. El Chepe is a 400-mile train ride between Chihuahua City and Los Mochis in Sinaloa State on the Sea of Cortez, offering breathtaking scenery past rivers and lakes from the coast into the deep chasms of Copper Canyon in Chihuahua State. The train climbs as high as 8,000 feet above sea level and passes over 37 bridges and through 86 tunnels, stopping in tiny towns on the rims of majestic canyons. Trips include overnight stays in the towns and walking tours. Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, a 1.3 million-acre wildlife paradise in the Riviera Maya; the mangroves of Lake Sontecomapan, the Isla de Monos (Monkey Island) and Laguna Escondida (Hidden Lagoon) in Veracruz; and the Balsas River in Michoacan. Visit www.alltournative.com.

Puerta Vallarta, with its ocean and jungle, is a paradise for kayakers and trekkers. Packs of humpback whales can also be spotted just outside Puerto Vallarta’s Bahia de las Banderas. Visit www.vallar tawhales.com and www.ecotoursvallarta.com.

Written by Peter Guy

South Australia Travel around in luxury & style

Travel
Around
in Luxury and Style


 
South Australia (www.southaustralia.com) has long been recognised for its abundant free roaming wildlife, its fine quality food and wine, and its laid back, alfresco lifestyle. Now it is developing a matching reputation for its luxury accommodation and touring opportunities.
 
Below are detailed eight of South Australia’s top luxury tour operators and properties which provide easy access to the State’s signature experiences:
 
Southern Ocean Lodge (www.southernoceanlodge.com.au) – It is a luxurious world class eco-wilderness lodge located on Kangaroo Island, renowned as Australia’s Galapagos.  Southern Ocean Lodge opened in April 2008 to instant success and international acclaim and is currently Tatler’s “Hotel Of The Year”. From the start, the Lodge has exceeded guests’ traditional five-star expectations by fusing design and nature, gourmet and wilderness. By offering impeccable service, sophisticated dining and exceptional touring, the result is luxurious in style whilst uncompromisingly sensitive to the environment.

Arkaba Station (www.arkabastation.com) – It is one of Australia’s oldest and most famous Outback sheep stations whose historic homestead dates back to 1851.  Situated on 60,000 acres in the Flinders Ranges close to the geological amphitheatre of Wilpena Pound, Arkaba was recently purchased by Wild Bush Luxury and has undergone a major refurbishment which includes the construction of a swimming pool.  Guests are now able to experience the authentic country lifestyle of a working sheep station as well as the majesty of the Flinders Ranges and its prolific wildlife.  Activities include guided scenic four-wheel drives and three-night/four day walking safaris that include sleeping in swags under the Outback sky at established en route camps.

Outback Encounter (www.outbackencounter.com) – It is a private concierge and full service travel company that has the ability to organise every aspect of a trip from flights and accommodation through to dinner reservations, opera tickets and golf lessons.  Boasting an impressive knowledge database of local contacts, Outback Encounter provides access to exclusive beach houses, city villas, private jets, specialist guides, sporting and entertainment stars and other memorable experiences. All itineraries are customised to meet a client’s exact requirements.

Gawler Ranges Wilderness Safaris (www.gawlerrangessafaris.com) – Run by a passionate team of South Australians who have lived in the Outback most of their lives, Gawler Ranges Wilderness Safaris has specialised in customising wildlife and natural history tours for over two decades.  Based 600 kms north west of Adelaide on the Eyre Peninsula, they focus predominantly on the Gawler Ranges and the immediate coastline.  Their base camp, located at Kangaluna near Wudinna, is set in a beautiful bush location on the edge of Gawler Ranges National Park and is itself the ideal spot for wildlife spotting and nature viewing during evening or morning walks.  Gawler Ranges Wilderness Safaris adheres to the “leave only footprints, take only photos and memories” philosophy, so tour groups are small, between two and six people, with travel in luxury four-wheel drive, air-conditioned vehicles. Other activities include swimming with wild dolphins and sea lions at Baird Bay.

China Air Tours (www.chinta.com.au) – When time is short, South Australia with its vast vistas, can really only be appreciated from the air.  This is why Chinta Air Tours offers a selection of air safaris that include whale watching at Head of Bight and wildlife spotting on the Eyre Peninsula and Kangaroo Island.  To comfortably cover the vast distances involved, tours combine light aircraft flights with regional airlines and four wheel drive vehicles.  The main light aircraft used are Cessnas – high winged aircraft that allow each passenger to have a window seat.

Kangaroo Island Wilderness Tours (www.wildernesstours.com.au) – It uses knowledgeable local guides to introduce visitors to Australia’s top wildlife destination. Each fully hosted tour have been developed over the years to reveal Kangaroo Island at its best using luxury four-wheel drive vehicles. In addition, should a client have a special interest in flora, fauna, birds or photography, Kangaroo Island Wilderness Tours offers private charter tours for an exclusive touring experience. In addition, after a day’s touring, guests can enjoy the comfort of Seascape Lodge located on Emu Bay, a five-star, fully hosted bed and breakfast which is available exclusively to Kangaroo Island Wilderness Tours’ guests.

Banksia Adventures (www.banksia-adventures.com.au) – It adheres to the slogan “Go Beyond Your Expectations” revealing lesser known destinations and experiences to their clients in style and comfort. Experiences include Outback Australian Culture, Marine and Coastal, Nature and Eco-tours plus Unique Food and Wine tours. Banksia Adventures team includes outback four-wheel drive guides, pilots and wine guides.  Their internationally renowned air charter tour is the “The Great Aussie Outback Pub Crawl”, a five-day private air charter and 4WD experience through the Outback, whilst newer tours include a luxury golf package based on the world’s longest golf course, The Nullarbor Links.

The Louise (www.thelouise.com.au) – Situated in the renowned Barossa wine region, The Louise is a luxuriously appointed 15-suite property surrounded by vineyards as far as the eye can see. Each suite offers guests their own gated courtyard entrance, a spacious ensuite and private open air terrace with vineyard vistas. Some suites also have private outdoor showers. Bicycles are available on site whilst activities include hot air ballooning and private tours of heritage sites and local wineries. The Louise is also home to APPELLATION, their acclaimed restaurant run by British-born Executive Chef Mark McNamara.

The Great Australian Outback Cattle Drive (www.cattledrive.com.au) – Riders and nature lovers looking for the ultimate Outback experience should take part in the Great Australian Outback Cattle Drive, from 30 July to 29 August 2010.  Over these five weeks riders of all levels and experience can choose to join one of six four-night/five-day cattle drives that will take them through the pristine landscapes surrounding South Australia’s legendary Oodnadatta Track, droving cattle and working with some of country’s most experienced drovers.  This epic journey involves approximately 500 head of cattle and up to 120 horses.

As one of the largest and most popular events in South Australia’s calendar, this is fast becoming a “must do” for horse lovers worldwide who want to experience the romance and adventure of the real Australian Outback, immersing themselves in its unique landscape, history and people. Baz Luhrrman found the experience so inspirational when he took part in 2003 that he went on to write and direct his 2008 epic “Australia” starring Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman.

The city’s known as the wedding capital of the world

Everything about Las Vegas is big. The city’s known as the wedding capital of the world, it’s entirely appropriate that 100 couples were married to make it an extra special occasion.

A land auction, held back on May 15, 1905, initiated a revolution that saw this desert valley transform itself the fastest American city and the home to almost two million inhabitants in just one century. This auction was re-enacted on May 15 on Fremont Street – the current home to the more old-style, less flashy casinos such as the Lady Luck and 4 Queens. In true Vegas style, a huge half-a-million dollar firework display was held over The Strip on New Year’s Eve.

This most flamboyant stretch of road brings in almost US$7 billion a year in gaming revenue alone. But there so much more to it than the casinos. If you haven’t seen any Joe Pesci mob movies, let me fill you in. Stretch limos weave there way through the traffic and neon is ubiquitous. The Strip is a mere five kilometres long but it is filled with lights, excitement and the dreams of an optimistic following.

For one thing, what other street can you walk down and visit Egypt, New York, Paris, Rome and Hollywood? Where else can you see Tom Jones, Barry Manilow, Neil Diamond – and a score of other classic institutions – in consecutive nights? And where else can you get into a lift and not raise an eyelid at the Elvis impersonator, the Wookie and the cocktail waitress in a bunny girl outfit standing next to you?

Text by James Moore
 

Queensland Stuck Between A Reef & a Lush Place

In just over six hours you could be walking through the world's oldest rainforest and swimming over the world where two world heritage sites actually touch, Far North Queensland is home to a swarm of stirring pursuits and a small amount of wildlife to keep you on your toes

Pete, theirreverent Aussie-hatiing Kiwi land driver, picked me up from Cairns International Airport. At the profane hour of 5:30 am, the first thing he made sure was clear was FNQ? You don't want to come anywhere near here half of the time. If the taipans, the browns, the stingers, crocs or sharks don't get you, the mozzies certainly will.'

FNQ stands for Far North Queensland and its to many people, other Pete obviously, one of the most subirne places on earth you can visit. The Daintier Rainforest and the river that runs through it mark the end of your mobile reception and civilization for the most part. Further up into Cape Tribulation, the Forest gets thicker and the beaches more remote.

Text by James Moore
Photography: Tourism Queensland