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The Vivanta by Taj Malabar

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Set amidst luscious palms with a magnificent view of Cochin harbour is the glorious Vivanta by Taj Malabar. The heritage wing awaited us and in true Kerala fashion – without any fuss – we were shown to our room. Soon enough all the senior hotel members arrived- all to say hello to my father, a frequent visitor and suddenly after my Dad made the introductions- Aditya and I were also welcomed , in true Taj fashion , as family!

The rooms are modern, spacious and comfortable. The Heritage rooms with their gorgeous view of the bay and the balcony’s are easily the best rooms in the hotel! We quickly freshened up and headed to Pepper, the all day restaurant for lunch! The buffet was wonderful. I am not a fan of buffets, but this buffet had not only a wide selection but the taste of the different cuisines was also authentic- a refreshing change from buffets which often either have a limited selection , or only focus on one type of cuisine.

What I loved about this hotel was also their tea service which happened every evening where tea, cakes and some snacks were offered to all their guests on the lawn while you could watch the sun set in the bay. This is complimentary and from tasty, strong south Indian coffee, to coconut water, green tea and even the cappuccino – they give you your choice of beverage and always have some tasty snacks. after a long day of sightseeing this was always a high point in the evening!

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And then ofcourse there is the Jiva Spa. With it’s traditional Ayurvedic massages and services- this Jiva Spa looked after the wellness of the guest completely. A session was not just limited to an hour. The session consisted of a consultation with an Ayurvedic doctor, treatments, massages and a follow up. It is not surprising therefore that people from across the world come here for 10 and 15 days for weight loss and wellness Ayurvedic programs at the Jiva Spa.

With an eternity pool that almost dissolves in to the bay and in the midst of the swaying palm trees and silence of nature- it’s easy to get lost in the magnificence of Kerala, the beautiful serenity, the meditative calm and the glorious beauty of God’s own country.

It was good to be home.

Best Time To Travel-: Winter… else Kerala does get very hot during the summer… December , Jan and Feb are ideal unless of course you are like my husband and love watching the glorious Kerala monsoon in June and July where the trees come alive…. (but you can do little else!)

Cost-:$200 onwards. But remember HERITAGE ROOMS- and you MUST TRY THE JIVA SPA!

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J. W. Marriott in Bangkok

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I travel to Bangkok a lot. From one of the dirtiest cities in the world 12-13 years ago, it’s cleaned up become fancier, more welcoming, more modern and just a wonderful shopping destination and a quick flight from Mumbai! I have therefore shifted a lot of hotels- hotels close to the malls, hotels out of the city… My new favourite however has to be the J.W. Marriott Bangkok.

Two MTR Stops away from Siam and a single stop away from central, this wonderful hotel gives me a bit of sanity from the frenetic mall culture of Bangkok! Towering gloriously above the fashionable Sukhumvit district, this hotel has a good mix of clientele ranging from long staying guests, businessmen to shopaholics like me!

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If you do want to stay at the J.W. – I suggest you stay in the Executive Level rooms. For a very small additional charge you get to use the Lounge.The Lounge in the J.W. is tastefully decorated, spacious and has an indoor and out door sitting area as well as an internet area with a Tv and couches for a more relaxed coffee/ tea. Check-in is done on the 16th floor for Executive Level guests and the check-in is quick and efficient and over a cup of coffee and something to eat.

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The Executive Level rooms are nice,though a tad small. You have free internet access everywhere in the hotel and the speeds are wonderful. For a super-connected social networking geek like me…that’s always a big plus!

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Why do I like the lounge? Well firstly it’s large and the food is amazing! Unlike usual Hotel Lounges the tapas and hot meals vary every day!You have an incredible breakfast with a live egg station, japanese counter, cereal, cheese and bread counters and of course your customary cold cuts , sausages etc. If there’s something missing and you want it- they’ll make it for you! After breakfast , in casephoto 1-1 you get hungry by about 11:30 am or so…there’s always some muffins in the oven or some sandwiches and peanuts for you to grab and go with- along with a takeaway coffee or chilled soft drink/ juice. In the evening The Lounge has an array of drinks and wines. It also has salads, hot and cold tapas and wonderful live stations where burgers are flipped, fish is seared, rolls are made and sushi is rolled. Every night is usually a different theme – so after an American burger night with fries and onion rings (from their New York Steak house downstairs), don’t be surprised to go Japanese (from Tsu the Japanese restaurant) the following evening or Italian… The food is tasty, filling and perfect and after a long day on the streets of Bangkok or in the malls- it’s wonderful to unwind over a drink and fabulous food before you let the Bangkok nightlife draw you in!

Cost-: $260 a night approximately for the Executive Level room!

Best Times To Travel-:  For me …any weekend I need to escape… but generally October to Jan are peak months with the weather being significantly cooler…else Bangkok is perfect for those like me who love the heat!

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Heidelberg on your honeymoon?

It was a day in Germany …part of our whirlwind honeymoon in Europe and we were in Heidelberg! We were staying at Aditya’s friends’ home and were being taken to Heidelberg by a friend of his Moms…so it wasn’t exactly the romantic-couple honeymoon trip that day… but…I’m always up for adventure and so off we went!

It was a cold morning and I slept in. After a late brekkie , we were picked up at 12 p.m. on the dot and driven to the student town of Heidelberg for lunch. We weren’t very hungry (late breakfast to blame!) and we said we’d be fine just walking. She seemed a bit peeved but maybe I was just being too picky and it was a bit chilly, so we started walking to the University.The lanes were pebbled with little shops on either side and seeing my very red nose she suggested a warm cup of coffee and these little cookies that were supposed to be shared by those in love! Maybe she wasn’t so mad at us after all. The coffee was much needed and the cookies DELICIOUS- though she said we should eat while we walk.I wasn’t sure what the hurry was but I was excited about seeing the University. Grand and imposing you knew as you stepped in to the university that it had incredible history and wonderful stories. She took us to the Student karzer – a jail like detention centre where for years students used to be sent. Writing on the walls, painting , notes dated back to the 1800’s and it was scary to think of student having enough time to write not only messages and paragraphs but paint drawings and do sketches. In this scary , once dark cell it must have been lonely and scary to have been imprisoned like a criminal. Not really romantic, for our honeymoon,I thought…but very interesting!

Studentkarzer over we made our way to the Heidelberg Castle. Perched on a hillock it had a glorious view of the entire town. Now I was hungry as was Aditya. However we were told “Time for lunch has passed.” And thus ended that discussion. Hungry, we trudged on!

The wine cellar of the castle houses the biggest barrel in the world, holding 55,345 gallons of wine and I was delighted that I could purchase a bottle of wine in my Dad’s name as a gift for him. He’d understand the significance and he loves his glass of wine! I’m not sure how it actually tasted or whether he ever opened it even but I think it made for a nice tourist stop and a great , personal gift to take home!

After loads of history and walking around this beautiful castle , it hit 4 p.m. and we were ‘allowed’ a coffee break in a nearby restaurant overlooking the castle. I swapped coffee for soup despite her rather cross glare and finally I had ‘lunch!’

Much of travel is about the memories you make while traveling…!”The time for lunch has passed!” makes for one of my most fond, funny memories of this little, German woman who kept us on the clock!

Best Times to Travel-: Use the summer months- May to September

Cost-: Only very few 5 star hotels and they cost approx $400 a night…I’d say maybe make Heidelberg a day trip from one of the several very close German cities…. BUT DO GO- THIS QUAINT  TOWN, LOST IN TIME…IS DEFINITELY WORTH THE TRIP!

 

Istanbullish!

And then there is Istanbul the place where Europe and Asia collide and you can see a whole other continent just across from you! Istanbul is a trip that brings back incredible memoreis- a city of contradictions much like me… fiercely traditional in so many ways, yet modern and forward thinking in so many others! An unplanned trip to combat ridiculously high stress levels and no plan at all we arrived in this gorgeous and friendly city and checked in straight into our hotel the Grand Hyatt. We had chosen this hotel because of it’s proximity to the bustling and wonderful Taksim square , a universal hub of activity every day, through the day and through most of the night!

The Grand Hyatt was disappointing. A business hotel with many rooms, it lacked the warmth of the city and the professionalism of a hotel. The staff seemed underpaid, overtired, curt and inhospitable. IT IS DEFINITELY NOT WORTH STAYING HERE. The room we had been given (despite Aditya being a Gold card member and having requested non-smoking) was a smoke filled mess. It took ages to get ready and though we’d paid for a view- we only had a view of the top of the hotel porch! I have yet to stay in another Hyatt after this horrendous experience!

I would recommend highly the fabulous Ciragan Palace which I recommended to my parents who had a fabulous time there or the converted prison on the banks of the Bosphorus which is now the Four Seasons!

Luckily we were determined to make the trip amazing, so we just dumped our bags and off we went exploring. The first thing we realised about turkey is that the street food- the kebabs were amazing. Fresh , delicious and easy to travel with -we set off to discover Taksim square. With its incredible shops, cafes and restaurants- this lively walking street has a taste of Istanbul that keeps bth the locals and tourists hooked! Lots to do…lots to see…lots to taste! We even found a cafe that we loved, loved, loved- The House Cafe with the most glorious turkish coffee!The afternoon went far too quickly and after a quick change , we headed to a branch of The House Cafe(yes we loved it that much!) which overlooked the Bosphorous! The city was glorious at night and after drinks and dinner , we bundled off into a cab and the chatty cabby took us around the city showing us some of the sights and the football stadium (to aditya’s great delight) where a match was being played! We had a long day the next day and so we quickly headed to bed!

The next day , we headed out to explore the Old City- the historic centre of the city. From the columns of the Byzantine empire, to the Hague Sofia,the Blue Mosque and the Topkapi Palace, our private tour guide was exceptional. She made us walk fast and she talked even faster and there seemed more information that we could absorb because all of it seemed so incredible, so beautiful, so historic. It was wonderful going with a private tour guide for just the 2 of us because Turkey is a stop over for many cruise ships and when the cruise ships dock in Istanbul, scores of tourists descend on to the city and try and see all the historic sights and try and get a little bit of Turkish flavour all in a few hours- so if you don’t start quickly and don’t move quite fast , you will be caught behind one of these huge groups.

The Blue mosque is still a place of worship so please dress appropriately here. It is also wise to avoid ‘Namaaz'(prayer) timings and Fridays as the crowds do build and it is difficult to see how beautiful the architecture and the tile work is here.

The Hague Sofia has a column with a hole where if you can place your thumb in the whole and rotate your hand the full 360 degrees you are supposed to be granted a wish. Many people were in line and despite bending , turning and body contortions they still couldn’t do it! Aditya tried to….! I was very lucky though and on the first try , my hand did the full rotation and I received some amazed applause from bystanders… My wish? Well it keeps coming true..? Huh? Well you’ve gotta guess!

And then we were off to the Bazaars- the Grand Bazaar and the Spice Bazaar… Like the names suggest…the Grand Bazaar is filled with more curios, maps, knick-knacks and the Spice Bazaar filled with the most incredible, warm spices and flavours…. You can get lost in walking thru these bazaars and in case you’d like to buy something- bargain a little- they expect that!

After an entire day in the Old city -we were off to a romantic dinner to G by Karaf a restaurant on an island a few minutes away from the shore. A boat picks you up and in 5 minutes you are at the restaurant!

After a delicious dinner it was back to Taksim square and the incredibly lively bar 360! With views of the entire city , this buzzing night spot is always full. Great music, great drinks and great food keeps it a favourite with locals, expats and tourists alike!

The following day we explore Istanbul on our own using local transport, trams and discovering new hidden corners of the city. With the friendliest locals we’ve ever met- we always managed to find our way ,minutes after we were lost thanks to some incredibly helpful souls!

Istanbul is a land steeped with tradition and culture , yet gloriously modern, incredibly forward thinking and magnificently proud!

Best Times to Travel-:April to October tho April may be a bit rainy and October a bit chilly!

Cost-: Approx $500 a night! But stay close to either the old city or to Taksim square to cut down travel!

The Great Ocean Road and Yarra Valley(the MUST DO Day trips from Melbourne!)

As promised last week I’d finish writing about the Must-do Day trips from Melbourne, so here goes!

The Great Ocean Road and Apollo Bay with the 12 Apostles ARE FAAAAR from Melbourne! It’s comfortably a 4 hr to 5 hr drive so don’t look at seeing both and returning the same day unless you want to get stuck on a God awful tour bus for an entire day!

I’d recommend renting a car and driving their. AVIS has an office at the Grand Hyatt in the center of town and you can very easily rent a car. All you need is a Valid License written in ENGLISH! You don’t even need an International License! I opted to get an International Drivers License because I didn’t want to take a chance and that was very easy to apply for, took a day in processing and made my trip stress free (for me!!!) The husband’s never stressed when I’m at the helm … cos I’m the lister, the planner, the organizer , the madly OCD one! 😉 It works!

So off we went …I drove (yes you can make all the jokes you want about Women drivers!!! But I drive well… and I had the license! So that’s that!) With a GPS System that was far too chatty for our liking and was continuously ” re-calibrating!!!!” in a terribly annoying nasal drawl; we headed off out of Melbourne!

The minute you leave the city limits , you see the changes. Roads and highways now start moving past undulating hills, small townships and quaint coffee shops. Buildings are few and far between. There are more cottages and homes…more gardens and bicycles! And then you take the turn on to the Great Ocean Road and everything stops! A wide road on a cliff edge in front of a panoramic ocean is all that lies in front for miles and miles. Cars drive, stop and park on the left and take photographs of the incredible 180 degree view and every time you think you have the greatest photograph, you’ll find one that’s just a bit better a few minutes ahead!

My advice is to drive along and stop on the way….a cuppa coffee, a seat on a cliff edge… or just a run in the sand… that’s what Australia is all about…and that’s what a vacay should be all about too… Relax, unwind and breathe!!!

We stopped for coffee at about 5:30 p.m at Lorne ( we only left Melbourne just after lunch). The coffee shop was nondescript. I was tired. The coffee was superb!

Charged it took us another hour or so to reach our destination. We were stopping for the night at Chris’s Beacon Point Restaurant and Villas. This is not a very luxurious place to stay but has a beautiful view. We were barely staying there for a few hours, so we ate a comfortably-sized well made dinner and went to our villa to sleep.  The villa had wonderful views of the bay but was strictly okay. Sure, if you have a family and want to use a kitchenette and washing machine and want to make your own food; this might be a good option but it was bitterly cold with colder floors and small rooms and I was glad I was here for just a night. Driving for so long, I fell into a dead sleep.

We loaded our car and headed off to the helicopter point where we had booked a helicopter ride to see the 12 Apostles!

Now this was beautiful! I got some incredible photographs and we also learnt something very interesting. There were only 9 rocks that jutted out from the sea but as 9 Apostles wouldn’t attract that much attention it was decided that this would be called 12 Apostles. One rock however had now fallen, and there were only 8. The breathtaking view of the sea front and of these magnificent rock structures in the morning made the looooong trip worth it!

And then it was back home to Crown Towers and back home to Melbourne!!!

Yarra Valley is only about an hour away from the city and it was definitely easier to get to and infinitely less tiring! We left after breakfast to the Domain and Chandon Vineyards where we were taken on a fabulous tour across the winery. This tour is free and you just need to sign up at the reception when you get there. To do special tasting and wine and cheese pairings you do pay a bit extra but if you’re a wine lover (like my wonderful husband is) then a connoisseur will take you through the history of each wine , the thought behind it’s creation and fill you will fun facts and interesting stories of how the wine came to be and more importantly how it is being appreciated!

Yarra Valley has several vineyards…so you can stop at one and move thru all. They’re all barely 5 minutes away by car!

After the vineyards you could grab lunch at the wonderfully pretty Sweet water cafe at the beautiful Chateau Yering a historic house converted into a boutique hotel, with beautiful rooms each with a personal touch!

And since you’re in Yarra you must taste the cheese! A coffee and a plate of cheese at the Yarra Valley Dairy  is a perfect way to sober up, end the afternoon and head back into town!

These are both trips I recommend you do yourself so you can personalize it the way you prefer and don’t need to do the plain , simple , mass produced lunches that tours usually thrust on you! You can stop along the way- taste the cheeses, enjoy sea breezes, take your own photographs,decide on the perfect wine and just laze or go as fast as you need to!

Do these day trips at your pace…your way!

And along the way try out my faves, I know you’ll love them too!

Price Factor-: 12 Apostles Helicopter rides are approx $190 for 2 people and take about 10 minutes. Domaine Chandon wines are available by the glass from $8 or by the bottle from $22.00.

Best times to travel-: Southern Hemisphere …so once again I recommend August – February. We went end March and tho Yarra was just perfect, Apollo Bay was super chilly already!

Melbourne- a perfect symphony of youth and age!

I must admit that Melbourne was never on my map- never a city I dreamed of visiting and actually a city I had avoided once or twice during travel. It just seemed so city-ish, plain and boring and if there’s one thing I love about travel – it’s new experiences and the wonderful joy of experiencing new rhythms!

But last year during our anniversary we were encouraged by Tourism Australia to add Melbourne on our itinerary ! “You’ll love it!” They promised and skeptically I went ahead with it!

They were right. I was wrong!

Post my first trip I have been to Melbourne several more times and the last time stayed for over a week on work and just really explored the city….and LOVED IT! In this post , I am just giving you an idea of some of the must do’s in Melbourne, some of the must-see’s and some of our most memorable , fun experiences!

We arrived in Melbourne to an afternoon of glorious sun! The Crown Towers is a fabulous hotel, beautifully placed on the banks of the Yarra River! It stands tall, imposing and modern overlooking the wonderful, youthful city of Melbourne with it’s beautiful old world charm! I say youthful and old world because several old building – the Old treasury Building and the Post Office have all been remarkably kept and preserved from the outside and yet inside you have young entrepreneurs with shops and boutiques, coffee shops and funky shoes- a beautiful symphony of old meets young! Watch the Crown Towers at night tho…. with fire roaring from it sides and the casino coming to life- it’s definitely the place to be!

Day 1 quickly turned to evening and off we were on a romantic carriage drive to THE PRESS CLUB!  The Press Club is the flagship venue for chef and restauranteur George Calombaris. I have a huuuuuge Australia’s MasterChef geek and for me this was a place I wanted to my homage to a place I’d heard so much about! 

The Press Club was beautifully placed and comfortably lit; though a tad small for the number of diners! The majority of the diners were Australian so it is obviously very, very popular in Melbourne as well. What amused me tremendously was a couple on the nearby table (and all the tables were a bit too close !) photographing every dish as it arrived and then photographing it as she ate it bite by bite! Tedious, a bit nuts…but that showed the amount of fans The Press Club has. The food was a bit heavy for us and I do not know how it is possible for anyone to eat the entire Degustation menu unless you’ve not eaten for days! But all in all spectacularly plated, wonderfully attentive service and tasty food though a tad too heavy for me / or for the weather!

The next morning we set off walking across the bridge towards the yellow building that we would later come to know as Flinders Street Station. We were supposed to meet our guide there who was going to take us on a Hidden Secrets- Streets and Arcades tour of Melbourne. Now despite the fact that I hate tours and touristy traps-  I decided that this seemed an interesting tour! The best way to get the feel of a city is by walking and that’s what the tour promised! Our guide was fabulous  and knowledgeable and suddenly we were opening doors that you might have missed in lanes that you may never have visited and like Alice in Wonderland finding new exciting world’s underground, in “closed” buildings and in lanes you’d never have visited! 3 out of our group of 8 were actually Melbournians who’d heard about thetour and wanted to explore these tiny bylanes, these quaint shops and these fascinating secrets!

What I LOVED, LOVED, LOVED were the beautiful graffiti streets. Commissioned graffiti is done by local artists and displayed on these streets. Bright, striking and always changing- this was the perfect was to brighten a small lane and take the usually taboo graffiti and make it wonderful street art!

We stopped for a coffee at Koko Black at Melbourne’s historic Royal Arcade which has a Gaunt’s Clock which is flanked by two giant statues of the mythical figures of Gog and Magog. Since its implementation in 1892, the two mammoth statues have struck chimes at every hour, and can be heard resounding throughout the arcade. It was a wonderful break point with games shops, ancient doll shops , sweet shops and even shops on Wicca! Aditya signed a few autographs here and we took a few photographs with a couple of fans who had followed all of his music videos and ads and had a fabulous cup of coffee with the most incredible piece of chocolate and knew that this would be one stop we’d keep returning too!

The tour was definitely the high point of the day- though I strongly urge you NOT to sign up for their lunch! The lunch is bland and disappointing and with so many fabulous cafes and small restaurants in Melbourne DO NOT get stuck in a tasteless Mexican (?!) place!

Instead eat at this quaint cafe behind the GPO- Cafe De Vin! The most delicious pizzas and coffees and so , so, so cute!

After that incredible lunch, I suggest you spend the rest of the day exploring the lanes at your leisure! Do not forget to stop by Myer Melbourne….a one stop shop for some fabulous local designers!

Another really awesome thing about Melbourne is that opposite Flinders Street Station is the Tourism Office where you can travel on FREE Visitor Shuttles and trams which give you information about the city AND also stop at all the major landmarks. You can listen to the commentary, get off at a stop and get back on a couple of hours later!

The trams are incredible- a network of efficient , comfortable and beautifully historic. The tram stops focus more on the history of Melbourne and you can get some incredible photographs! Take the Free shuttle though if you want to shop and some of the more popular tourist stops or visit the well known Queen Victoria Market!

The Queen Victoria Market is massive. You can get everything from pet supplies, to baby clothes, to meat! The price is right and the choice is aplenty! But remember the soft toys may have their flaws and when you get 3 for a dollar don’t expect them to be soft or flawless ! It’s a place to pick up tourist souvenirs and keepsakes but for anything luxury or more fancy I’d recommend you stick to the main Bourke Street!

Another wonderful trip of ours was to Fenix Restaurant– Gary Mehigan’s restaurant (another MasterChef judge!)…. you see I AM obsessed! This was a trip we took one day for lunch! Almost 45 minutes outside of the city via tram, I’m assuming because of all the stops and because it took us time to find the correct route; we arrived late at the restaurant! Seeing our harried , worried faces; they thoughtfully seated us immediately and promised they’d do their best to ensure we get our orders in DESPITE us not having been able to keep our reservation! I ordered a grilled fish and Aditya a chicken. the meal was delicious. Light, almost airy, perfectly seasoned and finger licking good ; we were so glad we found the restaurant! Fenix , unlike Press Club has tons of natural light coming in. It is white and bright! The service was spectacular and the food was worth the change of trams and the route confusions!

Another restaurant I recommend is Jacques Reymond! This is a converted home and part of the Relaix and Chateaux chain of luxury hotels and gourmet restaurants. The restaurant was probably the living room of an old home, beautifully restored and retaining the essence of luxury and comfort. The food was phenomenal and we could see Jacques pottering in and out of his kitchen making us feel like we were guests at his home!

What I also love about Melbourne is that the city is forever on Celebration mode- whether it’s an Arts Festival or a Theatre Festival or a Comedy Festival – there’s always something happening and it’s always soooo , soo fun! The last time I was there I was participating with my team in the Melbourne Theatre Fringe Festival and half way thru the festival another one started celebrating Angels and Demons (!?)  with some fabulous art work across the city!

This entire post has covered Melbourne’s food scene but for a true Melbournian life is in the cups of coffees and the fabulously plated food! With over 300 coffee shops in a few kilometers you will understand the Melbourne obsession with the perfect brew and the perfect meal!

In between the hundreds of fabulously brewed cups of coffee we did take the car out to the Great Ocean Road and to Yarra Valley…! But more on that next week!

Price Factor-: Melbourne , like the rest of Australia is a tad expensive for food and hotels with 5 star hotel prices averaging $200- 500 for some of the better 5 star hotels! But with so much the city has to offer for tourists FOR FREE, it is definitely a city where the Tourist rules! Tourism is made easy and uncomplicated!

Best times to travel-: Southern Hemisphere …so remember March- July is more than a BIT COLD!!! August- Feb is fabulous…a DEFINITE WINTER VACAY Destination!

 

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