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The Tranquility of Kumarakom

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From Vivanta by Taj Malabar to Vivanta by Taj Kumarakom you can take a boat. Close to an hour either way, we decided to opt for a drive considering we were doing a backwaters boat trip the same evening.I’m glad we took the drive because it was wonderful to see Aditya’s photograph featured on one of the small shops we passed. Part of an old Peter England campaign, he was smiling down at us! Super cool!

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Great start to the day , the day was going to get even better. In the midst of a slice of green heaven the Vivanta by Taj Kumarakom almost merges in with the surroundings. Small quaint cottages banks of Vembanad Lake , private sit outs, bicycles to get you around the property…this property bring s you back to nature but still keeps in mind the luxury needs of it’s guests.We were welcomed in by Prince the F & B Director who we’d previously met when we had stayed at the Vivanta by Taj Maldives. We were famished , so grabbed a quick bite and headed to our rooms. The property is enormous so I’d recommend borrowing a bicycle from their bicycle shed and traveling around the property whenever you need to. It’s fun, it’s relaxing and you get to explore the entire property.

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Our cottage was beautifully furnished and tastefully decorated. With  a massive bedroom, lovely sit out and even an outdoor shower- ‘luxury rustic’ became the way I defined the hotel and my room.

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A quick nap later we were off on a gorgeous cruise amidst the backwater. The mangrove plants had made it difficult for the boat to come to the hotel so we took the boat from just across the hotel and marveled at the expanse of the lake which merged into the sea while the sun set.

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Prince knows me and penchant for romantic dinners and so a table was set with a special menu created just for Aditya and I on the banks of the lake where we could listen to some live music and eat undisturbed surrounded by just gorgeous swaying palms and listening to the fish as they leapt about in the lake below… The dinner was superb. The chef here is EXCELLENT so definitely come prepared with an appetite! The food is marvelous!

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The lake is lit at night thanks to the local Kerala women who are hired by the hotel to light up the lake at sunset…With gorgeous divas the lake looks so auspicious and divine in the night as you walk by the banks!

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The following morning after cycling to breakfast we fed some of the ducks and watched as the turtles came to feed on the banks of the lake. I fed a few and I must confess I had never really thought of turtles as hungry or greedy! Cute, very greedy and very friendly…this was a wonderful experience.

Our trip to Kumarakom was short, romantic and an idyllic relaxing getaway. Far away from the madness and noise of the city we found peace, calm, cycles and ducks 🙂 and had the perfect short break!

Cost-:$300 onwards but remember with very limited rooms… book well in advance… They tend to ALWAYS be full up !

Best Times to Travel-: November to February has great weather… we did Valentines day at Kumarakom and we had a pleasant, slightly chilly evening! Perfect!

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The Papal Audience

The 23rd of May this year was more special than ever. Birthdays have always been a big deal for me…but this birthday had been in the planning for a couple of years (almost 3 )!We were up and out of the hotel by 7 :30 am for our Vatican Visit. Why visit so early because every Wednesday the Pope himself would greet the crowds, pray with them, bless them and talk to them and this year WE were part of that incredible crowd!

My birthday fell on a Wednesday and divine help with a little extra nagging my husband allowed me to take the trip I had been dreaming about. I am not Catholic. And yet that day will still etched as one of the most incredible days of my life!

Vatican City is not far. It was barely a 20 minute bus ride. The tickets for the Papal audience are FREE but it is wiser to book through Viator or another agent so they can pick you up from your Hotel and organise the tickets for you once you get there. Our bus stopped at a Tourist shop but we had already been warned that if you’d like something to be blessed by His Holiness you might as well buy it elsewhere as prices were sky high for even the smallest of trinkets.

From the drop off point you travel by foot with the scores of visitors towards St. Peter’s Basilica and then you go through minimum security and rush to find a seat!

Tip-: Find a seat close to the barricade because the Pope’s car drives by there and you will be inches a way from him.

Grab a seat and then wait. The Papal Audience generally starts between 10 am and 10:30 and you will probably get in at least an hour and half to two hours before with your Tour Bus so do carry water and something to snack on as it is a very warm sun and quite a long wait!

The crowds are enormous- thousands of people- children,newlyweds, nuns, priests, tourists and many locals all gather for the Papal Audience. This is an occasion where His Holiness speaks to the crowds and blesses the scores of people who are here to listen to him!

I also particularly loved the Swiss Guards who were there to guard the Pope. Their colorful uniform just added to the excitement of this visit!

And then His Holiness gets driven in and thousands clap , cheer, hoot and pray! He smiles benevolently at all and does 2 whole rounds before going to the Pulpit and addressing the audience. The next hour is about blessings and prayer and no matter where in the world you are from or what faith you follow- the lessons are wonderful, the prayers perfect and the moments you spend during at the Papal Audience ethereal.

During the blessings different Christian groups from countries all over the world are acknowledged and blessed and the blessings are in several languages so no culture or country is left out. The Pope is cheered on like a rock star and you’ll hear shouts of “Benedicto! Bendicto!” still ringing in your ears long after the Audience with the Pope finishes.

The morning was so spectacular because of the incredible positivity you felt engulfed by. Even far away from my home and family, I was surrounded by love. What could be better than that?

Price Factor-: About $40 for a Papal Audience visit- should include a pick up from your hotel and a drop back to the centre of the city (if not to your hotel).

Papal Audience days-: Wednesdays

Dress Codes-: Ladies must have shoulders covered and ensure that all outfits are longer than knee length. No shorts permitted for men or women. Bring hats, sunscreen and water as it does get hot in summer!

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!

 

Breathing Underwater – the Maldives

It was an anniversary and yet another excuse to take off! The husband loves the sea and the surf and I love him so it was off to Maldives (my second trip) …his first!

The most amazing thing about Maldives is the landing. Surrounded by water on both sides , the runway is this narrow strip of land surrounded by an ocean of the mostbrilliant blue you will ever see! Despite the fact that the flight took off at an unearthly hour and I was almost running on no sleep for 2 days..when you see that beautiful blue…everything seems to look a whole lot brighter to you!

For this trip we were staying at the Taj Coral Reef. The General Manager of the Taj Exotica in Goa had moved there and was a friend and in in true Taj fashion promised us a fabulously romantic anniversary and we’d always had a wonderful time at the Exotica…so we  thought …why not! That’s the thing with the Taj…employees are never just merely employees! They become friends and confidantes. They know your family. They remember their tastes. They remember birthdays and anniversaries. For a true taste of home even when you’re far away…there’s always the fabulous Taj and so there we went!

The Taj Coral Reef is just one among tens of superb luxury resorts in the Maldives and the next time I return, I will probably shift between the islands. I’d love to do the Banyan Tree, Six Senses , One and Only and for a taste of home try the Taj Exotica Maldives!

This was our quick break and one island would be more than sufficient , I was sure to give my husband the beach break that he needed and me the Anniversary celebrations that I loved!

We arrived at Male airport and within minutes we were whisked away by Luxury speedboat to the the Taj Coral reef! The speedboat takes approximately 45 minutes and on the way there we were both exhausted. We lay down on the sun bed and my next memory is arriving at the Island!

I had always wanted to stay in a water bungalow…one that is above water and so that is what we chose! My dream had always been to sit out at night and gaze in to the expanse of the ocean or venture out bravely for a moonlit swim or wake up and roll over into the ocean! I must confess I DID THEM ALL!

The bungalow was exquisite and the ladder from our room taking us into the lagoon which lead into the ocean was a wonderful idea and one that excited me the minute I reached!

Traveling most of the night, we quickly ordered some food at the beautiful and very comfortable Reef Bar and went back to our room to sleep!

After our first dip in the ocean and a quick cup of coffee in the evening we headed to the beach where much to our amazement Stingrays are hand fed by staff and guests everyevening as the sun sets at about 6 p.m.! Wearing plastic gloves, I nervously joined Aditya as he  fed the great beats with ease! I approached my first stingray who eagerly gobbled the food off the palm of my hand and even allowed me to pat it on the head as if thanking me for my efforts before it swam away! There were tens of them, all hungry, all greedy, all eager and this was an absolute treat! This was a once in a life time experience and I will always treasure it!

Dinner was at Open-The Grill with a fabulous Japanese chef showing off his incredible knife skills while we treated to the best Teppenyaki grill specialities- meats and vegetables alike! A wonderful evening with the GM and his family almost became a wonderful morning as we talked, caught up and just relaxed!

The Anniversary was special. The morning started with a knock on the door and a champagne breakfast in bed! The entire outside of our bungalow had been decorated with flowers and balloons and it seemed like everywhere we went on the island, they wished us on our special day! A fabulous start gave both of us the energy to once again ‘Take the Plunge’ and so we did! From the pier we jumped off into the ocean! Running on the pier and taking a leap into the clear blue water felt fabulous, freeing and incredible!

The thing with Maldives is fish are everywhere! When we jumped off the pier we often displaced entire schools of tiny fish on their way to feeding or shocked a big fish who was just swimming around! In the Maldives and at Coral Reef you are surrounded by the most beautiful fish- of varied colours and sizes and you can see them through the water which almost serves as a sheet of glass! You don’t need to snorkel to see the incredible marine life…it’s right there in front of you!

We are both avid snorkelers and divers and so by mid afternoon we headed to a nearby shipwreck to see more marine life and more coral! The coral in Maldives is every imaginable colour. The pinks are so pink. The yellows are cheerful and the blues and greens are subtle and melt in to the aquamarine waters! The ship wreck was fabulous,fantastic and fun but completely exhausting! For sunset we had a wonderful surprise. We were dropped on a sand patch/ small island that only reveals it self during low tide and so for a few hours in  a day you can sit in this small strip of land surrounded by water on all sides and just ‘BE.’

And at night it was a private moonlit dinner at a table set at the edge of the pier where during dessert we were able to spot a reef shark on it’s nightly hunt! Exhilarating, exciting and yet gloriously calm- that for me will always be Maldives!

Price Factor-: Maldives is expensive with Luxury Hotel rates looking to be between 500-800 dollars a night. Worth it? YES DEFINITELY especially if you’d like to explore the water… A kingdom more beautiful than earth by far , more colorful and infinitely quieter 😉

Best times to travel-: It is traditionally warm throughout the year.  But it may rain a bit between May and October….! The best time to travel, I believe however…is whenever you’d like to go!

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