Sunday, January 5, 2014

Andamans: The Heavenly Islands

While thinking of taking a holiday, one is always swayed by the beautiful pictures and tales of how some friend had enjoyed during their international vacations.

However, India too has a great deal to offer in terms of holiday destinations - snow-capped mountains, deserts of Rajasthan, great beaches, serene islands, jungle safaris, lot of historical monuments and a lot more. The destinations just need to be better promoted and they can compete with any global destination.

So, when in September of 2012, my family decided to go for a holiday, we were confused as to which part of this great country we wanted to pick. 

After some research and browsing the internet, we decided to travel to a place that people don't generally recall when they think of India - The Andaman islands. 

The Andaman and Nicobar islands is an archipelago in the Bay of Bengal with greater proximity to Myanmar and Thailand than India but a very important part of India. The British, during their rule used these islands as a place to deport political and criminal prisoners. The islands still retain a lot of their natural beauty because it still has not been over-exploited by the tourism industry.

Since my parents were also traveling who are not too comfortable with unplanned trips, my father decided to use a travel agent to plan out compete itinerary - my first such trip ever. 

Since there is no direct flight from Mumbai to Port Blair, the capital of the islands, I took a Jet Airways flight with a stopover at Chennai. After landing at Chennai airport at night and spending the night at my aunt's house, I caught a morning flight from Chennai to Port Blair. 

I had my brother and cousin sister for company and my parents were flying in from Delhi. We planned our flights in such a manner that all of us landed at approximately the same time. 

The airport is a nice, small and cozy airport nestled between the hills in the city. 

We landed at around lunch time and were taken to our hotel straight away. After having a nice lunch, we decided to head to the Corbyn's Cove beach. One of the first things we noticed after getting  there was a big signboard saying, " Beware of crocodiles". On inquiring, locals told us that a crocodile was spotted there a week before, hardly a comforting fact. 

View at Corbyn's Cove beach

Monday, December 30, 2013

Eurotrip (Chapter 2): Czech Republic - Prague

Chapter 2: Praha Sojourn

We woke-up to a bright sunny morning in our dorm in Prague (capital of Czech Republic for the uninitiated). The hostel dorm here was much larger and the breakfast had more options than Cinema Hostel of Krakow. Rohan had joined us from his bungee jumping detour and was already asking us to join him for sky diving. We decided to avoid the topic for time being and went out to see the city.

First  spot - the old town square (Staromestske namesti) of Prague. Like most other European capitals, old town plaza in Prague is the heart of the city and overflowing with tourists. Each building in the square is rich with history, full of colors and a treat for your eyes. The buildings are mostly gothic in architecture with elaborate designs on brightly painted fronts.

The Gothic architecture of Prague
The cobbled streets are overflowing with cafes, excited tourists, and street performers – the best of all European experiences. And no description of Prague town center could be complete without the Astronomical Clock. It is most recommended sightseeing spot of Prague and is bang at the centre of the square. The clock is an intricate piece of machinery with roman numerals and zodiac signs, all overlapping in an indecipherable way (at least to the untrained eye). There are four animated figures (each representing one sin or something similar) around the clock that do a periodic motion every hour when the bell rings.  This results in an amusing drama every hour as tourists rush to capture the clock figures in motion. (The most competitive clickers seemed to be Chinese/Koreans and yeah I am a bit racist)

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Eurotrip (Chapter 1): Poland - Krakow and Auschwitz

Some holidays are break from monotony, some are a learning experience, some are just too much fun but only few trips are all this and more. The east Europe trip that we did last year was one such amazing trip.

The three protagonists – Tauseef, Rohan and Me. All three are boring bankers, tired of their daily office routine and looking for a break in the most literal sense.

Prologue – For Tauseef and me, this was not our first brush with Europe and we both had seen a lot of the west European countries. So we decided to go off the beaten track – an East Europe trip, covering Poland, Czech, Hungary and Romania. But Romania visa turned out to be an issue. Considering the hassle of flying to Delhi for interview at Romanian embassy, we dropped Romania from the itinerary. Now suddenly 5 days opened up in our 15 days plan.

After poring over political map of Europe for hours, we were still undecided. We picked Istanbul for two days, the reason was our cheap flight to Europe with a transit at Istanbul. This meant that we just needed to take our Istanbul to Mumbai flight 2 days later and spend two days in Istanbul. Also, Turkey provided Visa on Arrival for Schengen visa holders. But 3 days were yet unaccounted for.

Then Tauseef's boss, troubled by his googling in office for “European best places to visit”,  decided to assist. His suggestion - Croatia. We googled and were impressed in minutes. Dubrovnik, Zagreb, Hvar, Split and Plitvic – all perfect places to go. Also, while he was talking to his boss, a colleague (Rohan) of his overheard and came asking to join. He checked with me and I thought – the more, the merrier.

Flight – Turkish Airlines (Go - Mumbai to Vienna via Istanbul; Return – Zagreb to Mumbai via Istanbul)
Plan – 2 days in Krakow, 3 days in Prague, 3 Days in Budapest, 3 days in Zagreb/Dubrovnik and 2 days in Istanbul

Visa – Initiated through VFS. We had selected Austrian Embassy for our Schengen considering it was our port of entry but turned out that visa application has to be processed through the country with longest stay – Czech Republic in our case. We had to show a longer stay in Vienna (thanks to Hostel Booker, we booked cheap stay for the same) to get the process done through Austrian Embassy. This was important as Austrian Embassy is in Mumbai. Though later we realized, we were not even required to visit the Embassy for the 15 days tourist visa. The visa came in ten days and we were all set to go.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Jordan - Amman, Petra, Dead Sea and..... Snow !!!

As the end of the year approached, it was time for our annual leisure trip - the only criteria being that the location needs to be an offbeat one.

A number of options were discussed and we zeroed in on Jordan. The reasons being
1. Fulfilling the criteria mentioned above
2. My wish (and my friend Tauseef's) of visiting Petra and Dead Sea
3. Very importantly, availability of Visa-on-arrival

Both of us were to reach on Monday evening and leave by the Saturday evening flight - so in all we had about 5 full days - or so we thought.

The first advice to everyone for obtaining visa on arrival. There are not too many requirements - just have your flight tickets and hotel bookings in place and carry USD 1000 in cash (you may get a visa with lesser cash as we did, but it becomes a hassle)

After completing the visa formalities, we took the airport shuttle which drops you to the city bus station (for 3 JD a person) and took a taxi from there to our hostel situated in the busy Downtown area of the city.

We reached around 6 pm and after checking in, we decided to explore the nearby areas with Rida, out hostel caretaker.

We visited the Rainbow street, the most happening street with its great cafes and shisha joints. Since it was a Monday night, the crowd was sparse and we were told that Thursday and Friday nights are more happening. So, we left to come back another day.

There were three distinct phases that we can divide our trip into:

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Amazing Amsterdam

Amsterdam is known for things - a beautiful canal city (for the travelers), the city of Ajax Amsterdam (for the football lovers) and the place where hash and prostitution are legal (for most others).

So, when I was going to Amsterdam, I did not know which Amsterdam to expect. 

I was taking the train from Zurich after a full week of work and as with many of my travels, I had only one day to spend in the city. 

The train journey was interesting in itself with an African american singer and his friend for company in my cabin  and an great chatting session I had with 6-7 people from different nationalities sitting on the floor of the cycle compartment in the train.

I got down at the railway station and went to the tourist counter and asked what could be done for a day. He started by saying - "Go out, take a left, there the red light district". Looking at the reluctance on my face he suggested other places like Dam square, the Tussad's museum and because of my admission as a football fan, a tour to the Ajax stadium. 

I decided to go to the Dam square and take it from there. I took a public transport 24 hour pass, that gave me access to all buses and trams and that is the thing I like about European cities, the ease of use of public transport.
The Dam square - the tourist hotspot