Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Gujarat Getaway! - Morvi (Part 2)

We woke up at Divan’s Bungalow and ate our last meal-delicious Bataka Pauva and Theplas for brunch. 

The Sabarmati Railway Station, Ahmedabad

Chai Addiction 
We left for the station a lot earlier, as we were told that the traffic is unpredictable in Ahmedabad. We were ready with iPods and books for our train journey on the Saurastra Mail. We overdosed on ‘Cutting’ Chai during our travel. We reached Wankaner late in the evening. We were booked at Darbargadh Palace, a 19th century heritage hotel in Morvi also known as Morbi. The hotel had organized a taxi for our pick-up from the railway station. It was one hour car journey from the station to the hotel. We reached perfectly in time for dinner. We were taken to our room – Kesarba Mahal. The room was large enough to play cricket in, it had gold upholstery and a beautiful four poster bed. The size of the bathroom was easily larger than our apartments back home. Our camera didn't do justice to the beauty of the room. :(  Even the walls surrounding us were covered with fabric with intricate gold motifs.  We had especially called the team at Darbargadh Palace in advance and asked them to prepare non-vegetarian food for us. We went down to eat dinner in the courtyard near the swimming pool. We were served chicken Biryani, Kadhai Paneer and Dal in the typical Neemrana style- warm and graceful. The famous homemade mango ice-cream that mostly all Neemrana properties across India serve, was served here too. Delectable!

Kesarba Mahal 

The list to do for the next day was to explore the not-so-known city- Morvi (or Morbi) . The city is known for the numerous ceramic tile manufacturers. There are approximately 500 such factories there! And of course, it is also known for Darbargadh Palace and the famous Art Deco Palace (1931 AD).

Darbargadh Palace with a large courtyard at the entrance, and a fountain in the centre, it seemed to take us back in time and feel like royalty. Wanting to explore the rest of the property, we started looking at the rooms. Each one bigger than the previous one, we were amazed by the grandeur and style of this heritage hotel. Like every other Neemrana property, each room had a different colour scheme and you could not find two similar rooms in the hotel. With a total of 8 rooms, this was a perfect weekend getaway for a large group. Breakfast was served in the open, the same place where we ate dinner the previous night. Paranthas, eggs and toasts with Neemrana’s own produce- flavoured jams gave a perfect start to the day. 

View from Kesarba's Terrace. 
We headed out to explore the city. Starting with the Mani Mandir, a temple built in 1935 by Thakor Saheb Sir Waghj. It was just a 10 minute walk from Darbargadh Palace. You could easily ask the hotel to organize a rickshaw to take you there as well. The Mani Mandir was under renovation at the time. It is situated in the courtyard of Wellingdon Secretariat. It is also known for its intricate carvings, arches and jaalis. It depicts images of Lord Ram, Goddess Lakshmi and Kaali. During the 2001 earthquake, Mani Mandi and Darbargadh Palace were both significantly damaged. The entire second storey of the palace was ruined and does not exist anymore. The Royal family of Morbi has now taken responsibility of restoring Mani Mandir and transforming the building into a museum. 

Mani Mandir

We walked back to Darbargadh Palace after a sneak peek of the Green Tower from a distance which is inspired from the ‘Eiffel Tower’ of Paris, Maharaja Lakhdhirji planned the Green Tower. It is absolutely green and hence the name! 

Breakfast, Neemrana Style 

Jhulta Pul, Morbi 

We were then taken to the Jhulta Pul or The Suspension Bridge over the Machchu River. This is where the locals come with their families in the evenings. There were toddlers running on the bridge. The Darbargadh Palace also has a private entry to the bridge! It was built to give a scientific identity to Morvi using the latest technology. It connects the Darbargadh Palace and Lakhdirji Engineering College. 

We then went back to Darbargadh Palace for dinner. There was paneer makhani with naan, spaghetti in white sauce and delicious crème caramel made especially for us. We overate as usual and then slept early as we had a 6 am train back to Ahmedabad and then an 11 am flight back home.

Monday, 7 January 2013

The Gujarat Getaway - Ahmedabad (Part 1)

We boarded our Indigo Flight at 6.30 am to fly to Ahmedabad. Neither of us had ever visited the city before. Wanting to stay at Neemrana’s Divan’s Bungalow, we were excited about our tour in this unfamiliar city. Ferried by a cab, we were taken to the heritage hotel which was located in a place called Raikhad. A perfect fit it was; situated in the old part of Ahmedabad. A drive from the airport to anywhere in the city would be sufficient enough to remind you that you were in Gandhi’s hometown, with murals and paintings on the walls depicting important instances of India’s freedom struggle.   

We were welcomed by quaint shops and horse carriages- meant for Indian weddings through the lane leading to the property. A typical roomali-roti wala stood on the street behind Divan’s Bungalow. It is the ancestral home of the Kadri family, designed by an English architect who did an exquisite job with the Parsi-Muslim architecture. It is now inherited by I.M Kadri, a renowned architect who designed the Taj Mansingh, Delhi and The Oberoi, Bangalore.

A white coloured building, with a fountain in the compound made it look absolutely bright and shining ! The most peculiar features of the property were its large Jharokas and colourful interiors. We were escorted to the best room at the property – Siraj Khana. The room was gigantic, equipped with all the modern facilities such as free WiFi and an LCD television. However, being Neemrana travelers, we refused to even look at the television. :P The colour of our room- Blue looked stunning coupled with a bright blue chandelier. What we loved in our room were the Jharokhas jutting out where we sat during our free time looking out at the external happenings.

Now we needed some real food !! We settled down in our room and decided that we were starving! The manager’s wife was the chef at Divan’s Bungalow. She cooked us authentic, vegetarian Gujju food. We stuffed ourselves with Gujarati kadhi, bhindi stuffed with paneer and soft phulkas, feeling pretty much like being pampered at home. What a delight it was! The warm hospitality and friendly service made it all better.

Curious to know more about the property, we went out to see the other rooms at the property. Being a recent addition to Neemrana’s portfolio, the property seemed fresh and welcoming. Every room being different with a different view meant various rates that a traveler could choose from. The upper category rooms were as large as suites, having a separate ante-room apart from the main bedroom. Having a particular colour scheme, each room had a character of its own.

We finally left the property to explore Ahmedabad. We were suggested to visit Swati Snacks by some of our friends. The restaurant was located right next to Law Garden around which there is a popular flea market held every night. We ate Vada Pao, Pani Puri and Pao Bhaji. What caught our attention was an attractive, colourfully-lit board that mentioned the fresh juices they had to offer, specially for the day. We ordered a Fresh Watemelon Juice. They also had other traditional specialties such as Handvo, Batata Shak, Dal Dhokli, Patra, Dhokla & Dhanshak on their menu. We paid approximately Rs. 600/- for the three of us.

With all work completed for Day 1 and some enjoyment we decided to call it a day. Waking up the next morning, we had an agenda for the day. The chef gave us delicious Dhokla and Poha for breakfast. We picked up a book to read from a mini library located near the dining area. All the books had stamps of the Kadri Family.

The next planned visit was to Induben Khakhrawala- a much famous shop that sells various kinds of Gujarati snacks. Khakhra is a Gujarati snack prepared by mixing wheat flour with other ingredients to form dough and rolled in a circular thin layer by hand and roasted on a hot plate till the moisture evaporates. They had numerous flavours of Khakhras and mini Khakhras such as Fungreek, Ghee, Cumin, Black Pepper, etc . They also sold Namkeen, Spices, Pickles Chutneys, Syrups and Sweets; all typical to Gujarati taste-buds. We had two bags filled with all their specialties. Now, all we had to worry about was how to carry them to our next destination – Morvi and then on our flight back to Delhi.

The same night, we visited Agashiye, a famous restaurant for dinner. On the way, we stopped at Sidi-Saiyed’s mosque that was built in 1573, famous for its intricate carvings and jaalis(windows). So much so, that it inspired the design of IIM-Ahmedabad’s logo. Agashiye’s speciality was authentic Gujarati thalis had portions of all that one could ask for ! Fully vegetarian Papads and pulses, chickpeas and chutneys, rice and rotis, veggies and farsan(dhokla), curd, churans, pans and halwa(sweet dish)at the end. Not to miss the sugary Gujarati flavor in all of these !! 

Can’t do without non-vegetarian food ? For this, one may go back to the kitchen at Divans’ Bungalow, where the lady who used to cook for the Kadri family now cooks meat delicacies for the guests. Freshly prepared with utmost authenticity,  you’re sure to fall in love with it !

A history-lover; if you have some spare time on your hands some must visits are : Calico Museum of Textiles, Hathee Singh Jain Temple and Sabarmati Ashram which is Gandhi’s home. Returned to our hotel, we retired for the day as we had a train to our next destination-Morvi.
                                                                                                               ~ Rhea Bhel & Aanya Khanna

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Tranquil Tranquebar

Woke up early in the morning in my hotel La Maison Tamoule because I was unimaginably excited about my one night trip to Tranquebar. I ate breakfast, walked around the neighbouring streets looking for gifts to take home. The streets were empty as it was Independence day. There were some great shops selling clothes and footwear. Don’t miss the factory outlet of Hidesign if you ever visit Pondicherry. After almost emptying my wallet there I went to a cute little Italian restaurant called La Pasta on Vysial Street. The lady chef there makes excellent fresh pasta and sells it to people who pick it up on their way home from work. She suggested I try her meat lasagne, which I did. I was eating a decent Italian meal after a long long time. I quickly ate and went back to the hotel to pack my stuff and relax a little before my journey. My taxi arrived right on time. I was ready to go!

It was approximately a two and half hour drive to Tranquebar, Nagapattinam district. Tranquebar is also known as Tharangambadi or the ‘place of the singing waves. The drive there felt like years as I was travelling alone.  I was told to stop by at Chidambram as it is on the way but I didn’t have enough time. I love travelling around South India because there are just so many things to see. The colourful houses (magenta, orange, bottle green – just name your favourite colour), palm trees, beaches, et all. You do get a little more attention if you’re fair though, which gets a little annoying at times. You see lots of Neemrana Hotels’ boards directing you to Tranquebar. Tranquebar is also supposed to have the thickest ozone layer in India. Wow. There’s a good chance you would’ve never heard of this place if you are from North India or any other part of the world, except for Denmark maybe (will be explained later).

Danish Land Gate, Tranquebar. Built in 1792

Street restored by INTACH
I reached my hotel - The Bungalow on the Beach in Tranquebar a quaint town in Tamil Nadu. I was taken to my room called Queen Anna Sophia named after a Danish Ship. The colour theme of the room was blue. Yeah, I did suddenly get an overdose of that colour with the sea and all that. Queen Anna Sophia opened up into a common verandah, which looked at the vast, gigantic, empty Ocean with a couple of fisherman boats which were minuscule. There was a colourful Hindu Temple on the left and the Dansborg Fort on my right. I had carried my portable speakers (I’m usually pretty equipped when travelling) so I put on my iPod and let John Mayer, Jack Johnson and Pink Floyd help me unwind.  I sat there with a cup of Earl Grey tea, without a sound staring into the sea for about three to four hours, and that wasn’t adequate time. For the first time in months I didn’t want to see my cell phone, laptop or any other gadget, rare it was. And I wasn’t the only one happy doing nothing. The guests in the neighbouring room were doing the exact same thing. This is considered to be abnormal behavior of people that reside in my part of the country.  

Queen Anna Sophia
The Pool at The Bungalow on the Beach
The Common Room on the first floor of The Bungalow on the Beach
Reception at The Bungalow on the Beach
The Bungalow on the Beach
I was told that dinner was laid out downstairs and would be served soon. The dinner at The Bungalow on the Beach was served in a corridor by the swimming pool.  I always ask for suggestions from the steward (you should too). So I asked for a seafood sizzler and crème caramel as he suggested. Fresh fish! My epic day had its perfect ending. I ate at a tortoise’s speed, hoping the day wouldn’t end. I went back to my room, tried to read a book. I was sleeping before I could reach the page eight of the book. Typical. 

Dansborg Fort, Tranquebar

Gate House, Tranquebar

Courtyard, Gate House

Garden of Gate House

The next day I decided not to waste time. I went down for breakfast and left to go see Gate House and Thanga House (also with Neemrana Hotels). The Gate House is a two minute walk from The Bungalow on the Beach. It has six rooms and is a restored traditional Tamil home. Thanga House is also a traditional Tamil Home near The Bungalow on the Beach on a street which is restored entirely by INTACH.  

After that I went to see the Dansborg Fort, which is the second largest Danish fort in the world. Tranquebar was a Danish colony from 1620 to 1845. I could see the fort from my room as well, but I had to visit it. There was also the governors residence which will soon be converted into a museum and a 17th century church. 
Dansborg Fort, Tranquebar 
The Tsunami hit Tranquebar on the 26th of December, 2004 and nearly 800 persons died but the 400 year old Danish Fort was not affected at all. The oldest Lutheran church in India was also built here in Tranquebar in 1706. I studied History in school till the 12th grade and I didn’t have an inkling about any of these facts.

Our Lady of Angels Church

After all that sightseeing, I went to take a stroll and relax by the beach. After an hour or so I decided to leave Tranquebar to visit Karaikal, another major port city of South India. Karaikal is a 20 minute drive from Tranquebar. It is known for the Karaikal Ammayar Temple & The Church of Our Lady of Angels. I took approximately 15 minutes to see the entire town and then I left to go back to the Pondicherry Railway Station to take a train back to Bangalore.   
                                                                                                                                                        ~Rhea Bhel

Saturday, 22 September 2012


I travelled to Chennai and was very excited about the week ahead. The plan was to travel alone and meet up with friends and acquaintances in Pondicherry.  When all the friends backed out of the plan, thankfully it didn’t change my mind. I guess the company wasn't as important :P !

The hotel had arranged an airport pick up for me beforehand. Although the driver was instructed to ferry me directly to Pondicherry, my mind was wandering as to where I could stop on the way. Mahabalipuram was high on the priority list as my colleague who is an architect told me that it was a must visit. I wished to reach Mahabalipuram through the East Coast road as the drive offers breathtaking views of the Indian Ocean.

Shore Temple, Mahabalipuram
After some research before touring out, I figured that Mahabalipuram was actually a 7th century port city of the Pallavas which is now flooded with tourists. The monuments are mostly rock-cut and monolithic, and constitute the early stages of Dravidian architecture with some Buddhist elements of design. I got the opportunity of seeing a few important structures like Thirukadamallai, Varaha cave temple, Shore temple and the Pancha Rathas. Another two hour drive from Mahabalipuram and I was at my destination - my hotel - La Maison Tamoule in the Tamil quarters of Pondicherry. The hotel is a restored property that is situated on the Vysial Street; the street that was awarded the best restored street by INTACH. One can so imagine how beautifully this would have been restored. One must view ‘before-after’ photographs of the property to get a fair idea about the amount of time and resources that would have been spent on the restoration.

Pondicherry Gate
Once I reached La Maison Tamoule, though I was starved, the first thing I wanted to do was to have an elaborate tour of the property. This was my first time in Pondicherry and having heard of the restored streets; Tamil and French quarters of the city, I wanted to explore it all. As a first step, I was quickly escorted to the room that I had booked. As interesting as the other concepts of the brand- Neemrana like no televisions, beautifully restored buildings; in this property the rooms are named after Navaratna stones. Mine was called ‘Ruby’ and was located on the first floor.  The non-hotel Hotel had polished red Attangadi tiled flooring, colourful stained glass arches and stunning teak furniture as well. 

La Maison Tamoule

The room’s balcony had a view of an art gallery that was directly opposite to the heritage hotel. As I was new to the city and it was my first time here, I took help of a non-human this time- a guide and map (ActuPondy & Define) of the city. Both of these have popular restaurants, hotels and places to see that are marked clearly and help one choose where to go. Since I am a foodie and love to experiment with the kind of food I eat, I wanted to visit restaurants that served authentic French food. After all, the taste of great food is something you can’t ever forget. At least I can’t ! 
Satsanga was my first pick; a French-Mediterranean restaurant on Rue Labourdonnais street, a cute garden restaurant in the White Town. They served excellent Steak au Poivre!  To keep myself awake after all the tiredness, I desperately needed a cup of hot coffee and so Coffee(dot)com on Rue Romain Rolland was where I chose to relax.  A quaint and beautifully designed coffee shop with internet located on Rue Romain Rolland allowed me to connect with friends in Delhi! I also visited Le Club for dinner as it is an extremely popular French restaurant, the very same day. My schedule for the day also included a visit to the Sri Aurobindo Ashram, a very well known place in Pondicherry. A very well-planned city with Indian and French buildings was a treat to the eyes, especially when most of the city was explored by me on foot ! The city being relatively smaller in terms of area didn’t require me to hire a vehicle to reach a destination.

The Bar at Le Club

In sync with the old world charm of the place, Rue Romain Rolland has a couple of boutiques and shops selling antique furniture lined up. The city helps one relax and rejuvenate with peace all around. In case, one wants to do something exciting after a few hours of relaxation, Temple Adventures provides scuba-diving and surfing lessons!
Yellow auto-rickshaws of Pondicherry
Having done enough for the day, I returned to my hotel. A few hours of sleep was what I needed, only so that I could be fresh for the next day, my last day in Pondy. An elaborate breakfast at the restaurant at my hotel was how the second day started. Neemrana prepares jams of various kinds in-house at their hotel in Ramgarh. These are then served at all their properties across India. 

Breakfast at La Maison Tanmoule
In Pondicherry, how could one miss seafood. I stopped by at Café Rendezvous for lunch to eat Malabar fish curry after which I headed out to Auroville (finally!) with a friend.
Miniature of Matri Mandir

The shaded path to Matri Mandir
Auroville is an experimental township founded by the Shri Aurobindo Society and Mirra Alfassa also known as “The Mother” in 1968. The Mother believed that this township would contribute significantly to the progress of humanity towards its splendid future by bringing together people of goodwill and aspiration for a better world. At the entrance of Auroville, there is a visitors centre where the visitors are asked to watch a short video about the Township, The Mother and the philosophy behind the entire concept.  This is a great idea as it retains the meaning of a historical monument like this one and also helps one connect with the historical aspect of it.
Matri Mandir
Once permitted into the premises, one can view Matri Mandir from a distance. In order to maintain the sanctity of the place, only those who fill up a request form two days in advance are allowed entry into the interiors of the meditation centre. After grabbing an energy drink, I returned to the boutiques of Auroville that are known for incense sticks, cottonclothing (which are extremely comfortable), herbal syrups and pottery. I bought them all! The atmosphere of Auroville was so unbelievably calm and serene that it made me in total awe of the place. I then decided to bid adieu to my newly found peaceful haven and go back to Pondicherry.  

Hotel de l'Orient

I planned dinner at the famous Carte Blanche restaurant of Hotel de l’Orient for the night with a colleague who heads the South-Indian market for Neemrana Hotels. Carte Blanche is an open air courtyard restaurant which is known for its Creole Cuisine.  The Maitre d’ suggested us to order the Patchayi Erral Curry (Prawns curried in Mint and Coriander Sauce) and an Earl Grey Crème brûlée (I live for good Crème Brûlée)  We did exactly that. The food and ambience were both excellent and nothing could have been a more perfect ending to my visit to Pondicherry.  A return to my hotel in a rickshaw with the cool breeze surrounded by amazing sights just got me elated. I was now looking forward to my stay in Tranquebar the following day. 

Saturday, 28 July 2012

Our Annual Getaway to the Ramgarh Bungalows

We hopped onto the buses and other vehicles amidst all the excitement for the much awaited annual trip to The Ramgarh Bungalows, perched on the Kumaon hills.  An 8 hour drive from the capital, we were looking forward to a fun-filled road trip to the unexplored hills. Muffins and melody, songs and spirit, all of it made the drive an experience! Traffic jams and long halts did not dampen the mood of these excited minds. The monsoon created its own magic, making even the ordinary, come out alive!  The first view of the hills is always an exciting moment and the showers from heaven above lent a vibrant blue hue, so surreal that only our minds could capture! On reaching the hills, we found ourselves to be engulfed within whispering clouds, taking us far from realism.
Stepping out of our cars, the old-world charm welcomed us with its own sense of tranquility. Indulging in warm cookies, flavoured tea and tasty pakoras at the open terrace, overlooking the lush green valley, was exactly what we needed after a long drive. With plentiful flora around us, the colourful and exotic flowers were a real treat to the eyes! Falling straight from the trees, the peaches, plums and pears tasted a lot sweeter than the urban lot. These 19th century bungalows, 6500 feet above sea level distances one from stressful routines.  Carefully revitalized by the Neemrana brand in India, the cottages seemed in perfect harmony with nature as if they always belonged there!

Six different cottages set out at varied levels on the same route uphill, gave us a chance to walk the distance, amidst a magnificent backdrop of the hills. Each of these cottages has a character of its own. The main building ‘The Old Bungalow’ houses a few rooms and the main dining area, where the entire group would gather for interactive sessions. Spread over a large area, this structure has within its boundaries two more compounds called ‘The Rose Cottage’ and ‘The Vista Villa’ connected through short paths cutting through the fruit orchards. The hotel staff took us through these paths to show us the factory where Neemrana creates its own produce - natural jams that contain no preservatives. Connecting with colleagues over a sumptuous offering - an elaborate buffet was a fulfilling end to a long, tiring day!

The highest points ‘The Ashok Vatika’ and ‘The Cliff House’ were enveloped with dense clouds during heavy morning showers. The Blue and Green Rooms in The Ashok Vatika, are specially designed with bay windows framing wonderful views of the sunrise and the sunset. The exposed wooden rafters on the ceiling added to the warm ambience. A common lounge provided us with much needed entertainment; with a television and space to collect together for enjoyment and loud banter!

The uniqueness about each property under the umbrella of Neemrana Hotels is that every space is distinctively designed. True to its 21st century construction, ‘The Cliff House’ is designed in a contemporary fashion, unlike anything you would expect! With amazing pieces of artifacts and a rustic atmosphere, it creates just the perfect balance between the new and the old. ‘The Writer’s Bungalow’ has authentic colonial architecture, sloping tin roofs and stone walls covered with ivy. It looks spectacular at night with a string of lights dotting the roof eaves.

After a long spell of rain, it felt great to be warmed with a hot bowl of soup and a satisfying lunch. The mellow quality of sunlight enticed us into taking a long trek down till the river below. Watching the stunning sun set proved to be quite an antidote to the tiredness we felt.

The joy of dancing with colleagues around a bon-fire under a blue sky spotted with stars could only be experienced at this Ramgarh hotel! Such an interaction helped us bond better with teammates outside glass cabins. An enjoyable evening followed by a comfortable sleep at night was all we needed to refresh ourselves for a long drive early next morning. We left Ramgarh in high spirits with greater camaraderie to face new and exciting challenges that awaited us!