Thursday, November 14, 2013

Visakhapatnam (Vizag) - the "Jewel of the East Coast"

We visited Vizag in December 2010. [And, we are writing this blog in 2013, so some of details below might have changed in between.]

 Vizag (aka "Goa of the East") is the 2nd largest city in the state of Andhra Pradesh. Like Goa, it is famous for its sandy beaches - located on the coast of Bay of Bengal.



Vizag is not only a tourist destination, but also a large industrial city in its own right. As such, it is well connected via both trains and flights to major Indian cities. The airport, shared with the military, is at a distance of approximately 10km from the city. More than taxis, auto rickshaws are more numerous, and seem to be the preferred means of public transport here. As with auto drivers in any other Indian city, be sure to fix the price before boarding the auto.

There are many beautiful beaches in and around Vizag. The more famous one - Rishikonda beach - is at a distance of 11km from the city. The one in the city is known as Ramakrishna (R. K.) beach. While choosing a place to stay, people are thus divided between staying close to Rishikonda or R. K. beach. The choice of hotels is of course more in the city, though there are a few decent hotels on Rishikonda beach. Staying in the city - which we did - also has the benefit that you are closer to some of the other attractions worth visiting - described below.




A short distance away from R. K. beach is a local favorite Kailasagiri. It features huge statues of the Hindu gods Shiva and Parvati on a hilltop.  The white statues are really big, and very impressive. There is also a rope way with nice views that takes you to to hill top. Surrounding the statues is a small park with small cafes / fast food restaurants, so also a good spot to go up in the evening and relax.

Submarine Museum

Close to R. K. beach, another tourist attraction is the Submarine Museum. Vizag is a coastal town and also a base of the Indian Navy. There are thus many small / large naval memorabilia scattered throughout the city. The most impressive is perhaps the Submarine museum. The museum is basically an old submarine (INS Kursura) that has been decommissioned. While the inside is not very impressive, it is the closest most normal people will get to be inside an actual submarine - so recommended (if you have time).

Araku Valley

A visit to Vizag would not be complete without visiting Araku valley. A general trip to Vizag consists of spending a couple of days in Vizag, followed by day in Araku valley, before returning to Vizag. It is not so much the valley itself but the journey between Vizag to Araku valley that is to be enjoyed. It is possible to reach Araku valley by both train / bus from Vizag. For the best viewing experience, we recommend that you take the train one way and the bus / car while returning, or vice versa.



The train takes a very picturesque route among the hills. A unique feature of this route is the number of tunnels you encounter on the way, around 80. Some practical tips regarding the train. It gets very crowded, so be sure to book early. Actually, it gets really really crowded, so a few extra hundreds to book First class tickets are definitely recommended. 

Borra Caves


The primary reason to travel at least one way by bus / car is to visit the Borra caves on the way. The caves are an impressive natural phenomenon and usually rank very high in most 'Places to visit' lists in India, e.g. a sample list. The caves are basically limestone structures buried at a depth of 260 feet in the ground - making them one of the deepest in the country. The area is well lit but you have to walk quite a bit including climbing up / down a lot of stairs - so might not be suitable for old people.

There is also a coffee plantation on the way that is worth visiting if you tired of drinking the usual Nescafe and want to try something new: Ananthagiri


Staying in Araku Valley

While the valley has a few decent hotels, staying there is not recommended primarily due to the reason that there is absolutely nothing to do once evening falls. But then people look for different things in life for different reasons. So if you are looking to spend a night in solitude - high above the hills - gazing at the night sky - and doing whatever else you want - please feel free to spend a night there. Otherwise, don't say that we did not warn you. If you take the train from Vizag to Araku, you will reach there by ~11am, and then our suggestion would be to head back by car after having lunch at one of the restaurants there.


Dolphin's Nose Light House


Other places to visit while you are Vizag include the lighthouse in Yarada Konda hills. The lighthouse overlooks the entrance to Visakhapatnam harbor and offers great ariel views of the harbor. Although the lighthouse is no longer used, it still falls under military jurisdiction due to its strategic location and you can expect to see police / army presence around - but there is no checking / frisking etc. while entering the site.  

It takes around an hour and half by auto from Vizag to reach the light house. Almost half the journey, you will be climbing up the hills, so takes longer that it usually would for the same distance on flat land.  The views from the top are great but it is not recommended for claustrophobic people or people with heart problems as the final part of climbing stairs within the lighthouse is really narrow and you can feel trapped.



Saturday, October 26, 2013

New York in a day

NY Skyline

We visited New York in Fall 2013. This is not the first time we visited the NY area, but this is the first time we (finally) managed to put on our touristic hats and take a few snaps. As time was short - which we guess might be the case for a number of tourists - this post will be about maximizing your coverage of NY wonders in a day rather than a comprehensive description of NY 'sights to see'.

Starting point

If you are staying on the outskirts of NY, a good starting point is to arrive at the Penn Station (for trains) or the Port Authority bus terminal in NY. Both are within walking distance of the main attractions, such as Times Square, Empire State Building, etc. The traffic conditions are clearly not ideal for driving in NY, esp. not as a tourist. So be prepared for traffic delays if you use the bus. Trains / metro are clearly better in that respect but their stops may not always be the closest to your residence. 

The best way to explore NY is to get on a hop-on / hop-off bus tour. Unfortunately, we did not find any offers for a 24hr ticket, so instead had to settle for a Gray Line 48hr (all tours) ticket (link) for $54. Note that you can only buy their vouchers online. Once in NY, you have to go to their office to get the actual tickets. They have an office in the Port Authority bus terminal or you need to walk a few blocks to their main office: 777 8th Avenue.Also remember that while these buses run every 20-30 mins, they are often overcrowded and you might have to wait for half an hour or more to get on a bus from a stop - so take this into account while planning your trip.

Interesting trivia: While NY might seem a jungle of high rises at first sight, it is actually surprisingly easy to navigate. Just remember that all Avenues (Ave.) run North to South, while all Street numbers run East to West.


Statue of Liberty

Statue of Liberty

So you have a bus ticket: A worthy first target would be the Statue of Liberty. The Statue of Liberty needs no introduction and is clearly one of the most recognizable landmarks of the US.

To visit the Status of Liberty, take the downtown loop bus tour and get down at the stop: Statue of Liberty / Ellis Island. From here, you will get ferries that will take you to the island and you can visit the Statue of Liberty up close. However, the (airport like) security checks and huge crowds make it a very time consuming task - which you can ill afford on a 1 day trip.

An alternative is to walk a bit and take the Staten Island Ferry. The ferry connects Manhattan to Staten Island every half an hour or so. The ferry is free and offers close up views of the Statue of Liberty. The plan is to take the ferry to Staten Island and then return to Manhattan - overall approximately 1.30 hrs duration. Remember to ride on the starboard side of the ferry (right side facing the front) from Manhattan and the port side from Staten Island for the best views (to the west) - tip courtesy wikitravel.

The ferry also provides wonderful views of the NY skyline and Manhattan / Brooklyn bridges.

Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges

Brooklyn Bridge

Returning to Manhattan, keep walking back in the direction of Brooklyn bridge. If you took the downtown loop bus tour from the Gray Line main office, you would have encountered the Brooklyn bridge stop during the onward journey - so try to retrace your steps. Walking back a couple of stops also has the advantage that you can visit the World Trade Center (WTC) memorial site and Wall Street Bull in between.

The Brooklyn bridge is one of the oldest suspension bridges in the US, and definitely worth visiting. What is particularly interesting from a touristic point of view is that there is a walkway for pedestrians on the bridge.

Brooklyn bridge

The pedestrian walkway is particularly amazing in that you can feel the cars zipping by beneath you. You also get wonderful views of the adjacent Manhattan bridge and NY skyline.

Scenic view from Brooklyn bridge
Manhattan bridge

Times Square / Empire State Building / Rockefeller Center

While returning, take the downtown loop bus tour from the Brooklyn bridge stop and get down at the Rockefeller Center stop. From here you can easily walk to the other main attractions, such as Times Square, Empire State Building, or Saks 5th Avenue (for the shopping enthusiasts). Walking is the best way to feel the heart of this pulsating (also very crowded) city surrounded by giant buildings.

No trip to NY would be complete without an ariel view of the skyline, esp. at night. Now you can do this from the top of either Empire State Building or Rockefeller Center. Rockefeller Center is better in the sense that you can get amazing night views of the Empire State Building in all its glory from the top, so we chose the Rockefeller Center  - you need to get tickets for the Top of the Rock tour. Beware that tripods are not allowed here, though they seem to allow the table top kind of small tripods, so choose wisely. The Empire State Building Observation Deck, on the other hand, is more recommended for day time views as it offers amazing views of the Brooklyn / Manhattan bridges and Central Park.

Empire state building at night
Moonlit NY skyline
NY night skyline
NY skyline
Rockefeller plaza

Liberty State Park, NJ

Finally, if you are staying in NJ (as we were) and have absolutely no time to visit NY, the best way to get a feel of NY is to visit the Liberty State Park. The park offers close-up views of both the NY skyline and Statue of Liberty, without actually being in NY.

Liberty State Park

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Hiking in Bernese Oberland, Switzerland

We went for a 3 day hiking trip to the Bernese Oberland during an extended weekend in Sep 2013.

Hiking around Gelmersee

Bernese Oberland

Bernese Oberland is a rustic, absolutely scenic region, close to Bern. The good thing is that it is off the main tourist track, esp. for non-European tourists, so it does not get as crowded as some of the nearby places e.g. Interlaken. It also means that the region can be a bit difficult to navigate if you are not somewhat used to the local system / culture / language.

There are many places to visit, many alternatives where you can set up camp and continue exploring. A good starting point, esp. if you do not have a car, is to stay at a place which is well connected by trains. Fortunately, the public transport system in Switzerland is excellent and you can practically reach very remote places using a combination of trains / buses. The official Swiss railways site to look up train / bus itineraries: SBB.

For our trip, we stayed at a place called Meiringen. It is well connected by trains from Interlaken and falls on the GoldenPass line to Lucerne.

Scenic Switzerland

Aare Gorge

Once settled in Meiringen, our first port of call was the Aare Gorge. The gorge is a rock formation over the Aare river stretching 1400 meters and up to 200 meters long. 

Aare Gorge

The best way to visit the gorge is to take the MIB train from Meiringen station and get down at Aareschlucht Ost station.

You can then walk through the rock formation - visiting the gorge - reconnecting with the train at Aareschlucht West station. Expect to walk though some slopes, some slippery and dimly lit areas. It should be possible to complete the hike in an hour or so. Some formations along the way:

Reichenbach Falls (Reichenbachfall)

The 2nd place worth visiting, close to Meiringen, is the Reichenbach Falls. The falls is famous as the place of final confrontation between Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty in the "Final Confrontation". It is clearly a tourist attraction here given the existence of a Sherlock Holmes Hotel, Museum and Statue in the city. The best and easy way to access the falls is to take the Reichenbach Funicular which takes you to a vantage point offering great views of the falls.


Gelmer lake (Gelmersee)

Gelmersee lake on a foggy morning

Lake Gelmer (Gelmersee) is a very beautiful turquoise colored lake at a height of around 2000 meters nestled among rocky mountains. The best way to reach the lake is to take a PostBus from Meiringen to the bus stop Handegg. From there, take the Gelmerbahn or Gelmer Funicular to the top. Note that the funicular is also one of the steepest in Europe and travels over gradient of maximum 106% to a height of 1800 meters - so it is definitely not for the faint hearted but at the same time recommended for those looking for a thrilling ride. To give an idea of the the slope:

Once at the top, you can hike around the lake. There are well marked trails. Some trails are clearly quite difficult but it is still worth it to walk around the lake as long as you are comfortable with the trail. At the funicular base station, do not forget to experience the rope suspension bridge.

Suspension bridge to Gelmerbahn Tunnel in the mountains

Gelmer Hospiz

Another place worth visiting - and that can also be reached easily by public transport - is the Grimsel Hospiz. The 4* Grimsel Hospiz Hotel nestled high among the mountains is an absolute wonder.

Grimsel Hospiz Hotel

The dam on the Räterichboden lake (Räterichsbodensee), and a little further the dam on the Grimsel lake, are absolutely stunning.The dam is at a height of almost 2500 meters above sea level.

Räterichsbodensee - Grmisel dam
Mountainous terrain - view from Grimsel Hospiz
Foggy Grimselsee surrounded by mountains

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Bulgaria - the land of sun kissed beaches

We visited Bulgaria in Summer 2013.

Golden Sands beach, Bulgaria

Bulgaria is a country in transition. The communist ruins are evident everywhere in the main cities. Dwelling a bit on the history lessons we received during our tours, it is easy to understand the 'Communist' link. Around 15-20000 Russian soldiers laid down their lives to help Bulgaria gain freedom from the Ottoman empire. So naturally Bulgarians feel indebted towards the Russians and relation with neighboring Turkey are tense.

Coming back to the present, Bulgaria is really trying to come out of its Communist past. Nowhere is it more evident than the stunning beaches, with rich tourists and their sports cars. The beaches are naturally beautiful, the restaurants wonderful, and the resorts welcoming. More on the beaches to follow later.


The tourism here is still very underdeveloped. The same can be said for foreign investment as well. As a result, even the capital Sofia is not 'frequently' connected with the rest of the world. There are very few direct flights. Your best bet is to probably transit via Vienna or Budapest. There are also trains to Istanbul, but beware of long queues at the border.

VISA wise, Bulgaria is not officially in Schengen. But Bulgaria has unilaterally decided to honor the Schengen treaty. What this means is that if you are Indian citizen, and possess either a Schengen VISA or residence permit of one Schengen countries, you do not need a VISA to visit Bulgaria for tourism.

Within Bulgaria, to reach the beaches, you will need to travel to a city named Varna. Varna is connected to few European countries, e.g. UK, Spain, Hungary, Poland. There are also local flights connecting Sofia to Varna, though again not very frequently. The flights take around an hour. There are also trains connecting Sofia to Varna. The good thing is that the trains might remind you of the usual passenger trains in India - so the trains are nowhere close to e.g. the fast French TGV trains. They take around 7-8 hours, and the only reason you might still want to take them is because of the cost and scenery.


Varna beach

Varna is the 3rd largest city of Bulgaria. It is also referred to as the maritime capital due to its proximity to the Black Sea coast. As a result, it is the main port for industrial and cruise ships. In the past, it was alleged to be sort of the mafia capital of the country as well. But things seem to have changed since then and we found the city to be quite safe, to even venture out at night.

The city however is in dire need of some development. The main bus station, for instance, reminded us very much of the village bus stations in India. The other aspect similar to India is probably the taxi drivers, who never seem to go by the meter and charge whatever they think best. So keep this in mind and a good way to avoid this is probably to fix the rate with the taxi driver before getting into the taxi. Note however that most of the taxi drivers will not speak any English, so negotiating might be tricky. Taxis are of course very cheap here - as compared to western Europe - and is probably one of the reasons why the taxi drivers are out to con tourists.

A good place to stay in Varna is somewhere close to the Cathedral (below) - also the main attraction in the city. Then you will be close to the airport, train and bus stations. It is probably also the place where you will find restaurants / cafes open till late in the night. Hotel / restaurant staff usually do speak English and they usually have an English menu as well.

Varna cathedral, Bulgaria

Golden Sands

Varna does have a beach but it is quite small. If you are the beach type of tourist who enjoys spending the whole day at the beach and is interested in water-sports, you best bet is to head over to the nearby Golden Sands beach resort. The resort is 18km from Varna and there are frequent (usually hourly) buses connecting Varna - Golden Sands. You can of course also take the taxi, but as mentioned earlier, don't forget to fix the fare beforehand.

The Golden Sands beach is lush and long. The water also seemed just the right temperature for a dip - not too hot or cold. There are also options for quite a few activities such as jet skis, windsurfing, parasailing, etc. If you are not the active kind, massages on the beach also seem a popular activity here. 

Golden Sands beach in Bulgaria DSC06866


The other beach resort worth visiting close to Varna is Albena. Albena is 40km from Varna, and basically in the same direction as Golden Sands. So the buses to Golden Sands usually continue to Albena. Taxis are of course also an option.

Albena beach

If you are the adventerous type who usually like to try local foods at the places they visit - try something with corn here. Corn seems to be locally produced here. A traditional dish includes chicken filets, with mashed potatoes and grilled corn ('bhutta' as we know them in India).


Balchik is a small coastal village on the Black Sea coast - also reachable from Varna (21km). It is one of those scenic peaceful places where all you feel like doing the whole day is to sit at one of the cafes / bars and gaze at the sea.

Sunny Balchik coast
Balchik - Black sea coast
Balchik coast


Mount Vitosha provides the ideal scenic background for Sofia. We also heard that there are many natural springs in the vicinity which provide the drinking water here - so no need to buy mineral water.

Sofia panaroma

We unfortunately did not get to spend much time in Sofia. The absolute must-see attraction in Sofia is the St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. There are many small churches / museums close to the cathedral, so don't forget to check them out.

St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, Sofia, Bulgaria

Unfortunately, tourism in Bulgaria is still very underdeveloped, and it is difficult to find information regarding available tours / events. It was only on going there that we learnt that an ancient Roman city has been uncovered under Sofia and that excavation is still going on. It is actually possible to visit the ruins, so don't miss out on the opportunity.

Finally, if you are interested in sampling out some traditional Bulgarian food with live folklore performance, we can recommend the Chevermeto restaurant. The prices are affordable, the food sumptuous, and the performances great (usually between 9-10pm) every evening.