Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Royal Rajasthan - Jaisalmer

We visited Rajasthan, primarily Jaipur, Jodhpur, Jaisalmer and Udaipur in Dec 2015.


Desert tents under moonlightJaisalmer desert sunset

As a city, Jaisalmer is probably one of the smallest that we have seen. It takes about 10 minutes by car to cross the city. There is nothing much within the city, other than military camps. Its proximity to Thar desert and the border with Pakistan makes it strategic defense outpost.

From a touristic point of view, Jaisalmer can be characterized by two things: "Golden" Fortress and Thar desert.

Golden Fortress

Jaisalmer "golden" fort

The "Golden" Fortress (or "Sonar Kella" in Bengali) is special for us Bengalis as it has been immortalized in our memories by Satyajit Ray's movie of the same name (link). 

The golden color is of course due to the ubiquitous yellow sandstone found here -  out of which the fortress, and almost all buildings in the vicinity, are constructed. As a result, the city itself is referred to as the Golden City - see the color of the houses in the panorama below.   

Jaisalmer city panorama
Jaisalmer Golden fort panorama

A very unique thing about the fortress is that people still stay inside the fortress. So there are both houses and shops within the fortress. The shops range from small souvenir shops to jewellers who make / export very expensive jewellery.

Our guide told us that the govt. is now trying to encourage the people living inside to move out of the fortress - as their daily activities, esp. water usage, is slowly damaging the fortress. However, most people are of course unwilling to do so, due to obvious short term commercial gains. As such, the guide was basically asking us not to purchase souvenirs from shops inside the fortress. The point is that going forward if more people refuse to buy from shops inside the fortress, it will automatically force the people to move outside the fortress.

The castle itself is quite huge, so keep around 2-3 hours for exploring the castle. Most tours for the fortress start from the Gadsisar Sagar lake (below) - so you will find most guides there. There are govt. certified guides there and the standard rate for the full tour is around INR 700.

Gadsisar Sagar Lake Patwon Ki Haveli

Some more pics from inside the fortress:

Desert Camps

The other absolutely 'must do' experience in Jaisalmer is to stay in a desert camp and experience the sunset. Sam Sand Dunes is the most popular resort for this activity.  It is slightly outside the city and there is a well marked route leading to the camp from the city. Although we did not stay at the Sam Sand Dunes, we heard that there are around 1000 camps in the resort, as a result of which it can get quite crowded. (This is in no way a criticism of their services, or the camp in general; as we did not actually stay there.)

So we stayed at the Damodra Desert camp which offers a more personalized (albeit expensive -:)) experience - and thankfully we were not disappointed. We had a great time there and can definitely recommend it. The camp has only around 10 tents, so kind of 10 families at a time.

The tents are equipped with a fully functioning bathroom, even including hot water. So it is really 'luxury among the wilderness'. There is also a heater in the room, however it is the desert - and it can get very cold at night - so be prepared with your sweaters and warm clothes. The camp is run by people from the nearby Damodra village. As such, the service is great, and the people really treat you as their family "guests".

One of main attractions here is to see the sunset over the sand dunes. The sunset point is approx. 30 minutes drive in a closed jeep from the camp, and the drive can be bit bumpy; so be prepared esp. if you have small children with you. There is sand everywhere, so you are likely to get a lot of sand in your face as well - scarves and goggles are thus very much recommended.

Once you reach the sunset point, there is an optional camel ride around the sunset point. If this is the first time that you are riding a camel, hold on to whatever you can :), esp. when the camel is getting up. Do not underestimate this part, as we saw a couple having a bad fall right in front of our eyes.

The sand dunes, although not very extensive, is still quite impressive. If you are lucky enough to have a clear day, the sunset is absolutely magnificent and worth every penny / effort that you made to get here. Depending on the sunset time on a particular day, they usually plan so that you reach the sunset point at least half an hour before sunset, and then leave well after sunset - tea and refreshments are served in between. A few pics of the sandscape during sunset below:

Jaisalmer desert sunset
Jaisalmer desert panorama
Walking off into the sunset

Up on returning to the camp, you are given a traditional Indian welcome with garlands and 'Tika'. Once changed, and after having gotten rid of some of the sand; there is a bonfire going on in the middle with traditional dances and fire shows. You are welcome to sit around with hot snacks and cold drinks.

Fire show at desert camp

After a sumptuous diner, you are welcome to walk around enjoying a perfect moonlit night in the desert.

Desert Camp under moonlight Moonlit desert camp


This blog would not be complete without mentioning the Suryagarh hotel. Other than the desert camp, this is the best place to stay in Jaisalmer. Yes, it is expensive, but it also one of the best 5-star hotels we have stayed in - both service and decor wise. It is not a traditional palace per se, in that it is not hundreds of years old; but it otherwise resembles every bit a royal palace. Check out the pics below to get the royal feeling:

Suryagarh lights at night
Suryagarh hotel illuminated at night
Suryagarh night lights 
Stairway to ...
Royal dining @ Suryagarh

One last thing, if you get time check this out: 'Breakfast with Peacocks' (link). Unfortunately, we noticed this at the last minute; hence did not get a chance to check it out - but does sound very interesting.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Seattle - the perfect mix of natural and urban landscapes

We visited Seattle in Oct 2015.

Moment of reflection in Mount Rainer National park

Downtown Seattle

Downtown Seattle looks very similar to NY: crowded streets surrounded by tall buildings on all sides. The only difference is that in Seattle - you will see a Starbucks in every corner.


For the uninitiated, Seattle is the birthplace of Starbucks.  Hence, the first Starbucks store (below) close to Pike Place Fish Market is actually a very popular tourist attraction here. From the inside, it looks very different from the Starbucks store layouts we are used to; however we can vouch that the coffee inside still tastes the same :)  It is still however very difficult to justify the sheer number of Starbucks stores in Seattle - there is practically one every few meters. It seemed like Starbucks is almost a "religion" for people living in Seattle.

Pike Place Fish Market

The Pike Place Fish Market near the harbor is also a popular touristic attraction in its own right. The locals come here for fresh fish and flowers.  This is the place you visit, when you get tired of the unending buildings and shopping malls.

For the tourists, it is is a scenic place close to the harbor with fantastic views, seafood, and of course Starbucks. Below is a night shot of the famous Seattle ferry wheel from the Fish market.

Seattle ferry wheel at night
Seattle colorful ferry wheel at night

And, below is another shot of the harbor at night.

Seattle waterfront night lights

We also tried an Indian restaurant called Daawat Grill close to the Washington State Convention Center, which we can absolutely recommend. It had a great lunch buffet at very decent prices.

Kerry Park

For people interested in photography, Kerry Park is an absolute must vist. The park by itself is nothing extraordinary, however its position and altitude provides the perfect location to click those classic shots of the Seattle skyline including the Space needle. Note that it can get a bit crowded at the park, so it is always better to go there a bit early to get a good spot. Don't forget your tripod to take those perfect night shots.

It is possible to reach Kerry Park by public transport from Seattle downtown. Look for buses to the Stop "Queen Anne Ave N & Ward St". From there, it is a 10-15 min (depending on how fit you are) uphill climb to Kerry Park. Incidentally, the same bus also stops at the 'Space Needle' in between, so it is a good option to cover both in a single evening.

Below is a sequence of clicks from Kerry Park  - as it gets progressively darker.

Seattle sunset panorama
Seattle panorama with Mount Rainier in the background
Seattle panorama at sunset
Classic Seattle night shot - Space Needle

Mount Rainier National Park

If you are a nature lover, and visiting Seattle, and have a free day in hand - a trip to the Mount Rainier National Park is an absolute must. There are many tour companies offering day trips from Seattle to Mount Rainier (and back). We booked the following tour: (link)

Talking to people on the tour, it almost seemed like people in Seattle were unhappy as all the "nature tourism" basically got diverted to nearby Alsaka. So, Seattle seemed almost like an afterthought for such tourists. We haven't visited Alaska yet [to be updated when we have visited Alaska :)], but we absolutely loved the Mount Rainier landscape.

Up on entering the park, there is a very scenic drive to the parking at the top.

Scenic pathways in the Mount Rainier National Reserve

Along they way, there are many viewpoints where you can stop to soak in the amazing landscape - not to forget some of most beautiful / colorful birds we have ever seen. The more prominent attractions include the Christine falls, Narada falls, and Reflection lake. As you can probably guess, the lake is so called as on a clear day with no wind, it should be possible to see a reflection of the mountain peak on the still (lake )water. Unfortunately, it was a bit windy the day we visited, and we missed this. Still, enjoy some pics below - hopefully, you will be luckier :)

Stunning Mount Rainier waterfalls
Christine falls
Majestic blue Stellar Jay
Reflection lake
Reflection lake

Below are a couple of pics of the tourist parking spot at the top. The parking is not huge, but it was not very crowded when we arrived - of course it might have been because it was almost towards the end of touristic season. Unfortunately, we learnt that there isn't any public transportation available from the nearby cities or lodging options. So you either need a car, or consider one of the tours operating out of Seattle to visit the Mount Rainier reserve.

There is also a small restaurant at the top offering hot food, e.g. pizzas, soup and bread, etc. The menu is not extensive, and the prices are on the higher side; however it is still a welcome option at that altitude.

Mount Rainier parking at the top
Mount Rainier parking spot at the top

The parking at the top is also the starting point for many short and long hiking trails, which you can try if you have time. There are amazing views of fountains and mountain peaks whichever way you go.

Hiking in the Mount Rainier National Reserve

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Chilling out in Cape Town II

Part I of the blog appears here: (link)

Filming the Table Mountain Panorama Cute penguins at Boulders beach

Located in the South of South Africa, Cape Town boasts of some amazing landscapes and diverse flora / fauna.

Table Mountain

One such natural wonder is the Table Mountain. The Table Mountain is considered to be one of the New 7 Wonders of the World. Without going into controversies regarding which are the "true" wonders of the world, it would be quite fair to say that the Table Mountain is indeed a natural wonder.

The name is self-explanatory and the uniqueness of the the mountains is that they are wide and (very) flat at the top - it is almost as if someone took a knife and cut out the pointed peaks.

Exploring the Table Mountains is easy - there is a cable car which takes you to the top of the mountains. There are public buses, as well as the Cape Town Hop-on / Hop-off sightseeing bus, which can take you to the Cable car station. Note that the cable car gets quite crowded during peak touristic seasons, so we would recommend purchasing tickets in advance. You can also buy the tickets together with your Hop-on / Hop-off bus tickets.

Cable car to the top of Table Mountain

Once you reach the top of the Table Mountain, you can walk around and explore the reserve - there are cafes, toilets, and most importantly view points from where you can capture wonderful panoramas of Cape Town.

Cape Town panorama from top of the Table Mountain

You can often spot these little ones (pic below) sitting at the peaks and staring at you. We believe that they are called Rock Hyrax aka Dassie. We also noticed groups / agencies providing (selling) bungee jumping experiences at the top - however it is clearly not meant for the faint of heart (like ours).

Rock Hyrax aka Dassie at the top

Cape of Good Hope, Cape Point, Penguin and Seal Colonies

As we did not have much time, we booked a private "Cape of Good Hope, Cape Point, Penguin and Seal Colonies" - 9 hour trip with Cape Town Day Tours.

(TripAdvisor review: link)
The whole tour was well organized. We managed to see seals, penguins, Cape Point and the Cape of Good Hope - all without any rush and at a leisurely pace. We made many small stops along the way while driving along the Atlantic seaboard - the most significant among them being the 12 Apostles Peaks and Chapman’s Peak.

Scenic Cape Town


Hout Bay and Seals

Our first real stop was at Hout Bay - to take the ferry to Seals island.  Hout Bay itself is an amazingly beautiful village with mountains encapsulating the boats docked at the valley.

Scenic Hout Bay

We then took a ferry which took about 20 minutes to reach Seals island. The island was amazing as well. We were expecting to see a tiny island where it would be difficult to even spot 1 or 2 seals. However, we were pleasantly surprised, and the island was teeming with seals. Although, we were not allowed to set foot on the island; the ferry approached quite close to the island providing us an up-close and personal viewing of the seals. 

Once the ferry had sailed about 10 or so minutes from Hout Bay, you can start feeling the powerful (Atlantic) ocean waves; and the ferry seemed to rock quite a bit - so may be think twice before taking the ferry if you get seasick easily :)

Seals colony on Seals Island


Cape Point and Cape of Good Hope

Our next stop was the Cape of Good Hope reserve. The Cape of Good Hope is the southern most point of Africa, and from here you can see the Atlantic in all its fury.

Furious Atlantic ocean at the Cape of Good Hope

In the reserve, you can take the funicular to the lighthouse at the top; or simply walk around - there are photo opportunities at every corner. While it is said (rather advertised) that one can see the Atlantic and Indian oceans merging at Cape point; for all practical purposes, it is almost impossible to distinguish between the two oceans. (It is e.g. nothing like our Triveni Sangam where one can clearly distinguish the rivers by their water colors.)

Cape of Good Hope panorama

We also managed to track down a few animals in the Cape of Good Hope reserve, e.g. the bucks and ostriches below.
Majestic Ostrich

Boulders Beach - Penguins

Last but not the least, do not forget to visit the Penguins colony at Boulder's Beach. Yes, Penguins, you heard it right!! It seems that popular media including films and TV shows have led us into believing that Penguins can only be found in very cold places e.g. Antarctica.

However, this is clearly not true; and we were pleasantly surprised to see a whole colony of Penguins in Cape Town. It is their natural habitat, and not a close facility like a zoo by any means - e.g. check out the 2 guys below walking on the main road.

It was absolutely "out of this world" to see the 2 cute penguins walking on the road in front of us!!

The area is not huge, probably can be covered by walking 15-20 minutes. But during that time, you can easily expect to spot around 100 penguins. There are penguins in whichever direction you look - and they are surely as cute as you'd expect them to be - if not more.