Saturday, 19 October 2013


How many different ways, in which one can describe the sea ; the colours, the hues, from emerald to turquoise to cerulean blue. Can words be suffice to explain the sundry moods, myriads of shades; from languid to raging, sublime to the ridiculous ,from surreal to overwhelming. I have a single word for it all -Maldives, for all the flavours, the plethora of emotions , for a hundred thousand different adjectives.

Maldives, ' Mala Dweep' or garland of islands, is a slice of paradise only the lucky ones get to taste.In ancient times, as the folk lore goes, the shores of Maldives welcomed lost travellers , now, I bet , the travellers lose themselves to this bedazzling jewel of the Indian Ocean.

A total of 1,190 coral islands strung together in 26 clusters called atolls, each with its own coral reef encircling a lagoon, the reef alive with countless colorful sea creatures and corals, together make up for a country called Maldives. The peacock , seems to have borrowed the colourful pattern from here, to primp up its feathers.

As everybody else, we were also aware of forecasts of inundation of Maldives in the coming 30 years ( 26 now!!) , and so visiting it once, topped our bucket list. Soon we set sail (alright, it was a flight till Male, the capital) for this memorable journey, to a place chiselled into exquisite beauty by God himself. Maldives is 95 percent sea and of the over 1000 islands it has , only 200 are inhabited of which around 90 are private beach resorts. To reach any such resort from the airport in Male, you either have to take a sea plane or a speed boat provided by the resort for transfers. Our speed boat was right on time, stocked up with bottled water, fresh towels and sunscreen satchets ; and soon we were heading for our dream destination. It was a breezy ride throughout , the wind in my hair , the uninterrupted view of the azure sea ; some consolation to my thudding heart which seemed ready to stop any minute as the boat sped ,bobbing threateningly on the high waves. Can't tell about my heart, but I surely, lost my Ray Ban shades to the sea ( I am smart enough to carry more options, though , mainly to get some variety in the photographic poses!).

The boat raced, a secret, parallel universe of unrivaled charm beckoned us . I promise, I could reach out if I tried ,for the horizon beyond the gossamer blanket of mist, which veiled the infinite secrets beyond , beguiled, lost travellers like me. The deep blue of the sea changed to turquoise as we approached our resort. Finally, the ferry puttered to a halt with emerald waters surrounding us ,so clear that I could fix my mascara looking in. A quick check-in and we were guided to our 'Water Villa'- one of the overwater bunglows  built on stilts directly over the lagoon.

The water villa had a direct access to the lagoon through stairs at the back. A private deck , loungers , our very own jacuzzi and a bathroom with a view were fringe benefits adding to the luxury.

What followed was an unforgettable holiday ; days spent gazing at the sea for hours , nights, under the stars. Sea was in our backyard, fishes danced all around ; we played music (our neighbouring villa owners did complain) , listened to the lapping waves, did nothing except drinking in the sunsets , feasting our eyes on spectacular sun rise and indulging unabashedly, with the blue waters.

But, did I mention the stairs that led us down to our private stretch of the lagoon ; well ,going down that path was easy, coming back proved extremely difficult the first day. A giant crab sat pretty (ughh!) right on the steps back to our abode. We tried shooing it away, but it won't listen. Nor did anybody else ,for ,we were alone , a 'do not disturb' placard dangled far far away at the front door of our secluded villa. We could do nothing but wait for the crab's sun bath to be over , which eventually did, a good 15 minutes later! We preferred to stay by the pool for the rest of the day. In the evening ,after standing witness to  'feeding the sting ray fish' tradition of the resort, and a lazy stroll around the tiny island ;we were treated to a hearty meal ,our table set right on the beach, fairy candles lit up in the form of a heart, flowers and the works... completing the magical scene.


If you are the one looking for a happening night life, you will find one, right here, in the sea , for, as soon as the moon rises and lights shine; myriads of fish, in all colours and all forms, come up, drawn to the lights, or maybe to the moon. Other than that and the lapping of waves; nights are serene, very quiet, peaceful and private.

Days are unhurried ,follow no itineraries ; nowhere to go but to be here, live in this moment ,to belong ,to savour this cornucopia of sinfully seductive beauty. Time stands still in Maldives ,as we walk on the white sands ;catching another wave come by , watching another day go by !




# Maldives is the smallest Asian country with the lowest natural point in the world at 2.4 mts or 7 ft 10 inches.

#95 percent of Maldives is sea. The country lies in two rows of atolls in the Indian Ocean, just off the equator.

# It comprises of approximately 1,190 coral islands formed around 26 natural ring like atolls.Each atoll is made of a coral reef encircling a lagoon with deep channels dividing the reef ring. A string of islands take their place among each atoll ring, each island with its own reef encircling the island lagoon.

#InterAtoll Travelling Permit ( IATP ) is required for anyone to visit an uninhabited island, though, private tours organised by resorts to such virgin islands require no separate license or permissions.

#Weather is a dream in Maldives ,with temperature hovering around 30 degree celsius throughout the year. However, October to April witness increase in rainfall.

#Coconut palms are everywhere. Fruits and fish dominate the cuisine. Fish in broth ,in spicy cake ( kulhi borkibaa ) and even in salted pasteries (bajiya ). Alcohal is served only in the confines of your private resort.

#You are more or less ,stranded on the island resort. Not much shopping around , going anywhere for dinner other than the resort's restaurant would burn a hole of approximately, 200$ each time , just for the sea transfers (there is no other way ).


#Snorkelling, glass bottom boat rides , sunset cruises in private dhonis ( cruise boats ) , locating ship wrecks and day picnics to virgin uninhabited islands, is mostly, what you can do. Surfing , only in certain atolls , and weather permitting ( from March to October) , is also becoming popular.

#Ecotourism is being promoted in certain protected marine areas. Baa Atoll is one such destination, its a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve , rich in marine life and habitat to many rare and endangered species of fish. Four Seasons Resort ,  Reethi Beach Resort and a couple of other luxury resorts provide access to this protected lagoon area.

Tuesday, 8 October 2013


Chimera, in Greek mythology, refers to a fire-breathing female figure with a lion's head, a goat's body, and a serpent's tail; an enchanting, alluring, unbelievable mirage that bewitches you. Greece is just that and much more; a heady mix of myths, fables,legends; of intriguing history, quintessential beauty and awe-inspiring architecture. Its a refreshing cocktail of hedonism and cultural history.

Having read so much about Greece and its rich heritage, having sifted through those glossy glamorous images of golden sun kissed beaches and stark white villas perched atop cliffs, overlooking the turquoise seas; I don't remember when, but Greece came to top my wish list of travel destinations and like the fabled genie from the lamp, my hubby began to plan this dream holiday for our fifteenth wedding anniversary.
Drawing a perfect itinerary was the toughest part, what with so many islands to choose from and so many places to visit in a limited number of days. And then we discovered our perfect vacation plan, an eleven day long cruise covering seven beautiful islands of Greece; more or less everything that we wanted out of our tour, served to us on a platter. No fuss of planning transportation, of working the luggage from place to place, no worries about the language barrier; just a pure, unadulterated romantic voyage. The port of embarkation though, was Venice, Italy but who was complaining! "Happy is the man, I thought,who, before dying,has the good fortune to sail the Aegean sea."(  Nikos Kazantzakis, Zorba the Greek); and our happiness knew no bounds.

Our first stop in Greece was Corfu, a picturesque island floating on the Ionian sea between Italy and west coast of mainland Greece. It boasts of lush greens of olive and pistachio groves, mountains and woodlands; deep cerulean hues of crystal clear sea and cliff-backed pink golden beaches.Corfu is rumoured to be the setting of many a famed novels, a muse of writers and the perfect canvas to sundry acclaimed stories; Shakespeare's 'The Tempest' figuring in the list.The old Corfu Town is replete with elegant venetian architecture and some very fine museums.The ruins of the fort make for a stunning backdrop. We meanwhile, discovered a beautiful little church with exquisite stained glass windows, tucked away in one of the several cobbled streets of the town. Candles, a bell chiming at regular intervals, the smell of incense and the serene ambience removed us far away from the hustle bustle of the otherwise, boisterous and noisy 'agora'-the marketplace.

Shopping in Corfu town guarantees that you would eventually get lost in the jumbled alleys, an intricate reticulum of shops selling souvenirs and local produce.

After a while it gets a little confusing to find your way out and back. Locals have this story of threat of sea pirates to most of the islands in Greece and hence, to hood-wink the attackers, all such port towns came with a perplexing maze of interconnecting streets, all looking alike yet each leading you deeper in the well of this riddle.

Thus, we decided to stick to a particular route and take no diversions or detours in this humongous market place, and hence, my husband breathed a sigh of relief. The jumble of Corfu saved the tumble of his bank balance for this one day! But soon.....

Today we woke up to the formidable sights of Crete, an enormous island with high mountains, obscure hinterlands and balmy seas.Crete is known for its olive produce and you would come across huge food markets as well as leather product shops everywhere. Crete is also coveted for the vividly coloured Minoan palace.We enjoyed a relaxing afternoon at the esplanade, sipping coffee at one of the many roadside cafes, taking a royal ride on the horse drawn dainty white buggy and gazing at the distant lighthouse guarding the coasts; perfect as perfect could be.
The box stores on the high street were like a cherry topping on the sorbet; quirky curios, stunning jewellery and mouth watering offers up for grabs. ( You can attribute the latter to the country's battered economy..) The sea front was abuzz with activity; glass bottom boat tours, dolphin excursions, sea scooters and loads of other water activities were available to explore but 'try these with caution' and 'at your own risk' warnings kept us away.

By the time, we reached Athens, ( actually, port Pireus, some 45 minutes drive to the main city), I had begun to get a tad bit disappointed. Granted that Greece uptil now had been divine, serene, beautiful; food was great, entertainment onboard was wholesome and shopping, a steal but this was nothing out of the ordinary, nothing like the Greece I had envisaged, dreamt, fantasized about. But I guess, I was expecting too much too soon like an eager, impatient kid who wants to stuff the whole candy bar in his mouth. Greece was like a bud unfurling its petals one at a time, letting you get a glimpse of its beauty but refusing to reveal its opulent, ravishing splendour all at once....

Athens- a city that happened some two and a half thousand years ago, has seen a myriad of socio-political upheavals, has travelled through a mesh of history and yet, somehow, has managed to retain its distinctive character. As most locals would suggest, Athens is merely the largest village in the country best described by the rock of Acropolis, the dramatic ruins of the Parthenon and the pedestrianized streets along the entire Acropolis circuit. Acropolis;the guiding rock for the tourists who lose their way in the labyrinth of streets at the Pla'ka adorned with taverns, cafes and souvenir stores;is the cultural icon, the symbol of birth of western civilization, home to one of the earliest known settlements in Greece.The Hadrian Arch (131 AD) is the symbolic entrance to the city and The Parthenon, which in Greek means 'unmarried women's apartments', is a temple on the Athenian Acropolis, dedicated to the maiden goddess Athena.

A word of caution though ,Tourists get so engrossed soaking in the details of the spectacular ruins and imbibing the mind boggling information, they tend to forget watching their step on the steep slippery fleet of marble stairs leading to the rock. I was no exception, despite repeated warnings by the thoughtful guides, I slipped twice but managed to thwart a nasty fall, a few others were not  lucky enough!
If Athens managed to uplift my senses with its awe inspiring byzantine churches, neoclassical villas and spectacular ruins; Mykonos transported me to a utopian paradisiacal world. Little Venice, the charming seafront neighbourhood sprinkled handsomely, with stark white villas and chic boutiques, is enough to cast a spell on you, send you in throes of ecstasy.Its a precious jewel of the Cyclades archipelago.

Mykonos is known for its amazing night life, narrow cobbled streets, pelicans adorning the emerald seas and most of all for the iconic ancient windmills standing proud atop the cliffs. Paradise Beach, a mesmerizing drive away from the elite Little Venice area, is a picturesque beach throbbing with activity, crowds thronging the area for a lazy swim, to water ski or ride on a horse back. Try Platis Gialos for water sports and did I mention Bakalo, right in the heart of Little Venice, for some finger licking, lip-smacking traditional Greek food. Mykonos is touted to be a hub for gay resorts ,though, it seemed equally popular with families who thronged in hordes to all the popular tourist sites. Interestingly, all houses that we saw on our journey to the beach, appeared to be small white domes each with a blue door, very tiny by the look of it to house real people.

On inquiring, we were obligingly, informed that the external dome shaped facade actually led to a basement with rooms at the underground level, a design to provide safe haven in case of pirate attacks in the yonder era. The residents have successfully, tried to maintain the unique character, the symmetry and the colour scheme of all the houses; turning the town into a visual delight, a time capsule transporting the traveller into a time gone by. The byzantine monastery enroute the Paradise beach is another treat for the spiritual senses.
Our island hopping jaunt led us now to Santorini, also known as Thira; famous for its blue domed white churches, resplendent sunset views from the village of Oia and the donkey back transportation system ( There is an official donkey station with time charts and tariff in place!!). Santorini, is a scene straight out of a fairytale ; whitewashed buildings with brilliant blue doors nestled atop steep volcanic cliffs ( which exhibit an   
interesting palette of colours from red-brown, black, grey to purple green due to layering of different stones especially, pumice), falling steeply and suddenly into the sapphire waters. You can find red sand and black sand beaches hidden away in the interiors of this intriguing island. A road trip through the treacherous curves of the daunting cliffs takes you to Oia village and you can choose to come down to the shore through Fira village on a donkey's back , or thankfully, in modern times you have the option of a cable car bringing you back. Wine tasting in Santorini is a must, great white wines made of domestically grown assy'rtiko grapes accompanied, perfectly, with olives, cheese and mezze; a gourmets' delight.

Alas, our cruise ship didn't dock here for the night, I could have settled in this place, if given a choice.

You can atleast, think of booking a private villa for a fortnight or so, to get a taste of the idyllic Santorini

and keep visiting the crazy,unchained Mykonos to satiate the party animal in you; vice-versa is highly recommended , ofcourse with perspective in place.

Our ship set sail for Katakalon, a sleepy port town where stores open according to the schedule of the cruise ships that dock here! A rocky beach just a few steps out of the cruise boat, a number of souvenir shops and cafes lining the promenade; tourist information kiosks aplenty- the typical scene of any european port town; but Katakalon was our key to Olympia, the site of the ancient Olympics held every four years from the 8th century BC to the 4th century AD, the first games held to honour god Zeus.
A good 30 minutes drive zipping across vast stretches of pumpkin fields, led us to  the Sanctuary, the ancient site also known as Altis consisting of seemingly, haphazard arrangement of buildings, ruins of Temple of Hera, Temple of Zeus, the Treasuries and the Olympic stadium.
We kept looking for the Olympic torch, getting excited at every other structural ruin thinking it to be the Torch, only to be finally, guided to a large 'pit' infront of the Temple of Hera, where the Olympic flame of modern games is lit by a reflection of sunlight in a parabolic mirror and then taken to where the games are to be held.

Greece was finally, beginning to weave a spell around us; its many facets now making sense and the warmth- embracing , compelling us to it. No amount of time spent could however,do justice to this dramatic, vibrant, abundant, mystical chimera of land and seas, mountains and lakes, history and hedonism...... While Athens would charm the historian in you, Mykonos, the mecca of party animals,would draw you by its enigmatic vigour; Santorini is like a soft caress; beautiful, breathtaking and ethereal.                                                       
".....There is heat of love, the pulsing rush of longing, the lover's whisper, irresistible magic to make the sanest man go mad"( Homer, The Illiad.). And we were bathed in the magic of this eternally enchanting country called Greece!!


# Greece, known as Hellas in ancient Greece and now officially, known as the Hellenic Republic has a dramatic 14,400 km long coastline; indented, punctuated by balmy sun kissed beaches. It has around 6,000 islands arranged in 8 clusters, separated by the Aegean, Ionian, Icarian and Mediterranean sea.
#Greece is considered the birthplace of Democracy, the gateway to western civilisation.
# Easter is the biggest festival and real hard boiled eggs coloured red are exchanged in place of chocolate eggs.
# Ouzo is the favourite drink, an anise flavoured white wine enjoyed best with meze'dhes or mezze platter.
# Olives, pistachio and date palms are seen aplenty.
# Cats seem to be everywhere, even picture postcards are incomplete without a cat in the scene.
#Murano glass jewellery is cheaper in Greece than its original home, Venice.
#Some useful phrases -
     Efharisto for Thanks
     Parakalo   Please
     Yia Sou     Hi
      Kali mera   Good Morning
       Kali spera is for Good Night
#Must See list
 @ Santorini sunset
 @ Mykonos nightlife, Madonna might have a private residence here!
 @ Ancient Olympia- Other than the Stadium, its also coveted for the gigantic ivory and gold statue of Zeus, sculpted by Pheidias, named one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.
@ Athens , selective restoration work at the Parthenon (438BC) renders many areas out of bounds for tourists
@ Delphi for Oracle of Delphi, site of worship of Apollo God after he slew Python, a dragon who lived here. Delphi was thought to be the middle of the earth by ancient greeks
@ Ghost town of Mystra, mirroring the byzantine era.
@ Rhodes island
@ Sko'pelos considered to be a hot favourite for Hollywood shoots.

# With so much to explore and so many islands on the list, I would recommend a combination of cruise and
land tour if you don't want to waste precious time and energy hiring small cruise boats and ferries; and spending most of your time in transportation, packing unpacking, checking in and out of hotels.Best time to visit Greece is October; we went in June which was pleasant ,though, warm at times.

# Cruise excursions are expensive and some of those, totally, needless. Check twice before booking any, try getting a package deal once onboard.

# A hop on hop off city sightseeing tour is recommended in Corfu and Crete.

                                                   PICTURE CREDITS:
                                                                                    JEETENDER GUPTA                           

Wednesday, 2 October 2013


Canada - The Canuck Connection

( Canucks is a term now used, affectionately for all Canadians though originally, it was meant for only French Canadians)

Beginnings are always tough; do I start from the very beginning or do I pick a thread and wade through the ocean of memories. I am not a great storyteller, nor do I fit the bill of a jet setter globe trotter.I am no expert of the language, whatsoever. But yes, I have stories to tell, for, every travel you undertake,your eyes see a story unravel, your mind feels one and your heart lives it. My heart has lived a thousand such stories and so I share these with you. I would take the liberty of skipping the index, chucking the dates, missing the chronology and more often than not, drifting into deliciously refreshing flashbacks.
   The narrative here, begins with a quaint sleepy village, Hillsdale, near Toronto, Canada. Now why would anybody land into this unknown, obscure hamlet of 200 odd houses, is a question even I was asking myself. We were visiting this side of Ontario province,Canada as part of a Friendship Exchange Programme, were being hosted by Canadian families and thus, Hillsdale it was. For anybody who is from my part of the world would understand and empathise with my anxiety in surrendering to the prospects of having to live, for a good part of my vacation, in a village. Vivid images of thatched roofs, mud tracks and meandering buffaloes danced in my mind. Hillsdale didn't live upto this mental sketch I had conjured, though. Thinking back, our Canadian experience would have been nothing to write back home about if it weren't for places like Hillsdale, Muskoka and Washago and most of all people like Dan, Mike, Steve and Janet, our hosts, our friends,our companions on this fantabulous journey through the Canadian wonderland. If not for them, this holiday would have been another on the list of Google Searched, hackneyed,cliched trip covering the typical bestsellers and I too would have added a word or two to the sundry eulogies dedicated to Niagra Falls and gushed about the Yukowa river journey! Instead, we were zipped off , away from Toronto, away to unheard, unchartered territories ( Tourists don't usually pick a Barrie-Hillsdale package over Toronto-Niagra Falls holiday...).
And thus, we arrived in Hillsdale ; one of the many tiny breathtakingly beautiful hamlets in Canada, maple trees standing proud on either side of the road, cottages in neat little rows, similar yet with a distinct character of their own and tranquil that leaves no scope for fatigue. If this were a village, what was a fairyland made of .....Our hosts welcomed us into their home and after some delectable hors d' oeuvres showed us our dig for the next ten days. The room was at the basement level which opened into a backyard and the backyard merged with forests of thick pine; no outer boundaries, no hedges or fence, no barriers .......and most of all no latch on the back door!

When asked about whether it was safe this way, and if there were any burglars who might wanna try their luck, our hosts just brushed it away laughing,"Oh, no worries.No thieves around. Though a bear might come wandering.'' I didn't sleep that night, was it jet lag or was it the image of a bear hovering over my face; can't say!                                                                                                                                        

 Next day, before I could breathe in the fresh air of the pines, take a relaxing dip into the outdoors heated pool or soak in the colour of riotous petunias: we were whisked away to Muskoka by our home hospitality team. An overnight stay at a lake facing cottage, speed boats, bonfire, camping, cooking, dancing;stuff dreams are made up of and dreams we were about to live now, in this moment! Now that's another story that my family dozed off during the lunch at a hip joint at the boulevard and that once at the cottage, we slept our way through the afternoon, all promises of helping Mike, our host for the day, with dinner, forgotten and all concept of time zoned out. Finally, reluctantly at first, we opened our eyes to witness the most heavenly scene on earth; the lake infront had a haze, a mist engulfing it, the trees far beyond were nothing but a blurred blue green outline, as if the clouds had condescended to walk on water just for this one day; just for us. We lay there mystified. , trying to absorb the moment, soaking in the spectacle, thankful, that we had chosen this room with a glass facade-our gateway to paradise.                                                                                                                                                                  


 Over dinner we learnt what a 'Wife Saver's Casserole' ( My husband remembers it as Wife Beater's) meant, from Janet who made us one and then we went in search for our marshmallow sticks for, we were told that, 'to fire your marshmallows, you have to find your very own perfect marshmallow stick.' Some two hours later, post a beautiful bonfire on a perfect night, a lot of chatting, laughing, singing and dancing together; we finally called it a day but not before discovering that they are passionate about their hockey which is nothing like our hockey and instead of ground, is played on Ice. The next morning we went for a ride on the boat while my son learnt maneuvering the ATV; we lazed  around watching the ducks feed and tried to land our feet in the cold freezing waters of the glistening lake while our host friends were enjoying water skiing.How I envied their adventurous spirit, their passion for outdoor sports, their agility and their youthful energy.          


 Our next stop was the bizarre abode of an eccentric artist, Peter Camani- THE SCREAMING HEADS!! Right in the midst of nowhere (ok! granted that its near Burke's Fall) , amongst overgrown shrubs, unkempt gardens and stretches of wilderness, lives this artist in a weird castle surrounded by these amusing Screaming Head sculptures(??) carved out of stone; its crazy, its whacky, its wicked -goes on to show how eternally whimsical an artist's vision can be. Thank you Dan, for taking us there.

   Tomorrow we head towards Niagra Falls and CN Tower but what I would most remember is The Green Room which changes colours and which is not a room, the black river and meeting Dragon!! Till then I hope there would be no nocturnal rendevouz with any bears....

# All Images/Photographs used are either clicked by self, family or friends.
#All places mentioned are at a distance of approximately, 2-3 hours drive from Toronto.
#Muskoka lake area is a popular summer destination for domestic tourism. Lake front cottages are available for hire. People also travel in campers (buses/trailers modified into mobile homes) and park here for the season.
#Hillsdale, we are now proudly aware, is transformed into a popular ice skiing destination as winters arrive.
#Souvenir shops on the way to Muskoka, Burke's Falls, have plenty of amusing, interesting, quirky artifacts on offer, do stop to take a look.
#While on your way, you might have a chance encounter with a Moose or two. Drive carefully.
#Box stores are nicest in Huntsville, made famous by the 36th G-8 Summit held here in 2010
#Someone once told me, the best souvenir(other than the stamp on your heart) that you can bring back from a holiday, is a bottle of perfume half used. The scent would always remind you of the happy times.
#  Lastly, Canada is a place for many reasons and many seasons. Picking a favourite, from the  glistening lapis lakes shrouded by green pines in summers or the flaming fiery autumn colours or for that matters the pristine white of the crisp snow in winters, is next to impossible. Canada tempts you , bewitches you and casts a spell on you. It tells you, Once Is Not Enough!                                                                                            


MYTHICAL BLACK RIVER -Yes we were here!!