The lagoons by the long stretches of beach in Varkala are draped in serenity. A century old ashram lets you heal your inner-self, and a temple island draws you towards its quiet beauty.
The town itself is slow and unspoiled; but plenty of adventure awaits you on its fringes. Take lessons in surfing or paragliding in ideal weather between October and May; wander around and stumble upon thriving fish communities that add soul to the place and you will come back with enough stories and pictures to keep you happy till you decide to head back again.
Following a receptionist’s advice, our correspondent Sarita walked towards “a narrow lane” and to her surprise stumbled on a stunning sidewalk along the edges of a cliff, the North Cliff Beach. Restaurants, cafes and resorts line the road for almost a kilometre, with the vast Arabian Sea glimmering on the other side.
Here, coconut groves hide another surprise: Black Beach; so named after the colour of its sand. Varkala beach is locally called Papanasam Beach, whose northern part lies below the cliff. At the southern end are the mineral water springs whose medicinal properties attract people from all over the world.
Another gem in the heart of Varkala is the Shiva- Parvathi temple. It is on the uninhabited Ponnumthuruthu Island, midst the lush forest and a chirpy bird life. Here you can reach by boat from Nenduganda Village.
Driving through this hamlet in the evening you’ll pass through vibrant houses of all sizes, men and women chatting away as they dry their catch of the day, group of church-goers saying their daily prayers and glimpses of beautiful stretches of the sea that the Latin Christian Makuva community lives beside. It’s good to see that the community has held its identity, in spite of tourism slowly commercialising everything.
One of Kanha’s best kept secrets, Chitvan Jungle Lodge lets you soak in the rustic wilderness while keeping you snug. Sarita Santoshini loved it.
I alight from a local bus at a small village called Mocha in Madhya Pradesh, looking around for the driver who is supposed to take me to the resort from there. Moments later, he greets me with a grin, quickly launching into a charged-up narrative of his tiger spotting efforts. “There’s a tiger lurking close by,” he breathes. His excitement is contagious.
We are more than 50 km away from the core zone of Kanha National Park, yet already seem to be quite close to it, with the concrete world left far behind. I take it as a sign from the wild, inviting me to hurry up and explore its territory.
I reach Chitvan Jungle Lodge, a sprawling resort that lies nestled between the village of Samnapur and the buffer zone of Kanha, standing out from the wilderness that surrounds it. Spread across 14 acres, the jungle retreat has been thoughtfully conceptualised around the five elements of nature. Prithvi, Akash and Jal are the elements inspiring the design and décor of the 10 suites and 8 standard rooms, the Common Hall is inspired by Vayu, while the huge dining area and kitchen by the fifth element of Agni. I am ushered by the efficient and chirpy Manager, Ashwini Agarwal, into one of the four Prithvi suites, my abode for the next three days. Adorned in shades of green and beige, the walls are lined with framed photographs of predators staring back at me. Vintage mirrors reflect the golden sunbeams streaming in through a glass wall—a perfect space to catch up on both sleep and that half-read novel.
I am informed that I can have lunch either in the high ceiling dining room or in the garden area outside it. I, of course, choose the outdoors. The head chef, Aashish Kumar, spreads out a scrumptious meal made from fresh vegetables that grow in the organic farm surrounding my make-shift dining area. As I quickly indulge in the homely food, Ashwini fills me in about life in Kanha. He set up the resort in 2007, and it was not an easy go—the remote location presented quite a challenge! Today, that is a USP. Guests enjoy the technology-free experience that the resort offers. It helps that the 40 staff members belong to nearby villages, and bring with them a natural friendliness, which keeps guests happy.
It is relaxing enough to spend all your time wandering around the lush property or playing with the resident German Shepherd puppies. But push sleep aside at 5:30 am, brave the cold and get yourself on a jeep. You will be too enticed by the green meadows and clear lakes to want to ride away from the enchanting Kanha National Park. I still feel a thrill running down my spine as I share stories about driving from dawn to dusk across narrow forest roads in search of tigers and leopards, and the moment of complete awe at finally having spotted these predators. If luck, however, keeps you from spotting one, you will still have generous sprinklings of the once-endangered Barasingha, Spotted Deer, Langur, Jungle Babbler and Spotted Dove to capture on your lens.
Do go on a morning nature walk with the naturalist, Sanjay Thakre, pushing your way through dense forest cover, learning about spider webs and animal pug marks on your way. Cycling or walking across the neighbouring village of Samnapur, all the way to Bandha Tola, the main source of water in the area, is another interesting option. The village visit gives you glimpses into the life of the many tribes that reside together in the vicinity of the forest, relying on agriculture and wildlife tourism as their main source of income. These villagers willingly share gripping stories of close tiger encounters but brush away my concerns about safety. The forest has been their lifeline for generations, they say.
In the company of the locals and unspoilt nature in Chitvan, it is easy to lose track of time. Just don’t get too attached to the healing routine there—the one that involves waking up to the sound of bird songs and gazing at the stars before turning off the bed lamps at night. But the memories of the wild that you carry back, will definitely keep you whistling at your desk for a long time.
Chitvan Jungle Lodge, Kanha National Park, Madhya Pradesh
Lap-of-nature serenity, laid-back cafes, and plenty of local talent; says Travel Secrets writer Sarita Santoshini.
The bus takes a sharp turn and I jolt awake to see a thick layer of vapour enveloping the window. I had taken the suggestion on Wikitravel seriously and booked a window seat on the bus from Delhi to Manali, so as not to miss the promised view. Groggily I wipe the glass clear. A soft drizzle has taken over the early morning and the Beas River catches up with the bus, swiftly pushing rocks from its way. The green mountain is partially visible through the mist and the tall trees appear dwarfed in its presence.
I anticipate that I am going to reach any minute now, but the misty view remains with me for an hour and a half until the bus enters a town lined with shops and pulls to a halt. After two days of continuous travelling, I am finally in Manali. I pull out the address of my hotel and get into an auto. Lucky for me, I notice that I am moving away from the packed commercial part of town and heading towards what looks like a greener, more pristine land. Across a bridge, I reach the other half of the town called Old Manali.
The auto drops me off at a set of rock stairs leading up to the Red House Café and Inn, my abode for the day. The apple laden trees across the garden are such a refreshing site as I enter the gate with my heavy rucksacks. I meet the kind owner, Mr. Raj and the Chef Yogi, who show me to my room on the second floor. I must say, visiting a hill station after so many years has me thrilled unbound. The loud gurgle of the river and sight of the mountains, both almost a part of my room, have this freshness that the city life keeps me gasping for.
I take a quick nap to shake away the tiredness, but as soon as I am up, instinctively walk to the window to remind myself where I am. I watch a scattered group of locals at work, plucking red apples from the trees and filling their huge baskets with them. I wonder how the same collect will probably be put on a truck and sold miles away in my hometown in just a few days, and somehow, the idea is comforting. It’s not raining anymore but the temperatures have certainly dropped and it’s fairly cold. I pull on my jacket and head downstairs to enjoy my brunch, nestled amidst the apple trees. These trees are probably my favorite part of this place.
A quick meal later, I walk out to explore the rest of Old Manali. With just one day here and nine days of travelling ahead, I decide to calm my adventurous self and hesitatingly cross Hidima Temple and Vashisht off my itinerary. Some other day, I console myself.
The shops and cafes immediately come into view, lining the narrow street that slightly slopes upwards. Snake charmers sit gossiping in one corner while a lady walks past me with a huge fluffy white Angora rabbit. I walk into a few shops to have a look at the vast collection of jackets, harem pants, bags and printed t-shirts. Brief conversations with shopkeepers tell me that most of them are from Nepal and Kashmir, looking forward to returning home for a break after the long season. Uninterested in buying anything, I walk on towards Old Manali Village, which is a pleasant change with shops finally disappearing and local houses now lining one side of the street. These two- storeyed, partially wooden houses give me glimpses of little kids playing around and women running their daily errands.
A little later, a sign board leads me to the Manu Temple, standing serene and wonderful against the backdrop of white clouds. It is empty except for an old man offering long prayers, so I take my time to look around and read the long notice informing tourists of the origins and history of the temple, claiming to be the only one dedicated to the creator of human race.
On my way back, I cross a very pretty looking restaurant called Hangout Café and am hungry enough to go in for a quick bite. I sit outside in the flowery courtyard enjoying a delicious pancake when I chance upon a pamphlet announcing a live music performance the same night. I am intrigued by the idea of being able to listen to some local talent, and after wandering for two more hours, cannot help but walk back to the café again. Dim lights and candles adorn the place now and it is already lively with music and conversations. Young travellers sit draped in shawls and sip on to the their drinks for warmth. I sit down by myself at the bar only to be joined by a really interesting couple from Punjab, who I go on to spend the rest of the evening with. We sit exchanging stories about our lives and travels as the young artists cover favourites like Wonderwall and Yellow. The wife, Swati, even lets me in on secret destinations around Himachal and Kashmir, which she thinks I should write about someday. And write I must.
Before I realise, it is past 11 pm and I decide to make my way back to my room. As I walk back down the slope, music flows from a few open restaurants, but the rest of the town has already drifted off to sleep.
I did not have any extraordinary experience here, not that I expected to, but Old Manali did charm me in some way. It is that place you go to for a day or so, for an assured great start to the journey that lies further down the road. Take a good pit stop here while you can!
Sivasagar is, no doubt, a long drive from Assam’s capital Guwahati. A lengthy 370 kilometres, no less. It’s not much to look at or ‘do’ in, unless you dig oil hubs.
But if you like the whiff of history, you should allow yourself to drift—er, drive—toward Sivasagar. The mighty Ahom kings made it their capital for nearly 100 years, starting 1699. Few eyes have feasted on the remnants from their rule, so the nostalgia of the centuries still hangs in the air. Inhale it as you stumble upon palaces, tanks, temples and monuments that the Ahoms built and Time forgot.
TS Intern Sarita Santoshini, who hails from Assam, gives you a glimpse of the forgotten glories of Sivasagar.
This two storeyed structure built in 1746 served as the royal pavilion.The Ahom kings once stood here, watching bull fights at the Rupahi Pathar (playground), It is believed to be one of the oldest and largest amphitheatres in Asia.
Fascinating fact: the monument was built using thin bricks and a paste of rice and eggs instead of cement.
Talatal Ghar and Kareng Ghar
Located in a place called Gargaon, 15 km from Sivasagar, this seven-storey palace used to be an army base. So, expect to see a lot of secret tunnels and exits. Three of the floors are below the ground; these are called Talatal Ghar. The four floors above are named Kareng Ghar,- together constituting the “Rangpur Palace”. Later, the palace came to serve as the Ahom royal house for many years . Arms and ammunition used during their reign have been found here.
Sitting at the foothills of Nagaland, about 30 km from the town of Sivasagar, Charaideo was once the symbolic centre of the Ahom Kingdom. The hillocks were considered to be the site of ancestral Ahom gods and thus began to serve as the burial ground for the Ahom kings, queens and nobles. Only 30 of the 150 royal vaults are protected by the Archaeological Survey of India, so visit the historical site before the ruins conquer it.
An Ahom king built this tank in 45 days flat. Constructed in 1697, Joysagar nudges the edge of Sivasagar. Three temples flank its banks, the most important being the Sivadol dedicated to Lord Shiva. Devotees flock here from all over the country on Shiva Ratri. The other two temples are Vishnudol dedicated to Lord Vishnu and Devidol dedicated to Goddess Durga.
Gaurisagar and Rudrasagar are two other tanks in Sivasagar built by the Ahom kings.
You can also visit the Sivasagar Tai Museum to learn more about the Ahom kingdom.
How to reach Sivasagar
The districts of Jorhat and Dibrugarh, 56 km and 80 km from Sivasagar respectively, have airports that connect the state with major cities across the country. You can take an ASTC bus or easily hire a car to Sivasagar from either airport.
A: Mumbai is eye-wideningly huge. It’s got 19 million people—and counting. It’s India’s largest and the world’s sixth largest city. And it’s got a whole year’s worth of things for you to see and do.
So, keeping just one day for Mumbai is like picking an olive off a family sized Margherita pizza!
BUT. TS intern Sarita Santoshini is a Mumbai local, and a smart one at that. Hold her hand and off you go!
7 am: Hire a cycle!
Where? – Happy Cycle Shop, Colaba
They open at 6:30 AM and insist you knock the shutter if you find them closed.
Charges: Rs 30/hour
Ride around the empty morning streets of Colaba and onwards to the Gateway of India or Worli Seaface to NCPA on Sunday.
9 am: Breakfast
Option 1: With Rs.200 to spend, Kala Ghoda Café is the place to go for a Veg Morjim sandwich and a glass of fresh orange juice or Waffle with chocolate sauce and maple syrup.
Where: Ropewalk Street, Kala Ghoda – Colaba.
Option 2: Prakash. Their Sabudana vada and Dahi Misal is a foodie’s delight.
Where: Shiv Sena Bhavan, Next to Kithe Hall, Gokhale Road, Shivaji Park, Dadar West.
Option 3: For Pineapple Sheera worth Rs.35, plate of Idlis worth Rs.20 and filter coffee worth Rs. 15 – Café Madras is the place to go for an authentic south Indian breakfast.
Where: 38 -B, Circle House, King’s Circle, Matunga
Travel Smart: Get a one day BEST bus pass at Rs. 70 which is valid for travel across the city.
11 am: Adventure
Option 1:Chor Bazaar – Open from Saturdays to Thursdays, this market is a shopaholic’s paradise. We suggest you get there as soon as the shops open at 11 am.
Where: Get down at Grant Road (East) and take a cab. You’ll easily locate the market between S V Patel and Maulana Shaukat Ali Road.
Option 2:Bassein Fort in Vasai is a great option for a getaway from the city. The Portuguese buildings in ruin, chapels, and greenery around are all worth a visit.
Where: After taking a Virar local and getting down at the Vasai station, you can take a bus which is available every half an hour and charges Rs.7 for a ticket. .
2 pm: Lunch
Taste of Kerala is popular among students and professionals alike, for its authentic food that you could savor for hours without drilling a hole in your pocket. Try the Chicken Chettiandu for Rs. 123 and the Pomfret Masala.
Where: 6/A, Prospect Chambers Annex, Pitha Street, Near City Bank, Fort, Mumbai.
Post Lunch: Siesta
Option 1: Even if you are 300 bucks rich, you could head to Hiranandani Gardens in Powai. Forget the post lunch nap – Go Karting, Paintballing, Zorbing, Dirt Biking and Mini Golf are the many things you could do here.
Option 2:Yazdani Bakery offers you Brun Maska and Chai for Rs. 30 and mouth watering Apple Pie for Rs. 50.
Where: Fountain Akbar Ally, Saint Thomas Cathedral, Fort
Post 6 pm: Enjoy the vast stretch of sea
Head to the MTDC Information & Booking Counter at Gateway of India during the weekend and you could take a one hour ride in an Open Deck Bus either at 7 pm or 8:15 pm. At Rs. 120, you could experience the perfect ride around the heritage centers of South Mumbai.
Post 7 pm: Entertainment
Option 1: Shows at Prithvi Theatre are for only Rs. 80 on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Once there, be sure to tuck into one of the many delights at Prithvi Café, that plenty of theater-goers and others swear by.
Option 2: Karaoke Nights with friends are always fun. We suggest you head to either Soul Fry on Mondays or to Soul Fry Casa on Saturdays – both guarantee good music.
Soul Fry Silver Croft, Pali Mala Road, Bandra West.
10 pm: Dinner
Café Universal that dates back to 1921 is still a lesser known restaurant in Mumbai. We suggest you head there to take in some old world charm and sip your draught beer worth Rs. 80 with Grilled Chicken or the Fish Sizzler while at it, both the dishes being totally worth the price. The menu is extensive and gives you plenty of options.
Option 1: Whether a paan lover or not, Muchhad Paan wala is one place you must go to for the Sweet Paan or the Ice Paan.
Where: Opposite St.Stephens Church, Near Oomer Park, Bhulabhai Desai Road, Breach Candy.
Option 2: We believe no dessert or ice cream beats the legendary Gola. Head to the nearest beach and try either the most loved Kala Khatta or Milkmaid Gola. You could go to the famous Gola wala opposite the stretch of Marine drive. Situated a little after Girgaum Chaupati, the crowd around the stall will help you spot it. Juhu Beach has great Gola stalls too, that remain open till late hours at night.
Can’t get enough of Mumbai? These websites could help find your way around: