Tuesday, 16 December 2014

TRAVEL TIDBITS: Manon Ossevoort drives to the North Pole on a tractor

It is almost common now to traverse the world in a car or a motorbike. Many have even taken to travelling on foot, exploring the length and breadth of whole continents. Recently, I came across a solo female traveller who took on a road trip on a rather unusual vehicle: a tractor. Manon Ossevoort aka ‘tractor girl’ set out on an expedition to the North Pole. Following in the footsteps of legendary explorer Sir Edmund Hillary—who travelled to the South Pole on a tractor in 1958—she even named her tractor Antarctica 2.


Ossevoort’s journey originally began in 2005 when she travelled from her hometown in Holland to Cape Town and then missed the boat that was due to take her to Antarctica for the final leg due to delays. For the next four years, she stayed home and recorded her experiences in a book and worked as a motivational speaker. But she never gave up on her dream to conquer of Antartica on a tractor. So with the help of sponsors like Massey-Ferguson, she got back on a tractor and spent 16 days across 1,500 miles of frozen land masses.


A former theatre actress, Ossevoort has a 10-month-old baby who stayed home with her partner as her mother went on to complete her unfulfilled dream. It is truly commendable to see women on the forefront of travel; taking on journeys that are inspiring women all over the world. This only goes to reiterate the fact that you can do anything you set your mind to. If you dream it, it IS possible.

I would like to leave you with something that she said that will urge you all to live your dream now instead of postponing it to another day:
“Fear holds people back from pursuing their dreams and many believe that 'putting them into reality is as impossible as driving a tractor to the South Pole'. The tractor for me symbolises this very down to earth fact that if you want to do something, maybe you will not be so fast, but if you keep going and keep your sense of humour you will get there.”

If you know of any inspiring travel stories, please share them below.

Monday, 15 December 2014

Dark Tourism—explore the dark side of travel

One of the freelance assignments I worked on recently had a very interesting topic: Dark Tourism. This term describes visits to disaster zones like Ground Zero in New York or destinations associated with gruesome murders or hardship such as as the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland or prisons such as Alcatraz. I compiled five such destinations in Europe; from Dracula’s spooky castle to Cork City’s gloomy prison. If you know of any, please add to the list in the 'comments' box.

Carlton Hill

1) The Dark Side of Edinburgh
If horror movies give you goosebumps, then the ghastly real-life stories of Edinburgh’s violent past will surely terrify. Touring the city’s ghoulish past includes tales of witch burnings, grave robbing, body snatching and a host of unexplained murders. Discover legends of public executions in Edinburgh’s Grassmarket, flesh-eating fairies at Carlton Hill (said to be home to a fairy portal), the famous story of Burke and Hare (childhood friends turned murderers), stories of cannibals and vampires that include Sawney Bean on whom the film The Hills Have Eyes is based, and the true story of Allan Menzies, who murdered his best friend and drank his blood because he wanted to become a vampire—an incident that shockingly occurred in 2002.
Location: Edinburgh, Scotland
Tour options: You can book walking tours through Sandeman’s New Europe tours (the Dark Side Tour of Edinburgh’s Murderers and Monsters) or Viator (Edinburgh Ghost Tour by Vintage Bus).

Cost: Rs 800 to Rs 1,000 approx

Burke and Hare





2) Transylvania’s Dracula Tour
A tour of Transylvania, home to Bram Stoker’s Dracula, unveils an intriguing history about the Lord of the Undead and his real-life inspiration, Prince Vlad III, the Impaler. From Snagov Monastery, where Vlad’s remains are allegedly buried, to the ruins of the Poenari Fortress, said to be the authentic castle Dracula lived in, you can relive the vampire’s bloody history. You can also participate in the Ritual Killing of the Living Dead, a ceremony performed by priests in a bid to set free the soul of the dead. Using elements like candles, incense, garlic, holy water and basil, the body is laid to rest in a coffin and a wooden stick is put through the heart of the deceased.
Location: Transylvania, Romania
Tour options: Both Transylvania Live and Adventure Transylvania offer six to seven day itineraries that allow you to explore other parts of Romania as well.
Cost: A seven-day trip will be approximately Rs 77,000.

Dracula's Castle

3) Life in prison at the Cork City Gaol
Get ready to be a social media sensation because this is the only place that will let you say, “I’ve been to jail and it was awesome”. The Cork City Gaol is a well-preserved Irish prison built in the 1820s, and later transformed into a museum and heritage centre. A tour of this prison, that houses life-like wax figures of guards and prisoners, gives you a glimpse of what life in the prison was like back in the 1800s and early 1900s. You can witness how the prisoners lived, their dark confinement rooms, the punishments they were subjected to and more.

In those days, prisoners like Thomas Raile were sent to solitary confinement for merely stealing books. One of the prisoners, nine-year-old Edward O’Brien, was sentenced to three weeks in prison with the order of being whipped twice a week, only because he stole two brass taps to pawn. The conditions too were grim. The rooms were dark and damp, and often lice were left in prisoners’ bedrolls as a means of torture. A code of silence was enforced, which eventually drove several prisoners mad. The prisoners were also made to watch public hangings so as to show them what their fate could be if they attempted to escape. Some people who live around the Gaol claim that the former prison is haunted. They say men’s voices can be heard; the sound of electrical items being turned on and off or moved around echoed, as if a curious child wanted to play with the equipment. Apparitions of phantom women have also been sighted, wandering through the wings of the Gaol. Whether or not this scares you, the life-like depictions of the torture prisoners had to bear is sure to leave you teary-eyed
Location: Cork, Ireland
Tour options: A variety of tours are available at the Cork City Gaol Heritage Centre. You can opt for audio tours, night tours or self-guided tours.
Cost: Approximately Rs 615 admission for adults and Rs 155 for an audio tour

Cork City Gaol


4) Go underground in Paris
On your next trip to Paris, switch off from the city of lights and unearth the dark secrets buried deep beneath the surface. Start with Musée des Égouts de Paris, an underground museum revealing the history of its sewage system dating back to the year 1370. Walking through the rather spacious tunnels expect to see giant iron balls used to flush out the sewers, and exhibits explaining the development of Paris’ waste water–disposal system. This is a great spot for fans of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables as it reflects upon protagonist Jean Valjean adventures in the Parisian sewers. It’s going to be damp and muddy down there, so be sure to leave your good shoes behind. 

Musée des Égouts de Paris

Just 20 metres below street level, the underground tunnels and limestone quarries were used to house more than just sewage. They were also used to store the remains of more than six million Parisians between 1785 and 1860. Back then, when the cemeteries couldn’t contain the increasing number of dead bodies, disused quarries were used as a depositary of bones that later became known as the catacombs or Les Catacombes de Paris. A walk through this 180-mile maze of tunnels is truly bone chilling. Endless walls of stacked-up bones, dimly lit passageways and leaking low ceilings create macabre visuals about how the bones came to find a home here.

Les Catacombes de Paris

Location: Paris, France
Tour options: For a tour of the sewers, log on to Paris.fr, and for the catacombs, Catacombes.paris.fr
Cost: Ticket to Musée des Égouts de Paris is Rs 330 approx and Les Catacombes de Paris, Rs 770 approx

5) The haunting history of Venice
Venice for long has been associated with serene canals and musical gondola rides. But a tour of its dark side will uncover mysterious murders and ghastly ghosts. Walking along a winding route through Venice’s labyrinth of alleyways and canals you can explore haunted houses, dark alleys, secret courtyards and ancient cemeteries hidden beneath the streets. Most of the tours begin at Rialto Bridge built in 1591. Legend has it that the bridge kept collapsing, so the builder made a deal with Satan who agreed to stop the bridge from crumbling if he could have the first soul to cross it. Even though the builder tried to outwit Satan, he eventually lost his wife and child. Another intriguing story lies at Cà Dario, locally referred to as ‘The House of No Return’. It is believed that its owners either die or their lives are ruined in some way. It all started back in the 15th century when the daughter of its first owner, Giovanni Dario, committed suicide in the house after her husband went bankrupt and their son was killed in a fight. Numerous suicides followed after, while the few survivors either went bankrupt or fled the place. Also on the tour are Calle dei Assassini (alley of the assassins), La Fenice Opera House and the fires that attempted to destroy it, and St Mark’s Square where public executions took place.
Location: Venice, Italy
Tour options: You can book tours via Cityexperience.it (Mystery Tour: The Dark Side of Venice) or GetYourGuide.com (Murders and Mysteries Venice Evening Walk)
Cost: Rs 1,700 approx

Cà Dario





























Published in the December issue of GRAZIA, 2014

Visited any dark tourism sites? Add to the list by sharing them below.

Sunday, 30 November 2014

TRAVEL TIDBITS: Travel scratch map

This birthday I found the perfect gift for traveloholics like me: A world map where you can scratch off each destination you visit. On this vintage-looking map, the land masses are covered in gold foil that can be scratched off to reveal the countries you’ve visited. It's a simple piece of home decor that brightens up your space. Plus, it serves as a vision board that will motivate you to plan that trip you've been putting on hold due to impractical reasons. I hope by my next birthday I not only acquire this map, but also manage to scratch a whole lot of places on it. Iceland, Greenland, Sweden, Norway, Germany and more...
Available at Firebox.com


Thursday, 27 November 2014

PHOTO FEATURE: Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York, 2013 - 2014

Happy Thanksgiving Day!

Every year, the holiday season kicks off with Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York. Last year, I was lucky to be there and see it live. I say ‘lucky’ because that’s exactly what it was. I had just arrived to New York the night before and the hostel I was staying in—Hostelling International, located on Amsterdam Avenue—had planned to take a bunch of us for the parade the next morning. Unfortunately, I woke up late and missed the group by a few minutes. While the reception gave me a copy of the route to get to the parade’s starting point, 77th Street and Central Park West, on the southeast corner of the American Museum of Natural History, I was unsure if I’d make it.



Thankfully, I wasn’t the only one who put the alarm on snooze mode. Luis, a fellow traveller from Mexico, was just as late so we decided to head out together. A few blocks before our destination, we stopped over for coffee at Starbucks. As soon as we got out, we ran into another hostel-mate Leonardo, who was visiting from Venezuela. We lost souls walked together till we saw a line marking the entry for the parade. We joined the dozens of families huddled together with folded chairs and food baskets prepared for the four-hour wait before the parade was slated to begin. The fact that it was freezing at 5:30am wasn’t helping much. The parade draws more than 3.5 million people every year, so if you're hoping to find a place to sit, you have to be there before 6:30am, even though it actually kicks off at 9am.




Halfway through the line, we are asked for our passes. Since this was such a last-minute plan and we were supposed to be with our hostel representative, we had no clue we needed passes at all. When we shook our heads, the kind gentleman said “Let me see if I can get you some” seeing that we had already spent half an hour waiting in line. We stood aside hoping to grab some tickets. Another 15 minutes and we were in! We found great seats, which we were grateful for as we noticed that people across the street were standing. Oblivious to the seating arrangements at the parade, we realised only later that we had been waiting in the wrong line. We were meant to be the people standing across the road. But thanks to our lack of knowledge, we ended up with Grandstand seats and fun company.

Here’s what you can look forward to at this year’s parade:
Balloons

This year you can expect to see Hello Kitty, Papa Smurf, Spider-Man, SpongeBob SquarePants balloon heads of characters from The Wizard of Oz.



Performances
This year’s performers include the Big Apple Circus, Cirque du Soleil, Hilary Duff, Nick Jonas, KISS, Idina Menzel and the cast of Sesame Street. In addition, there will be marching bands from 12 high schools and universities.




This year’s route and the best viewing spots
Here’s what NYMag.com had to share: The south side of 34th Street between Broadway and Seventh Avenue is highly sought-after territory every year, but there are plenty of better options. The long stretch of Sixth Avenue between Central Park South and 38th Street provides ample viewing room; you’ll want to avoid any spot between 34th and 38th Streets, as the view is limited by broadcasting equipment.

The best bet is to situate yourself on Central Park West between Columbus Circle and 77th Street, where the parade kicks off. In addition to the scenic backdrop, you can show up closer to 8 am. and still get a decent view.

Check out some of the balloons from Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade 2013























Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Travelling with locals

People often travel to Pushkar seeking a spiritual awakening or an intoxication of the senses brought on by heady substances known to be available here. I first visited this tiny town—located in the Ajmer district in the Indian state of Rajasthan—back in 2008. It was meant to be a mere detour during an ongoing Mumbai-Delhi road trip, but I ended up discovering a lot more than I expected.


Pink Floyd Hotel and Café
Pushkar is well known for its Brahma Temple, the only one of its kind in the world, but rarely is it spoken about for its intriguing coffee shops and shopping options. Walking around looking for a cosy spot to grab a bite, I started chatting with some locals. Being fluent in the local language of Marwari, since I am originally from Rajasthan, was truly helpful. A little boy told me about Pink Floyd Hotel that had a rooftop café. I had never heard of it before nor was I able to find it on the Internet. But I was intrigued by its name, so I set out to find it. The building looked dilapidated and unimpressive. I began to understand why it wasn’t listed on any guidebook or website I’d come across. I walked into the narrow vertical building and climbed all the way up the three floors. As I made my way up, I saw some of the rooms in the hotel. They were all named after different albums by Pink Floyd. Once I was up at the terrace I could see why this place was a hidden gem. The space comprised comfortable bamboo chairs, a great view of the town and a decent menu with a selection of coffee, cake and various meal options. The food may have not been too impressive, but I would most certainly go back for the incredible view. And I only have that little boy to thank. Without him I would have never found this place.



Introducing Withlocals
When it comes to travel, the best discoveries are the ones you make when you interact with the locals in the region. There’s no better way to explore a country and its culture and cuisine than by getting to really know its people. But it isn’t always easy to meet people whose recommendations you can trust. Plus, local language can also be a hindrance. Just recently, as I began planning my next trip, I was searching for a way to get in touch with people in Vietnam and I fell upon a website called Withlocals. They connect travellers with locals offering a range of unique experiences. You can opt to taste local cuisine at someone’s home; maybe even learn to make some dishes. You can also take part in activities or learn traditional skills like toddy tapping in Sri Lanka or carving silver jewellery in Vietnam.


Enjoy home cooking in Malaysia

Withlocals is currently present in Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, Singapore, Indonesia, Nepal, and Malaysia. When I got in touch with them, I found out that they are soon coming to India. I am particularly glad to hear this because they also have the option of hosting tours. I have hosted many friends from different countries, taking them to places in Mumbai they should see and also aiding them with suggestions to travel in India. I am looking forward to registering with them. I hope you do too :)


Check out these Withlocals experiences for inspiration: www.withlocals.com/locations/india/

Thursday, 20 November 2014

Want to stay in a tree house? Sign up with Airbnb.com























I first made a bucket list six years ago, when I began to travel on my own. One of the things on this list was to stay in a tree house. I chanced upon one in Kerala while researching for a story back when I was working for a travel magazine. I had dreamed of a beautiful home nestled between tall trees, far away from civilisation, lit up by the rays of the sun and filled with songs of the birds surrounding it with only a stack of books and a cup of coffee for company. I never did strike that off my list. But that is about to change…























A few weeks ago, I discovered that the tree house I had envisioned all these years was not only real, but more beautiful than in my imagination. Located in the heart of Atlanta, Georgia in the U.S.A., this tree house comprises a living room, bedroom and a deck, all connected by a rope bridge adorned with strings of fairy lights. Furnished with antiques interspersed with contemporary design elements, this tree house offers the perfect escape from the civilised world to a fairytale land that is undisturbed, revelling in its natural habitat. The bed can be angled in a way that allows you to be embraced by the lush woods around you, while the little desk near it encourages you to pen down your thoughts as the birds cheer you on.























If you’re wondering how I found this breathtaking place, the answer is Airbnb—a website where a community of locals across the world offer their homes to travellers looking for unique spaces to live in as they travel.

Why use Airbnb?
As travellers, we are all seeking out new experiences and hoping to discover offbeat locales and quirky places to stay in. Airbnb has taken the pains to help travellers find inspiring accommodation options to choose from. How else could you get the chance to live in an igloo? Or rent a private island? Or live in Charles Dickens’ home? The choices are exciting and endless. Plus it is a great way to connect with locals and getting an insight into their lives.

So, to help you get started on your very own unique adventure, Airbnb has this awesome referral programme that allows me to give all my readers Rs 1,500 to use on your first booking by simply signing up. So what are you waiting for? Join Airbnb today using this link and set out on your next travel adventure!

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Why I started travelling...




I come from a conventional Indian family where travel meant only quick family vacations or family weddings. No one I knew was the traveller type, and no one had ever travelled alone; not for fun anyway. I didn’t know I was the traveller kind either. Like life, it just happened to me.

You know how people in their teens are anxious to grow up, to find out who they are and what they want to become? Well, I wasn’t one of them. I was a naïve fool who intended to go the ‘planned route’. The so-called plan at the time was simple: have a career, find a nice guy, get married and have kids. That’s all. But as I said before; life happened.

I was also curious though; about discovering new things, doing stupid things, always keen on trying things others said they wouldn’t or couldn’t do. One such time, when a college friend shared her travel story, she talked about how she had travelled by herself without any prior planning and how liberating it felt. How she’d turned strangers into friends, and how it had been one of her life’s most incredible experiences. Now who wouldn’t want that? I was fascinated as expected, but I certainly didn’t think of following in her footsteps. I mean, what would my family say? How could I even manage to travel alone? I had never even slept alone in my own home. I was a sheltered child and a protected adult. The thought of breaking free was exciting and yet unfathomable. It was a nice thought…but just that, a thought, an idea that would never see fruition.

And yet, the unthinkable happened. One really hot Sunday morning, I woke up and just felt the need to run off somewhere…escape. Amid my confused state over my then current advertising job and what seemed like a painful heartbreak, I just wanted to run off to a place that had bad cell phone reception and preferably no human in sight. I was at a friend’s place wearing a pair of jeans and a T-shirt with a sling bag containing my belongings. I didn’t think even for a second. I just left in a rush towards the Gateway of India to catch a ferry and go to Mandwa and from there to Kihim beach.

It wasn’t as exciting as it seemed in my head. The bus was creaky and rickety; the road was certainly far from smooth; and the people inside were mostly locals living there staring at me with a question-mark-like expression. I too had a question mark in my mind, but I hid it cleverly faking confidence and appearing to know what I was doing. It was much harder than I thought.

I reached the beach only to be disappointed by the three tourist buses standing there and a tiny stall selling chai and pakoras. That was what I was escaping to? Disappointed as I was, I was also hungry since I left without eating. As I drank my chai and ate a pakora, I decided that this trip would not be in vain. I folded my jeans and started walking down the beach. Soon, the crowd thinned and it was just me and the sea.

I kept walking only to stop and admire the vastness of the ocean and the sudden moments of silence only cut by the waves crashing into the shore. I sat on the rocks and just stared into the sea looking at the horizon and the sunny sky above. There were houses on the other side, but there was no one around for miles. I was alone. I was silent. And nothing more was needed.

That was the day my travelling journey began, and I haven’t stopped escaping since…

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

TRAVEL TIDBITS: Friends’ Central Perk will pop up in New York this September

 One of my all-time favourite TV shows, Friends, is turning 20 this year (it premiered in 1994). My love for this show has gone from purchasing memorabilia like the huge coffee mug from Central Perk to T-shirts to visiting the set at the Warner Bros studio in Los Angeles. And now, the iconic Central Perk set is about to make its debut in New York. In commemoration of the 20th anniversary of its premiere, Warner Bros Television Group, Warner Bros. Consumer Products and Eight O’Clock Coffee are coming together to recreate the Central Perk experience for its fans.



Aside from the excitement of being able to take selfies on the bright orange couch that is a trademark of the coffee house, you may get lucky enough to be served coffee by James Michael Tyler, who played the character of Gunther, Central Perk’s barista. Free coffee, photo ops, musical performances, signature props from the show, contests, giveaways and even a limited-edition ‘Central Perk Roast’—this is a dream for Friends fans!


The pop-up shop will be located at 199 Lafayette St and will remain open from September 17 till October 18. The timings are:

Weekdays: from 8 am to 8 pm
Weekends: from 10 am to 8 pm




Monday, 1 September 2014

TRAVEL TIDBITS: Amsterdam’s Eenmaal restaurant—only for solo diners

One of the few things that I don’t really enjoy as a solo traveller is eating alone. I don’t mind it, but I don’t always like it. Having grown up with a huge family in India where eating together was a norm, eating by yourself doesn’t quite capture the fun of eating with a group of people. However, being a solo diner is good every once in a while because it lets you focus on the food and savour it instead of gulping it down.

Marina Van Goor, creator of Amsterdam’s Eenmaal restaurant, summarises this feeling accurately, “I wanted to break the perception that eating out alone isn't very attractive. Solitary dining can actually be an inspiring experience, because you get a chance to disconnect for a while in our hyper-connected world.” Claiming to be the world’s first restaurant made purely for solo diners, this temporary restaurant offers a fixed €35 (₹2,800 approx) four-course menu that includes cocktails and wine. The décor is very simple and minimal with just a few chic desks and chairs laid out in a huge industrial space. Whatever reason leads you to try this, it would be a great way to relish your meal without distractions.

Eenmaal is set to open in Antwerp this November. Find out more here.



















Photo courtesy: Eenmaal.com

Sunday, 17 August 2014

Explore Hua Hin Hills Vineyard in Thailand

I am not a wine drinker, but I know it would certainly be unusual to put Thailand and wines in the same sentence. I’ve heard of French wines, Indian wines and even South African wines, but I wouldn’t peg Thailand as a wine producer. So imagine my surprise when I found a vineyard in a place that’s claim to fame is its endless seaside and vast expanses of pristine beachfront. However, don’t dismiss Thailand’s foray into wine production just yet. While they haven’t entered the league of top winemakers in the world, they have definitely proved that they can produce good quality wines in a region that the world couldn't imagine to be conducive to grape cultivation.

The discovery that wine production was possible in Thailand came about over 30 years ago, when a royal project under HM the King began experimenting with grape plantation in the region. That’s when they realised that Thailand’s Mediterranean climate would aid the successful cultivation of grapes. This eventually led Siam Winery to give Hua Hin its first boutique vineyard. Today, Hua Hin Hills boasts of growing over 30 grape varietals that include the Colombard, Summer Muscat, Sangiovese, Tempranillo, Hua Hin Hills’ on their loamy sand and slate terrain.

Spread over 560 acres, the vineyard is also home to the Sala Wine Bar and Bistro—which contains a wine bar, retail shop, wine cellar and a meeting facility—where you can learn more about oenology, viticulture, and the detailed story behind the conception of latitude wines in Thailand. Sala, also known as an open pavilion, is a facet of Thai architecture that is meant to be open on all four sides and provide shade, while protecting people from climatic conditions like rain. The bistro is designed using materials like bamboo and red bricks and looks over the lush green rows of grape-bearing vines.

The menu here not only allows you to sample their fine wines, but also offers delicious local food prepared with ingredients grown within the property. You can also request the staff to help you pair your food with their selection of wines. Those who don’t drink alcoholic beverages can choose from alternative grape-based concoctions such as the ever-popular red grape juice, grape smoothie and hot grape tea. People with a sweet tooth must try their grape sorbet and grape yoghurt cheesecake.



However, what makes this vineyard truly ‘Thai’ is the surprising element of elephant rides. Imagine being able to explore a grape plantation seated atop an elephant. Where else but Thailand can you think of doing this?


The activities here include wine tastings, elephant rides, cycling, jeep tours and wine and tapas pairing. The vineyard is open from 8:30am to 6:30pm. For more information, check out their website.

If you’re planning a trip to Hua Hin, do check the official Thailand Tourism website before you go so that you can prepare your itinerary in advance.



P.S.  My visit to Hua Hin, Thailand was at the invitation of the Tourism Authority of Thailand.