About Aline Dobbie
Aline Dobbie is the author of four books on India and the travel editor of India Link International magazine. She returns to India annually where she writes with affection and insight as she was born and grew up in India; but she also covers other countries and is an inveterate traveller. Aline is married and a mother and grandmother and lives in Scotland in the United Kingdom with her husband Graham. She has a deep commitment to wildlife conservation and in particular Tigers, Elephants and Rhinos. Her own website is www.thepeacockscall.co.uk.
Latest Posts by Aline Dobbie
We had returned for a leisurely holiday on Crete which we love and consider a favourite destination in Greece. From Crete it is very simple to visit Santorini by ferry and we embarked on this short visit in early October and were rewarded. This is a remarkable island much photographed and written about but I spent just two days there and recommend a visit. We took the early morning ferry from Heraklion and it was a pleasant short journey full of interest sailing north.
Approaching the island (which I had done first in June 2013 but not landed on that occasion) one is struck by the high volcanic cliffs and the sheer shape of the islands. It is a crescent-shaped island also called Thira, which is a group of islands consisting of Thíra, Thirassiá, Asproníssi, Palea and Nea Kaméni in the southernmost part of the Cyclades.
The whole complex of Santorini islands is still an active volcano (the same as Méthana, Mílos and Nísiros) and probably the only volcano in the world whose crater is in the sea. Intense volcanic activity resulted in the islands that form Santorini; twelve huge eruptions occurred, one every 20,000 years approximately, and each violent eruption caused the collapse of the volcano’s central part creating a large crater (caldera).
The volcano, however, managed to recreate itself repeatedly. The last big eruption occurred 3,600 years ago (during the Minoan Age), when igneous material (mainly ash, pumice and lava stones) covered the three islands (Thíra, Thirassiá and Asproníssi). The eruption destroyed the thriving local prehistoric civilization, evidence of which was found during the excavations of a settlement at Akrotíri. The solid material and gases emerging from the volcano’s interior created a huge “vacuum” underneath, causing the collapse of the central part and the creation of an enormous “pot” –today’s Caldera– with a size of 8×4 km and a depth of up to 400m below sea level.
The eruption of the submarine volcano Kolúmbo, located 6.5 km. NE of Santorini, on 27th September 1650, was the largest recorded in Eastern Mediterranean during the past millennium. The most recent volcanic activity on the island occurred in 1950 and that is not that long ago! The whole island is a huge natural geological/vulcanological museum where you can observe a wide range of geological structures and forms!
Santorini might be considered the most sought after place for a romantic getaway in Greece, since there are not many places in the world where you can enjoy exquisitely clear waters while perched on the rim of a massive active volcano in the middle of the sea! The island has a growing reputation for couples not only from Greece but from all over the world.
We had arranged for a transfer from the ferry port to our hotel which is essential. Naturally the port is at sea level but everywhere one might stay is high up on the top of the island’s cliffs and though there is public transport which is reasonably efficient a booked transfer is to my mind essential.
Santorini has become hugely expensive and even in October the small hotels had huge tariffs. However, I found Villa Agnadi which is outside Oia, the famous village perched on the extreme western edge of the island and thus the place from which to watch the sun set. It was nice, lovely little rooms with their own balconies looking north to the island of Ios which I had visited and loved in 2013 and others in the distance. Perched on the hillside there is a good view of the sloping fields and other buildings and in the morning the mist clears to reveal Ios in the early sunshine.
There is a lovely pool and sunbathing area and we had a fine breakfast the next morning. Down the road about 50 metres is a very nice taverna with the equally beautiful views and friendly service and good food. Despite it being early October it was still very hot! Later on we took the local bus which has a bus stop just near the hotel to Oia and it was so crowded but then everyone was arriving at Oia for the sunset that evening. The sheer mass of people is quite a challenge.
What can I say, a fascinating village full of beautiful views and places but even then completely overcrowded, with vast numbers of Chinese visitors. I was glad to experience the place and grateful for a long glass of fresh orange juice eventually. We then found a pleasant taverna with a roof top terrace from which to watch the sun go down and I photographed it completely.
The restaurant was perhaps not in the most perfect position and thus was nearly empty and we were grateful for the peace! We drank wine and ate meze and received friendly service and it was lovely. The island is expensive because it has become such a bucket list destination. I think it might be very nice in the winter with a very reduced crowd of tourists and the sun will continue to set!
Firá is the picturesque capital of the island and we left our hotel the next morning after a good breakfast and welcome shower in excellent ensuite; perched high up on the edge of the Caldera, it looks like a marvellous painting. Firá, together with Oia, Imerovígli and Firostefáni located high above on a cliff, make up the so-called “Caldera’s eyebrow”, which offers an amazing view of the volcano.
We waited for the local bus and somehow the jovial bus conductor squeezed us on. We enjoyed Fira and found an excellent bar at which to rest and enjoy the stunning views down the steep sides of the island which has villas, hotels and swimming pools clinging to the vertiginous sides. Stunning really, and the big cruise ships standing out in the deep blue water all make for a wonderful dramatic scene.
Naturally there are masses of shops ranging from the tourist tat to the seriously high end designer boutiques but we just shopped with our eyes. We found a shady taverna with good food and service and had a lovely lunch. The heat is still intense in October and so we looked for shade and lush creepers to give us that feeling of relaxation as well as good food. We found a taxi from the town centre later in the afternoon to return us to the ferry port. We took the evening ferry back to Heraklion and again had the pleasure of a stunning sunset.
Venture into Santorini’s seaside treasures and enjoy deep blue waters and beaches with white, red or black sand or volcanic pebbles, spectacular rock formations and impressive lunar landscapes. I think one could have stayed one more night but for me I felt glad to have experienced this extraordinary place even for a short time. There is an airport and one can fly in via Athens or indeed from some other European cities. Santorini, the youngest volcanic island in the Eastern Mediterranean beckons.
For many years I had promised myself the pleasure of exploring the beautiful Danube river. It was a river I had known since a tiny child because of my parents’ love for the immortal waltz by Johann Strauss – The Blue Danube, along with all the other wonderful romantic waltzes for which he is justly famous. So when a significant birthday was to arrive we decided that this is what we would give ourselves!
The Danube is the only major European river that flows from west to east, the Danube covers a distance of 2,845 km and crosses ten countries – Germany, Austria, Hungary, Slovakia, Croatia, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, Moldavia and the Ukraine – from its source at Donaueschingen to the giant estuary delta on the Black Sea. The Danube has served as a mode of transport and a trade artery for nearly five millennia. The Romans called it ‘Danuvius’ from which its current name has been derived. Even now it enchants and attracts visitors from all around the world and it does not disappoint.
We however did not start our journey at Donaueschingen its source but at Passau having travelled to Passau in a number of different ways. My recommendation is to fly into Munich and have a transfer to Passau. Passau has been a bishopric for 1,200 years and the town developed on a promontory at the confluence of the three rivers, Inn, Ilz and the Danube. Now as the border town between Germany and Austria it is called ‘the Venice of Bavaria’. The town owes its wealth to revenues from tolls and its grain and salt storage facilities. We did not have time to explore the town but simply arrived to embark on our cruise ship and later departed from the same place. The mighty river can handle the big river cruise ships at this point.
The cruise company gives one a welcome of a much needed tea and cakes and it was the tea I needed after a long drive! They were efficient and welcoming and later there was a welcome reception when the passengers were introduced to the captain and his officers and various crew members. After the reception came dinner which was well laid out in charming style with quality napery and silver cutlery and efficient courteous serving by waiters and a maître d’. The food was good and people settled into the cruise.
The next morning, I was up looking for the sunrise and discovered it very easily across the river and a lovely little group of swans in the early morning sunlight bobbing on the water alongside us. Breakfast is very well done with a large comprehensive buffet and eggs to order and every available food that one could want with juices, tea, coffee. The waiter assigned to your table then asks for your dinner order that evening from the menu which was a good time saving idea.
We loved strolling on the top deck in the sunshine and were all ready for our visit to Melk at which we had arrived very early in the morning have traversed ten locks along the way which kept the captain busy all night.
Melk is a delight. One can just walk off the ship and look around but a coach takes you up to the Benedictine monastery and the stunning cathedral of St Peter and Paul. We were enchanted and so interested in the history. The monastery founded by Leopold II and originally built in the Benedictine Age in early Middle Ages was ravaged by a succession of fires before being rebuilt in its current baroque style in the early 18th century. There is a lot to see and also the town is a delight with ancient streets and squares and welcoming café owners and shops. This was a very pleasant morning and a gentle walk downhill to the cruise ship.
Meanwhile all along as one cruises the beauty of the green hillsides, small towns with onion dome churches, river traffic, people kayaking and boating is all around and sitting in the warm sunshine is a delight. Naturally there are excellent lunches, and tea and cake or ice cream and then dinner.
That evening after a good dinner we were entertained by a quintet playing not only chamber music but modern music or their version of modern tunes and they were attractive young women with talent. They actually came from Bratislava. However, we were on course for Vienna.
We arrived in Vienna that evening in time for dinner; it was explained that in the 19th century the Emperor Franz Joseph has caused the Danube to have its course change and thus not enter the city and flood it, so the ships cannot moor right in the city but in a canal. We then went into Vienna by coach. Well, it is famous and barely needs me to write about it but yes I will. Elegance, grandeur and modernity is the fusion of modern Vienna with much to see.
The visit by coach and on foot was rather rushed but certainly gave one a taste of this great city. We returned for lunch to the ship and then in the afternoon were back to see the famous Schönbrunn Palace which is a World Heritage Cultural site and Austria’s most-visited sight. The baroque architecture consisting of palace and gardens was for centuries the property of the Habsburgs and is today largely in its original condition. We made a tour through the authentically furnished residential and ceremonial rooms of the Imperial Family in the palace, to the maze and the labyrinth in the gardens and a separate Children’s Museum. Earlier in the day we had seen from the outside Vienna’s symbol the ‘Stoffel’ the 137-metre-high southern tower of Stephan’s Cathedral which dominates the city.
The main part of the cathedral with its impressive roof featuring a distinctive coloured tile pattern dates from the 15th century. I would have liked to have taken tea at the world famous Sacher Hotel and eaten their Sacher Torte, whereas I had a rather poor imitation of it in a tourist café….my own homemade Sacher Torte is rather better than that which they are churning out! The famous Steiff Bears in the window of a toy shop were amusing and of course lots of wonderful jewellery, antiques and other collectibles attracted too. The Hofburg Palace is the former imperial palace in the centre of Vienna, Austria. Part of the palace forms the official residence and workplace of the President of Austria. Built in the 13th century and expanded in the centuries since, the palace has housed some of the most powerful people in European and Austrian history, including monarchs of the Habsburg dynasty, rulers of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It was the principal imperial winter residence, as Schönbrunn Palace was their summer residence.
The Hofburg palace has been the documented seat of government since 1279 for various empires and republics. It has been expanded over the centuries to include various residences (with the Amalienburg), the Imperial Chapel (Hofkapelle or Burgkapelle), the Naturhistorisches Museum and Kunsthistorisches Museum, the Austrian National Library (Hofbibliothek), the Imperial Treasury(Schatzkammer), the Burg theatre, the Spanish Riding School (Hofreitschule), the Imperial Horse Stables (Stallburg and Hofstallungen), and the Hofburg Congress Centre.
The Lipizzaner Horses are Europe ‘s oldest horse breed. These intelligent and lively horses bred from Spanish, Italian and Arab bloodlines are very special with their classic physique and grace they are ideally suited for the representative style of the High School of Classical Horsemanship. We saw a glimpse of their stables, but not the horses. The 21 November 2016 will mark the centenary of the death of Emperor Franz Joseph, who ruled over the Habsburg Monarchy for sixty-eight years. So, there is a great deal to see properly in Vienna on another visit.
The ship sailed on to Budapest and the top deck proved a delight with hot sunshine and a calm panorama to look at in between a good book or just chatting amongst people one met. The ship has to also go through quite a few locks and these prove interesting and need the skill of the captain to navigate.
Budapest was a delight and we approached this great city soon after breakfast the following morning. The harbour master had said the captain had to sail up and under the various bridges and then come alongside his mooring having turned around. It was glorious to have this wonderful view of this very grand panorama. We moored very close to the wonderful wedding cake parliament of Hungary and the sun came out.
We left the ship on foot and immediately went to see the poignant memorial to the Jewish people who had been shot there on the quayside by Fascists in 1945. It is a very vivid reminder of the hatred, cruelty and dominance that had overtaken Europe between 1939 and 1945. It did not cease with the end of World War II because Hungary became a satellite country of the Soviet Republic and in October 1956 the Hungarians staged a revolution; I became aware of this though very much as a child in India but my parents told me with outrage what was happening and that the rest of the West did nothing to help these poor people when 6000 Russian tanks poured into their city. The scars of that time are there to see now and one is aware that the 60th anniversary of that sad tragic time is approaching. Hungarians are very conscious of their hard won freedom and I salute them all.
Budapest is a glorious city and very well maintained and easy to walk about in. We loved it and plan to return one day soon and take a self-catering flat to really visit it properly. As it was, after a good lunch we went on a coach tour of the city and saw the architecture and beauty of the place and ended up at the wonderful baroque cathedral of St. Stephen’s. It is named in honour of Stephen, the first King of Hungary (c 975–1038), whose supposed right hand is housed in the reliquary. It was the sixth largest church building in Hungary before 1920. It is the co-cathedral of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Esztergom-Budapest. Today, it is the third largest church building in present-day Hungary. More of Esztergom a little later. It is an example of the highest baroque but was I gather only finished at the end of the 19th century. It is very similar in the interior to the wonderful cathedral at Melk. The organist was playing a most stirring piece which drowned out any form of conversation so we went into the pleasant square outside and had a coffee. The Hungarians were over the moon as one of their athlete’s had just taken a medal at the Rio Olympics.
That evening we went to a rather typical tourist establishment some way into the countryside to experience the traditional form of dancing and to eat goulash and it was fine but a bit crowded and hot and not really my scene though I appreciated going up to the vantage point we had been to earlier in the day and now we saw Budapest by night. I actually love goulash and have happy memories of skiing and goulash and gluhwein afterwards!
The following morning we went to visit a very well kept horse stud and farm which took us through the countryside which is always enjoyable. The Hungarian Great Plain is famous for its Grey Cattle and Puszta Horses. The Lazar Equestrian Park is a lovely farm and we actually came close to a couple of Lipizzaner horses; they are different with quite protuberant eyes. Greeted with Kelinka shots which I avoid (strong stuff!) or white wine and a scone; we took a wagon ride through the property which is very green and beautiful and had an explanation about the famous grey cattle of Hungary, the meat of which was the origin of goulash. The horse show was fun and the riders very skilled, especially the man riding a team… interestingly the Empress Elizabeth known as Zizzi was much admired and a female rider demonstrated her prowess dressed up as the famous empress who loved the Hungarian countryside and preferred living there to in the city. These excursions can be expensive but we had negotiated a price that was inclusive so went along happily.
We observed the huge basilica of Esztergom, the seat of the Hungarian Catholic Church, which is one of the oldest towns in Hungary. The Basilica of Esztergom, a masterpiece of Classicism, is the third largest church in Europe. Established around 972 AD, Esztergom has always played an important role in Hungary’s history. It was the birth and coronation place of the first Hungarian king, St. Stephen, as well as the capital of Hungary until the 13th century. After the Mongolian invasion, King Bela IV moved the Royal Seat to Visegrád and later to Buda, giving his palace to the archbishop and making Esztergom a religious centre. This cathedral church is immense and stands out on the banks of the Danube. It must be a very pleasant smallish town to visit being so old and full of Hungary’s medieval past.
We arrived at Bratislava in the early morning and again this is a capital where the ship can moor right on the quayside and one just walks off to visit this pleasant place. Bratislava is the capital of Slovakia formerly known as Pressburg and has been the capital of Slovakia since 1993 when the former Czechoslovakia became two nation states – the Czech Republic and Slovakia. The architecture is mainly baroque and the castle stands a little apart and dates from the 9th century. It is quite small and easy to walk around with a cathedral and town halls and lovely squares and a shady avenue which resembles the Ramblas in Barcelona. There is an opera house and quite a few elegant looking hotels. It would repay a long week-end’s visit undoubtedly.
The cruise continued on its return journey and the ship moored at Krems as there was not sufficient mooring available at Durnstein. Krems is an attractive town situated between the Danube and the River Krems and it was but a ten-minute drive to Durnstein where we were headed.
Durnstein is a small ancient town, more a village with vineyards all around and the beautiful Wachau Valley. It is reputed to be the place where King Richard the Lionheart of England who was famous for his Crusade travels was imprisoned by King Leopold V who had taken against him. Apparently the musician Blondel who knew King Richard came to the village and was singing and the king in his prison heard him and started to also sing and Blondel recognised who it was and freed him. So the story goes! It is a charming small place which is very patient with all its visitors and apricot schnapps and other such drinks are available to buy along with marmalade.
After a very pleasant farewell dinner we docked at Passau early the following morning and after the usual good breakfast took our leave of the ship and her crew and set off home.
I would do another river cruise as it is very relaxing and comfortable with good food and one can find people with whom one wants to socialise. It is preferable to have a companion I think but not essential. This has become a very popular leisure pastime in Britain.
We were there at the Press Day on Monday at the beginning of the Chelsea week which is the start of the London social season and watching nightly on the BBC since I returned home has brought back to us both all the beauty and pleasure we experienced on that day. The sun shone, the sky was blue, the birds sang, London was looking beautiful and as was said centuries ago…. ‘If one is tired of London one is tired of Life!’ We most definitely are not tired of London and felt it a privilege and pleasure to be back once again on Press Day when there are few people and the great and the good visit followed by HM The Queen and the Royal Family.
This was a particularly good Chelsea Flower Show and the emphasis on plants was strong which pleases me. I of course like garden statuary, sculpture, ornaments and furniture but most of all I love plants…. that is what it is, a celebration, the greatest celebration on the planet of flowers, trees, shrubs, grasses, vegetables, fruits from all over our beautiful Wonderful World. Old Luis Armstrong sang that song nearly 50 years ago ‘What a Wonderful World’ and do you know when you are at Chelsea with the sun out, chestnut trees in flower, light bouncing off ponds, people strutting their stuff, champagne, strawberries, the band playing, Chelsea Pensioners walking about in their scarlet red uniforms…. then you know that Great Britain is a pretty special place in which to be. Be Grateful and preserve our traditions and heritage.
The great carpet of over 300,000 red woollen poppies (above) laid out in carpets reminded us that this great freedom was hard won in two awful wars and this year we remember the awful Battle of the Somme. When you meet young Johnson Beharry VC and realise what good values and commitment he has, and then observe him speaking to a Chelsea Pensioner you know we all owe our HM Forces a great debt of gratitude. Those of us with India in the background never forget that the Indian Army gave so much in steadfast courage and valour to those dreadful conflicts and I as a child of an Indian Army regiment…. The Jats honour that memory.
There was an organisation called Lifeworks Global that helps the village women of Tamil Nadu to sow seeds and provide for their families from the vegetables and pulses which was showing its works on a stand designed by Thomas Hoblyn in the Great Pavilion. I spoke to Mr Hoblyn. A worthwhile project but he admitted he has as yet not visited Tamil Nadu…. only West Bengal. So I said that they were as alike as chalk and cheese and urged him to seek my help to pay a visit to Tamil Nadu which will impress him deeply…… heritage, temples, crafts, silks and ancient dynasties!
Chris Beardshaw Garden
There are six Gold Medal Award designers this year and they are well deserved. Chris Beardshaw my friend is one for his very beautiful garden sponsored by Morgan Stanley designed to be relocated to a second floor roof at Great Ormond Street Hospital for Sick Children in London. It had to be a shade garden to accommodate that location amongst the rooftops of central London and provide a tranquil haven for troubled parents needing to gather their strength and courage about their challenges.
Andy Sturgeon won a Gold Medal for The Telegraph Garden and Best in Show….it is a fine garden and appeals greatly to men, probably a bit too angular for me! The Garden that was showing us the awful continuing situation of Modern Slavery here in the UK also won an award for its lady designer who is also a doctor…. well done to highlight this bad situation that continues in our modern age. The doors were depicting that we actually don’t know what is going on behind closed doors…. poignant indeed.
HM The Queen’s 90th birthday was marked by a beautiful natural arch of entry under which HM walked to visit the show on Monday evening and some of the stands reflected her great age…. she looked wonderful and good to see the young royals also there taking an interest in various Gardens depicting their special Charities.
The Meningitis Now Futures Garden (below) has been inspired by the spirit and energy of families whose lives have been irrevocably changed by meningitis. A centrepiece of the charity’s 30th anniversary, the garden celebrates the courage, determination and positive outlook of young people who have faced up to, and overcome, the consequences of this devastating disease.
A major outbreak of the disease led to the first patient group and then the charity being formed in Stroud, Gloucestershire, so the setting is a Cotswold country garden. A Greek-themed folly forms the centrepiece and represents the charity. It includes a seat inscribed with the charity’s motto. A carved stone tableau depicts the Greek god of medicine, Asclepius and his five daughters. To each side of this folly are two walls, one representing the disease and the second the recovery.
Five dramatic sculptures travel across the garden, hitting the first wall and climbing over the next, depicting lives changed, lost and a life different to the one expected. These include sculptures of young people who are training for the 2016 and 2020 Paralympics. This I found very moving and thought I was urged to take photographs of the various young people who have been victims of meningitis because they want to promote the work of the charity I felt that I was intruding but I have some fine photos of the garden and them standing there proudly.
News just in on Friday evening that the Peoples’ Choice for the BBC Peoples’ Choice Award that is an annual event, we chose the wonderful garden about Yorkshire designed by Matthew Wilson. Well I voted over the internet for that as did Graham so we are totally delighted…. enchanting. It was very special depicting the great heritage of York Minster’s great stained glass window as well as the natural beauty of Yorkshire.
For those of us who are competent gardeners with large gardens there is always inspiration from a visit to the Chelsea Flower Show. My pocket is a modest one but always there is something that gives me an idea which I can take away and try and replicate at home at Rosewood.
More photos here: https://goo.gl/photos/aC96bMRa5nGgr5kx7
Namaste is the icon of this important prestige chain of hotels thoughout India. The icon welcomes one with the ancient Indian welcome and offers the traveller the warmth of Indian hospitality combined with contemporary international standards that provides world class hospitality through unique indigenous experiences.
ITC pioneered the concept of ‘Responsible Luxury’ and all their premium hotels have been awarded the coveted LEED (Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design) Platinum certification making it the greenest luxury hotel chain in the world.
Main building of Grand Bharat
For me this is important because there is a personal connection which I value. My late father worked with distinction for the great ITC Group but that was in the 1950s and early 1960s when adding a hotel chain to their portfolio had not yet occurred. The Group has many commercial interests and they all are constructive now with E-Choupal bringing rural digital-physical infrastructure which is dear to my heart; that empowers over 4 million farming families. They have an Afforestation programme; a Watershed development programme; Provision of supplementary education to 200,000 rural children; a Women’s Empowerment initiative, Renewable Energy commitment and Empowerment of the Differently Abled.
So, back to the hotels…..when a group had taken responsibility right throughout its portfolio then it is fully entitled to concentrate on super luxury hotels, yet they fulfil the requirements specified to be called responsible. That ticks all my boxes in this challenging world where we all need to feel we are custodians of our lands.
I grew up in developing India where there were very few decent hotels but that situation evolved with famous chains and boutique hotels and heritage palaces and forts and now these wonderful state of the art super luxury hotels. I have come to know at least eight of ITC group personally.
This last Christmas we arrived in Mumbai to stay at the ITC Maratha. It was a delight not only because it is a gracious well designed and beautiful hotel but because it is four minutes from the international Chatrapathi Shivaji Airport – I had not yet seen that. The convenience of the hotel and the warm welcome and beautiful suite was a total delight. Christmas is not India’s most populous festival but the hotel had created a Christmas feel and we delighted in all the various restaurants that it offers; the different cuisines are delicious and each of those restaurants has their own special charm.
Suckling pig at the Maratha
There are gracious lawns and a good swimming pool and Spa. There is a Fitness Centre and there certainly is an Executive Club facility which was good to which we went every evening for drinks and canapes. We used the sleek luxury German car for a ride to town to view some exotic fashion and jewelry shops and also to visit the Mani Bhavan. This was the house to which Gandhi returned in 1915 and so I wanted to visit it a century later. It was a moving experience in a Mumbai that has vastly changed from that century ago, just looking at the archive photography makes one marvel.
Even in my lifetime whereas Mumbai or Bombay was a busy city it is now a mega city with great wealth and great poverty alongside. India is fast moving into the 21st century and Mumbai is the Indian equivalent of New York whereas perhaps Delhi which is as big is more like Washington. We went to the Gateway of India and moved around on Christmas Eve amongst the crowds at sunset and there was a sort of security to undergo …..around this famous landmark which was built to welcome King George V when he came as King to India in 1911. Christmas Day was quiet but full of good food, relaxation, bubbly and a pleasant day – we had earlier celebrated with our own family the previous weekend.
Last year, we had stayed in ITC The Grand Chola in Chennai which is a fast moving southern city of India, capital of Tamil Nadu. The Grand Chola was new in 2013 and I had spent two days there that year too. It has now matured into a superb hotel with again gracious suites, vast marble foyers and stairs…..allegedly ITC bought a whole travertine marble quarry in Italy to aid its interior construction! The swimming pool is truly beautiful and high up with a courtyard garden around which has already attracted wildlife! The restaurants are diverse and beautiful with glorious food and it has wonderful corporate expanses for conferences and meetings. Oh yes the Spa too of course and Fitness Centre. Truly, a great hotel.
Main Restaurant at Grand Chola
We were guest at a royal Rajput wedding in Bengaluru and so we flew over from Chennai and whilst there were guests at ITC Gardenia. We were given the amazing presidential suite which was quite literally out of this world and so beautiful. I should add that in all three hotels we had the added charm of having a butler. The Gardenia has a helipad just above this suite and its own pool. We chose to eat in one of the main dining areas but again the food was a delight. Each of these hotels is different in décor and design and so one never feels that it has been just a chain with same old same old throughout. Indeed the interiors of each were different.
Food at Grand Chola
Then we arrived in the desert state of Rajasthan for nearly two weeks. We stayed at the ITC WelcomHotel Jodhpur (I have not missed the e off the name that is the brand). This was a modern delight relevant to its location and also very comfortable and beautiful with outstanding service and food. There are also separate villas should one wish for that privacy….the pool (below), the Spa, the Fitness Centre are all there with green lawns and the desert just beyond…a peaceful place to spend three nights. Jodhpur is a favourite destination with its wonderful Mehrangarh Fort and other heritage places. HH Maharaja of Jodhpur ensures that all that belongs to him is very well maintained and also innovative. Like HH Maharana of Udaipur he takes his duty of custodianship of his lands and properties very seriously.
At the end of last year’s journey round India we stayed at the very newly opened ITC Grand Bharat just outside Delhi and Gurgaon. It is about 50 minutes from the airport and the journey is accomplished in a comfortable luxury German 4 x4. The welcome was stupendous. This is an entirely different creation with a 27 hole golf course that is mature and was designed by Jack Nicklaus. It has villas with private heated pools, bigger villas, presidential villas, a beautiful gracious large pool which can be heated, huge stunning Kaya Kalp Spa that I found excellent, a Fitness Centre and lovely restaurants; this hotel however is harking back to the days of empire and India’s five thousand years of unbroken civilization; its interiors are grand and lush.
Grand Bharat Villa
For me the last of five generations who had served, lived, worked loved and died in India it was nice to see the British legacy recognized. Again we had our own butler and he was a total delight and fun to have around as well as helpful. The Grand Bharat would be an ideal destination for ardent golfers, whereby if the spouse does not golf there is plenty in the Spa and Fitness facilities or the sheer beauty and peace of the place to engage them.
On arrival at Grand Bharat
My husband asked to see the water recycling plant and grey water sewerage water plant which he found impressive. Again this might not be in the conscious of the average traveler but as one who writes about Indian Tourism it is important to me to see how people are confronting and resolving these challenges. He was impressed.
Villas and security at Grand Bharat
Driving down in a golf cart as the sun set to experience the beautiful golf course was a joy. Here one is in the countryside on the edge of one of the world’s great and ancient cities, masses of peacocks strolled on the putting greens, vibrant bougainvillea’s gave startling colour, the evening bird calls sang out, and it is said that leopards lurk in the Aravalli Hills that come down to the golf course….they are known to be the world’s most ancient range of hills. A stunning location for golfers, and I am not one, but I could see that the Golf Club and facilities were world class. As the sun set I was captivated.
In the past I have stayed at the ITC Sonar Kolkata which had excellent service and food but is again totally different architecturally, I have stayed in the ITC Rajputana in Jaipur and the ITC Kakatiya in Hyderabad many years ago and loved it. Also on a previous trip, we stayed at the ITC Maurya in New Delhi….this was made famous by President Clinton staying there in 2000, also President Putin in 2007 and most recently President Obama in 2015; this hotel is modern in architecture but the architects obviously fulfilled the brief to provide secure presidential suites which is so vital for visiting heads of state. In Bengaluru there is also another ITC Hotel called the Windsor which was the venue for a royal luncheon banquet when we attended the Dungarpur royal wedding last year….again a gracious place. So, I have worked out that I had stayed or experienced most of their luxury collection.
This group also has a range of fine business hotels called Fortune Hotels which are also world class having tried about three of them, and interestingly it also has a range of heritage hotels which come under the name WelcomHeritage. These are palaces, forts, havelis, bungalows and special places or as in Kashmir a houseboat or two which give the traveller a sense of the rich past of India. In a big busy metropolis it is invariably luxury that one wants in a central location, but often in a rural environment the ambiance of a small intimate place takes one back to an earlier age and the shadows of the past welcome you.
More info at www.itchotels.in.
Note: this year and last year we were hosted by ITC Hotels but I have formed my own opinion upon my observations and experiences of their hotels over the last fifteen years.
We spent the holidays in Mumbai at two very beautiful luxury five star hotels and then on the 2nd of January we flew off to Nagpur to start a ten day journey through Madhya Pradesh. ‘MP’ as it is known is famed for being the location for the great ever young story The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling and I grew up on those stories as a young child in India and was familiar with the various characters that are of course animals…that is apart from Mowgli the child in the forest brought up by wolves!
It is a couple of hours drive from Nagpur, which is actually in the adjacent state of Maharashtra, to Pench National Park. I had previously visited Bandhavgarh, Kanha, and Panna National Parks which are also in MP but never Pench so I was eagerly anticipating this visit. We were guests at a very new resort called Tathastu. I use the word resort carefully because it is designed as a resort with several facilities that a wildlife lodge would not readily have.
The owners, however, are very keen on responsible tourism and have planted hundreds of trees and bushes and an Ayurvedic Garden and their own organic vegetable garden. They have luxury tents, a couple of ‘constructed caves’….with all mod cons and a couple of tree houses. Along with those there are luxury villas for bigger family parties and those who might attend conferences here. Yes, they have built a completely sound proof conference hall and a lovely indoor heated swimming pool and there is a Spa being constructed too. So yes it is a resort and with the aim of hosting small conferences of executives and others who seek special places in which their staff can be trained and achieve team spirit…or just relax. If all those who come also learn to appreciate and respect and love the Wild Places of India…in this case Pench then I am happy too…..I write as a child of India myself.
Just to remind the reader about the central characters of The Jungle Book….the Walt Disney film was first released in 1967 but is now having a digital remake of that animated classic which will be in cinemas on 15th April. The essential story was that of abandoned village toddler found and raised by a pack of wolves. The story you may recall involves mischievous monkeys – the Bandar-log, the friendly Bear Balu, the enemy is the savage tiger Sher Khan, Mowgli’s great support the Black Panther (leopard) Bagheera. The mother wolf is Akela (which means in Hindi the lone one) the slimy character of Tabaqui the Jackal, the wondrous Hathi – the Elephants and Kaa the Python and other characters.
Sher Khan was seen as the baddie when Kipling wrote the book way back in 1894; but now in India Tigers are most precious and whereas when I was born in India nearly 70 years ago there were 40,000 tigers there are now only about 2,500 in the whole sub-continent. Tigers if left to themselves breed easily and are truly magnificent kings and queens of the food chain and the most beautiful of the big cats. So, whether people admit to it or not most wildlife tourists are mad keen to see tigers and leopards if possible, plus sloth bears plus all the other lovely creatures of the Indian jungles. The great danger to Tigers is poaching which is fuelled by the unwise (I mean stupid) mythology of their body parts having aphrodisiac qualities for Orientals like the Chinese and Vietnamese. Poaching has decimated tigers for decades now and that great danger extends to the Asian Elephants and the Rhinos in India.
Indeed HRH Prince William is doing all he can to give global prominence to the poaching threat to all three creatures and will be visiting India in April. As if The Jungle Book being re-released was not enough I can tell you that there is a most wonderful Children’s book just published called Global Gang and the Land of the Tiger which has a most exciting story which is all to do with poaching and I also recommend that for young readers. I gave it to my grandchildren at Christmas.
On our first safari the first afternoon we came across a pair of Paradise Flycatchers which was astonishing and a delight. We saw chital deer, sambar deer, owls, wild boar, jungle fowl, gaur, mongoose in all the forest and glades and water holes, some peacocks and other birdlife….but the tiger remained elusive. We had three drives, one at crack of dawn the next day and another in the afternoon but no – the tigers of Pench were having the week-end off. Then it was suggested that if we would go out on Monday morning it could be arranged. We did.
Immediately that morning the park somehow felt different and there was a sort of buzz and expectation and then it started….the roaring, it got louder and was continuous. One tiger venting his frustration or communicating, then a second joined in. It was so thrilling and the Naturalist was considering where to take us in the jeep – I had never heard tigers roar like that in the wild, it has a curious exciting sound that thrills and threatens. They decided these were two male tigers who were part of a trio of three cubs, now grown and they were communicating with their other more dominant brother.
I held on for dear life as the jeep was swung into action and we sped up to where we felt was closest to the roaring. Then….suddenly there was a tiger cautiously appearing out of the lantana undergrowth…..we held our breath, would he come near us or just slink away, but No! He kept coming out and lo and behold he was followed by his brother. Well that was astounding as adult male tigers do not normally remain together. We were filming away and just enjoying the moment. These magnificent tigers came out to within 25 feet of us and walked together slowly and then crossed the road in front of the lead jeep, we were one behind and then paused on the other side and looked at us. It was mesmerising. Truly beautiful.
Thankfully both our cameras did us proud and we treasure that visual memory as well as the photographs. Tigers of India, Tigers of Pench, thank you!
We left with promises to return soon and had a long drive ahead and were only too glad when eventually we arrived at Reni Pani which is on the periphery of Satpura Tiger Park. This too I had never as yet visited despite invitations from five years ago. Reni Pani is a delight, a carefully well maintained small set up and Graham and I were in our element. The viewing veranda of our little house almost immediately gave us a view of a chital hind and her faun, a racket tailed Drongo bird and then a little later a pair of Golden Oriels….that was as outstanding as the Paradise Flycatchers for me.
That evening we went in the jeep on a safari to see small creatures in the buffer zone. We were so fortunate and saw plenty of small jungle cats, rusty spotted cat, civet cat and hares but I could not really take good photography in the dark with headlights. It was an interesting experience followed by a good meal and then a comfortable bed. Reni Pani is kept as close to nature as they can but it does have a lovely pool and a library and good food and service.
The next morning we were up before the sunrise to go on the lake and we both loved this. The sunrise was spectacular and the birdlife rich and varied. We breakfasted on a flat rock having landed from the motor boat. The Satpuras are ‘seven hills’ and the range is very beautiful. This park is not known particularly for tigers but is famous for Sloth Bears and Leopards. That afternoon after a glorious shower and rest just enjoying the Lodge and its grounds we again set off in the jeep, passing the various villages until we arrived at the lake/dam where we boarded the launch for entry to the main Park.
It is a beautiful place and in no time we saw the pug marks of a tiger and there was much expectation but it was not realised. However, the big plus was the long sighting of a mother Sloth Bear and her two cubs. They foraged around in an ant hill for about half an hour so we had plenty of time to enjoy the sighting. There was bird life and then wonderful close range of Gaur, the biggest bovine in the world. They are mighty creatures, but are not bison…they are usually quite shy so it was lovely to get close to quite a group of them.
Sadly we had to depart the next morning whereas I would have loved to stay for another night at least.
We are all Custodians of our great wild places, be they in India, Great Britain, Europe, North America, South America, China or Australasia, Malaysia and Indonesia and indeed Russia. When one has a wonderful wildlife experience there is a sense of great enrichment….we need to all feel like that and do our utmost to help conservation keep these wonderful animals safe from the predation of greedy humans.
Crete – the offspring of three continents and the nesting place of ancient civilisations – indeed it can be seen as the cradle of western civilisation and thus enthralling.
Crete is the fifth largest Mediterranean island and is part of Greece but it is buffeted by the Western winds, the northern winds and those that come up from the Sahara and North Africa. It sits proudly in the Mediterranean but is facing the extreme of the Aegean Sea on the north coast and the Sea of Crete and facing the Libyan Sea on its southern coast. For those of us brought up on the Greek myths and legends it boasts the birthplace of Zeus the father of gods and people….and is the birthplace of the Minoan civilisation in the centuries before BCE.
A land of extremes, wild mountains and gorges, lush plateau and stunning beaches dotted with attractive towns and ancient cities now reduced to careful heritage sites; the springtime brings forth the blooms of its floral kingdom and then the summer and autumn produce the bounty of olives, a major crop, vines and their wines, and other fruits and vegetables. This is a destination for travellers from April through to the end of October. The herbs that flourish in Eastern Crete are the beautiful aromatic thyme, savoury prickly burnet, oregano and others that exude their aroma and perfume and draw the travellers to want to purchase oils and soaps that will once they return home remind them of a sunlit happy time.
Honey is another major product and totally delicious. For me the idea of busy bees, after all iconic from the Minoan civilisation and their ornaments, working away with the herbs and flowers peculiar to Crete and producing the elixir of life….Cretan honey for the millennia is not only an awesome thought but also comforting….we are just specks in history but these important little creatures and their work endure after we are gone.
Briefly one should say that the story is that the mighty Zeus Cretagenes ‘secretly coupled’ with Europa….who allegedly gave the name to a whole continent and the result was Minoa the famous king of Knossos and ruler of the island. In all the centuries that followed there have been Arab rulers, the Venetians and the Turks….the Island has had a tumultuous past and is now quite content to be the proud largest island of Greece. During World War II the People of Crete played a heroic part in helping to defeat the Nazi forces that were sweeping through Europe and their tales of struggle, bravery and great stoicism in the face of calculated cruelty I salute. The British worked hard with them to secure peace but to this day the ‘wounds’ of that troubled desperate time are to be seen for a discerning eye.
Arriving at the Heraklion airport and driving to Agios Nikolaos on modern good roads showed us wonderful scenery and the promise of the sea and beautiful beaches. This town is charming and has the wonderful position of being in the middle of a stunning bay – the Bay of Mirabello – the name speaks for itself. Ag Nik as it is known for short is in the province of Lassithi which is the eastern province of Crete. I loved the Bay and every morning I would rise and watch the sunrise and see the pink light bathe the beautiful Mirabello in its morning blush. Lassithi is perhaps not as visited as some parts of Crete but repays closer inspection. Beach if you want, wonderful heritage sites if you choose, walking and climbing if that is what takes your fancy and a warm welcome with good food and drink for all the time you are in Crete. I like a town that is small enough in which to walk around and get the feel of the cafes and bar and tavernas, discover boutique shops, watch fishermen, watch people and just…..relax. The beaches are Blue Flag Beaches which is important for family health and this is a perfect destination for young and old.
We visited Lato which is considered to be Crete’s best preserved Classical-Hellenistic city; indeed it is considered to be one of the most important Doric city-states in Crete. We are talking of a city belonging to the 4th and 3rd centuries BC. It is a short drive from Ag Nik and one has to be able to walk up the hill to reach it. From there one has a splendid panoramic view of the mountains and valleys surrounding Lato which was fortified, and its houses were built on terraces.
It had an agora, prytaneion and temples in addition to a rock-cut theatre. This hard to reach city in those ancient times then was deserted and civilization appeared to move down to the coast to what is now Agios Nikolaos. Not very far away is an ancient hillside village of Kritsa. We visited there and enjoyed meeting the locals and their shops and village stores.
Close to the village is the historic little church of Panagia Kera, which was dedicated to the Virgin; it was probably built in the Byzantine period and expanded during the Venetian era of rule (13th century AD). All its wall surfaces were decorated with noteworthy frescoes. Even now they are impressive for the visitor but it is nice to reach there when there is no other party or coach tour as it is very small and one needs space and peace to admire and appreciate its antiquity.
We were given a tour of the Vassilakis Estate Olive Oil factory. Olive oil production is very important to Crete and the explanation of its processing was interesting. We are inclined to just take any virgin olive oil or olive oil off a supermarket shelf but here the specialities of their olive groves was explained and how like a good wine a good olive oil stands out. Naturally I bought some of their excellent olive oil soaps as a memento!
Driving down to Plaka we passed Elounga which is now very well known for its luxury villas and hotels to which world famous celebrities travel for ‘their place in the sun’. I can truly see why. Plaka has now grown and progressed but for me who read the world famous book The Island by Victoria Hislop whilst on Crete I see in my mind’s eye the village as it was pre WWII. We had a most delicious lunch of delectable dishes and enjoyed the ambiance of the popular restaurant. Then it was a short walk to a boat to take us to the Island of Spinalonga
Spinalonga is an islet situated in Elounda Bay. On top of the ruins of an ancient fortress dating back to the Hellenistic period the Venetians built a strong fortress consisting of two zones; the first followed the outline of the coast while the second was built on the rocks of the islet’s summit. Construction on this islet began in 1579 and it was constantly invaded and exploited by whoever became dominant. Muslims settled on Spinalonga in 1715 and it continued to flourish with further building. By 1881 the resident population reached 1,112 and it became the largest Muslim trading centre of Mirabello. In 1903 the Cretan State established a leper colony on the island and its first 251 patients settled there in 1904. Originally only lepers from Crete were made to go and live there but once Crete became part of Greece in 1913 lepers from the rest of Greece were deported to this little island.
The State was obliged to give these sad unfortunate people a small income and medical treatment but it was when people afflicted by leprosy in Athens and other cities were also sent here that the island began to receive more care and attention. The well connected men who became lepers from the mainland were not prepared to live out their lives without appropriate support from the authorities. The story of this place is best understood by reading the book The Island which I believe was also made into a film.
During the WWII the German occupation left the island alone and the people of Spinalonga survived largely unscathed only dying from their illness. Post war medicine progressed and researchers found a cure for leprosy and by 1957 happily those who were still resident were cured with medication and the island was officially closed down and the people returned to their previous lives. I have had to write this superficially but the story is both moving and with a cheerful end. Now because of the book and the film the people of Greece and all other tourists come here to see the island and Spinalonga still speaks to you. During my childhood in India I had encountered leprosy in extreme forms in public places so the story resonated deeply with me and I felt the Island’s atmosphere myself.
We visited a business called BioAroma which harvests the many herbs and other plants and manufactures 100% natural cosmetics. This too was interesting and for me particularly with a sound knowledge of India and its ancient Ayurvedic science and use of plants and herbs I found strong similarities.
Agios Nikolaos provided very good restaurants and entertainment in the evenings. Lake Voulismeni is the lake inshore of the harbour at Ag Nik and some say it was originally an ancient sink hole; whatever its origins this calm little lake provides a happy location for more cafes and places to eat, drink and watch the world go by. I liked it.
We drove to the extreme east of the island and visited The Toplou Monastery and Winery. This was a charming experience but also with its serious side. The Abbot graciously came out to welcome us and talked through our Guide. It is a fascinating old place that might look a little forbidding until one goes through the bougainvillea laden arches and encounters the charming outer courtyard and further courtyard. I loved it and looking at its Chapel and the art therein and then talking with the Abbot was moving. He talked about those from the Monastery who had been shot during the WWII and we reflected on the cruelty and scars of that time. The frescoes in the refectory were a delight and looking out from its high balconies on the fairly arid landscape it made one think of the centuries of men who have sought wisdom and peace and solitude in this place.
However, after a glorious sticky pastry we went and saw how the Monastery has progressed into the 21st century with a winery and is making some lovely wines. I particularly loved the sweet desert or aperitif wine and we bought ourselves a bottle.
We went to the wonderful beach of Vai and were really ready for an outstanding lunch right by the beach with the most beautiful views. Vai is strange but glorious. The area is covered naturally by wonderful palms the seeds of which must have come from Africa in the last centuries with the various invaders. They grow luxuriantly here and on the beach which is beautiful therefore it has a most exotic ambience. A graceful curving beach, lush palms, sunshine, a glorious lunch of Cretan cuisine……what more could one desire?
We visited beaches on our return journey and also passed the site of Ancient Itanos. We did not have the time to further investigate but this incredible ruin has two acropolises and had a strong presence from the Classical-Hellenistic period. Its important harbour was a resource for the Ptolemaic fleet. There is much to see here but we were expected in Sitia.
Sitia is another nice port town with pleasant views and much to commend it. The Venetian fortress of Sitia was built in the 13th century AD at the site of a Byzantine city which itself had succeeded the city of Eteia or Setaia. The Turks captured it from the Venetians but there is still much to see. There is also an archaeological museum encompassing 4,000 years of history.
For those who would play golf there is now a Crete Golf Club; the course has been built in an exciting desert style design and the designers have made every effort to protect the environment with modern water treatment plants and large untouched areas. The Crete Golf Club lies approximately 24 km east of Heraklion international airport; this means ardent golfers could find a lovely balmy place for their sport right into late October and from early March!
We ended our stay with one night at a five star hotel right next to the wonderful Archaeological Museum of Heraklion. I am so glad we did. It is outstanding and having chosen to stay adjacent to it we had no difficulty spending several hours in there. This recently renovated museum does the great pre civilisations and civilisations of Crete proud and I most strongly recommend some time spent there. The opening hours are 0800 to 20.00 until end of October which makes it really worthwhile at the end of a stay in Crete, to spend the last afternoon in this excellent place. It is only by seeing its wonderful collections that one truly appreciates the great antiquity of this beautiful island: sunshine, warmth, plethora of beaches, great archaeological sites, mountains, valleys, spring flowers, birdlife, good food and wine and the warmth of the people of Crete…..Go and Enjoy this fabulous island!!
More information can be found at firstname.lastname@example.org | www.dimosagn.gr and http://www.visitgreece.gr.
When the aircraft arrived over Guwahati and was circling prior to touch down I could see in that silvery light of the early morning a huge river – indeed, the mighty Brahmaputra. This sacred river which is the only male sacred river in Hindu mythology is considered the ‘son of Brahma’ and I was excited. In all my life and travels inIndiaI had never yet been close to or on theBrahmaputra. In my childhood one did not travel except for family transfers and when I was a teenager after the Chinese Army invaded Assam it became a prohibited place; now however the whole North East of India is really trying to place itself as a good and different tourist destination and so here I was about to touch down in Assam for the very first time!
The airport at Guwahati is clean and pleasant and we were met by a smiling Dipankar on behalf of Assam Bengal Cruises. Guwahati in the early morning on a Saturday was a sleepy place and quiet and with very few people around so we – that is Graham and I – were able to see a lot and Dipankar was determined to have us driven around and appreciate his city. It reminded me of a lot of Indian cities of my childhood when the population had not yet soared to stratospheric levels and the wide streets and municipal buildings are gracious and there is aStrandalongside the river. The population is 2.5 million people who were not much in evidence that morning.
Our first stop was up the Nilachal Hill to see the holy Kamakhya Temple. Yes, well with respect I am always more appreciative of what are known as ‘unliving temples’ and heritage site temples because I in no way want to watch animals being sacrificed and abhor that sort of voyeurism. Interestingly later in the day one of the female tourists on the cruise went on at some length about how awful it is to enact animal sacrifice in this day and age….and though we had only just met I asked politely ‘well then why did you watch?’
There is a note about this temple which people may find of interest – I did take plenty of photographs of buildings, holy men and devotees and live animals – I think Guwahati is the place on which the imaginary Surpur is based in Gita Mehta’s wonderful though tragic book Raj. I had only just managed to read that book whilst in India and there were so many descriptions that seemed to fit it – Graham then read it on my insistence and we both agree that it is a very fine book and though fiction very informative in so many ways.
So, having paid my respects to the temple we went to somewhere that meant infinitely more to us both; The Guwahati War Cemetery for those who died in World War II. Graham and I were deeply moved by this peaceful well-kept place and spent a long time paying our respects to the Fallen. What especially struck us and made us feel a little better is that there was no deference or preferment – the dead from the rank of brigadier down to the waterman in all religions are laid there; Christian, Hindu, Muslim, Jew. All these souls interred in a peaceful garden on a slight slope and in the morning sunlight it was very moving.
For those of my generation whose late fathers fought in that war and returned safely it was a time to give thanks as well for what we had had – our childhoods and stability and security which so many others were deprived of – and have we learnt, no, but we remember the end of that war with respect. The Cemetery Keeper is a nice young man and we said our good byes and went to join the ship.
We arrived at the ghat and boarded the MS Charaidew by embarking on her country boat which she takes with her on her journeys and from there we embarked on the ship herself. We were early and received a very fine welcome and were taken to our cabin and we asked for breakfast. We had woken at 0400 hours and had light refreshment in Kolkata at the ITC Sona, brought by a thoughtful butler, but now it was after 10.00 hours and we were hungry and thirsty. What better, fresh orange juice, papaya with nimbu (lime) followed by tomato omelettes and goodAssamtea. Pratick is the very friendly Manager of the cruise and he has charming Staff who all hail from the north eastern states and were so friendly and helpful and eager to please.
The top deck of the Charaidew is where one spends one’s time relaxing and enjoying the changing scenery of the river and its banks and life – both human and animal. It is spacious with cane chairs in white with green cushions and I soon realised that is the Assam Bengal livery – green and white. The cabins are currently also decorated in those colours and everything on board has been manufactured either in Assam or nearby using local materials such as bamboo for panelling and floors and furniture and local soft furnishings. The ensuite shower room has an excellent shower which produces scalding hot water with power so one might be ‘adventure cruising’ but not having to do without the essentials like a flush w.c. and good vanity basin provided with toiletries and the shower.
There is a ‘dhobi’ (laundryman) on board and clothes are returned the same day in excellent order – but then I would not ask him to process something too special and delicate. The beds are comfortable and serviced daily and bottled water is provided, as is a torch because at 23.00 hours the generators are switched off and there is no current for electric lights which results in perfect tranquil peace moored up to a huge silt bank of the river. The generators are switched on at about 0600 hours every morning. There is an electric plug for hairdryers which is essential.
The lounge is a pleasant area with a bar that operates in the evening and on the top deck there is usually fresh tea and coffee served and cool drinks available in the chill cabinet on an ‘honesty box’ arrangement for the drinks. The dining room is on the lowest deck and guests are seated as they wish on long tables with buffet style service. The food to our way of thinking was outstanding, given the limitations of being on an old river boat on theBrahmaputra. The Chefs produced excellent food with their versions of western cuisine but particularly with lovely curries and accompaniments. All the guests thought like us and the staff was very attentive and appreciated that we complimented them on the food.
However, I am getting ahead of myself. I am now going to return to the River! India is a land of rivers and many of them are considered sacred rivers. I think immediately of the Ganges (the Ganga), the Yamuna, the Godavari, the Chambal, the Narmada, the Tungabhadra, the Kali, the Bhagirathi, the Mandovi, the Periyar and the Cauvery and the Krishna – all rivers that I have known through living near them or visiting different parts of India. But the Brahmaputra, this is big.
The Brahmaputra originates as the Yarlung Tsangpo in the Jima Yangzong glacier near Mount Kailashin the northern Himalayas. It then flows east for approximately 1,800 kilometres (1,200 miles) at an average height of 4,000 metres (13,000 ft). This makes it the highest of the major rivers in the world and at its easternmost point it bends around Mount Mancha Barwa, and forms the Yarlung Tsangpo Canyon which is considered the deepest in the world.
The river enters Arunachal Pradesh and it makes a very rapid descent from its original height in Tibetand finally appears in the plains where it is called Dihang. It is then joined by two other major rivers the Dibang and Lohit. From this confluence it becomes very wide and is called Brahmaputra. It flows through the entire state of Assamand is sometimes as wide at 10 km (6.2 miles) and in flood it can reach 22 km in width.
Definitely to the observer it seems to be much less polluted than the other major rivers of India but it also has challenges in that the petroleum refining units contribute considerable pollution along with riverside industries of all types. The main problem of the Brahmaputra is that it constantly floods and even more so now with so much deforestation.
The results of these almost annual floods is devastation and loss of lives. By the point at which it conjoins with the Ganga it flows into the huge Ganges Delta – the largest delta in the world – which serves both India and Bangladesh and in its lower course the river is both a creator and a destroyer depositing huge quantities of fertile soil, but also causing disastrous floods that wash away everything in their path as is often seen in Bangladesh particularly. For me the huge white silt banks of the river were a new experience and astonishing in their size; at night in the moonlight one could be forgiven for thinking they were icebergs not silt/sand!
Lounging on the top deck in a rattan chair or on the wooden loungers placed for maximum sun one just watched the world go by at a sedate pace. On my first morning I had hardly sat down when I saw a large grey living beast in the water and realised excitedly that it was a River Dolphin. Subsequently we saw masses of them but I am afraid however much I tried my photography of these fast moving creatures did not work but it was such a pleasure to see them and we decided that actually like most others of their kind they like to show off and are inquisitive. Knowing how depleted theGangais of the Gangetic Dolphin it was really heartening to see so many on so many occasions. That first evening as the sun moved into a glorious sunset and the dolphins played and the boat was finally moored to a silt bank it was very special.
The second day started early for me with a cup of tea and I went up to watch the sunrise. Later after breakfast we cruised upstream and then the party disembarked on to the country boat and went off the visit a typical Assamese village. This was both interesting and good fun and the villagers made us shyly welcome and some little boys showed off (as little boys are prone to do anywhere in the world) and we saw that latrines had been built for the village houses to counteract the habit of leaving human waste all over the place. This will be a hugely beneficial addition to village life as the incidence of various diseases will automatically fall I imagine with better hygiene – it is always sobering in India to see this sort of development and realise that the youngsters own cell phones before they have been introduced to a flush w.c.
Most of the guests, indeed I think all of them, were having a wonderfully relaxing time and we were taken on a sunset trip to see the outskirts of Orang National Park, and then very early the next morning on the fourth day we visited Orang National Park arriving by the country boat and scrambling up the silt bank. The jeeps were waiting and we had a comprehensive tour of the park but without too many dramatic sightings. However for Graham and me the memory will be of the abundance of scarlet silk cotton trees and indeed some with yellow and others with orange flowers. These have featured in our childhoods and were looking marvelous. There was some good bird life and a few deer but nothing really dramatic though it was enjoyable. It was thoughtful that tea and coffee was provided on the country boat at the end of our jeep safari when we were all thirsty.
On day five we cruised to Tezpur and visited the 6th century Da Parbatia temple and then explored the town by cycle rickshaw. The municipal gardens called Cole Park have several medieval stone carvings saved from sites all over the region. The garden is very well cared for and there was an absence of litter and it was a pleasant experience.
One of the highlights of the trip for us was the very excellent barbecue that the staff arranged on the sand and I think everyone enjoyed that. The next morning we went for a short walk at sunrise before casting off. On day six we continued upstream and passed below a huge modern bridge across the width of the river to moor at Steemer Ghat (which is oddly spelt as you might observe).
In fact it was quite a wild place with a small village nearby the gardens of which were filled with bright scarlet ram shorn poinsettias and in the afternoon we drove to Kaziranga’s Eastern Range for a jeep safari; this is little visited and though enjoyable with one or two good sightings of rhino was a little disappointing. Of course the silk cotton trees were there flowering in abundance! The next morning we set out early and arrived for an elephant ride which was excellent at the Central Range.
We saw plenty rhino close up and other animals and enjoyed the interaction with the domestic elephants and their calves. We were then driven to a lodge on a nearby tea estate for an excellent breakfast which had the most sublime puris as part of the menu. After a rest and breakfast we then visited a tea estate and the shop nearby that sells the various delicious types of tea.
CRC means curled rolled and chopped and orthodox is the other variety. Graham and I are enthusiastic tea drinkers and like leaf tea particularly and now that teapots are sold with fine mesh baskets internally it is so easy to return to leaf tea. I recall with amusement how people of one’s parents’ generation initially disapproved of tea bags – and with good reason because most of them seem to have the dust of tea in them whereas some of us grew up with really top quality tea being served daily.
We then visited another tribal village where the livestock was plentiful with somnolent pigs and their piglets and poultry and kid goats all interacting with young children and shy mothers around their homes.
Heading back to the Diphlu River Lodge providing much-needed top-class accommodation at Kaziranga National Park, which is of course a World Heritage Site. The position of the lodge is second to none: only the boundary river separates its extensive grounds from the National Park itself, and the jungle views are exceptional.
I saw a coven of Adjutant Storks, may be a coven is not the right description but they looked amusing all standing huddled together! Assam Bengal Navigation runs the lodge to the same exacting standards of the river cruises on the Brahmaputra and the Hugli, while their Bansbari Lodge atManasNational Parkon theBhutanborder offers simpler but comfortable accommodation for another wildlife experience. I loved these particular lodges as the interiors were really well thought out with good touches like – a jug of fresh cold milk in the bedroom’s fridge – I talk constantly about this to luxury properties as most of us discerning tea or coffee drinkers hate UHT in little packets! It was an eureka moment at which Graham chuckled.
KAZIRANGA NATIONAL PARK, ASSAM
The National Park covers about 430 sq km, bordered on the north by the Brahmaputra River and on the south by the Karbi Anglong hills and is home to the endangered Rhinoceros unicornis; the park has the largest number of one-horned rhinoceros in the world which roam its swamps, grasslands with tall thickets of elephant grass and areas of mixed deciduous and tropical semi-evergreen forest. It is home to a wide variety of other animals and birds, and the open vistas make it relatively easy to see many species of wildlife in a day; naturally I would have loved to spot a tiger but that did not happen though other Charaidew passengers have been lucky in the past. I had enjoyed my two visits; the one to theEasternRange and the early morning elephant ride in theCentralRange but that afternoon was the best.
Four of us set out for the Western Range with Babu the naturalist. Everyone else seemed to want to take it easy. When we arrived at the Park one of our party asked Babu ‘So tell me…how many rhinos will we see now?’ Babu paused and said laconically ‘Sir maybe 35 to 40….’ At which we four looked at each other and talked about bets and exaggeration.
Yes, well, Babu knew what he was talking about and we had the most glorious and successful afternoon in which we saw a number of wonderful animals including a monitor lizard, wild elephants and swamp deer, wild buffalo, a number of different types of eagles and kites and then rhino.
Oh yes, rhino and rhino and rhino – in the distance, in the nearby swamp and really close up. In all we saw 36 rhino whilst in the park and on the way home we spotted two more. You can imagine Babu was grinning, and so apparently was I when I returned and blurted it all out to another friend. For us the vista of rhino and buffalo and swamp deer with the odd wild elephant near a shallow lake as the sun was setting is a special memory that gave the four of us great pleasure at the time; Kaziranga is not easily reached and needs dedication on the part of the traveller but well worth the effort.
That evening was the last one for most of us and so a special effort was made by the Staff to look very beautiful or handsome according to gender and so we the guests also put on glad rags and had a superlative dinner with beautiful menu on each place setting. This cruise was a splendid experience and one I recommend; if possible for the wildlife enthusiast I would suggest a couple of nights at Diphlu River Lodge at the end before travelling to your onward destination. As it was most people took the transport back to Guwahati the next morning but we moved onward to Jorhat by car for one night.
More photos of the trip can be found here: https://plus.google.com/photos/105833357733916819450/albums/5450792094692793057.
Tiger Trails is in Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve in the very heart of Central India and two hours south of Nagpur; it is one of India’s most exciting and best protected Tiger Reserves, as yet little known, and with the most visible tiger sightings.
We flew into Nagpur from Bengaluru and were efficiently met by Aditya Dhanwatay the owner of Tiger Trails in February, where we soon learned it had rained, and flummoxed all in that out of season period! Tiger Trails is a pleasant lodge in the Buffer zone of the Reserve with its own water holes which naturally are a great draw to the animals….and I mean all the animals from small to the big cats and the gaur. Being so close to the Entry Gate there is no queuing to enter the Park and the surrounding area is of interest and we went for a guided walk on our last evening as the sun was setting. Dominated by teak forest and bamboo, it’s a rugged landscape comprising cliffs, caves, marshes, perennial lakes and boulder strewn streambeds that cater to a host of biodiversity, not least the Tiger; there are more than 75 to 100 by last count including 24 cubs born last year.
Other prominently spotted wildlife are the Indian Leopard, Indian Wild Dog, Sloth bear, Gaur, Ratel and a variety of mammals and over 280 species of birds including raptors like, Crested Serpent Eagle and Grey Headed Fishing Eagle. Tadoba is special also for rare Indian Owls, like Jungle Owlet, Spotted Owlet, Indian Scops Owl, Brown Fish Owl, Mottled Wood Owl and the Great Indian Horned Owl. Many of these can be heard near our waterhole cottages.
Aditya has a committed Staff with a fine Naturalist Dhamendra and he himself is so knowledgeable. We loved our four nights here and were privileged to see a tigress, bear and a host of other animals. The jeeps are excellent; the accommodation is good but simple, the food is the local cooking with a delightful chef who made both vegetarian and non vegetarian well and then demonstrated his jalebi making expertise one night in front of us – I was in heaven! Camp fires on the terrace, pleasant public areas, sumptuous food, great wildlife observation (along with hides adjacent to the Lodge) – we had a most rewarding time. Below, is breakfast on the terrace.
Nagpur is well served by air routes to Mumbai, Delhi and other big cities and we flew on to Delhi. I particularly loved the heritage link with the past; the Gond kingdom was encompassing of what is now the wildlife park and there are the pillars still in place to show how communication was achieve all those centuries ago. Tadoba has much to offer by way of wildlife, wild beauty, tigers, birds, and a sense of good camp ambience.
Useful Background Information:
Tadoba in 1955 was only 116.55 sq. kms. Today, in 2015 the park stands at 1854.25 Sq. kms. The understanding of the Tadoba park management was that more protected area was required for the growing population of Tiger in Tadoba. In 1995 the first steps to include more adjoining forest areas was initiated with the 508.85 sq. km Andhari Forest block added to Tadoba; thereafter the park name became Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve, with a combined size of 625.4 sq.km. Then in May 2010 the State Government notified another additional area of 1,103.34 sq km Tadoba buffer zone. This was done by adding 901.66 sq km with Chandrapur and 76.17 sq km with Brahmapuri was brought under the administrative control of Tadoba field director for better wildlife management. Last year in 2014, 125.51 sq km dense forests leased out to Forest Development Corporation of Maharashtra (FDCM) was finally been brought under the control of Tadoba field director for better wildlife management.
The Tadoba Success Story…
The park management, right from the outset, has been determined that the future of the National park rests with of the surrounding Gond communities. It needed to create an economic vibrancy in the villages surrounding the park, so that the villages could benefit from the park. Nature Tourism along with the local communities was established as one of the ways of going forward. All the new Nature Tourism initiatives were planned along these lines to create employment opportunities for the surrounding communities. The park was successful in creating tourism as a conservation tool by empowering the local tribal people around the park as stake holders. It launched the concept of VEDC (Village Eco Development Committees) funded by CAMPA (Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management and Planning Authority). The first set of villages chosen to be part of the VEDC were the ones closest to the park. These funds are given to each village as seed money for a period of three years, to start tourism initiatives that bring economic vibrancy in the villages surround the reserve.
A moratorium was placed on more than 51 vehicles entering Tadoba’s core, while empowering the Junoana and Devada villages outside core areas to erect a gate and collect fees from visitors who chose to avail of a specially-created wildlife route managed by the village Eco-Development Committees (EDC). Additionally, local youth were trained as wildlife guides. With 15 more routes planned in the protected buffer, these areas promise wildlife sightings comparable to those in the core. The experiment seems to have succeeded. Seeds have been sown for livelihoods that sustain people, while benefitting the tiger.
The Park management wanted two new tourism initiatives to create sensitization towards nature for the park visitor. Hence they started walking trails of about 100 kms in and around the park, covering different habitats, from meadows, Riparian forests, to deciduous Teak and bamboo forests. These areas, namely Agarzari, Junona and Dewada were newly opened up for nature visitors for the first time. Even the regular visitors to Tadoba were amazed at the variety of landscape and wildlife sightings these new ranges offered. For the avid birder each of these walks can reveal more than 120 species of birds. Tadoba, offers some wonderful wildlife experiences. It is also one of the few parks that are open all year round, offering visitors an opportunity to visit in the monsoon season – this extraordinary active time for all manner of plants and animals, yet otherwise closed to keen nature lovers in most other parks of India.
Thickly clad hills form the north and western boundary of the Tiger Reserve. Half way along the western boundary of the Park, the hills contour, to form the Chichghat valley where the TigerTrails Jungle Lodge is located. It is ringed on three sides by the Park Forest and is adjacent to the Khutwanda gate. To the south is the Irai Lake, approx. 20 kms in length and forming the southwestern boundary of the Tiger Reserve. The Lodge, cottages, ancillary buildings and all human supportive infrastructure, is restricted by intention to 2 acres only. Surrounding this, are natural forest, ponds, waterholes, forming an oasis of greenery. The highlight of forest conservation and wildlife protection and its effect on predators and prey in the Tadoba and Mohurli forests, along the western boundary, is the daily activity of 9 adult Tigers and 2 cubs and a range of wildlife, as living proof.
Habitat Regeneration: Barren / Degraded to Natural Forest:
Initially the Chichghat valley was a degraded, barren and deforested land, with stunted trees and a silted Tadoba Stream flowing through only during monsoons. The stream would flow at tremendous velocity during the monsoons, flooding the valley, and carrying away all the valuable silt into the Irai Lake. Over a period, the river was desilted to original depth. We found three natural springs, which were clogged and closed. We cleaned the openings and allowed the three ponds to drain into them .
The water table, which was around 30-40 feet deep from the surface, is today around 8 feet. Because the entire valley was used by the villagers for obtaining firewood, most tree were stumps. These stumps were allowed to grow. With massive plantation of local forest species, recreated the natural forest, and grasslands. Plant Nurseries were established with the help of neighboring Tribal people. They were encouraged with seeds, and plantations techniques. Depending on the type of plants the saplings were transplanted, in natural habitat. Grasslands were cleared of weeds and shrubs. After years of compaction under sustained cattle grazing, ploughing was necessary. The silt and sand from the river was mixed with FYM and spread out. The grasslands were seeded and today it is a green and fertile place and very welcoming to wildlife lovers.
Above, a painting in the lodge.