Monday, June 3, 2019

Rajasthan Road Trip - Forests, Dunes, Forts and more

Rajasthan road trip with kids

Forests, sand dunes, forts and castles all things that kids love!

8 days -Ranthambore-Pushkar-Khimsar-Jodhpur- Udaipur

We were a group of three adults and two 8 year old girls and while picking a destination Rajasthan ticked all the boxes. We went during the Diwali of 2018, a beautiful time to visit the state which is even more vibrant in Diwali than usual.

We have been to Rajasthan several times and think it is best done by a road trip. Because of the kids we planned our trip in a way that did not require us to drive very long stretches at a time but also needed a route that cover the vast landscape. Though the itinerary looks crowded we actually had a peaceful trip with enough down time.

Since we wanted the kids to experience the Ranthambore safari as well as the sand dunes of Jaisalmer it was a bit tricky because the driving time between both these places is massive, but we figured a way around it. Instead of Jaisalmer we chose to visit the sand dunes of Khimsar which are tiny compared to Jaisalmer but the kids loved the experience all the same. Infact it was the favourite part of their trip.

The other thing we kept in mind was to avoid the main cities except when we needed to enter to pick up or drop the car. The big cities in Rajasthan are lovely but we have visited them during our previous trips and felt that the kids would enjoy the wilderness a bit more. However we made it a point to show them the beautiful Udaipur City Place and magnificent Mehrangarh fort in Jodhpur.
Two Great Danes with two great girls, Ranthambore

Day 1 and 2 - Ranthambore
Two Great Danes and a Leopard
We took the Mumbai Jaipur flight and picked up our self drive car from a place which was close to the airport. The problem with Rajasthan is that Zoomcar is the only self drive company available in Jaipur. I would like to strongly advise against using Zoomcar as we were highly inconvenienced because of the car breakdown and apathy of the support team. The best option for now is to hire a car with a driver as several companies provide that service.
From Jaipur we drove straight to our hotel in Ranthambore which is about a three hour drive. Since we took an early morning flight we were checked in to our Ranthambore hotel by 12.30 pm just in time for our first Rajasthani meal! Our stay was at a very lovely hotel called Dev Vilas which was recommended by a friend. The hotel is just the right size and rooms are large and comfortable. The  two Great Danes, Zeenat and Tigger on the property were an added delight. The meals were included in our package and we enjoyed them as they were a good mix of local and western dishes. Like the rest of Rajasthan the service was fabulous. The evenings at Dev Vilas were especially enjoyable around the bon fire chatting with other guests and the affable owner Balendu Singh.
But our agenda was clear! We were there for the tiger sightings. We tried to book the safari online months in advance but in vain, found the process extremely complicated and the jeeps were anyways sold out. We finally we got the safari booked through the hotel which was very efficient. The safari can be done either by a private jeep or by a canter with a capacity of about 20 people. To hedge our bets we booked one jeep and one canter safari for two consecutive mornings. There are several agents who also book the safari at a premium ofcourse. Our first day we took the private jeep and were lucky to have a very senior guide Ajayji, he was experienced and well read and generally interested in the jungle and wildlife apart from just the tigers. We were there for 2.5 hours but sadly tigers do not care about the best guides so we returned without seeing a tiger. The kids didn’t seem to mind they were thrilled with the idea of being in a real jungle in an open jeep with the possibility of a tiger or tigress somewhere close by and they were very excited to see several pug marks. We did see owls and many other types of birds apart from many peacocks and deer.
The next day with equal optimism we set of on our canter safari. The canter is a completely different experience, the thrill is lesser as you are in a bus that feels protected as compared to an open jeep and the canters are unable to navigate the smaller roads like the jeep. Besides there is some chatter because of the many people and you can’t really hear the silence and solitude of the jungle like you can when you are in the jeep. No tiger was interested enough to humour us the next day either but just as we were about the exit our driver spotted a movement in some distant bushes, a deer was giving a warning call as it stood transfixed at one spot it kept on calling loudly, it was certain about the danger close by, could it be a tiger? That what we all hoped just then the deer sprang and ran and after it chased a leopard. It was all very quick.... the call the chase and suddenly the leopard seem to give up and ran off deep into the forest probably sensing so many humans nearby. We were all rooted to our spots watching this unbelievable chase and the kids were happy that the deer got away! The driver tells us that the leopard is a very shy animal and much rarer to sight than a tiger and watching a chase is an even rarer sight. He was probably trying to make us feel better J
This was a first safari experience for the kids and it is safe to say it will not be their last. Ranthambore has grown on all of us and I think we have all made a secret mental note to go there as soon as we can (Hopefully this summer) we are clear that Dev Vilas will be our only choice!
Tips: Try to book two or three jeep safaris instead of canters. Though the online reviews talk about zones 1 to 5 being the best in terms of sightings, that was not our experience. During our stay all the sightings happened between zone 5 to 10
Eating: There is not much around and you will have to depend on your hotel restaurants for all meals. Incase you are big on chaat or local mithai then you could try out the sweet bhandars in the city
Shopping: Is lovely infact we realised later that we should have bought a few more things ourselves. Very nice cotton bed sheets with beautiful prints, table mats, clothes and great for pug mark souvenirs. We bought plenty of clay made pug mark soap dishes and ashtrays as souvenirs. Try Dastkar or some local handicraft shops
Stay: Hotel Dev Vilas:
Diwali in Pushkar Bollywood Style

Day 3 – Pushkar

Diwali in the town of temples and many cows
Pushkar is a vibrant temple town and a great choice to spend Diwali there. We drove from Ranthamore to Pushkar (about a 6 hour drive via Jaipur) and checked into Gulaab Niwaas. This is a surprisingly big and sprawling property for a budget hotel. It very close to the main Pushkar lake (5 minutes walk), the rooms were basic but overall the property is lovely in a great location. We could see the entire town from the hotel garden and spent our Diwali evening watching fireworks from the terrace.
The Diwali evening we walked to the ghats and the entire town was lit up by clay diyas, no Chinese lights required here! As we walked through the narrow market lanes we saw several courtyards lit up by oil diyas and the people dressed in their Diwali finery headed for the evening Puja. The temple bells chiming and the main Puja aarti provided the background sound. As we walked into the main temple ghat and stepped down towards the lake the kids were able to pick up some oil diyas and float them in the lake. This all felt like a scene from the movies! Later that evening we went back to the hotel and after a special Diwali dinner went to the terrace and the kids lit some crackers and we could see fireworks everywhere and the entire town light up. This will be a one memorable Diwali for all of us.
But even if people choose not to go on Diwali day, the Pushkar ghats are always buzzing with activity of puja and prayer.
Observations:  Apart from the crowds of people there were many cows all through the town, it was hard not to walk into a cow or step into cow dung. In fact the dung is also considered sacred and we saw many houses and shops with small heaps of cow dung at the entrance decorated with bamboo sticks and flowers!
Also interestingly Pushkar is a vegetarian town. You cannot order non veg food anywhere
Tips: Do find out the time of the main Aarti in advance so you do not miss it. Also the town closes by 8pm after that it is hard to find anything open
Shopping : The main market is full with Rajasthani clothes and decor items. We bought some Indian wear for the kids (Rs 200 for a ghaghra choli set!) and some bangles as well. There is the general Rajasthani stuff like camel skin accessories and wooden gift items available in plenty.
Eating: There are lots of little cafes and chaat places in the main market. A lot of the cafes offer rooftop seating overlooking the lake which is lovely. These are good for a mid morning coffee specially with kids as later on they get smokey with the famous Pushkar stuff!
Stay: Gulaab Niwas

At the Khimsar Dune Cottages 

Sunset at the Khimsar Dunes

Day 4 and 5 - Khimsar
A fort and the dunes
We have been to Khimsar 10 years ago and have wanted to go back ever since. This is mainly because of the ITC Property – Welcome Hotel Khimsar Fort and Dunes. The stay in the dunes is hard to describe, it is definitely worth having in the itinerary specially with kids. We needed to park our car at some distance away and were taken into the dunes on a camel cart. Once you enter you are surrounded by gleaming sand dunes and in the middle they have created a little oasis with a small pond surrounded by these luxury huts. The rooms are just fabulous and the food is from the ITC kitchen so you just can’t have enough of it. The entire day was spent by the kids rolling on the dunes and digging in the sand. The authentic desert experience was completed by a camel ride around the dunes. In the evening the hotel organises tea at the sunset point which is the highest point on the dunes from where you can watch the sun go down. Later after dinner as the night got chilly, we could see so many stars that we asked the staff for a mat and all of us lay down staring at the beautiful sky for a long time. A day well spent!
The next day we checked out from the dunes and checked into the ITC Khimsar Fort hotel which is about 10 minutes away. The fort hotel is beautiful and retains the original Khimsar Fort wall which was built in the 1500s. The rooms, service and food is all wonderful as expected and the hotel has three restaurants. One part of the fort ruins is converted into a restaurant and they serve dinner there by candlelight and sometimes only the moonlight it is definitely a dinner worth experiencing. The hotel has a small amphitheatre where they organized the famous Kesariya dance for us and a puppet show for the kids. We all retired that night feeling a bit royal after a day in the beautiful fort hotel and the princely or princessly food.
Tips: Book a meal at the ruins restaurant in the fort hotel in advance and preferably a la carte.
Eating: Do order the Khimsar Fling which is their version of the bloody Mary and the Daal which was to die for! Also the Daal Baati Churma that we ate at the hotel was the best in all of Rajasthan.
Shopping: No reason to shop here just enjoy the sun and the sand
Stay: ITC Welcome Hotel Khimsar Fort and Dunes

Mehrangarh Fort, Jodhpur

City view, Jodhpur

Day 6 - Jodhpur
Jodhpur is a three hour drive from Khimsar and we stopped over for the day. The kids and one adult went to Mehrangarh fort and the two ‘shopper’ adults set off to explore the Jodhpur markets. The Mehrangarh is our favourite fort in Rajasthan, it is very well maintained and has a spectacular view of the ‘blue’ city and you must rent the audio guide which is riveting and features Maharaja Gaj Singh talking about the fort’s history with some personal anecdotes. Because it was a weekend and a day after Diwali the fort had hordes of visitors which led to serpentine queues but all worth the wait. Kids came back with happy stories of castles and kings and queens.
Meanwhile the shoppers had a very successful day! We started with the Stepwell Square which is the most premium shopping area. Good Earth, Nicobar, Forrest Essentials and some premium designer shops are all clustered in an area with heritage buildings converted into beautiful stores. (The Good Earth store is a must visit). There are nice cafes and restaurants within walking distance.  Now from premium to local shopping we went to the main market area near Sojati Gate Circle (as recommended by a local lady) where there are a line of shops selling sarees, duppattas and Indian suits and from there a short walk towards the station road is lined with small shops with the famous Jodhpuri  jhutis.
Eating: There are some rooftop restaurants and cafes which are nice in the evening because as the backdrop you have the magnificent Mehrangarh fort lit up. (Stepwell Cafe is one option)
Shopping: The Mehrangarh gift shop has lovely souvenirs and even costume jewellery at good prices. For local shopping go to the several saree and bandhej shops near Sojati Gate Circle and close by to the station road for Jodhpuri Jhutis
Stay: Though this was a day trip the last time we stayed at Ratan Vilas which is highly recommended

City view from The Kehloor rooftop, Udaipur

Lakeside Cosmopolitans at Udaipur

Day 7 and 8 – Udaipur
Udaipur is our all time favourite place in Rajasthan. There is something about the vibe and the beautiful setting of a town with many lakes. During holiday season is was impossible to find any good accommodation at a reasonable price (we were looking for something near Lake Pichola near the Lal Ghat area) but instead opted for a fairly new property Kehloor a nice little property run an enterprising young couple. Though it is not located near the lake it is a short rickshaw ride from the City Palace and Pichola. Nice modern rooms and a wonderful terrace restaurant for breakfast with a great view of the city.  

While two days in Udaipur passed in a blur we did manage our usual favourities.
-        A boat ride on Lake Pichola from the City Palace upto Jag Mandir (a cold beer for us and lemonade for the kids in the Jag Mandir garden restaurant was the highpoint of the day)
-        A   guided tour of City Palace (you can opt for an audio or a personal guide)
-        A visit to our many uncles and cousins (another reason why the city is a favourite)
-        Shopping for silver jewellery and souvenirs in the lanes behind  City Palace. Anokhi which is inside  City Palace is always great for last minute gift shopping. The kids bought little handmade coin pouches for themselves and their friends.
-        Coffee or in this case Cosmopolitans on any of the Lal Ghat rooftop restaurants to watch the sunset
-        Dinner at Ambrai (We missed it on this trip as Ambrai gets booked weeks in advance)
-        The sound and light show at City Palace. This is the first time we tried this and were rather impressed. It was a good experience in the chilly evening with the city and the palace in the backdrop we heard the history of Udaipur and the royal family (The kids did fall asleep mid way J)
-        A drive around this beautiful city and its many lakes!

It was time to head back home. On the last day we hunted for the customary Daal Bati Churma meal before returning our rented car and heading for the airport all silently humming Kesariya in our heads. Yet again Rajasthan impressed us greatly. It is the Goa in the North for us, never disappoints always delightful! We will be back soon.

This guest blog is written by Ms Marya Lanewala 

Monday, November 26, 2018

Relaxing at Dina's Hotel Mahabaleshwar

View of the main building

ahead is the garden, on right is the new block

The new block

garden view

We visited over Diwali 2018 for the first time.  Before this we had always stayed at the Mahabaleshwar Club.

We stayed in the main building -  in a room with 3 beds with a  huge bathroom. We chose a room with air conditioning but didn't need it. The room had a TV and netting on the windows, important to keep creepy crawlies away.

The service was good - old style - you ring a bell in the room and the person assigned to your room arrives to take your order, bring drinking water, ice, glasses etc

The food is outstanding, a multi course meal which is served to you at your table. The 5th generation owners feed you till you're stuffed with a mixture of Western, Indian and Parsee food!

Venna Lake hidden by the trees

View from our sitout

The Lower Level garden 

Support the local people 

To give you an example:

Soup, local bakery bread and butter
Mixed sauteed/boiled veggies and salad
Capsicum stuffed with prawns
Kid gosht
Black Parsee style Masoor dal, rice and roti
Chicken farcha
Caramel custard

For every non vegetarian item they offer a corresponding vegetarian item!!

The owners are very accommodating  of  special requests - i told them about my son's allergies and food was made without ghee or butter

At  tea time  french fries and pakoda's are available, this is an extra. the hotel provides biscuits and you make tea using the kettle in your room.

The sitout outside each room allows guests to enjoy the Venna Lake view and the flowers blooming in the expansive gardens.

There's alot of space for children to play.

The hotel allows a local chappal seller and the local Blind Association to sell their candles on the property

You can get a horse ride organised from the hotel itself.

All of us had a wonderful time - we cant wait to return .

Just right for a recharge!

There are air conditioned and non AC rooms

Those with mobility issues should stay in the main block on the ground floor. Access through the entrance near the office.

Tel: +91 9405254150 

While there ensure you go riding, take a boatride at Venna Lake, eat and buy berries (November through Early April) buy carrots and radishes to bring back! And of course, visit the market and if you dont want to shop much buy local footwear, chana and honey!

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

O Pedro, The Blue & Jamjar Diner - Mumbai Gastronomy

This is a blog of the recent places visited and eaten in, in Mumbai!. If you follow my advice you can be sure you’ll eat well! 

O Pedro, BKC

From the good folks behind Bombay Canteen. O Pedro exceeded my expectations which were high. An extensive Goa themed food and drinks menu. The Goan experience starts when one calls to make a reservation…. Made me smile and Oh! So Goan

There’s an extensive menu with limited period additions. There are quarter plates, half plates, full plates and  home made poie baskets, Food presentation is very attractive.

Here’s what we had when we visited on Easter Sunday.

Half plates
Veal tongue – most yum and I’m definitely going to have it next time around
Easter pulao – full of seafood and delicately spiced (from their Easter menu)
Fried mussels – so Goa (from their Easter menu)
We had the sourdough poee basket – served with 4 butters
We had repeats of each item

Rawa fried mussels served on a bed of sand

The Tongue - yum

Easter pulao

All washed down with interesting drinks – the son had a Kiwi Pineapple punch, I had the Caju/Cashew Feni based “Finding Funny” and the husband had Mr Fernandez’s Fancy drink which is based on John Paul Whiskey.

Children under 18 not allowed after 7 pm

Access: Several shallow steps so please check about wheelchair access.

I’m going back soon as I lovelovelove the vibe and overall experience and to try their desserts – the Lisboa Pastel De nata (the egg custard tart) and the Serradura.

The Blue, Bandra, near Khane Khas

A small eatery (no daru) with a tiny AC section. Awesome food! Not sure about reservations. It’s very very popular, and I know why! The food is top quality in taste, freshness and presentation. 

We ordered:

Chicken Gyonza - served with a delish soya chili sauce,
Wasabi prawns - prawns friend with a wasabi mayonnaise drizzle and served in a bed of salad

Glass noodle salad - with prawns added
Crispy chilli pork (belly)
Soft shelled crab salad
Phad Thai with prawn
Green Thai curry with chicken
Red Thai curry with chicken

Wasabi prawns

Chicken Gyonza

Soft shelled crab salad

Glass noodle salad - with prawns added

Phad Thai with prawn

Crispy chilli pork (belly)

The food was excellent! And the service is good. Only challenge is squeezing yourselves around a tiny table, and then making space for the dishes you order on it.

Access: Not for those with wheelchairs or walkers. (no space). 

Tip - Try and go for early dinner or brunch or v v late lunch to snag a table. we went for a very early lunch 

Jamjar diner, Bandra

My 1st visit to this fun place. Lovely happy cheerful colours abound - think pastel pink and ice blue/green.

Lots of board games available – we could see people having fun playing and a jukebox! So great music.

Here’s what we ate: Chicken Quinoa Salad, Black Bean Quesadilla, Char Grilled Chicken Habibi, Spaghetti Aglio Olio and an Apache salad with grilled chicken.

Chicken Quinoa Salad

Black Bean Quesadilla

Spaghetti Aglio Olio

Apache salad with grilled chicken

Earl grey tea served stylishly!

We finished with Earl Grey tea which was served very stylishly!

Drinks were fun due to 2 Zomato_gold members! 

Loved the lively ambiance even on a Tuesday and the attentive service. The food was good! I will return soon with family.

Access: One step and then an elevator to the 1st floor... so those with walking sticks could visit, Check about walkers and wheelchairs.

We then walked to La Folie Lab for dessert, try their Paris Brest ... yum

Final word of advice - Do NOT eat in Benedict Bistro - they got the order wrong and one persons food was COLD and the other items were only ok! AVOID

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Unwind in Luxury in Ubud, at The Chedi Club, Tanah Gajah, Bali

This is the 2nd of a 3 part blog on our recent visit to Bali. Read below the 1st one about our stay at Space at Bali at Seminyak. Coming next is the handpicked list of what to do in Bali!

Entrance - The walk to Reception

The Ganeshas 

The venue for the twice weekly Kecak fire dance 

Though most of our time in Bali was spent beach side, we visited gorgeous Ubud and experienced The Chedi Club, Tanah Gajah. This gorgeous GHM hotels and resorts property is nestled amidst the green paddy fields and consists of 20 villas on a 5 hectare property, which was once the private hideaway of an Indonesian art collector.

The 1 bedroom pool villa is gorgeous with a lot of space – though the interiors are super comfortable and luxurious the days are best spent lazing by or in your private infinity pool overlooking green rice fields. There are several room sizes and the entire property can be booked for an occasion.

Throughout the property are artworks, enriching the surroundings with local culture and history. Such beautiful ancient Ganeshas..  

The foodie in me enjoyed the fantastic meal we ate in The Restaurant. Surrounded by paddy fields and french windows making you feel as if you are outdoors! On offer is an eclectic menu, the son opted for the Wagyu steak while the husband and I opted for the traditional Indonesian Rijsttafel (rice table). It was mind blowing - the presentation and the flavours – just delicious!

We ended the meal with an amazing local coffee – the Tanah Gajah coffee which includes the local arak. Yum! Not only were the drinks, food and service superlative, we learnt that the herbs (in our cocktails and mocktails) as well as the rice served are grown on the property itself!

The traditional roofed building is The Restuarant

Mocktails and cocktails with herbs from the garden

Soup to start the Rijsttafel

The Amazing Indonesian Rijstaffel

The Wagyu 

Vegan coconut icecream for the boy who cant eat dairy

My Tanah Gajah coffee laced with local brew arak

Check out the sugar coated stirrer 

Local Indonesian sweets to end our meal 

Many guests opt to eat in the villa and can request Chef to make something special for them. One can  book  dinner a deux, among the rice fields!

Breakfast is included, along with afternoon tea, sundowners and complementary mini bar which includes large helpings of spirits among other goodies!

One can indulge doing nothing, enjoy spa sessions, yoga, watch the sunset or just walk through the property!

No wonder most guests stay for 3 days upwards and many for a couple of weeks!

GHM Hotels and Resorts will soon open its doors in Mumbai and bring its thoughtful and intuitive brand of luxury to India after Andermatt, Switzerland, Muscat and Lustica Bay, Montenegro. It will offer breath-taking views over serene Powai Lake and seven exceptional and innovative dining options!

I can’t wait to experience The Chedi Mumbai and I’m definitely returning for a longer visit to The Chedi Club, Tanah Gajah at Ubud Bali.

An intricately carved door handle 

The pool