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Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Upcoming Travel: Backpacking to Icy Cold Ladakh

I have been eagerly waiting for this trip for close to six months now. Planning began in late May, ticket bookings took place in July and gear purchases were made from Aug through December. Joining me on this trip are three other close friends and fellow travellers. All four of us leave for Delhi today and are headed into Leh tomorrow early morning. The next 2 weeks will be spent exploring the Ladakh region.

We do have an itinerary in mind, which involves 2 days of acclimatization at Leh, a 5 day trek in the Zanskar range and 5 days of exploring the scenic locations around Leh, namely, Pangong Tso Lake, Hemis High Altitude National Park, the Changthang belt (Tso Moriri Lake, Tso Kar Lake), Nubra Valley, Khardungla, Lamayuru and the city of Leh.

I am sure that we will not be able to visit all of these places, but we will pick n choose depending on weather and road conditions. Weather plays an instrumental role in Ladakh especially during winters as temperatures drop to as low as minus 40 degree Celsius in some places. Wind Chill is also quite severe here especially in the night and early mornings and this can lower the ‘Real Feel’ temperatures even further down. Ice sheets cover most of the terrain and most of the lakes, rivers and other water bodies freeze.

To tackle this tough weather, we have with us the following gear: ‘800 down’ sleeping bags, ‘800 down’ jackets, thermal wear, backpacking boots, moisture wicking alpine socks, woollen socks, fleece balaclavas, alpine skull caps, woollen mittens, gaiters and others. And we plan to take crampons, ice axes and ropes as need be on hire from Leh. But, I am sure that we will face the ladakhi icy chill in spite of all this. And that is part of the adventure we are going for.

On most of my previous travel trips, my followers and readers have complained that I don’t post updates while I am travelling. Hence, this time around, I will consciously attempt to post pictures and updates on my facebook profile page while I am exploring. Hopefully, I will have get some cell phone connectivity and my phone battery lasts a while in those low temperatures.

I am hoping this will be a great trip. My adrenalin levels have already risen, my heart is pumping wildly and my pulse is racing. I am really excited. Let’s see how it goes…

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Wildlife Photography: Sri Lankan Leopard

This summer when I was at Yala National Park in South East Sri Lanka, I had a good wildlife experience, but the leopard (known as diviya in Sinhala; don’t get misled by locals referring to it as Kotiya, which is Sinhala for tiger) eluded me. When I went there again post the monsoons, my luck changed. I was at Yala for an entire day and got treated to two leopard sightings.

Sri Lankan Leopard in monochrome 
The first one I saw was a young one perched on a tree in the early hours of the morning. I got to see him playing with twigs, climbing up different tree branches and glaring at us intruders. It was a wonderful experience to see this young leopard playing his antics.

I guess now he starts noticing us in the safari jeeps 
The second one was an adult male that was sitting on the jeep track in the late afternoon. Jungle safari jeeps had surrounded the Sri Lankan leopard on both sides of the road and all the tourists were going clickety-click with their cameras, but he continued resting. It was as if he had no care for the world around him at that moment. After all, he is king of Yala and is at the top of the food chain here.

Leopard perched on a leafless tree at Yala National Park 
After resting on the jeep track for 15 minutes and giving tourists on both sides a great photography experience, he walked slowly towards my jeep before heading into the bushes.

The Sri Lankan Leopard walks on the jeep track and towards us 
These two sightings of the Sri Lankan Leopard made this a memorable day for me at Yala National Park. There is something about the tiger and leopard. Their sheer presence can send your adrenalin pumping and pulse racing!!

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Little New Zealand of Sri Lanka

I haven’t been to New Zealand so far. In fact, it is one of the top places on my travel bucket-list given that it is an adventure travel paradise. But, I have seen a lot of pictures on the internet and books of the New Zealand landscape and I was stunned when I saw something similar in Sri Lanka. I was at Ambewala, a small hill station near Nuwara Eliya, the tea capital of Sri Lanka. This place is tucked in the central highlands of this island nation and falls enroute from Nuwara Eliya to the Horton Plains National Park. This hill station and its near-abouts is known for its milk and cheese. And on any given day, you will see large herds of cows grazing on this pristine green landscape.

The lush green countryside that helps these cows produce some of their best milk n cheese 
The misty surroundings, the wavy hills in the background and the never ending green landscape give this place a magical touch. And when you see the big white cows grazing here, you feel that you are in New Zealand’s countryside. No wonder, this place is called the ‘Little New Zealand’ of Sri Lanka.

One of Sri Lanka's best grazing pastures for the bovines 
While you are here, do pay a visit to the Ambewala and the New Zealand cheese farms and try out a hot cup of fresh farm milk. And if you wish you can buy some of their cheese and other milk products. Each cheese farm has a retail outlet to cater to the tourists.

Tuk-Tuk, our ride in the central highlands of Sri Lanka 
In terms of access, Ambewala is connected by buses from Nuwara Eliya that ply this route once every hour. The bus ride (one way) should take about 45 minutes.  But, if you wish for more flexibility, hire a tuk-tuk (3 wheeler taxi) from Nuwara Eliya. A return trip on the tuk-tuk from Nuwara Eliya should cost you about 800-1500 LKR depending on tourist demand.

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Thursday, December 15, 2011

Shopping in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka is primarily known for its 3 Ts (Tea, Textile and Tourism). In fact, this forms the base of the country’s GDP. But, if you are visiting this tropical paradise, then you can take back much more than just memories. At a high level, tourists typically stick to the gift stops in their hotels or souvenir shops in the main city market to buy souvenirs back home. But, if you really explore, you will find great variety and excellent quality at good value for money.

Tea
To start with, Ceylon Tea is Sri Lanka’s most famous export. If you like tea without milk, try the Orange Pekoe and if you prefer your tea to be strong and with milk and sugar, then go for the broken Orange Pekoe. Every Tea estate at various locations in Sri Lanka (Kandy, Bandarawella, Nuwara Eliya, Ella, etc.) have their own flavour and one can get a taste of it right there. Do keep in mind that the Sri Lankan Tea is a milder, but more aromatic form of Tea when compared to the Indian varieties. The Long Leaf varieties are milder, but make a great hot cup of relaxing tea. Though, the Orange Pekoe makes for a great brew, my personal favourites are the Chinese Herbal Green Tea and the flavoured Long Leaf varieties (available in flavours such as Passion Fruit, Cinnamon, Lemon, Mint, Vanilla and others). You might tricked into buying low quality tea at some tea estates, but for the premium and authentic stuff, buy from a Mlesna, Tea Breeze or Dilmah outlet. Personally, I prefer Mlesna over the others.

Spices
Aromatic spices also make for great buys as they constitute the soul of the Sri Lankan cuisine. For special stuff, head over to the Spice Shop at Majestic City, Bambalapitya on Galle road, Colombo. Authentic stuff is also available at supermarkets like Cargills, which are located at many places around the country.

Cashew
Cashew is another important cash crop in Sri Lanka. Plain or roasted cashews are sold all over the island. Young girls sell them on the road to Kandy from Colombo and nearly all the markets and street shops in the island sell them. For the best cashews, head to Expo Shoppe, Liberty Plaza Shopping complex in Colombo.

Buffalo Milk Yoghurt
Next on the list is buffalo milk yoghurt (curd). You may not be able to carry it to your home country, but you can sure enjoy it while you are holidaying in Sri Lanka. The buffalo milk yoghurt is famous in the South and South West part of the island and is sold in earthen pots all along the highway from Thissamaharama to Thangalle on the west coast.

Alcohol
A lot of global brands and spirit types are available in Sri Lanka, but those are not native to this island. If you wish to carry home the local spirit, then I would recommend Mendis Old Arrack (18 years old), Rockland Old Arrack and Rockland Red Rum (a local form of slightly sweet rum). Most of these spirits contain 37.5% alcohol. These can either be bought at the Bandaranayake airport duty shop or any of the large shopping malls like Crescat Boulevard at Colombo – 3.

Gems
The tropical paradise of Sri Lanka has had a long association with precious gems and this was even before its colonial times when smugglers used to bring them from the Far East and the Middle East. The assortment of gems found here is phenomenal, but the pick of them is the blue sapphire. Star sapphires and star rubies are also quite popular as people like them in their rings and pendants. Alexandrites, Cat’s Eye, amethysts, garnets, aquamarines and moonstones are some of the other popular stones available here. When it comes to buying these gems, please do exercise extreme caution as I personally know at least five people who have been cheated. Ensure to check for hallmarks, weight and proper bills. Shops in five star hotels would be your best bet in terms of quality, though the Aida Gems and Jewellery shop on Galle road, Bentota comes with a solid reputation.

Handicrafts
The handicraft list is quite exhaustive with items like mats, masks, drums, coconut-shell dolls, porcupine-quill boxes, lace, reed, basket and bamboo-ware, lacquerware, wooden figurines, shell crafts and silver and brassware. Additionally, there are interesting low cost items like cushion covers, hand-woven cotton sarongs, colourful doorstops and floating candles. Apart from the village supermarkets that stock not so great quality products, the best places to buy these handicrafts in Sri Lanka would be Laksala (government handicraft shop), Lakmedura on Colombo 7 and Lakpahana on Colombo 7.

Batiks
These batiks are something that every tourist will see right from the time they land at the Bandaranayake airport and walk out of immigration and by the duty free shops to every market and shop in the country. The varied representations of the Sri Lankan elephant is a hot favourite as they are available in different designs or are carved from ebony. Other colourful batik designs involve motifs of peacocks and Kandyan dancers. These can be seen in wall hangings, tablecloths and songs. The government handicraft shop Laksala is the most authentic place to buy these, though it can be tad expensive.

Textiles
Sri Lanka is one of the worl'd’s low cost textile centres. Clothes made here are exported all over. Quality, thickness of cloth, colours, et al vary with cost. Interesting designs and colours can be found all over the island nation. But, if you wish to wear the best, then head to ODEL Fashions, the house of Sri Lankan fashion. I am personally am a big fan of their goods. In fact, such is their aura that I end up spending more than my prescribed budget. Their souvenirs make for excellent gifts for your family and friends. If I remember right, the main ODEL showroom is in Colombo 7, though other branches are in other parts of the city too.

If a tropical destination like Sri Lanka doesn’t pique your interest, then may be you should explore the Mediterranean, especially Morocco Holidays

Note: Most of the places selling touristy goods have a built-in commission structure, so do learn to bargain hard even in big shops and start at 25% of the quoted value of goods for the road-side ones. Shops are generally open from 10 am to 6 pm, though the shopping malls are open for slightly longer. And these are Colombo timings. Shop times at other locations may vary slightly.

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Guest Post: Top 5 Luxury Travel Destinations

Today’s luxury travel offers an exclusive plethora of unique pleasures, from the splendours of private tours of world-famous vineyards to the rush of adrenaline afforded by heli skiing in remote regions of British Columbia.

Here are 5 Top Unique Luxury Travel Destinations:

Revelstoke, B.C.— An elite destination for heli skiers for over 4 decades, Revelstoke, British Columbia is the cradle of heli skiing. Luxurious Bighorn resort will arrange a bespoke ski trip for you and your traveling companions complete with your own private helipad so you can experience the ultimate in heli skiing. Bighorn features eight opulent staterooms, a pool and movie theatre to unwind after a long day on the slopes. Your own private chef will prepare your favourite gourmet delights.

Turks & Caicos Islands – Experience private candlelight beachfront dining on what Conde Nast Travel calls one of the “10 Best Beaches in the World”. The luxurious Grace Bay Club will see to every custom detail. During the day, you can swim up to the world’s first infinity edge bar or borrow a complimentary Hobie Cat or kayak for a water excursion to a private cove for a more active holiday. Serious divers will want to explore the newly discovered coral reefs and walls surrounding the islands. And, if you visit between December and April, you can take a private sailing tour and see every Humpback Whale in the Atlantic—all 2500 of them—make their way to Mouchoir Bank just south of Turks. Of course, you can always explore Provo’s tucked away paradises via some of the 50’-80’ yachts that can be charted during your stay with the on-board crew and private chef you will sail and dine in pure pleasure.

Aspen, Colorado — From skiing to designer label shopping, Aspen offers the discerning traveller a wealth of activities. Stay at the St. Regis where you can fully explore the ski scene or spend the afternoon relaxing in their exclusive spa. If you really want to get your heart beating, you can book a heli skiing adventure with Telluride Helitrax.

Napa Valley – Your gastronomic pursuits will reach new heights in Napa. From Alice Water’s famed Chez Panisse to the Culinary Institute of America, Napa Valley offers gourmet dining amidst the beautiful setting of vineyards at every turn. Book a stay at the Auberge du Soleil in the heart of wine country. The Michelin-starred restaurant is well worth a visit and your concierge can book you a VIP tour of Napa’s finest wines. Between meals prepared by world famous chefs, you can rejuvenate with a Meyer Lemon Olive Oil Massage sourced with local ingredients or enjoy the valley from above as you sip 1987 Screaming Eagle Cabernet during your private hot air balloon ride.

Cabo San Lucas - Enjoy castle life at the iconic Mi Ojo. This cliff dwelling villa overlooks the Pacific and defines the Careyes style – a blend of Mexican and Mediterranean architecture with a lavish rooftop terrace. Take the hanging bridge, suspended 90 feet above the cliffs and ocean, to a private island perfect for meditation or yoga in the botanical garden. Cabo San Lucas Villas will arrange every detail of your exclusive trip, from golf excursions with the local pro to water sports in a private cove.

From tropical islands to snow capped mountains, these 5 destinations offer a new level of luxury and exclusivity for today’s elite travellers. 

This guest post was provided by Avantair, a leading provider of fractional aircraft ownership, leases and flight-hour card programs. With a focus on customer service, safety and comfort, Avantair’s fractional jet ownership program is the solution to your private travel needs. Fractional ownership provides all of the advantages of owning your own private aircraft without the hassle and maintenance. Whether you are interested in jet ownership, jet leasing or jet cards, Avantair has a program that’s right for you!

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Guest Post: Vacation with just a single carry-on bag!

If you have parked your car at or near the airport and taken the shuttle service to the terminal while lugging your golf clubs, skis and luggage, you just haven’t fully enjoyed that stress-free vacation. In the age of the exorbitant airline baggage fees, when you add basic fees, possible overweight costs and the assistance of redcaps at your departing and arriving locations, as well as your return, you can save real money and a great deal of personal aggravation by sending them on ahead.

Parcel Shipping
Shippers like FedEx, UPS, DHL and others will pick up your luggage right from your home and deliver it directly to your hotel, resort or cruise ship. Parcel shipping companies generally limit your packages to 150 lbs. and 165 inches in length and width combined.

Freight Shipping
Freight shippers use the same type of trucks as a parcel shipper but may be less expensive since you pay for the total weight of the shipment rather than by individual item. If, for example you are shipping two sets of golf clubs (typically 30 to 40 lbs. each) and 3 or 4 heavy suitcases (approximately 50 to 60 lbs. each), shipping your luggage by freight would save you money.

Proceed Directly to the Gate
Plan ahead and select a shipper in advance who can arrange to ship your luggage 2 to 5 days ahead of your departure. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to go straight to the gate with just your carry-on necessities, avoid the hassle of baggage check-in or the free-for-all of pickup and have your luggage waiting for you when you arrive?

This guest article was provided by Steve O’ Driscoll of Transit Systems, Inc. (TSI), a residential and commercial shipping service and freight company. TSI specializes in shipping furniture and can assist you with both large and small moves. For more information about TSI, visit their website or follow TSI on Twitter @TransitSystems.

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Friday, December 02, 2011

Upcoming Travel: Ride to the Mocha Mountains!!

Tomorrow morning, five of us start our weekend ride to the coffee hills of Coorg. It has been a while since I last went on a motorcycle ride. Its been so long that I don’t remember the last ride. Well, coming back to this upcoming trip…4 bullets and one pulsar plan to take the Bangalore –> Maddur –> Mandya –> Srirangapatna –> Hunsur –> Kushalnagara –> Madikeri route.

We hope to reach Madikeri for lunch. And then spend a relaxed afternoon. The plan is to see if we can visit Madikeri fort, Abbey Falls and the city centre. And may be other interesting places or spots that we may come across. For the night, we will check into some budget hotel.

The next day, we plan to take it easy and do sightseeing till early lunch. Post lunch, we plan to take the scenic Madikeri – Virajpet road that winds its way through coffee plantations, paddy fields, tropical forests and mountain streams. This route passes through Siddapur and Kakkabe and is one of Kodagu’s most beautiful spots. From Virajpet, we plan to take the Gonigoppal route to Hunsur and Srirangapatna and then back to Bangalore. We aim to be back in Bangalore latest by 8 pm.

More on this when I am back.

P.S. I know that my pictures from Sri Lanka and Tadoba Tiger Reserve are being waited for and I promise to roll them out in a week or two.

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Guest Post: Top Theatres of the World

Iconic, unique and often stunningly beautiful, theatres are often some of the most impressive buildings to visit in a city, and can mark the highlight of a tour or holiday. Whether it's because of innovative or artistic design, or compelling history, here is a selection of some of the must-see performance venues from across the globe.

Minack Theatre, Cornwall
Carved into the cliff side in Cornwall, this open-air theatre stages plays from May to December against the dramatic backdrop of the Atlantic ocean. Although Romanesque in style, this impressive arena is the triumph of one Rowena Cade, a local woman who carved and constructed the stage and seating area by hand. Just four miles from Land's End in Porthcurno, this breath taking venue is perfect for catching a magical moonlit summer production.

Teatro Amazonas, Brazil
An opulent jewel in the heart of the Amazon rainforest, this palatial opera house recalls a prosperous time in Brazilian history, with its Murano glass chandeliers, ornate Parisian furnishings and magnificent painted ceilings. The exuberant exterior dome, a stunning feature of the Renaissance-style construction, is decorated with 60,000 ceramic tiles painted with the colours of the Brazilian flag. Guided tours and free performances take place regularly for visitors and this architectural masterpiece in central Manaus is easily accessible by plane or boat.

Herodes Atticus Theatre, Athens
Situated on the south slope of the Acropolis, this incredible amphitheatre is the main venue of the Athens Festival, which runs from May to October. What better way to experience a classical Greek tragedy than under the night sky in these majestic surroundings, steeped in ancient history? These impressive ruins have been restored using marble to enable an audience capacity of 5,000 for live outdoor performances.

Palau de la Musica Catalana, Barcelona
If beauty is what you're looking for, you won't do better than the sumptuous artistry of this Catalan concert hall. A conspicuous gem on an otherwise dreary street, this is indeed a palace, richly embellished with floral designs, enamelled tiles and imposing sculptures. Enjoy some Basque tapas beneath the breath taking stained glass illuminations, or head to the second floor lounge for the best views of the elaborate mosaics on the exterior columns.

Teatro alla Scala, Milan
Probably the best known opera house in the world, this neo-classical venue exudes grandeur and prestige, with its plush red velvet and lavish gold ornamentation. Ticket prices may be sky-high, so try a tour, where you'll get to view the tiered private boxes, as well as historical opera costumes, set pieces and instruments. This majestic venue is a must-see destination for opera lovers, and if you do manage to get tickets, don't forget to wear your finest frock — it is the city of fashion, after all.

Royal Albert Hall, London
Situated in swanky South Kensington, the home of the annual summer Proms is a bit of a British national treasure, with its recognisable red-brick facade and wrought iron dome. The auditorium is home to the largest pipe organ in the UK, as well as a series of space-age mushroom-shaped fibreglass discs on the ceiling that diffuse the acoustics and prevent echoes during performances. Visitors can catch some lunchtime jazz in one of the many cafes or take in one of more than 350 performances per year from classical concerts to high-profile pop shows.

Sydney Opera House, Sydney
No-one could fail to recognise this iconic landmark which is one of the busiest performing arts centres in the world. The overlapping concrete panels gleam white against the backdrop of Sydney Harbour, creating an imposing effect. These striking 'shells' house a concert hall, separate opera and drama theatres and a playhouse. For the ultimate experience, enjoy an Opera High Tea before exploring the Royal Botanic Gardens, or watch a jaw-droppingly beautiful sunset over the city at the Opera Bar, boasting the 'best beer garden in the world'.

China's National Grand Theatre, Beijing
The National Centre for Performing Arts defies belief with its space-age exterior — a futuristic ellipsoid made of titanium and glass in the centre of a man-made lake, like an enormous sci-fi pod. Visitors enter the building through a transparent subterranean walkway, leaving the curved, partially transparent, outer surface of the building entirely unbroken. Most impressive at night, when the glass section of the building lights up, this astonishing venue houses three major performance halls as well as an urban district.

Melbourne Recital Centre and MTC Theatre
Melbourne's Southbank arts venues are the epitome of design chic — a mixture of geometric motifs, asymmetrical steel, neon beams and vivid honeycombed-patterned glass. The MTC's auditorium includes a back-lit wall of words made up of famous quotes, while the Melbourne Recital Centre is designed specifically for clarity of sound, with pine panels fashioned to resemble the back of an instrument. Indulge in a pre-show drink in one of the bars, where you can sample some of Victoria's finest beers.

Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles
Built by the animation magnate's late widow, this sweeping stainless steel structure shines out from the LA concrete like the sails of a silver ship. Designed by Frank Gehry with state-of-the-art acoustics as the first priority, the hall has been praised extensively for its quality of sound. Home to the LA Philharmonic Orchestra, as well as US chef Joachim Splichal's fine dining establishment, this spectacular construction provides a great vantage point from which to view LA's landmarks, including the Hollywood sign.

This guest post was written and provided by Show and Stay, the UK theatre break providers.

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Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Bird Photography: Crested Serpent Eagle – Moments to Flight!

It was a bright afternoon at Kaziranga National Park in Assam and I had just entered the Western Range for my afternoon jeep safari. We had about entered the main entrance and were supposed to cross the first jungle bridge when I noticed this Crested Serpent Eagle sitting on a dull tree branch and against the clear blue sky.

Crested Serpent Eagle staring at me 
It posed for about 2 minutes during which I got a good collection of shots and frames. But, most of these shots looked more or less the same. However, all this changed in the last 30 seconds or so, which I refer to as the ‘Moments to Flight’ in this post.

Crested Serpent Eagle getting ready to fly 
These are the priceless moments of the transition of the Crested Serpent Eagle from a still position to getting ready to fly to finally flight. Kinda like a short story Smile

Crested Serpent Eagle in flight 
I hope you like this series as this shows the bird in three different frames and in three different types of activity.

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Monday, November 28, 2011

Guest Post: Five Highlights of the 2011 London International Horse Show at Olympia!!

One of the undisputed highlights to the Equestrian year is the London International Horse Show at Olympia which this year runs from 13 to 19 December 2011.

Over 7 days of competition and display, hundreds of horses and riders will ply their art in the arena whilst adjacent, in the National Hall, over 200 shops make up the biggest ever International Horse Show Shopping Village with a wonderful array of equestrian-themed goods - from horse blankets to earrings (for you - not your horse!).

Here are 5 highlights that are guaranteed to knock your socks off.

Extreme Carriage Driving - everything seems to be extreme this year, but few extreme events will live up to the spectacle of Indoor Carriage Driving. On Thursday evening and Friday afternoon the world’s top four in-hand drivers (including Boyd Exell, Ijsbrand Chardon and Koos de Ronde) will compete with their teams of four horses in a speed carriage driving competition. Flying the flag for Great Britain is plucky Pippa Bassett with her team of Lipizzaners.

Dressage Highlight: The Reem Acra FEI World Cup™ Dressage Qualifier on Tuesday 13 and Wednesday 14 December is the fourth of nine qualifiers leading up to the finals in Hertogenbosch in the Netherlands next April. Horse riding does not get more technical that dressage and dressage doesn't get tougher than this. Cheer the Brit: Richard Davison currently lies in 5th.

Jumping Highlight: The Rolex FEI World Cup™ Qualifier presented by H&M on Sunday 18 December. This is my top moment each year: incredible riders on incredible horses jumping incredible fences. Brit Michael Whitaker won last year and is back to defend his crown, but Nick Skelton and Scott Brash are having a storming season this year too. I can't wait!

The Lusitano Ride from Portugal - This promises to be the picture postcard moment from this year’s show. The Lusitano Ride from Portugal includes some of Portugal’s finest horses and riders. Actually managing to look cool in traditional dress, ten riders on ten Lusitano stallions will take part in this captivating display, reflecting the traditional horsemanship that still exists in Portugal today.

Lorenzo The Flying Frenchman - this is Lorenzo's third visit to Olympia. What a display of horsemanship, trust and courage - including flying over jumps whilst standing on the back of his horses. The bond with his horses (a team of beautiful grey Lusitanos) is incredible. Although the Horse Show site actually boasts that in 2000 Lorenzo fell off! Yes you too can see a grown man cry!

Of course there is the Shetland Pony Grand National and the Dog Agility Competition and I wouldn't be at all surprised if Father Christmas makes an appearance - as if he wasn't busy enough! All in all a cracking event when the horse world goes mainstream!

London International Horse Show at Olympia, London 13 - 19 December 2011. Tickets available from theatre breaks.

This guest post has been written by Nick Pratt.

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Saturday, November 26, 2011

Park City, Utah: Storybook Christmas

What would you do if you saw Santa coming down the mountain with his sleigh and reindeer? Why, you would drink hot cocoa and eat snacks while you watch and wait for him to arrive on Main Street. It is guaranteed to delight old and young alike when it happens at Christmas in Park City, Utah. If you really want to have a storybook Christmas experience, you better make your Park City reservations before the town fills up. Park City hotel reservations are also popular.

Save your Christmas shopping for Park City, as well. Traditional strolling from shop to shop on historic Main Street under the Christmas lights and decorations, with snow on the ground, will seem like a turn of the century dream. Stop in one of the many eateries or bars for a bite or a drink. Listen to the carolers in Miner’s Park every evening through Christmas Eve. To complete the experience, take a horse and carriage or horse drawn sleigh ride. The Ghost of Christmas Past is still alive and well in Park City, Utah.

Attend the solo Christmas Concert with pianist Kurt Bestor at the elegant Egyptian Theatre. There will also be many other performances at the theatre during the holidays. The Winter Exhibition at Gallery Mar or the art of Anton Arkhipoy at the Thomas Anthony Gallery, add a bit of culture to the season. Try a little ice skating at the city rink to the sound of holiday music and the sight of the Christmas lights.

On the 21st of December Park City will host a Winter Solstice Electric Parade. Everyone joins in this parade by adding lights to their bikes and autos; it’s quite a festive site to see and a lot of fun to participate in. On Christmas Eve Santa will ski down the mountain with 100 elves following behind. They will lead the Torchlight Christmas Parade at Park City Mountain Resort. Visits with Santa are on the agenda right after the parade. Santa will also be on hand for pictures at Deer Valley on Christmas Day. From the 23rd to the 25th Santa will ski the slopes at the Canyons and give out treats to all.

On the 25th a Christmas Day buffet at the Canyons will be the perfect holiday dinner. In the evening, Christmas Day is topped off with a huge fireworks display that will be a fitting end to a once in a lifetime. Imagine the delight on the faces of children, or the warm and fuzzy feeling you will get from the sound of caroling and the scent of cocoa. The holiday mood will certainly be alive and well.

Bring the children and the whole family for a Christmas that will be remembered as the best one ever. There are celebrations and events enough, to fill the holiday season with joy and fun. So many things to see and do and so little time until the Christmas season is over for another year. Park City is proud to bring this seasonal celebration to you every year. Once you have experienced it, you will want to return again and again to celebrate your future holiday seasons.

This guest post has been written by Rick Mumford.

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Thursday, November 24, 2011

Guest Post: Enjoying Cardiff at the weekend

Cardiff, Wales’ capital, is fast becoming one of the best loved alternative tourist cities in Britain. Attracting an estimated 18 million tourists in 2010, Cardiff offers a vast array of attractions and must-dos to suit all interests, and hotels like the Ibis Hotel Cardiff Gate lie well enough in the heart of it all to provide a decent base from which to explore the city. If you’re thinking about visiting the city soon, here are a few places you should definitely try and squeeze in while you’re there.

Cardiff Bay
Home to a large freshwater lake and the Wales Millennium Centre in which lies the glorious Welsh National Opera, Cardiff Bay is the largest waterfront development in Europe, and offers a fantastic selection of top quality restaurants, bars and cafes in addition to all the fun water sports there. So whoever’s in your party, the more sedate can relax and use the amenities, and the thrill seekers can join in the water-based excitement before you return to your Cardiff hotel to freshen up.

Stockvault Sunset in the bay 
Llandaff Cardiff Ghost Walk
Cardiff History and Hauntings’ Llandaff Cardiff Ghost Walk is the only way to get right under the skin of Cardiff’s paranormal past. The guided tour will take you around the capital city’s spookiest alleyways, where you’ll be told about the chilling history and hauntings of each of the stops on the, and all for under £10. In fact, Cardiff History and Hauntings’ Llandaff Cardiff Ghost Walk has been hailed as one of the best things to do for under a tenner in all of Britain!

Millennium Stadium
Built in 1999 to host the 1999 Rugby World Cup and one of the newest big attractions in Cardiff, the beautiful Millennium Stadium is situated on the water’s edge and lies at the heart of the city, it’s a real feat of architecture and engineering. Home to Wales national rugby union team, Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium also stages games of the Wales national football team as well as a plethora of other big ticket events, for example the Speedway Grand Prix of Great Britain, Super Special Stage of Wales Rally Great Britain, boxing and many music acts including the likes of U2, The Rolling Stones, Tina Turner, Madonna, Stereophonics and Paul McCartney. Visitors are able to take a stadium tour with prices starting from £4.95 for concessions and £19.50 for a family, so it’s well worth checking out.

National Museum and Art Gallery
Free to enter and bursting with culture, Cardiff can offer visitors the likes of the National Museum and Art Gallery where they will learn about natural history, geology and archaeology.

This guest post has been written by Joseph Griffiths.

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Guest Post: Falling in Love all over again in Switzerland

Think of Switzerland and your mind could be transported to any number of places: idyllic flower covered hills inhabited by bell-wearing cows; snow-capped mountains; opulent modern cities; all of these still play a part in contemporary Switzerland. Flights to Basel, Switzerland’s most populous city, open up a world of beautiful scenery and romantic getaways, making Switzerland one of the most romantic destinations for couples both young and old.

Switzerland has a number of fantastic and romantic regions, but many of them are to be found in the mountains: resorts here are so isolated that couples have nothing to distract their attention away from each other, offering the optimum conditions for a romantic break you’ll never forget.

Mürren, for example, is accessible only by cog railway or cable car and is perched hundreds of feet above the beautiful Lauterbrunnen Valley. With just a smattering of chalets on offer, Mürren is quiet and still to the point that it looks like something that you might see on a postcard rather than in real life. Skiing here is still fantastic, so if you and your significant other are snow bunnies there are few better places to go.

If you prefer something a little less remote, Zurich provides all of the romance of a lonely log cabin with added sophistication. The town is one of the most highly acclaimed tourist destinations in the world and offers a delectable blend of history and modernity that allows you to slip in and out of a romantic reverie. Zurich may be full of banks, but it’s most romantic is most definitely the one surrounding Lake Zurich. Couples can rent paddle boats and tour the city from the water or can hop on one of the tour boats that will take you out to view the breath taking vistas in nearby villages.

This is just a small sampling of what Switzerland has to offer couples looking for the ultimate romantic getaway this winter, but hopefully it will have whet your appetite to find out more.

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Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Guest Post: 5 Tips for planning a Touring Trip on a Motorcycle

There can be any number of unexpected surprises on a motorcycle trip.  You can’t plan for the unexpected, unless you are simply always prepared.  Planning may seem daunting, but it will end up allowing you to enjoy the best moments along the way.  Here are just a few things to consider as you build your trip strategy:

Tip #1: Take the right bike
Not everyone has the luxury of choosing their ride for a motorcycle trip.  If you only have one bike, then think of it this way: Plan the right trip for the bike you ride.  An ADV bike will take you further into uncharted territory where a cruiser would be out of place.  A properly outfitted touring bike will allow you to outlast for those ironbutt treks.

Tip #2: Choose the right season

Leaving at the right time of year can make all the difference in successfully completing a tour.  Keep in mind that the seasons reverse as you cross the equator.  How many hours of daylight do you need to cover the mileage to your destination?  Will you expect rain, or even snow?  Don’t ride below 36 degrees unless you’ve been doing this for twenty years - ice is the silent two-wheel killer.

Tip #3: Wear the right gear
Based on your first two set of choices, make sure your gear is up to task for your style of riding and the season you are in.  Not everyone has the budget for high end gear, but you can build a strong wardrobe to suit your needs by paying for the right features and functions.  The ‘right’ gear will give you the stamina to log the miles and remove distractions so you can focus on the road.  Some brands to consider that offer good options at several price points are: Bell Helmets, REV’IT! Textiles, and Sidi motorcycle boots.

Tip #4: Pack the right stuff
Are you camping or staying at hotels?  Will you be traveling in urban areas with quick-access to amenities, or will you be stranded next to the ‘No gas station for 100 miles’ sign?  Does your cell phone have coverage along your route?  Will you be stopping for food or bringing it with you?  Ask the right questions; get the right answers.

Tip #5: Map the right roads
This is what it is all about, right?  Don’t be too short-sighted.  You can choose the most awesome twisties on the way out, but remember you have to get back home!  A return timeline can force you to take long, straight, boring highways all the way home, if you aren’t careful.  Charting in triangles often allows for a good mix of mileage, diversity and pacing.

About the Author: Chris K, Motorcycle Enthusiast, RevZilla.com. Commuter by trade, but an aspiring sport-touring rider, Chris prefers twisties and mountain views, but will put up with stop and go traffic to avoid driving the cager.  A dedicated two-wheeler, Chris rides his VFR800A Anniversary Edition Honda Interceptor - rain or shine.

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Sangetsar Lake: Abundance of Himalayan Vistas

The Himalayan landscapes are bound to captivate nearly anyone in this world. Irrespective of the month of the year or the time of the day, it has something to offer to its visitors. It was indeed such a moment when I approached Sangetsar Lake, a high altitude lake in the Eastern Himalayas of Arunachal Pradesh that is considered holy by the Buddhists.

Near Sangetsar Lake 
It is the heady mix of spirituality, the mighty Himalayas surrounding it and the tree trunks jutting out of this lake that give it that oomph factor. Or may be, it is because, your brain is gasping for oxygen at this high altitude of about 12,000 feet.

Sangetsar Lake from a distance 
This place is also known as Madhuri Jheel after the famous Bollywood movie Koyla (featuring Shahrukh Khan and Madhuri Dixit) that was shot here. In terms of location, the Sangetsar Lake is about 30 kilometres North East of Tawang (about 2 hour drive one way depending on weather and road conditions). One requires a special permit from the District Commissioner's (DC) office located at Tawang to visit this lake. Only Indian nationals are allowed here.

of valleys and peaks 
There is a fair bit of history associated with this lake. The Sangetsar Lake is one of the remotest high altitude lakes in India and is located tantalizingly close to the China border. Both the Buddhists of India as well as the Buddhists of Tibet, consider the waters of this lake extremely pure and come here on pre-defined days of the year to offer their prayers.

Sangetsar Lake or Madhuri Jheel 
And then there is a bit of story attached to the eerie tree trunks jutting out of this lake. I found this one out from the local army folks over a cup of tea. Apparently, the Sangetsar lake used to be located at a short distance away from its current location, but after an earthquake that hit this part of the world and the ensuing tectonic plate shift, the lake moved its position from its earlier location to a pine forest. The move was so dramatic that it drowned the entire forest except for the top of the tree trunks that can still be seen jutting out, even today.

A high Himalayan view 
There are some other interesting facts about this lake. One, it never dries out even during the driest years and second, it never freezes even during the coldest year and that too when everything around it is deeply frozen.

Enjoying a quiet nature walk in the high Himalayas 
If you are fairly fit and have acclimatized well to the high altitude, then you should definitely walk the well paved pedestrian path that surrounds this lake. This trail gives you a 360 degree view of this magnificent Himalayan vista, while you cut across innumerable streams and pine forests that are dressed in fresh snow. This place is a definite on the travel bucket list if you are in love with the Himalayas.

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Monday, November 21, 2011

See India from a different vantage point

India is a must-visit destination for travellers – a whirlpool of exotic food, unique culture and people excited to welcome you. However, travelling a country the size of India can be difficult – especially in a short period of time – making a stress and hassle-free ocean cruise a great way to explore the country.

Before arriving in India, there’s a chance to enjoy the culture-clash of modern Phuket. Whether you choose to be enchanted by the inside of a traditional Thai temple or decide to enjoy the company of some friendly locals – and their elephant friends – Thailand is a great place to relax before immersing yourself on a colonial spice adventure! One of the best parts of an ocean cruise voyage is that after a day exploring the local area, you can always head back to your ship each evening – a sumptuous home-from-home for any traveller.

With an exciting history and a host of things to do, a stopover in Sri Lanka is a great introduction to India. Ancient Hindu mythology says that Sri Lanka was once connected to the main Indian mainland via a natural bridge – but after sea rises and a cyclone, only a chain-link shoal of limestone is left above the water. Sri Lanka offers a range of activities for a visitor, from relaxing on the white beaches, where you can scuba-dive, snorkel or go whale watching to take in the history of the country, which was once ruled by the British.

After a day at sea, the coast of India will rise from the azure waters and visitors will be bewitched by the city of Kochi. Surrounding lush green hills, the port city was a hugely important base for traders, who would sap Chinese fishing nets for the exotic spices which are so central to Indian cuisine. Even today, the city ranks as an important Indian seaport – and the proximity to the coast makes it a great place to try local fish and seafood! Visit the waterfront of the area to find ‘You Buy, We Cook’ – a service where visitors can choose to have their favourite fresh fish cooked to their specifications!

A second stop on the Indian mainland will afford you time to experience Mangalore, on the southwest coast, renowned for beaches and temples. It’s a key site for the export of goods from India – particularly coffee and cashews – and there’s even the chance to see the inside of a cashew factory for those who choose to visit the city. The final docking in India is at the most populous city in the country – Mumbai – a metropolitan expanse where cinema, contemporary art, architecture, holidays and food are all a blend of multiple cultures.

India is wonderful to visit – a stimulating whirlwind of people, places and possibilities which make it impossible to forget. If you’re looking to see the sights of this unique country, why not consider something a little bit different and delve into India from the comfort of an ocean cruise?

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Friday, November 11, 2011

Guest Post: Planning a Foodie Road Trip Across India

Planning a road trip across India, it’s hard to know where to start. Whether you’re going by car, motorcycle, or rickshaw, you’re going to want to base your trip around something. India’s cuisine is famous throughout the world, so why not plan your journey around your stomach?

Many flights to India land in Mumbai, and coincidentally this is a great place to begin your foodie odyssey. Get the taste for Indian street food in the famous food markets, or Khau Gullies. One of the most popular, Jhaveri Bazaar, is also the goldsmith’s market. Watch as diamond traders bid for uncut stones while you eat your batata vada.

After Mumbai head to nearby Pune: the perfect destination for garlic lovers, as the aromatic bulb features heavily in most dishes. The food of Pune is delicate and based on lacto-vegetarian principles.

Next stop: Goa, famous for delicious seafood curries spiked with chilli. The food of Goa has a strong Portuguese influence, dating back to colonial days. While in Goa you’ll notice the difference between Hindu cuisine, which is known for being delicately spiced, and the Catholic cuisine (Vindaloo is the most famous example). This part of the country is breath taking; so take some time to relax on one of the white-sanded beaches.

Kochi, a little further south, is a famous banana-growing district. The fruit is used in many dishes, and most meals will be served to you on a banana leaf. Enjoy curries flavoured with coconut milk, and expect to drink coconut water: the perfect tangy accompaniment to any meal.

Bangalore is a haven for fans of South Indian Udupi cuisine. Udupi cuisine is unusual as it contains no onions, garlic, meat, fish, or shellfish. Grains, beans, and vegetables are used to fill dishes out.

Chennai, your next stop, is well known for hospitality. Dishes are served with rice, coconut chutney, sambar broth, and mulaga podi. Find out where the foodie hot-spots are by following local food blogs; a little research goes a long way whilst on the road!

Heading Northwards you’ll find yourself in Hyderabad, where the food has a tradition passed down from the Sultans. What better way to eat like royalty? All ingredients are carefully chosen, picked, and cooked to the highest standards. Biryani is perhaps the most famous dish from this region.

A foodie trip to India would not be complete without a visit to Kolkata. Bengali cuisine focuses on fish and lentils, with subtle fiery spices. The confectionary and desserts in this part of India are also famous.

Before finishing your trip in Jaipur, India’s “Pink City”, spend a few days in New Delhi getting reacquainted with the fabulous street food tradition. People from New Delhi love eating, and you’re bound to find something to tickle your taste-buds.

About the author: James writes for cheap flights comparison website Skyscanner.

Route Map 
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Thursday, November 10, 2011

Guest Post: 5 Tips for Finding Cheaper Flights to India

If the only thing standing in your way of being blown away by bustling Bombay or becoming bronzed on Baga’s beaches is the price of your flights, it’s time to have a look at these top tips for cutting your travel bill.

Tip #1: Be Flexible & Fly Off Peak
You’re guaranteed to save if you’re able to be flexible with your travel plans. Peak travel times tend to be over June and July, when the western world starts planning its summer fun, but if you’ve got a head for heat and you need cheap flights to India to meet your budgetary requirements, you could save money by travelling between March and May – be prepared for hot and humid weather though. Prices also go up in the winter, especially as it’s over these month’s that most of India’s best known celebrations take place, such as Dussehra, Durga Puja and Diwali all in November, so check out and avoid special celebrations.

Tip #2: Start Planning Early
A holiday to India is likely to be a trip you’ve been saving up for and looking forward to for a long time, don’t do yourself a disservice by booking at the last minute. As a general rule, the earlier you can book a long haul flight like this the better. The closer it gets to your departure date, the more seats will be filled, driving the price up. Of course, it’s possible the airline will sell a few remaining seats off cheaply at the last minute, but you can’t ever rely on this.

Tip #3: Don’t Assume Indirect Equals Cheaper
You may think that choosing an indirect flight or a flight with a couple of stopovers will save you money, but it could actually end up costing you extra. Not only will you have to factor in the cost of food, transport and accommodation at your stopover destination, but if you book with different airlines you could find yourself liable if you miss your connecting flights.

Tip #4: Be Prepared To Try New Airlines
There are many different airlines flying to India, from Lufthansa to Flybe, so don’t limit yourself to the few with names you recognise. If you’re nervous, you can always research the name of a carrier you don’t know, and reassure yourself of their reputation.

Tip #5: Find the Best Airport to Fly From
Remember that the airport closest to you, or the biggest airport in your area, isn’t always the best one to fly from. Search for flights from your whole country rather than your local area, and find out if it saves you money even when you factor in connecting flights or transport.

Relaxing beach resorts, thrilling cities, amazing natural sights, India is a destination and a half. Crammed with so many unique experiences, you’re sure to want to visit again, and by finding cheap flights to India you might just be able to.

About the author: James writes for cheap flights comparison site, Skyscanner.net.

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Wednesday, November 09, 2011

How to commute in Sri Lanka?

I am sure that there are many sites and blogs that provide this information on the web, but thought I would like to add my thoughts based on my recent backpacking experience to this island nation.

Port of Entry
There is only one International airport in Sri Lanka, which is the ‘Bandaranayake’ airport, about 35 kms from Colombo. Currently, this is the only port of entry for international travellers. There is another international airport being planned on the South West coastal city of Hambantota, but locals tell me that this will take more than 10 years to get complete.

From the Colombo airport, one can take a bus, tuk-tuk (3 wheeler taxi) or a four wheeler taxi (cab, van) depending on budget and baggage size. Buses work out the cheapest, though slightly difficult if you are carrying a lot of baggage. There are AC and Non-AC buses (Bus No. 187) that connect the airport to the main city bus stand at Pettah. These buses run 24 hours a day and cost 50 LKR (Non-AC) and 130 LKR (AC) for the 60-90 minute journey depending on traffic. There are buses every 15 minutes during the day and the frequency drops to one every hour during the night. The airport bus stand, which is about 3 kilometres away from the airport is connected by regular free airport shuttle buses and tuk-tuks (cost LKR 100 for the one way trip). A Tuk-Tuk to the city would cost between LKR 800 and LKR 1500 depending on the time of commute. Night charges are higher. A 4 wheeler taxi would cost between LKR 1500 and LKR 2500 depending on time of commute. All mentioned prices are from the airport to Colombo Fort or Pettah, which is the city centre and houses the Colombo railway station and the main city bus stand (government and private).

Inter-City Commute
Nearly the entire island nation of Sri Lanka is well connected by all-weather roads. This is also the fastest mode of commute. For luxury-oriented travellers, AC vans (Nissan Caravan, Toyota Hiace and lookalikes) are available at 30 LKR per kilometre. In addition, there is a driver fee of LKR 500 per day. These are the base rates, though the cost may vary with quality of vehicle and commission of travel agent.

For budget travellers, buses and trains are available. Most of the cities have private and government buses plying. The private ones are quicker, but cost slightly more than the government one. But, in principle, both of them are good. For longer journeys or commute between important cities, AC buses are available. All these buses start from the respective city bus stand. All notice boards in these bus stands are available in English too, apart from Sinhala and Tamil. To give you the idea of the cost, a private bus from Thissamaharama to Matara (140 kms or 3 hours) costs about LKR 115 per person. On the same lines, a private AC bus from Galle to Colombo (117 kms or 3 hours) costs about LKR 230 per person. Mostly, the buses are on time, though it would be best to keep a small tolerance.

In terms of train travel, the Sri Lankan railways, cover about 50% of the country. They are most efficient between Colombo and Kandy, Colombo and Galle and Colombo and Badulla as there are umpteen trains available every day with the option of AC, 1st class, 2nd class and 3rd class on these trains. The trains are comfortable, but are known to get delayed quite regularly. Currently, tickets cannot be booked online and one needs to go to the train station booking counter to book in advance. Advance bookings open for 14 days before the actual boarding date. As a thumb rule, 2nd class and 3rd class tickets are available on the day on the journey. However, first class and AC tickets get sold out quickly. The situation is much different during festivals and national holidays, when everyone is eager to visit their hometown.

The train from Colombo to Nanu Oya in the central highlands is quite popular with the tourists as it passes through tea estates, meanders across waterfalls, streams and hills. For such a train from Colombo to Nanu Oya, the 1st class observation car costs about LKR 750, the 2nd class about LKR 450 and 3rd class about LKR 230. As far as I remember, there are AC trains only between Colombo and Kandy, though I guess this will change pretty soon as upgrades are being made to the Sri Lankan train system.

For shorter inter-city travel, even the tuk tuk (3 wheeler taxi) is possible. Passengers would have to pay the entire round trip fare even for a one-way trip. Remember to bargain well with tuk tuk drivers.

Intra-city Travel
For larger cities, buses are the best option. They are cheap, available in plenty and are efficient. For those who want to save on time, the tuk tuk is available at all corners, though you might have to bargain to get a good deal. Tuk Tuk drivers in Sri Lanka are known to stop by all tourists and enquire if they are interested in a ride. For luxury travellers, AC cars and vans are available, though, one will have to work out a daily package rate or get in touch with their hotel desk to get a good deal. This option is the most comfortable, though depletes your wallet pretty fast.

One can also hire rental cars and bikes. Luxury Rental car agencies like Malkey are actually more expensive than a chauffeured car/van, though CF Budget hires can work out slightly cheaper. Bicycles and motorcycles are also available on rent, though I have personally not given these a try. What I have heard from other travellers is that the state of these bikes leaves a lot to be desired.

If you are a good walker and can handle the sultry conditions (especially on the coastal side) of Sri Lanka, I would recommend ‘walking’ as a great mode of commute. Most of the cities are small in size, with the exception of Colombo and offer fantastic leisure walks while you admire the various locations on your travel map. In fact, Sri Lanka promotes walking through large and well laid out cobbled paths and a traffic system that gives preference to the walker than the automobile (something similar to the United States and most of Western Europe).

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Friday, November 04, 2011

Travel Summary: Backpacking in Sri Lanka

I got back yesterday morning after a fabulous 6 day and 6 night backpacking holiday in Sri Lanka. The trip was so great that each day was a highlight. After learning some basic Sinhala words during my last trip, I have progressed to forming small, but broken sentences during the course of this holiday. English is still a prized commodity in Sri Lanka and is limited to the major cities and that too in the tourist circles. Colombo is the only exception to this trend. Tamil is quite well spoken in the central highlands, in the north and in small Muslim communities. The rest of the country is pure Sinhala. But, the people are so welcoming that as a traveller, you hardly feel the difficulty in communication. But, learning a local language helps as always.

My backpacking trip started with staying at a budget hotel on Galle road in Colombo 3. This was followed by a long walk through the heart of Colombo fort, which included the marine drive, Fort Railway Station, Pettah and the five star hotel district. The walk was special in spite of the sultry weather as the wide cobbled paths and zero litter environment are pleasing to anyone coming from the crowded and not so clean roads of India. During this walk, I got myself a local Dialog Sim card, explored the handicraft emporium, the old colonial buildings from the Dutch, Portuguese and British times, tried getting myself a train ticket at the fort railway station and walked the entire marine drive stretch.

The next morning, me and my friends reached the fort railway station, got ourselves first class observation car tickets to Nanu Oya. The rest of the day was spent admiring the changing landscapes as this train chugged its way along the steep slopes to the central highlands of Sri Lanka. A local bus then took us from Nanu Oya to Nuwara Eliya, the tea capital of Sri Lanka. The evening and night was spent exploring the markets of Nuwara Eliya.

Next early morning saw us take a tuk tuk (local three wheeler taxi) to Horton Plains National Park, where we trekked 9.5 kms in light rain and significant mist to Mini World’s End, World’s End and Baker’s Falls. Then we headed to the New Zealand milk farm to see how Cheese is manufactured while enjoying a hot cup of fresh farm milk. The evening saw us struggling to find a bus to our next destination and seeing our plight, a local agreed to drive us down to Thissamaharama for a basic cost. The night was spent in a home stay at Thissamaharama, which is fondly remembered by the group as ‘Princess Castle’ as the beds had pink mosquito nets on them.

The fourth day provided us with a great wildlife experience at Yala National Park. The highlight of this wildlife safari was us seeing 2 different leopards, one in the morning on the tree and the other in the afternoon on the jeep track. We were also treated to the sights of a 14 foot Tusker crossing the jeep track and that too at not more than 10 feet from our jeep. In addition, we saw plenty of bee eaters, land monitor lizards, peacocks, raptors, crocodiles and deer. This safari was a full day safari, which meant that we spent a good 12 hours inside the wildlife sanctuary. Lunch was spent on the Yala beach, which faces the wide open Indian Ocean. The evening was special too as we stayed in a tree house facing the jungle. This place was illuminated only by Kerosene lanterns and had the basic of facilities. The highlight of the evening was us sipping on some Old Arrack, a local coconut brew.

Two buses in the morning took us from Thissamaharama to Matara and then to Unawatuna Beach on the South West coast of Sri Lanka. Here, we decided to go for some luxury and stayed at a beach facing bungalow. This gave us great access to the beach. Rest of the evening was spent swimming in the waters and exploring different corners of the beach. It is here that I spent my 30th birthday.

After a relaxed wake up next morning at 8 AM (every morning, we were up by or before 5 AM), we went to explore the nearby coastal city of Galle. The day was spent exploring the fort, the coastline, the colonial buildings, the churches and the Galle International Test Cricket Stadium. After lunch, me and my friend parted ways and I headed to Colombo in a AC bus, while they returned to Unawatuna Beach.

At Colombo, I met Heminda Jayaweera, my local Sri Lankan friend and fellow trekker and he was kind enough to drop me at ODEL Fashions for some souvenir shopping. I spent close to 3 hours at the ODEL showroom and after spending a lot of money, I came out, had dinner at a nearby Indian restaurant (first Indian food in the last 6 days and nights) and then took the local Bus to Pettah and then the Airport. The return flight was less than 30% full, but much better occupancy considering the fact that only 4 of us passengers were there on my onward flight. Overall, this trip was physically tiring, as we faced variety of weather (rain almost everywhere, chilly nights and mornings in the central highlands and high humidity on the west coast), but then ain’t that the beauty of backpacking trips!!

This trip was much richer than my last one and I have loads of information and tit bits to share. I am sure you are all eager to see the photographs, but please hold onto for some more time as I am travelling today to Tadoba Tiger Reserve in Maharashtra and haven’t yet gotten enough time to process my photos. Do stay tuned to read more on my Sri Lankan experience. I am sure backpackers, vacationers, budget travellers and others will find it helpful.

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Thursday, October 27, 2011

Upcoming Travel: Sri Lanka on a shoestring

I decided on Sri Lanka after a lot of deliberation and hair-pulling (not that I have a lot of hairs left Smile). When I started planning, the options in front of me were the Saurashtra belt of Gujarat, Jaipur and Ranthambore Tiger Reserve in Rajasthan, Puri and Konark in Orissa and Sri Lanka. I even did a vote, in which Gujarat came first and Sri Lanka a close second. But, finally, I chose Sri Lanka as I want to spend my 30th birthday in the same place where I spent my first.

This will be my second trip to Sri Lanka this year, but this time around I am going on a hit-the-road and find-your-way kind of trip. The last one, back in April, was more organized as I had a group of 9 people and couldn’t take any chances. This time around, I am with 2 close friends, who share the same attitude as mine. I leave on the 27th night and return on the morning of the 3rd, which gives me 6 full days in Sri Lanka. Feels less, but I guess I can make it meaningful.

The plan is pretty simple. Take the local trains and buses as much as possible. Hit the destination and then search for decent, yet budget accommodation. The aim is to spend as little as possible without comprising my passion for travel and discovering new places. And since this is travel on a shoestring, I am traveling lighter than usual (not that I travel with 2 huge suitcases on my international travels Smile).

In terms of the itinerary, I have Colombo sightseeing and partying, heritage train from Colombo to Nanu Oya, Nuwara Eliya and around, a couple of wildlife safaris at Yala National Park (a place that blew me away during my last visit) and some relaxing times at Sri Lanka’s favourite surfing beach, the Hikkaduwa Beach. Somewhere in between, I plan to visit ODEL, Sri Lanka’s fashion store to pick up some T Shirts and then also pick up some of that delightful long leaf tea that I have become so addicted to.

While I am at Sri Lanka, I will have no access to the internet and hence, my pictures and posts will wait till I am back on Nov 3. My gut says this trip will be adventurous…

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Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Guest Post: Five great travel destinations to pick up a part-time job in

A great way to significantly extend your travel adventure, meet some new friends along the way and generate some much-needed income is to get a job as you go from one exciting destination to the next around the world. We’ve compiled a list of five major cities that are brilliant for spending a prolonged period of time in and ideal places to pick up a part-time job to earn money to pay for everything from your next plane ticket to the cost of worldwide travel insurance. It’s often a good idea to look at travel insurance compare sites before you go away to make sure you find the best deal as there are a lot of alternatives out there not all cheap ones.

Amsterdam
No whistle-stop tour around Europe and the world is complete without a visit to a city as culturally diverse and unique as Amsterdam. It really is a fascinating place, no matter what time of day or night it is. While much is made of the seedier side of Amsterdam and the infamous red light district, the Dutch capital is extremely tourist friendly and has much more to offer. There’s an assortment of charming buildings of architectural interest around a labyrinth of canals and a host of museums and attractions. The city’s vibrant nightlife is also a major plus point.

Las Vegas
Las Vegas is not called the entertainment capital of the world for nothing – and it more than lives up to its billing! Vegas is an all-out attack on the senses like no other and so ridiculously over the top that it’s somewhere you’ll be desperate to return to time and time again. Fortunes are made or lost in ‘Sin City’, though, so beware of the perils of gambling if you find yourself crashing in Vegas for longer than the usual stopover. With well over 100 casinos and just as many hotels, finding employment in Vegas should be pretty straightforward.

London
Due to London’s size – it’s made up of 32 different boroughs – it’s a popular place for overseas visitors to make a temporary home from home without much hassle, although be warned that rent can work out extremely expensive so it pays to be really pro-active in the search for cheap accommodation. The beauty of London is that it’s a city with so much to see and do. Getting around to seeing all the obvious attractions – like the Tate Modern, Trafalgar Square, Tower Bridge, Leicester Square and Piccadilly Circus – can take a good few days, while staying for a few weeks or months will give you the opportunity to properly explore places like Camden, Notting Hill and Soho.

Paris
Did you know that Paris is the most-visited destination in the world? Well, it is if the statistics are to be believed as some 70 million tourists flock to the so-called ‘city of love’ every year. That means there are big bucks at stake for businesses there and plenty of potential employment opportunities. And what better way to spend a day off then heading up the Eiffel Tower or having a gentle stroll down the Champs-Élysées to the Arc de Triomphe. Sound good? Too right!

Prague
Picturesque Prague is a real city on the up at the moment and now is the perfect time to go over and sample some Czech hospitality. There’s a real mystical and charming feel to Prague with its bridges, grand cathedrals, churches and towers, so much so that it feels like something straight out of a Hollywood film. It’s also in a prime location in central Europe and always for easy access to Germany and France in the west and Croatia and Italy in the south.

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Thursday, October 20, 2011

Wildlife Photography: Muscular Gaur at Pudhuthotam Tea Estate, Valparai, Tamil Nadu, India

Vegetarianism rocks!! This is not a motherhood statement that I am just saying, but am backing it up with some solid evidence. Most of the largest animals on land, the elephant, the rhinoceros, the Gaur, the Water Buffalo are all vegetarians.

A close-up of the mean looking male gaur at Valparai 
Not only are they very strong, but some of them are more muscular than may be Mr.Universe Smile. For example, check out the rippling muscles in this adult male gaur, which as per my estimate, should weigh more than 2 tonnes and all that in solid muscle.

Adult Male Gaur in B&W 
And for all you meat-lovers, I will share the photo of the stealthy tiger soon Open-mouthed smile

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Monday, October 17, 2011

Rainbow from the Channakeshava Temple, Belur, Karnataka

It was a cloudy monsoon afternoon in the Hoysala kingdom, but as I approached the Channakeshava temple in Belur, the skies opened up to let in some late evening sun. This bright sunshine and its soft glow made for a great session of photography at this historic site.

Rainbow from the Channakeshava Temple

And it got even better when a rainbow could be seen against the temple entrance. It was quite a sight to behold. A great natural moment against a great historic monument.

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Thursday, October 13, 2011

Guest Post: 8 Vintage Hotels to visit with your Significant Other

Are you looking for a good time with your partner? Or do you want to share a special time together? Consider visiting a vintage hotel that offers more than just a good night’s sleep. Here is a list of those vintage hotels that offer you a travel back in time.

1. Jupiter Hotel in Portland, Oregon
In case you are a fan of the time period between 1940-1970, you will like for sure this hotel because it has that chic vibe through exposing TV and film icons of the period and through architectural preservation. The hotel has kept the same look and the decorations have been borrowed from the period of time we know as disco.

2. Hotel Jules, Paris, France
Planning a longer journey? Hotel Jules has been restored in 2009 and it has a mixture of the 1950’s, 1960’s and 1970’s décor. Also the location is one of the best in the entire city, just around the corner from the Lafayette Galleries. The most specific thing about the decoration of the hotel is represented by the saucer-shaped overhead lighting found in the lobby.

3. Riviera Resort & Spa, Palm Springs, California
This hotel has been restored in 2008 and it has been a $70 million investment. There are 406 rooms and the decorations bring us back to the 1960’s through using Hollywood Regency décor. The resort has been opened for the first time in 1959 and it offered peace and quiet to well-known stars like Elvis Presley.

4. Hotel del Coronado, San Diego, California
This hotel is the ideal place for those who want to enjoy the extraordinary beach breezes along with some fantastic fitness facilities. The location of the hotel is excellent and you can enjoy the ocean breeze and the amenities too are good. The most outstanding feature of this hotel is that it is one among the very few of the surviving wooden Victorian beach resorts. Throughout years, it has hosted royalty, presidents and many of the celebrities.

5. Hotel Shangri-La, Santa Monica, California
This hotel has been one of the specific buildings of the city, and a couple of years ago the 71-room hotel has received a $31 million makeover. The building itself has been built in 1939 and in the 1980’s Madonna and Sean Penn have been the guests of the hotel. The colour palette presented includes black, silver and rich brown, being the signature mark of the hotel.

6. Royal Hawaiian, Waikiki Beach, Oahu, Hawaii
The restorations of the hotel have been completed in 2009, but the glamour of the 1930’s has been preserved. During this time, works have been added to 528 guest rooms and several kinds of public spaces. The hotel comes with private beach and several restaurants to serve a nice dinner at.

7. Hotel Valley Ho, Scottsdale, Arizona
The hotel has been reopened in 2009 and it offers 194 rooms, a spa, two restaurants, pool and also a bar with cabanas. It has been opened for the first time in 1956.

8. El Tropicaro, San Antonio, Texas
The style of this hotel combines the styles of the vintage Acapulco and 1960’s Americana. Initially it has been called El Tropicano Motor Hotel in 1962 when it opened for the first time, but it has been renovated in 2007 and reopened.

Author Bio: This is a guest post by TheTravelersZone.com. The travel blog contains useful tips and information to make your vacation a memorable experience.

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Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Valparai…the unsung hill station of India

Imagine waves of green tea estates interspersed with thick evergreen forests. Imagine a town tucked in the hills of the Western Ghats that has refused to burgeon like the other hill stations of India. Imagine a place where you can get a perfect mix of pristine nature and old world charm. Such a place is Valparai!

The heavenly Valparai landscape 
Valparai is a British era hill station that is situated in the Western Ghats of Tamil Nadu. It is located on the Pollachi-Chalakudy road, being about 64 kms from Pollachi and about 33 kilometres from Chalakudy. It’s moderate altitude and heavy monsoons give its its green look and its near perfect weather.

 
The hairpin bends and its winding roads make this place a favourite with cyclists and motorcyclists. The rich wildlife and avifauna make it a hot destination for wildlife enthusiasts, birders, photographers and naturalists. The tea estates, dams, view points and umpteen nature walks make it a preferred choice for vacationers. In simple words, it is a well rounded destination with much to do for different types of tourists. 

A cloudy afternoon at Nirar Dam, Valparai 
One of the best attributes of Valparai are its people. The people of Valparai are very helpful, kind and always have a smile on their faces. The bulk of them work in the tea estates or in the surrounding forests, while the remaining find employment in the town and its markets. The people here predominantly speak Tamil, while Malayalam, the native language of the neighbouring state, Kerala is also understood by many. English is also understood well, though in smaller pockets.

Green Western Ghats, Waterfalls Galore and the Kerala side all visible from the Nallamudi Pooncholai View Point 
As is true with all hill stations in India, Valparai is also blessed with great vistas and view points. The view points are dime a dozen here, but the best ones can be seen from Nallamudi Poonjolai, about 12 kms from the town bus stand. It is here that one can see umpteen waterfalls fall into the gorge below from the neighbouring state of Kerala.

Sholayar Dam near Valparai is surrounded by tea estates making for a fantastic sight 
And since this place gets so much rain throughout the year, it has some of the biggest dams in the country. And since most of these dams are surrounded by tea gardens, they make for a very scenic sight. The Sholayar Dam (27 kilometres towards Chalakudy), Nirar Dam (7 kms from town bus stand) and Aliyar Dam (30 kilometres towards Pollachi) are the best and are a must-see. Do not miss the views of the Aliyar Dam from the top of the hairpin bends.

Lion Tailed Macaque - Mother and Baby 
Though Valparai is referred to as a hill station, it is in my mind just a forest settlement. The reason I say this is because the entire town is surrounded by the Anaimalai Tiger Reserve and forms an integral part of the wildlife migratory path. This ensures that wildlife sightings are very common here, especially in the summers when the forests are teeming with mosquitoes. Elephants, leopards and tigers are quite commonly seen in the summers. But, if one wishes to spot wild animals during all times of the year, then the place to visit is Pudhuthotam Tea Estate, about 4 kms from Valparai town. It is here that the Indian Gaur can be seen grazing in huge herds and it is here that one can spot the extremely endangered Lion Tailed Macaque playing in healthy numbers.

Feeding time for the Grey Malabar Hornbill at Valparai - 2 
Valparai is also great for birders. The Great Hornbill, the Malabar Pied Hornbill and the Grey Malabar Hornbill are regularly seen here. A lot of other birds endemic to the Western Ghats are also spotted here throughout the year. Top Slip inside Anaimalai Tiger Reserve and Parambikulam Tiger Reserve are also pretty close by for those who want an immersive jungle experience.

Waterfall that flows from Nirar Dam and into the state of Kerala 
Finally, a trip to Valparai gives you the opportunity to explore Athirampally falls (a location for a lot of popular Indian movies like Guru, Raavan, etc.) and its surrounding forests. And all these are over and above that colonial style holiday spent sipping a hot cup of fresh local tea, relaxing and exploring the lovely tea estates of Valparai.

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Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Grey Jungle Fowl from Nagarhole National Park

It was early in the morning and I was on one of the first jeeps to enter the Nagarhole National Park for the morning jungle safari. We had just left the forest check post when we chanced upon this beautiful grey jungle fowl basking in the early rays of the sun.

Grey Junglefowl - one early morning at Nagarhole National Park - 1 
This jungle fowl was standing on a dead tree trunk and was making a loud Ku-kayak-kyuk-kyuk call that really caught our attention. Apparently, the grey junglefowl makes such loud calls in the early mornings and at dusk. This one that we spotted was a male decked in beautiful colours. Below are some more pictures of this wild relative of domestic fowl that is endemic to India.

Grey Junglefowl - one early morning at Nagarhole National Park - 2Grey Junglefowl - one early morning at Nagarhole National Park - 3

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Sunday, October 09, 2011

The Famous Tanjore Paintings

Tanjore paintings, as we all know is a classical form of South Indian painting native to Thanjavur in Tamil Nadu. A lot of South Indian households would have at least one of them in their houses either from their grandparent days or as a recent acquisition from an art shop. These paintings are pretty ornate and are vivid in colour composition. The popular themes of these paintings are either Hindu gods and goddesses or episodes from Hindu history. This art form dates back to about 1600 AD, a period when the Nayakas of Thanjavur promoted art across their empire.

This guy made all these beautiful Tanjore paintings 
The Tanjore paintings can be seen pretty much in all art galleries across India, but if you wish to see where it is made, then you have to head to the South side of the Brihadeeshwara Temple in Thanjavur. It is here that this dwindling art form is still practised in the small households where it has been passed on in the family through generations. I made such a visit during my last trip to Thanjavur. A chat with the locals around the temple about Tanjore paintings will lead you to these traditional Brahmin households where the artist or his family would take you to the workshop or their own small gallery.

The famous Tanjore paintings in a local house at Tanjore 
If you are lucky, you can actually see parts of the painting development process: making of the preliminary sketch of the image on a cloth pasted on a wooden base, use of chalk powder and a mild abrasive to make it smoother, decoration of the art with jewellery like Jaipur semi precious stones, pasting of gold foils and finally the usage of colour dyes. One can also buy these Tanjore paintings straight from the artist, though sometimes, the finish of the end product (framing, quality of glass, etc.) is not up to the mark. Though, I would recommend you buy just the painting and frame it elsewhere to the quality levels that you wish.

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Tamil Script’s Evolution

We all know that nearly all scripts have evolved over long periods of time, but I was not aware that there are many scripts across the world that have changed at least once every century. The Tamil script (Dravidian language for South India), is one such script that has changed every century for the last 2000 years. The older scripts are way different to what we read today.

How the Tamil Script has evolved

I found this fact out while exploring the Brihadeeshwara Temple at Thanjavur in Tamil Nadu, India. While explaining the inscriptions on the temple walls, my temple guide showed us this piece of paper and drew similes between current Tamil scripts and the then Tamil Script during the Chola era. I was so impressed by this piece of paper that I took its photograph for safekeeping and for ready reference. Hope this comes in handy to all those who are planning to explore the history of Tamil Nadu.

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Saturday, October 08, 2011

‘Chess’ from the Chola Era

Have you ever wondered how the game of chess was played in the Chola era? May be in wood, may be in ivory, but definitely not plastic, like these days. But, did it even cross your mind that the chess pieces were given a true depiction during the yester years.

Let's play Chess from the Chola era

For example, the rook is depicted like an elephant, the knight is depicted sitting on a horse or a camel, the queen ornately decorated on an elephant, the king on a larger elephant and foot soldiers for pawns. I got a sense of this when I was scouring the shops near the Brihadeeshwara Temple in Thanjavur. It was during this visit that I spotted such a rare collection. All the pieces were ornately designed and looked brilliant. I would have bought the set, but for two reasons. One, it was very expensive and second, it was too bulky for a game of chess. May be, the people of the Chola era were used to such large size and weight while playing their game of Chess!

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Thursday, October 06, 2011

Magnificent Antlers of the Spotted Deer

The spotted deer is one of the most common wild mammals found in India and though it is easily seen across all the wildlife sanctuaries of India, I feel that it is still one of the prettiest species. It’s spotted coat and its magnificent antlers are a sight that make their sightings interesting throughout.

Maginificent antlers of the spotter deer 
I spotted these young male spotted deer on one rainy morning at Kabini National Park. It was the beginning of the rutting season and nearly all the males were sporting new antlers.

Young spotted deer males pose for the camera 
All of them were happily grazing before I broke onto the scene and like all good posers they stopped all their work and focussed all their attention on me and my lens to help me capture these beautiful moments.

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