2017 is the year of UK-India year of culture – www. uk-india.britishcouncil.in – inaugurated with a spectacular light display across the front of Buckingham Palace. There is a fabulous new film, Viceroy’s House, the Real Marigold Hotel is on our tv, so what better time to head off to India again to explore more of this fascinating, huge and diverse land.
India always surprises and our first day found us centre stage at an Indian wedding at large temple in Chennai. We had gone to visit and were delighted to see a wedding taking place, garlands and gorgeous saris and lots of noise and music. I was keen to ensure that it would be ok to take photos, which it is absolutely was, and we then found ourselves in the photos too! We were even interviewed on the wedding video! I have an image, 20 years on, of distant relatives saying ‘Err, who exactly are they?’
Two days to recuperate in Chennai and then off to explore the culture of Tamil Nadu, not for nothing known as the land of temples.
This is an area less explored by tourists but incredibly rich in ancient temples which still resonate to the sounds of the Tamil poets, reciting from poems and scripts that, though written in the 6th -12th century and even earlier, are as familiar to the temple attendees as our own hymn books. The Brihadeeswarar Temple is one of the largest in India and part of the Unesco World Heritage Site known as the Great Living Chola Temples. Although over 1,000 years old the temple bustles with activity, Brahmins perform their various duties, worshippers queue in the relative cool of the interior, dimly lit by oil lamps and tiny clay puja lamps, bats flutter overhead and the potent smell of incense and jasmine swirls around creating an atmosphere which made me think that I had been transported back to a temple in ancient Greece. It is hard to describe the atmosphere, a heady mix of many unfamiliar sights and sounds, but we were made very welcome and emerging sometime later into the mid-day glare was a shock, almost as if we had been catapulted back into the 21st century by a time machine! The coir mats laid around the site were incredibly welcome as the soles of our feet were seared by the heat of the stone – and the fresh coconuts we purchased to drink on the way out were certainly welcome. On to Pondicherry, a breezy town by the sea with a decidedly French accent, having been a French and still administered as a French enclave – baguettes and bhajees, kepes and kulfi seem to work remarkably well in juxtaposition and the opportunity to stroll along the seafront is always a draw. Our base in Pondicherry was the elegant Palais de Mahe, cool interiors, a welcome pool and, as ever, the friendliest of service. Pondi is a favourite as it is remarkably easy to navigate being set out on a grid system, has some very stylish coffee shops and boutiques and a delightful central park which offers a little relief from the heat of the day – and the addition of fruit bats hanging around in the trees waiting for evening!
After two days of relaxing sea air we headed off to the extraordinary area of Chettinad – erstwhile home of the Chettinars, legendary bankers and traders who celebrated their wealth and success by building huge mansions using the wonderful materials they imported from around the world, from Italian marble to Burmese teak – and cast iron from Birmingham for the staircases. Most of these extraordinary buildings are empty or have a caretaker living in one of the rooms and they are melancholy places echoing with the lost voices of the families who were so proud to build them. However we were fortunate enough to stay in Visalam which is a beautifully restored mansion with cool floors of the famous handmade tiles and glowing walls of crushed shell and ….. There are no mini bars and tvs in the rooms, as that would mean destroying the wonderful walls, but there is a great communal space where a vintage radio plays, you can play one of the old Indian board games or just recline in a vintage chair and watch the butterflies and chickens before strolling to the pool for a cooling dip. There is so much to see and explore here, including the extraordinary horse temples of the region. Dedicated to the God Ayyanar, these temples exist near villages in Tamil Nadu as Ayyanaar is thought to be the protector of villages, riding out at night on his horse to ensure that all is well. Over hundreds of years worshippers have brought terracotta horses to the temple as offerings and these strange and beautifully crafted gifts line the way to the temple itself. Over the years they have become faded and cracked, losing ears and legs and leaning on their neighbours, the sun fades the colours, butterflies land on noses and lizards flick in and out and it is almost impossible to describe the atmosphere of these ancient places, isolated and silent except for the sound of birds.
As ever our driver Joshy was a vital part of everyday life, keeping us safe, avoiding the inevitable driving hazards and organising what needed organising – everyone should have a Joshy! My favourite moment was when he was navigating us through a very busy street, buses everywhere and coming towards us was a traditional bullock cart which he said I absolutely needed to see. Swift u turn and back over the regional border, much to the bemusement of the border police who had just waved us through coming the other way – follow that bullock cart!
The heat of the plains was soon replaced by some cooler air – up into the tea plantations to stay in a thatched villa in the trees, at the Spice Village. This is a place to recharge and rewind, where Langyar monkeys can be seen in the distance, the 50 restaurant ensures that no ingredient has travelled more that 50 kms to your plate and Woods room offers an amazing glimpse into the early days of Lake Periyar, – and a wonderful vintage billiards table. It is also where, when the temperature drops below 27 degrees a hot water bottle is thoughtfully placed in your bed!
Down again to the backwaters and some rest and relaxation – time to sit out and watch the nightly fruit bat fly past at Coconut Lagoon, take a leisurely trip in a slow boat and appreciate life at a slower pace. Children pedalling past on their way to school, smart and proud in their uniforms, Mum doing the dishes, temple music drifting on the air and life on the backwaters gliding past with the flash of a kingfisher. We are always glad to see our friends in these charming and unusual hotels, catch up with what is going on and meet new friends too – it feels like being part of a very big and welcoming family and is very special. So it was with slight trepidation that we were driven a few short miles around the lake to a new experience at the Kumarakom Lake Resort. Situated with open lake views this is where HRH Prince Charles spent a recent birthday – and I have to say he chose well! The setting is stunning and our villa with its own pool was a welcome retreat at the end of an exhausting day relaxing! I had an ayervedic massage which is one of the very special treats that one can have in this part of India – a cultural tradition that is taken very seriously, some treatments require a doctor’s appointment before you start, but my massage with ayurvedic oil was a total treat. The only challenge was, with well oiled feet, making it from the massage couch to the shower, but that safely navigated but I emerged as sleek as an otter!
Our final stop was Kochi, where the latest Marigold incumbents were based – and at last to coincide with a great cultural event – the Biennale, a fabulous and unusual celebration of art. Our base at Brunton Boatyard gave us great views over the iconic Chinese fishing nets, history restaurant gave us innovative and wonderful food and as ever at this end of the holiday the chance to sit back and reflect on old friends and new friends, anticipated pleasures and new discoveries – and the lure that makes us come back time and again to uncover yet more layers of the great culture and welcoming people that is India.
Take a torch – essential for frequent powercuts.
If, as comments about our own travels would suggest, you are worried about getting a poorly tum, here are our top tips.
When you get to your hotel put a bottle of mineral water in the middle of the wash hand basin to remind you not to ever put tap water in your mouth, including cleaning teeth.
Take Travel Support pills from a good chemist – putting good bacteria into your gut to fight any baddies you may encounter!
Don’t eat ice cream, and if you can avoid it don’t have ice in your drinks unless you are very sure that it is ok to do so, five star hotels seem ok.
Avoid re heated rice at buffets – wherever you are, this is a really big cause of bad tums.
Be sensible about what you eat and give your tum time to acclimatise – don’t order the hottest dish on the menu to be macho, be good to your digestion!
Our sincere thanks to:
CGHEarth We now consider these hotels our home from home in India, the warmth of the welcome never dims and the commitment and dedication of the staff is quite exceptional.
Kumarakom Lake Resort a very special place, new to us on this trip but already an essential part of the next!
Kuoni who always go the extra mile to ensure that our travels are memorable in the best possible way – and to Joshy our wonderful driver -and friend.
‘If there is one place on the face of earth where all the dreams of living men have found a home from the very earliest days when man began the dream of existence, it is India!”
― Romaine Rolland
Fresh, sweet fruitbusy morning shopping, Chennai
The start of any Indian holiday is always a bit breathless. A long flight – always, in my case, sleepless as I can never join the happy dozers around me- body clock on 3 am and there we are whooshed out of Chennai airport and into the buzzing, humming throng of early morning, rush hour Chennai- but not as quickly as usual.
Did we take advantage of the new online very quick visa system, indeed we did. However, sadly that did not translate to a super new quick system once landed. We felt rather pleased as the huge queue on our left snaked towards the visa control, only seven in our queue, hurrah. Smugness rapidly turned to glumness as the head of the queue seemed rooted to the spot in front of the young man charged with approving our visas. A lot of stamping was heard, not from impatient feet but from a variety of inky manually applied rubber stamps, and then, the necessity to have fingerprints taken. This might have been ok if the fingerprint machine worked, it didn’t. Didgets were pressed, rolled and cajoled to no avail and so our’ fast’ queue rapidly became the only queue as everyone else disappeared into the luggage hall and the airport became strangely quiet apart from the sound of stamping. Eventually we were processed and wandered into baggage reclaim where our two lonely suitcases circled.
Our meeter and greeter from Kuoni was on hand to shepherd us and our luggage to our waiting car and driver for our two week stay. Meeting the driver is always a key moment as we share a lot, and rely on them totally and we were charmed by Mithul who was warm and engaging from the start – and a really great driver. His presence of mind and fortitude were tested hugely by a variety of challenges throughout our journey – and if I say that not once in those two weeks did he use the horn, if you know anything about Indian roads, that says it all!
Off to our first hotel the rather wonderful Vivanta by Taj Connemara – an historic hotel which we know and love. No time for a quick kip – that just delays acclimatization – so off to the pool for some relaxation and, if I am honest, maybe just a five minute doze!
If you think that cruising is not for you, you may want to think again! There are so many choices – from ships that offer a ‘country house afloat’ experience to ships with real grass on the putting green and a climbing wall!
A little investigation will reward you, so pop into your local travel agent, do some research and see just what cruising might have for you. However be warned, once you have been you will be hooked, don’t say we didn’t warn you!
As with many things, size matters. Royal Caribbean have an ever growing fleet of larger ships which offer a dazzling array of dining options, themed bars and amazing entertainment with stunning shows and even an ice theatre, so for families this is a great option and the ships are wonderfully designed so that you never feel that you are sharing with the full complement of passengers – a very clever feature indeed. www.royalcaribbean.co.uk
For a more low key, intimate feel with superb, award winning service Fred Olsen are hard to beat – in fact they have just winning accolades and as many of these are voted for by the public it gives you an indication of the high esteem in which they are held. The ships really feel and look like ships and being smaller can dock where larger ships can’t – a big plus in a place such as St Petersburg where you sail past the bigger ships out at anchor and moor alongside which makes for very interesting people watching! www.fredolsencruises.com
P & O www.pocruises.com and Celebrity www.celebritycruises.co.uk offer great destinations too and there are also low budget options with Thompson www.thomson.co.uk/cruise and even Easy Cruise www.easycruise.com
River cruising is yet another option, smaller ships and quite a different experience but a fantastic choice for an unhurried and fascinating holiday www.travelrivercruises.com.- and some of the regular smaller cruise ships such as MS Baemar from Olsen also venture up some of the rivers- am joining Braemar myself in September 2016 for some French river exploration!
Hurtigruten offer the chance to cruise the Norwegian fjords right up to the Arctic Circle on a working ship but in great comfort – a truly wonderful experience and one which I can wholeheartedly recommend having taken the round trip twice, once in stunning autumn sun and once in the chill of winter, both fabulous and yes I did see the Northern Lights on the winter trip – amazing! www.hurtigruten.co.uk
Now we hope you have booked – so here are a few tips which may further enhance your trip.
For those of you who, like me, could get seasick in a deep bath those nifty wristbands are a fabulous solution – I lent mine to a ships lecturer who was turning green on a lumpy Bay of Biscay crossing and made a friend for life!!
Shore excursions are optional and you may choose to do your own thing, which is great where you have the option and knowledge, but if you are new to a country or want to do something specific, trust me, shore tours are great – they have been there, done that and got the tee shirt and why would you want to haggle with a taxi driver or find your way to the museum with a map and a prayer!! Shore tours offer some amazing options too, there are some really fun and funky trips as well as the more usual but nonetheless interesting city and countryside tours – I have canoed up the Orinoco, quad biked to the Russian Border, taken a helicopter trip over Bergen and watched pink river dolphins as dawn came up over the Amazon.
So what are you waiting for, get out there, pack your glad rags and see you on board!