Thursday, December 23, 2010
We are often frustrated when reading articles about Kerala as very often some of the facts are misleading if not wrong. So we were very pleased to read this one by Teresa Levonia Cole that we found to be very well written, interesting and factually correct. It appeared in the Telegraph in November and can still be found on their website – link below:
All the hotels she mentions in the text are properties we promote and highly recommend – so if you would like to duplicate her trip please let us know.
Friday, December 17, 2010
Tuesday, December 14, 2010
Recently there have been two major changes to the system that applicants need to be aware of:
From 23 November 2010 all applications must be completed on-line. Up to that date handwritten application forms were sometimes accepted – but no longer. This means that if you are unable or unwilling to complete your application on-line yourself you will need to employ a Visa Agency to do it for you.
From 6 December 2010 the standard UK passport sized photograph will no longer be accepted. The colour photographs you supply must be square - 50mm x 50mm or 2 inches x 2 inches.
Wednesday, October 20, 2010
I recently returned from a three week trip to Kerala in order to attend the Kerala Travel Mart (KTM) and while in the area - do a Familiarisation Trip (FAM). I had not visited Kerala for some time so there were a number of new hotels that I had not yet visited. There were also a lot of old friends to catch up with.
Kerala Connections has attended every one of these biennial events since the first in 2000. It is a useful show for us as it enables us to see a lot of our associates in a short space of time and it also enables us to learn about new activities. The KTM started on the Thursday with a fantastic cultural show followed by dinner. During that first evening it started to rain – but none of us took much notice as rain at night during September is not unusual. However, the rain continued to fall throughout the night and became heavier. In the morning when I looked out of the window of Tissa’s Inn (the delightful hotel in Fort Cochin that I was staying at) I saw that the next door neighbour’s compound was completely under water. It looked a bit like a house emerging from a river. At breakfast we discovered that there was a major flooding problem across Cochin, roads were closed and six refuge centres had been set up during the night for people whose homes had been flooded. The KTM organisers really had a difficult job – it is hard enough arranging such a large event at a new venue – but coping with additional complications of torrential rain as well!! But they did a sterling job, and all went well.
Following the KTM I made my decisions regarding where I needed to go and which properties I wanted to see and an itinerary was devised. I spent two nights at one hotel (an opportunity to get some washing done) but other than that I spend one night at each place and visited as many other hotels as I could while at each destination. Altogether I visited around 70 properties. I will not tell you about all of them – some we already use and will continue to recommend, others were not suitable for our customers. But a few are worth a mention and these are below:
Nattika Beach Resort
This is a new resort right on the beach in Thrissur district. It is 1.5 to 2 hrs from Cochin Airport so just as convenient as Mararikulam. As the resorts at Marari are often full this makes a good alternative. The first impressions were good and the welcome warm. The rooms are all villas and the Deluxe and Super Deluxe are perfect for our customers. The beach is immediately in front of the property and the new swimming pool was almost finished. The food we had here was possibly the best meal on the trip.
Fort Cochin Boutique Hotels
So many hotels have opened here that we are now spoil for choice. Those I particularly liked included: Tissa’s Inn where I stayed is extremely comfortable with a very high quality finish and service considering the cost – very good value for money and with a swimming pool too! Tea Bungalow, used a lot last season with fantastic feedback from our customers (including Robson Green who stayed here during the filming of his last series of Extreme Fishing). The Old Lighthouse Bristow Hotel – rather a long name for a great hotel. Lovely rooms, a fantastic position overlooking the sea and a decent garden with swimming pool.
This is a new place and is currently just two serviced villas – but more are on the way. It is owned and run (very hands on) by Rupert (the architect) and his wife Olga (the wonderful hostess). This place is perfect for Kerala Connections customers who, at the end of a tour want to do nothing but relax, read and be pampered. It is a similar model to Beach Symphony, which is often full, so I’m sure we will be using the Marari Villas a lot. They will be added to our website soon.
Houseboat and Backwaters
Most of our customers have at least one night on a houseboat if they are visiting Kerala so it is always good to keep an eye on the other houseboat operators to see what they are offering. At the KTM a number of houseboats were lined up for inspection. Most of them were huge, glitzy ‘gin palaces’ and not to my taste at all. Only two, dwarfed by the others, looked authentic – The CGH Earth Spice Coast Cruises boat and the Lakes and Lagoons boat (both of which we use). Lakes and Lagoons sent one of their premium boats. The premium boats cost a little more but most people think they are worth it. One has an upper viewing deck and another provides AC dining (and it was this one that they supplied me). The last time I saw this boat it was still being built and I was not at all sure about the concept. However, I was completely won over after staying on it. Anyone who has stayed on a houseboat will know the insects at dusk can be a real nuisance. The normal practice is to sit in the dark waiting for all the bugs to settle for the night – hopefully, elsewhere. If you try to eat your dinner at this time you can not be sure that you are not eating the odd insect! Not good particularly if, like me, you are vegetarian. But on this boat you can retreat to the air-conditioned comfort of the dinning room and play cards in the light until your dinner is ready.
I used the houseboat as my vehicle to visit hotels along the backwaters. Casa Del Fauno we have used for many years and it has been popular with our clients. Recently it was taken over by the Malabar House group. It has now become a ‘Malabar Escape’ and been renamed Purity. Major renovations were taking place but two rooms were almost finished so I could see the end result – and it is even better than before. Add to this the excellent management, superb food and spa treatments to be offered I’m sure that this property will become even more popular. Malabar House already own Privacy a little further along the same stretch of water. With the option of Purity nearby it has been decided to make Privacy even more exclusive. The two room villa will be turned into a villa suite – making this a two villa property.
This place is across the border in Tamil Nadu, a short distance from the temple town of Madurai. It is a cultural centre offering people a unique opportunity to understand the Tamil culture (said to be one of the oldest in the world). There is a huge (500 seat) auditorium – the plan was to put on a cultural show every evening, followed by an authentic Tamil dinner. However, until they have built their reputation and been discovered by more companies (as far as I know we are the only UK tour operator currently marketing Kadambavanam) they are putting on a show at the weekends only. Alongside the cultural centre they have a resort – but you don’t have to stay here to attend the cultural event. I stayed (for two nights) at the resort and was delighted by it. The small and reasonably priced rooms are well designed and delightful with beautiful silk curtains and cushions, comfortable beds, flat screen TV with Sky and really good bathrooms. The restaurant was still being built so my food came from the cultural centre kitchens and was eaten on the veranda – but the restaurant, kitchens and bar will be finished soon. On the second morning I got up early and went for a walk through the local village and up one of the hills behind. It was a truly ‘Indian’ experience seeing the villagers go about their daily lives – we met a man off to cut his grass, machete in hand and a bottle of water balanced on his head; we passed a man coming back from doing his ablutions who I was told was completely blind – but knew his village and the paths surrounding it so well that he moved around without any assistance; an elderly lady carrying large baskets on her head and rather bemused why a foreigner would want to photograph her; another lady was sitting on the ground in the courtyard of her house preparing breakfast.
Back on the Kerala side of the border I visited Aanavilasam for the first time. We have been using this property since it first opened last year and it as been extremely popular with our customers. Again this is a place that does not seem to have been discovered by other tour operators – but with only two rooms (and two more on the way) we are pleased as it does mean that we get rooms for our customers when needed. The owner Salim is an old friend of ours and, coincidently, the hostess (Pirkko, a Finnish lady) first visited Kerala with Kerala Connections. So visiting Aanavilasam was like staying with friends. The two rooms in the main building are extremely comfortable and the two new rooms (almost finished and a short walk) will be slightly smaller but with a steam room and plunge pool.
This is another property that we have been marketing for some time but I had not yet had the opportunity to visit. It is an attractive building, serving delicious home cooked food and in a position that offers a useful journey break, well away from the main tourist areas. However, what I had not grasped was that the real USP of this place is the nearby Parthasarathi Temple. In Kerala non-Hindus are not normally allowed in the temples, in fact foreigners are often stopped on the steps of the one in Trivandrum before they can ‘contaminate’ it. But the Krishna temple at Aranmula welcomes all so it is a real opportunity to see inside a Kerala Temple. I always enjoy the temple experience, particularly those that I call ‘working temples’ as opposed to the ‘historic’ ones that are looked after by the Indian Archaeological Department and visited by tourists. I watched a baby take its first solid meal; a man washing in the Pamba River before praying to his god; a group of elderly ladies waiting for something (I know not what); one elderly man reading to another from a large book. I was amused by the pujari, bare chested and dressed in mundu only – texting. Only in India do you get such wonderful juxtapositions.
This hotel has fairly recently changed hands and the new owners have added more rooms as well as improved the lobby, restaurant and swimming pool. My time here was rather dominated by the weather conditions. It was dry in Tamil Nadu but most of my days in Kerala included some rain. By the time I arrived at Kollam it was getting really heavy again. Fragrant Nature is a lakeside property but the level of the lake was so high that most of the paths were now under the lake and water was lapping against the sides of the spa.
I completed my FAM tour in the Trivandrum area. I visited a number of hotels in the area – the recently re-opened and completely renovated Surya Samudra is looking fantastic; the Turtle on the Beach (my first visit) was lovely; Bethsaida now has a further 32 new rooms; the Gateway Hotel at Varkala (Taj) is being renovated and the new rooms are great; there are some new hotels in Trivandrum too (ideal for early arrivals/departures).
All in all a very useful trip - being in Kerala is of course very special for me. My activities were somewhat hampered by the rain which was a nuisance, but worse was for the poor customers who were there at that time. I met some during my travels and they were stoic about the weather – but it really was unusual to have rain that heavy at that time of year. Everyone said so, and so did the media. Many locals told me that they had never experienced such heavy rain – and that it was worse than the monsoons. I just hope that this was a ‘one off’ and the depression over Tamil Nadu that was the cause of all that misery does not become a regular event in September/October as the season in Kerala is already short.
Monday, May 31, 2010
Luxury trains cater for visitors only (not commuters) and offer routes that take you to places of tourist interest. At each destination vehicles (usually coaches) are laid on to take you from the train to the tourist attractions. Guests have their own en-suite cabin within the train and there is a restaurant, bar, lounge and usually a spa/gym on board. Effectively your hotel moves with you, which enables you to see a lot of places in a short space of time without the need of tiring car journeys or a lot of packing and unpacking.
The Golden Chariot recently introduced a new itinerary - the Southern Splendours which also starts and finishes in Bangalore and completes a circular loop to the south including Mahabalipuram, Pondicherry, Tanjore, Madurai, Kovalam, the Kerala backwaters and Cochin. This trip alternates with the Karnataka and Goa trip that Gary went on. For full details and departure dates please contact us.
Below is Gary’s diary about his trip. If you are interested to know more please ring Gary on 01892 722440 to discuss.
Traffic! That was my first impression of Bangalore. The taxi driver brilliantly negotiated the congested streets - weaving between buses, taxis and motorbikes. Finally, we arrived at an oasis of serenity – The Leela. This is a stunning property - what a hotel to start the trip from! Everything about the Leela is a “wow” - elegant corridors, lush gardens, stylish eateries and even a Hugo Boss shop (if only I had an endless supply of rupees!) After a very quick and efficient check-in, lunch was served in Jamavar, the hotel’s open air restaurant. Here, a delicious three course meal was served which provided much needed energy for the upcoming afternoon of sightseeing, and venturing back into the traffic!
The next five hours consisted of visiting Bangalore's ‘highlights’, and I have to say Tipu's Palace, Bull Temple and Lalbagh botanical gardens didn't seem to ignite the group’s excitement. The worst traffic congestion I have seen in India made the day drag, and forty five minutes in a sari emporium didn't help.
The twenty of us finally arrived at Yeshwanthpur Station at around eight pm. We headed to the busy platform, where we were taken to a waiting room. After a drink and being joined by the remaining passengers (the lucky ones who had decided against the Bangalore “traffic tour”), we headed to our coaches. Background music was provided by Indian musicians, and many Bangalore residents stood on the platform watching with interest. My coach attendant Satish was waiting by my coach (named Rashtrakuta) to show me to cabin 'D'.
It was very contained but comfortable, like a cabin on a cruise ship. As with any small room it lacks much luggage space; as I am on my own I can use the other bed to lay things out, but for a couple it would be quite cosy! The bathroom is also fine, with sufficient space and a nice shower. After freshening up and donning my 'smart clothes' I headed to the bar for a well earned G+T. Under normal circumstances, it would be a nice area to break the ice with fellow passengers, but as we had a film crew recording our every sip, it was a little disconcerting!!
The train departed from Bangalore at nine, and shortly after we set off I headed to the restaurant car. The meal was lovely, another multi-course event. The head chef visited us to check that everything was satisfactory, and advised that there is always a Continental alternative. The food is all cooked on board and the dishes are never repeated on the journey. By the time I finished my last mouthful of cheesecake it was not far off eleven, and my heavy eyelids prompted me to head back to my cabin! Shortly after, the rocking sensation stopped as the train arrived at Mysore, and at that point my head hit the pillow...
Day two started with a tannoy announcement at 8am of the day's itinerary shortly followed by a knock on the door by Satish with my newspaper and tea – could get used to this!!
After breakfast we met on the platform at 09:50. I thought I was going to be an extra in a Bollywood movie as there were lots of cameras on the platform; alas they were only shooting a promotional video for the Golden Chariot and didn't require my services!
We travelled the short distance to Mysore Palace. I have to say the Indians have no idea about queuing - unlike us well-behaved tourists who merrily stood in line at the camera counter (as cameras are not allowed into the palace), the Indians just push to the front. Right! From now on, “when in India.....” The palace is beautiful, with many stunning rooms and historic artefacts.
After battling through the throngs of locals selling bracelets, fans and musical instruments, we got back on the coach for our trip to Kabini. The two hour scenic drive takes in farmers ploughing the fields, banana plantations, paddy fields and colourful villages. On arrival at Kabini River Lodge we were shown to our rooms, which were a nice size. The property was a former hunting lodge belonging to the Maharaja of Mysore, and has retained the feeling of a bygone era. A buffet lunch was served in the open air restaurant, and you cannot believe my excitement when I spotted chips! Don't get me wrong I love South Indian food, but some good old chips are a welcome sight (and they tasted sooooo good!)
Then it was time for tiger spotting. When it comes to spotting the elusive king of the Indian jungle, I feel I am a jinx – if you see me coming towards your jeep refuse to let me on or change vehicles! I have been on six game drives with exactly nil sightings, and also whenever I am in a sanctuary it starts to rain! So yes you have guessed the outcome of the safari – no tigers but we did have some refreshing rain. In all honesty the safari was great and we were lucky enough to spot elephants, gaur, monkeys, spotted and sambar deer, peacocks, wild boar and a mongoose. On our return we were greeted by a friendly chap who served up a welcome cup of chai out on our terrace; however this had to be drunk quickly as we were soon joined by mosquitoes in the twilight!
Before dinner we had the option of watching a documentary about Kabini. This turned out to be very informative, but was not easy to hear with the domestic tourists’ children squawking and running around the film room with the camera flash going off....honestly! Spent a lovely evening at the Ghol Ghar restaurant getting to know my fellow Charioteers, who varied from a couple from Kent, two couples from Canada, a French family and a really interesting lady who is travelling around India on 80 trains (http://www.80trains.com/). Early to bed ready for a six o'clock start for a boat safari.
I awoke at six with the sensation of moving, and then realised that we had started our journey to Hassan. My huge amount of mosquito spray must have repulsed my cabin companion, as I had no irritating bites, thankfully!
At seven Satish brought my paper and morning tea. What a great way to start the day, sitting in bed with tea watching the Karnataka countryside whiz past the window. My start to the day could have been extremely embarrassing as in my sleepy state (not a morning person at all) I had not closed my sliding door properly. As I was happily laying on my bed the door slid open just as an Indian family walked past, thankfully I had put on the complimentary Golden Chariot dressing gown – phew, or I would have not been able to show my face at breakfast!
After what seemed a very hectic breakfast, we left the train and headed through the incredibly busy train station – a fantastic opportunity to be right in the centre of the hustle and bustle of people travelling.
Today's first stop was Shravanabelagola, after a forty five minute drive through farmland and villages. It is a colossal monolith at the top of over six hundred steps. It is a steep climb but well worth the effort (palanquins are available for those that need assistance, that's if the carriers are not on strike as they were today!). At the summit it is fascinating watching the colourfully dressed pilgrims coming here for blessings and worshiping the statues’ feet.
I always find coming down worse, don't you? After reclaiming our shoes, which I had removed according to the local custom (make sure you have socks as the rocks are hot!) and battling through the persistent postcard sellers we headed back to the coach which took us to the train for lunch. I have to say, every meal on the train has been excellent.
The turnaround time was limited and soon we were off for our afternoon session. We visited the temples of Belur & Halebid. These temples have amazing carvings and it is impossible not to be overwhelmed by the craftsmanship. At Halebid I decided to take some time out from ‘templing’ and wandered into the market town. It was fascinating to watch the jewellery sellers with their children. The thing about India I love is the people – so many smiling faces – and as they didn't hassle me here to buy anything, I bought some necklaces from the smiley lady!
Before dinner the ladies could get some Henna done, some went a bit overboard on their hands and had to wait for it to dry for a few hours which made eating dinner interesting! The train departed Hassan at eight, so we had our first experience of travelling through the night! I have to say this bit of track seems a bit bumpy, let’s see how sleep goes - or not as the case may be!
I'm so tired, got some sleep but woken by so many jolts and rattling. Not ideal preparation for a full on day of sightseeing in Hampi. Lots of coffee consumed this morning, but didn't loiter too long in the restaurant as the piped Richard Clayderman music was driving me mad.
The journey to Hampi took forty five minutes. This seems to be the average transfer time to all the sites we visit. I was surprised how green this area is. I later discovered that it is due to a dam and there are also quite a few canals in the region. Hampi really needs a few days to explore due to its size and amount of historical interest. Our condensed taster started with a small exploration of the slopes of Hemakuta Hill before we descended the rocky hillside to the Virupaksha temple. By this time a few of us decided to go AWOL and explore the vibrant and colourful market outside the archway. It was full of incense and trinket sellers and it was a great place to people watch.
Next came the lovely area which included the Lotus Palace and Elephant Stables. The heat was intense today and many members of the group began to wilt, eventually taking shelter under the purple Golden Chariot umbrellas!
The 'proper' Golden Chariot guests headed back for lunch and four hours of free time. Unfortunately, this wasn't an option for me and I had to go and look at hotels. All I will say about my four hour adventure is gridlock traffic hell, three hours in a taxi with no air-con, my water running out and finally having to walk forty five minutes in the searing heat. Like water off a duck's back for a tour operator....
….my taxi finally arrived back at Hospet station, where the afternoon sightseeing coach full of guests was ready to depart. Dehydrated, hot and probably not smelling my best I jumped on the coach.
We headed to the stunning Vittala temple which at dusk was atmospheric and a lovely place to spend time. When the sun goes down the temple is illuminated, but not before a guard makes music by banging the pillars!!
Back to the train where there was a cookery demonstration on the platform and then live music in the bar. After an interesting and exhausting day I did not last very long...
My sleep was ended by a jolt and a loud hoot at 04:15. At seven my cuppa arrived and I took my first malaria tablet ready for Goa; I am hoping that I do not get the side effects that are explained on the packet. Start to feel a bit groggy straight away! I am hoping that is due to the combination of lack of food and water yesterday and a tad too much sun (apparently it reached nearly 40 degrees.)
I am such a creature of habit; the waiting staff delivered my breakfast order - muesli and fruit - without me saying a word.
Monkeys were on the platform at Badami to greet us, they look so sweet and inquisitive – but the waiters at breakfast had forewarned us that they are monsters!
After giving the monkeys a wide berth our first visit was the fantastic Pattadakal complex. The carvings were once again amazing, and we were followed around the whole temple by two local children who were constantly smiling and enjoying the attention and photograph taking. Other things that made this complex so interesting were a bat colony in one of the dark temple alcoves, and the villagers getting their water from the local well.
We then drove through cultivated farmland and fascinating villages to Badami Caves. The caves are amazing, and the resident monkeys are great entertainment but take heed of the brilliant sign “Beware of Monkey Menace” - I saw one steal a bottle of water from a visitor and take it up the cliff face and open it! The view from the tiered cave complex is stunning, overlooking a lake where the locals are washing clothes and bathing.
We headed back to the train for one o'clock, where all the coach assistants were dressed in traditional Karnataka dress. The rest of the afternoon was at leisure. You can take advantage of the free time to get a massage, use the gym or just relax in your room watching the sunflower fields, bullock carts and small stations pass by outside. It was a lovely evening spent with many of the new friends made on the trip, and for some it was their last supper as they were getting off the Chariot at Goa.
A leisurely start to the day with a ten o'clock departure, but as soon as we left the train's air conditioning, we could feel Goa's humidity. There was a slight delay with our coaches’ arrival, but this gave us some time to explore the nearby fish and vegetable market. Today's itinerary consisted of visiting two of Old Goa’s churches, the obligatory shop trip before getting to Majorda Beach Resort for our lunch and afternoon stop. We had several hours to relax by the pool or head to the beach, and my few hours consisted of a refreshing swim followed by some hammock time. By this stage our group had diminished as around eighty percent of the passengers got off in Goa.
We headed back to the train and it seemed strangely quiet in the restaurant car for our last meal – more than made up for by the chef’s delicious king prawns. However, today's extreme heat and malaria tablet side effects seemed to be getting the better of everyone and it was more muted than usual. The trip back to Bangalore is overnight, so I am hoping the train’s motion and rattling combined with the strange Malaria-tablet-induced dreams do not interrupt my sleep...
...sleep was quite good actually! Had my last cuppa in bed, and then joined the other guests in the breakfast car for our final breakfast and goodbyes with the waiting staff. We arrived back in Bangalore at 11.00 and Satish collected my bags and escorted me to where my driver was waiting. All of the staff lined up next to the train for a lovely send off and after exchanging addresses and cards with my fellow Charioteers my wonderful week’s adventure came to end.
I loved my time on the Golden Chariot. The combination of great food, immaculate and friendly service, comfortable surroundings and awe inspiring sights made this a memorable experience. If you’re short of time and want to visit the highlights of Karnataka, this is the perfect way to do it!