Tuesday, August 22, 2017

East Coast USA

Writing after a very long break...

I had the opportunity to make my third trip to the US last autumn, this time to the East Coast. I visited Providence, RI, Boston and New York. A brief note about these three places:

Providence - A small town, but quite pedestrian friendly. Enjoyed decent weather and walked around the key sights including the State House, Downtown and Brown University.

Boston - Took a day trip to Boston from Providence and explored the city on foot. Did the Freedom Trial, starting from Common. Then headed over to Harvard Square where I had lunch and then went to the waterfront. I must say I found Boston a bit underwhelming. The weather did not help either, being grey and gloomy. The place reminded me a fair bit of Dublin, Ireland, where I had the good fortune of staying for a while, with its brick buildings, seaside setting, not to mention the weather!

I spent a weekend in New York. It had been on my bucket list for a while and did not disappoint. Thanks to my school friend, who stays in the area, I was able to see a fair bit of the city, including One World Trade Center, Manhattan, Greenwich Village (where we had excellent Ethiopian lunch), Highline Park, Rockefeller Center, Times Square. The highlight easily was The Empire State Building. While I did not go to the top, the view from the base was stunning and awe inspiring. Truly a beautiful building. One miss, though, was Central Park. Oh well, maybe next time!

Monday, June 14, 2010

Chicago - June 2010

I had the opportunity to visit Chicago last week to attend the Internet Retailer Conference. The conference was for 4 days, and I had a day before and after to do a bit of sight-seeing (and shopping!).

The highlight of the trip was the architecture boat cruise organised by the Chicago Architecture Foundation. The 90 minute cruise on Chicago river is accompanied by a detailed commentary pointing out all the outstanding modern architecture of Chicago. The best views out to the city skyline were provided when the boat headed towards Lake Michigan.

I also managed to visit the Skydeck located on the 103rd floor of the Willis Tower, more popularly known as the Sears Tower. This is the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere, and is possibly the highest I will ever get on a man-made structure. There is a glass ledge on this floor that protrudes out of the building and from where one can look straight to the street, over 400 metres below!

Some of the other notable sights I managed to take in were the 'Bean' and 'Pritzker Pavilion' in Millennium Park.

The Bean is a sculpture by British artist Anish Kapoor called 'Cloud Gate'. Made of stainless steel, visitors can see their reflections on the sculpture wth Chicago's skyscrapers as their background. It does a wonderful job of integrating the viewer into the Chicago landscape, and is a very popular attraction.

The Pritzker Pavilion is a large, open air auditorium, with excellent acoustics provided by the speakers placed all over the stainless steel trellis that covers the large area that can seat up to 11,000 people. There was a free, West African music concert happening when I was at the pavilion, and I was able to experience the acoustics first-hand.

This was my second trip to the US, following my trip to San Jose and San Francisco in California 6 years ago. Chicago is a very different city to these two, but I was happy to be back in Sydney again!

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Switzerland - Bern and Zurich

I had the opportunity to visit Bern in Switzerland a couple of weeks back. It was a work related trip. Having traveled to Berlin and Munich in Germany 3 years back, I was excited to be visiting Europe again.

My first impression of Bern, the capital of Switzerland, was of the airport. It is easily the smallest airport for any capital city I have been to! The airstrip looks very small - I doubt if long range jets can land there. And the airport was not much larger than a big shed!

My 6 day stay at Bern just reinforced that first impression. Bern is a small town. The population of just over 100,00 would make it smaller than most suburbs of Mumbai! And the centre - the old town of Alstadt as it is called can be covered on foot in 15 - 20 minutes! The old town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site as it has been preserved as it must have been from medieval times. The buildings are made of sandstone since the earlier wood buildings burnt down in a big fire centuries ago. Covered walkways make walking in the old town a pleasant experience.

There are a few sights to see around Bern. The Munster or Cathedral in the centre of the old town is worth seeing, for the tall stained glass windows and the tall spire that one can climb for great views of the town. There are over 600 steps, so it is hard work to get to the top! Work meant that I could not take time off to visit the fames Swiss Alps which are just 90 minutes away from Bern. But the long hours of sunshine at this time of the year meant that I could see some places even after getting free from work at 6 pm. On one such evening, we visited Gurten - a hill top park a few kilometres south west of the city from where we had fantastic views over Bern, the surrounding towns, and the Alps in the distance.

On the way back from Bern, we stayed in Zurich for a day. With over 300,000 inhabitants, Zurich is a much larger city than Bern. While Bern has the river Aare flowing through it, Zurich has a lake. We enjoyed our day in Zurich, walking around, seeing the churches, and just sitting down on a bench by the side of the lake.

We were lucky to enjoy great weather during our week on Switzerland. It was sunny throughout, with pleasant temperatures in the early 20's (Celsius). I was also pleasantly surprised by the quality of food we got to eat. There were good vegetarian options at all the places we went to, and some innovative vegetarian dishes. It helps that Switzerland borders Italy, so Italian food was widespread. But the food was tasty, and most definitely not bland!

All in all, a pleasant trip.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Murud - Janjira

We visited the coastal town of Murud last weekend. The town is famous for the sea fort of Janjira, but there is definitely more to the place than just that!

It was 8:30 AM when we started our drive. After breakfast at the Kamaths' at Karnala, we took the Alibag route towards Murud. We took a detour near Alibag to check out Tropican Resort. We were not impressed by the place to pay the high rates they were charging, and moved on. We reached Murud at 1 PM after a leisurely drive. The place is not more than 3 hours by road from Mumbai. After checking in at the Golden Swan Beach Resort, we headed for lunch to the famous Patil Khanaval. Tables are setp up on the sandy grounds beneath coconut palms. The setting is basic, but the food is delicious! Do try the fish here.

After lunch, we headed for the jetty to go to Janjira fort. The sailboat to Janjira was a new experience. Thankfully, it was not very hot, and we enjoyed the boat ride. Janjira fort is fascinating. It has a long history, beginning with Abyssinian rulers called Siddis, more than 800 years ago. These rulers continued ruling the fort till independence, never being conquered by the Marathas. The boatman doubled up as our guide, and did a good job of it!

Evenings and mornings were spent on Murud Beach. The beach is wide, gently sloping, but the tide timings were such that it was low tide at these times. Hence, the waterline was quite far off. But the water was very clear and clean.

The next day, we traveled inland from Murud, trying to find Kuda caves. We missed the turn off to lead to the caves, and had to take a wide detour. But this has unexpected benefits. We saw a flock of 18 vultures, the first time I am seeing vultures since my childhood. As you would know, vultures have dwindled significantly over the past decade or so, so the heart warmed at the sight of these birds. It was interesting to note that while one could observe these birds comfortably from the car, the moment one of us stepped out of the car, the birds would gracefully float away!

When we finally found the caves, the drive was worth it. The caves have a scenic location, on the side of a hill, overlooking the sea. Some of the caves were residences of the monks, while a few had stupas within. The main cave had some nice carvings. These caves are nearly 2,000 years old, one more reminder of the ancient history of India.

We started back for Mumbai on the third day, after 2 comfortable days at the resort. On the way back, we visited Nandgaon Ganapati temple, and the lighthouse and fort at Korlai. The fort is completely in ruins, but the views from the top are very atmospheric.

All in all, the trip was a fantastic reminder of the varied and ancient history of our magnificient country.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Satara, Ajinkyatara, Thoseghar and Sajjangad

New Years Eve saw us headed out to Satara, on road. We left Mumbai at 3:30 PM, crossed Pune around 7 PM, and were in Satara town by 8:30 PM. We checked in at Hotel Maharaja Residency, and had dinner at their in house restaurant. We strongly recommend this hotel as a comfortable place to stay when visiting Satara, but do remember to book in advance!

Satara is a small town about a 90 kms to the south of Pune, enroute to Kolhapur. The high ranges of the Western ghats are just about 20 kms to the west, which is one of the reasons for visiting this place.After breakfast, we left for Ajinkyatara fort, which overlooks Satara. The hill on top of which sits the fort was suprisingly green. Also surprising was the complete lack of people at the top, even though it was a Sunday. The entrance to the fort is through an old gate, but unfortunately, nothing much remains of this fort. There is a modern looking temple to Lord Hanuman inside the fort, and some great views of the countryside around, but nothing much more.

We then proceeded to Thoseghar waterfalls. Credit where it is due - the road leading to it was in a good condition, with clear sign boards. The authorities have also created decent parking space off the main road. From the parking space, the waterfalls are a few minutes walk, again through well wooded countryside. While the amount of water passing through the falls was not heavy, the setting was quite awesome. The falls are situated in a steep U shaped valley, with the main falls at the apex of the 'U', with smaller falls on one side of the 'U'. On the other side, a viewing platform has been created for observers to enjoy this wonderful display of nature. I can only imagine the sensation if one were to observe these falls at the peak of the monsoon season.

Along the way, we took a diversion to view one of the many windmill farms in this region. It was great to see the effort being invested in this green source of energy, and one can only hope that this investment brings in worthwhile returns for the entrepreneur.

We had a typical local lunch at the restaurant beside the parking lot, and headed for Sajjangad fort. This fort assumes significance for being the residence and samadhi of Swami Samarth Ramdas, Shivajis' guru. As such, it is a well frequented place. The entrance is through a steep series of steps. Once inside, there are a few old structures, which includes Swamijis' residence and a couple of temples. Once again, being on top of a steep hill, there are fantastic views of the surrounding Western ghats. We were fortunate to view a beautiful sunset from the ramparts of the fort.

Thus ended a fruitful day of sight seeing around Satara.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Great Escape Water Park

I had a good time at The Great Escape Water Park, near Mumbai, recently. The place is located about 60 kms outside Mumbai, off the Mumbai - Ahmedabad National Highway, on the route to Vajreshwari.

The place has 3 large pools, one of which was not functional the day we visited. Of this, one of the pools is for adults, with about 6 water slides. The second is more for children, with kiddie slides. However, both the pools had a mix of adults and children, all having a good time. In addition, there is a DJ who continuously belts out the latest hits, with all time favourites.

In addition to the slides, the place offers breakfast, lunch, and evening snacks, along with snacks in between. The food was uniformly good. For Rs. 350 all inclusive for adults, and Rs. 250 for children, the place offers great Value for Money.

A few observations:
1. There were hardly any takers for most of the rides. Either the visitors were not very adventurous, or they were more keen to just laze around in the pool. If the latter were the case, then I am amazed that people were willing to travel for a couple of hours, and spend good money, just for time in the water!
2. The adult pool was too shallow. It had to be so, because a lot of children were in the pool. So one can't blame the park authorities, but it does take away from the experience.
3. It was heartening to see a lot of greenery within and around the park. Let's hope it stays that way.

This was my second experience of a water park. The first was at Mehsana, Gujarat, near Ahmedabad, about 10 years ago. It was quite surreal to see this water park, in the middle of nowhere, in a dry, dusty environment. The place was not very crowded, but I don't remember if I visited on a weekday or weekend. I wonder if the place is still functional...

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Details and photos of our Ladakh trip

We flew in to Leh from Delhi with Air Deccan. In addition to Air Deccan, Jet Airways and Indian Airlines also fly on this route. All the flights are in the early morning, so we had to spend the night at Delhi airport.

We had booked ourselves at the Hotel Shambha La, in Leh. This is one of the more expensive hotels in Leh, situated about 2 kms from the centre of the town. Our room looked a bit worn, and definitely not worth the amount we were paying. The food and service was quite good. However, after resting for a couple of days to recover from altitude sickness, we moved out to a far cheaper Guest House, right in the middle of town.

I strongly recommend 'Khan Mansil Guest House', for travelers looking for a mid range place to stay in Leh. The rooms are clean, the family very helpful, and the location central. It is a no frills place, but well worth the money we paid.

There are quite a few good eating options in Leh town. However, being the end of the tourist season, many of the places were closing down. I would recommend Pizza de Hut and Leh View restaurants. There is also a Tibetan family run small restaurant at the corner opposite 'Aluya' restaurant, which I believe, stays open the entire year. We also spent a fair bit of time at the Desert Rain Cafe. A very relaxed place, which serves a good variety of teas and coffees.

Getting around is expensive. We did not try the local bus service, but hired a taxi to get around. Our first day trip was to Hemis and Thikse monasteries, and Stok and Shey palaces. These 4 places can be covered in about 8 hours, which gives you an hour at each place, and an hour for lunch. Our second day trip was to Alchi temples, Likir monastery, and Basgo fort ruins. On the way, we saw the confluence of rivers Indus and Zanskar, and magnetic hill. The latter is a very interesting phenomenon where our idle car gets pulled up an incline, due to the influence of a hill across the road! Again, this trip can be covered comfortably in 8 hours. However, there are hardly any decent eating options along the road, so it is recommended that one has a heavy breakfast, and carry some snacks for the trip.

Our third, and final, day trip was to Pangong Tso. Tso means lake in the local language, and this lake is a beauty. It is situated on the border with China, so ones needs a permit to visit this place. Any Guest House / Travel agent can
arrange this permit. It is a 4 hour drive one way to the lake, and the road crosses Chang La. At 17,800 feet (5,340 metres), this is the third highest motorable road in the world!

But the lake is well worth the time, effort (and money!) to reach. The waters of the lake shine green and blue in the sunlight, reflecting the mountains all around. The lake is long and narrow, with one third in India, and the rest in China (Tibet). Again, being the end of the tourist season, the staff at the small restaurant there were packing up to leave that same day, but they still managed to rustle us up some Maggi noodles.

I have uploaded some photos at Flickr. You can view them here.